Creating Santa in God’s Image

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The way we characterize Santa Claus with our children reflects our image of God. The Santa we create for our children mirrors how we perceive God.

 

This was manifest for me in two recent exchanges with my regular grocery cashier. In the first, she joked about the toughness of my job as a local pastor. “You’ve got a tough boss to please,” she kidded me. A few days later we were talking about her three-year-old’s behavior. “She’s behaving better because she’s afraid Santa won’t bring her anything. I think I freaked her out last night, though. I told her the elf-on-the-shelf I put over her bed was telling Santa all the bad things she’s done.”  Indeed, in a photo the mother shared of her daughter’s rigid body and suspicious eyes posing beside Santa’s spying Elf  looked to me like a child frightened of an invisible deity.

Leaving with my carrots, grapes, and potatoes I thought about the presentation of Santa Claus as the arbiter of childhood justice. Many adults create an image of Santa of a magical being focused on judging naughty or nice. They use him as a threat to get compliance from children. “You better behave or Santa won’t bring you anything!” This image is much like the God created by rigid, rule-bound versions of Christianity.

Like the old man with a naughty and nice list, the harsh and severe God of fundamentalist Christianity is a demanding task master. God’s love like Santa’s toys are earned by following regulations at the expense of our personality and humanity. The path to Christmas and God’s embrace is narrow with many pitfalls. Love the wrong person, go to Hell. Perceive God differently than fundamentalists, languish for eternity. Let your child nature get the better of you, lose a gift.

But not all St. Nicks are about lists. In some families, Santa is an opportunity to give with as much abandon as budgets and good sense allow. Santa gives gifts because it is in Santa’s nature to do so. Santa becomes a teacher of how to give generously. Adults give children  opportunities to pick out toys to donate to Toys for Tots and to choose the color of socks to give to the local homeless shelter. This Santa is about extravagant love.

The Santa of generosity and giving reflects a very different understanding of God. God loves flamboyantly, extends undeserved grace, and lures us to live in a community of love and justice, becoming our true selves, because that is the nature of God. God desires us to be generous, loving, and compassionate with all people, especially those rejected by society. Christmas marks the beginning of the story of the Bethlehem babe who will grow up to expand circles, stand with those on society’s margins, and love as God dreams we can all love.

 

 

Rewriting Synapses

Rewriting Synapses

I am an American, which is to say that our culture of goals, work, outcomes, and more work is well-written in my brain. Too often I measure my worth by the things that I do rather than who I am. My struggle to worry less about doing and focus on being is a continuing area for growth.

morning-runRunning is about being of the earth with each footfall. It is about being as my spirit soars as the sky opens up. Running is the sacred entanglement of the Imago Dei within, my physicality, and the Gaian whole.

And so being sidelined by an injury impacts my mind, body, and spirituality. This unwanted segue off the gravel, trail, and pavement is about being. Letting go of doing more distance, more speed, or more runs is miserable as I yearn for a good run like non-runners yearn for chocolate. The American cultural drive to perform and achieve trifles and philanders with self-worth.

Though I do not believe that the one I call God tests anyone, all moments and experiences provide the opportunity for learning. I can choose during this time of healing and rest to idolize goals, work, and outcomes. I can wallow and strengthen the brain synapses that support our unhealthy culture within myself.

Instead I choose to sit in the moment with those unhealthy feelings, neither wallowing or fighting, but letting them dissipate. I recall the lessons I learn running beneath transcendent skies and through embracing woods. I opt for being.

Running from Embarrassment

Running from Embarrassment
retired
Retired. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

 

Costumed in a kelly green tracksuit with yellow stripes down each leg and arm, I left our tiny apartment for a run. I must’ve been a sight! I didn’t get into running consistently in college despite that green polyester jogging suit.

 

My feelings of conspicuousness coupled with the memories of public school gym classes led me to abandon running in a few weeks. I associated exercise with being targeted, taunted, and ridiculed.

Running was a punishment in junior high school.

In my thirties and forties I dabbled in running, never getting serious. Still, I couldn’t help myself in my pre-dawn walks, often shifting to short runs. Because no one could see me, I was free to move my body. Those adolescent feelings of negative self-image die hard. Today, the taunting of my poor athletic skills and my husky childhood body still lurk within my psyche.

In the last few years, as my running became frequent and regular, I’ve begun to identify as a runner. That identity is qualitatively different than previously.

My aging body is certainly not qualitatively more graceful or attractive. You will not see me on the cover of Runners World. I am, however, healthier and more comfortable in my own skin. Major surgery coupled with the natural aging process, has changed my mind and spirit. I care less about what others think.

I am healthier and happier because I run.

Re-starting this kind of intensive activity in your fifties can and did lead to a few injuries. I listened to my body. They were minor and I recovered well. As I set personal goals, I challenge myself but am respectful of my limits. Despite craving the daily endorphin fix, I’ve learned my body cannot handle running more often than every thirty-six to forty-eight hours.

I choose to learn from the experiences of others, but I focus on health and self-care rather than anything close to competition. Maybe that’s why I do not participate in group running events. Others say they are about personal challenge, not competition. I have no reason to mistrust other runners but for now races do not appeal to me.

Runs are physical and spiritual journeys that mirror life. Some days I meet goals and challenges. Other days I struggle and run slower or not as far as I’d hoped. Some days I just want to go home.

Running is embracing the imago dei within myself. Created in God’s image, I have nothing to be embarrassed about the limits and skills of my body. My mind, body, and spirit are all facets of who I am.

And so I run. I sweat too much, my fat jiggles with each stride, and maybe I look a sight! This is me, as beloved by the divine as the fittest athlete. But run I must because it heals past hurts, strengthens me in the present, and fortifies hope for the future.

I am runner, watch me go.

A Morning Pause

Divine Moment
Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

Make the bed.
“Should I change the sheets today?”
No time. Tomorrow.
Do the dishes.
Water the grass.
Shower.
Dress.
Deal with dog.
Eat. Don’t dawdle.
Ding. Ding. Reply to texts.
Teeth. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.
Floss, too.
“I’ve gotta start a load of clothes before I go!”

In the midst of my morning routine I found sabbath. As the laundry detergent slowly and intently flowed into the cup, I took a breath. My body relaxed and my blood flowed in rhythm to the steady, unhurried liquid as it flowed from bottle to tap to measuring cup.

In and out. Sigh. I am here in this now.

That’s when I knew who I am. That’s the moment when I felt the divine presence in my morning routine.

Amen.

 

Greater Than Fear & Annoyance

Greater Than Fear & Annoyance
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Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

I avoid her. I fear running into her at the post office or the grocery. She has a way of taking a chunk out of my spirit.

Just when you wanna hate people, though, they go and do something nice. Just when I’m ready to have nothing to do with someone, I become aware of their struggles and like the Grinch my heart grows three sizes.

In my small town there is a woman who feels I’m entitled to her opinion of my driving. In addition to my atrocious driving habits, I apparently pastor a not-Christian church. I need to know that, too. Apparently.

Emotionally it is easy to become annoyed with this woman. I don’t have any first hand understanding of her struggles. Nor has my personal driving instructor done something nice for me. However, I know she volunteers to do tedious work in our community.

People are complicated and messy. I’m sure she has challenges of which I’m unaware. Her behavior tells me that she does. Our “stuff” often spills over onto innocent people. As a local pastor, who won’t strike back,  I’m an easy target.

My faith tells me that we all hold the sacred within us. I can’t just write her off if I believe what I claim.When I remember this, I find my heart growing and softening. I’m more tolerant. I find ways to interact with her in love rather than mere tolerance.

I even find myself seeing the good within her. Love really is greater than fear and annoyance.

 

 

Am I Wasting What Time I Have?

It can be extremely rewarding and gratifying but this month, it is hard. Ministry is hard.

We spend half our time 165-miles apart and I’m done with it. Done, done, done. I ache. We’ve been at this for over three years. Before that we dealt with 350-miles for the three years while I was in seminary. There was a brief period between in which we lived together, in which we slept in the same bed every night.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re challenged by separation and distance. In my focused meditative Bible reading leading up to my seminary years, I perceived the Holy Spirit speaking to me about the cost of my call. Following God can sometimes involve leaving family behind, at least for a time.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them, he said,  “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25-27 CEB

No, I don’t think God is trying to break us up.  The still speaking God, however, hinted to me about the very kind of challenges we’re enduring. I naively thought they would end once we finished my seminary years.

I’ve grown weary about what it means for a clergy couple to respond to our individual calls from God and remain true to our marriage vows. We both work hard in our respective ministries. We also remain strongly committed to one another and make good use of texting, phoning, and Facetime to maintain our relationship.

But it is hard.

Ministry can be lonely work under the best of circumstances. When you are faced with personal struggles of loneliness, there is often no one to whom you can turn. The role of the pastor (me) and the chaplain (my wife) is to listen to others rather than talk about our own problems.

I have found healthy ways to cope. I exercise regularly. I maintain friendships of mutuality outside of my tiny community to the extent I’m able. I sit with my feelings and accept them without judgement. (Well, sometimes.)

But it is hard, especially in weeks like the last few.

Having survived Holy Week with its extra pressures and services, I looked forward to some downtime with my wife. As is prone to happen, death comes on its own schedule rather than on mine. Word reached me that a beloved member of our church was nearing his final breath. I kissed my wife and traveled 165-miles to be with the dying saint of the church. I did not get to pray with him the one last time I’d hoped. He died while I was en route.

The time apart from my wife has been more emotionally difficult since this death. I’ve been weepy. I’ve been clingy. I’ve been a bit on the controlling side.

This is what sometimes happen when standing and praying with a widow as she bids the body of her husband of six and a half decades goodbye. Her emotions mingle with my own and I wonder if I’m wasting the little time I have with my own beloved to minister to others.

Ministry is hard, especially when my emotions get all tangled with others.

I don’t know whether I’m wasting the little time I have with my own spouse. At the end of the day being a non-anxious presence for others, I just don’t know. All I can do is sit as quiet tears fall down my face.

The Long & Short of It

In the Dark
A Place to Reflect. Photo taken by Tim Graves at Silver Falls State Park, Oregon. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

It was longer, it is shorter now. My colon, that is. Two years ago my right colon was removed. That experience of surgery, hospitalization, and months of recovery changed me. Significantly.

On the second anniversary of my semi-colon, my incision said “hello” with a sensation that got my attention. It’s not unusual for it to speak to me, especially when I’m working my abdominal muscles at the gym.

I confess I like the hellos. They remind me of love, of vulnerability & mortality, and my humanity. The hellos remind me that caring for myself is not an extra. It is an essential.

I confess I like the hellos. They remind me of the love of my wife of nearly 37-years who took time off work to cook me mashed potatoes and help me manage the infected wound area. (It required gross things). They remind me of my children who ignored me when I told them they didn’t need to come see me.

I confess I like the hellos. They remind me of my vulnerability. There was something humbling and spiritual about being dependent: by medical staff in the hospital and my beloved at home. I experienced living fully human. To suffer and depend on others is part of how we are created. We are one family.

I confess I like the hellos because surgery & recovery changed me. I no longer give lip service to self-care. I take care of myself even when it is not convenient. I know — I believe & embrace — that I am important to myself, to others, and to the one I call God.  I start my day with the gym or I stop work early and lace up my running shoes. I hike in the Columbia River Gorge, the sage-marinated trails of eastern Oregon, or I hike the sacred Mt. Hood. I take rest days when my body and spirit needs them.

After two-years with a semi-colon, I am thankful for the “one permutation from cancer” growths that necessitated removal of my right colon. Though my life is still filled with personal challenges, personal mistakes, deep grief at times, I am blessed by the divine presence within creation and  each of us that nudges and encourages every rock and human being to be the most loving that we are capable of becoming.

____

This is the twelfth of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy and removal of my right colon.

Related Posts

God Hides God’s Face From Me! May 20, 2014
Unnatural, May 21, 2014
Out of Chaos, May 27, 2014
No Big Deal, May 29, 2014
Mortality, June 3, 2014
Wiped Memories, June 6, 2014
Perseverance, June 10, 2014
Scars, June 19, 2014
Embracing Emotions, July 2, 2014
An Unexpected Onion, January 14, 2015
One Year Ago Today, March 28, 2015
The Long & Short of It, March 29, 2016

 

 

When I’m Ready

When I’m Ready
Oasis to Come
Oasis to Come. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License, BY-NC-ND 3.0

On the trail,
all alone,
I’m not.

On the trail,
a partner,
sometimes silent.

On the trail,
a sojourner,
always present.

On the trail,
a voice,
a companion.

***

My companion,
listens,
as I cry & yammer.

My companion,
encourages,
free thought.

My companion,
appreciates,
randomness.

My companion,
smiles,
and love and hope hug me.

My companion,
speaks,
in word, sign, & through vistas.

***

When I deny, avoid
and question,
the companion waits.

In my confusion,
along the other paths I find,
my companion marvels at slug & frond.

When I worry,
and the world wounds my soul,
my companion points to  the lilies.

When I avoid,
choosing the present,
my companion warms me in the now.

When I push  back,
shouting “I hate you!”
my companion sticks around.

When I yearn & crave decision.
my companion offers a word or sign,
wrapped in hope, love, patience, & a hug.

***

A decision,
an issue,
flutters inside.

A decision,
interacts with,
bud & puddle of mud.

A decision,
an issue, pros & cons,
take turns deep within.

A decision,
with each step,
floats to the surface.

A decision,
is apparent,
and I lack trust, & confidence.

A decision,
eludes & hides,
behind fear and angst.

A decision,
waits patiently,
until I choose to hear.

***

On the trail,
all alone,
I’m not.

My companion,
listens,
as I cry & yammer.

When I deny, avoid
and question,
the companion waits.

A decision,
an issue,
flutters inside.

***

When I’m ready for joy,
the word or sign,
wrapped in hope, love, patience, & a hug await.