By Heather Walker Peterson

On Not Having It All Together: Lent Isn’t Advent

Our Christmas card photo unnerved me this year. Our two young daughters in burgundy and raspberry velvet dresses, my husband in a brownish jacket, me in a dark chambray dress with a cabled sweater and a red-beaded necklace. It was fall, and we stood against the brick and wood paneling on the campus where I work. The colors and textures were storybook. We looked like we have it all together.

I love it.

But I hate it. I’m grateful to be in Lent when we remember that none of us have it all together.

I grew up in an 800-square-foot ramshackle house with a family of six. My father, a nurse, secretly drank, and had a night shift that facilitated his habit. We never had any money, and before it was cool to do so, we relied on a dingy thrift store in a church basement for clothing. I was convinced that the middle-class kids at school were actually rich, and I thought they must be superficial too. This baseless assumption grew out of my jealousy that they seemed to have it all together, and I didn’t.

As a kid, I took care of the chickens, which provided eggs and meat for us, and as a high schooler, I made a lot of canned hash on the evenings my parents had driven off in the car to fight about my dad’s difficult recovery from alcoholism. There was also a fair amount of paranoia in our family, evidenced by the loaded firearm we kept near the door. A cousin we hadn’t seen for years dropped by one day, and my brother pulled the gun on him when he knocked.

When I told a friend I met later in life about my imperfect, rural childhood, she said, “But Heather, I’ve always thought of you as cosmopolitan.”

A humorous comment, but said because I look like I have it together.

Because of my family dysfunction, I was not able to make adequate eye contact with others until my late twenties when I received counseling for the first time. Before then, I longed for a boyfriend, but I avoided men. I was uncomfortable in my own skin and disliked being in public places by myself.

It is easy to say: that was then. I was a mess then. Today, my husband is near the top of his industry, and I am the chair of an academic department. But here’s the truth: we are still a mess. Thank God, not as big a mess as my family of origin was, but still a mess. And I bet you are too.

“They don’t know what a hot mess we really are,” my husband said to me in the car after church recently. Friends had expressed how happy they were that we were becoming members. We had started visiting the church in Advent and sent them our Christmas card.  Maybe now that it’s Lent, we need to send another card.

Instead of our family against the wood of a chapel door, I wonder what they would think of a photo of me in the wee hours of Christmas morning, weeping for a reason I don’t remember and taking anxiety medicine so I could get a little sleep and escape from a bout of self-hatred? How about one of my seven-year-old daughter begging either my husband or me to talk at the dinner table because she knows that if we’re quiet we must be unhappy with each other? Or one of me losing it with my tantrum-prone five-year-old, screaming at her, and then wondering if the neighbors will call social services?

What I’m learning in life is that we do overcome the messiness, and yet we don’t entirely. I’ve had four different counselors and well may have another soon, and I’m still unfathomably needy and will always be. I’ll likely never stop crying at the end of a sitcom when the father reaches out to his daughter in a way that my uninvolved father did not. I continue to be somewhat challenged with eye contact, which is why you may wonder if I’m looking at your nose.

Because I will always be overcoming, I’m grateful for Lent. One of our pastor friends is using this season to teach on failure, and I can’t imagine a better theme. This is the season to remember the now and the not yet, that the full culmination of Christ’s restoration of us is yet to come. That he died for my lack of self-control when it comes to my strong-willed daughter, for all the little selfishnesses I fall into with my husband, for my seemingly irrational anxieties in the middle of the night.

Lent tells me that I’ll never totally have it all together. Instead of being a season about having it together, it is a season about showing up.

It is our showing up at church and telling our friends that we need prayer for reasons that may surprise them. It is me during the confession on Sunday morning being humble enough to repeat my pettiness and lack of forgiveness toward my husband and my unbridled yelling at my daughter. It is me showing up one-on-one with God to rail at him about my anxieties and then shutting up to listen to him tell me that he designed me and called me good.

Tish Harrison Warren writes in Liturgy of the Ordinary that “In worship, we show up, we abide, we rest.” The promise she provides afterwards is that if we do show up, Jesus will show up too. So, this Lent we will show up for worship. After our at-home typical squabbles, we will get into the car and show up with all our messiness. We won’t have it all together, but we will be met by the body of Christ and his Spirit.

Heather with her family, Christmas 2016.

About the Author

Heather Walker Peterson is a writer, mother, and assistant professor and chair of the Department of English and Literature at the University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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