Creating Santa in God’s Image

article_post_width_santa_naughty_list
Image Source
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.

 

 

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.

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

 

 

Inside a Monet

Within a Monet
Within a Monet. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0.

I tend to favor less developed parks. Trails that are narrowier, more treacherous, and less groomed challenge my physiology and spirit. Rocks or moss (sometimes both) are my preferred benches. The Oregon Parks Department, however, has a knack for placing benches within oil paintings.

Sometimes, I find myself along a well-groomed, safer trail. When I come across a bench in the divine art gallery, I sit upon that bench. As I admire the painting before me I soon realize the divine artist has also been busy to my left, my right, and behind me.

Tuning in to the chatter of squirrels, the rushing water, and the breath that tousles branches stretching to the sky, I notice my own brushstrokes. I am part of this divinely created masterpiece!

Like the splendor of the falls, the mud in my boots, and the early budding trees, my allure and beauty are created in the artist’s own image.

Embracing Emotions

A cloud settles over Wind Mountain, near Home Valley , Washington. Photo by Tim Graves
A cloud settles over Wind Mountain, near Home Valley , Washington. Photo by Tim Graves

I found myself with multiple feelings on the three-month anniversary of my surgery.

As I journeyed home from climbing Wind Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I have made remarkable progress in the three months following the removal of my right colon. My body is not only healing, I am getting back into shape. Two and one-half weeks ago before climbing Wind Mountain, I thought I might collapse before the first switchback in my attempt to climb Dog Mountain (See Perseverance.)

Unexpectedly my thoughts turned to those-days in the hospital and recuperating at home. The surgery. The pain. The weakness. The sense of vulnerability. My feelings of confidence and accomplishment were gone and I felt, I felt…

I felt panic! It was a guttural, involuntary response to my experiences of surgery.

I lived in those feelings for awhile. I allowed myself to be immersed in my feelings. Then, like the comforting fog and damp drizzle I’d hiked in on Wind Mountain, my feelings of confidence settled on my skin, clouded my eyeglasses, and seeped into my bones again.

Fog hangs over Wind Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves
Fog hangs over Wind Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves

Both my feelings of those-days and my feelings of accomplishment are mine. I own those feelings. They are me. They are mine. They are legitimate. I choose to embrace them for my emotions are God-given.

Our core emotions are of divine origin. Created in the image of God, our emotions tell us something about the nature of the Divine. It is in our passion that the Holy Spirit teaches, nudging us to grow and become more honest with self and the one I call God.

Just as climbing Wind Mountain — a mountain once used by native peoples for Spirit Quests — strengthens my muscles, being present with all my emotions bolsters me spiritually and emotionally. It builds self-awareness, spiritual-awareness, and empathy for others. And so I allow the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work in me.

I choose to grow.

___

This is the ninth of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy.

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 4, 2014

Why do I write about this topic?

Following my surgery I had a myriad of feelings. A myriad of web searches to find the stories of others, perhaps to validate my own emotions, left me empty handed. And, so, I write these posts to process my very real feelings and in the hopes that someone else finds them useful following their surgery and recovery.

Scars

Scars
Gorge2
Westward view from Dog Mountain in the central Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves

By the end of the day my annoyance at the sensations brought on by my healing nerves and tissue crescendoes. Bending my abdomen as I sit in the bed the pain, though relatively minor, lashes out at me. I remind myself that these sensations in my belly are signs of healing and I am able to simply be with the process.

Undressed for my shower I glance at my wounds and my grief response overcomes me. Part sadness and part involuntary repulsion, I pause in the moment visually examining the two tiny laparoscopic scars and the 2-1/2 inch incision site.

I feel less-than. I am scarred, never to be the same. I touch the railroad track scarring above my belly button, pleased at its slowly fading crimson claim to my abdomen. I run my finger along its ridge that rises above my skin.

Reaching the scarring beneath my naval, my fingers gently move the skin on either side of the wound. Gently moving the injured area side-to-side, I note that while there is skin covering the formerly infected area, is not yet firm like prior to surgery. The area inside my belly seems to still be growing back together. Whether accurate or not, I perceive a hole just beneath a thin skin covering.

And I wonder.

I wonder if I will ever be whole again. I wonder if I will ever be comfortable removing my shirt at the beach or poolside. Though I know better, I wonder if my wife is as repulsed by my scarred body as I am. My self-image and sexuality is scarred along with my body.

Though the concerns of the day soon dominate my thoughts, overcoming my feelings of repulsion and sadness, they are not as easily repressed as the physical sensations I experience as my abdominal tissue and nerves regenerate.

At nearly twelve weeks post-op, I am ready for this to be over. Completely. Totally.

Horsethief Butte in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves
Horsethief Butte in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves

Diminished into nothingness.

I want the formerly infected incision site to fully heal so that I can imagine I am unchanged. I want to pretend that I never had to open and then keep a hole in my abdomen draining for weeks. I want to be able to pretend that I have a complete colon.

I tell myself that this should be easy for me.  I was not diagnosed with cancer nor do I have to face the inconveniences of a colostomy like others.

If this surgical site would just hurry up and heal, I could get on with the business of repressing my feelings. Heck, I whine if the hair shaved off my body prior to cutting would at least finish its regrowth, it would help.

***

As I drove through my beloved Columbia River Gorge, my thoughts turned to geology. I thought about the geological upheavals and ice age flooding that created this downright magical land. My thoughts drifted to the rocky scars among which I hike. The indescribable aesthetic of the region regularly brings me closer to the divine.

I thought about the wound inflicted upon Mother Gaia, our very planet, as this land of enchantment was formed. Out of a brutish force, a singular splendor remains and beguiles me. As I ruminated in appreciation at the result of violent scars to the planet, my synapses burst into action.

I made a connection and began to wonder. I began to reflect upon the hypocrisy of seeing beauty in scars on Mother Gaia but feeling revolted by my own. Though I have a ways to go in accepting my still-healing body, my worth, my beauty as a beloved child of God, is not contingent upon superficial perfection.

The same divinity that creates enchantment in the Columbia River Gorge is already in the process of doing the same with my body, mind, spirit, and soul.

For the Lord takes delight in [God’s] people
Psalm 149: 4a NIV

 ___

This is the eighth of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy.

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

Why do I write about this topic?

Following my surgery I had a myriad of feelings. A myriad of web searches to find the stories of others, perhaps to validate my own emotions, left me empty handed. And, so, I write these posts to process my very real feelings and in the hopes that someone else finds them useful following their surgery and recovery.

Mortality

Decaying Beavers & Rainbows
Like this bloated beaver I came upon while hiking along the Columbia River, I am mortal. Photo by Tim Graves.

When my wife is twenty minutes late getting home I’ve imagined what my life would be like if the worst happened. This intellectual activity has been part of my routine since the eighties when my 5-1/2 month old nephew died in a freak accident. Nonetheless, up until my surgery some sixty-seven days ago I was immortal.

Perhaps it was the look on the faces of my children, who raced via airway and roadway to be with me that made me mortal. Perhaps, it was the seriousness of my wife’s tone and her diligence in caring for me that made me human. If you’ve been following my blogs, you know I thought the removal of my right colon was No Big Deal. So, that couldn’t be what did it.

Though I’ve told my children since they were tiny that I planned to live to be one-hundred twenty, I wonder now. It’s still my plan; I have a lot of living to do yet.

But I recognize that at fifty-five, I may not live another 65-years, plan or not.

Somehow, the suddenness of major surgery jolted me into mortality. I did not expect it. I went in for a colonoscopy, a routine screening procedure for cancer and other issues, because I am in my fifties. I perceived no problem but rather than heading to the local pizzeria that evening, I was talking about the possibility of cancer with my wife.

Even talking about the c-word with my son wasn’t enough in and of itself to jolt me into mortality but here I am. Mortal. Tim Graves is mortal!

***

Reflecting, I think I became mortal the Sunday following my surgery. It was the look on the face of my first-born — my baby girl! I always get a hug but somehow her hug was more. More something. More fearful?

On the other hand, looking back it may have been on the day before my colectomy. I drove to Portland to pick my son up from the airport and lost the car in the parking garage. I had no idea where I’d left it except that it was facing an outside wall.

Isaac, my son, said to me, “This is kind of an old man thing to do, Dad.” His words were a joke but his face revealed another emotion. He knew this was out-of-character for his detail-oriented father. It might have been in that moment when I became mortal in his eyes and my own.

Or…or it was the day I finally returned home from the hospital and finally read my wife’s blog in which she writes, “An instant can change everything.   A routine screening can morph into urgent, major surgery.  Uncertainty can overwhelm normalcy.  The daily routine of work and home becomes the routine of vital signs, meal trays, and pain management. Roles can be frightfully altered” (It’s Three in the Morning).

***

I became a part of the river of humanity and creation that flows ever onward. The drop of moisture that I am will eventually evaporate. When my essence one day transforms, I will remain within those I have known. My moisture will seed another tributary or be present in a joyful tear. This is photo of the White Salmon River near Husum, Washington was taken by Tim Graves
When my essence one day transforms, I will remain within those I have known. My moisture will seed another tributary or be present in a joyful tear. This photo of the White Salmon River near Husum, Washington was taken by Tim Graves

I have come to realize that my superhero immortality belongs to the world of fiction. The concept of immortality separates us from one another and from the Divine. Immortality is about permanence and control. Endless life — the ultimate control of the uncontrollable — eliminates our need for the Divine in one another.

But we need one another. The One who I call God exists most fully in the spaces between us. The Divine spark exists within each of us but that loving spark burns brightest and fully in those times when we touch another.

I became mortal when others considered the possibility of life without me. When I experienced the emotions of others — through a hug, a joke-less jab, or in an altered relationship — I became what I’ve always been. I became a part of a bigger whole.

I became a part of the river of humanity and creation that flows ever onward. The drop of moisture that I am will eventually evaporate. When my essence one day transforms, I will remain within those I have known. My moisture will seed another tributary or be present in a joyful tear.

As I give up the charade of  immortality and with it my make-believe control and pretend permanence, I travel a divine path. I have lost nothing. Instead I have gained a glimpse of the wholeness of creation. I have glimpsed a signpost encouraging me to exist in being who I am and striving to love more fully.

___

This is the fifth of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy.

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

Why do I write about this topic?

Following my surgery I had a myriad of feelings. A myriad of web searches to find the stories of others, perhaps to validate my own emotions, left me empty handed. And, so, I write these posts to process my very real feelings and in the hopes that someone else finds them useful following their surgery and recovery.

 

Out of Chaos

Waking from a lucid dream, I lay in my hospital bed in those wee hours. I was convinced that they were out to get me. Even moving slightly in the bed caused excruciating pain. How would I protect myself from them?

Through the narcotic painkillers induced paranoia, I looked at my wife Maggie sleeping in the chair beside my bed. What about her? She might be a little naive and too-trusting of them but did I have a better option?

Our history and relationship of thirty-five years clawed its way to the surface: Maggie was my best hope. I’ve always been able to trust her. I remember that. I could not recall a time when she had ever – EVER – betrayed my trust.

I silently chanted to myself, “I can trust Maggie. I can trust Maggie. I can trust Maggie.”

***

DSCF3013
When I first got home from the hospital, Maggie slept on a small mattress on the floor to avoid disturb me and causing me pain. Photo by Maggie Sebastian

During the post-operative period following the removal of my right colon, the intensity of my dependency on my wife rivaled my need for water. In the hospital she served as interpreter, she served as personal chaplain, nurse, and guard dog. She did not leave my bedside for longer than twenty-minutes. Once home, she prepared the doctor-ordered “mush meals” and stood just outside the shower stall while I struggled to return to normal hygeine habits.

My vulnerability during my eight-week recovery period, especially early-on, was frightening and intimidating. The medical staff at the hospital were exemplary but they did not love me. The power of the trust and relationship I have with Maggie kept me emotionally stable during my time in hospital and recovery at home. When I would panic, she would bring me back. When I would sob, she would listen and hold me.

***

To be human is to be vulnerable and dependent upon others.  I am an emotionally healthy and independent individual but I still need others. It is how humanity is made.

Emerging from these challenging months, I am thankful to have had a beloved who interrupted her own normal routines to be ever-present with me. Love is like that, though. Love takes bad things — a health crisis in our case — and encourages and nudges us to create good out of it. The more than thirty-five year love and bond between my wife and I has grown in surprising ways using the raw material of weakness, fears, and vulnerability.

Love, that Divine glue that connects us with one another and with each rock, atom, and animal, uses chaos as the raw material for good. Created in the image of the Divine One, we too can create and expand love out of the chaos. All we have to do is claw our way out of our paranoia and suspicion of others and learn to trust one another.

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters…God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good. (Genesis 1: 1-2, 31 CEB)

___

This is the third of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy.

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

Why do I write about this topic?

Following my surgery I had a myriad of feelings. A myriad of web searches to find the stories of others, perhaps to validate my own emotions, left me empty handed. And, so, I write these posts to process my very real feelings and in the hopes that someone else finds them useful following their surgery and recovery.