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?

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.