Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Conflicted Christmas Message

All seven of us were sitting around the dinner table for once this week. Yes, I even cooked. Sensing the opportunity to do some 'meaningful' teaching, I asked the kids the mother of all leading questions: "What is your favorite part of Christmas?" Duh.

"Gifts! Presents!" shouts Ethan, 6. Just as quickly he gasps and squishes up his face and yells "God! It's Jesus' birth." He spits it out as if he's answering the final Jeopardy question and wants to quickly answer before the theme music stops and he is disqualified.

His reaction reminded me of my conflicting attitude toward God, like the odd, young boy, Ruller, in The Turkey. In Flannery O'Connor's short story the anti-hero is a young boy who, not one to taste success, finds a turkey in the woods. Sensing the blessing of God he proudly marches through town like a war hero, wondering who he might in turn, bless with his own generosity. When Ruller is stopped by some country boys and the turkey is stolen his own low self image is verified and he again slinks back into the sorrowful existence that began both his day and his life.

Ruller stands and watches the boys take his turkey until he suddenly realizes that it's now dark and he begins to run toward home. O'Connor ends the story with these words, "He ran faster and faster and as he turned up the road to his house, his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch."

What a weird perception of God-that he is fickle, unpredictable and will take away as quickly as he gives. This perception seems to be compounded around the holidays. If you have a lot of loot; God likes you. If you don't, you've done something wrong. It's kinda like God is a year-round Santa Claus with an everlasting naughty and nice list.

In Abbas Child by Brennan Manning he writes "...Our God, it seems, is One who benevolently gives turkeys and capriciously takes them away. When He gives them, it signals His interest in and pleasure with us...When He takes them away, it signals His displeasure and rejection."

It's as if I have something good and fun and delightful, but look around the corner just to make sure God doesn't see me having fun. I know all the Sunday School answers. I was raised an evangelical poster child. I know flannel graph Jesus, the one who sticks to the board wearing the flowing robes and full beard.

Sometimes God seems just like that. Like he's either lurking, waiting for me to slip up so he can take away all the good things in life, or, like a pretend image that sticks to felt.

Songwriter Rich Mullins wrote a song called Hard to Get, which I relate to often. Sometimes God is hard to get.

<blockquote>You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret

I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get.

Sometimes Christmas makes me think, why do we celebrate what we don't understand? Are we really happily celebrating the birth of a Savior or dutifully doing so to avoid 'Something Awful'?

Fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, "Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling doesn't not hinder him in loving us."

Somewhere in the layers of anxiety, self loathing, depression, narcissism and shame, my soul can hear the words from God:

"Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you, I have called your name, you are Mine. You are precious in My eyes because you are honored and I love you...the mountains may depart, the hills be shaken, but my love for you will never leave you and my covenant of peace with you will never be shaken." (Isaiah 43:1,4:54:10).

Perhaps we understand more than we think we do or even want to admit. And celebrating just the holiday without the holy day is an insult.

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