I have had the privilege of serving in a support group ministry and have met some amazing ladies over the years. One year I had several younger women who had grown up in extremely dysfunctional and abusive homes. They quickly bonded because they each had difficult stories and could relate to the pain the others had suffered. They could also relate to the struggles each faced as they worked to find freedom from their pasts. They worked hard to find healing and to become the women God created them to be.
They were wise and set strict, healthy boundaries with families of origin. The boundaries were needed for them to grow and heal. But sometimes those boundaries felt both hard and lonely. That year when Christmas was approaching, one of the young ladies remarked that she was really missing her family. One of them sighed and responded wistfully, "Yeah, I miss the family I made up in my head, too!" They looked at each other and laughed because of the profound words that hung in the air. With their permission, I often share this part of their story as holidays approach, because it is true for many of us.
Holidays can be fun and be very hard at the same time. They can be difficult when we have had to separate ourselves from abusive families to stay safe and long for healthy loving families. Holidays can also be difficult when we don't have to separate for safety's sake as anxiety rises around holiday preparations coupled with the dread of conflicts that can ignite when extended families rub shoulders. The shared history that sometimes bonds us also leaves us vulnerable with the knowledge of how to push each other's emotional buttons. Holidays can be hard when tongues are loosed when alcohol flows freely.
Holidays can be hard because we find ourselves grieving over loved ones we have lost. Those loved ones may have been the ones who made the holidays special for us--the child, the soldier, the mom, the dad, the grandparents, or the friend gone too soon. Their empty place stirs an ache in the heart that we try to cover with a smile.
Holidays can be hard because of grief that we experience over unfulfilled dreams. These dreams can be exposed by the questions we are asked. They can also be exposed by simply being around others whose dreams were fulfilled--dreams of a baby longed for but never had, dreams of specific jobs that went to a less-deserving coworker, dreams of a spouse that hasn't materialized, dreams of an intact marriage that dissolved into a heap of pain, or the dream house we can't afford due to a failing economy. Or grief over the family we can't see due to covid quarantines.
Holidays can be hard due to illnesses that can't be healed and pain that makes it hard to be around people we don't want to burden. It can be because of mental illnesses and the unpredictability of another's actions or even our own depression that is a dark fog continually trying to crowd out joy and light. They can be hard because of eating disorders that trigger anxiety when gatherings are planned around food.
And, holidays can be hard when the family puts pressure on us to do away with preset boundaries that we put in place to protect our families, our recoveries, our healing journey, and ourselves.
So, how do we navigate the holidays in a healthy way? First, we begin by going into the holiday season with eyes wide open. There are no perfect families and their will never be a perfect Christmas. We can enjoy Christmas more when we let go of expectations and the made-up families living in our heads and accept our families as they are. Isn't that acceptance something we, ourselves, long for as well?
Second, we can commit to treating others with respect while we practice good self-care by getting plenty of rest, drinking water, eating somewhat healthy, and using our voice to request what we desire and what we need.
Third, we can refuse to take every word, action, or attitude personally because those things are about others' hearts not ours. We can take quiet moments alone to breathe, to grieve, or to regroup as we need it.
Fourth, we can give thanks for the good moments and learn from the bad, knowing that one doesn't cancel the other out. We can make sure we extend grace to others as well as to ourselves.
Fifth, we can own our mistakes, apologizing and making amends when needed. We can keep short accounts and forgive quickly. Those of us who are overwhelmed introverts can refuse to compare ourselves to extroverts and focus on one person at a time, fostering meaningful conversations and maybe looking for the one who looks as lost as we feel.
Sixth, we can remember we have a Savior who cares and wants us to take our grief, our fear, our hurt, and our dreams to Him. If anyone understands dysfunctional families He does. Just look at the people who were in His family line. Abraham, who though he was commended for his faith, lied about Sarah being his wife. Jacob weaved a mighty mess with his wives and concubines and the favoritism he showed to one son over eleven others. Naomi the widow became so bitter after the loss of her husband that she changed her name to Mara. David, the man after God's own heart messed up his family by abusing Bathsheba and murdering her husband. He ended up with a son who raped his daughter and chose to do nothing about it. Jesus' brothers thought He was insane.
Oh, Jesus' family line had its sin, its secrets, and its dysfunction. So, He gets ours. This was proved by the way He treated those around Him. He was full of compassion for the woman caught in adultery who was thrust at his feet. He was full of compassion for the woman at the well who had been married five times and then lived with a man in sin. He was full of compassion for the ill, the blind, the deaf, and the crippled. He fed both those who were hungry, both physically and spiritually. He allowed Mary and Martha to vent their grief and stood at the grave of Lazarus and wept with them before He called him to come out. Our Jesus cares.
Seventh, we can enter the holidays confident that we have been given a new Heritage through Christ. The pain of our past, the dysfunction of our families, the failure of our Christmases to be perfect don't define us. Jesus, His love and His sacrifice, do. He calls us beloved, chosen, blessed, forgiven, children, and friends.
As I reflect on past Christmases, one of my most pleasant memories is of when my children were teenagers. They got up early as they always had and opened gifts and then all fell asleep watching a Christmas movie. I looked around at my sleeping family and picked up my Bible and read the Christmas story again. I felt overwhelmed by His love, experiencing a heart connection with Him that gave me peace and joy. That joy and that sense of belonging was because I truly felt at home in Him. That sweet moment prepared me for future losses and changes that life brings about in families. But I also realize it fulfilled one of my deepest longings--to finally feel at home somewhere--the somewhere just happened to be a Someone and that Someone is Jesus.
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