The idea of living abundantly has been playing in the background since September as I’ve crafted these messages from week to week. Living abundantly is the work of Christmas – rebuilding the broken walls of our community and world, and rebuilding the broken lives that seek shelter in community.
Finding the lost, healing the broken, feeding the hungry, releasing the prisoner, rebuilding the nations, bringing peace among brothers and sisters, making music in the heart1 – this is the work of the Church, the work of all of us, that we must claim as our own if we would celebrate Christmas rightly.
Where do we begin? It’s been said that “you can build a future out of anything. A scrap, a flicker. The desire to go forward, slowly, one foot at a time. You can build an airy city out of ruins.”2 Can we build the abundant life even out of the mess the world and our lives seem to be in today? I wonder.
We’ve been journeying toward God’s promised land, the “land flowing with milk and honey,” for 4,000 years, and once in a while we seem to have gotten pretty close to it, but it still seems so elusive. Jesus said he came that we might have more and better life than we ever dreamed of (John 10:10). If such life is indeed spread over the earth and people don’t see it, as he said (Gosp. Thomas 113), why don’t we see it? What does that city on a hill look like, that “airy city” of abundant life, and how do we close the distance to it?
The first step is the hardest, I think. The first step is to hear the message, and believe it, that you are the beloved son or daughter of God. There is nothing you need to do to gain God’s unconditional, unending love; it’s something you’re born with and can never lose. It seems so simple and obvious, but it’s such a profound and powerful message, I think if you get bored with it you haven’t really gotten it. However, once you do get it, you never grow tired of hearing it.
In my early life that message was coming to me all the time, but I couldn’t hear it through the static of other voices. Those other voices kept saying: you’re loved, you are valued, because of what you do; because what other people say about you reflects well on me; because you wear the right clothes, or live in the right neighborhood, or drive the right car, or move in the right social and political circles.
You know the voices because you’ve heard them, too. Almost everyone hears them. They are so subtle, persistent, and seductive, it becomes harder and harder to hear the original voice that says you are the beloved son or daughter of God and have been since before you were born. The first step on the way to living abundantly, and one of the hardest spiritual tasks, is to claim and live a life based on knowing that before you are anything else, you are a beloved son or daughter of God.
As Christians, we believe every member of the Church is called to a role (we call it a ministry) in the unfolding of God’s intent for creation. No matter how important and busy you are in the estimation of the world, no matter how small and unimportant you think you are, you have an essential role to play in what God is doing, and God equips every one of us to play that role perfectly. That’s our calling, our vocation (a word that means our “calling,” not our job). It’s a divine and holy commission for your life.
But before God created you to do something, God created you to be something. And if you get that, it will transform your life, the lives of those around you, and even creation itself. Your first purpose in life is to be loved by God. Your first calling is not to a responsibility, not to follow a list of rules and regulations, not to practice a certain religion; your first calling in life is to be loved by God. Or if “love” is too sweet for you, try “valued.” God creates us and says, “Wow, that’s good! He’s good! She’s good!”
When you build your life on externals, the highs and lows of life are dependent on externals. If your value is in what you do, your job or your actions, then when you no longer have a job or are unable to do anything, your value disappears. When your value depends on your reputation with others, then you need to keep earning their praise, and you know how fickle people can be about reputation. When your value equates with what you have – health, education, possessions – it can rise or plummet in an instant, based on an illness, some new knowledge, or the changing fortunes of the stock market.
Jesus knew that. When he was tested in the wilderness after his baptism, the Tempter tried to convince Jesus that his value was in his ability to do things (turn stone into bread), or in reputation (worship me, and I’ll give you all this glory and authority), or in his power (throw yourself down, you won’t get hurt). The temptation for Jesus was to believe he was beloved of God because of what he had or could do, or because of what others thought of him.
But Jesus knew that was a lie. He knew who he was before those tests. Before the Spirit sent him into the wilderness to be tested, it came upon him and said, “You are my child, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Whatever may happen, Jesus knew he was God’s beloved child. And that knowledge was able to carry all the ups and downs of his life, even his final rejection and death, in the peace of God that defies all understanding.
Most of us, I think, are still hooked by the externals. I know I am. And to the extent we are, we fail to claim the truth of who we are as beloved children of God. But what would happen, how would your life be different, if you really lived in the knowledge of God’s unconditional, continuing, never-ending love for you? How would you and the world around you be different if you remained fully aware that you are of essential value in the universe and that without you creation would be incomplete? And how will you treasure yourself and care for yourself accordingly?
In the current issue of Alive Now, you’ll find a poem by Ann Freeman Price about how we might respond to that love.
and Jesus said
as you love yourself
how do you love yourself
in small ways
take time out from rushing for tea
a day of nothing
how do you love yourself
in large ways
retreat until you feel the
solidness of how you stand
until joy and laughter
bubble up in the spaces
of your days
Hold on to the love God has for you. Remember who you are. Then you can be free to love other people as they are, just as God does.
notes — 1. Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas.” ▪ 2. From writer Lauren Oliver. ▪ 3. Ann Freeman Price, “Loving Self,” Alive Now, January-February 2015, 20.