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Yesterday was the first day of Advent, a season of anticipation that culminates with the birth (advent) of Christ. Waiting is something I'm familar with. First, I'm often thinking about the future (which is always not now!), and second, because I feel like I've spent the last few years waiting for some major change in my life. Third, I've thoroughly bought the idea that delayed gratification is a good thing. (Although maybe that's my just my inability to make decisions and not really a virtue!)

As Christians, we're taught to be waiting expectantly for a time when all will be put to rights (an N.T.Wright phrase). A time when all that is promised will come true: the lion will lay down with the lamb, friends and family will be reunited, tears will be wiped away, all will be healed, and we will live in the delight of God's presence. This is the advent season we are truly inhabit - the waiting for not the first, but the second coming of Christ.

But I've noticed that setting my hope into the future good that is coming can often keep me from the joy of the moment. It keeps me from being present to what is going around me now. It's like I'm holding my breath, and my body is starting to become oxygen deprived. Or, having taken an "I'm just holding on" stance, my fingers are starting to numb and my toes are beginning to tingle. Several years ago I realized I had better start enjoying living on the cliff, or I was going to become miserable, and maybe even run the risk of falling off. It was time to set camp on a large ledge and start enjoying the view, learning the names of the birds circling me, and appreciate the type of rock face I was scaling.

This blend of enjoying the present while desiring the future is something I think is important. Maybe it's like a kid who anticipates the delight of Christmas morning, while still continuing to play with last year's presents, while appreciating and cultivating the relationship between herself and the parents and grandparents who were the givers of those gifts. Right now, we have all we need to be joyful. (see 2 Peter 1:3) And the goodness and glory of our God guarantees that our joy will only increase as we practice His presence and live out of His promises.

 
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This morning, while listening to our local public radio station, I happened to catch this piece of data: one of the things that determines whether or not you will be happy at work, is, surprisingly, not the type of work, but the fact that you have a best friend at work. In one way, this is surprising, given all the talk on the importance of "meaningful work" in our lives. In another way, this is not so surprising, given the deeper need we have for meaningful relationships.

In past blogs, I've talked about 2 types of love: giving-love (which we often connect with God) and receiving-love (which I've tried to show is actually supremely Godlike). But there's a third type of love that  rounds out the multi-directional aspects of love. This is "making" or creating-love." Creating-love is what happens when you aren't only the giver, or only the receiver, but you are involved in a relationship where the giving and receiving flows back and forth and the result is that something new is made. Love as co-creating.

This creating-love shows up in many situations: the love of two friends who go on a camping trip and forge an experience, or sit around drinking coffee and discover a new insight; the love of an artist with their medium who with the give and take of the material they're working with fashion a painting, dance, song or new cuisine. (Interestingly enough, writers discuss how writing is often co-creative. Some characters just show up, and then they take unexpected turns which the author is obliged to follow.) There is also the love of a husband and wife who join their lives together to establish a home and out of their love-making conceive children, creating a family to fill that home.

The first thing we learn about the God of the Bible is that he is a making God. Hebrew scriptures start "in the beginning" and in the beginning God creates. Christians affirm that God creates out of nothing - at least to begin with. But once something is made, God speaks to what is and woos more from what is there. I love the passages that describe the sea and the earth joining in the creative process - "Let the earth bring forth!" God says. "Let the sea bring forth". And they, and God, together do.

It's the joy that comes from working together that brings the happiness that the researcher was describing in the blurb I mentioned above. And it's this joy of creating together that God also desires with his creation. More on future blogs.
 
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It's Black Friday, the official beginning of the gifting season. Every year, it seems, the malls open earlier and earlier. This year, online shopping sales actually began on Thanksgiving day. Maybe this was a good thing. While husbands settled down after dinner to watch football, their wives headed to the computer to get their shopping done. Everyone gets to sleep in on Friday and do the dishes and eat leftovers! All this shopping is powered by the belief that there is joy in giving.

I've been pondering the phrase, "it is more blessed to give than to receive." After the previous post here, It seemed like there might be stil be more to say on this. Plus, for the past several weeks, I've been pursuing the hypothesis that the greatest form of love is actually not the giving-love but rather the receiving love or joy (enjoying) of love. If it really is more blessed to give than to receive, I might have to dump my hypothesis.

Thankfully, I have my mom to go to. Recently she'd been out to visit and part of the time we spent together was shopping for Christmas presents for our family. Giving is one of my mom's greatest joys. In fact, her main concern in retirement was whether or not she would be able to continue to give presents to her (23) grandchidren. The good news was, thanks to my dad's careful and creative money management over the years, the answer to that question is "yes". There should be enough money to keep giving.

But why does my mom (and why do others) love to give? The answer is pretty obvious to my mom. It gives her great joy. In other words, she receives joy from participating in the joy that the giver experiences through her gift. When I receive a gift, I experience love in receiving. Whereas, the giver experiences the double joy of being the active agent of the joy of someone else. This might be sounding a bit complicated, let me see if I can try again. Giving = 2xjoy because I delight in someone else's delight. And I know that I am the source of that delight.

The reason one gives is so that one receives. Not another "gift" (who doesn't know the panic when an unexpected gift shows up. But I don't have anything for you, we sputter.) but rather the delight of the receiver. This is where we often go wrong when we think of self-sacrificing love. If we're not careful, we can stop at the act of giving of ourselves and not go through to the joy. Such "love" is not true self-sacrificing love, because true love springs from the hope of joy of the one who is being sacrificed for. The writer of Hebrews says, "Jesus, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross." (Heb 12:2) Jesus gave of Himself precisely because He knew (and the Godhead knew) that He/They would receive from this sacrifice. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, creation would be brought into health and wholeness. Redemption would be accomplished and we would receive fullness of life. 

Paul talks in Philippians 2:2 about "making his joy complete". John has the same phrase in I John 1. They are both echoing what Jesus says in John 15. Jesus wants to have joy in His disciples. They are to remain in him and bear much fruit, that brings him joy. They are to ask the father in His name, that in receiving from him their joy may be full. It's hard to get around it. The life that Jesus died to give, is a life of constant giving and receiving, characterized by joy. Righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost - that makes God happy! and fills us with joy.

 
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Part of our traditional Thanksgiving gathering is a time of speaking thanks. If we give ourselves a few minutes, the list can become rather long. But it occurred to me that taking some extra time to be aware of what we're thankful for can be another way of enjoying those people, things, events, and insights that make our lives full. Sort of letting those things we're thankful for seep into our hearts and nourish us. The poem below explores that theme.

Thanksgiving poem

Let the thanks seep deep, deep down,
Like melted butter, steeped with thyme and lemon zest,
Now basted, gently soaks my turkey’s breast.

And let the thanks slow simmer up and out,
To work its way throughout your heart and mind
As rosemary, sea salt, onion, garlic rise, 
The stuffing in my roasting bird.

And when it flavors all you are,
Then serve your thanks around the table,
Nourishment, the joyful strength.

Share it with both friend and family,
In the flesh or only held in mind
(who also join from heaven’s realm)
United in the feast that’s set by grace
And seasoned with the love of God.
 
The last few blogs have been exploring the idea that loving God includes enjoying God. I'm trying to make a case that while serving and sacrificing are good and true manifestations of love toward someone, perhaps we don't go far enough if we don't include love as enjoyment of the loved one.

Revelation 2 may give some unexpected help in this regard. In the first several verses of this chapter Jesus is addressing the church at Ephesus. He commends the congregation there for their perseverance, their hatred of false teachings and their ability to ferret out false prophets. All good things to be doing when you're following the God of the universe. So far, so good. It sounds like these people are doing a great job of being Christ followers. But then he chastises them severely for losing track of their "first love." The language is strong: "Remember the height from which you have fallen. Repent." It's as if he's saying that things done for God are not even in the same ballpark as being in love with God.

Here's the reason why. The move "in love" with God I am, the more I enjoy being in His presence. Being with God makes me desire the good that He is. I develop a taste, even a thirst for the goodness of God. The more I enjoy being with Him, the more I learn to appreciate what He appreciates, I see what He sees, I value what He values. I realize that He loves and values me. I soak up that love and begin to see myself through His eyes. I notice the gifts that He's given me, the intricate way I'm created, my unique ways of mirroring some of His many marvelous character traits. Then I start to see that this love doesn't stop with me. Rather, it encompasses every living thing that moves, and even the living things that don't move. I see that he values people (including my neighbors and children), the stray dogs and cats, the colors in fall leaves, the intricacies of clever engineering. I see that God loves what He has made.

I also see that it grieves God, because of His love, that his creation has fallen into disrepair. That his delight of all He has made is short-circuited, just as the love of a parent is pained when a child goes through a life-threatening illness. Or a teacher is troubled when a student with promise drops out of school and is caught up in a gang. The love of God moves me to action.

But the reverse is not true. Activity will not necessarily engender love and affection or a daily sense of what is in the mind of the one for whom you're working. I can be working diligently for a company, staying up late into the night, creating new marketing strategies, new improved products, watching out for competitors, etc. But this is not the same as having Thanksgiving dinner with the CEO. In fact, it may even keep you from accepting the invitation to come on over and enjoy the feast.

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus tells his disciples that they are not his "servants" but his friends. They no longer live out of obligation or obedience. Rather, their lives flow from a relationship where they know God and his ways intimately. I wonder if this is what Jesus is referring to when he speaks to the group of "friends" at Ephesus. In losing the connection - the joy of being in loving relationship with the Godhead - the Ephesians are in danger of moving backwards from friends to servants. And the fainter the connection, the less able they (and we) are to live in the Spirit of the God who loves us, and who loves other people.
 
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I think God enjoys Godself. That thought came to me while pondering what it will be like to be in the presence of God. Often I think about this as being caught up in love, peace, rest. But this morning I imagined the playful energy that comes from freedom and delight. Kind of like God saying, "Hey come on up here, we're having a great time!" So I guess it shouldn't surprise me that when I went outside later in the day, God ambushed me.

Playtime in Fall

The tree outside my window grins.
Come, play with me!, she says.
I see the golden leaves that spin and swirl like honey in the wind.
And smile.  That would be fun, I think.
But not right now,
I’m making soup and sorting files.

Files done, soup is made.
I should go for a walk.
I need to get some exercise,
It’s good for you, you know.

The tree ambushes me.

I’m more intent on raking leaves
That snuck inside my clean garage.
But then I look and SEE those leaves.
The treasure chest of gold and ruby,
Strewn beneath her boughs.
Ah ha! she says, then flirts.
Enjoy me! Scuff those leaves.
Drink the yellow, feel the breezes swaying through my hair.
See, I’ll pose against the blue November sky.

I smile, snap her photograph. Smell the yellow,

Drink in warmth. Mmmmm.

Well, time to move along.
I need to take my walk.
Good for me, my exercise
Good for me, I know.

Hey, what about the stream (our entry point for kayaking)
I’ve forgotten that it’s there,
Just beyond the grassy lawn.
I wander over to the bank, to gaze a while and muse.

The cheery sun would like to plant a kiss upon my face,
And so I lift my chin and pause for love.

I love the stream, I love the sound
Of eager waters, filling up the banks and in a rush
To who knows where-
Its music makes me happy.

And then it’s home for lunch, and so
I turn my steps toward the spacious green,
Kept tailored by a neighbor whom I do not know.

Ambushed again!

A wave of leaves, caught by the wind,
Is rolling in. My hands spring up to guard my face.
I gasp and laugh! Who knew the force,
The breakercrash of leaves?
I stand and watch the next gust draw them back into their sea,
The eddies settle, calm- until they pounce again.

I chuckle as I’m heading home.
My face a ruddy glow.
I’d rather play than exercise.
It’s good for you, you know.
 
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I've been thinking a lot lately (although not writing much) about love. If I believe God is love and that we are called to live in love, what exactly does that mean? Two recent Bible studies, one this past summer with a group of women, and one currently with some college students, have emphasized the importance of love. But once that's been said, it seems like the conversation dries up. Or at least heads down wellworn and familiar paths that don't seem to take me anyplace new.

What I've concluded is that love manifests itself in three different directions. First, love is the act of giving. As Christians, we are very familiar with this type of love. We know that God loved us so much that He gave and that the cross is the greatest example of love that humankind has ever seen. We also know, from Paul, that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Given that giving love is so well-documented and praised in our Scripture, it might be easy to think that it is the sum of love. But I don't think that is the case. Rather than the sum of love, I believe that "giving love" is the beginning point of love, or at least love as it appears to us humans,  who are created out of God's loving desire to give life. It is the starting point, because the next phase of love is love as receiving, or as resting, enjoying, appreciating. When I say, "I love sunsets", I mean that I appreciate, delight in, am nourished by sunsets. There is nothing that I do for the sunsets, yet I do not love them if I do not let them nourish me. If I ignore them, night after night filling my sky with amazing color and changing light, then I certainly do not love them.

In addition, if I say that I love my husband, and my love for him only consists in giving to him, encouraging him, serving him, even sacrificing my own well being for his good, then have I truly loved him in the fullest sense of the word? Maybe I have loved him in the deepest sense of the word (this is what I think Jesus means when he says that greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend) but there seems to be something lacking in our relationship. However, if in addition to serving, encouraging and sacrificing for him I enjoy him, appreciate him, rest in him, in short, allow him to give to me, then my love for my husband is expanded in a new dimension.

But what does this have to do with God? Can we say that God enjoys us? that He, the great giver of all things, who does not need anything and is self-sufficient unto himself can be a receiver, and that his receiving enhances his experience of love? Immediately I am reminded of the verse in Zephaniah "The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." (Zeph 3:17). God longs to delight, to take joy in us. This shouldn't surprise us. In Genesis 1, God says time after time of his creation, "This is good. This is good". Often the word "good" is set against evil, and has a moral ring to it. We think that God says, "This is good, there is nothing wrong with it, It passes muster." But what if we imagine God saying, "This is good" more like the "mmmmmm" that escapes your mouth when you lick the bowl of a brownie mix, or the "ahhhhhh" when you see an awesome fireworks, or the "ooooooh" of a child when they open a birthday gift.
 
To choose to love means to choose joy. To choose to enjoy, to receive the gifts of God, to nestle into His goodness and rest in His strength. As we do this, it continues the cycle, for God delights in our delight of Him.

More next time...
 
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Several years ago, my husband and I had our introduction to the marvleous artistry in glass of Dale Chihuly. We were visiting the Cincinnati Art Museum with a friend and struck by the exuberant extravagance of a glass sculpture hanging in the foyer. It was love at first sight. Since then, we've been on the lookout for more of Chihuly's handiwork, discovering chandeliers in Seattle (his hometown) and the Corning Glass Museum. Last winter, Dan brought home some DVDs that described the history of Dale's creative process, his team approach, and showed footage of several installations that he'd done around the world. These were usually in gardens or conservatories, blending his exquisite glass objects with lush vegetation and colorful plantings.

So imagine my delight when I heard that there was a Chihuly exhibit at the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, MI, and that my husband had a business trip planned and was willing for me to tag along. It didn't hurt that I could also see a dear friend and visit my sister and family on either side. We were set!

Friday was cool but sunny, a perfect fall day for viewing the gardens and as we left our car and headed across the parking lot to the main entrance, my husband pointed and said, "there's one." In the distance we could see a tree of brilliant reds and greenish yellows, flinging its curlicued "branches" into the crystalline blue sky. The time flew by as we wandered from one grouping to the next; garnet spikes sprang from the hillside, graceful herons clustered in meadow grasses, glass that mimicked calas and jack-in-the-pulpits blended with colorful mums under fall foliage. Inside the conservatory, we explored the tropical forest; bishop weavers and canaries chortled and warbled while we discovered clam-shaped translucent bowls under a grove of bamboo, and fluted platters of gold resting in the tiny stream.

Outside once again, we followed the path to the sculpture gardens and rounded a corner to view a reed-rimmed pond, sporting floating glass reminiscent of hershey kisses, or miniature domes flung from a Russian cathedral. Hugging the far shore, a skiff was overflowing with a crazy array of sunshine yellow swans and oddly-blown black shapes that just had to be penguins! Further along the walkway, we marveled as carefully formed glass spheres perched on waterfall ledges, and a tower of yellow crystals caught the autumn sun.

By the time we finished walking through the gardens, we were ravenous. My friend had made me promise not to miss eating at the cafe. "You'll be sorry if you don't," she said. There hung enchanting chandeliers, clusters of flowers that traced the rainbow as they arched and spun across the ceiling. We ate our lunch and continued to feast our eyes on the whimsical mastery of a dedicated artist.

I think what I love about Chihuly is just that, the combination of mastery and whimsy that flow from his love of glass, and his playful curiosity. What happens if...? This love and curiosity, blended with a deep knowledge of the medium, allow him to create art that is technically flawless, delightfully innovative, and joyfully inspiring.

For more pictures of Chihuly at the Meijers Gardens, click here.