Posts Tagged grace

Santa, Social Signals, and Expectations

So last weekend we took one of our classes to the park for a final lesson, including family and friends. We taught some now vocab, played games that reinforced the lesson (and were a lot of fun), picnicked and gave out Christmas gifts. Oh, yes, the gifts. I got to dress up as Santa for the second time in two days and pass out presents from a big red sack. Cool!

Only, the last time I’d done this it was in a classroom with everyone on seats, and the kids called forwards one at a time to get their certificates and gifts. This time I slipped off to a nearby garden, got into the jolly red suit (complete with fake beard), picked up the bag bulging with gifts brought by the parents and labelled with each child’s name, and headed back to the lawn by the lake where my fellow teachers were just wrapping up the games. Along the way I worked on the rolling gait and the ‘Ho Ho Ho’ obligatory to the role.  And of course, the families I passed along the path were very happy to pause and give seasonal greetings (in the local language) to the man of the hour. In fact, by the time I got back to the lawn where we had set up our picnic, I had quite a little gathering…

This posed something of a challenge – more so for me because my fluency in the local language lets me say “Merry Christmas”, but not, “I’ll bring you your gifts later on this week – these ones are only for this English Language Class.”  So, quite unlike our nice little closely contained classroom setting, I had the task of handing out gifts only to the kids from our group amidst an ever-increasing mob of avaricious kids. I’d call out the name on the gift, and hand it over to the appropriate parent over the increasingly frantic fingers of the small children dancing around my knees, and hope I’d got the right parent, and not an imposter. The task was made trickier because a few families had seen our class enjoying their games and joined in, so they were a little uncertain of whether or not they were going to get gifts.

But by and large, there was no uncertainty. The man in the red suit was right there in front of them, he had a huge sack of stuff, and he was handing the contents out. Of course they were going to get a gift! The day was rescued by a box of beautifully decorated and individually wrapped Christmas Cookies we’d prepared the day before. As the bag emptied of the pre-named gifts, it was thrust into my hands and I passed them out merrily, until it became clear to all that there was nothing more to be gained here but crumbs, and the crowds slowly dissipated back to their pre-Santa fun.Santa in the Park

For which I was immensely grateful. There was one very persistent little girl who had been eyeing my enormously fluffy white beard and muttering ‘fake’ (in the local lingo) to herself for some minutes so I was more than a little concerned that I would be set upon as an imposter.

This is what troubles me about my identification with the real ‘reason for the season’. Everybody, even here, knows a little about that baby, born into poverty and laid in a manger, and who he grew up to be. They know that he embodied love, kindness, generosity, and integrity. And for those of us who are called by His name… well, actually, we often don’t embody those things. Not as often as we’d like to, anyway. Certainly not as often or as consistently as those around us would wish. I can get away with the ‘Santa’ sobriquet for a little while – so long as no-one actually tugs on that false face. But to call me a ‘saint’ – as the scripture writers do? Surely that’s stretching it.

From the perspective of heaven I am a saint – I am seen as belonging to the One who has adopted me into His family, and therefore as sharing all His goodness and grace. And because I really am part of that family, because I live in that atmosphere of love and acceptance and creativity and joy, I do manage to be a lot better than I might otherwise be. But I’m also still me. I am yet a long way away from perfection.

Adopting the name of someone so well-known is a challenge that I want to duck. I don’t want to have to deal with the disappointment and even anger of those who find I am not yet very much like the one whose name I bear. The signal it sends is that I am ‘like’ Him. And I wish it were true.

CS Lewis once wrote about someone in the trenches alongside him during WWI who saw him as better than he really was. Someone who expected far more of him than he expected of himself. He surprised himself by trying hard to live up to that expectation, even though within himself he felt it to be false – as though he were wearing a mask. He realised that over time, by acting up to those expectations, he was actually becoming a better person. He was growing to fit the mask. As AA puts it, sometimes you gotta ‘fake it till you make it’.

I guess that’s the privilege as well as the peril of identifying myself with my Lord. I get to be called by his name, and so I have to deal with not just the odd disappointment in those around me, but also the reality that I really do behave better when I try to conform to others expectations. And when my bag of goodness is all empty…

Well, those are the times when someone tucks ‘Christmas cookies’ under your arm and keeps you going just long enough. If there’s only a few crumbs left at the end of the day, remember, you got to the end of the day, and tomorrow will look after itself. We got a promise on that.

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The Practice of Fasting

This year God used my annual retreat to challenge me about my greed.  About my sense of entitlement to the good things in my life, about my resentment when anything (even He) gets between me and what I consider ‘mine’.  About my refusal to let the good things he’s given me become a means of communion with others; my refusal to share in His name.  I don’t stuff my face at buffet meals.  I don’t avariciously seek to maximise every penny.  I don’t feel any need to wear designer clothes or drive a flash car.  I can sneer at all these things – and yet greed has innumerable tiny hooks in my soul, and it was only the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, scripture reading and contemplation that exposed me.  That showed me my need for God’s grace and God’s forgiveness and God’s discipline in my life. 

There are episodes of devotion, like my annual retreat, that are intense and that can overthrow spiritual mountains (or expose spiritual undermining), but if those intense episodes aren’t grounded in daily life, then they are meaningless.  How do we live in the valleys and on the plains by the light of the mountain-top visions?  Here’s where the disciplines are essential.  The discipline of fasting is taking the ordinary discipline of self-denial to a pointed extreme.  On its own, fasting is meaningless.  If I’m only prepared to deny myself on those special occasions when I ‘fast’, then I’m not really fasting at all; I’m just trying to earn spiritual brownie-points – yet another form of greed!  I need to be able to deny my desires, my lust and greed on a daily basis.  How?  Start small.  What’s something small that you know you don’t actually need or even want, but take for yourself because you’re afraid of missing out?  Something that is a little self-indulgence.  A little guilty.  Whatever it is, it can be your opportunity to practice the discipline of self-denial.  Say to yourself that you’ll forgo whatever it is next time you have the opportunity.  Tell yourself that you are free to leave it for someone else to enjoy.  Remind yourself that God will supply all your needs – abundantly.  Consider how denying yourself in this way might help you to serve others.

When Jesus spoke about fasting, he talked about dressing up festively – “put oil on your head and wash your face” – instead of covering ourselves with sackcloth and ashes.  His point was that the fast is between us and God so we don’t need to advertise.  We should beware of using the disciplines as an opportunity for boasting, but the picture he paints goes a little further than that, too.  We should dress up festively not just to put on a false face, but because we can be glad in our fasting – because God really is an amazingly generous God, and pours his grace out to us superabundantly.  When we detach ourselves from our petty desires, and pause to see all that God gives, we live in gratitude and celebration.  Fasting and self-denial shouldn’t lead us to pretend that God’s goodness isn’t good, but should sharpen our appreciation for the richness of God’s bounty.  And that should overflow into generosity.  These are the spiritual fruit that come from fasting; not misery and resentment and suspicion of pleasure and plenty, but joy in God’s blessings, and a warm open-handedness.  We may first have to confront our resentment of God’s Lordship in our lives, and our anxieties about not having enough, and our fear of missing out, and so forth, and that might be a painful process. But the outcome should be a much greater freedom, and an easier communion for us all. 

The whole world is now clutched tight in the grip of rampant commercialisation.  There is nothing that has not been reduced to a market opportunity.  Our worship of wealth has led to a tiny elite of super-rich, and ever-increasing poverty for those who supply the wants and desires of the 1%.  The world needs better answers than “increased quarterly growth” and “buoyant markets”.  It needs a new vision.  It needs God’s Kingdom.  And it needs us to show them what the kingdom looks like.  But for us to show forth the kingdom, it has to become real in our own hearts.  Can I commend to you the discipline of fasting?  Prepare yourself well, and find a spiritual overseer to guide you in it, and then enjoy what God will do in your soul.

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