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Archive for December, 2017

Magnifying the Lord

 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Luke 1:46-47a

In the days before the birth of Jesus, Mary visited her relative, Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptist. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, sings her Song of Praise, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, which begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” (emphasis added). Some Bible versions translate this as “My soul proclaims the Lord…” I am generally uncomfortable splitting hairs over different translations, but this distinction is important to me. To magnify is to make larger or more visible. To proclaim is to tell about. Mary, in agreeing to birth Jesus, allowed God to become visible in the world. Thus, she magnified the Lord.

It is hard to know how much of the coming decades were known to or suspected by Mary at the time. From the retrospective view of the gospel of John, however, her soul truly did magnify the Lord. Indeed, two thousand years later, Mary is remembered and celebrated nearly as much as Jesus for her role in his birth. Mary, while not usually considered divine, does represent the feminine archetype in an otherwise patriarchal religious hierarchy. Symbolically, Mary represents the earth. She is the “formless void” the Spirit of God hovered over in the Genesis creation story, receiving and birthing the Word of God into physical existence (See Genesis 1 and John 1). To the extent that Jesus of Nazareth was 100% God and 100% human, the human part of Jesus came into being through Mary. God, being spirit, required a willing and human servant to give birth under divine circumstances in order to manifest on earth as Jesus. Mary willingly assumed that servant role.

In the passage above, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord. Although the definition of a soul is somewhat ambiguous, it generally refers to our innermost, spiritual essence. Our soul is our eternal connection with God, and it existed before we were born and will continue to exist after our physical death. It is the conduit through which our material and spiritual natures meet, allowing God to access us and allowing us to access God. When we pray, we are communicating through this invisible channel of the soul. Just as our bodies form and develop within our mother’s body, so the body of God formed within Mary. The way I picture this is as a spiritual spark emanating from God and penetrating the malleable material of the earth (Mary), causing it to coalesce into a physical human body. In this way, Mary was impregnated with God’s Word, and she birthed a human body in which the spark of God would manifest physically. Thus, God was magnified through Mary’s soul and became visible to us in human form.

The point is not that God is so small and meek as to require magnification. The reality is that our free will allows us to pay attention to whatever we choose, and most of us choose to focus away from God. God becomes nearly invisible to us as we lose ourselves in the busyness of our daily lives. The distractions of the earth are seductive. In addition, an experience of God is not something that is imposed upon us. It is always available, although few of us choose to attend to it. Mary is celebrated today because she chose, of her own free will, to allow God’s spirit to work through her in order to enter our material world as one of us. Her decision came with the high price of giving up life as she knew it. For many of us, giving up the life we know and cherish on this earth is a step too far.

Like Mary, whether or not we consciously recognize it, our souls magnify the Lord. The grandmother of a friend told him that a little piece of him rubs off on everyone he meets. His challenge was to make sure it was a good piece. And this is our charge, that a piece of God is magnified in everything we do and to everyone we meet. It is our job to make sure that what we magnify through our words and actions is a good reflection of the spark of God within.

 

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The Morning of Christmas

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Matthew 1:23

 

‘Twas the morning of Christmas, when Love came to earth,

By way of a tiny and humble child’s birth;

His parents had traveled so far from their home,

For the census decreed by Augustus, in Rome.

Arriving in Bethlehem, with no place to stay,

The new baby slept in a manger of hay;

With cattle and donkeys and sheep at his side,

This animal stable was home, for a time.

Angels announced the birth on that night,

To seekers and shepherds and sinners alike;

“All glory to God!” the heavenly host chimed,

“And peace on the earth to all of mankind.”

Beneath a bright star, the news was proclaimed,

Of God come to earth in the form of this babe;

A child who would grow and remake us anew,

And cover the sins of me and of you.

On the morning of Christmas, the Prince of Peace came,

To reconcile souls with their Maker, again;

God with us, Emmanuel, forever to dwell,

On the morning of Christmas, and all year as well!

May the true light of Christmas find its home in your heart today – Merry Christmas!

 

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Love Comes Anyway

 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4:11-12

The theme for the fourth week of Advent is Love. I believe that God is love and that love manifested in human form on earth in the person of Jesus. The stories of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, present an unusual way for love to appear. The familiarity of these stories to those of us raised with them has perhaps caused some of the mysterious particulars to become commonplace, and so we embellish and romanticize them. It is the peculiar details, however, that point to the deceptive simplicity, the laser focus, and utter purity of the love of God for and with us.

As the Christmas story goes, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census. The town was crowded with others gathering there for the same reason. There was no place for the child to be born, so the birth occurred in an animal stable. We recreate this today as a quiet, peaceful scene with calm, domesticated animals, fresh hay, and gentle lighting. The reality would have been much different – loud, smelly, dirty, and dark. The point we miss from the original setting, however, is that God enters into the chaos and the messiness of our everyday lives. For most of us, God does not come with a clap of thunder, marching bands, or with pomp and circumstance. Rather, God comes as a baby. Just as the baby’s cries in Bethlehem were lost in the noise of the animals and pandemonium around the stable, so today we cannot hear the baby’s cries for the Christmas messages blaring incessantly around us. It would have been easy to miss the birth of this God-child in Bethlehem. In fact, it would have been difficult to even find it there, just as it is difficult to experience it today for all the noise and distractions.

James Finley, in his Advent reflection* for 2017, says one lesson of the Christmas story is that God comes anyway. Even when we are too busy to prepare, God appears and abides within us. It did not matter that Mary and Joseph were far from home. It did not matter that Bethlehem was crowded and chaotic. It did not matter that there was no room at the Inn. God came anyway. Nothing was ready for the baby. There was no nursery, no safety, no soft clothes, and no appropriate shelter. There was no welcome fitting for a king, so Jesus was born in squalor with farm animals. Yet, he did not seem to mind or even notice.

Life is complicated because we have made it so. Love at its core, however, is simple. In spite of our messiness and unworthiness, God comes. This is the nature of love as taught by the Christmas story, that even when nothing is as we feel it should be, love comes anyway. It is there, lying unnoticed beneath the self-imposed complexity of the season. If the house is dusty and unkempt, it all-the-more resembles the original setting for the birth of Jesus. Love is an unstoppable flow – it is given and received independent of the circumstances around it. God choses to come to us because God loves us, even and especially in our imperfection. God cannot wait to be with us and will not wait until we think we are ready. God choses to be in relationship with us knowing all relationships require a give and take to perpetuate, and accepting the risk that we may not reciprocate.

Nothing matters as much as our attentive and conscious reception of this unfathomably generous gift of God’s self. Once received, this love can be passed along to others as freely and generously as it was given to us. In being giving away, love mysteriously returns to us all the more. It is almost too easy and simple to believe. Yet, this is the meaning and purpose of the season – not the noise and chaos we have built into Christmas, but the silent simplicity of a new life being gently born into our lives, just as we are, here and now. Love comes.

*James Finley, Faculty Advent Reflections, https://cac.org/faculty-advent-messages/, sourced on December 18, 2017.

 

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Great Joy

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

The theme for the third week of Advent is Joy. Happiness is often used synonymously with joy, but the two are significantly different. Happiness is a transitory state of mind, but joy is an underlying orientation to life. We can be happy one moment and sad the next, not unlike the ups and downs of an emotional roller-coaster. Joy, however, remains relatively constant regardless of the immediate circumstances. In Luke 2:10, the angel tells the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (emphasis added). The angel’s message clearly refers to something greater than momentary happiness. The incarnation of God on earth as Jesus was and is intended to be a life-altering, joy-inspiring occurrence.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes that God fills us with joy and peace in believing (15:13). In other words, it is our belief – our lived faith that God is real and present in our lives – that leads to joy. Like a self-perpetuating cycle, faith makes hope possible, hope brings joy, joy renews our faith, and so on. Those who lack the optimistic hope that life is defined not by its challenges but by its blessings cannot live with joy. The pessimist only sees life as one set of catastrophes after another and lives in constant fear and dread of the next disaster. A joyful person knows that great blessing lies just beneath every difficulty and waits expectantly for it. The difference is subtle, but powerful. One scriptural reason for hope is found earlier in Romans (8:28) where Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”  Nowhere in scripture are we promised an end to the troubles and heartaches of this life. Rather, we are assured that God will work through our suffering and transform it into something good. Those of us who have lived long enough and awake enough have seen this proven true repeatedly. Indeed, this is the good news of the Gospel.

One can be happy without joy for a time, but only a joyful orientation to life will bring lasting happiness. The first step is to develop our faith, and this is a personal choice. No one, including God, can force us to believe. Becoming faithful requires a willingness to trust that which we cannot see or prove exists. As we surrender into a stronger faith, we cannot help but become more hopeful about life and the future. Our faith teaches us there is nothing that can possibly happen to us that will happen beyond God’s ability to mold it into a blessing. Once we know that even death cannot separate us from love, our fears dissipate. As we worry less about the future, we become capable of experiencing joy in the present moment. This is the great joy spoken of by the angel to the shepherds. This great joy is not about some future reality in a faraway land we may see when we die, nor is it about some obscure event that happened two thousand years ago. This great joy is here, it is now, and it is available to everyone. We must position ourselves to receive it, however.

So, when I wish you a joyful Christmas season, I am not hoping you will receive lots of nice presents (not that there is anything wrong with that). My wish for you is for a life transformed by the birth of the Christ child within you. That is the path to a true and sustained joy; and from that great joy, all good things will flow!

 

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A Challenging Peace

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34

“For a child has been born for us…and he is named…Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

The season of Christmas is identified as one of peace. Unfortunately, our world is never at peace. There is turmoil across the planet and across the street. For too many, there is violence across the room. In Isaiah, Jesus is named the Prince of Peace; yet in Matthew, he claims not to have come to bring peace, but division. Father against son; daughter against mother; nation against nation. How do we reconcile the Prince of Peace described in Isaiah with Jesus’ own words in Matthew? I believe the answer is in our understanding of peace and what it requires. Jesus invites us into a different kind of peace – a non-violent peace built upon justice that we seldom see modeled or taught.

In war, “peace” comes when one side is beaten into submission and reluctantly surrenders to the other as a last resort. In business dealings between competitors, “peace” sometimes comes through acquisition, often as a hostile takeover. Peace gained by force is not peace, but only a delay in the conflict. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, when your only tools are knifes and forks, you have to cut something. In other words, when getting our way by force is the only way we know, the violence cannot end. The only peace we know is but a temporary reprieve, as the defeated attempt to rebuild themselves to a level of strength sufficient to strike back at their oppressors.

A lasting peace comes by willing surrender and carefully crafted consensus, and the peace of Jesus requires both. As individuals, we surrender to the positional and divine authority of Christ. The consensus required is one that respects, values, and includes all of creation in all of its wonderful diversity. It strives for unity of being, not uniformity. When all are recognized as being created in the image of God, none can be left behind or excluded. When we consciously submit to the higher knowledge and power of God, we willingly take our place as equals with our brothers and sisters in the family of God. There is no longer a need for anyone to forcibly take, nor withhold, anything from anyone else. We understand our blessings are not ours to hoard; rather, our blessings are gifts from God and are multiplied in their sharing (see John 6:1-14). We live in an abundant universe, and there is plenty for everyone when no one stockpiles beyond their need.

In Matthew 10, Jesus uses the language of violence to clarify his purpose, saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. The context of the verse and the entire life of Jesus, however, indicate no violent intention on his part. Jesus’ words are a call to war, but to a war on injustice, exclusion, and suffering. These are the underlying causes of violence in our world. We have the capability to eliminate much of what keeps large swaths of humanity in bondage and desperate need. Do we have the will to do so, however? The perpetual habit of reacting to the violence instead of identifying and resolving the underlying causes gets in our way. I think it is to us – those with more than enough – that Jesus points his sword. Until we commit to eliminating the sources of violence, there can be no peace. True peace cannot come to any until it comes to all. And peace cannot come to all until everyone has their most basic needs met. Unless we follow Jesus’ command to love one another our reality will divide us like a sword, and there will be no silent night.

We cannot attain peace by physical or emotional violence, nor is peace possible in the absence of justice. There can be no peace until everyone has adequate shelter, enough to eat, and recognition as a child of God. This is the different sort of peace of which Jesus speaks. We wonder why others attack us, steal and beg from us, and in our wondering we answer our own question. We are why there is no peace on earth. Serendipitously, we hold the key to attaining peace on earth, uncomfortable and challenging though it may be.

 

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