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?

Advent Post #19

“…for he has been mindful…” (Luke 1:48)

Theology and reflection upon it is no good if it doesn’t touch real life. For decades in the last century alone, scholars quibbled and argued about how the academic discipline of theology did or didn’t relate to what people said in pulpits and around kitchen tables.

Theology has to relate to life because the God (Theos) who we make up words about (logy) is in real regular touch with life. The coming of Jesus–what theologians call “incarnation”–is God’s answer to how close God wants to be to the created world. God inhabits that world and God-in-Christ is human, living, breathing, serving, suffering, teaching, and dying in that world.

Another way of summing up the too-short life of Jesus is by repeating Luke’s words rehearsing Mary’s song in verse 48: for he has been mindful. The coming of Jesus is how it looks when God has been mindful.

There is particularity in his coming. He doesn’t come to a broad society but to Nazareth. His step isn’t into some bland, meaningless people glob with no ethnicity but to the Jewish people. He comes at a time in history, to a social and political location. He comes and everything around him screams the current problems of the day. And Jesus is mindful of those matters.

Jesus is not distant. He is in them. He cares. He’s present. He doesn’t run. He’s in it, in life, in the day and in the night. He sees what everyone else of his day sees. And he responds to it because he is mindful of his servants.

The generations called Mary blessed because the Lord noticed in her day who she was and who her people were. God had come. The same is certain for us. God comes not in Christ but in the Spirit, that fiery, uncontrollable, lively person who fills and breathes into us.

Knowing our lives, reading our news, and listening to our complaints, the Spirit comes to us the way Christ came to an expectant Mary and Joseph. God knows us and is aware of us in the same way that God was aware of Mary. The Lord didn’t stop attending to the needs of the world because Jesus came. If anything, Jesus’ coming upped the ante because it proved that all this mattered to God.

God’s coming in Christ was an unmistakable declaration that the whole show matters, from beginning to end. And we matter.

How would you approach the day if you believed that were true, if you believed that God comes to you today the way God came to Mary and that God-who-comes cares for you and is mindful of you?

Advent Post #18

“My soul glorifies…” (Luke 1:46)

There is a load of material in this passage, Luke 1:46-56. A lot worth thinking through. Even more worth, simply, accepting and trying to live.

What stands out to me as I sit to write is the way these words lift up the simple human tendency to exalt some thing, to raise above oneself some deity, to worship and glorify some lord. I think Mary’s words are everybody’s words. Even if we don’t call our deity “God,” even if we’d never use the word “soul” in a sentence to describe anything other than music, we raise and exalt and glorify things.

It is often a subtle behavior, this lifting. But it is there. It’s in our schedules, in the company we keep or refuse to keep. This raising is in my own proclivity to draw and turn inward for strength when my best help comes from someone else.

Mary’s words are a kind corrective. She is not harsh here. After all, she’s singing. Her poetic lyrics themselves lift and inspire. “My soul glorifies.”

When I was a child, I sang with the Soul Children of Chicago. We would gather each week on Saturday mornings to rehearse. We’d study and, after warming up our vocal chords, practice our parts. We’d hear the band and combine with them to make music. We would sing. After a while, I’d come to expect my Saturdays to have a sound. Singing and Saturday went together. When I thought of the day, I’d think in musical terms. Singing was normal, natural.

Wednesdays became like Saturdays. During the summers and from the fall season and through the winter, we’d have the second rehearsal date and it would feel like we were filling our days and weeks with music. After a three-hour session on a Saturday morning, Wednesday night came quickly. Getting ready for a trip, practicing for a performance or a recording or a concert, my mind was given to music. My soul was too.

Those rehearsals and all those performances shaped me and my life. With all those other Soul Children, my soul was influenced, shaped, and made. I was made into a singer.

Come back to Mary’s words in her song. All those days she spent with Elizabeth impacted her. There was Mary with her kinswoman, being made into a mother. She watched this other mother through the last days of her gestation while awaiting the fulfillment of whatever God was doing. And Mary’s soul was influenced, shaped, and made. And in her words, her soul glorified.

Like the music we naturally made when we practiced first alto and second tenor, giving glory was what Mary naturally did. It wasn’t effortless. Any singer or poet or writer will tell you of the countless days behind a phrase, the long experiences underneath a line or flat or sharp. There was effort but there was also nature.

I wonder what my week would be like if I accepted that as fact. This is what my soul naturally does. Without toil, without increasing skill, without rigorous instruction or preparation or particular stress. There’s no sweat involved anymore, but nature. At this point, after these days, I commonly do this. I glorify.

So who will get my glory? Who will benefit or receive what I commonly do? What God will be for me a “Savior”? These feel like the pressing, relevant questions of the season.

Advent Post #17

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:46-56, NIV)