Advent Post #13

“In a loud voice she exclaimed…” (Luke 1:42)

Imagine that this was the first reaction Mary had to her news about being pregnant. We do not know if it was. But it is realistic that young Mary could travel on the basis of visiting her kin and not raise eyebrows. She didn’t have to reveal her news to anyone just yet. Plus, with Elizabeth’s own pregnancy, the two shared a kind of bond that was unrepeatable.

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaimed the historical words which frame prayers and blessings of many Christians: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” You are blessed and your child is blessed.

What a remarkable thing to say to mothers and their children. You are favored and your child is favored. I wonder if this can be the pronouncement that we give when new parents and children come into our lives. Can we say, against our better judgments and against our cynicism, you are blessed?

It would force us to see beyond the current reality. It would push us by our junk and the junk piles of others until we saw something more. We’d have to see other visions to say these words, but they are words worth saying.

When I look at children, I often want to school them, tell them what they need to hear, what risks they ought to measure, how they ought to ready themselves for the cruelties of life. When I see my son, Black gold that he is, I want to protect him by telling him in advance that being a Black boy will bring hardship. I have to train myself to say what Elizabeth said. I have to try to see blessing as part of the picture. And yet it is so much of what Advent is.

It takes the Spirit to utter these words, and it takes the Spirit to yell them. You are more than your condition. You are more than surroundings. You have come from the grandest memory of God, and what you bring into the world is kissed with beauty and divinity and holiness. You are favored, spoken well of by angels and their Creator. Why would you think less of yourself? Why would you put yourself low or think yourself shunned? You are loved, have been loved, and always will be loved. It is an honor to know you!

I wonder if words like Elizabeth’s can become a portion of our statements to the children on our blocks, in our communities, and around our places of business. I wonder if when we see them, we can train ourselves in the mind of Elizabeth, be filled enough with Spirit, to utter or proclaim, “You are amazing. You will be amazing.” And then, all the other similar words will come and keep coming.

I can hope.

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Advent Post #12

 “…Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:41)

Mary must not have known of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. I could imagine Elizabeth and her husband keeping it to themselves. It was high-risk.

Why share such news if the pregnancy could fail? Why bring all those people, who’d definitely be awestruck, into the business? Perhaps Elizabeth’s body wouldn’t cooperate and be a hospitable container for the developing baby. Perhaps God wouldn’t allow Elizabeth’s pregnancy to succeed. Perhaps it wasn’t true in the first place, her expectation.

These are real wonderings. There are false hopes. Our bodies don’t always cooperate with our dreams. Miscarriages happen, especially for those who hope at higher risks. And when they happen, they bruise parts of parents which most never see. Linger over that and make your connections prayers.

You see Mary rushed to her relative after hearing Gabriel’s words. They would share. Apprehensively or not, they would develop a bond around the amazing things God was doing. I can hear Mary rehearsing her terror, her wonder, and her praise. I can imagine she’d nearly trip over her feet to run to her loved one.

Imagine the gift of Elizabeth, who at six months is already filled with a growing baby, now being filled with the Holy Spirit. This is language I’m fairly used to because I’m Pentecostal, even if it’s an experience that makes me shudder with gratitude and light and humility. She was filled.

The Spirit fills us. The Spirit (a feminine word which we never allow ourselves to utter enough), she enters us and resides with us. She is present during moments of greatness. For Elizabeth who has likely been uncertain, I imagine there being a new calmness, a resoluteness with Mary’s entrance and with the Spirit’s coming that some things are definite. Her baby’s eventual arrival, John’s eventual life, was certain. Is that the evidence of the filling? More certainty than before. Perhaps not total but more.

I believe that Advent is a season where we rehearse to ourselves the steep, enduring promises of God. We tell ourselves–and each other by entering our homes and hanging out–and we embody for ourselves the real truth that the world as we know it is undone. We embody the message and the messengers who will tell the world the truth it needs to hear. We live that truth each day, and in our living we change the world.

Might this be the spilling which we need this season? I pray that you are as Pentecostal as the next believer, as filled with the Spirit as Elizabeth and, later, those first kind followers in the upper room. May this season bring us a new quality of faith, a trusted assurance that God is working in us to bring the world grace.

Advent Post #11

“Even Elizabeth…” (Luke 1:36)

The angel told Mary that her prophecy included her kinswoman, her relative. Isn’t that wonderful? God’s grand messages to us are never, solely, for us. They are for others. As much as they are about us, they are about others. They spread the miracle-working strength of God.

In this case, Elizabeth was advanced in years. Elizabeth wasn’t expecting to get pregnant. Like Sarah in Genesis, Elizabeth was old. I have teachers who wouldn’t let me call them that. One of my teachers said quite loudly to our peer group, “I am a senior!” There are people who have trouble with “old.” Bad connotations come with that word.

We discard old things. We replace them. We forget them. We prefer younger, newer, bolder, anything other than old. There are good reasons to be bothered by the word.

And then I have friends who I met through Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly who would gladly be called old. When I consider some of those friends, they would be thankful to be called anything by a person who cared for them, someone who was showing up regularly to listen to and talk with them like plain people. I am stretching it a bit, of course, to make the point. But when a person is alone and isolated, calling them old may be complimentary if you’re sticking around to hear their comeback.

In a way, my friends are like Elizabeth. They are the people who no longer expect God to act in them. They are so untreated and mistreated by society, that they believe God does them the way we do. They are resigned, withdrawn, and, many of them, hopeless because the world around them has “forced them out,” made no place for them, moved by them, and cared less for them.

We mistreat people who are old. We think little of them, and I hear Elizabeth’s blessing of bearing fruit as a reminder to remember that “people are people.” …Whether they bear another child, work another job, do something you and I think are contributions to current society or not.

Can you see Gabriel’s words not so much as a comfort to Elizabeth because she could do what everyone younger than her could but as a challenge to fix our thinking around the inestimable quality residing in people who have lived long lives?

They are senior leaders, senior members of the human community. Even if they “bear no more” or “produce nothing else,” can we not speak to them graciously, listen to them tenderly, serve them generously, and love them as we love ourselves? May these better acts be true of us.

We might be changed. We may learn to treat everybody that they matter, essentially, no matter what they do, what they produce, what they accomplish. And what a gracious world that would be. If only we could treat each other, no matter our ages, that we are loved and that we are important just because we’re here.

Advent Post #10

“So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)

There was a big deal in calling Jesus the Son of God. To place that label in one’s mouth and to apply it to Jesus carried political consequences. It could also carry the penalty of death. The emperor was called the “son of God.”

Gabriel gave this baby a title that was too big for his little, growing frame. He was hardly a speck and he was already given the massive title that competed with the most powerful person on the planet. And this was to be his life. He was to be a humble competitor to all the most powerful others who would appear to be better options.

Herod was more impressive. He was the current king, the only real monarch who could be seen. He was a narcissist by most reports in biblical studies. His primary concern (and I hear you, Tillich) was not others but himself. He impressed himself by extending his reign, rule, and power. He was violent and driven and dark. And he was who people thought of when they heard the words, “Son of God.”

On the other hand, by any measure, Jesus was broke, without real obvious resource, submitted to the generosity of women–remember that women’s support of Jesus was the opposite of the common custom in our day. In some ways, the humble beginnings were a frame that captured Jesus and made him so unattractive as “an option.”

He wasn’t exciting. He said very good things. Depending on your view of him, you’d place him, as a teacher, next to other wise sages. He was prophetic, said things that were troublesome, but he wasn’t unlike others in that respect. The Christian Tradition says that these were early modifiers of Jesus and that they collected into a large pool of other important things to say about him. He was the Son of God. Not just a teacher. Not just a prophet. He was the (new) ruling king.

Linking Jesus to David, Gabriel characterizes the rule of this Son as eternal. He wouldn’t be subject to time, to temporality, to the votes of people in a democracy or to the sheer might that comes from power and violence. His reign would be unique.

He would be a stark alternative to the sitting king. He would grant us a different vision of the world. He would turn us entirely to something else. I wonder if we can accept what he brings. I wonder if we can say “yes” to him when all the other Herods seem so much more attractive, interesting, and understandable.

Can humility and strength be a part of our lives as citizens of this Son and Ruler? Can power through weakness and redemption of suffering characterize our citizenry as they did his life? Can eternal might come in a different way from what we expect? God, grant it.

Advent Post #9

“The Holy Spirit will come on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35)

When I was a child, I heard my pastor say that there was only one immaculate conception. He was talking to a room of teenagers, at least, he is in my memory. He was probably answering a question about sex from some snarky kid who wanted to raise theologically precise questions. It could’ve been me he was answering. Of course, my brain could be making up the whole story since I do make things up from time to time.

I do remember him saying this though: There was only one immaculate conception. I think the reason for God’s fine selection to have “only one” Mary was not so much to preserve the wonderful sacredness of the first coming of Jesus. I do know that that had to be important. Jesus would only come once.

But I think God chose only one Mary for that one occasion to esteem the extremely high value that God has for sex. Well, I should say God’s extremely high value for human touch in general and sex in particular.

I don’t think God really wanted people making and carrying babies because of some invisible action on the Holy Spirit’s part. I think God wanted people to have sex and not just once. I should say that I don’t know what it meant for the Holy Spirit to overshadow Mary. I probably should restrict my imagination for fear of offending some of you.

That aside, I think God wanted to lift this sacred coming, this incarnation, as a way in which God comes but not as the only way. To be clear, this coming was the initial and free-standing and singular event where God would be en-fleshed. But I’m also a follower of Jesus who really really believes that Jesus finds a way to live in us. I really believe that God resides in us, though if you asked me for my best explanation, you’d probably find it mild.

I think that God comes in many grace-filled moments and in many grace-filled ways. And I think that Mary’s moment was exceptional and necessarily so. But I also believe that God arrives in our lives through the regular and common and sometimes uninteresting activity of human intercourse. Not only sexual but certainly not excluding it. I think that God’s normal way to arrive in our lives is through our lives.

A wise woman told me that “we’re all God has” when it comes to how God works. God has us and God chooses to use what God has in us. Our touches, our gazes, our meals, our poetry and art, our conversations, our fights, our friendships, and our hugs: We’re all God has.

I wonder if that raises the level of import of what we’d call normal. I wonder if touching and kissing and changing diapers can be charged with divinity after Mary’s “more pristine” conception. I wonder if every act is potentially bursting forth, potentially a place or a gesture where the Holy Spirit might overshadow the world with another bit of Christ.

It seems that any touch, any gesture could be filled with this Spirit. Again, not to replace the singular event of Jesus’s birth but to co-create with God, to offer another opportunity for God to meet us in terrestrial ways. Handshakes and hugs fill our lives. Words offered may become words from God. Words not offered may rob us of the same.

May God give us the ability to pay attention, to turn to one another in creative love, and to reach out and in doing so, spread goodness and grace.

Advent Post #8

“How will this be…?”

I find myself thinking often–and saying too–that God can handle our questions.

One of my preaching heroes said that the Bible is much more a “why” book, than a “how” book. It offers us more questions than answers. Now, that preacher’s way with words wouldn’t rest well with some folks I know. It’s really hard to read biblical question after question and not get an answer. We’d rather make up things to answer our deep wonderings than sit with the heaviness of a truly open-ended dialogue with God.

I think, in this question, Mary invites us to contemplation. Sure, she’s asking the angel to tell her how something so baffling will happen. She wants to know how a virgin can get pregnant. That belief is incredible, unbelievable! And consider Mary, the one to whom that “news” was first uttered after it had been discussed in the lovely tones of Trinitarian conversation. It had to be most unbelievable to her.

But beyond the baffling incredulity is an invitation. I think that we can ride on Mary’s curiosity into a moment of wonder. That is contemplation.

Contemplation is settling. Contemplation is settling on some sustained question or thought. A moment of contemplation is a moment where we wonder or wander into the thick things that God is doing in us and in the world. We consider God’s doings. We consider ourselves. And we sit.

Contemplation isn’t very productive, though it brings about all of life. It’s difficult to prove that you have been “in contemplation.” It’s hard to show the fruit of it, if that makes sense. But the fruit of living one’s questions before God is present. It’s there or it isn’t. We have a contagious, if unsettling, contentment when we’ve lived by placing our sustained questions and thoughts before God.

Look at what Mary did when she remarked to Gabriel’s strong promises.  She brought her first reactions and they came in the form of practical questions. This probably is off the mark, but I like to imagine Mary with a smirk, with a slight roll of her eyes, or with a bit of salt in her tone. Perhaps Mary placed hands of her hips, convinced that she’s got God’s messenger in a corner now. “Can he really think this is possible?”

We can bring our questions the way Mary did. Do you have things you must know, questions you’ve been afraid to ask God because God couldn’t hear them? I wonder if you can stretch your faith a bit, or have it stretched. I wonder if we can hear all those biblical questions, in the Psalms and in the lives of God’s people, and use those queries to encourage us to raise our own. Maybe our questions will become our best prayers, and maybe God can handle them.

Here are a few of my current questions:

  1. What do you think and feel when you see so many black people being killed, in particular by law enforcement officers?
  2. Are you still with those families whose relatives have been my patients?
  3. How can I release my daily worries to you, the ones about raising my son?
  4. Can you really do something about poverty, something more?
  5. What do my prayers these days sound like in your ears?
  6. What do you want me to do?

Advent Post #7

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be…” (Luke 1:31)

In Gabriel’s words are promises, promises and warnings. I’m sure that God doesn’t grant us one without the other.

It would be wonderful if it wasn’t true, but unfortunately for those of us who are inpatient, it is true. Nowhere near the human experience do we get favor or grace or promise without the edge of angelic and prophetic pause.

When I was in graduate school at Wheaton, my first course was with Dr. Walter Elwell, and that class put me on a life course to get to know Jesus. It was entitled, “The Life and Teachings of Jesus,” and I’m pretty sure it was responsible for my abiding interest in this beautiful, misunderstood Member of the Divine Community.

We talked about who Jesus was, and even though it wasn’t a course on Christology proper, it was my basic introduction to a theology of Jesus, who he was, what he did, and what following him meant.

As I look at the angel’s words above in Luke 1, I remember Professor Elwell’s consistent reminder of the plain life of Jesus, the context of his life, the texture of his days, the culture surrounding him, and what some of the grand expectations for Jesus must have been.

He was to be great. He was destined to retain a kind of kingship that could only come as a result of God’s promise. But promise was also warning. God would never do the things the angel said without adjusting everything and anything to accomplish those high words.

The problem with God’s promise, as spoken through Gabriel, was the way “The Lord God” would fulfill those words. God would go about making good on the promise in unacceptable forms. Jesus would live a life of service and goodness only to be killed for that life. Jesus would forego life’s pleasures and take up what can only be called a humble, if not poor, existence. He would trade heaven for earth, and no matter how you slice that transaction, he lost.

His would be a life of substitutionary, exemplary, and saving significance, and yet, that life would cost him dearly. It would cost him all. He would be called Jesus but so many other, and worse, words. He would live up to the high words and be brought down by lower words.

In Gabriel’s promise was a warning, but I’m hardly ever close to the warnings of angels. I choose to hold the promises high. Still, a life of following Jesus is a life of being called by worse names, a life of being downgraded more than uplifted, a life of being undone by those you serve rather than truly exalted.

It is a life that is too much to ask for. It is, really, too much to walk in those steps. It is more than we can do. At least without the commanding clarity which comes from the chief communicator for the world’s best communicator. There is something there, and it does feel too great to be faithful to the life Jesus offers. Frankly, I feel very unsteady with Gabriel’s words, with Jesus’ later words, and with following.

May this Advent bring us the balanced reminders which always come with God’s words. We are more than what we gravitate to. The Christian life is longer and lower than grandeur. May we be brought to that life in its fullness, even when it offers us the most unexpected and unacceptable things. And may all the goodness and grace we need be there in those daily futures to sustain us.