It’s an old question, as old as the human story. When will God visit this world, this middle ground between heaven and hell, to grant our ancient yearning and set things right? How long will the earth yield thorns and thistles for all our hard work; how long will we have to till the ground from which we were taken in order to scratch out a simple living (Gen. 3:18, 23)? And what will be the signs of God’s coming?
When Mark’s community wanted to know what signs to look for, they remembered Jesus speaking of international conflicts, of earthquakes and famines, of the breakdown of families and the collapse of social institutions. Sun and moon will grow dark, they remembered him saying, and the stars will fall from heaven (Mark 13). It’s hard to imagine how anyone could miss signs like those.
Isaiah had a different idea. It’s one I put more trust in. Here’s the sign God will give you, he said. A young woman of marriageable age will give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel, which means God-is-with-us. Not God-will-come-to-us, but God-is-with-us. Not center stage, in the spotlight, but off in the wings the child came, in the shadows. Not an event so dramatic you can’t miss it but one so understated you might miss it. You might pass by without giving it a second look. Look again, Isaiah says.
When writer Annie Dillard was a young child, she would sometimes hide one of her precious pennies in the branches of a tree or a crack in the sidewalk. Then starting at either end of the block she would draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. When she learned to write, she would add messages, surprise ahead or money this way. Then she would go straight home and not think of it again until, months later, she would have the impulse to hide another penny.
“The world,” she wrote, “is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny? It is dire poverty when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It’s that simple. What you see is what you get” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).
What you see is what you get. So if you’re looking for something else than what’s right at your feet, something grander, you don’t get it. If you’re looking for God, this is it – not the magnificently robed judge at the end of the world; not the Rex Tremendum with nail-pierced hand and sleepless eye. But the one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, [a man] despised and rejected” (Isa. 53:2-3). Like a baby born of unwed parents in a cave, under a rock, in the crack of a sidewalk. Like a penny.
Where has God chosen to be present in your life or in the world around you? Where is the place of divine nativity that, when you find yourself there, reveals a mere penny, something that has no form to attract you, nothing that would make you or anyone desire it? Who are those people, what are those qualities in yourself, where are those circumstances, those experiences in life that are despised and rejected by others, by you? What little fragments of life do you overlook or cast off as too small to notice, too ordinary to be of significance?
Twenty-five years ago Gunilla Norris wrote a little book of hours, meditations on prayer and housekeeping and how they go together to expose “the sacredness of daily living” (Being Home: A Book of Meditations). Her book was, she said, an invitation to become aware of “how full of silent prayers your daily round is, how full of meaning and grace.” Those ordinary prayers, she said, “are simply a kind of awareness, a return to gratitude or to conscience, or to praise.” Those little prayers we offer throughout our days without thinking of them as prayers are, I believe, signs pointing us to God’s presence with us, opportunities, if we’re open to them, to recognize this God who is with us.
In taking out the trash, for example, she found herself offering this prayer: “Keep me mindful of what I take into my home, the items bought to substitute for real living – the food and drink I consume instead of examining my feelings. Help me slowly surrender all excess.” Taking out the trash became an opportunity to encounter God-with-us.
About paperwork, something I fear consumes too much of my days, she wrote, “Under the obvious, the real task can be hiding its radiance, its meaning and pain. The work asks me to be in relationship to it. When I find that mutuality, the doing can start. Then the order which has been waiting to emerge, which wanted me to find it, begins to show itself.” Norris reminds me that, as Brother Lawrence discovered intimacy with God in washing dishes, I might find such blessed intimacy in answering an email, preparing a worship bulletin, or submitting an expense voucher. In such small ways, God-is-with-us comes. In such ordinary moments, Incarnation is born.
What are the pennies in your life, moments so small you might not even think to stoop to pick them up, despite all the arrows and messages pointing to them? Washing and folding clothes, planning your day, paying bills, making the bed, shoveling snow, locking the door – these are the holes in your sidewalk where God is hidden.
The feelings you have in your encounters with others, the deep feelings you have – or try to avoid having – in your encounters with yourself, the fears and doubts you hide from as well as the hopes and joys you chase – in such caves, in such cattle stalls, some new Incarnation is hiding, waiting for you to search for it, and find it, and pay homage to it. Look again at the smallest details of your life. Look again.