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.

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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)

Advent Post #16

Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her! (Luke 1:45)

It takes guts to believe in God. It takes more guts to believe that God, who exists, makes promises, and then, even more courage to believe that God makes promises to you.

After all that, to think that God would make and fulfill them! Eventually your beliefs are tested. Eventually what you’ve held close to your heart about God’s words and God’s ways are tested.

Sometimes when life tests our beliefs, those beliefs fall apart. They are too weak for real life. We find that they lack truth, that they cannot stand under the test of reality. We conclude, in a manner of speaking, that we were disillusioned to have believed what we did, that we were off, or that God, simply, was not trustworthy.

When we say that we were disillusioned to have believed, we check ourselves and attempt to modify our beliefs, try to speculate faithfully by studying in order to come up with something else.

If we say after that test that we were at fault, we try to change ourselves to fit what has to be the real God reality. I was wrong, not God, so in order to keep an intact faith, I change.

In the third option, where we conclude that God was untrustworthy, we decide and, sometimes painfully, to walk away from God. We tell ourselves and others that the God we thought was ‘in charge’ was a portion of our imaginations and that there really can’t be a God.

In all three instances, we relate to God because of some thing, some test, some examination of our deeply held beliefs. We aren’t always in touch with our beliefs. Usually we learn what we believe when those beliefs are challenged or up-heaved or undone.

Whatever category or line of thinking you may be in relation to God (and I don’t put you in these as much as I offer them as possible categories for this post), I wonder if you can consider that you are, right in that category, blessed. Whether you love or hate God. Whether you even believe in God. Whether you sympathize with people you see as religious because you pity us.

Can you stretch into the word blessed? Henry Nouwen talks about the meaning of “blessed” in his book Life of the Beloved, and he says that it’s essentially about good speech. To say that we are blessed is to say that somebody says good things about us. Can you hear that, that someone speaks well of you? I’d suggest that the person saying good things about you and me is God.

We are blessed and some of us because we believed. We did believe, even if we’ve diminished some of those beliefs. We did believe, even if we walked away. Indeed, one of the most remarkable claims about our blessedness is that we are blessed. Without regard for right beliefs and even right acts. Sure, this verse seems to run counter since Mary is heralded for believing in the promise. But the verse doesn’t spread across the entirety of her life.

It doesn’t spread into those nights of doubt when she thought Jesus was just an ordinary kid or those mornings when she was pissed because he said something about having a new mother and a new family, kicking her to the curb. This particular verse is about her pregnancy and her willingness to bear a son. The blessing, though, is a comment about what God always thought of her and what God would, in the future, think of her. Her and you. Her and me.

 

Advent Post #15

“…the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44)

Babies around John’s age do move in the womb, although I think any mother-to-be would prefer the baby to kick or turn and not leap. Leaping would really be painful. And yet that is Luke’s way of telling Elizabeth’s story.

Play with that for a moment. Sit with the baby’s joyful response to coming close to Mary, to her prophecy, and to the cousin of baby John. He leaps.

Leaping is hardly a subtle response. It’s clear. Frankly, it could be that John was clearly saying, “Hey, get outta here, kid! This is my house.” A better reading would consider John’s future response to Jesus approaching him on that desert pulpit where he stood preaching like an itinerant revivalist. When that John, the older John, saw Jesus, he exclaimed in worship.

Carry that experience backward to this one. What’s up with the leaping six-month-old fetus? Can he be offering us a corrective to our staid ways of being with Jesus? Can this yet unborn baby know a fitting response to God-enfleshed even before he can see that God in Christ?

When I’m being imaginative, I think that little babies are closer to God than older people. They are fresh from heaven in my worldview, though I cannot support that view with anything you might find credible. I told my son those days after he was first born to remember the sounds of the angels, to keep the whispers of God in his ears.

I told him that the world would get different but that when he dreamed at night as a new baby, he could still grab glimpses of heaven. Because his little eyes were still fuzzy–sight takes time to develop for those little ones–he could still see images of before.

I think of that view when I come to John’s response. He leaps because he’s acquainted with appropriate form for the One in whose presence the angels rejoice. That little John–smaller and quieter than the older one who would stand in a special posture as a premier preacher on the Galilean shores–would remember how the other voices sounded when God approached. And because he couldn’t be heard under all that skin, he did the next best thing: he leaped.

Might this impact how we conduct ourselves in the “presence of God,” in the company of Christ, or as we worship in our own forms? I wonder if we’ll leap or if we’ll sit or ponder or consider and never move at his nearness.

Advent Post #14

“But why am I so favored…” (Luke 1:43)

I love Mary’s questions. Her ponderings bring me pause. She is the “God-bearer” and she is humble. She has every reason to lift herself as high as the peaks, and she asks a question like this: why am I so favored?

In a good way, she asks, why me? What did I do to get this?

I know that we tend to ask that question when things go off for us, when things go wrong. It’s a reflex it’s so common. God, why are you letting this happen to me? God why aren’t you letting this happen to me? Seldom do we pose Mary’s question: why am I so blessed? She humbly assumes that she is blessed.

But there is another way of framing her question, and it is by asking what the reason is that God favors. One frame has to do with why God picked her while the other has to do with the purpose God went around picking in the first place.

The beauty in Mary’s question is the sneaky reminder that we do not earn God’s goodness. She did nothing and yet God must have favored her because of the uniqueness of who she was. God always honors who we are and still doesn’t hold us to perfection. That’s an important element in thinking through Mary’s favored status. She was special. And though we can only guess, God chose her, from her town and at her age, and God didn’t choose others. She was unique.

The second element, though, is in our asking the pivotal question about purpose. God has a purpose for choosing Mary for the glorious opportunity of being the mother of Jesus. Whatever God’s good background reasons for choosing Mary, God chose her in order that she would bear the child called Jesus. Mary was intended to bear the infant, carry him, and bring him into the world. While it wasn’t the totality of God’s plan for her life, it became the focus for that portion of her life.

She would train her energies in the direction of being a mother to the child. And she would retain this steeped humility to ask questions, to pronounce how undeserving she felt, and to do for God in spite of those questions. Her questions would keep her touching the ground of humble humanity, even while she was the “holy Mary, mother of God.”

What questions might you raise in God’s hearing? Can you wonder into the world of God’s purpose for you, for today, and listen for an answer? If you asked Mary’s question in your own prayer, what might God say?