I thought I could do it. I’d planned. I’d prepared. I’d brought in reinforcements.
We host a lot of stuff—mostly, though, for young college students, or the folks Brian works with who know us well and don’t expect Southern Living. Not that they’d even know what Southern Living was, being Australian and all, but if they did, they would know that the Phillips do not equal the pages of a magazine. Unless it’s a promo ad for my future website, goodenough.com. (I haven’t actually created this site, but don’t you think I should?!)
Since I only host parties for people who don’t expect much out of me, I stressed big time over Brian’s 40th birthday party. Where would we host it? (Please, not our house!) Would people have fun? What would we eat? How much would people eat? Will we need decorations? Come quickly, Lord Jesus, if I must provide decorations. Would Brian like the party? He claims he’s not opinionated, but I beg to differ.
After much soul-searching and party-planning angst, I settled on lawn bowling with heavy appetizers. Lawn bowling, or barefoot bowls as it’s called here, is a fun, relaxing summer past time. I booked the place, ordered the food, and began inventorying my weaknesses and recruiting the appropriate assistants.
I’d already outsourced the location, solving one point of anxiety, so I looked at my other two nemeses: cake baking and decor. I called on my friend Julie to produce a stellar chocolate cake, and I charged my friend Sally with the task of providing vision and instructions for decorating. This conversation began with me asking, “Sally, do we even need decorations?” I was really disappointed when she said yes. Sally accompanied me to the party goods store, a necessary step, because Jennifer standing in a store surrounded by potential party decor leads to Jennifer shutting down and walking out of the store empty-handed and heading straight for the baked goods kiosk to numb her style-deficient self.
I covered all my bases. I tried really, really hard. That has to count for something, right?
Party night came, and Brian and I arrived early to set up. It didn’t take long for things to go downhill. Because WIND.
I laid the black tablecloths on the tables, and they immediately flew off.
“Where’s the tape?” Brian asked.
“Tape? Why would I bring tape?” I headed to the forest to collect and clean large rocks to hold down the rogue tablecloths, because rocks are in, my friends.
I sprinkled confetti on the tables, which is a winning option in the face of excessive wind.
“Don’t!” Brian urged.
“Well, I already did, now didn’t I?” was my sassy reply. Silver and red stars littered the ground mockingly.
Balloons! At least we have balloons! I reached for the three balloon arrangements, their colors perfectly placed to offset each other, and yet my hand only clasped one arrangement, because on the car ride over, all of the strings wrapped around each other in a giant knot. Of course they did. Of course.
“Hand me the scissors,” calm Brian said.
Me: “Who the heck brings scissors to a party?! People come to a party to party, not to cut things.”
This is the point when I lost it. Full blown tantrum.
“Why am I so inept? Even when I try really hard, I mess everything up! I TRIED SO HARD. I’m sorry you had to marry such an inefficient woman. What is wrong with me??”
“Can you please just laugh about this?” he pleaded.
“No. I will not. I will not laugh this time.”
I trudged back to the woods to get more dirty boulders to tame the tablecloths while Brian hung up his own white twinkly lights. A friend responded to my SOS for tape, so guests arrived not to a beautiful display, but to me frantically taping and Brian balloon-untangling. He eventually gave up and passed the job on to two other guests. Because that’s what party guests expect to do at parties—untangle balloons.
Did I mention the special candles I bought? The 40 special sparkler candles that were going to be so pretty and festive, but also hilarious, because it would emphasize how old Brian is?
I lined the cake with the candles, creatively alternating black, white, black, white, and called everyone to gather round. Brian gave an impromptu speech, and then I cued the person who was lighting the cake for me, because this is another job I’m no good at. He fired up the cigarette lighter I had to chase down from a smoker at the bowls club, since of course I forgot the matches, and everyone waited with baited breath for the wondrous pyro display. Except it never happened, because as soon as one candle was lit, the wind blew it out. It was kind of like my clever candle color pattern: light, dark, light, dark, light, dark. All attempts failed. Brian finally grabbed a candle from the cake, lit it with the lighter, and blew it out. We then ate cake with the ice cream that I had to get another friend to go back to our house to retrieve, because of course, I forgot that too.
Why?! As my friend Julie said, it’s one thing to not really try and then fail; it’s another to give it your very best, and still fail.
I think the worst part of it for me was that I wanted people to arrive to a shiny, finished product. The table festive. The lights providing the perfect amount of ambiance. I wanted them to say, “Wow. Jennifer really can pull off an adult-sized task.” But instead, they arrived to my chaos. My mess. Yet again, I was exposed.
I bet Mary had a plan, too. Can’t you just hear her?
“Well Joseph, if we leave on such-and-such day at such-and-such time, we should pull into Bethlehem with plenty of time to get a clean, spacious room before the baby comes. After all, Jesus only deserves the best.” But who knows what happened on that journey? Maybe they trudged through a feisty dust storm. That pesky wind. Maybe a camel died and had to be replaced. Maybe Mary and Joseph had words about these delays.
She didn’t get her comfy room at the inn, did she?
Can you even imagine, as a first time mother-to-be, the angst and horror Mary must have felt? Her child—the Christ-child, for Heaven’s sake—was delivered in a barn! Our picture books paint this scene to be so serenely beautiful, with animals neatly groomed, smiling weird animal smiles down at the Messiah, but don’t you know that Mary’s birth suite must have been horribly crude? It was dirty and unsanitary and not picturesque in the least.
This reality was not Mary’s ideal.
And then, oh my goodness, company arrived! Not only did Mary have to deal with her own death of a birth plan dream, but other people witnessed her new little family’s less-than-stellar conditions. On the night when perfection was birthed into a lost world, Mary’s imperfection was exposed in the form of a rickety stable and mud-caked straw. Was this really the best she could do for her child?
How silly Mary would have sounded if she had apologized for the mess.
The shepherds didn’t care about the stable, did they? And I kind of believe in the end, Mary didn’t either. Because in the midst of the mess, Jesus shone all the brighter. He—not the accommodations—was who they were all there to see. From beneath the straw and slop, the Christ-child radiated His holiness. The imperfections of His surroundings made Him shine all the more—from the stable to the sinners He walked amongst to the rugged cross to our own hearts.
Perhaps like me, you sometimes ask yourself, “Why do I have to be me? Why can’t I perform or impress? Why do I always mess things up? Why do I make reindeer cookies that look like they’ve been run over by Santa’s sleigh?”
But oh, how He shines through our imperfections. He is the One everyone has come to see, isn’t He? It’s His goodness, kindness, humility, and beauty shining out of our mess; it’s He who is on display. If we can lay down our self-protecting walls of performance and shiny success, He will steal the show every time, in the very best way.
Will you let Him?
He is the one we’ve been waiting for. Instead of wishing away your own straw and slop, let them illuminate the Savior—the light in our darkness, the hope of all mankind.
P.S. We’ll be having some concentrated family time over the next few weeks, so you probably won’t hear from me again in this space until mid-January. Thanks for all the love you’ve given my blog in 2016. I’m truly honored that even one person reads a single thing I write. Merry Christmas!