Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Do Not Fear

Yesterday I had the pleasure to participate in a memorial service.  I have done that probably a thousand times.  Many times I officiate the entire service.  Sometimes, like yesterday, I only give guidance to portions of the service.  I cannot remember a memorial service or funeral where I am not very conscious of the fact a human being died in order for us to be gathering in his or her memory.          

The man being remembered and honored yesterday was a person I never met.  I know his son and it was through this connection, I was asked to participate in the service.  I was happy to do so.  My feeling is we never know when an act of kindness or some ministry will bear fruit that is significant in some way.  So I did my part in honor of a person whom I never met.           

However, I never mind participating in a service like this, even if I don’t know the guy or gal.  This guy was a real human being.  He had lived for some eighty years.  Since I know his son and, assume rightly or wrongly, that some of the deceased shows up in the son, I felt like I had some sense of him.  It was interesting to hear the son and another brother say some things about their dad.  By the end of an hour, I felt like I had come to know the old guy a little bit!           

Authentic memorial stories are engaging because they are full of stories.  After all, that is the essence of human living: we are story creators!  Clearly some stories are more interesting than other stories.  Some of us lead more or less interesting lives than other folks.  When I am in these kinds of situations, my mind sometimes drifts off wondering what kind of stories am I creating?  Maybe it would be fun to be conscious somehow and present at our own memorial service!           

One thing that did emerge in the words about the deceased was the fact he was religious.  That intrigued me.  It made me aware of how I make all sorts of assumptions based on some flimsy suspicion.  The son is not overtly religious.  So there was nothing in my very limited context that would suggest his dad would have been religious.  Again, this only serves to underscore how stupid I can be!           

At one point in the sharing, it was noted that the deceased really liked reading and pondering the Bible.  Someone said the dead man’s favorite verse was “do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isa. 41:10)  As I sat listening to this verse being read, I recognized its familiarity.  In the moment, I am not sure I could have told you where in the Bible it could be found.  I knew it probably was from the Psalms or, perhaps, one of the major Old Testament prophets.           

When I had time, I looked it up.  I was on the right track.  The verse is from the great prophet, Isaiah.  The middle section of Isaiah is addressed to a people in exile.  They have been under duress and some of the folks, no doubt, were questioning the God in whom they believed.  So it is with many of us in our own lifetimes.  When things are going badly, we might wonder just where is this God who loves us?  That is when the words from the prophet speaking on God’s behalf meet us in our pain.           

Do not fear, says the Holy One.  Don’t fear because I am with you.  That always brings solace to my life.  I like hearing and being reminded of this.  I would love to know how the deceased man understood this passage?  Why was it so important to him?  I can only guess.  But my best guess is the passage can be read both as assurance and as promise.  It is assuring to be told and reminded that God is with us.  Since God is Spirit, it is difficult sometimes to know just how God is present.  I have no easy answers here.  One thing I am sure, however, is that God often is present in and through others.  And this God promises us.  Maybe all of us who want to be ministers of God can see ourselves as the promise-keepers of the Holy One!           

When God promises to be present, we can be the agents and instruments of that abiding presence.  That is a powerful, privileged calling.  Maybe that is what I was doing in my presence at the memorial service!  When God says later in that verse that God will strengthen and help us, we again are given no specifics as to how this is done.  I wonder what the deceased man thought about that particular piece of God’s promise?           

Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if you and I cannot be part of the strengthening and helping presence of God.  I recall the words of Jesus who said something like, if you feed one of these, you have done it for me.  If you offer clothes to one of the needy, you have done it for me.  Maybe, just maybe, we are part of the victorious right hand of God!           

I did not go to the memorial service yesterday to become a biblical scholar and theologian.  I went out of care for a dead guy’s son.  I went to offer a bit of ministry and, in turn, I was ministered to.  I was willing to give and, in return, was given something.  I don’t know that I have a favorite verse of the Bible.  But maybe I was given one yesterday: do not fear! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Contemplative Living

I participate in some forms of social media, although I have not yet become a Facebook follower.  That clearly means I am not all in!  But I do think there is a role for social media.  One of the roles I see for myself is social media provides one more outlet for me to share some spiritual nuggets that students, especially, would not get.  That may sound arrogant, but there are quite a few folks from my university that read the thing just because I am writing it.  The numbers are not huge, but Jesus only managed a few followers!  I am in good company.           

The other thing that participating in social media affords is a chance to keep thinking about life and how to make the most sense out of it.  I grant that so much of the stuff that appears via social media---Facebook, Twitter and the rest---is not profound in any sense.  Much of it is technological chitchat.  I am not sure it is much different than what I heard my grandparents doing as they were sitting on the porch swing talking about the neighbors or sharing some kind of gossip about their circle of friends.           

Yesterday I sent out a little message that I thought I would share again and take the opportunity to develop it a little more.  If you are on Twitter, for example, you can only have 140 characters---and that counts spaces between words.  So this is the message I sent yesterday.  “To live contemplatively is to live with sufficient awareness that you can appreciate everything that comes; the good and to learn from the bad.”  As I re-read that, I still believe it!  Allow me to elaborate.           

I am very interested in contemplation---contemplative living.  As a young Quaker, I never heard the word and would have had no clue what it meant.  Today in spiritual circles, it has become a fairly popular word.  Certainly within Christianity there is a contemplative tradition that goes all the way back to Christian origins.  But it is not solely a Christian thing.  It is fair to claim that every major religious tradition has a contemplative aspect to it---if not a whole group of people who would call themselves contemplative.           

One simple understanding I have of contemplation is to understand it as living in the Presence of God.  Of course, that is clear and, yet, it is so general that it does not offer much substance.  I can be asked how I understand “the Presence of God?”  That is a good, fair question, but it is really a theological question.  For me God is love.  God is compassion for me, for you and for the world.  To live in the Presence of that God is to live in love.  It is to act because of that love.  Simply put, it is to love and be loving.           

This requires a degree of awareness---awareness of myself and of the loving God.  It is amazing to me how much of life I can live unaware.  To use an old analogy, it is like driving down the interstate.  At some point, you realize you have gone for miles, but you have no awareness or memory of the trip.  Life can be like that!  So awareness is key to contemplative living.           

We need sufficient awareness to appreciate things.  I am not sure it is possible to appreciate anything unless we are aware of it.  This is where my little message on social media was, perhaps, surprising and nuanced.  The surprising thing in the message is the suggestion that we should appreciate everything---and that includes the good and not-so-good.  This is rather bold.  Most folks are happy to appreciate the good things in life.  We appreciate gifts and other goodies that enhance well-being and our happiness.           

But who in their right mind, I could be asked, would suggest appreciating even the bad?  On the surface that might be what it looks like I said.  But if you look closer at the social media message, I actually say to appreciate what we can learn from the bad.  I am not for anyone receiving anything bad.  I don’t appreciate the bad---certainly not evil.  But I also think that most of us live long enough that we will have some bad come our way.           

I remember when I was diagnosed with cancer.  That certainly was not good.  I did not think it was good and no one I knew thought it was good.  But at the same time, I did think I could learn from the experience.  And I am convinced I have learned.  Finally, I appreciate what I have learned from that experience.           

It enabled me to grow and deepen as a spiritual human being.  I suppose I could have done that in other ways, but I am not sure I could have experienced the depth of growth and deepening that came with a bad spot in my life.  I do appreciate the learning.  By the way I do not sit here hoping for more bad stuff in my life in order to learn more!          

It is worthwhile to have more space to elaborate the short message I sent out earlier.  It helps me clarify how I understand myself, my God, my life and the world in which I live.  I laugh.  That would be really difficult to do in 140 characters!  I can say in a few words what contemplative living is.  But I have to live it day by day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Five Gifts

I realized some years ago that I actually receive many more gifts than I ever would have thought.  I realized this when I changed the way I perceive gifts.  As a young boy I certainly thought about gifts in materialistic terms.  That is why birthdays and Christmas are such wonderful events.  People are obligated to give you things!  Of course, the reverse is also true.  On those two occasions I am also obligated to give others some gifts.           

Of course, material gifts count.  I have had some fantastic gifts over the course of my life.  A new baseball mitt that I received in my early youth was about the best gift a kid could have received.  Like me, I am sure you have received many gifts during your life.  Some were likely fairly expensive and others cost hardly any money.  In fact, some of the most touching gifts I have received have come from natural resources and may not have cost any money.  I think of flowers, for instance.           

I am not sure at what age I began to change my view on gifts.  I began to see that some of the most valuable gifts I was given were not materialistic---there was no “thing” that someone gave me.  I am sure I had been given these gifts all my life, but I had not recognized them as such.  I was reminded of this yesterday.             

I got an email from a friend who sent me a link in the email.  He said I would probably enjoy the sentiments in the email.  So I clicked the link and recognized the name of the person who had written a short article for the Huffington Post.  I follow this website of blogs, so I went to the one my friend wanted me to read.  It was by Karen M. Wyatt.            

Wyatt is a family physician and for twenty-five years a hospice medical director.  She has written quite a bit on end of life issues.  I like the things she writes.  So in a sense this was another one of those non-material gifts.  And it provoked me to think about writing this inspirational piece on gifts.  The title of her blog is “5 Gifts to Give Yourself This Holiday Season.”  So now you see why I am writing on gifts!           

When we are given neat gifts, it seems appropriate to share those.  And so I do share these five gifts that Wyatt describes.  While a couple of them involved material things, the gift itself is not material, as you soon will see.             

The first gift Wyatt introduces is “the gift of solitude.”  Of all the gifts she enumerates, this is the one I think I understand and appreciate the most.  I know how important some times of solitude are for me.  Solitude is a necessity for my spiritual well being.  And it becomes especially so during holiday times and other busy seasons of my life.  Treat yourself to some solitude, too.           

The second gift Wyatt discusses is “the gift of spontaneity.”  I don’t think I do this one as well as the first one, solitude.  Spontaneity is taking those opportunities to do the unusual.  It might be going to church if you usually don’t do that.  It could mean hooking up with someone you always wanted to spend some time with, but never made the connection.  There are a zillion ways to be spontaneous, but it is nothing until we do it.           

Wyatt brings into the discussion the third gift, namely, “the gift of wisdom.”  This one is important to me and is a big piece of what I would mean by contemplative living.  It means spending time with the wise people you know and the sages of history---long dead, but living through their writings.  Wyatt cites the medieval figure, Rumi, one of my favorites, too.  Personally, I also think about Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich and the Buddha.  This could be a profound gift for you.           

The fourth gift Wyatt tells us to get is “the gift of hunger.”  Now this one may seem really odd.  It sounds like fasting and, indeed, it is a kind of minor fast.  During holidays and special times, Wyatt notes, we may err on the side of gluttony.  We eat too much; we lose our sense of moderation.  So, she councils us, we can fast from one meal.  Allow yourself to experience a little hunger.  It is fascinating to see this kind of hunger as a gift!           

The last gift she describes is really interesting to me.  She tells us to give ourselves “the gift of stars.”  I had to laugh.  When some folks read this, I could imagine they conjure up Hollywood stars or star athletes!  Maybe those are the only stars some folks can imagine seeing.  To the contrary, Wyatt means the real stars---those things far up in the sky, quite visible on a clear night.           

Take yourself outside and look up.  Lie on the ground and stare at the heavens.  Enjoy the free gift of beauty.  Nature is a wonderful source and resource of spiritual revelation.  Allow the stars to expand your world.  Let your tiny, little world become blown up to cosmic proportions.  Imagine the stars as God’s wink to you!           

Inevitably most of us are pretty lucky.  We will be given all sorts of gifts in the holiday season and on our birthday.  There is nothing wrong with this.  But they are not inherently spiritual gifts.  Do yourself a favor and give yourself one or more of these spiritual gifts, too.  You’ll be blessed.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Take Care

I would have no idea how many times I have told people, “take care.”  And I am sure there are just as many people out there who have said the same thing to me: “take care.”  It is very much like the phrase, “how’s it going?”  Most of the time I hear someone ask me that question, I assume it is not a real question.  It is a figure of speech---something we likely are to say to someone we know as we pass him or her on the street or in the hallway.           

I am not against this act of cordiality.  I just don’t assume it means much more than that---people being cordial to one another.  It is an extended form of “hi.”  It is not a negative thing and I am not complaining.  In fact, I know the two phrases can become quite meaningful with the right kind of eye contact or voice inflection.  If I actually stop, look someone in the eyes and ask, “how are you,” with the right kind of voice, I am sure there will be an honest answer.          

And if I look at someone a bit more intently and say, “take care,” I am convinced that other person will receive those two words with some impact.  Intellectually I know that the language of “care” is really the language of love.  Of course, it is not the passion of romantic love, although care is a part of that too.  Caring is an encompassing, public kind of love.  I can care about multiple people out in public and that is perfectly acceptable.           

I was prompted to think about this when I was re-reading a section of the book, The Active Life, by my friend, Parker Palmer.  Palmer is a fellow Quaker and has been a friend for decades now.  His insights about care struck me a profound.  I would like to share a couple lines from that book and, then, reflect a little on what it means to me.           

Palmer says, “Caring is also action freely chosen.  But in caring we aim not at giving birth to something new; we aim at nurturing, protecting, guiding, healing, or empowering something that already has life.”  I agree with the first point Palmer makes, namely, caring is an issue of my free choice.  This means I can never be forced to care.  I could be forced to pretend to care.  Our society does this all too often.  I can fake care.  But there is no heart in that.           

Authentic care has heart in it.  That is because authentic care---real caring---is a love word and love is from the heart.  This becomes clear when we look at the rest of the Palmer quotation.  Interestingly, Parker says that caring does not give birth to something new.  Caring is about that which already exists.  I can care about other people.  I can care for nature---for our environment.  I like how Palmer details authentic caring.          

I like the five words he uses to detail the act of caring.  Caring is nurturing.  Probably, the ultimate experience of that is maternal caring.  I suppose all of us from time to time just want our mothers!  Nurturing care always seems like care that holds and nestles us in loving arms.           

Secondly, Palmer says that caring is protecting.  I think about the passage from the Old Testament where God is imaged as a mother hen and we gather under the protective wings of that divine chicken!  God protects.  Caring offers safety.  No human gets too old or to0 independent not to need this kind of caring.           

Thirdly, Palmer rightly notes that caring guides us.  I think about the care parents have for their children.  I watch my daughter take care to teach her little one how to go down the stairs.  She is offering to him a form of guiding care that is, at the same time, protective.   

In the fourth place, Palmer talks about caring as healing.  I suspect this is one aspect of caring that many of us would not have thought about.  When you think about it, however, caring is healing.  To care never intends to hurt.  In fact, it is when we are hurting that some form of care is so welcome.  No doubt a huge amount of the caring that goes on in our world is some form of healing care.  Think about all the work that nurses and others in the healing professions do on a daily basis.  Simply put, they care. 

Finally, Palmer talks about caring as empowering.  This is huge.  Too many folks in our world are marginalized and rendered impotent because no one cares.  And this can lead the people themselves not even to care about themselves.  Too often, folks don’t feel like they deserve to cared about or cared for. They lack a sense of their basic human dignity. 

This brings me back to spirituality and my own sense of the Holy One.  In my theology God is the ultimate caregiver---the ultimate Lover in the world.  We were created in the image of the divinity.  Based on this, we all have some form of divine dignity.  This means we should never care less.  And certainly, we should not be careless!  Simply put: take care!   

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sacrificial Love

The story in the article began with an engaging interaction.  “A parishioner walks up to her pastor and says, ‘I want to give you my kidney.’  Pastor smiles and says, ‘OK.’  Don't expect a punch line.  It's no joke.”  The story comes from an encounter in a Roman Catholic Church in West Simsbury, CT---St. Catherine of Sienna Parish.  Father Michael Whyte arrived as parish priest in 2008.  Due to diabetes and other complicating factors, he was in need of a new kidney.  One day at Mass he let the parishioners know he was on a waiting list.

This is a sad story, but certainly not a unique story.  Fr. Whyte has an advantage because he could assume people would care about him.  We all know there are many people in the world in need of something and no one cares.  That is always tragic.  Fr. Whyte would not have been surprised that many within the church offered to get tested to see if they were a match.

The story gets interesting when Margaret Domashinski enters the picture.  She belonged to St. Catherine and we read that she “already knew she would be the one.”  She is quoted: “I knew I was a match.”  She adds for good measure, “I know that sounds kind of spooky, but it’s true.  I knew.”  Asked why she would even think about doing it, she replied in a matter-of-fact manner.  “He needed a transplant. He needed a kidney.”

I had to smile.  Had I asked her that, I could imagine she would look at me like I was dense or stupid!  She does it because he needs a kidney.  Any dummy should be able to understand that.  And of course, I do understand it.  What I am slow to understand are all the spiritual lessons being taught in this story.  She is giving us an advance course on sacrificial giving---sacrificial love.  And because I still have too much self-interest, it is difficult for me to fathom this kind of action.

Of course, I know the story of Jesus and his sacrificial love.  Because I know that story so well, at one level it does not seem very real.  After all, for many people he was a savior.  Of course, saviors do that for people.  But not someone with my name or the name of Margaret Domashinski!

The story continues its unbelievable message.  Margaret did give her kidney and Fr. Whyte did have the transplant.  When asked about his perspective, he is as nearly flummoxed as I was.  He could not believe she did it.  He said she offered it “like it was a doughnut.”  The transplant went well.  Apparently he was healthy enough to celebrate Mass soon after that.  And of course, Margaret was right up front.

I loved her line: “And I was sitting in front saying, 'Yeah, that's mine! You'll get 30 years out of it!”  The priest is doing very well.  Of course, no one is worrying about Margaret Domashinski!  There are so many ways to read this story.  In one way I see it as a challenge.  It is a challenge to me because I don’t think I am capable of love at that level.  Talking about love like this is easy.  Having to act lovingly like this would be a showstopper for most of us.  It makes someone like Margaret very intriguing.  What does she have that I don’t.  I am not jealous; I am intrigued.

 An obvious question is why would Margaret be willing to do this good act?  Many of us would find it a bit easier to understand if it were her own kid or maybe some other family member.  But a priest?  Even if she liked him a great deal?  It seems apparent to me the only answer is love---sacrificial love in this case.  It is a heroic act.  For sure, she is not giving her life.  But she does have to go through surgery and recover.  She is giving up one kidney and now is one kidney away from her own problem.  There are so many human, rational ways to see this as an almost superhuman act.

The only other way I can see it and understand it is as a spiritual action.  She has such a sense of her own dignity as a child of God and the priest’s dignity as a child of God, too, that she apparently cannot imagine not doing it.  When asked why she would consider it, her answer was almost funny.  Her upbringing shaped her.  She said she learned, “You're not here just to be a piece of furniture.”  Now that makes sense to me!  I agree that I am not here on earth to be a piece of furniture either.

Put in spiritual terms, we are children of God and we are put here on earth to do God’s work.  Surely a central facet of that divine work is love.  We were loved into being and we are supposed to love---to love God, ourselves and others.  If someone needs a kidney and we have two, why not share one of ours?  The question is simple; she saw it and did it. 

I like Fr. Whyte’s comment to her: “So this is really a miracle. It's a gift of life.”  Maybe that says it all.  Love always gives life---it creates life and re-creates life.  Love is constructive.  And the highest kind of love we can offer is sacrificial love.  Clearly for Christians this is precisely the story of Jesus.  And now that I know about Margaret Domashinski, that is her story too.    

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Life on the Treadmill

It was just an ordinary day.  I like to exercise in the late afternoon.  I think this probably goes back to my athletic days---maybe all the way back to high school.  First one spent the day in classes.  Then when school was out, we headed to practice.  In the spring and summer it was baseball.  In the winter we played basketball.  I liked the rhythm of the day---work and then play.  That still is a preferred rhythm for me today.

Certainly, my athletic days are over.  I have good memories.  Of course, my memories are probably evidence of my creative imagination!  As I tell the stories today, I ran faster, threw harder and was much more unstoppable on the basketball floor than was actually the case.  By now---as I remember it---I was nearly all-American in everything I did!

And so I headed to the treadmill.  I don’t like doing the treadmill.  I still prefer a run or walk outside.  Or if I can’t do that, I still prefer running or walking on the track.  But sometimes the treadmill is my only option.  So I climb aboard.  I set the controls---easy at first and then increasingly faster and harder.  The recreational center where I do it has televisions in front of the machine.  I am too old-fashioned; I hate the tvs!  And I do not use headphones, iPod or anything else.  I use my time exercising as a time for some reflection and mindless daydreaming.

The treadmill drones on.  My mind was bouncing from idea to idea.  There was no real focus.  And then, I began to notice there was a theme emerging and I grasped that it had some spiritual intent.  I am sure many people before me have used the image of a treadmill to talk about life.  And I am also sure that the treadmill image is usually negative.

In this moment, however, the treadmill image has some positive overtones.  Of course, central to the treadmill image as life is the incessant movement.  Just as the treadmill keeps rolling, so do the days of our life---mile after mile, day after day.  This is often portrayed negatively, but I like a positive spin.  Negatively, the treadmill image suggests our stuckness.  We are caught up in the movement, but going nowhere.  We can’t get off---it can’t be stopped.

But positively, the treadmill is carrying us to health and well-being.  Literally, movement is good for the heart.  And certainly, exercise is beneficial to my emotional and spiritual health.  When I exercise, I am much less grumpy.  It is easier to see the bright side of life.  I sense possibilities instead of pessimism.  The treadmill is a conduit to good health---emotional, physical and spiritual.

My treadmill has features, just like most of our lives.  My treadmill can be adjusted for speed and incline.  It only goes one speed if you are willing to leave it set at one speed.  But you can go faster or slower.  You can leave the walk at one level or you can build in hills.  In this it seems to mimic life.  Only in life we do not always control the variables.  The great thing about a treadmill is we control many things.  In fact, when we have had it, we can push the “stop” button and the whole thing comes to a halt. 
Spiritually speaking, I think there are again significant similarities.  I think we are more in control of our lives than many of us think.  Some folks, no doubt, feel like they are stuck on that proverbial negative treadmill of life.  But it simply is not true.  Let’s explore a few places where we do have some control.

We don’t have total control over the speed of our lives.  But we do have quite a bit of control over how “fast” life goes.  To exercise this control, we need to be aware.  If we are aware of how we are living life, we have some choices about adjusting things.  If it feels too fast, we can slow it down in many ways.  For example, we might choose to take some time during our day simply to reflect on things.  So many of us live our lives in front of television or with iPod, iPad or iPhone in place---in our ear or hand.  These have a treadmill effect on life.

We can slow things down by spending some time in prayer or meditation.  Maybe we can opt for some yoga.  Perhaps it is a long walk in the woods.  All of these alter the normal “treadmill pace” of our lives.  We bring some balance and restorative effects into our life.  These are healthy---emotionally, physically and spiritually.

We can also increase the incline of life.  We can study or do a retreat or opt for some kind of course.  We can add some intensity to our spiritual life workout that likely increases our spiritual health and well-being.  We can do all this without worry.  If we are aware, our lives usually have a “stop” button, too.  We can take time off or, even, time out. 

I like the image of a treadmill of life.  It is not a place of stuckness, but a place of choice.  It sees the treadmill of life as a place of spiritual exercise.  All I have to do us use it wisely.  It is the life-way to health, not sickness.  It is a life-way of freedom, not bondage.  It leads to a long, good life. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

God is Not Santa Claus

As the Christmas season comes round, I am reminded of a one-liner I heard one day while listening to a lecture by Richard Rohr.  Rohr is one of my favorites.  He has a way of saying some very significant things, but often with a twist of humor.  No doubt, this is what endears him to so many people.  And it is also probably why some folks, particularly some Roman Catholics, find him troubling and wish he would quit speaking and writing. 

The line I wrote down, as Rohr was speaking, went like this.  “The operative image of God is Santa Claus!”  Of course, this line is basically about God and not Santa Claus.  Rohr is offering a theological look into his own mind.  It is not a comment on Santa Claus.  In this instance Santa is an image or a symbol.  Let’s look more closely at Rohr’s theology to see if it makes sense in our own lives.  

Clearly not everyone has the same idea with respect to Santa Claus.  However when Rohr uses the Santa Claus image, he is making an assumption that there is a common cultural meaning for that Christmas figure.  Santa Claus is the one who comes at Christmas Eve and brings gifts to all of us.  At least, Santa brings gifts to all those who have been nice, as the song goes.  As for the naughty ones, who knows?

Everyone’s hope is that Santa Claus brings us exactly what we want.  Part of me actually wishes there was a real Santa Claus.  That way I would not have to go to the mall after first contending with the traffic and the crowds.  So often I go in search of the gift that someone might not really want.  I never thought there is that “perfect” gift for the people in my life.  Maybe I have been a lousy Santa Claus!

When I go to the malls, frequently I spy some guy (usually guys) dressed up in the red suit and wearing the absurd white beard.  On most days the Santa is surrounded by droves of kids.  Anyone who knows anything knows that kids in droves are like dynamite waiting for the proverbial match!  Too often the Santa promises things that might not materialize on the expectant morning. 

It would be easy to assume the gifts that Santa brings are comparable to God’s grace.  But this is precisely why I think Rohr is voicing objection.  I have no problem with gifts.  I have received many great gifts in my lifetime.  I appreciate what many different people have done for me when it comes to gift giving.  And some of the coolest gifts have been things I did not ask for and were really surprises.  But these kinds of gifts are not the same thing as God’s grace. 

Let’s turn from Santa Claus to God.  I don’t know where Santa found all those gifts that he brought on the sleigh.  But I do know the source of God’s gifts.  That source is the love God has…or, perhaps better, that love that God is.  I like the New Testament passage that says, “God is love.”  Love is the very essence of God.  God’s identity is love.  This means that God can be nothing but love.  And God can do nothing but love.  In this sense, God cannot help but love us.  And God loves even those of us who do not deserve love.  

That is a good definition of grace.  Indeed, the idea of “grace” means “gift.”  Grace is always a gift.  But it is not Christmas gifts.  Grace is a gift from God or one of God’s children when we really don’t deserve the gift.  And this gift of grace is always rooted in love.  A spirituality writer that I like says that grace is the flowering of love.  And love is the root of grace. 

This understanding of grace is far from the sometimes superficial request to “say grace” at a meal.  I am not again a prayer at meal times.  In fact, I think it can be a good idea.  It is good to be thankful to God and the cooks for the meal at hand.  But grace is far more than a few words muttered over the meat!   

God is not Santa Claus.  Santa Claus is a one-time actor.  He appears dutifully on December 24, never to be mentioned again until time for the next annual appearance.  For those of us who hope for the love of God and the grace of God in our lives are sure hoping for someone “on duty” more than one day of the 365 days in a year!  We need a present God---not a red-suited bearer of presents.

The clincher for me is the fact that I could sign on to be the Santa Claus at the local mall.  All I need to do is agree to put on the costume and be willing to entertain the drone of kids who all want something.  But there is no way I can be God or even become God. 

The best I can do is try to become God-like.  I also can learn to be loving.  I can become willing to be gracious---gracious to others and, sometimes even, to myself.  If I allow myself to be a vessel of the Spirit, then I can even be the presence of the Presence.  God is not Santa Claus…and neither am I!