By Heather Walker Peterson

Accepting My Limitations: The Gift I Give Myself This Advent

I stare at the blank field on the Google form on my screen. Would I be able to volunteer to help with the Christmas pageant I’m signing up my kids for? I mention to my husband that I’d like to. He looks at me as if I’m daft. He’s right. Two of the weekends that I’d need to volunteer I’ll have a pile of papers to grade. I ignore the blank field and submit the form, just as I did for the church’s vacation Bible school last summer. Those twelve hours of VBS time enabled me to complete my chair duties that month.

Before I returned to full-time teaching and administration, I did such things in my former church. I was a co-leader for a Christian arts guild, I served on a church committee for spiritual formation, we had a small group meeting twice a month in our home. Now, I’ve become the queen of “one-offs” instead. I’ll read Scripture or lead prayers on Sunday mornings, I’ll show up to assist with a Sunday School class. But anything that requires a continuous commitment — sorry, no.

“For the first time, I participated in a weekly Bible study,” shared a former chair of my department after her sabbatical at our Christian university. I was surprised. Now, in her role, I’m not surprised anymore. Upon joining our current church a year ago, I was asked if I’d be interested in a women’s group. One of them was reading books by N. T. Wright and Eugene Peterson, two of my sweet spots in Christian thought and living. “Wait,” my wise husband advised me. “Give yourself a whole year at this job before you commit to anything.” He was right then, too.

A friend sent me an interview in The New Yorker with the actor and producer Sharon Horgan. One quotation adhered itself to my insides: “There are two things I’m good at—work and making my kids like me….All of my other skills have fallen away. I’m really capable of doing the thing I’m employed to do, but I’ve become incapable of anything else.” That’s me. I work and I’m with my kids and my husband. We go to church, and I worship publicly as well as privately, with my students, and at home. But major commitments outside of my house and my place of employment — no.

It’s been announced at our church that the core of fellowship is in two different monthly listening prayer groups — one for men and one for women. Women spending time praying for one other after some quiet journaling? This should be my thing. But I’ve attended only a handful of times. On its most recent occurrence, I took my girls to a free kids concert instead. In this season of a demanding full-time job while my kids are in elementary school, every commitment I make outside of work hours is giving up connection somewhere else — if not with my kids, then with other friends.

The gift I give myself for Advent is letting go of the guilt that I’m not more available, that I’m flaky when it comes to church commitment even if we do attend regularly and I arrive to lend a hand for my “one-offs.” My gift to myself is sitting in the longing I have to be part of a women’s group that is intimate. When a friend describes her monthly group, tears spring to my eyes. But this participation is not timely for me in this season of younger children. I’ll show up occasionally for a women’s night at a cafe, meet individually for coffee or prayer with the few close friends I’ve started to cultivate, or once in a while appear for the women’s listening prayer — but that’s it for the time being.

I remind myself that even the mother of Jesus had her seasons of disconnection.  She must have felt disconnected when she shut the door on Elizabeth’s home after staying there her first three months of pregnancy, her bump just beginning to show if her tunic pulled against her body when she sat down. Joseph understood, but did anyone else besides Elizabeth? Mary must have felt disconnection when she fled to Egypt, grateful her Holy Child survived the massacre of infant boys by Herod but knowing that others back in Bethlehem suffered.

I’ll repent during Advent too — when I feel the old feelings creeping up, my childhood woundedness that whispers to me that the women I’m not getting to know couldn’t really like me because of our differences. In evangelical culture, I easily feel the odd woman out if I don’t homeschool my kids, if I don’t send them to the Christian Montessori that part of me wishes I could afford, if I’m not committed to a Bible study.

Here is my Advent: acceptance of my limitations, giving up my management of other people’s perceptions of me, seeking forgiveness from God when I judge others because I fancy they’re judging me, bearing a longing for more connection at my new church that will come slower than when my time was more flexible. Mostly I’m thankful for the man-child Mary birthed. He’s human as well as divine. He gets this heart. 

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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