The famous quote “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” is such a familiar refrain for those of us who’ve been single parents for longer than a minute that it nearly goes without saying. Somewhere between “waiting for the other shoe to drop” and “if I expect little I’m not disappointed” the faith component of “one-day-at-a-time” living is often overshadowed by a sense of despair rather than the beauty of surrender.
And yet, the cliche rings true for most of us.
When you’re going through …
Just like the thoughts that come when someone says “I don’t know how you do it!” when we don’t have a choice, right? Something about “when you’re going through hell, keep on going…” (Uh oh, sorry for the ear worm friends!)
None of us planned on alternate-lifestyle holidays. It’s not like we sat down with our future co-parents somewhere mid-crisis and started dreaming of shuttling the kids from one house to the other or dreamt of the long “discussions” over text about who, where, what and when to arrange this years Nativity or New Years activities. We never longed for the court battles, insults and drawn out silences or the broken relationships and ended friendships that surround an ended marriage. There is something about the holiday’s and feast days that highlights those broken places, however, and this has many of us just wishing it would all be over quickly.
More than practical brokenness
Many of us were told in various evangelical or “biblical counseling” settings that the enemy hates divorce, dissension and strife. At the time when the ideal of two-parent homes, cozy family time and extended family get togethers are highlighted everywhere we look it is tempting to give in to bitterness and despair. So many of us tried and tried and keep on trying, sometimes, to preserve something, anything, of that ideal for our children only to find that the reminders of what is missing seem so much stronger than what is right in front of us.
As a hospice RN I’ve attended several memorials and funerals and sat with the dying, along with their families of all types and flavors. After acknowledging the most obvious differences in our experiences I’ve come to contemplate the deeper perspectives of life, death, the afterlife in light of those quiet moments with dying patients. There is something important that is highlighted in the stark differences between those with a hope of eternal life and those of us with the mystery of eternal life brought into the here and now that is most easily seen for me when comparing the different funeral services I’ve attended. With apologies for the broad generalities I’ll mention here, the starkest contrast I see is between the mystery and reality of a present in the here-and-now Christ experienced in Orthodox faith and a primary focus on the hope of the Christ to come in other faiths.
From funerals to faith
When I attend an evangelical or Protestant funeral the focus is often on reuniting with the loved one in heaven, the comfort offered being in the future tense when ideals will be restored to reality and everyone separate from us is close again. In the Orthodox funeral the focus is entirely on one’s own soul. In fact when I first attended an Eastern Orthodox funeral service I was astonished at how ‘everything suddenly made sense’ about my faith on a entirely new and deep level.
In my experience this same depth of difference between my walk with Christ before Orthodoxy is brought again into stark relief with the experience of Nativity before and after Orthodoxy—in a way that heals the ongoing loss of the Normal-Rockwell-Christmas-painting life so completely as to almost obliterate it! Indeed, the gift of the birth of Christ—the incarnation of our savior into human form through an uncelebrated, unacknowledged, birth in a cave surrounded by animals—as described in the hymns of our faith, requires an unflinching grasp of the broken, empty, despairing world we were before Christ’s coming.
Healing and wholeness
When we skip acknowledging our complete inability to replicate the ideal we also skip acknowledging our complete need for the Christ child to be born in us again. In truth every attempt to portray perfection will, by definition, fall short in this world. There is no perfection or completion, let alone closure, this side of eternity. The great mystery of complete-in-Christ and forever-falling-short is present in everything we do and live. Why wouldn’t this mystery of broken-completeness also be present in our families and in our feasts as well?
And so I return to my failing attempts to re-create Normal Rockwell paintings in my own home and choose instead to celebrate small glimpses of grace, beauty and yes, feasting along with the fall-short-again-ness that I can’t help but see as well. As a recovering perfectionist the combination is unavoidable for me, yet I find that accepting the gifts in the imperfection strengthens my faith and breaks the back of old bitterness most completely.
In my living room I see a Christmas tree I didn’t purchase, surrounded by uneven and mis-hung Christmas lights. The big picture window across from the tree is hung with an off-center barely-tacked-up string of sometimes-twinkling star-light garland. To the side are hung three dollar-store Christmas stockings that we’ve had for years, held up by thumb tacks and surrounded by placed-and-replaced fake snow laid out “just so” to cover the butt-ends of my kitchen appliances lined up on the countertop. Likely all that visitors see is a living room decorated for the season. But I see the ten other things I wanted to do—the insulated window covering that is waiting to be applied to the single-pane window, the tacks I was going to use to better cover the butt-ends of my crockpot and instant pot, and the two sets of lights still sitting in a box on my desk, un-hung and unseen.
Transforming the narrative of Nativity
My children see the shortfalls and the “why didn’t we hang these lights mom!” moments. They don’t have a visitors eyes for “oh it’s so pretty in here!” and often ask “why don’t we ________ like that family, mom?” type of questions. It is at these moments when I’m most wobbly. I am tempted to fall into the trap of shame and guilt instead of glorying in our shortfalls as moments to invite in Christ-the-babe. This is when I have a valuable opportunity, however, to shift the perspective within our home…not to say “we have it better than most” and thereby to skip the acknowledgement of our emptiness and need but instead to identify our cave, and the ultimate Wholeness brought by the Nativity. “We are all so different.” I say. “Some families have mom’s and dad’s, Grandma’s and Grandpas…some have lake cabins and family reunions and trips to Hawaii or giant Christmas trees. But what do we share, what are we all missing ?? What is it that none of us, no matter how differently wealthy or poor, whole or broken, still need??”
Yes, the family photos are always missing something and the decorations will never be as complete as my pre-season visions. Rather than endless mourning, as for a lost loved one, I am called into the right-here-right-now mystery of Christ In Us, along with the coming victorious eternal Hope of Glory all right here for me and my children in a Babe born in a Manger on Christmas night.
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