A Personal God

blogpic.GodsgraceispersonalI was told a wonderful story by Dave, an attendee of a funeral at church the week before Christmas. We had just heard the same passage from John 14 that was read at his own mother’s funeral. At her service when Dave heard the verse, “in my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” his heart fluttered and he wondered why. Later that week, they had cleaned out his mother’s belongings and she had a box with a Bible verse for each day. “My wife and I were miserable,” Dave said. “We were drunk all the time and our life was terrible. I asked her to open the box and read one of the cards; guess which one it was? ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions!’ I thought maybe God was trying to tell me something. I started listening to sermon tapes in the car, and I realized God wanted to have a relationship with me. So, I got sober and it changed my life.”

How is God personally communicating and reaching out to you? In the flurry of making (or avoiding) New Year’s resolutions, I wonder how our life would change if we simply paid attention to how God is showing up in our daily life—a resolution to slow down and ponder rather than to try harder to whip ourselves into shape. Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin said God met him while he was watching PBS after terrible day. In an interview with Krista Tippett he said, “And that’s where God met me. Because that’s where I was.” In his novel, The Abbey, Fr. Martin writes, “In one person God might work through a close relationship, in another through a book, in another through prayer, in others through music, nature, dance, children, coworkers or art.”

God meets us personally, where we are. My prayer for 2017 is that like Dave and Fr. Martin, I will have the eyes to notice and the heart open to being changed.

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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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Enoughness

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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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.

 

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