Nothing highlights my family’s failures and shortcomings like the Christmas season. The picture-perfect greeting cards of families in matching pajamas and those carefully crafted Instagram boxes that look like ads for Anthropologie (some of which are ads for Anthropologie) are fun to look at for about two seconds. Then the doors of comparison swing wide open and envy floods in. My attitude toward my “lived-in, cozy home and blessed family life” takes a fast turn, and suddenly all I can see is the cat vomit on the stairs, the dog pee on the couch, and the empty chair at my dinner table. Throw a dash of 2020 seasoning into the pot of imperfection and you’ve just made yourself a recipe for utter disappointment.
What is it about the Christmas season that can make our families feel more broken, more dysfunctional, more imperfect than any other time of year? What is the perfect family anyway?
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are our model for the family, and, as far as I can tell, they did not have the perfect family or the perfect Christmas. Not by our standards, at least. They had no money. No extended family around to help Mary give birth. No baby shower. No matching pajamas. Mary was a pregnant teenager on a donkey with a husband who failed to make hotel reservations ahead of time. And her baby? He was born into a total mess—and I am not even talking about his line of genealogy (which, by the way, includes prostitutes and murderers)—the literal, laid in a manger with no crib for a bed mess! And don’t even get me started on the smell of the animals she gave birth next to. If I were Mary, I would have looked around at my tiny mess of a family and thought, “Really, God? This is what I get for being obedient?”
It was far from perfect. And yet, it was God’s perfect plan.
This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family. Pay attention to that. The Holy Family; not the Perfect Family. God isn’t looking for perfect families, you know. I doubt He’s even looking at Instagram. What He desires are holy families. What makes a family holy? Families that are obedient in their poverty. Families that surrender to the will and purpose of God. Families that understand suffering is, as Bishop Barron says, “God’s point of entry,” and “it is always in that suffering that we find our mission.”
So let me ask. Did you find your mission in 2020? Because talk about suffering!
I learned something this year, something only a year like 2020 could teach me. The imperfections in my family—the sufferings that a “perfect Instagram life” seem to magnify—are what bring me to the foot of the Cross. The mess I so desperately try to pray away and cover up with matching pajamas is necessary because it is the suffering that offers me the opportunity to stand with our Blessed Mother Mary; to unite my sorrow with hers and our pain to Christ’s. And good grief, I know how that can sound horrible to someone who doesn’t know and love their Heavenly Mother and Father, but for me I’ve got to say that there is no safer, more beautiful, more perfect place to be. In all of my family’s imperfection, I discover the path that God calls me to when I meet Him at the cross. It is not the path that leads to the perfect life I want, but the path that leads to the holy life that I need. Look, 2020 kicked our butts for sure, and I am by no means making light of that. But if all we are looking at is what went wrong, we are going to miss everything that God set right. His lessons are always hidden in the most unusual and often painful details. He wastes nothing. He makes no mistakes. He knows perfectly well what He is doing.
As eager as we all are to hang up 2020 and press on ahead into better times, let us not be fooled into thinking that a new date on the calendar is going to magically change things. I am more than certain that what I suffer from and find imperfect on December 31 will still be what I suffer from and find imperfect on January 1. If the new year is where you are placing your hope right now, might I suggest you spend some pondering time with Mary and dig a little deeper. Because the new year is not what will change us. Holiness is.
And so my prayer for all of us as we approach the new year is this: we quit trying to be the perfect family and make holiness our goal. How? Pray for your family. Pray with your family. Love your family, mess and all. Because the mess is not only why Jesus was born but where He chose to be born. The mess is where we meet Jesus.
Wishing you and your family a very happy, holy, messy and imperfect new year.
At the close of a Religious Education meeting, we were handed a prayer card, and in unison, recited it together. It was the Prayer of Abandonment. A beautiful prayer. And by beautiful, I mean terrifying and dangerous.
“Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will….”¹
When we finished the prayer it took everything inside of me to not stand up on top of my chair and shout out for all to hear, “Really, everybody? I mean, do you really mean that? DO WITH ME WHAT YOU WILL? Or, do you have no idea what you even just prayed?”
I want to give it all over to God. I want to do His will. But not always. It's not like I enjoy carrying my burdens alone. It is not like I want to add weight to my cross. I would love nothing more than to cast all my cares (plus a few loads of laundry) on Him and move on with my day; anxiety free, iced latte in hand, and yes- make that a Venti, with coconut milk, thank you very much. And yet, there is always something that trips me up. Always something that gets me running back to the foot of the cross to pick up a few items I had laid down, because I mean... what if He doesn't take care of things in the way that I asked? If you ask me, this whole surrender thing, while great in theory, is downright scary.
In my quest to uncover the secret to surrender, I have learned some valuable things. The biggest surprise of all? Fear has nothing to do with it.
Uncovered secret #1: Surrender is not a “one and done” deal. When I had to make a difficult call that involved the well-being of my own child, I was under the false impression that if I did this one hard thing for God-surrendered it all and trusted in Him-surely, the trial with my child would end. This, sweet friends, was not, and is not, the case. Surrender is not some big gesture we make just once, wipe our hands free of, and sit back with a bag of chips; as fabulous as that might sound. But rather, it is a daily choice. We surrender right up until our very last breath.
Uncovered secret #2: Surrender is not the same as compliance. Why do so many addicts do everything right in treatment, get discharged, only to relapse hours later? I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with will power, and everything to do with surrendering to HIS will. It is no coincidence that the 12-step program, which is so successful for those who work the steps, begins with admitting you are not in control and handing yourself over to a higher power.
And I suppose, in many ways, I have been nothing more than a religious addict; eager to comply with all of the rules and regulations so when I come face to face with my Maker, He can look at my life and see how well I highlighted verses in my Bible and recited my morning prayers. But this isn't what God wants from me, is it? A life of compliance disguised as surrender might get me out of trouble for a while, but it won't secure my safety. If I simply check the boxes without the buy-in, I'm not really letting go of control, and let's be honest... I'm not fooling anyone. Not even myself.
A few days ago, I found myself wrestling with the enemy's invitation to use this past week's “latest upset” as reason enough to take the reins out of the Lord's hands and put them firmly back in my own. Sure, a few trials back I was good to admit that God was in full control, but now? Now, I am not so sure. And as I struggled to understand how it can be possible to remain at peace when things are in pieces-how I could possibly surrender all to a God who appears to have bought me a season pass to the world's fastest roller coaster of events and emotions-I realized why surrendering to His will and letting go of mine was so hard. It wasn't because I was afraid. It was because I was discouraged.
Disappointments are a part of life, but allowing them to give way to discouragement is something we choose. In Charles Stanley's Life Principles Daily Bible, he writes, “You should not allow the challenges that arise to steal your enthusiasm or confidence in Him.”² I'll admit. I love this. I agree with this. But I fail at it often. And by often, I mean yesterday. Thankfully, Stanley uses Matthew 1:24 to support this life principle: “Joseph did not allow his initial disappointment to give way to discouragement. Rather, he accepted God's will, obeyed the Lord, and brought Mary home to live with him.”
As someone who so easily allows unexpected circumstances to take control of me, I find great comfort in this. I have come too far to allow disappointment to steal my joy, and I will bet you have too. As Stanley says, “You never have to be the victim of your feelings. You can choose to look to God, listen, learn, and move ahead.”³
Today, you have the power to let go and surrender from whatever it is that has you held emotionally hostage; to really buy-in and give it all to God.
Accept God's will, obey the Lord, and bring Mary into your home.
Put yourself totally in His hands.
I promise, there is no safer place to be.
¹ Prayer of Abandonment, Br. Charles of Jesus (de Foucauld)
² The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Daily Bible, Thomas Nelson 2011, p. 1599, Life Principle 20
³ The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Daily Bible, Thomas Nelson 2011, p. 1599, Life Principle 20