The God We Didn't Want: A Christmas Message

blogpic.nativityvangoghA Meditation for Christmas Eve, 2016

Perhaps you remember the opening words to the Superman TV show:
     Faster than a speeding bullet.
     More powerful than a locomotive.
     Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
     Look! Up in the sky!
     It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!

Isn’t this the kind of God we want? A super-hero—someone to stop bad things from happening to good people. We would like God to stop the pain and evil of this world with his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, like Superman who is faster than a speeding bullet, and more powerful than a locomotive. We would settle for Spiderman, who catches thieves just like flies.

We look up in the sky this night and we don’t see superman, but instead, we see a star; a star that marks the arrival, not of a superhero God, but of a baby. There is no cape and no promise that bad things won’t happen to good people. If God does not come as a superhero to make sure that evil and difficulty stop right now, then what kind of God is this? What becomes of our faith when God is not the God we wanted? Christmas is a season when we must admit that God is not behaving the way we hoped.

I heard a story recently about another birth that also took place in difficult circumstances. Paula D’Arcy is a Christian author and inspirational speaker. She learned early on her young life that God was not a super-hero who would stop bad things from happening to her. At age 27, she was pregnant with her second daughter when a drunk driver struck and killed her husband and her first daughter who was 2 years old. She tells the story of being in the hospital  several months after this tragedy, to give birth and praying to God to please give her a natural birth, so she could experience life after so much death.

Although she wanted to trust God as the foundation of her life, in that moment, she wanted God to prove himself by granting this one desire. God had not been the superhero and wish-granter she wanted. After several hours of labor, it looked like her desire for a natural birth was not going to happen, and she was minutes from having a C-section. She prayed, what do you want from me, God? You already have everything-you have my husband, you have my daughter—what more do you want?

Paula heard God's response in her own heart. God said to her, “I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me.”

Paula looked down at her hands and realized that she had been holding on to life as she wanted it and the grip of her desires had closed her off from God doing what she most needed, which was to transform her pain into healing and new life. Paula released her hands, and opened herself up to the God we do have—not a superhero, but one who has a deep and abiding relationship with us that gives us life and hope and strength when bad things do happen. She reached that moment that Mary did, and in her heart said, let it be with me according to your Word. That became a turning point in her spiritual journey as she welcomed the gift of new child and became an international force for good. 

Perhaps this is why, when God comes to dwell with us, God does not come faster that a speeding bullet and stronger than locomotive, but as an infant who needs to be loved, and held and cared for. God comes to have a relationship with us, and invites us to hold, and care and love and protect our relationship with God with the fierce devotion of Mary and Joseph or any of us holding a newborn child. God wants a relationship with us that is more important to us than anything else in our life.

The fifth verse of the hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter says it best,
     What can I give Him,
       Poor as I am?
     If I were a shepherd
       I would bring a lamb,
     If I were a wise man
       I would do my part,
     Yet what I can I give Him,
       Give my heart.

When we loosen the grip of our hands on life as we desire and plan it and begin to want our relationship with God more than we want anything else, we do receive the strength of a locomotive to handle the vicissitudes of this life, and our pain can be transformed into hope and new life as it was for Paula. So what then of the evil in the world? How will God bring healing and salvation to the world? In the 16th century, St. Theresa of Avila said it this way:

     Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Tonight Jesus is born in our lives and hearts, inviting us to love him with all of our might, and to bear his love in the world. For through Jesus, WE are the ones through whom God’s power is made known.

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Present Anxiety

blogpic.santawithchildA Christmas Essay (written in 2005) published in my new book, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life (on sale here!). 

It’s December twenty-first, and I’m in the gift frenzy of the Christmas craze. Have I remembered everyone? Have I given them enough? Will someone give me something when I haven’t give them anything, and will I get that yucky feeling of un-thoughtfulness? Whoever said it’s “the most wonderful time of the year” wasn’t in charge of the family gift-giving and never had present anxiety.

The teacher gift craze is really weighing on me this year. My younger two children, Jacob and Leah, are at one elementary school, and Daniel is at another one. Here is the teacher gift count to date: with the office staff, nurses, and all the teachers, including art and music, I had ten gifts ready. We passed them out after the Christmas program, and I realized we forgot the gym teacher and the school counselor. Now, we’re at an even dozen.

At Daniel’s school, it’s about the same: hard-working, wonderful people who do amazing work, which add up to eleven more gifts. It’s a good thing I run a home business with a skin care and cosmetics company, and can go to my shelf to wrap sugar scrubs, body lotions, and after-shave balms. Yet, at nearly two dozen gifts just for teachers, it adds up, even at wholesale prices.

But here is my dilemma: Daniel, a fifth grader, goes to the middle school for eighth-grade algebra. I was hoping to draw the line at junior high as far as teacher gifts. If I give this one eighth-grade teacher a gift, it feels like opening Pandora’s gift box. Two dozen teachers’ gifts for three children would turn into three and four dozen over the junior high and high school years. Leah is only in first grade. I felt overwhelmed, but couldn’t seem to give myself permission to not give the algebra teacher a gift. I asked Daniel. No, he didn’t need to give her a gift. I asked my husband. No, he didn’t need to give her a gift. He didn’t need to give some of the previous two dozen gifts either, but, God bless him, he had the restraint not to tell me so at that moment.

I didn’t get a gift together for the algebra teacher, but I still felt uncomfortable about it. It fed my anxiety about other presents. Once I delivered the teacher gifts, I looked at the list. I had put ten boxes in the mail to family and friends, including one birthday present. Oh, no! I had forgotten the UPS deliveryman, Jeff, who comes to my house regularly, and the mail carrier. Amazed that I had anything left, I pulled something off the shelf to wrap for them later.

Perhaps I could bake pumpkin bread for the neighbors, and what about the children of our former neighbors who have lovingly sent us several Christmas ornaments from our nation’s capital? I wanted to send them and their daughter something for Hanukkah. I still needed to get my grandmother’s gift and my brother’s birthday gift in the mail. Perhaps I could pull something together quickly, pick up a Hanukkah gift, add it to the box, and get to the post office with these last boxes before my 10 a.m. appointment.

I hurriedly wrapped up some cologne. I looked at the table to grab the packing tape and get ready to go. Something was wrong. Shoot! I had put the woman’s name on the UPS guy’s gift. Wow, good thing I caught that; she probably wouldn’t want a men’s fragrance. I’m not sure UPS Jeff would like Velocity for Women either—it has “a light citrus fragrance with a banana flower top note.”

I rushed to the bathroom to apply my makeup with this ambitious, frenzied plan in mind to get all this done before 10 a.m. I turned on National Public Radio while I put on my makeup; “Morning Edition” was still on the air. They were doing a story on a former telecommunications executive who retired at fifty-seven but lost half his savings in the dot-com bust in the late 1990s. He bleached his gray beard, moustache, and eyebrows white and went to Santa School with one thousand other men who looked just like him, in order to earn money during the holiday season.

I thought it was kind of sad until I realized he seemed to relish the joy and meaning this job brought to his life, which he didn’t have in his previous work. A little boy sat on his lap and whispered in his ear. Santa whispered back. The boy got off Santa’s lap and said with glee, “Santa loves me!”

Why couldn’t I hear that Santa loves me before applying the new ultra, lash-thickening, volumizing mascara? Tears flowed. I looked like a football player ready to battle the opponent and the sun’s glare. Santa loves me. This one simple declaration on the radio laid bare all of the present anxiety that I seem to have every year. I thought I had outgrown it, dealt with it, gotten over it, and moved on, but the gift-frenzy of the morning told another story. The gifts I give and the anxiety I feel are hungering after one simple desire: to be loved. All I need to know is that God loves me, my mother and father love me, my husband and children love me, my extended family and friends love me, the teachers I want to thank with gifts love me, and, indeed, even Santa loves me.

I grew up in a family where feelings were not often openly expressed. I’ve heard Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion say that we Scandinavians don’t talk about the things that are most precious to us—our faith and our feelings. This meant that presents carried a lot of meaning because they expressed our feelings. They are not tokens; they are it. Love was expressed not just in the gift itself, but also in how it was beautifully wrapped with lovely bows. My mom, who was superb at making each gift special, was on the cutting edge of bow fashion. If the “in” thing was spiked, we had spiked; super curly, we had it; bow gifts, we were the first. We even had a bow maker. My artistic, older sister made beautiful bows and wrapped packages with sharp corners. I never could get mine to look as good; my bows were a floppy mess, and my corners were mushy.

If the gift needed to communicate all the love and appreciation, gratitude, affection, and thoughtfulness I feel toward people, my gifts were always coming up short. Maybe my family wouldn’t know how much I love them or see it in this lame bow I’ve made. Worse yet, what if I find out that they don’t really love me? Thus, present anxiety; apparently, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Great.

The simple declaration, “Santa loves me!” from the story on the radio reminds me that I truly am loved before I have given or received a single gift. And this is true even if I don’t get the present right, wrap it with sharp corners, or ever make it to the cutting edge of bow fashion. This declaration of love didn’t change my course today. I still went to the store for that last gift, put the package together at the post office, and mailed off my Hanukkah gifts, birthday gift, and the last of the Christmas gifts. But I kept thinking about the junior high algebra teacher. What did I really want to tell to her? I really wanted to communicate appreciation and gratitude, which I could do by writing her a thoughtful note in a holiday card. I decided that’s what I would do for her and anyone else in the junior high and high school who would have a significant impact on my children’s education and lives. This gave me a freeing, peaceful feeling.

Hearing that Santa loves me was the only Christmas gift I needed this year. It was God’s way of telling me that he loves me no matter what, and I really can just relax and be loved.

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blogpic.enoughnessAt the end of a yoga class I attended at a women's retreat last year, the instructor invited us to take a slip of paper from a bowl with wise words for the rest of our day. My wise words still sit on the edge of my bedroom mirror: I am enough. I know enough. I have enough. How would embracing this truth affect my day if I believed it down to my toes and deep in my cells?

The holiday season makes it especially difficult to hang on to this kind of spiritual center. Everywhere we look, drive, walk and engage in daily life, society communicates the opposite message along with a quick, expensive solution to the malady that we are egregiously lacking in so many ways.

The spiritual days of preparation before the birth of Jesus, called Advent, is really designed to re-center us in enoughness. God has come in human form to meet me and enter my life as I am and complete me with love that is enough for eternity. We look to the arc of the future and rest in knowing that Jesus will return to bring this world to its fulfilment in God. No amount of material possessions, social recognition, accomplishments or wealth can offer us this peace; we always need another fix, and another, and another. The trap is that we can never be or have enough of anything in a consumer-driven culture, yet we keep grasping.

Embracing through centering prayer that in God I am enough, I know enough, I have enough, completely changes the energy of my day. I can lay aside anxious seeking and enjoy the multitude of blessings around me. I can love more genuinely, I can act more justly, I can share more freely, I can accept others more openly, I can forgive more readily, I can live more simply--not because I muster it with strained effort, but because God shows through. This Advent, I am praying for the gift of enoughness.

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Unity through Water, Spirit and Fire

blogpic.unityA Sermon preached for Advent 2 on Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

When my son, Jacob was eight years old, he was in the kitchen with me while I was making him a bologna sandwich. He said, If I bought that bologna with my own money, I’d eat it all in one sitting. I responded that this wouldn’t be very good for hi sbody. Without a thought, Jacob quipped, What do I care? The afterlife is right now; the afterlife is the same thing as your first life.
Isaiah says, And a little child shall lead them.

A little child shall lead us because as Jacob demonstrated in that one brief conversation, and as I’m sure you’ve heard from children in your own life, children intuitively understand that all of life is one. They have not yet developed a divided consciousness—an inner self and an outer self, an ego that needs to be defended and preserved, a sense of separation from the physical world and the spiritual world, from this life and eternal life, from us and the “other,” from brown skin and white skin, from humanity and God. The afterlife is right now.

Isaiah holds out for us a vision of complete union in creation—the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls this characteristic of children “unitive consciousness with God”—and it begins to diminish around the first grade as individual awareness increases. This is why in the Catholic tradition, says Rohr, they give them their First Communion in first grade—to repair the breach between them and God, to get them back into the Garden of Eden, into oneness with God, when we all knew and understood that all of life, and creation and all of humanity are One with God.

Isaiah’s vision reveals that the divisions in this world—even in creation—between the predator and the prey, in the earthquake and tsunami, and even in death itself—are a result of the brokenness of sin, a sin and brokenness that permeates and manifests itself in human life through divisions and walls of separation more numerous than we count.

Onto this scene comes John the Baptist in our Gospel reading—he’s as One with Creation as anyone can be who lives in the wilderness of the middle east. He wears and eats and lives wilderness—he’s become one with creation and he sees that the separation and divisions of this world are against God’s purpose and God’s will as does Isaiah.

John’s message of fierce judgment in Matthew calls for humanity to repent of its sin—of its divided state—from God, from each other, and from creation in order to prepare for Jesus’ reign, to prepare for the One who will bring humanity back into unity with God, with each other, and with all of creation.

Perhaps this explains why John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers! For aren’t they the very ones who have structured the divisions and strata of society and claimed it to be by God’s will and design: the clean and the unclean, the Jew and the Gentile, the pure and the impure, those who are righteous and those who are not, those who have made their sacrifices and those who have not.

The religious elites proclaim and enforce the belief that division and separation and oppression and privilege are the very nature of God’s purpose, the very character of holiness, the very order of creation—a structure that always leaves them on top, and so many people divided and oppressed and left out.

Even the apostle Paul in in Romans is struggling against these divisions between Jews and Gentiles in the church in Rome. Paul writes to bring unity in the midst of their cultural, historical, and spiritual differences, Welcome each other as Christ has welcomed you.

John the Baptist gets us ready to welcome Jesus and his kingdom which will bridge the gap between God and us, between us and “them,” between humanity and creation. For Jesus entered the biggest chasm we have—that of death itself and conquered it for all time that we might be made One with God again—that our “unitive consciousness” with God might be restored as our sins and all the divide us are redeemed.

For John, our entrance into this new reality, the unitive reign of God in Jesus Christ, is Baptism. "Repent!” announces John! Change your thinking, let go of your divided mentality, and enter into the unity that Jesus brings—a reign where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the Gentile shall eat with the Jew, the outcast shall worship beside the elite.

Then John lays out a three-fold Baptism to bring us into union with this new reign of Jesus. I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire! Why are we baptized with water, the Holy Spirit and fire?

First, we baptize with water as a sign of “cleansing and rebirth” our baptismal service says. This part we get! The waters of baptism wash away our divided thinking, our old ways of doing things—it cleanses, purifies, and scrubs away the old self. Through water, we enter into the whole body of Christ; it’s not just about me, but we’re all together, floating in the same ocean of living water bound together by Christ himself.

But then John says Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit! The very same Holy Spirit Jesus received in his own baptism! Jesus comes up out of the Jordan river, the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. As the Holy Spirit alights on him, God’s voice from heaven announces, This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Jesus offers us this same gift at our Baptism which we celebrate with two children today. God says to them and us: you are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God views you with favor and delight. God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance.

Have you noticed that the most difficult times we have in living in unity with others, is when we feel unlovable and unworthy and insecure? Have you noticed that the bullies you’ve encountered in life push people away and harm others to hide the truth that they do not feel beloved by God or anyone?

But what happens inside of you when you receive this gift of grace? You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance. It changes everything, doesn’t it? I don’t need to prove myself, to defend my ego, or denigrate others when I receive and accept this gift of grace in my Baptism. It’s why Martin Luther wants us to remind ourselves every day that we’re baptized—that God’s grace and gift of the Holy Spirit is for for me, Linda, by name, and for you Jeff, and for you, Lisa and all of us by name. Such a daily practice can restore that childlike wonder and love, and bring us back to unitive consciousness with God.

Finally, John talks about Baptism by fire! Once we’re cleansed and grasp a new vision, once we’re loved unconditionally, then the real unity comes. Through love, Jesus burns away like chaff that which is not fit for the kingdom of God. And in this Baptism by fire, John foreshadows the risen Lord sending us the fire of Pentecost after the resurrection–remember? Divided tongues as of fire rest on the disciples so that everyone hears the good news being preached in their own language! The baptism by fire at Pentecost burns away divisions and brings all people, all cultures, all nations together hearing the Gospel of Grace in unity with one another. The baptism by fire enables us to see that God creates and loves all people, that Christ came for all nations. Every moment that we live in the union God intends, we are participating in the unitive vision of God spoken by Isaiah and the body of Christ Paul preaches in Romans.

This is the one thing my son Jacob at age 8 didn’t yet understand. When I told him that eating a whole pack of bologna wouldn’t be very good for him, he said, what do I care if this life and the next life are one? He thought that how he behaved now didn’t matter. A little child shall lead us, but it’s our job as the Church, to teach them that how we live now does make a difference—to other people and to God.

In this season of Advent, we prepare not only for the arrival of the babe in Bethlehem, but for Jesus to come again and to bring to fulfilment, our complete union with God, with creation and with all of humanity. And until that day comes, God calls us to be ready when Christ returns, by living in this beloved and baptismal unity here and now. For the afterlife is right now.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.