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 #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.

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 #3

“…pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David.” (Luke 1:27)

Joseph was a distant relative of David. It was through him that Jesus, what we’d call a “stepson,” got to claim connection to the most notable king of Israel. If you take a canonical reading of Luke’s gospel (i.e., you accept the reading as the canon offers it), you see a great space in Joseph being the father of Jesus. As the husband of Mary, he became the father of her son. He would father, instruct, and raise him.

Joseph did a powerful thing in raising Jesus. He granted Jesus access to the respected royal lineage of one king God promised would reign forever. Because of Joseph’s family heritage, Jesus would be linked to and embodied as God’s enduring promise.

I don’t know that Joseph found things so royal when Mary announced things. That’s between the lines in the text, unfortunately edited from the sacred pages. We know those conversations happened. Joseph was no super saint. He was a regular one. He worked with hammers and tools and pieces of wood. He made commitments. He stayed with his choices. And he stayed with Mary.

In staying with Mary, he committed to this little child who came from…heaven? On my best days I still scratch my head of the wonder of Mary’s conception. God chooses strange ways to come to us.

Joseph raised Jesus as part of his family, and legally and spiritually it was Joseph’s line that opened to this “stepson” a world of possibility. It was possible for Jesus to be in relationship to David, the revered and loved and remembered monarch so humanly described in our scriptures. And it was possible for Jesus to bridge into all the God said God would do.

Of course, we get Mary’s side of things too. Jesus is a child of God, literally. He comes because of the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary. The child is a reaction of God’s steady and long-term favor for the world. The Spirit enriched Mary with this divine seed. She received the child from the Holy Spirit according to our scriptures, and we are presented with a Jesus who is doubly-gifted. He is gifted from God on his mother’s side and he is gifted from Joseph on his father’s side. He is raised as a royal man “up one side and down the other.”

May we remember the Josephs of the world while we so quickly recall our blessed Marys. Fathers and mothers bring us into royalty. May God grant us the ability to praise each one who introduces us, links us, and bridges us to the fulfillment of promise.

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)