Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Advent Musings with Mary's Magnificat - Week 2

Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.”             Luke 1:46-47

Oftentimes a different voice helps us to hear something familiar in a new way. Reading Mary’s song from the Common English Bible presents a phrase that has had an impact on how I see Mary, and gives me new ears to hear her song.

“In the depths of who I am” is how the CEB renders the more familiar phrase “my soul.” The different wording provides a glimpse into who Mary is and why she was chosen. For Mary, praise is not limp, hollow or perfunctory. It is uncontainable and irresistible.

Is that true for us? How has your worship, your praise, been expressed this Advent? Is it irrepressible or is it imperceptible?

What is important about our praise is that it come from the depths of who we are. Expressing our praise will look different for each of us. Some of us are naturally more demonstrative and exuberant. Others of us are naturally quiet. Connecting with our deepest being connects us to God, which then leads us to praise. When I am moved from the depths of my being, praise gets expressed with tears, enthusiastic singing, and an uncontrollable smile.

Rejoicing from the depths of who we are is not confined to an hour in the sanctuary each week. It is a way of living every moment of every day. It is a thanksgiving way of living, being grateful for what is. It is having eyes that see God in all life’s circumstances. It is being aware of God’s presence always.

This Advent, can you rejoice in God from the depths of who you are? I imagine that is a gift God would love to receive!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent Musings with Mary's Magnificat-Week 1

And Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
   In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
   Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
   because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
                                                Luke 1:46-49

For this season of Advent, I want to spend time reflecting on Mary’s song of praise, that spontaneous utterance she gave upon being greeted and blessed by her cousin Elizabeth as she arrived at Elizabeth’s home.

While her song is appropriate material for reflection at any time, I am especially aware of its significance currently, as hateful words and actions seem to be more prevalent, accepted and even encouraged in our country than I can remember in my lifetime.

Today, I reflect on Mary’s chosenness, on her worth as a woman, her status as the mother of Jesus. Mary is a strong prophetic voice, a person of strong faith. Her song of praise echoes that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and the voices of prophets all through Israel’s history, who knew that the weak, the poor and the least are those whom God lifts up and holds in high esteem.

It disturbs and angers me when women are treated as objects rather than as children of God and worthy of respect and equality of opportunity. I have heard first hand disparaging remarks about the capability of women. Being told “you’re pretty smart for a girl” is not a compliment. Calling women bossy for being in leadership roles, criticizing their appearance, and labelling them as “shrill” when they recognize and speak against discrimination does not recognize the worth and dignity of women.  Strong women have changed the course of history but have seldom been highly regarded in their own time. Contemporaries did not esteem their gifts because they came in a female package.

Mary, as well as her cousin Elizabeth, and a host of other women, remind me that we would not have Christianity and the Church today if not for women. And yet, the Church has had a checkered history in its treatment of women that, sadly, continues even now. Isn’t it appropriate as we prepare for the coming of Christ, to remember that God chose a strong young woman to be the one who would not only give birth to Jesus but who could be trusted with his life until adulthood? A woman whose trust in God enabled her to risk ostracism and judgment to become who God called her to become?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Celebrating What Is

It’s a week where we are reminded to be thankful. Many of us will gather with family or friends to share a meal (or two or three). There will be laughter, stress, tears—a whole gamut of emotions. Maybe we’ll go around the table and ask folks to name something for which they are thankful. The responses will vary, and some will be predictable.

Being grateful is easier sometimes than others. But gratitude should not hinge on the acceptability of our circumstances. Gratitude is a way of being. When we are grateful people we see the world with different eyes. Grateful people still see the pain and suffering in the world and in their own lives. They feel it deeply. They hurt—both for themselves and for others. In fact, because they are grateful people, they can more acutely hold pain and suffering than those who blind themselves to their own hurt or that of others.

Grateful people are faith-filled people. They can hold the pain because they know there’s a bigger picture, a larger scenario than the pain they know. It is those who deny, numb, or ignore pain and suffering who cannot truly be grateful. When you numb yourself to pain, when you pretend it doesn’t exist, you cannot be fully present to great joy and gratitude.

To be truly grateful is to celebrate what is, to live fully in the present moment, whatever it brings, with faith and trust and thanksgiving. It is to recognize that being human means being present for all of life. Habakkuk captures beautifully what it means to celebrate what is:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
Habakkuk 3:17-18

Monday, November 14, 2016

Public Park

On a day when hate hangs
like thick fog across the land,
when the tears in my soul
are those of the shaken,
it is good to be here—
to look people in the eye,
to smile and greet each other,
to love by simple presence all
who congregate here.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thinking About Saints

This week we celebrate All Saints Day. In many churches, the names of those who have died in the past year will be read aloud in Sunday worship. We’ll think more intentionally about the Communion of Saints, the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. Some of these are friends and family members who loved us, affirmed us and supported us as they lived alongside us.

There are others whom we never met but who influenced us through their beliefs, their commitment, and the legacy they left the Church and the world. Some of these are canonized saints but many others are not.

Recently I profiled saints for a lunch and learn group at my church. I selected four saints. Certainly there were many others I could have chosen, but the four I selected included men and women from different time periods. Each had a unique story and made an impact on the Church based on their own gifts and voice.

Each was human, just as human as any of us are. The most well-known of the four I profiled, St. Francis of Assisi, went from living what today might be thought of as an upper middle class life, doing all the “right” and acceptable things that go along with such a lifestyle, to living as a beggar, because he took seriously three passages from the Gospel: Go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, take nothing for your journey, and if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.

Brendan the Navigator struck out on a sea voyage while in his eighties, following a leading from God, though he had already lived a life devoted to the Church. Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 1100s, was a prophet, physician, author and composer. While there has been controversy in modern times within some denominations about women in the pulpit, she did several preaching tours at the encouragement of the leadership of the Church. Therese of Lisieux only lived 24 years, and did nothing the world would consider spectacular, but she was faithful, performing the ordinary tasks given to her with love and self-effacement.

Looking at each of these, and many others, I am reminded that each represents a life lived with the desire to love and serve God. None of these was focused on accolades from others, but on living faithfully where they were and with the gifts God had given them. They lived life to the full, serving with the capacity they had, something we are all capable of doing. Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, I am challenged to live to my capacity. I hope you are as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Over vs Through Part 2

In my last post, I talked about the necessity of pruning for spiritual growth. Because we are pain-averse, we try our best to avoid circumstances that are difficult or painful. But spiritual growth happens in the situations when we are most challenged. As Psalm 23 reminds us we go through the valley, not around it.

If we are seeking to travel faithfully on the path of discipleship, we have to recognize that the path will be rocky in places, dark in others, and sometimes impossible to see. For sure, we will have to give up our notions of control if we are to grow in our faithfulness. Parker Palmer says, “hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost—challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge.”

If we are determined to be in control, we will find ourselves unable to advance in faith. Grasping control may take us completely off the path of spiritual growth, because we avoid the difficult positions and places that call us to exercise our faith muscles. Grasping control keeps us from developing the traits needed for faithfulness. Joan Chittister notes that the goals and values of the spiritual life are “just plain different from the goals and values we’ve been taught by the world around us. Winning, owning, having, consuming, and controlling are not the high posts of the spiritual life.” These all revolve around possession and control.

The events of life will eventually wrest control from us. How we respond will determine if we grow bitter or faithful. Lack of control is a little death, and as we faithfully “die before we die” we are able to approach the next death, and the final death, with greater peace and acceptance.

Our willingness to go through difficulty, rather than over or around it, may very well be the refining that leads us to stronger faith and deeper love for God. And this leads us to a more faithful witness for Christ, who both told us and showed us that suffering is part of choosing the path of discipleship.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Over vs Through

I bought an Italian Parsley plant a few weeks ago. I put the pot in a sunny window, gave it water, and hoped it would thrive there. I snipped leaves off for several recipes that first week.

All seemed to be going well with my little plant until I returned from a weekend retreat. Yellow leaves greeted me on my arrival, even though there was still water in the dish under the pot. I got the scissors and began to trim the dying leaves, which took almost all the leaves off the plant. I wasn’t sure the plant would survive.

But just a couple of days later, I noticed lots of new leaves. The severe pruning allowed the plant to be healthy and grow. Had I simply repotted the sick plant, or just continued to water it, without any pruning, I am convinced it would have died completely.  

That little plant reminds me that avoidance of difficulty, or glossing over one’s pain (think Monty Python—“It’s only a flesh wound”) does not create the opportunity for growth that going through difficulty, enduring the pruning, or feeling the loss makes for us.

When we are seriously wounded, healing takes time and attention. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just get over it. The leg has to be set, protected and immobilized, so the bones can knit back together. The inner wounds of bullying, betrayal or rejection are no different. Wounds take time and attention to heal. Ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist is just as unhealthy as wallowing in self-pity.

A friend told me that cancer was the best thing to happen to her. She let go of her go-go pace, allowed her body to rest, and spent time with God. Her spiritual growth through the process of chemotherapy was tremendous, and she is a different person now—filled with a peace and wisdom that only time, reflection and stillness can bring. She told me how she felt sad watching others who, while undergoing chemotherapy, tried to maintain their lifestyle at the same level of activity as before their treatment. She said they missed the gift that their treatment offered—to go deeper with God. They were focused on getting over cancer. My friend focused on going through.

To go through, we have to let go. We have to relinquish our timetable, our sense of control. When we go through loss, pain and wounding, when we allow the pain to teach us, we learn that there is much we no longer need. Pruning makes space for something new, something that cannot grow without enduring the difficult.

Jesus fully went through his suffering. He drank it, without any self-pity, to the last drop. He died, the ultimate pruning, but he rose from the dead. And how did the disciples know for sure it was him? Because he rose with his wounds. He bore the scars in his resurrected body, a constant reminder of the suffering he endured.

Jesus, my parsley plant, and my friend remind me of the gift of going through, of allowing the pain to give us new life.