When God Feels Far at Christmas

I love good design. I particularly love minimalistic design that is heaping with blank space.

In the world of design, there’s a high value placed on blank space. Blank space is the intentional placement of empty spaces in any design piece (often called “white space” because they most often leave the white paper free of ink). These spaces are left there intentionally so that the person viewing the completed design can focus their eyes on the most important pieces of the project. The blank spaces serve as invisible arrows pointing to the most poignant piece of the design, as if to say, “Look here! Don’t miss this!” Without blank space, the viewer can’t always see the main point of the design, and the overall narrative that the designer wanted to communicate is lost. The whole point is lost, the purpose is lost because without white space everything gets muddied. When everything is important, nothing is.

Life doesn’t have any blank space right now. Though Advent is supposed to be a time specifically set aside to anticipate the coming and coming again of Jesus, it’s also a season that I’ve packed full with other, lesser goods. Rather than being attentive to my waiting for His return, I’ve been waiting for gifts to arrive so that I can wrap them. I’m waiting on the cookies to cool so that I can frost them. I’m waiting for that sweater to go on sale so I can buy it for Austin. I’m waiting, to be sure. But not on Jesus.

Just before the holidays, everything feels so vital. It feel vital to me that Austin gets the sweater he wants (even though I know he doesn’t even feel that way). It feels vital that I give Christmas sweets to all my neighbors and church friends and co-workers, even though I know it ultimately isn’t. But all of these seemingly important things – what Jamie Smith refers to as “lesser loves” – press into every margin and blank space of our lives this time of year. They preoccupy our minds when we’re getting ready for the day and they are the cares that swirl in our heads as we lay down to sleep. When everything is important, nothing is.

This morning as I sit down to write there is a smattering of Jonah commentaries sitting at my feet. Most are upended, sprawled out to keep my place. They have ink marks all over them – underlining, comments in the margins, stars and exclamation marks throughout (PS – this is why Austin and I can’t share commentaries). I’m in the throws of exegesis for the January study on the book of Jonah, and while Jonah isn’t a book I have given much attention to in the past, this study couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. It doesn’t seem Christmas-y, but the story of Jonah is just what we need this time of year because it shouts this truth loudly and boldly: we cannot run from God’s presence.

The book of Jonah starts off with God calling Jonah in one direction, and Jonah running in the opposite. But the Text makes it painfully clear that Jonah isn’t just running from the place God called him, but “from the presence of the Lord.” He wanted to get away from the call and away from the Calling One. And so he ran.

The book of Jonah is just full of fascinating literary structure, Hebrew words used only once in the Scriptures, and repeated phrases that just make me stop in my tracks. But the second chapter proclaims this very simple truth: we cannot run from God. Even when we want to, even when we try to, we cannot escape His presence. As Jonah sat in the belly of the fish, farther than he had ever been from any source of life or light, he proclaims:

Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head

    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    Lord my God.

Jonah 2:4-6

Even there and even then He was in presence of God. And is this chaotic season of unintentional busyness, this gives me hope. Because nothing can press out the presence of God. Not our busyness, not commercialism, not our own neglect or forgetfulness  – none of it can press out the presence of our God. Even when life has no white space, He is near to us. Even when all our seem to close in around us like the waters closed in over Jonah, He is still present. By His grace and initiative and through His Son, He is right here right now.

Truth be told, I know today will still hold many distractions. I know that I will get up from this keyboard and that immediately my mind will flood with things that I should do to make this holiday season “more special” for the ones I love. Today I will still be tempted to wait on lesser loves to the neglect of remembering our coming Savior. But the reminder that Jonah holds out to you and me today is that in those moments God is near to us. When we forget, we can remember. When we feel far from Him, we can call out to Him. When He is far from our minds we can rest assured that His mind is on us.

Today, will you work towards remembering His presence? Will you join me in teaching ourselves that God is near to us at all times? That we cannot out-run His presence? And, in response, could we commit to creating just a bit of blank space in our lives – quiet areas in our schedules and in our hearts – that serve as invisible arrows pointing us to the One that is really most important?

All the while remembering that this is the joy is ours this Advent season. Immanuel – “God with us” – is near to us. And He is here to stay.




Author: amygannett

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