Immanuel, God With Us (Even in the Mess)

The clock ticks down the minutes. Christmas will be here in less than sixty seconds.
I’m sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, talking myself down from the swirl of trying to get everything “just right.” Perfect.
And then I wandered to my blog and the last post I wrote slapped me in the face. The Poison of Perfection.
So, the stockings are not hanging from the mantle, but lost in a box somewhere.
So, the Christmas dishes that I set out every for the breakfast I make every Christmas cannot be found.
So, the presents aren’t all wrapped yet.
It’s okay.
Want to know why?
Christmas is about the mess.
Brené Brown talks about the “magic in the middle” in her book Rising Strong—the magic that happens in the messy, imperfect middle of whatever situation we’re in. She says, “The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens” (12). Slowing down and acknowledging that we’re in the middle where the magic happens in crucial. Otherwise, we will run ourselves ragged trying to live up to our expectations of the perfect holiday environment.
The very essence of Christmas is wrapped up in the mess of a stable, the mess of an unexpected trip to a far-away city, the mess of an engagement-turned-journey-of-inexplicable-faith, the mess of a divine conception, the mess of human depravity that required the Savior to dwell among us as a lowly babe. When you really pause to consider the Nativity of Jesus, it’s an all-around mess by human standards.
Have you ever really pondered how brave Mary had to be to say “yes” when the angel of the Lord appeared before her with the news that she had been chosen to carry the Son of God? She could have said no. But she didn’t. And we know she was afraid:

“The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words…” (Luke 1:28-29)

Yet, even through her fear, her uncertainty that she was worthy of such a calling, she chose to step into it—regardless of the mess—declaring, “‘I am the Lord’s servant […] May your word to me be fulfilled.’” She accepted the mess, preparing the way for the magic in the middle.
And then there’s Joseph—just an ordinary guy going about his life, preparing to marry Mary and this angel comes along and drops the news that Mary’s going to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah. There’s a mess all right. We know Joseph was reluctant to take on this situation:

“Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Luke 1:19).

Yet, after the angel appeared in his dreams, he “did what the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Luke 1:24).
Eventually, Mary and Joseph found themselves in the middle of a literal mess—a dirty stable in the midst of Bethlehem, with a baby well on His way into the world. But it had to be so, as a way for Jesus to fulfill the prophecy of His position as the Messiah. Bob Hamp puts it like this in his book Think Differently, Lead Differently:

Ever since the first Christ-mas, God has dwelt on Earth with men. For a season, He did so in the physical body of Jesus. Then when Jesus ascended, He sent the Holy Spirit to operate as the designated representative of the Godhead on Earth. This restoration of God’s presence with us is one of the most significant parts of Jesus’ mission, because every other part of the restoration process flows out of His presence among His people. (38)

Immanuel. God with us.
He is here.
Here when the stockings are all hung with care.
Here when they’re not.
Here when the dishes are coordinated and Christmasy.
Here when they’re not.
Here when we’re in the Christmas spirit.
Here when we’re not.
Here when all the packages are prettily tied up with string.
Here when they’re not.

He’s always here.
With us in the middle.
With us in the mess.
With us in the magic.

 

The Poison of Perfection

Attention to details. 
Exquisite presentation.
Every little thing—plans, dreams, goals, emotions—in its cookie-cutter place.
Flawless execution.
No room for mistakes, tripping up, falling down.

 
Doesn’t sound so bad on the surface, does it?
The result could only be a job well done, right?
None of these things are bad in and of themselves.
Until we bundle them all together,
tie ourselves to the load
like a prisoner to a ball and chain
and call it
perfectionism.

  

 
My goodness—what a dirty word it is.

 
It sounds pretty.
It even looks pretty.

 
The very formation of it—all those curves and soft edges—make it flow right there on the page.

 
(You’re humming that John Legend song, now—aren’t you? Admit it. I won’t tell.)

 
Perfectionism.
We buy into it.
I bought into it.
We think we have to live up to it.
I thought I had to live up to it.

 
Perfectionism.
It lies to us, friends.
Perfectionism seductively whispers that we have to achieve it in order to be accepted or to be successful.
Perfectionism sneaks into our psyche, often early on in our lives, conditioning us to just try harder to be perfect, unfailingly good at everything.
Perfectionism chokes our ability to admit our helplessness.
Perfectionism paralyzes us with the fear that we can never measure up.

~*~

He sat across the table from me, composition book open before him, pencil in hand.
I spoke softly to him.
“All you have to do is try. It doesn’t have to be right; it doesn’t have to be perfect.
All I want you to do is try.”
His tears fell faster, sobs caught in his chest.
“You can do this. I know you can. I believe in you.”
~*~

Perfectionism is poison.
It makes us believe we can’t succeed before we even try.

I’m a recovering perfectionist who knows this all too well. It’s been an underlying current in my worldview since pre-adolescence years.

I know how difficult it is to live under this largely self-inflicted mandate to be the best at it all, to mask the less-than-pretty emotions, and to strive for impossible standards.

And when I see my students—at the very young, impressionable ages of 5, 6, 7—falling prey to the same mindset, my heart breaks.

It breaks when the simplest task releases a torrent of tears because the student can’t bear the thought of not getting it right.

He doesn’t know what I know, now—that the process of getting it wrong—is exactly how he will learn to get it right; getting it wrong will unlock the freedom to fall and get back up again. Getting it wrong will allow him to learn how strong, how smart, how resilient he is.

  

I sit across that table from him, silently praying for those lies to fall away, willing him to just try. Because I know he will succeed; he won’t get those words spelled correctly every time, but he will succeed. He will succeed because all he has to do is try his best.

~*~
Quietly waiting for him to calm down,
that still small voice whispers to my own heart:
You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have all the answers.
You just have to try.
Listen to what I’m saying to you—and just try.
Don’t fight so hard,
just rest in knowing that I want the best for you.
~*~

Our Heavenly Father doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He knows we can’t be. He came to the cross to be our Perfection through salvation. Any other attempt at achieving perfection is futile. We will chase our proverbial tails until we’re exhausted by pursuing perfection. It’s not worth it. I’d rather be imperfect and free to be who God created me to be than to spend all my energy stuffing that person into a package that appears perfect.

Friends, as we are running headlong into a season of trying to measure up, check all the boxes, prepare all the decorations, gifts, and parties, don’t give in to the lie of perfection. We aren’t perfect. Not one of us. We can’t be; we’re human. We can do our very best to make the most of the season. But what really matters is that we listen for His voice, follow His leading, and lay down our perfectionism for His holiness.