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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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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Winning the World with Love

blogpic.KingLoveA Sermon preached on Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016

The difficulty in celebrating Jesus Christ as our King today, and every year, for that matter, is that after 2 millennia, Christians the globe over still find Jesus’ style of leadership nearly impossible to follow.

This passage from Luke offers us two kinds of kingship—two kinds of power and authority, two kinds of kingdoms, and we often find it’s easier to side with the crucifiers rather than the crucified.

The leaders, soldiers, one of the criminals and the standers-by give voice to Herod’s kingdom. In the verses earlier in chapter 23 of Luke, both Herod and Pilate have found that Jesus has done nothing wrong, yet the truth seems irrelevant in a culture where wielding power over others is the ultimate god. “Save yourself!” shouted the soldiers, leaders and on-lookers. “save yourself and us!” implores the criminal hanging beside him. “Look out for #1 and use force, use might, use power over others by any means necessary to win the day!”

Jesus, hanging on the cross, brings us a different kind of kingdom. “Father, forgive them for they do not what they are doing.” Instead of fighting and resisting, Jesus takes on the violence, he absorbs it rather than giving it back. Jesus takes in all the pain and returns love. In Jesus kingdom, he reigns from a cross rather than a palace; he forgives the people who killed him, his only weapon is love rather than might, and he saves criminals and brings them to paradise. Rather than power over others, he embodies an equalizing power beside others—beside all the other innocents who suffer unjustly.

Herod uses violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nationality. Jesus' sets aside the sword and instead invites all people, even enemies, into a new way of being.

Herod’s authority comes from the will of Caesar, the emperor, and it’s always tenuous. Jesus' authority comes from doing the will of God, which is constant and eternal.

Herod taxes the poor, takes what is not his, oppresses the vulnerable, and demonizes those who threaten his power. Herod has no interest in building community - much less one guided by truth and love, and Herod keeps order through fear--through the threat of death on a cross or otherwise. Again, by contrast, Jesus’ ministry has been a traveling parade of love, healing, renewal, second chances, beatitudes and bread – lots of bread to feed thousands and thousands of people. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers leap for joy, the demon-possessed dance with praise. Jesus enters peoples’ suffering, sees their humanity, empowers those he meets with forgiveness and love.

Yet when his kingdom leads to the cross—we’re not so sure we want to follow Jesus’ reign as king there. There’s a fearful part of us that wants the same kind of king as the crowds, leaders, and soldiers that believe that Herod’s kingdom is the only way – we want someone who is powerful, who can save himself and us, and who will take vengeance on his and our enemies.

But Christ our King, looks at us from the cross and asks, which kingdom will you follow?
• When white supremacist views regain currency in our national conversation and leadership, who’s kingdom are we listening to—Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we view our political enemies as a “basket of deplorables” who’s kingdom are we voicing —Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we’re tempted to demonize Muslims or immigrants out of our own fear and prejudice, who’s kingdom is gaining power, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we see acts of terrorism that continue around the world, we do want to give into fear, to close our borders, to increase military action abroad, use drones and every kind of fire power against our enemy, but who’s kingdom does such action follow, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?

We bring our cries and prayers before God today and we ask for the power and wisdom of our risen Lord and King to help us tease out the differences between what our fear want us to do and what our faith in Jesus Christ calls us to do.

The great sin of American Christianity has been to merge our patriotism with our Christian calling in the world, but Luke makes clear that these are often not one in the same. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to lift up Jesus Christ as King than after this election. For there is no political party, no candidate, and no government that embodies nor deserves our loyalty above Jesus Christ our Lord.

For all violence, whether wrought by terrorists, nations, or individuals, is the way of Herod which never leads to a crown of righteousness, a kingdom, and a power that is true and everlasting.

All rhetoric that divides and demeans people whether spoken by a political candidate, a family member across the Thanksgiving table, or a social media platform, is the way of Herod and not the way of the cross.

Mahatma Ghandi said it this way: “The enemy of love is not hate, but fear.” In fact, there are 365 “Fear nots” in the Bible – one for every day of the year. Fear is fundamental in our drive to follow Herod’s way and save ourselves, rather than Jesus’s way of forgiveness, transformation through love and care for those on the margins of society.

It does not mean that we don’t need compassionate screening at our borders, or economic policies that produce jobs. But as Christians, we must call to account, manipulation through fear-mongering, demeaning and endangering people by fostering hate, and unethical, inhumane policies that result from fear.

Jesus did not let fear, the threat of violence, or the pain of death put a stop to his love, compassion, and solidarity with God’s people. He transformed fear into love, and death into life, and violence into victory. Through his resurrection from the dead, he slipped the surly bonds of earth so we can all touch the face of God. Jesus’ kingdom is so powerful that it bridges this life and the next life, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, the finitude of this world and the infinity of the next.

We don’t need to save ourselves, because Jesus has already done so! Herod’s kingdom tempts us to seek through violence that which we already have—salvation!

To the criminal hanging next to him, Jesus says: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Today, not tomorrow, not next week, not when the kingdom comes in its fulfillment, not at the apocalypse, not when the Herod’s of the world give up. Today. Today you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus says the same to us--"Today, you’re sins are forgiven. Today, this is my body and this is my blood given for you. Today, I am with you. Today, my love is stronger than death. Today my power is greater than your fear. Today my kingdom is greater than this earthly realm." Today, Jesus calls us to live in this eternal kingdom here and now, as a witness against the “Herods” and “fear-mongers” of this time.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and The Spiritual Exercises, describes Jesus’ call from the cross in this way: It is my will to win over the whole world, to overcome evil with good, to turn hatred aside with love, to conquer all the forces of death—and whatever obstacles there are that block the sharing of life between God and humankind. Whoever wishes to join me in this mission must be willing to labor with me and so by following me in struggling and suffering, that you may share with me in glory. (A contemporary interpretation by David L. Fleming, S.J. in Draw Me Into Your Friendship, p. 85)

Jesus, risen from the dead calls us to join him in winning over the whole world with love. A friend of mine has a son who works as a high school counselor. The day after election, he texted his mom in the morning to say it was a terrible day already because white students were bullying minority students. He had a Latino student in his office in tears because students were saying he would be deported. At the end of the day, he communicated with her again and said it had turned out to be a good day. He was able to talk with the bullies and the victims and was able to begin to transform hate and pain into respect and healing. In other words, he was working in Jesus’ kingdom to win over the day with love.

So be filled with Jesus love at the Communion table today, and at your own table every day. Embody Jesus’ kingdom in your daily life, your daily conversations, in your daily actions and your daily work by being grounded in Jesus’ love and salvation for you, grounded in God’s love for this whole Creation and for every person it; and trusting that through Christ, all things are possible.

That’s what Jesus, our King desires; and it’s absolutely what our country and world needs.

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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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