‘You can’t burn a candle at both ends, Laura.’
That’s what my mum used to tell me during my teenage years.
Even now, even though I’ve doubled my years, my husband tells me the exact same thing.
I haven’t changed.
I’ve always been a person that does. Ruled by my to do list, wanting to get things done. Legalistic. Perfectionist. Performance-driven. Productivity-driven.
I have sensed it for a while, but in the last few days before Christmas I knew it, as I finished writing this post in the dying embers of the year I knew it: God is changing my heart.
Since posting about our plans for Advent back at the beginning of December, I’ve been on a journey. I’ve felt overwhelmed. I’ve felt confused. I’ve felt like I could do it all. I’ve felt like I could do none of it. I’ve felt empty. I’ve had to let things go.
In the early days of December, I was certain I was capable. My plans for the season were in place. I even wrote lists, lists of crafts to make with the children, lists of ideas for how to go the extra mile in serving others this Advent season.
But all the while, there was a quiet whisper of something, a growing whisper that was telling me to slow down.
‘Don’t be a multi-tasker – savour the little moments and live them fully.’
‘There are lots of good things that you could do, but you are free – you don’t have to do them.’
‘Pruning involves chopping off a lot of good wood so that the plant can bear more fruit.’
‘The process of becoming like Christ takes a lifetime. Don’t try to do it all at once.’
These were the things that I was hearing all around me in so many different contexts.
Don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t be a striver. Don’t be a performer. There is grace. It’s OK that you didn’t get it all done.
The thing is, I was trying to do it all, to do everything in my own strength, by my own merits, and I didn’t even realise it.
One day in early December, I went shopping for all the presents. It should have been peaceful child-free time (which is rather rare around these parts). But at the end of the evening, I came home, and I felt overwhelmed. Like there were just too many things to do. Like I bought too much and gave in to the commercial pressures of the season that I so didn’t want to fall for. I prayed for God to help me let go of my to do list. To not worry about not being perfect. To rest in Him.
And then I woke up the next day and did that worrying thing, that striving thing all over again. And the next. And the next.
Somehow I couldn’t let go of the urge to perform, to perfect, to produce, to keep going with the plan.
Each day I found myself in a panic over my to-do list. I had to ask myself, do the things on there really matter? Does it matter if I don’t buy a curtain pole this week? Does it matter if I don’t make nativity cut-out silhouettes for the kids to decorate this year? Does it matter if we don’t get tickets for that concert or buy that thing or make those cookies or go to that place?
As the month wore on, I wore out. I was weary. That all these Advent celebrations were becoming burdens. That there were too many things on the to-do list. Honestly, that to-do list was crammed with so many good things. But burning out is not good. I wanted to be like Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet, but I was like Martha, rushed off my feet. I wanted my children to know Christmas is about the incarnation, but I was in danger of frazzling both them and myself with so many good things that we couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I felt guilty for not being able to throw off perfectionism or my to-do list. But I didn’t know how to stop. I kept buying, I kept planning, I kept pressing on with the readings and the activities and the preparations. I was blundering through the days and I wanted God to speak to me and show me the way and fix me and fix my eyes on Him.
I wasn’t having the Christmas I wanted.
I was worrying instead of praying. I was organising my family instead of loving them. I was trying to be something, trying to make something, trying to bring something.
But there it was, in the book of devotions that were my morning reading during Advent (The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp). Even though I’d read it before, last year, I hadn’t remembered the message. There it was, peppered throughout the season with increasing regularity and poignancy.
‘You don’t need to climb mountains named I Will Perform. You don’t need to climb mountains named I Will Produce. Every mountain that every Christian ever faces, the Lord levels with sufficient grace: The Lord Will Provide.’ (The Greatest Gift, p.59)
‘You can feel it in your bones sometimes when you stop for a moment – like life’s this stairway that you never stop climbing… Like all these lists are rungs, like your failures stretch up from earth to heaven, like all your rest feels like lying down on one unforgiving stone… [But] Jesus doesn’t merely come down to show you the way up – Jesus comes down to make himself into the way to carry you up.’ (p.68)
‘Christmas cannot be bought. Christmas cannot be created. Christmas cannot be made by hand, lit up, set out, dreamed up. Christmas can only be found, and only in the dawning of Christ… Our God who cradles whole inking galaxies in the palm of His hand… He folds himself into our skin and we are saved from ourselves. The message of Christmas is not that we can make peace. Or that we can make love, make light, make gifts, or make this world save itself. The message of Christmas is that this world’s a mess and we can never save ourselves from ourselves and we need a Messiah.’ (p.139).
‘The only way to overcome idols in your life is to see that Jesus gives you freely what every other god says you can only get through your performance. Jesus gives you through his blood what every other god demands through yours.’ (Tim Keller, quoted on p.149)
‘You don’t have to work for the coming of the Lord – you don’t have to work for Christmas. The miracle is that God is gracious. You don’t have to earn Christmas, you don’t have to perform Christmas, you don’t have to make Christmas. You can rest in Christ. You can wait with Christ. You can breathe easy in Christ. Open your heart to the miracle of grace. He will prepare your heart for the coming of the Lord.’ (p.201)
‘You are most prepared for Christmas when you are done trying to make your performance into the gift and instead revel in His presences as the Gift.’ (p.211)
‘He. Will. Save.
God. With Us.
God can’t stay away.
This is the love story that has been coming for you from the beginning.’ (p.233)
It was the story of Jonah, halfway through the month, which started to bring it all into focus. How God takes away everything from Jonah, and whilst he is sitting inside a big fish for three days, he realises his utter dependence on God:
‘You aren’t equipped for life until you realize you aren’t equipped for life. You aren’t equipped for life until you’re in need of grace. In the moment of realizing your limitations, your shortcomings, your inescapable sins, all that you aren’t – in that moment of surrendered lack, you’re given the gift you’d receive no other way: the gracious hand of an unlimited God. Repentance, turning around, is the only way to be ushered into grace… Jonah was three days in and three nights in the belly of the great fish, but Jesus took three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, in the belly of death, so no one else would ever have to. He did not abandon you in the ultimate storm of your soul. He will not abandon you in the immediate storm of your now. Will you believe in the wilder miracle of the Word made flesh, God with skin, God in a trough, God on a cross? Will you believe in your own resurrection from the belly of sin? Will you believe in miracles? You can whisper that word repentance – and find yourself resurrecting. Turning around and resurrecting.’ (Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift, p.159-161)
Utter dependence. The entire reason the incarnation had to happen.
Then, I stumbled upon and listened to a podcast entitled ‘Putting the Merry Back in Christmas’, and the focus was sharpened. It was the same message, expanded, broadened, applied. I listened to it three times. Three times! It’s a discussion about happiness, and why so many women feel depressed at Christmas. Basically, it’s a lack of focus. Or a mis-focus. What is happiness? Enjoying God. All the small happinesses we experience in this world point us to what we lost in Eden, and to what we have to look forward to. These little happinesses, which we experience in the moments, point to the eternal happiness, even if only by their own inadequacy – they aren’t lasting, they aren’t what we really sought – but we can and should enjoy these moments to God’s glory. Happiness is all of it together and not some gnostic, disembodied spiritual happiness. Happiness is enjoying God by enjoying His world with gratitude in our hearts.
In the same way, ‘If Christmas is just the Disneyland experience, if it’s just good food and laughter, then what happens when you’re not feeling it? It’s almost like it has to be the theology.’ The happiness of Christmas is enjoying God, and anything other than that (food, family, gifts) is unfulfilling. Putting on a celebration is a lot of work. By keeping the focus on the incarnation we keep the traditions and all the other things auxiliary. The traditions themselves aren’t the point, but why we do them matters. But if the traditions make us unhappy, or give us a bad attitude (hello, me), then we need to question why we’re doing them. Are we doing them to love and serve our family and others? Are we doing them to point to Christ? Are we doing them with gratitude in our hearts?
Christmas was feeling, to me, like a long task list. I felt as if I was preparing Christmas for others but not for myself. I had forgotten that message – Christmas cannot be made or bought – and I had muddied the focus somehow along the way. I had forgotten that happiness isn’t the activities themselves, but the way they put us in touch with the meaning of Christmas. If you don’t have the deeper meaning, all of the fairy lights are just superficial – but once you’re connected to the deeper meaning, you can truly enjoy all the little things at a deeper level. Enjoyment of all these things comes down to true enjoyment of the true God.
I had become superficial.
When this started to dawn on me, I felt undone.
In all my doing, I never once really thought that I was actually lessening the impact of Christmas. I thought I was engaging with it, communicating it, celebrating it. How I had misfired. I had lived as if all the traditions I wanted to start with our family (the main reason, or so I thought, we were having Christmas in our own home and not travelling to see family) were somehow necessary, and forgotten that Christmas is already complete and those traditions are just auxiliary.
I heard many suggestions along the way of how practically to keep the focus at Christmas. Keep going with quiet times. Stop complaining and take action to figure out how to make situations better – decorate your cookies with another family, or do simple peanut butter cookies instead, or don’t do cookies at all.
And here was something I really needed to hear: don’t get too elaborate too soon. You don’t have to jump into a fully-formed Advent and Christmas. It can evolve over time. And you don’t have to do all the traditions every year. You can do some, or none. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is keeping the focus on Christ.
That was an epiphany for me.
Christmas is complete. And, as my husband reminded me, Christmas is every day.
That means we don’t need a special season to celebrate the birth of Christ. We don’t need a tree, presents, or a big feast.
Those little happinesses, if they are pointing us to the true story of the incarnation and if they are a means for us to celebrate Christ and reconnect with our families and friends and corporately praise God for breaking in to this dark world to save us, they could be good. But if they don’t do those things, then who are we serving?
I looked around me, and I saw all the trappings, all the lights, but my heart had become shadowed to Christmas. All the while that I was doing, doing, making the plans and buying the turkey, my heart was dulled to the beauty and mystery of the incarnation.
God was speaking. He was saying, Make the celebration about what it’s about. Make the celebration about Me. Make the celebration about the advent of God with you – so you never have to be alone again.
And the aftermath of all these readings, all these conversations, all this uncovering? A Christmas that was far less glitzy and far less perfect and far more run-of-the-mill than I had envisaged, or than I remembered with the piles of presents, and the huge feast, and the overexcited, loud, loud noise that I grew up with at Christmastime.
I had to hear it: It’s OK that you didn’t do it all.
What I’ve been learning on this journey, what I’m still learning, is that there are so many – so many – good things I could do. But here’s the thing: I don’t have to do them all. In fact, I can’t do them all. What I have to do is make the most of my time. That means choosing to do some things, and choosing not to do some other things.
I so needed to hear this hard lesson in Advent, when I had all the plans and all the lists and all the ideas and I was doing it in my own strength and I had lost the focus on the source of happiness and on the very reason for having all the traditions: Christ.
I was drawn in by the glitz of Christmas. All that glitter looks appealing, so much more appealing than a baby in a dirty stable. I can see it in my daughter’s eyes when she sees the twinkly lights and the glossy adverts and Santa and Rudolph and presents all shiny wrapped.
But it isn’t lasting. True happiness is found only in God. The angels sang glory, and it is true. ‘Low within a manger lies, He who built the starry skies.’ It’s Christ’s humility, his reaching down and coming down to save us that is the true beauty, majesty, and happiness of Christmas.
I want my children to grow up knowing that Christmas is not presents. It’s not food. It’s not making cookies, it’s not a tree, it’s not an Advent calendar, it’s not carols, it’s not taking mince pies to a neighbour, it’s not just one day or one month. It’s every day. Christ is our gift for every day.
If I myself am so caught up in doing and being and perfecting, will they understand that Christmas is all about what He has done for us?
God doesn’t expect us to perform for him – He has already given us everything.
The acceptance, rest, and rescue we desire deep in our souls are given. Christ is given.
The incarnation itself acknowledges that this world isn’t perfect. If we could save ourselves, Christ wouldn’t have come.
All the things, all the things. I can’t do them all. So I have to choose. What will I never regret if I do them now? Daily praising God. Kissing my children each night as they lie sleeping. Reading to my children. Investing in our marriage. Building relationships with those around me.
All the trappings, all the trappings, they hold themselves up as the source of happiness but the truth is that they aren’t – God is.
I sense he is teaching me how to love, not organise; how to ponder, not perform; how to pray, not worry; how to let go and slow down and pursue virtue and accept grace. All that I have been reading, listening to… has pointed me to grace, to the fact I don’t need to perform to be accepted, to the joy of heart that comes from just enjoying God and His gifts. Making God the focus. Taking away the trappings if they don’t point to him. Looking for him in everything. All is grace. All is a gift.
You can’t burn a candle at both ends… but when I know that I don’t need to strive, perform, perfect, when I know coming to Him empty-handed is enough, because He is enough, I know I have enough for each day.
‘My soul finds rest in God alone, and my salvation comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, He is my fortress, I will never be shaken.’ (Psalm 62:1-2)