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?