Advent Post #26

Merry Christmas and enjoy Jennifer Hudson and the Soul Children of Chicago.

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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 #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 #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 #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.