Dec 10, 2015

In Good Faith: The Perfect Storm

In my December In Good Faith column I write about the pressure of yuletide perfection and its shadow side. 

The Perfect Storm

The allure of perfection is never so strong as it is in December. Between the Christmas cards showing perfect families (no dysfunction here!) and the television commercials showing perfect people (no blemishes!) and the houses with perfectly strung lights (no burnt out bulbs!), societal expectations are sky high.
It’s enough to give anyone an inferiority complex. Or at least provide motivation to finally put that wreath on the front door. 
For many, though, there’s a shadow side to this in-your-face Christmas perfection. This “most wonderful time of the year” can unearth grief we’ve been seeking to hide from others and ourselves. It can highlight our imperfect family relationships. It can put our loneliness, set against the backdrop of perceived joy, into strong relief. Despite the messages that bombard us, retail therapy only goes so far and in the end it leaves us just as unfulfilled — yet with more debt.
When I lived in New York, my parish held an annual Christmas tree sale. I always enjoyed putting in a few shifts and not just because I got to wield a chainsaw. We always had fabulous trees — they came from the same small tree farm in Pennsylvania every year — and we always sold out. Sure, it helped that we undercut the Presbyterians but our trees were always much fresher.
While most people were incredibly gracious and families were filled with joy as they chose their tree, there were always several exceptions. Invariably a few people came looking for “the perfect tree.” They were incredibly insistent about this, as if their entire Christmas depended upon arboreal perfection. Of course no tree was ever good enough. They’d spend an hour looking through every single tree on the lot, treating church volunteers like the hired help at some high-end boutique. “No, that one’s not right. Show me that one. Turn it around. This one’s too full; that one’s not full enough. Don’t you have anything that smells better?” And there was nothing you could do but grit your teeth and keep a smile plastered on your face as they tested the limits of Christian charity.
Sometimes they would leave with a tree; sometimes they’d go away disappointed. I was always saddened when I encountered this because these folks were truly seeking something, trying to fill a void in their lives that could not be fulfilled by external means. The reality is that they would never have the picture-perfect Christmas as long as they tried to achieve it through human means, like the perfect tree, the perfect gift, the perfect dinner, or the perfect family.
And from a Christian perspective this shadow side of perfection is what Christmas is really all about. Which doesn’t make any intuitive sense. But Jesus entered an imperfect world, after all, not a fantasy life. He entered a world of absolute humanity, a broken world in need of healing; not a place of sterile perfection where fake trees reign and no one ever drinks too much egg nog. But, you see, that’s the miracle of this season. I mean, if God wanted the “perfect” Christmas, Jesus would have been born in a palace, not a stable, and he would have been born to a princess, not an unwed teenage mother. But that’s not how it all went down. Through Jesus, God entered an imperfect world and remains present with us even in the midst of our own imperfect lives. Especially in the midst of our imperfect lives.
Ultimately, Christmas is about genuine relationship with the divine rather than superficial perfection. If that’s your goal, you’re better off buying a perfectly shaped fake tree at Walmart.


Unknown said...

"He entered a world of absolute humanity, a broken world in need of healing...." Maybe tree shoppers should honor that by seeking out the imperfect, Charlie Brown trees and adorning them with love. And reaching out to their neighbors with love too.

Katrina said...

Good to remember in this time of year that often become so stressful. And one reason why we do have a fake tree. Less stress about keeping it watered, picking up needles, worrying about burning the house down. Christmas isn't about the tree. And we love to embrace the season so much that we really make a month of it. This brings more joy into our home and hearts. We've learned to identify what increases and what decreases the love and joy, and we've adjusted accordingly. We want to keep love (aka Christ) in Christmas.