When God comes knocking at our door, offering joy, our first reaction just might be fear.
That was the experience of the casual theologian and excellent novelist Annie Dillard. In an essay, entitled God in the Doorway, Dillard writes about a Christmas Eve in her childhood that she has never forgotten. Dillard was a small child when her family came home unusually late from a festive dinner out. Coming in from the cold, everyone was happy to arrive in their warm living room. Stockings dropped from the mantel. There was a special table holding a bottle of ginger ale and a plate of cookies.
Suddenly, there was a commotion. The front door flew open and cold wind blew around little Annie’s legs. It was Santa Claus looming in the doorway, looking around for Annie. Everyone started calling for Annie to welcome Santa. Annie’s mother was thrilled. Look who’s here! Look who’s here! she kept exclaiming. It was Santa Claus, whom Annie never – ever – wanted to meet.
Annie Dillard ran upstairs.
Dillard writes: Like everyone in his right mind, I feared Santa Claus, thinking he was God. I was still thoughtless and brute, reactive. I knew right from wrong, but had barely tested the possibility of shaping my own behavior, and then only from fear, and not yet from love. santa Claus was an old man whom you never saw, but who nevertheless saw you; he knew when you’d been bad or good. he knew when you’d been bad or good! and I had been bad.
Her parents and Santa Claus pleaded, yet she refused. Annie Dillard would only lean over the stairway banister, to look at Santa Claus standing in the doorway repeating Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, filled with goodwill and joy that she could not accept.
The gospels of Christmas are filled with stories of mysterious appearances bursting into people’s lives offering joy to the world. And almost every story tells us how very frightened those who received the messengers of God were. It reminds us that we too are still afraid when God appears in the doorway of our life, offering nothing but good will and joy.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said: Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. The angel said that because the angel knew that Joseph was already afraid.
Do not be afraid, the angel said, to take Mary as your wife. For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
What was Joseph afraid of? Why would he be frightened when a messenger was offering him good news of new life? Offering him a chance to welcome the joy of God incarnate into his life and into the world?
If we follow what the angel in Matthew tells us, Joseph was not so much afraid of God, as he was afraid of us. You know, you and me. Society.
Joseph was afraid of what society would say about him when it was found out that Mary was pregnant before their marriage. He was afraid of what people would say about him if he accepted her. He was afraid of what people would say about Mary and this child to be born. Joseph may have been surprised by what the angel told him of God’s plans for his life, but what Joseph had to fear was not God but the expectations and reactions of his culture.
Children, like Annie Dillard, tend to be afraid of what God might see in their lives. Grown-ups tend to be more like Joseph, afraid of what other people might see in their lives. We are afraid of what others will think of us if we welcome God completely into our lives. The angels are undoubtedly right to reassure us because the God who comes knocking on our door doesn’t stand on propriety, legalities, niceties, standards or convention.
God has other plans for Joseph and for Mary than allowing him to react to the watchful judgment of society. Joseph is the connection between what God had done long ago in Israel and what God was about to do in Judea and what God is still doing in the world today. What Joseph saw as a problem, God was holding out as the first step for Joseph to become his God-given potential. Joseph was a link between what was and what is to come in God’s world.
It is what we are all created to be. We are created to respond to God’s invitation to be part of God’s purpose, yet we are – still so very often –afraid of what others will think of us, that we run away from living into our potential.
How many times do we hide behind popular, societal judgments and fears at the expense of fulfilling our God-possibilities for us? Maybe you are called to venture out in a new direction – go back to school or get a different job. Maybe God would have you – or me – be the one to stand up for the disenfranchised, to be the voice of justice. Perhaps we are afraid to explore ideas that are different than those we were raised with or settled into. Or we are worried about what people will think of us if we live more modestly because we give lavishly to the church or to other charities. We are afraid of what people will say about us if we confront wrongs done to us or even by us. We are anxious about society’s perceptions if we get out of abusive or toxic workplaces or relationships.
We are so afraid that we would often prefer to eat or drink or drug or binge ourselves away from the feeling and if we feel it, like little Annie Dillard, we may just run away. We are left peering over the barrier of society, looking down at the joy that might be ours, if we just welcomed whatGod has in store for us.
Whatever it is that keeps coming to mind as a new idea, pay attention to it. Whatever challenge you have been avoiding for too long, welcome it. Whatever attitude you’ve known you need to let go of or claim, stop running and listen to the messages of God. God is here to guide you through whatever God has invited you into. And God – not society – will bring you into a future of joy and fulfillment.
The Santa Claus whom Annie Dillard was so afraid of turned out to Miss White, a kind, older woman who lived across the street. Annie like her very much. Miss White had a joyous spirit that welcomed children and childlike activities. She was always up for cookies and finger painting and exploration. Yet, the summer after Miss White was the frightful Santa Claus, Annie ran from her again.
That summer day, Miss White was showing Annie how a magnifying glass could be used. Miss White held Annie’s young hand in one of her old hand and with the magnifying glass focused a warm glowing crescent of sunshine on Annie’s palm. The light suddenly contracted to a point and it burned. Annie ripped her hand away and ran home crying, Miss White calling after her, sorry and explaining.
Annie Dillard writes Even now I wonder if I meet God, will He take and hold my bare hand and focus his eye on my palm and kindle that spot and let me burn?
Fear sent the child Annie running up the stairs, or across the street, to escape the focused attention of an abundant loving presence and whatever might be expected of her.
Fear does not have to be the end of our response. Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and the shepherds didn’t let fear be their last response. They didn’t run from being the focus of the mighty and terrific, powerful and transformative love of God. They didn’t let the fear of what society thought stop them from moving into God’s plans. They welcomed God and let God take them by the hand and lead them into the joy of being God with us.
We can do that too.
Annie Dillard writes: It is I who misunderstood everything and let everybody down. Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from You. … for You meant only love and love ….
She ends her essay: So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, and stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.
Yes. We are afraid. Yet, the messengers of God then and now are speaking to us. Do not be afraid. Do not run away. God came into our lives 2,000 years ago. And through all of us, God comes again and again.