Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Sacredness of Your Child's Imagination: Part I


In the middle of the night, my six year old came into our bedroom wanting to crawl into bed with us, saying he had had a very bad dream. When I cuddled him close I asked him if he wanted to tell me about it. He said he didn't want to tell because it was so upsetting. I prayed for him and assured him of his safety. But he could not fall asleep again. He whispered, "When I close my eyes, the evil man is still alive."

Isn't that the case with all of our imaginations? It is the world fully alive when we close our eyes, when we gaze out the window, when we are still.

I knew that simply telling Becket that the evil man wasn't real was not going to resolve the vividness of the threat so alive in his imagination. For, in fact, his imagination was dealing with an evil that is real, only symbolized in the evil man. His six year old world is expanding to include an understanding of evil. What he needs from me is the help to know what his posture is to be to that evil. Is it fear? Is it placation? Is it denial?

So I told him that the next time he saw that man, I wanted him also to see the army of heavenly angels, armed with swords (it is easy for him to imagine any number of medieval knightly swords because of the books he pours over) standing with him against the evil man. Some time later after dozing in and out, I asked him how it was going. He said the evil man had been destroyed.


St. Michael slaying Satan

To say that what is in one's imagination is not real is to misunderstand the imagination. The imagination carries the symbols of the world that bind up realities seen and unseen, often realities too expansive to be expressed in anything other than images and symbols. The question is whether or not one's imagination has the true symbols, the symbols that express what is ultimately and eternally true. A healthy, true, vivid imagination is the greatest aid in living a life of virtue. Though Becket's battle was in his imagination, he was internalizing the courage to stand against evil with the weapons God has given his people and to see good triumph. This is real.

Our children have eternal souls, and they will participate during their lifetimes in the battle of all time--the battle between good and evil. As they mature, they have a growing realization of what that battle is and the forces that array the battlefield. The evil is an evil they will not always see, just as the courage and virtue required to overcome such evil is also forged in secret. Because we cannot see the spiritual entities that surround us--demons, angels, and more--and because the dark often poses as the light, and the good might come in an unassuming form, we will need healthy imaginations and mature, spiritually developed skills of discernment to recognize evil and know how to confront it with the victorious good.

Every person has an imagination.  It is either full of true riches and becomes a tremendous assistance in feeding wholesome vision, thought, action, and character. Or it is depleted, perhaps distorted, and actually prevents a person from becoming all he or she was meant to be.  We have a symbolic system for evil and for good, for God and for the Church.  We have imaginations replete with images of what it means to be a woman or a man or a family or a friend, what it means to be a successful person.  Sometimes these symbols embody the true real, and sometimes they are polluted with the false.  But our imaginations have everything to do with who we become as people.

Napoleon said, “Imagination governs the world.” Why? Because we can only live out what we are capable of imagining.  We can only be loyal if we can imagine loyalty.  We can only love God if we have a true imagination of who God is.  We can only sacrifice if we have an imagination for the joy beyond sacrifice. Napoleon's imagination was obviously populated with images of power, control, and personal aggrandizement, and he lived it out. But his imagination fell short because his imagination was not populated with the eternal real that would lead to lasting good. It could not win in the end.

Good requires a richer imagination.  Sadly, we often have more imagination for the unhealthy and twisted. We see this in Hollywood depictions of character--the good characters are often lacking depth and interest. They are predictable, boring, simple minded and insipid, while the bad characters are intriguing, multi-layered, intelligent and strong.

The writer, Graham Greene, said, “Hate is a lack of imagination.” It is easier to give into evil than to be governed by good, and it takes little imagination to distort or destroy something solid and beautiful, but it takes great imagination to create it. That's why hate and evil have a shelf life, but it is also why when left defenceless, we will drift toward the easy road--a weak imagination.


Every child is born with an imagination that will be captured by some system of thought, populated by images that shape who he or she grows to be.  As parents, we need to wake up and realize that our children have an enemy, Satan himself, and his first access to them is through their imaginations, and he is busy using anything at his disposal to gain ground, while we often are blinded to the battle raging already to steal their souls through the inroads of their imaginations.

Michael O'Brien, in his book, A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind, (a book I highly recommend), speaks of the danger of not recognizing the battle and inadvertently teaching children to "tame the dark side," to "embrace the shadow," rather than to teach our children how to approach evil with "confident realism." He says: "...it did strike me as odd the way so many people were beginning to talk about evil as if it were all a great misunderstanding, as if the complexity of the universe could be reduced to the operations of the psyche."

The battle is spiritually charged, this is why we cannot adjust and diminish the symbols that keep the lines of battle clear. In the symbolic world, trolls are always evil, as are dragons, goblins, and witches. They are not simply misunderstood and awaiting reformation. And in the overarching REAL story, these figures are always eventually vanquished, even if for awhile they were able to deceive, control, and maim. This confidence of evil eventually being overcome by God and those who trust in him, must be in the gut of every child's symbolic system for him to live in more than what is immediately visible.

Satan uses the worldly culture in which we live to own our children’s imaginations. He wants them caught in the materialistic fray that will keep their eyes busy in the here and now, never able to lift them up to the transcendent MORE, the Unseen Real. And the culture is glad to be complicit. Your child will grow to be a consumer and put money in their pockets. Your child will watch their movies, eat their cereals, buy their toys, wear their clothes. Advertisers sit around and plan how they can capture your child’s imagination, how they can make your child into a life-long consumer, desperately needing to be a part of only what they can see.

Satan will also use educational systems to wear down the eternal values established in God's Word. He wants to create a false utopia, a kingdom he also calls love, not where one sacrifices for another out of love, but a kingdom in which each person is validated for their own selfish choices, a love of self. Of course the easy way of empty love will be more appealing to a sinful human being if the kingdom of real sacrificial love is not richly shaped in the imagination so that it is clear where self sacrifice leads and where self- aggrandizement ends up.



Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais: a woman who listened to God, cared little what others thought of her,
a valiant leader who fought on behalf of others with courage and self-sacrifice.

Through our imaginations, Satan can control our capacity to be fully alive by deadening us and reducing us to something very small and limited. He wants us to believe that this world is ALL there is. It is like the Green Lady in Lewis' Silver Chair who tries to hypnotize the children into believing that there is no sun, only the lamp in the room, no lion, but a small cat.

A well developed imagination can lift outside of the here and now, can rise up above and see beyond. A vibrant imagination can see the manipulations of an ad because the vision of the world they know in their imaginations is so much broader and richer than such drivel. A child being bullied at school who has had an imagination rich with story knows the end desserts of a bully and can be noble in the face of it, remembering that in due time, the noble knight wins the battle.


At one time, our cultures helped us shape the imaginations of our children, but now if our children are handed over to be shaped by our cultures, we will awaken to find that they are incapable of living like Christians--even if they were brought to church every week, even if they went to a Christian school, even if everything taught them verbally about morals and virtues was Christian. Unless their imaginations are shaped to have a vision of a life beyond this one, the need for the approval of others now, and the powerful measure of their own feelings in the present, will outweigh their capacity to live as Christians who live in the constant awareness of the future.

We have to be intentional as parents in the way we shape our children’s imaginations simply so they can live like Christians. Are we giving as much time and energy to securing our childrens's imaginations for the good as others are working to secure their imaginations for their purposes?

In Isaiah it says, "You will keep in perfect peace him whose imagination is stayed on you." If our imaginations are directed toward what is of God, what is true, good, beautiful, we will have internal peace. This is why the Apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." This comes right after his admonition not to be anxious about anything. This is how we do it: we fill our imaginations with a resovoir that we can draw from in our day to day life. Is this maybe one of the reasons our children of today are wracked with anxiety? Their imaginations do not have the resources to conquer fear with love, ugliness with beauty, cheapness with what is costly and honorable.

Battle of Gideon Against the Midianites by Nicolas Poussin
(God taught Gideon how to fight creatively against the evil of his day. He told him to use music and hidden
fire.)

How do we take authority over our children's imaginations? We are gatekeepers, inviting in riches, barricading against thieves.

We want our children to be captivated for what is so much greater, so much more solid and real.  We want them to be captivated by Christ, his kingdom, and the purpose to which they were brought into this world. We want them to see a world beyond this one that is so appealing because it embodies all we were created to be and experience.


Our children are completely susceptible to what the world says is beautiful, attractive, useful, and meaningful. We must be on the castle walls letting down the draw bridge to every friend that can expand and enlarge imagination space and fill it with the good, the true, and the beautiful and dropping down the portcullis on every fiend that wants to steal imagination space in the castle.  

As parents, we are the opener and closer of doors for our children.  We will not always discern correctly, but God is gracious and can help us there.  We also cannot control some flaming arrows that will come over the walls unbidded, even unallowed.  God, too, will show us how to snuff out those fires.  But we can certainly keep foreign forces from occupying the castle of our children’s imaginations. It is our a sober responsibility to have first and greatest access to our children's imaginations, and we must take up our places on the castle wall, not growing weary, but watching and praying.

In The Sacredness of your Child's Imagination, Part II, I will explore more practical ways to do this as parents.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Cup We Drink with Jesus: our Suffering and our Salvation


Throughout this Lent, I have been meditating on the call to drink the cup with the Lord. "Unless you drink this cup, you have no part in me."

The Last Supper, Pascal Dagnan Bouveret
What is the cup we are drinking?  Well, certainly in the Garden when Jesus asks that the cup be passed by, he is referring to the suffering he must endure.  The cup of Jesus we are to drink involves suffering.  We are to embrace the suffering that Jesus calls us into as his own people, his family. We have no part in him if we do not drink it.  In fact, Romans 8:17 says that we are "fellow heirs with Christ provided we suffer with him..."

I am convicted about how much of my life is built around avoidance of suffering, how many decisions I make are based on my conviction that God would not ask me to suffer.  In fact, God has promised I would suffer.  When we choose him, we choose the kingdom of God which necessarily puts the comforts of this world, rewards of this world, the goals of this world in direct subordination and often even in conflict with the comforts, rewards, and goals of the kingdom. We are meant for this world only for a short while during which we unite ourselves to Christ and his loves and purposes for this world.

Sadly, we are disappointed with life when we suffer the very things Jesus said we would.  But Jesus is clear that to follow him means to deny self and take up a cross.  Denying self is a life long discipline that is active in rejecting the way of the world and our own responses of self-pity, anger, resentment, jealousy, unbelief.

Jesus spoke harshly to Peter, saying, "Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man" after Peter rebuked Jesus when he foretold his own suffering.  Then he goes right on to say that if anyone would follow him, he would have to do exactly what Jesus is doing--take up a cross, deny self.  It is the draw of Satan for us to pull away from the suffering that is part of being in Jesus.

I find that one of the ways that we hesitate to drink the cup of Jesus is in our deep reluctance to be identified as Christians.  Honestly, one of the reasons we get so angry as Americans when our culture drifts so far from God and biblical truth is that we are then marginalized and mischaracterized.  Then we have to suffer through being misrepresented and even mocked.  That then requires of us courage and love and forgiveness that we would not like to have to press into.  As long as our culture is voicing what we feel is right, we don't have to rouse from our comfort and be troubled or uncomfortable.  This is a cup of suffering we are loath to drink.  I am amazed at how easily our American church has become ashamed of the Gospel, resorting to denial of what is really happening in our culture because we simply cannot bear the suffering of being labeled and dismissed.

We don't want to be the one in a conversation that disagrees.  We don't want to be the one who shares the truth that may unsettle those around us.  We don't want to be the one who corrects a misperception of Jesus or the Bible.  We don't want to be the one who refuses to engage in a conversation that misrepresents someone who happens to be the topic of conversation.  We don't want to be the only one who doesn't watch a movie or a series because it glorifies or desensitizes us to sin. We don't want to be the one whose child can't participate because an event is just plain worldly.

And these sufferings are small compared to the sufferings of the rest of the world where identification with Jesus may mean a beheading on your own front lawn.

Our desire for fellowship with the world precludes our fellowship with Jesus.  The cup of suffering is a fellowship with Christ;  we share his cup; we participate in it.  The fellowship we choose must be the fellowship with Jesus--whatever the cup contains for us, we must drink it.

Then there is the cup of suffering we must drink when we choose to obey Jesus when the easy thing would be to slip into a spiritual malaise of disappointment, resentment, and unbelief. Years ago we suffered several church splits during which my husband and I (he as the pastor) were regarded with suspicion and also suffered the regular mischaracterization, slights, and slander that accompany such divisions.  The Lord kept telling us to resist Satan, the true enemy, especially in our own souls.  We were to receive this suffering in silence, avoid self-defense and any form of retaliation, and wait on the Lord.  We were to receive this as a test that would prepare us for the leadership ahead and as a purifying from our own sin.  In humility, we were to look for any opportunity to restore peace even if at the cost of still being misunderstood.

That cup of suffering that lasted for years worked in us a companionship with Christ, purifying us of the need to people please, instilling in us an urgency to live for Christ's kingdom and not for ourselves, to love and serve others no matter what their perception of us, to receive our resources from the Lord instead of from the vacillation of positive feedback or the response of others.  What a trial it was, though, in my own soul, to quell the inner dialogue and imaginations of what I wished I could do or say!

Because of that season, though, when we face traces of the same suffering that simply comes with leadership, it doesn't blow us about as it once did.  We are simply more mature than we were.  Also, we have tasted the glory of the Lord when we are united both in his death and resurrection, which enables us to see more of the eternal perspective.

How is the cup of suffering we share with Jesus different from any suffering?  The suffering cup shared with Jesus involves a self-denial, an acceptance that the suffering I am enduring can and will purify me IF I receive it as such.  In other words, any suffering can be turned into a participation of Christ's suffering if it becomes for us a vehicle of life.  If I deny my self-indulgence and allow the Spirit to fill me so that instead of stewing in a slight, I forgive and bless;  instead of engaging in acts of the flesh, I choose to resist the devil and instead turn to Jesus for aid and freedom.

Side chapel in São Bento Monastery in Sãp Paulo, Brazil
the Latin imperative: "Accept and Eat; This is my Body."
And herein lies the motivation to drink the cup of Jesus:  it is not only our suffering;  it is our salvation.  Jesus drank his cup because he knew that in doing so he would save the world.  We drink with Jesus because in doing so we receive his salvation.  This cup is referred to as, The Cup of Salvation in the Psalms.  Jesus references it as the cup that gives us eternal life.  The Romans 8 passage I mentioned at the beginning says that we are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  We share Jesus' suffering, and he shares his glory with us.  The Romans passage goes on to say,

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."  When we avoid the suffering, we lose the glory.  We have a whole inheritance available to us when we participate in Jesus--an inheritance of God himself ministered to us by the Holy Spirit imparted to us NOW;  but it is accessed by drinking the cup.

God has given us the privilege of a particular kind of fellowship with him--sharing his suffering and his salvation.  Isn't one of the hardest parts of suffering the loneliness?  Jesus promised his companionship as we drink with him.  What is your current suffering?  Name it before the Lord and accept it as the way of the cross for you.  As we journey into Holy Week, accept the cup Jesus extends to you and know the fellowship of Christ.  It is your death and your means to eternal life.

"...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead." Phil. 3:14

Other Holy Week posts:

The Word that Dispels all Darkness
Living in Vertical Time
Access information about Holy Week services at http://www.churchrez.org/








Saturday, November 26, 2016

To Have or Not to Have? The Dialogue with God About Building Your Family




In every marriage of childbearing age, this question will inevitably surface time and again: Do we have another child or not?  And in some ways, "To have or not to have," is not so far from the original phrase, "To be or not to be?"  We are considering something of such magnitude--do we bring a new life into the world that would not otherwise be?  And close on it, follow feelings about our own capacity to be as we bring more life into the world!

Any discussion of this topic demands a certain level of sobriety.  We are discussing the most fundamental issues of life.  We are discussing whether we are to participate in the advent of another person in history, a person that without our participation would never be.

The only starting place for a conversation of this magnitude is surrender.  God has chosen to be his most vulnerable with us by letting us participate in the decision about new life.  He has given us a say as to whether or not a new person will be birthed for eternity.  This is humbling:  that God would allow me to have this voice in his creation.

Many of the questions surrounding family size and even contraception are centered around the self. How many children do I want?  How many children can I handle?  If I say "Yes" to another child, to what am I saying "No"? Questions around finances arise, "Can we afford another child?"  "Another child could mean a larger vehicle,  even the need for more space in our current house."  "Do I really have to think about children every time I want to be intimate with my spouse?"  These are questions that are centered in the limited perspective of the here and now and in the small sphere of two;  so while they are important in our dialogue with God because we must be real and honest with him, they also must take their place in the greater conversation which has elements far beyond just the two of us. Being in God's kingdom requires that we move beyond the scope of our own lives and our own understanding of them.

It is hard for us to imagine beyond our limitations, but that is exactly why God calls us into the supernatural place where we have to trust his vision, not our own.  This is why no decision about having children should be made without the direct communion with and guidance of the Lord. The Psalmist gives us a good guide, "Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain."  We could spend our lives trying to strategize, control, manage our resources and miss the mystery God is calling us into--one which requires faith in a God who sees all.

This is why doing something permanent to one's body, male or female, to prevent the conception of children means one completely closes the door to this dialogue with God.  I cannot predict when God might call on me to sacrifice my body for the sake of a new life, when he might call me into faith rather than leaning on my own understanding.  Also, in the moment in which this decision is being made the facts and feelings (however powerful) are tied to a certain moment in history, facts and feelings that could change over the passage of time and shifting of circumstances.  We do not expect God to tell us when we marry all the different places we will live and the jobs and friends we will have.  We also cannot expect that he will tell us how many children we will have.  This is something that unfolds in relationship over time.

If I had done something permanent to my body to avoid pregnancy, I would not have had my fifth and sixth children, and our family would be impoverished because of it.  After my fourth child and difficult pregnancies and post partums, I said half in jest, "Only if the Angel Gabriel appears to me will I have another child."  It took a little while, but slowly my feelings changed, and I knew our family was missing someone.  Then Nathanael came.  My hemorrhaging with him was so frightening, I fully believed God was saying we were finished.  In fact, I believed God said that to me.  Now I know God allowed me to believe that simply to give my mind, body, and imagination space to recover.

One night I was hovering between sleep and waking, and I felt the presence of a child that was not yet in our family, and I felt I heard God's voice saying, "You would not want to miss this one."  I was shocked when I found out I was expecting a sixth and struggled throughout the pregnancy with fear for my life.  But I knew that if God was giving me a gift, I would not want to miss it, and that perhaps my understanding of my own limitations needed to be challenged by a God who had an abundance of resources.  (You can read that story in my blog post on "What is a Woman?")

I had not been able to engage God in the conscious place of my soul about another child.  It was too overwhelming to me.  But God knew that I was fighting to stay in a place of surrender and that if he asked of me to bring another child into the world, I would do it in his grace and strength.  How glad I am that God overrode my own feelings, my genuine reservations, and my sense of limitations, and gave me the opportunity to go deeper with him into Mary's, "Yes. Be it done unto me according to your will."  I could allow God to give me the supernatural capacity to receive another life that I in my own strength could not imagine.  After all, God does not provide for the hypothetical child but for the real one resting in our arms.  I will not say it has been easy, but I could not imagine my life without the children God chose for me.

As we journey into Advent, we must not allow ourselves the illusion that Mary's story was cozy, that somehow the renown she enjoys is enviable.  Mary is our icon of the "Yes," because she said it even when it meant facing the suspicion of her parents, her betrothed, and indeed the whole village, in a time when stoning was the punishment for adultery.  We know that Joseph didn't believe she had conceived as a virgin until God sent him a dream.  Mary had no say in her circumstances, even the long trip away from home on a donkey while very pregnant into a place she did not know, to give birth in someone else's home without the people around her she knew and trusted.  And she faced all the usual fears of any mother giving birth, and all the pain and the blood.  Afterwards, she had to flee into Egypt, a most foreign culture, as a new bride and mother, while fearing for the life of her child. Mary in our day would be a great candidate for processing trauma in therapy sessions.  She had no control over her life once she said, "Yes."

And yet, she gave us Jesus.  God looked for a mother who was willing to share his sufferings. And now she shares his glory.

God allows himself the limitation of our "No."  It is humbling and frightening to think that God puts himself in the position of allowing us to assent to a new life in the world.  Is it possible that God might dream of a person in history of whom we could, even unknowingly, say, "No, that person will not be."  Though we cannot begin to understand the mystery of the way God's will and our will work together, God does seem to allow us the power of refusal.  How many blessings have we missed simply because we cannot stay in the place of trusting God's eternal and infinite view because we are overwhelmed by our small one?

Sometimes the barriers we feel in our own souls, even disequilibrium in our families, or those places where refreshment is needed, are answered by the child God is bringing.  That little one actually becomes the missing puzzle piece.  This one may bring much needed humor, joy, a dislodging of rivalries, a new thoughtfulness and care from other children, an expansion of love.  This child could also mean that you have to be stretched and transformed in constant connection with Jesus because you can't parent this one in your own strength. You are thrown into the arms of God like never before. But isn't that the place we were made to be?

I must always be in dialogue with God about my participation in his vision.  Ephesians 3:14 speaks of praying to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.  The Father names our families.  He shapes and forms;  he knows the people that must be part of it.  He can expand our vision from our small space and slice of time to something so much broader that can allow for the weaving of our own stories into the eternal story.

This is not to say that we cannot cooperate with God in spacing children for the purpose of catechizing, for seasons of family stress, and for times of health troubles or extreme trials.  God has made a woman's body with rhythms that are predictable so that we can choose to wait.  If he had wanted it to be totally out of our hands, he would have made women randomly fertile or constantly fertile, as men are. Even Pope Paul VI in "Humanae Vitae" encouraged discernment when having children, while still honoring the possibility of life in the conjugal relationship.

But I cannot decide that this request of God--to have another child--is not going to be an option in my walk with God.  And that is what sterility surgery is.  It is saying that this is not something I can be called on to do for the kingdom--ask me anything else, for money, time, any other sacrifice but not that I live through another pregnancy and raise another child.  What greater gift can we give to God than to lay our bodies--our fertility and sexual drives included--on the altar as an offering?

If you are reading this and are someone who chose not to consider having more children, and you even wonder if maybe you foreclosed on God's work in your life, remember that the Lord is gentle with us.  He is aware of the influences that were in our lives that we did not then know to challenge. I would encourage you to open and maintain a dialogue with God about your choices because even the hindsight God gives us can give us wisdom to share with others.

The Church is the most responsible for teaching a theology of family that has more impact than the cultural psychology of family, and it needs not just the clergy to do it, but the people of God, from empty nesters to families to celibates.  I wish that I had been open to children earlier, but I did not have the teaching even to consider it.  I regret the children I did not have, but I know I can write to encourage others.

Children embody the kingdom of God--Jesus said so.  He also said for us to bring him the infants. Scripture also teaches us that children are a blessing and a reward.  As we seek to live as Christians in a world shaped by the personal right to control birth and where children are our personal right and an extension of our own desires, let us keep in mind where we may need to have our minds renewed in our perspective on children and family.  Let us ask God to build our houses and name our families and stretch our understanding of the supernatural provision we cannot see until we step out in faltering faith. May we not lean on our own understanding but submit our way to him.

After all, God may have a child he wants in history at a specific time, and he has chosen you to be the parents and shape this child for a kingdom work you could never do.  You would not want to miss that one.


"Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.  
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth.
Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate."  Psalm 127




Saturday, September 10, 2016

God's Extravagant Gift

A rainbow at the end of the day at Porto de Galinhas beach, Brazil.  Two of my children were swimming and just stopped and looked up in wonder. 

Years ago I remember reading Malcolm Muggeridge's book on Mother Theresa, who was just this week cannonized as a saint.  He was one of the first people to put Mother Theresa's work in the eye of the public with his documentary about her on BBC.  Without soliciting funds, he was astonished when people began to flood his office with money for Mother Theresa's work.  He was later surprised when she wrote to him and told him how she had spent the money...she had purchased two beautiful candle holders for the altar in the chapel.

Though that is probably not how the givers expected her to spend the money, Mother Theresa believed that the altar on which she placed these candlesticks would forever carry the embodied reminder of the prayers and desires of many from distant lands.  I'm sure she believed that the people she was caring for needed more than physical care, but beauty that spoke to their souls. And the workers pouring out their lives in service could join those they were serving around the altar and all together they could be transported into the heavenlies and the glory that belonged to all of them, who so rarely had shared anything extravagant.

One of the first Fransiscan monasteries built in the new world in the 1500's, sadly in disrepair but still lovely.  The walls are covered with Portuguese tile, sent across to Brazil, numbered so they could be mounted in stunning murals.

Of course this was the vision of the Church in building beautiful cathedrals and churches--that people who could individually never afford anything beautiful, could pool their money, and build something beautiful that they could all share.  So at any time of day one could walk into the village church and bask in the beauty that transported all who entered into the presence of God, who believes in the gift of beauty as a sign of love.

Jesus affirmed this when he said of the woman who broke her alabaster perfume bottle and poured the costly perfume on his feet, "She has done a beautiful thing to me."  Jesus praised her that she did not count the cost but acted extravagantly out of love.

God values acts and gifts of love that are not calculated and measured and that sometimes are not even useful, in the utilitarian sense because he gives that kind of gift over and over. We can only understand the beauty and intricate detail of nature in its dazzling scope of color, texture, sound and variety in this light--an extravagant expression of love for all who can see and hear.  It is offered to both rich and poor for only the cost of paying attention.

God's generous outpouring of beauty on all of us is a general expression of love, and his sacrificial giving of himself is almost unthinkable because we have no category for that kind of expression of love.

And then sometimes God does something so particular to you as a person that you know, "that alabaster flask was broken for me."  I have known this kind of outpouring of love from God many times, but this summer I felt it more than ever.

I waited years for this day to come--all of us able to read on the beach.  Well...I guess Becket is not in the picture, and I am not reading as I take the picture, but we could take turns.

Years ago when my husband and I decided that God was calling us to live in the Wheaton area and work in a church here,  I struggled profoundly.  Why would God ask this of me, someone who would gladly live overseas, someone who felt constantly just a little uncomfortable in this culture?  God spoke clearly to me that this was his call, his economy, and not understanding all of his hidden reasons, I submitted and found a rush of joy in his will.  I have never doubted since that we were called to be here and this was the place prepared by God for our family to grow.

But I have grieved and wrestled with God, not all the time, but from time to time.  I sometimes felt I was living out of only part of myself, with this whole hidden world in my psyche that my children would not know. I grieved that they could not spend the night with their grandparents or be in their home, which was the home where all the memories of my early life were crowded in the knick knacks and the albums.  I grieved they could not know Brazil and most likely would not learn Portuguese and that even if we could scrape the money together to get us all to Brazil, we would certainly never have the money to travel to my favorite haunts or have the kinds of adventures my imagination was shaped by. My journal has pages of surrendering these desires as sacrifices to the Lord.

In one sense, I had this great joy that I had something to give to the Lord that cost me something.  I guess this is what a "sacrifice of praise" means--you praise him when it costs you something.  You give up something he is asking you to give up...and you do it in love for him with joy, not with resentment.

And at times, I was deeply comforted by that communion with God--I had given him my life.  It was his, and he could decide what connections I kept and what culture and experience and communities shaped the lives of my children.

And then, out of the blue, God gave me a particular gift, understood most fully only between us.  My husband was given a three month sabbatical, and we began to dream about taking our whole family to Brazil where I was raised and where most of my family still lives, and where Stewart and I had forged many adventures together before we had children, treking through the Amazon and the Pantanal, and beyond, ministering to whomever God put in our path.  We could not know if it was financially feasible, but we began to pray and explore.

I went into the sabbatical spent and exhausted--I had come out of years of birthing and raising children without family help, homeschooling, leading a church and diocese alongside my husband, lots of church crises that sometimes caused a lot of emotional and spiritual stress.  I needed a rest. And God had chosen a rest for me, crafted by Him, who loved me and knew what I would love.

When we were crowded in the airport--all eight of us--even my daughter who is in college, loaded with suitcases for our ten week trip to Brazil, I finally allowed myself to believe it.  Through the incredible generosity of our church, our diocese, and friends, and I must add, my extensive community in Brazil, who provided phones, apartments, houses, cars to use on their end, we lived into the greatest gift I have ever been given.


We traveled to our favorite places in several parts of Brazil, we stayed at the school where I studied and taught, we visited family friends and people I had grown up with, we had hilarious and harrowing adventures, long Brazilian church services, God-anointed encounters, and of course, precious time with grandparents, uncles, aunt, and cousins.  We went to my favorite colonial towns and stayed for a month in a fishing village with coral reefs exposed every time the tide went out.  And God added in adventures and gifts and new people and places to love that I could never have planned.
Over and over I just felt the Lord say, "I did this for you...just because I love you."


I don't know why God waited until now to give this to me, but it was perfect in timing--most of my children were old enough to engage with everything with absolute delight...and even tried to learn and speak the language.  We even left my 16 year old son there.  Others are talking about returning. Strangely, I think Brazil will be in their blood, even though I gave up that hope long ago.

It would be wrong for us not to understand this about our God:  he truly is extravagant in his love.  And if we accept the sacrifices he calls on us to make for his kingdom, we will find surprising gifts, not primarily material ones (though these will come as well), but gifts that connect us to him in the deepest kind of love.

God's gift to me was extravagant, it was particular, it was artistically crafted to bring me delight and joy.  I learned at a deeper level that if you seek first his kingdom, all these things (whatever that means particularly to you) will be added unto you...maybe not in the way you expect, but in a way that lets you know how much he loves you.

This is why I was not writing on my blog for months--little internet connection in the places we stayed.  Providential?  Another gift?