Advent Post #25

“Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months…” (Luke 1:56)

I love that Mary lingered with Elizabeth. She did what most of us don’t know how to do or don’t take the time to do. Mary and Elizabeth practiced a spiritual discipline in their waiting together. There was probably moments of personal solitude, likely times of conversation and eating and exercising, walking from here to there.

But they were together and they were waiting. For Elizabeth’s delivery. And to get closer to Mary’s. They were waiting to see God bring what God said would come.

I imagine that could have been a time of great turmoil and great anticipation. Any time God is at the quiet work of forming the unseen, it’s both thrilling and unbearable. You know God’s working, you sense it, but you can’t see the full product. You can only wonder if that work will look this way or that, if the fruit of God’s toil will “sleep through the night” or if you yourself will be calm or frenzied when it finally comes.

Will I be equipped? Will I fail? Can I support him through it? What good will I be to her when she needs me? How will we make it?

I don’t think we have those answers when we first want them. The answers to our questions almost never come at our desired speed. We want God to act more quickly than God does. We want to know more than we do. We want answers when all we’re faced with are more questions.

What’s the consolation? What sustains us through the quiet darknesses of the nights before. The night before Christmas. The night before a surgery. The night before a meeting. The night before a move. What helps us manage?

I think the answer is in Luke’s description. Mary and Elizabeth stayed together. So simple. They were together, befriending one another through the unseen things. They were present to one another while they waited for whatever God would do. They monitored one another’s progress, one another’s souls, one another’s care.

Perhaps the presence of others is all it boils down to at moments like those these women lived through. After all, time doesn’t move any faster. One teacher showed me that five minutes is the same whether or not you’re looking at the clock, even if it feels differently. What helps? Another person. Mary staying with Elizabeth. My friend falling into a chair in my office. The text that was a reminder that I really wasn’t alone. The prayer someone had been praying when I couldn’t reach God myself. All examples of someone staying with someone else.

May this Christmas be an opportunity for you to be present to others, and may you never feel alone. May you feel, in a good way, surrounded by grace, mercy, and all the other gifts that make life life.

Advent Post #24

“He has helped his servant…remembering…” (Luke 1:54)

One of the most pastoral words that frame my work is remember. I snatched it from John Patton to put it as a main anchor of my ministry (see Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide for an introduction). Professor Hogue told us about Dr. Patton’s work. Later, Sister Barbara told me how loving a man her friend, John Patton, was in real life. And his language about the pastoral power of memory just kept coming back to me.

Memory is powerful. And when we remember well, we’re doing very godly work. The scriptures tell us that God remembers those who are his, that God remembers to be gracious, that God remembers God’s covenant. Mary captures this part of God’s acts toward her and toward the people of God when she says that the help of God comes in the form of God’s remembering. I think we need memory, as a community, as people, as families. I heard once, or read I’m not sure, that people are their memories. What separates us from other species is memory.

When I think of what makes me unique, what teases my life from the rest of my friends’ lives, it’s memory. It’s my recalled experience of a situation that is unique and distinct from anyone else’s. God’s interaction with me (or you) is the same. How we’ve related to God is so unique, and what maintains we who are with God is memory. And mostly God’s memory. Imagine for a moment key events that frame your life with God. There will inevitably be painful experiences. Grief and suffering will mark some of those moments. Joy inexpressible will be there too.

I wonder if you can think about how God will recast those same moments. I think Mary guides us in learning how God recalls our moments with him. When God thinks of you, of us, God remembers mercifully. That means partly that God never remembers without mercy. Memory and mercy wed in God’s recollection. And this is who God is to every generation of his own. Memory and mercy always come together.

May we recall that God helps us. As Christmas comes and goes, may we be reminded that when others have forgotten us, God keeps us in mind. May we know that the ways God’s memory works all captured by the lovely word mercy.

Advent Post #23

“He has filled the hungry with good things but sent away the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53).

God loves rich people, even though this verse wouldn’t strike the early rich readers in antiquity as an invitational one. In fact, the verse is an extremely merciful one toward the rich person. The truth about Jesus, for anyone who looks at him seriously, is that he doesn’t intend to send anyone away. Sending away is seldom his posture.

More often, people leave him. He doesn’t generally send people away. Notice that throughout his ministry he hardly said “Get away from me.” Rather than that, he brought people in. He invited people to discussion. Sometimes he was irritated, angry, and frustrated, but in those feelings, he never really put people out. He stayed with people in their stupidity, arrogance, and misdirection.

There was the young lawyer who wanted to know how to gain eternal life, the one who had mastered the commands, and who, with perhaps good pride, wanted to know “what else do you have for me to do, Jesus?” Jesus didn’t send him away. The call upon the man’s life did. He had to give up some stuff and we wonder if it was too much for him. We could say that about all the people who didn’t follow Jesus.

Mary’s song forecasts this. She says that God has filled and that God has sent away. God has provided for those who were humble or hungry. When you’re poor–which is lower than broke and much lower than “I don’t have what I want”–you’re usually hungry. You need God to provide, to make ways outta no way, to create meals when there aren’t groceries. When you’re rich, you choose what to eat.

Who does God bring closer? It’s a simple question with an unsettling answer. God pulls closer those who need, those who are without. In Mary’s language–which is poetic and musical and not to be treated in the same ways as we’d treat doctrine–that means the alternate behavior is to “send away”. But rather than God sending the rich away, I think of God, especially in the ministry of Jesus, as opening room after room for the rich. “There’s a place for you,” I see Jesus living.

As he goes after the forsaken, he opens his hand to those who have. He pursues the rejected, and he’s hospitable to the rich. Only he can do this. Not even his mother can do it perfectly, but he does. He still does. And we aim to live like him. God, during these days when Christmas is coming, grant us the ability to do what the Savior does, to go after those most put out and to be open to those may not come.

Advent Post #22

“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:52)

This is not good news for rulers, at least on the surface. Usually rulers like their thrones. Yet the closer we come to the birth, the entrance, and arrival of Jesus, this is the reality: there is a new ruler. In Jesus is a new king. We have to trade kingdoms.

We have to give up our thrones, the little rickety chairs we’ve set up to compete with the new king. For some people this is an impossible choice. It’s unthinkable that life could be better. Usually people with thrones, with anything like “thrones,” don’t want to surrender them.

We think of wealthy people, powerful people, connected people, and we think that they’ll never want to trade those things. The obvious good of those resources make following the other humble king, questionable, almost unsafe, certainly unfamiliar. But this is the essential question: will you trade what you have for what comes with the new kingdom?

The other thing is that this is everyone’s question. This is a daily question for us who are already following. This is a regular reminder for us who’ve gained citizenship by God’s grace. When we’re at our best, we’re low enough to see every small throne we’ve built for some other king. And we inspect that throne under the gaze of God.

To be clear, this song’s line is a jab to the powerful, to the resourced, and to those who live such stomach-full lives that they can’t relate to a young couple struggling to raise an unexpected baby. This is a line meant to be sang in the ears of those who are so protected by systems and social structures that they undermine the singer’s throat from which it comes. “She can’t sing that and not about us! She’s irresponsible for having done what she did to be in the situation she’s in.” This is a line for them.

But for those whose daily diet is on the mercy of God, we sing these words through our own tears. We sing this line listening for our own thrones, and we pray for God’s ability to unseat those little kings in order to live only for the new, coming One.

May these words be part of our carols this week, a portion of our soul’s language as the year begins, and may be live humbly.

Advent Post #21

“His mercy extends to those who fear him.” (Luke 1:50)

My son fears things. At least that’s what he says. And we have to take him at his word. Sometimes I think it’s his way of keeping us talking when he should be asleep, but that’s for the other blog.

The point is we spend a fair amount of time, and only at night, telling him that there’s nothing to fear, that we are with him, that we are together, and that we are safe. His fear returns and we repeat these things. We have a psalm between he and me that we repeat, one we read from a book someone gave him. These things address his fear or his comment about it.

Bryce’s fear is not like the fear mentioned in this text. My boy’s fear is about the images of things his brain smashes together before sleeping as he processes the whole wide world of his day. Mary’s fear–the fear mentioned in her song–is a fear of respect, awe, and devotion. Those who fear God get mercy.

I’m not sure there is a better message for us. Whether victims or victors, successful or unsuccessful, Godward or aimless, there is a clear comment about God and us. His mercy extends to those who fear him. When the increasing hunger in us is God and God’s life, for God’s things, for God’s rule and ways of ruling, we get mercy.

This is a tool, this mercy. Indeed, mercy is the equipment that we need to live into the future. Consider that Mary was destined to live with Jesus, parent and raise him with Joseph, watch his growth and monitor her own. If there was something she needed, just to do those things, it was mercy.

Her life would be filled with much more than being a mother, even though that role and trait would make and mark and transform her. She would need mercy to do all of what God called upon her to do. She would need the compassion that comes from an unending source of love. She would require, for all her mornings and all her nights, the untiring stream of care coming from the hand of God.

I get tired of my son’s pleas about fears. I do. Especially when I think he’s testing us. I don’t like his tests. But because he fears, the little voice in my head says that I have to respond. I don’t want him to fear and if I can play a part in decreasing those reckless emotions, I will. My wife does better at it than me for sure. But I try. I repeat the psalm we share, I look in and scan the place, and I tell him he’s okay.

I need the habit of uttering these words to myself when I lean into the boy’s room. His mercy extends. His love comes. His compassion is present. I have enough. I have more than enough. For his fears and for mine. May his fears remind me that there really is nothing to fear and that there’s only mercy surrounding us.

Advent Post #20

“…for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:49)

I stood and listened to a patient who told me how remarkable God had been in his healing process. And like other times, I received a gift in that man’s retelling. He spoke to me about how from start-to-finish God had been present.

That doesn’t happen every day in the hospital. There are people who struggle to locate the Presence as they fight disease. There are relatives who want nothing to do with a chaplain or the God she or he may bring. God and God’s things are toxic to some when their bodies are sick. God and God’s things do not bring healing to them. Of course, as a pastor and chaplain I find those to be reasons to keep praying, even if quietly for my patients and their families.

On occasion, though, and the occasion is often I’m happy to say, a patient will be quite clear that “God has done this.” One man told me for 30 minutes the story of God’s company in his healing. Since my units at Northwestern Memorial are the general surgery and medical intensive care units, I tend to see some of our hospital’s sickest patients. I tend to see people just before or just after a surgery. I see people when they feel very close or very distant from God.

This gentleman, a man afraid of needles and things, talked to me about how God had changed him. God turned him toward healing by doing the plain, almost unremarkable act of having him go to the doctor, obey the doctor, and keep obeying the doctor. He followed his wife’s instruction and kept following it. And God kept working through each act of surrender. Eventually–and I am using Mary’s song to summarize my patient’s experience–the Mighty One did something great.

I don’t know that I’ve always seen God’s acts in unremarkable acts. I’ve certainly developed that appreciation to spot God in the ordinary. I want to raise that as an ideal. Looking for God in the mundane expands our potential for finding God. If we seek, whether at this liturgical moment or another, to find God in the spectacular, we’ll usually be let down.

“God will heal me from this despite the doctor’s report,” just may be one such moment. It’s a spectacular prayer and hope, and I find myself supporting many who say and hold such statements in their hearts. But it takes as much (perhaps it takes more or frankly less) faith to state that God will be with me through the long course of some thing, that God will walk with me through a pregnancy (like Mary) or a cancer treatment (like a friend, Grace) or a job search or a move to a new city. God who does things in spectacular ways also does things in ways we hardly notice.

Of course, any time God does something, anything, it’s worth our calling it “great.” Does it have to be a mountain that is moved for us to call it amazing? Or does it only have to be something an amazing One did?