Advent Post #6

“Do not be afraid…you have found favor.” (Luke 1:30)

At some point I started fearing the rain. I never consciously feared it, but my body (like most people’s) would begin to crouch and clinch when waters started falling from the sky. My shoulders would turn in and down. I’d almost tighten at the back as if there was something wrong with the water. “Like I’d melt,” it used to go when I was a child.

I noticed this years ago when my pastor remarked about my mother taking a walk in the rain. She’d met us at his home after having walked. He was joking and he said something like, “Your mother walks in the rain. Both of you all are strange!” I can’t tell you all the context that makes that comment fun and acceptable. If most people called my mother strange, I’d find several ways to hurt them, but when Bishop Trotter said it years ago, it opened up something to me. It showed me 1) that someone else noticed how much my mother could enjoy a walk and 2) that I didn’t enjoy walking in the rain for some reason.

After that, I began to question myself in little bits about my scrunched shoulders and tight neck. I took deep breathes when it started to rain and tried to relax my back. I started being aware of my body’s fearful response. And then I, too, started to enjoy walking in the rain.

So what of this angel’s message? “Do not be afraid…you have found favor.” We live between Gabriel’s words, between the stern encouragement (Is it a command from this divine being?) and the description of what we’ve been given from God.

We live responding to old wounds which have turned us against ourselves and against others. We respond to those crises in our yesterdays, and they leave us cowering in the face of God’s future. We need the angel’s first words: Do not be afraid.

We need them because, despite our best efforts, we fear. Maybe not the rain but something. Sadly, it is as natural a response to life as any, even if it’s unnoticed. But, thankfully, it’s not the only response available to us.

“You have found favor” is the other statement from Gabriel. There is a negative command, and there is a positive affirmation. You have found favor. You have achieved, insofar as grace can be achieved in any literal sense, favor. Consider that: favor.

I think of favor as what I most need from God, what I most search for even when I’m not consciously searching. Favor is what my spirit wants and craves when I’m doing nothing at all. Another word in the neighborhood of favor is grace.

My spiritual director asks me regularly, “Michael, what’s the grace that you need?” What is the favor you’re craving? What do you most need? For all those questions, we have found answers in this season. They’re around us, waiting for us to notice and choose them and live through them. May we do so.

Advent Post #5

“Mary was greatly troubled at his words…” (Luke 1:29)

I think hearing from God can be a wonderful thing. In the past, I’ve been known to say that I heard from God, and though I have only grown more guarded with such ways of framing my sense of the Spirit’s voice, I think it’s still a communication that changes you in good ways when it happens. But hearing from God is not an entirely splendid event. God says things that upset the soul.

I think to Samuel, one of my closest biblical friends, and when he was called, he didn’t know what was going on! He ran around the temple at night, looking for his teacher, waking up the temple servants, trying to find out what it was he heard. And even then, the message he received sent the ears of Israel tingling.

Sometimes, when I’m praying for people who have said that they want clarity from God, I ask that God upset that person’s soul. When I say that in my prayer, I have Mary in mind. I have in mind the unhinged way I imagine this girl to be.

In my mental vision, she is not the staunch woman, leaning near her firstborn when he dies on Calvary’s cross. She is not the woman who shakes away the words of Jesus at that wedding in Cana, right prior to his first miracle. No, this Mary is different. This Mary is a girl. This Mary is just beyond childhood. This Mary, in my vision, trembles at the gripping phrase from the angel’s lips.

She is tutored in Jewish identity. She knows the scriptures. Mary has heard the story of Samson’s parents when the angel told them how to feed and raise him. This Mary recalls those stories from “just days ago,” and this Mary is hardly thrilled. This Mary suffers, if just for a moment from an upset soul. She is stricken by the healing but troubling tone of perfect Love who comes to enlist her in God’s plan to reclaim all things. That reclamation, it seems to this Mary, begins with her.

And she does not run to it. She pauses, maybe stops altogether. This Mary knows that feeling of tense, unsurrendered tightness lodged between her shoulder blades. She knows the “No” lifting up from the bottom of her belly. She knows the control she thought she had over her future, the label she wanted for her first child, the future she planned for him whenever he’d come.

Perhaps she sees a bit of the picture in front of her son, the treatment he’ll receive because of his teachings, the broad and deep ways he’ll be offended and mishandled because of his claims for justice, liberation, and salvation. Perhaps Mary sees the entire problem that is his upbringing, shrouded in mystery, and his ministry, cloaked in the clear-headed direction of a world redeemed from anguish and poverty and oppression. Maybe she didn’t want that future.

The Samuels and the Marys of scripture do not entirely run to God’s plan and desire. They get to it, eventually, but they are probably not the swift-footed heroes we make them out to be in our fiction. No, I think they are obedient and cautious. They are no less surrendered in that eventual practice of God’s purpose, but they always are people whose hands have to learn to relent and release. They are people, not characters. And all people war with God when they see God’s future for them.

Can you relate to this Mary during this Advent season? Can she be as much as exemplar as the other, most robust Mary, older by all those years living toward the fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy? Might you need to wrestle with the troubling words of God? Can your God handle your reactions, each of them, to God’s words?

Advent Post #4

The angel went to her and said…” (Luke 1:28)

Angels are only employed for special occasions in scripture. Their main role seems to be the perpetual praise of God, if Isaiah’s vision is true. They have a role in spiritual battles. But they also have a unique task for bringing news to the beloved. They bring tidings, messages, or words from the Divine to the people. In other words, when angels visit people, major announcements are made.

Major announcements aren’t necessarily good. They are world-changing for the person receiving the message. They are, in a sense, glad tidings, but that designation comes by the interpreters who have handled those stories for decades. The recipient may or may not see the tidings that way. I wonder if Mary’s first hearing was a joyous one.

We’d love to see Mary as a willing and open vessel. Indeed, she was and, in our regular use of her testimony, she is. But what if we reveal another part of her character? What if she is the strained girl who was looking forward to God’s plan happening in another way? What if she was looking forward to a regular, even common, life as a wife only to fear her chance at that life falling out of reach?

I do not know Mary’s state of mind. We get into trouble when we import our feelings into others. But it’s worth wondering if Mary was more relatable to us. I know people who’d love an angelic visitation, revile in it, proclaim it, and show it off as if it is a charm worth turning in the sunlight. But angelic visits strike terror in us when we’re sober. They bring upon us the unmistakable claim of another who is stronger, more convincing, and surely undeniable.

Mary may have experienced hesitation in those first fleeting moments between the angel’s appearance and his “Don’t be afraid.” I love to rush to the “Don’t be afraid” because there is comfort in those commanding words. But I live in the moment before that utterance.

I live closer to the experience of a girl whose hopes feel like departing friends never to be seen again. I live closer to the enormous shame that comes with being questioned, interrogated for your acts, turned over in the mouths of people who will never understand what happened to you as you explain it. When I consider my life as a father (and husband) raising our son–all of us black–I’m not able to dispense with my fears. In truth, most of us live much closer to Mary’s fear than we do her fearlessness.

And Advent is that season where we bring them both to the one who claims us. We bring our shame, even perceived shame, and our courage. We bring our surrender to a will greater and more glorious and we bring our dashed hopes. We bring Ferguson and New York and Chicago, all of them our Galilees and Nazareths. We bring all of ourselves. And we listen for the angel’s next words.

Advent Post #2

“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee.” (Luke 1:26)

Cities are burdensome places and I don’t know that I could do without them. Have you ever been to a city you loved but couldn’t live in? Have you ever done the work of choosing a favorite city?

I wonder what your list would include. Perhaps the city where you first tasted that favorite dish. Maybe you’d list the city where you fell in love or the city where you first saw the sun set over some mountainous glory. On my list would be the city where I saw a waterfall, listened to jazz in a tea lounge, and where I heard the terrible roar of an answer to prayer.

If I were an angel, one of God’s dispatched messengers, I’d have a list of places to visit. I’d have tried to convince the good Lord to send me to a number of places, and Galilee would not have made the list. An unimpressive place, nothing interesting happened in Galilee, particularly Nazareth, the town of the Galileean province. And yet, God sent Gabriel to that place.

Galilee as a Roman province was a soil-rich place, “never destitute of men of courage,” and full of people.  The area was a trade-heavy area, but Nazareth was not on the main road. Never mentioned in the first testament, it was an almost forgotten place. Nazareth in particular, Galilee in general.

I wonder if we can consider the places God has dispatched us to as little Galilees. We’d rather not be in every one of them. A meeting with that one detestable person, a long torturous commute in traffic, the blinding loneliness of being distant from loved ones–the list of places God has us is long. And they are Galilees. God has placed us, sent us.

That does not change the reality “on the ground.” It doesn’t change the smell of your neighborhood alleys or the dreadful silence of living nowhere close to anything interesting. The place is the place. Our location is ours. And God’s. Indeed, where we are belongs to the same God who eventually says spirit-lifting things to the world. But God goes to forsaken places, uninteresting places, terrible places, and God sends us to those places.

Of course, it is also good news for us when we are in those places–the fact that God comes to us there. We don’t have to live in a certain neighborhood to see something spiritual, to capture something essentially divine. God doesn’t pick the best community in the country to send his gifts. Indeed, God goes where you wouldn’t expect the Holy One to go.

I wonder if we can see God’s persistent, surprising ability to go where we wouldn’t as a gift in Advent. God goes to where we would ourselves love to leave. In the spiritual darkness, in the strong stink of our sin, in the hopeless decoration of mental illness, in a boring, lifeless place. Whatever our Galilee, God comes.

Advent Post #1

Over the next few weeks, Christians will, knowingly and less-knowingly, journey through Advent. I didn’t grow up acknowledging the liturgical season itself. I’m still fumbling through what it means to begin a new year at a time that is different from the generally accepted chronology of the fiscal year or the calendar year or the academic year.

Mentioning Advent–which is, for the Christian, the beginning of the year after Christ’s death, “AD”–is itself a slight departure toward another time. I’m not making all efforts to live by the liturgical calendar, but last year I wrote reflections for Lent for my church, so this year I’m putting this into my life as a personal assignment of the soul: to meditate in written form through Advent.

I’ll park in Luke’s gospel, particularly the latter part of chapter 1. Let’s see how it goes.

For this post, I’ll simply list the passage and for each week I’ll do the same, filling the spaces between the passages with a daily meditation.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. “For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, NIV)