Well, Friends, here we are, headed into the last leg of the Christmas countdown—six days and a wake-up will bring us to Christmas morning. On a practical level, it’s the goal and destination of all our plans, efforts, recipes, and wrapping paper. Do you still have a lot to do? If you’re having a house full of guests, you may feel pressured by all the last-minute tasks you still need to get done. And if you’re traveling, that’s a whole list of other details to sort out and plan for. You may be still searching for the one perfect gift you haven’t found or feeling unsettled about the menu you’re considering for Christmas dinner. For many, the last week before Christmas may be more about stress than it is about the happy anticipation of the holiday.
But today our Advent reading is all about Love. Love as the first and continuing motion of our faith, our lives, our families, our holidays, our universe. Early Friend Isaac Penington had this to say about love in 1663:
What is love? What shall I say of it, or how shall I in words express its nature? It is the sweetness of life; it is the sweet, tender, melting nature of God, flowing up through his seed of life into the creature, and of all things making the creature most like unto himself, both in nature and operation. It fulfils the law, it fulfils the gospel; it wraps up all in one, and brings forth all in the oneness. It excludes all evil out of the heart, it perfects all good in the heart. A touch of love doth this in measure; perfect love doth this in fullness.
We can put so much importance on all the tasks we need to do that we can lose touch with the motion of love that is—or could be–the true center of it all. We can forget that love is the force that inspires us with gift ideas, that causes us to dream about Christmas events and activities, that nudges us to reach out to our neighbors or smile at people in the stores. Love is the impulse behind the beautiful Christmas lights, the decorative cookies, the wrapping paper and candles and gatherings all through the season. When your neighbors put up Christmas lights, it’s at least in part because they want you to have joy.
And when you think about it, even though we can put so much pressure on ourselves to get things done, we didn’t start this party: God did. None of the major, world-changing events that unfolded in the Christmas story happened because of something we did. Rather, God is the source of it all, first having the amazingly loving idea of coming to this realm to be present with us, his confused and distracted children. It was such an offering of grace, to be willing to come into this world of limitation and struggle just to help us along, to bring goodness close enough that it is within our reach, so we can see it and feel it and hopefully, one day, share it. God knew we couldn’t find it on our own—we needed help to rise above all the things—good and bad–that bind our thoughts to this world.
So God sent Gabriel to surprise first Elizabeth and Zechariah with the news of a child and then went on to Mary, to let her know about her holy role. And of course Joseph needed to be reassured too. That was all God. The people who were part of the story listened and did as God asked, but their personal efforts and plans, their worries weren’t needed, or helpful. God’s love was the first motion of it all, bringing into the world a sense of divine love that is still with us, still unfolding today.
In the 1950s a science writer named Nina Bull developed a theory that our human emotions are not separate from our thoughts and actions but are actually the bridge between the two. Any emotion, whatever it might be—anxiousness, gladness, sorrow, anger, love—is the stirring impulse, literally energy in motion, or e-motion, that begins to propel our thought into an embodied response of movement in our outer world. Her research findings showed that we feel emotions in our muscles before we recognize them consciously in our minds and that if we act on them naturally—hugging someone when we feel overjoyed, slamming a door when we feel angry—that energy is turned into motion and expressed naturally. That’s the purpose of the emotion, she thought, to help us do that. The wave of feeling arises, gets expressed through us, and goes on its way. We return to a sense of a balance, until the next wave of emotion comes along. And when you think about it, it’s a pretty easy system: we’re not fighting what we feel or hiding it; we don’t get stuck in our heads overthinking or replaying things. The emotion simply helps us do what we need to do and we move on to other things.
But as we all know so well, it’s just part of being human that we can so easily get swept up worrying about our part in a story that we miss the bigger picture unfolding all around us. We feel responsible and try hard to live up to our own and others’ expectations. But all the while, God is doing something bigger than any one of us can see. In our Old Testament reading today we heard a bit from Genesis about God’s creation of the world. God is speaking to the heavenly court when he says, “Let’s make humankind in our image, in our likeness” and then he created humans and set them in relationship to every other created being—the fish of the sea and birds of the sky, the livestock and wild animals, all the creatures that move along the ground. God explained how the growing seasons work and how seed-bearing plants and fruit trees would provide their nourishment. God had designed a system that would sustain “everything that has the breath of life in it.” And then in the last verse of this passage, we hear, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
There we see God’s perhaps first—or at least first recorded—emotion in the history of humankind. Goodness, God’s contentment, is the emotion at the heart of our created world. It is an original blessing, a benediction, a declaration that all is well—the new creation is in harmony, all is in balance. Love is the first motion there, creating all that is, and as love unfolded the creation, God saw that it was not just okay, not just enough, but very good. Perhaps that is why, hundreds of generations later, God chose to be born among us, to help us and guide us, to love us from the inside out. Only by joining us and walking with us could God show us the way back to that essential goodness of our created natures. We are—still, even if we don’t know it, even if it’s hard to believe—the mirror of God’s image, the gleam in God’s eye.
In our New Testament story, we heard the familiar passage of the long journey Joseph and the now very-expectant Mary make to return to the town of Bethlehem so that they can register in the census being taken of the entire Roman world. The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, and Joseph and Mary were traveling by donkey and on foot across harsh, rocky, and at times mountainous terrain. Their trek would take them up and down hills, across a desert, and more—and depending on the time of year, they may have dealt with unbearable heat or torrential rains or plummeting night-time temperatures. It would have been a long and challenging trip for anyone at any time, but it was especially difficult and even dangerous for a young woman so close to giving birth.
Luke’s telling of the story gives us few details about what happened next. While they were in Bethlehem, he writes, the time came for the baby to be born, and Mary wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. There’s a lot missing there. Was Joseph frightened, startled, worried? Did he run from house to house, knocking on doors, trying to find a bed for Mary? We don’t know. Was Mary missing her mother and sisters, who would be caring for her if she were home? It would seem reasonable to wonder—especially in moments of stress and uncertainty—where God’s motion of love was leading them. Why had God led them so far beyond the safe and the familiar comforts of home? We could totally understand if they struggled a bit—it’s natural for any of us when we face difficult circumstances—but there’s also a risk that goes along with that: If they focused too much on their own parts of the story, they might miss the magnificent motion of love God was bringing into the world through them.
John Woolman was a Quaker in the 1700s who trusted God to lead and watch over him on his own difficult journeys. His book, The Journal of John Woolman, which was published in 1774, has never been out of print since. It is a considered a classic of American spiritual writing. Woolman writes with a clear honesty and a devout desire to live a faithful life, and his Journal records his experiences and leadings and reflections on the way God teaches and loves and guides him. The opening sentence of his Journal says,
“I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth year of my age, I begin this work.”
Woolman often speaks of God’s leadings as a motion of love we can feel, a sense of caring that wells up in our hearts, moving us toward an action God inspires for some good purpose. Woolman gives an example of this when he recounts an experience where a difficult and perhaps dangerous journey stretched ahead of him. Although others were concerned for his safety, he was most concerned that the first motion of it all, the leading he was following, be God’s. He writes,
“After I had been asleep a short time I was awoke by a man calling at my door, and inviting me to meet some Friends at a public-house in our town, who came from Philadelphia so late that Friends were generally gone to bed. These Friends informed me that an express had arrived the last morning from Pittsburg, and brought news that the Indians had taken a fort from the English westward… Some elderly Friends in Philadelphia, knowing the time of my intending to set off, had conferred together, and thought good to inform me of these things before I left home, that I might consider them and proceed as I believed best. Going to bed again, I told not my wife till morning. My heart was turned to the Lord for his heavenly instruction; and it was an humbling time to me. When I told my dear wife, she appeared to be deeply concerned about it; but in a few hours' time my mind became settled in a belief that it was my duty to proceed on my journey, and she bore it with a good degree of resignation. In this conflict of spirit there were great searchings of heart and strong cries to the Lord, that no motion might in the least degree be attended to but that of the pure spirit of truth.”
More than anything else, it was important to Woolman that the motion, the seed, the inspiration of his action be God-given. So when he felt settled and clear about it, he started on his journey, not knowing where it would lead. Like Mary and Joseph, Woolman traveled through harsh and wild country, where war was breaking out, conflict was rising, and tensions were growing throughout the colonies. Woolman writes this about the hopeful vision for the journey:
“Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them; and as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of war were increasing,”
In a time of prejudice and ignorance, when distrust and rancor divided people and increased the sense of danger, Woolman kept turning inward and listening carefully to God. He was determined to let God’s love be the first motion of his actions, believing that the outward circumstances—whatever they might be—would yield and harmonize as the movement of love unfolded. And over and over again, his belief and trust proved true. As a result, his legacy today is one of a deeply faithful man who brought the healing light of God’s love into places of darkness in our world. His actions helped changed the world for the better.
So as we head into this final week of the Christmas season, we’re still on the journey–there is shopping to do and menus to plan; errands to run and preparations to make—but perhaps we can look at it a little differently. As we wrap the gifts, visit the friends, serve the meals, we can feel God’s first motion of love inspiring and flowing through us to others. We are part of something much bigger than we know. If we feel stressed, we can remember we’re overfocusing on our own part of the story and take it as an invitation to zoom out and notice the greater work of love unfolding all around us—and for us. Think of how that might change our holiday. The stress would evaporate because the smiles—the hugs—the joy would be the point. God’s Light, the first motion of love, shining from the inside out, energy into motion, the heart of all we do.
- OT Genesis 1: 26-31
- NT Luke 2: 1-14
- Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman. https://books.google.com/books?id=JKEpAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false