The Presence of Love

A meme winds its way around social media.  A black-and-white illustration reveals animals in a manger, surrounded by trees.  A lone star shines above.  The caption reads: “A nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans or refugees.”

Perhaps it would be poignant, if it weren’t so cutting.  Perhaps it would be comical, if it weren’t so timely.

It reminds me of the ancient teaching from Deuteronomy (See 10:12-19) which invites reflection on how to express God’s love.   We’re instructed to:

. . . revere the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep God’s commandments and decrees.

We’re urged to follow God’s laws.  And in so doing, to open our hearts, not only to God, but to all others, too.  The text continues:

Cut away, then, the barrier around your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.

We’re urged to consider how our hearts may be hardened and whether we’re hanging onto an old prejudice we haven’t completely released.

We’re invited to remember:

God, mighty and awesome, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers [also translated as immigrants], and provides them food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a foreign land.

The truth is: At least once in our lives, we’ve all been strangers somewhere.  As we reflect on how powerful God’s unconditionally loving, infinitely compassionate presence is, we also can remember that once we felt hungry, tired, cold, hurt, lost, afraid or alone.

We also can remember that God’s loving presence appeared — in its own way — with skin on.  When we felt the presence of love in a blanket, a hug, a prayer, a phone call, gas money, a ride to the doctor, help getting up the ladder or down from the cliff.  When someone, sometimes a stranger, changed our flat tire in the rain, paid for our dinner, or gave us a gift we never could purchase ourselves.  With no strings attached.

These days, headlines would have us believe that it’s Us versus Them.  That we better steel ourselves with weapons, behind closed doors, because the world is a dangerous place.  If we believe some of the headlines, any stranger or immigrant in our midst could be a threat.  Though whoever the stranger is, s/he also is a divine child of God.

The child to be born in Bethlehem knew how to open his heart.  He studied God’s law.  He knew how to love unconditionally.  Sometimes, we may struggle to imagine how he did it, when we know the challenges and conflicts he faced.

Still, we can remember: The teachings don’t say we have to understand others.  Or like them.  They tell us to love.

The child to be born in Bethlehem, enfolded in love, will teach his followers (see Luke 10:27):

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

Love like that isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Love like that takes all the heart we have.  And the presence of that love is the greatest gift we can give — no matter what the season.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Habari Gani, and Happy New Year, Blessed Readers.  Thank you for being with me on the journey.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Pie for Breakfast (And a Few Other Ways to Enjoy the Holidays)

During the Thanksgiving holiday before I left Washington, D.C. for good, I relished my time with family and friends. I honored my contemplative spirit which needed a respite from the fast-paced, high-powered lifestyle of “have-to’s, ” “musts” and “shoulds.” Especially, I enjoyed the Friday morning following Thanksgiving when Dad and I ate our traditional post-holiday breakfast of leftover pie and ice cream.

As I savored a combination of apple-cranberry and cherry garnished with coffee ice cream, I recounted a few disappointments, including our lack of a storybook holiday.  Dad, who’d worked in advertising, listened, then said: “Those only happen in movies and commercials.”

Alas, I knew he was correct.  And, as a pastor, I’ve witnessed how many people feel sadness and grief in believing that everyone else has a “Hallmark-Card-I’ll Be Home for the Holidays” experience.

The truth is: Few holidays are ideal.  And when we pressure ourselves to create such a fantasy, we set ourselves up for disillusionment and distress.  Furthermore, the pressure to meet others’ expectations or outshine our neighbors has us saying, doing and buying things which prohibit our contentment and stress our bodies, minds, spirits and bank accounts.

So, no matter whether we’re Type A’s, travelers, homebodies, partiers, contemplatives, or a bit of each, here are some ways to stress less and rejoice more:

  • Begin with the end in mind. During our prayer and meditation time, we can consider our schedules and what will most renew our spirits.  This includes determining who’s most important to us.  A beloved aged relative who affirms our purpose or an ill BFF who needs a boost gets priority over another cocktail party of vacuous conversation.
  • When gathered with a mixed group of varying beliefs and opinions, we can strive to listen more and persuade less. Remember: A person convinced against his/her will is of the same opinion still.  So, we can choose to gently disengage.  When someone, especially a loved one, wants to debate, we can say something such as: “I love you.  Let’s agree to disagree on this one.”  Then we can change the topic to something neutral, such as shared love of a sports team or our fondness for sweet potatoes.
  • If, for whatever reason, we can’t be physically present with loved ones, we can still call or video conference. Schedule a specific time of 20 minutes or more to connect and share.
  • Limit the highlight reels on social media so we enjoy ourselves without comparing our holiday to someone else’s.
  • Remember: Happiness occurs on a scale. This includes feeling calm, content, peaceful, relaxed and/or rested.
  • Remember also: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are days on a calendar. Their true purpose isn’t for overdoing, overeating or overspending, but for celebrating rich harvests, welcoming new life, and setting intentions for greater possibilities.  When we maintain this perspective, we often feel more grateful for what we have.
  • And, of course, consider eating pie for breakfast.

Happy Thanksgiving, Blessed Readers!

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Merry in Service

Once upon a time, I thought vocation – an inclination toward a particular career or a divine call to God’s service – was merely a word on the SATs. While I side-stepped my true calling, I held several different jobs, sometimes two at a time. For many years, I worked seven days a week during the holidays, which ran from just before Thanksgiving to a few days past New Years.

At that time, my family was in the food business. We ensured that candied yams, assorted meats, pastas, Buche de Noel, latkes, applesauce, chicken soup with matzo balls, and Christmas cookies blessed and nourished thousands at the holidays. Not only did we take orders, ring up sales, and wrap gift baskets, we also planned and catered other people’s holiday parties. On Christmas Eve, we watched the last of the gifts go out the door. On Christmas Day, we prepared and served Christmas dinner for another family. Usually, I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the vicarious thrills of different menus and the sound of customers’ delight.

Recently, I reflected on this time as I shopped at a local gourmet market and watched a young woman wrapping gift baskets, tucking a jar of raspberry jam here, a box of butter cookies there. The rush of shoppers was palpable, especially from a young father who checked his list twice and wheeled his children around.

I roamed aisles, as if I had gone back in a time machine, noticing piles of international cheeses, infused olive oils, boxes of pastries, bulk candies, chips, nuts, and – this being Florida – a variety of flowers and orchids. As I mused on the scenery and waited my turn at the prepared foods counter, two strangers rejoiced in being “off” for the holidays. A young man scooping out chicken salad muttered, “I’m working.”

“Yes, so am I,” I whispered.

He nodded, as if assured he wasn’t alone.

Later, at another store, as I sampled some French Roast and enjoyed a momentary caffeine jolt, a clerk asked, “Off for the holiday now?”

“No,” I said. “In the flow of it and still going.”

“Oh, what do you do?” she asked, as if we belonged to the same club and hadn’t met yet.

I replied that I’m a pastor. As we wished each other Merry Christmas and pleasant work days, a young woman wearing a University of Florida t-shirt stopped me and asked, “Did you say you’re a pastor?”

“Yes,” I said, curious about how this might obligate me.

“Wow!” she gushed. “That’s awesome. I’m so glad to meet you. Where I’m from, women aren’t pastors.”

As I traveled home and unpacked my groceries, treats and trinkets, I reflected on what it means to serve during the holidays. In certain ways, little has changed for me. I said, “Yes,” to the call of service, first providing food for the body, now offering sustenance for the spirit. Either way, I’m grateful for my calling and all the people I imagine I bless, who also bless me.

Across the United States and various regions of the globe, men and women will serve during the holidays – in airports, churches, hospitals, hotels, markets, military bases, police stations, post offices, restaurants, and theatres. Whatever our vocational call, may we be those who bless and brighten other lives.

Merry Christmas, Blessed Readers, and God Bless Us, Everyone!

 

© 2015 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.