Have yourself an IMPERFECT Year
So as we head into another New Year, I have a confession to make. Much as I am in general a fan of Christmas, there's one thing I am SUPER glad to see the back of - and that is Christmas ads. I mean, they're a bit relentless! They always make me grumpy, and one thing in particular bothers me - especially this year.
You see, it hasn’t been an easy few years for many people. And this year, although the covid restrictions are largely gone, new pressures and worries are affecting a lot of people - financial worries, constant cold because putting the heating on is unaffordable, physical or mental ill health, which for many are the long term impact of COVID, still a worry even now when it feels like the rest of the world has moved on.
And in this place, the barrage of ads suggest that the right response to whatever you are facing right now is to somehow pull out of the bag a perfect, shiny Christmas. To find ways to do it without spending much (if you knew where to shop you could somehow make the pounds stretch apparently), to find creative solutions to all the problems you face, to get it all right, learn some skill or achievement that solves everything (magically), pull off that brilliant Instagrammable moment where everyone gets on, is happy, is back together, and it is all brilliant.
And all that is great if it is your situation. But the pressure to pull that off isn’t.
Watching those ads, the message is that if you are not nailing it all - whether that’s your skateboarding prowess, very fancy hot chocolate, the idealised relationships, the fancy cocktails, the table grading with food, the happy family enjoying movies together - you’re just failing. And the bar feels very high. Normal is so 2019, this year we have to raise what we’re aiming at just because we can, or should be able to, if we were up to the challenge.
My worry is that leaves a lot of people feeling pretty rubbish. And as we move into another new year, maybe you're feeling a bit weighed down by it too. Whether it is looking back on a year that really really didn't feel shiny and perfect and ideal, or looking forward to problems, challenges, illness or just things you know you're not really doing brilliantly with. It can leave us feeling like we're failing, or worse, that sense of fear and despair that maybe we're missing out or messing things up.
The problem with those ads is that it feels like what life is all about is the struggle to achieve that kind of perfection. At Christmas or at any time of year. And it steals the very truth and wonder of it from under our eyes - and the message of God. The moment we remember at Christmas was none of those things - it was the least well planned party in history! The happy couple weren't exactly issuing new baby postcards, they had to hunker down in the only space they could find that would take them, the heating wasn’t on, the baby was laid in an impromptu feeding trough, they weren’t surrounded by family and friends and those who loved them, and I suspect that although the nativity images always show them smiling and radiant, the actual occasion was full of anxiety and worry.
I mean, this was Mary’s first baby. Birth isn’t totally fun and she did it with no 21st century medical care. And the people who kept turning up - I mean sure, it was nice of them to bring gifts but they didn’t know them and it must have felt a tiny bit alarming, just turning up like that. And what was going to happen next? They didn’t know how they were going to cope, what they were going to do, what their next days and weeks with this new baby and Mary recovering from the birth would look like.
They were holding a LOT in their heads.
Luke 2:19 literally says so. that Mary held so many things in her mind - and the language literally implies she discussed them - with herself! Thoughts must have been going round and round in her mind, all that was happening, all that might be coming, all she didn’t understand and didn’t know what to do with.
But in the midst of it all, God was there. And even in the chaos and mess and apparently unplanned mayhem, God DID have a plan, that was playing relentlessly. His plan didn’t require human perfection - in fact it was something in the vulnerability and frailty of that moment that enabled God’s divine power to be released, to be present in a new way, a more real, at hand, actually physically present way than it ever had before. What God did was unthinkable, hope filled, light filled, break through. But it happened through a lot that must have felt like it missed any bar for how things should be done.
Do you remember the story of Jesus calming the storm? When he's in the boat with the disciples and the strm hits, but he is asleep? There's a little detail that kind of fascinates me - that Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat (Mark 4:38). Now the stern is a very key part of a boat because it is where an important anchor is kept - one used in a storm (eg Acts 27:29), but also in calmer seas. The job of the stern anchor (apparently) is to keep the boat steady when the waters get rough. The disciples were freaked out by the chaos when things stopped feeling calm and controlled. But Jesus was in the stern. Their anchor was reliable. God's plan wasn't lost, and neither were they, just because they found themselves in a storm.
If you’re feeling the pressure this year or just feeling a bit of a mess, or a failure, or not up to the challenge that those glossy ads seem to present, don’t worry. You are in good company, and you HAVE good company. The trick isn't managing to pull off perfection. It is accepting that God's plans work out in the middle of life's messier moments. Letting go of our culture's drive to somehow nail perfection and dropping an anchor that comes from something much more solid and secure and can hold us even when the wind and waters rise.
So if 2023 finds you looking at your life and seeing lots of chaos, uncertainty or things you kind of wish were different, remember God is still there. Forget about the ironing or how untidy your space is, or the Christmas cards you never QUITE got round to posting. Let yourself and your world NOT be perfect. And why not take a moment in the early days of 2023 to deliberately remind yourself of God's presence in those spaces. To deliberately sit in the midst of chaos and say a quick prayer, grab a quick pause, light a candle, listen to a worship song or just let silence sit with you and thank God that He is in it. When they found themselves in a storm, the disciples woke Jesus and implored him to bring back calm. And our world still teaches us to yearn for that kind of perfect airbrushed life. But Jesus' message is about finding security in God, so we can discover calm IN chaos, God ever present with us in mess and imperfection. And THAT is a great discover to take into another year.