2018 Advent Series – Day 21
I love Christmas. But Christmas also makes me uncomfortable.
The presents make me uncomfortable. The giving and receiving of presents, both/and. I haven’t yet worked out my feelings for stuff: Is it good? Does God intend for us to enjoy ourselves at Christmas? How much does he want us to enjoy ourselves? Do we need this stuff in order to understand Christmas? Do our family and friends need the cookie parties and the packages from Amazon in order to understand Christmas? It’s not that I don’t have a theology of material blessing; it’s that the theology I’ve affirmed doesn’t always sit well in my subconscious. I consciously affirm this process, but I don’t always like it.
And that will probably continue for some years into the future, as I figure it out and mature and as our family grows and develops tradition. But this year, the gift-discomfort has come to an unexpected head. This year (today, in fact), we are buying a house.
We sold our little ranch home in September and moved into a rental to watch for something to come on the market, something with a little bit of land that was still handy to the church and community (see this post for a description of our community). Then we resolved, after a few frustrating showings, that we couldn’t afford what our town had to offer at the moment and that we would wait until spring to see if the market softened.
But our realtor and friend called one day to say that something had come up, and we should look at it. The house is a former log cabin that had been totally renovated in what I can only describe as the exact style might have built a house in if I was building a house. It’s on seven acres, fifteen minutes from church. All the rebuilding was done over the last five years by a couple who intended it as a dream house and final retirement place… and who then followed a call to be missionaries in Belize. The house was listed well under our budget—a miracle considering the way it looks and the way the market has been out here.
When we went to see this house, I walked the interior with eyes wide, and then walked the yard alone, praying timid prayers. My prayer mainly consisted of requests for help. “Help me to have a good attitude about not getting this house.” This is my usual prayer for resignation when I see things I want that I can feel my husband is nervous about. It was a good renovation job, but the house was old. 118 years old, in fact.
Over the next few days, I was astounded to find that my husband sought counsel, and that the counsel seemed positive about the property. I could see him getting excited as we made an offer and it was swiftly accepted. And over the weeks of inspections and appraisals, I have staunchly repeated my prayer for resignation, rather than jumping up and down and screaming with joy.
But one day last week—after a few days of new surprises, with the owner of the house coming home from Belize and personally walking us around the house to show hidden features and details that he’d put in for his wife’s comfort—I realized that something just wasn’t adding up about my behavior. I was reluctant to talk about the house to anyone. I had reluctantly thanked God for what he seemed to be giving, but in language of careful, unenthusiastic maturity.
Finally, it was a group of friends asking me questions about the purchase and commenting on what I told them that made me aware of this disconnect. They commented several times among them, “I just can’t believe it! It’s like God designed this house to you and he’s giving it to you!” My realtor, as well: “I’m just amazed at the way the Lord seems to be going before you in this and smoothing every little thing out!”
And I had to ask myself: Why am I so reluctant to thank God for this house? How much more obvious could he make it, if it WAS a gift? Did I expect him to affix a large bow to the front porch? At this point, I would hardly be surprised.
It’s not just that he has filled every box in the “need” column (price, durability, etc.); to those things he has added such a bizarre collection of the “wants” (space, style of finishings, room for exterior planting and improvement, master closet, tongue and groove ceilings, walk-in pantry, floating staircase, chicken coop). There is truly something embarrassing about it all, something shocking and almost scary to me about admitting that all of it—down to the presence and kindness of the current owner—is a material gift that God intends to give us.
It’s not that, in theory, I don’t believe in the idea of his orchestrating all things. Apparently, I affirm that. It’s just that apparently, I also have many secret pet theories about us all being responsible for our own well being. I also have a reluctance to believe that God would give to one but not to another. And I how can I tell my friend who’s dealing with an overwhelming house project, ‘God decided to give me my dream house at less than market value, with all the major work done’? It implies that he chose not to do the same for her. This feels like some kind of prosperity gospel claim, an implication of God’s favor for which that I see no evidence of desert.
I’d be very happy to talk to others about hard spiritual lessons from God. I’d be ready to discuss all the things he decided not to give me in order to teach me contentment. But how can I talk about this? My fundamental distrust will not allow it; I distrust any “intention” from God that involves me getting material blessing undeserved, and has no implied spiritual back tax.
But why don’t I face the fact that after all, my whole life has been nothing but a series of material blessings (attended, admittedly, by pain and spiritual need and difficult spiritual growth)? I was born—I received. I was loved and taught—I received. I was employed—I received. I was hosted and gifted by dozens of people along the way—I received. I married—I received. I had children—I received. I am alive—I have received. Jesus came and I’m twice alive—I have received.
The really uncomfortable thing about all of this is the fact that if the Lord gives, he can also take away. If my boot straps and ingenuity have not sustained me—if it is Him alone—than he’d better jolly well keep sustaining me or I’m done for. Perhaps this is the terrifying thought that really causes us to shy away from ascribing to the Lord his “mighty works” especially when those mighty works benefit us personally:
It brings us back to the uncomfortable conclusion that in order to sit well with this shiny new thing or circumstance that we wanted but didn’t quite need, we have to know him better than we now do. We need to know him, our Father, well enough to understand relationally something that we tritely repeat to each other all the time: He gives something and always expects us to love HIM for it. He sends pleasant things for our good and pleasure—embarrassing though it may be—but he also takes things, for our good and future pleasure, and expects us to love HIM for it. And unless we learn his voice and seek his presence continually, we won’t be able to get a feel for what he is asking in this instance. We won’t know whether gratitude and generosity is the obedient response to something within our reach… or self-denial and turning away.
We won’t know the feel of a gift from him because we’ll be strangers to his voice, to the Personhood that turns an acquisition into a gift.
This is a long way of saying that this Christmas, there are ways of dealing with the presence of presents. And it’s going to take a little more discernment than we thought.
The great gift has already come. We can’t accept the lesser gifts with any kind of grace, with the proper openhanded grasp, unless we cherish and value that first and greatest gift. He is the one who made us into your children in the first place. He’s the reason that we can gather close to your presence, around your tree of life. Rather than navel gazing, distrustful beggar children on the street, who pry a piece of silver out of a generous man’s hand and run down the street because we’re afraid he’ll ask for it back, teach us the assurance and joy of knowing that our Father is good and that we will always have what we need. Make us generous this Christmas.
[Note from Tilly: Finding myself pregnant at Christmas for the third time, I’ve committed to do a short advent devotional each weekday of December . They will all be labeled by date and can be found together under the “Advent” subject category.]