Sunday, May 5, 2024

Receiving What God is Doing

John 15:9-17

I visited my grandma on Monday. She’s 94 ½, and for most of my life she was one of the most joyful people I knew. Recently, though, she’s tired. She’s finished. And the things that opened her to joy and connected her with the world are diminished. Her daily four-mile walk is a distant memory. Her children and grandchildren no longer live right next door. Her parents, siblings, spouses, and friends are all gone, and her faithful dog died the year before her son did. Her hands are too unsteady for crossword puzzles and her eyes can no longer tolerate her voracious reading habit. What she has these days is daytime tv. 

Until recently, what mattered were her sons, her neighbors, her dog, grandchildren and greats, the birds she fed, the plants she grew, and the big garden she tended beside her small house. She knew the trees in the nearby woods, each one. She knew birdcalls and animal tracks and flower buds, and paid attention to sunsets, snowfalls, and owl nests, and debriefed it all every night on the phone with her sister. She lived attuned to life. 


But lately she stays inside her apartment. And even though she has steadfastly avoided all forms of smartphone, tablet, computer, or internet of any kind, she now takes in the world like many of us do – through a screen.


All this to say, on Monday morning, when I come into her apartment and she turns off the blaring true crime show and hugs me, it takes all of 30 seconds before she is oozing anxiety, near terror, about the state of the world. Is Owen at one of these terrible schools where the protests are happening?  Have you heard about all the immigrants overrunning our cities? Worry pours out of her. I tell her we’ve just been to New York City to visit with Owen for a quick day and a half, and she asks if we were mugged. 


I tell her instead about how 50 strangers on a street corner shared a silly moment between a skateboarder and someone else’s dog. About how the deli man treated me like I lived next door. And how, when the Staten Island Ferry was pulling into dock, a stranger behind me said, “Excuse me!” when I had nowhere to move to, and another stranger told him that he wasn’t being patient. “I’m being patient!” “No, man, you’re not.” and how it felt like we were buckled into the back seat of the family minivan and big brother was keeping little brother in line. 


She brings up a dire national threat, and I refute it, and she digs in hard and says it’s true. I realize with a slight stab of panic we are talking past each other, at each other. Instead of Grandma and granddaughter, we are Fear and Frustration, arming up to face off. And I haven’t even been here five minutes.


Finally, I look into her frightened eyes, my beloved, wise, and longsuffering grandma, and I say, “Grandma, the world is no more dangerous than it has ever been. This is a big, complicated, full world, and when you look for scary things, you will certainly find them. But when you look for connection and joy, for people caring for each other, for hope, that’s what you’ll see.” 


She pauses for a moment and then responds, “So you think I am looking for the wrong things?”

Yes, Grandma, I do.


And what I wish I’d said then is that she helped teach me this. She showed me how to look for beauty. She was an expert at seeing humor. She was dogged about connection and made people feel adored. She lived present, in the world, which is to say, perhaps without realizing it, she prayed. She loved boisterously: people, animals, the earth and sky. She showed me how to live into the seasons, and how to keep adjusting to the body you’re in as it changes. When I was small, she’d rock me and sing to me, and rub my back when she tucked me in at night. She didn’t let any nightmare set the terms for me, she let love show me what is real.  


But I don’t say that. I don’t say enough, don’t do enough, don’t stay long enough, what is ever enough? How would I even know? I’m limited and rushed, easily distracted and quick to argue. Too often, I let my fear of her fear lead me. I cannot love like I should, love like she deserves.


But love isn’t measured and earned.  It’s only received and shared. We can only be with and for each other and trust that God’s love is claiming us, reaching us each in the moment.  In our inability to say all that needs saying or to keep quiet when we can’t help reacting, nevertheless, God loves us and loves through us.


With coffee I picked up on the way and fruit cake she orders from the monks—which she swears they’re skimping on the bourbon lately, (and I don’t disagree)—we give to each other what we can, which is simply our presence.  We’re loved back to our true selves when we are with and for each other. Love shows us again what is real.


In our scripture today, Jesus invites us to make ourselves at home in love, the way he is at home in the love of his Father. In fact, to be at home in him is to be at home in God. He says if we keep his command (which is to say, Jesus' answer to what is a good life and how do we live it?), which is love one another, we will be at home in love, and Jesus’ own joy will become our joy.

Joy does not mean bad things not happening. Bad things will happen, that’s just life.  Joy is being at home in love no matter what happens. Sometimes joy feels euphoric and alive. But not always. Sometimes it’s groundedness in the midst of sorrow, or feeling quietly settled and secure, shoes off, eyes closed, guard down, tucked into love. 

This can’t be earned or lost; it’s not ours, it’s God’s love that never ends. And when we can receive being received in this way – known completely, loved utterly, belonging entirely - we can receive others as well. Not because they deserve it or we’re so good at it, but because God, who loves us, loves others through us. So, like the branches of a vine, the lifeblood of love simply moves through us.  And we taste what is coming, when all that degrades us in this life, all the is taken from us, all the ways the world says NO are swallowed up forever in the never-ending YES of God and redeemed. In joy, we sample now what will be all in all.


Everywhere these days, we’re invited to make our home in fear. To burrow into it and let it feed suspicion and division, let the fumes of it fill our lungs and cloud our eyes. We’re told what to fear and we fear it. We fear each other, we fear the future, we fear the looming threats of death and destruction and those who we’re certain could bring those things. We make enemies of each other, and we get trapped in anxiety and stuck in self-judgment. And soon enemies, anxiety, and self-judgment become what we’re looking for, and so they are what we see.

The truth is we all belong to God. We all belong each other. We forget this, or stop paying attention or noticing it, but we can’t stop it from being true. Jesus has done this. God keeps doing this.


There is no fear in love, we’re told in scripture, perfect love drives out fear. When we’re with and for each other we are loved back to our true selves, and love shows us again what’s real.  And we taste the fullness of the joy of God’s eternal yes.


Around here we wonder together who God is and what God is up to? God is love, loving us, always, and loving through us. When we look at the world through the lens of love and belonging, when we go into the places of suffering and pain with each other instead of fleeing them, Jesus will meet us right there; we will see God, and we will be part of what God is up to.


This starts not in our ability but our impossibility. We begin in our need, like the places where we are unable to live like we should or love like we wish. It starts in our loss, like the loss of who we once were and the bewilderment of things ending differently than we thought they would. There, in our impossibility, need and loss, God, who give us today our daily bread, who feeds us in the wilderness the manna we cannot provide for ourselves, who gifts us the faith of Christ that shepherds us through the darkest valley, who prepares a place for us in fullness of joy, God will love us and love other people through us.  


Until this limited part of the story is past, we won’t know most of how our how God has loved the world and touched other people’s lives through us, but we can trust that God is doing this. And we can try to pay attention. To receive it when it happens. To give thanks. To bless. To celebrate. To grieve with one another and come alongside others, knowing that is where Jesus is and will be. 


Perhaps what we’re really talking about today is prayer. Simply being available to God to meet us right now, right here. Paying attention. Turning our hearts toward God who turns us toward one another and makes us at home in love. And, with the help of the Holy Spirit, looking at the world through love’s lens to let love show us what’s real.


 “No one has ever seen God; 1 John says, “but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.” 


Sometimes we don’t receive what God is doing until after the fact. And so, now I receive it:

Sitting across the table from my grandma, taking in her frailty and loveliness, her long full life in all its previous chapters and now the atrophy and smallness of this final chapter that she’s not super thrilled about, there’s not much left we can do together. But I can drink coffee and eat bourbon fruit cake and sit with her in the aftermath of her fear when I’d stopped letting it scare me or goad me into an argument. I asked her about her life and listened to her. I received her. And I let her ask me about my life and listen to me. She received me. Through waves of awkwardness and ease, contentment and grief, we were together in this moment with this person. She was present, and I was present, and God was present; and the love that holds us all and will one day welcome us fully home, was holding us and welcoming us then.  For this gift, I give thanks.



 This is Part 3, receiving what God is doing, in a series on Receiving This Life. Read Part 1: Receiving what is, by Lisa Larges, and Part 2: Receiving what is difficult, by Kara K Root.  Coming up: receiving what God has already done, and receiving what will be.

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