Tag Archives: Mary

I feel the pressure. I receive your promise.

“I feel the pressure. I receive your promise” is a prayer like Mary’s “magnificat.”

Magnificat is the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song, recorded in Luke. Great musicians have been putting it to music for centuries. Try listening to this one by Estonian composer Arvo Part, who manages to evoke Gregorian chant and be postmodern at the same time.

In her prayer, Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. She praises God’s power, holiness, and mercy.  She looks forward to God transforming the world through her son. She prophecies how the proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without.  She exalts God’s faithfulness to His promise to Abraham (see Gen 12:1-3).

Mary’s radical prayer is another reason her life is worthy of our meditation in the middle of the Christmastime anesthesia. Like I was saying the other night at Frankford Ave., Advent is is our discipline season when we remember Mary’s story and also collect our own spiritual histories. Just like her, we feel the pressure and welcome the birth of Jesus into our own lives and our own time. Advent is full of stories about how the Holy Spirit gets into human hearts and into the heart of humanity in Jesus. Somehow, stone-hard places in us, maybe places so hard we didn’t know they were places, are impregnated for the first time or for a surprising umpteenth time, and newness begins to pulse in us. Sometimes, even in spite of ourselves, we end up pregnant with some new life that is pressing to be born.

My home congregation’s pastor, Rachel, wrote to her leaders about some new things popping out in the Sunday meeting two weeks ago. She said, “There was a long-awaited moment of forgiveness and reconciliation between two friends. Someone else joined a Sunday meeting team because they realized that they need to serve in order to make themselves show up every week. Someone else risked some dialogue even though they feel different from “everybody” else, and learned that they actually belong! Someone else gave us all permission and encouragement to village parent because the kids need us all. Someone else risked coming to our meeting for the first time even though they feel burned by religion and are still angry.” Sometimes our rocky center cracks and shafts of light pour through like the sun after a storm. We have moments that become stories about these times we will never forget.

Some of you may hear stories like Rachel listed and feel pressured to have an experience your pastor could put in her little note. You might even be upset that something long-expected is not happening to you right now. Advent may depress you a little. That’s good. Move with that pressure.

I suppose, in this day, I was supposed to say, “No pressure. No problem. It’s all good.” I think some of us still say, “Whatever.” But I’d betray Jesus if I did that! Of course you feel pressured by the story of Mary and stories about the advent of Jesus in the lives of your friends. I think we all feel some kind of resistance to whatever is trying to get out of us and be born. I don’t know this first hand, but I’ve heard many times that pushing a baby out for the first time is especially hard. There is a LOT of resistance. Likewise, blessings are not easily born every time. Of course we feel pressure!

We are into something real here as we remember Mary’s story and our own. They are stories about birthing a child, and birthing a new you, and bringing newness into the world. All those things are hard. Jesus goes through death to give birth to new life! So I will NOT say “No pressure.”   Much the opposite. I say we all need to welcome that pressure like a mother giving birth in Yemen right now, where her children are starving and her husband is out scavenging, and the house is half ruined from bombs, and yet the birth must happen. Even though she must wonder how she could possibly bring a new child into her ruined world, she has the hope that convinced her to carry that child and she has the love to welcome who is being born. Like a Middle Eastern mother giving birth to the hope of the world — that is how Advent keeps showing us how the life we were created to enjoy works.

Mary welcomed the surprising reality that she was a slave to hope in the most elevated sense of the word handmaid.  The other day someone put a job description on the share board. The real estate company was looking for a person who has (quote): “A no job is too small attitude. We want a team player in the office, candidates who have a “that’s not my job” attitude are not welcome.” Mary qualifies. She shows us that the advent of Jesus is all about recognizing a much deeper calling than our usual job description. When Jesus comes to us, things change and we change things. Mary took on the identity of slave (or “handmaid” in the KJV) like a badge of honor, the same way her son would. They turn the powerless word doule (Greek for slave) into the word doula as they aid the birth of new lives in a redeemed creation.

I’ve been practicing Mary’s example by making this my Advent prayer: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The repetition helps me remember that I, too, can turn slavery into birth. We don’t need to say it in King James English! I’ve made that my breath prayer, but I also say things like:

  • I am your slave. Guide me.
  • I serve you. I am listening for what is next.
  • I have no one to trust but you. I will.
  • I feel the pressure, I receive your promise.
  • Wow! Help! Thanks!

However we say it, the goal is to face our fear of letting it out. We are moving with the pressure, not resisting it.  We let God hear us when we pray and learn to feel heard and known and accepted. We let others hear who we are now so they can keep up with us. We let the world know by how we bring life to birth however we are given to serve.

You’ve been called and gifted too. That pressure we feel usually signifies that something needs to be welcomed into the world. That stranger you fear just might be you becoming your true self. That new little movement cracking your hard heart, even irritating you, is probably the best thing happening in your life right now. Jesus is being born.

Hope — an orientation of spirit

It is almost 2017. Last night in our meetings we were talking about Mary and her miraculous Child, born under the domination of the Roman Empire, even more, born of sinful parents and destined to take on their sin — and ours too.  Advent contains an amazing, hopeful story. But do we have any hope left, this year? Really, is there a circle where hope is alive?

It would have been a discouraging year even if Donald Trump and the Russians had not won the election, as it appears they will. It was a year full of arguing about whether black Iives matter and a year when people put “blue lives matter” signs on their lawns to talk back — in neighborhoods minutes from our meeting place in South Jersey. People of privilege scolded us that “all lives matter,” even as it became more and more obvious that such a thought is just a good idea, not a reality. Among us, we passed around great books and films that told us the horrible truth again: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow about mass incarceration, Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen about racism in the church, Netflix’s 13th about the amendment that is perpetually subverted, and I finally just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. just mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s great book

I would love to write a lengthy review of Stevenson’s book, if only to  solidify everything I learned from him about the prison system, about a corrupt and broken justice system, about unjust incarceration, about sentencing juveniles and the mentally ill and about the slow eradication of the death penalty. But I won’t. I know you feel too busy or beaten down to even read this blog post, much less read a long review or even more, a book, so I won’t go there.

Let me give you just one quote in honor of Mary, whose son would be unjustly condemned and receive the death penalty. Let me give you one quote that speaks into our time and tries to encourage people who want to make a difference but who just get tired or cynical and who often end up in despair with few places to look for encouragement.

Stevenson is talking about a case he worked on for years in which a man was serving time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He says,

“I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.

I’d started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I’d grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that ‘hope’ was the one thing that  people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.

Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted more money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.

Havel prescribed exactly what our work seemed to require….Together we hoped.”

We certainly have our work cut out for us as followers of Jesus right now, don’t we? Stevenson and Havel are great examples of what Jesus followers  do when they are called to give their gifts in the cause of truth justice and mercy. Mary is a prime example of a less brilliant person, Iike most of us — too young, too poor, too powerless to do anything, who gives herself to God’s calling. We need an orientation of spirit that makes us individual witnesses, and we need to live in a circle that gives a larger witness than our individual capacities. In the face of abusive power we need to hope in a future promised and won by God-with-us, God-continuing-with-us.

Let’s be strong, not in our own capacity or even our mutuality, but in our hope — hope clutched Iike the lifeline it is, hope in Jesus who has blazed our way through the fearsome and relentlessly evil circumstances we face. We are a circle where hope is alive; but it is a flame that needs air and fuel; it needs tending and, like Mary knew when hope was recognized in her womb, magnifying.

Why we are Catholics and why we are not

What is a better term for “multidenominational?” The other night at our quarterly Doing Theology a few of us searched for a good word to describe how we identify with the genius of every stream in the broad river of Christianity, even the Catholics.

My journey into Christianity made me very fond of Catholics. For instance, I think of Francis of Assisi (who we celebrated yesterday) as one of my first mentors. I was a history major in college. While I was exploring history I ran into Francis. It was great to find him. He cut through the nonsense of the Church and lived with Jesus. He was just what I needed, since I almost left Jesus because of the Church’s nonsense, especially the Catholic part. I was so poor in college, I never missed the free movies they showed. One night, someone showed Brother Sun Sister Moon, which is all about Francis of Assisi and his friends. Watching his rebellion against war and self-serving authority and seeing his utter obedience to joy and Jesus helped seal my deal with God. I almost became a Franciscan and have been an almost-Franciscan ever since.

As a result, I am a Francis-kind of Catholic. Even through I think the rules say I don’t qualify, whenever the priest offers me communion, I take it like I am a member of the tribe. I figure I am more of a Catholic than a catechized fifth grader and, besides, I don’t care about most of the laws any more than most of the Catholics I know. So I’ve done a lot of travelling with the Catholic Church over the years. I even went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella, which is one of the most Catholic things a person can do.

So why aren’t I and why aren’t we Catholics?

Continue reading Why we are Catholics and why we are not

Intimacity, Again: The capacity for being intimate

Two and a half years ago I wrote a blog piece that came to my mind again this week.  It centered around the word intimacity.  At first, I thought I had coined a word; then I Googled it. Google says it means “the condition of being near.” It is basically a synonym for “intimacy.” So forgive me for improving the definition. We already have the word intimacy. I need this word: “intimacity” – that is, is our capacity for being intimate.

We long for intimacy, but most of us don’t have enough capacity to enter into it, even if we are offered it. The small group I was in one time during an Advent retreat experienced this lack. When I was sent off on a prayer walk as part of the same retreat, I had a moment of clarity. I realized that I and the others in my small group were all struggling with getting to the place where we could connect. Most of us told stories that demonstrated that we were relatively obsessed with connecting – clinging to life rafts of intimacy (even if they gave us splinters), chafing under the bits of our loneliness, restlessly scanning our horizons looking for moments when we might feel together, touched, or at least relevant. But one of the missing factors in our equations of connection was our own intimacity.

We need the intimacy, but it is exactly what is broken between us — and we never seem to know why. At least I am often a bit foggy on just how I operate. I think we all have a tendency to think all our relationships just mysteriously happened. We might be a bit in denial about what we bring to the situation – namely our capacity for intimacy, or intimacity. Our ability (or usually lack of same) needs to be named. We need to develop. So let’s do that a bit, right now.

If we ever try to figure out what’s wrong or undeveloped with our intimacity, we often spend a lot of time and energy starting at the wrong place: with other people. We lay awake at night wondering why someone broke up with us. We minutely (and often wrongly) list what someone thinks is wrong with us, based on their off-hand comment or body language. We dissect the lacks of our parents and how we adapted to them detrimentally. We flood our therapists with stories (thank God for Circle Counseling!) about how we are stuck and stumbling, or how someone has stuck us or made us stumble.

Holy Family in Carpenter’s House — Rembrandt

But our broken relationships with other people are often symptoms of a core issue: our intimacity in relation to God. That’s where we need to start. During Advent every year (and any time we open the Bible, or seek God at all), we get another chance to see God’s great intimacity. It is a good example for us. God, who is so totally other than us, becomes so totally one with us – choosing to be like us in body, sharing our sorrow and sickness, identifying with our unforgiveness and death! All the tender feelings we feel when we see Mary holding the baby should seem as amazing as they are – God just came out of her womb, vulnerable, open to the mother/father love he IS.

The beginning of my own intimacity starts with reconnecting with the Source of it. Trying to get there through endless attempts at human relationship repair is kind of backwards. But I, and probably you, do quite a few things backwards. Just in our small group during the Advent retreat (which was actually rather intimate, even though we’d mostly just met), we all demonstrated our fear of being vulnerable. I know that the whole experience made me ponder how easy it is for me to resist the impending experience of lack of connection rather than resist what I do to help create that experience. I am working on seeing my withdrawals and avoidances as sins against the call of the baby Jesus to be trustingly vulnerable with him.

Blessedly, we can share the Lord’s ability. Once he was born of the flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Post-resurrection, our intimacity with God is as amazing as His is with us. The more we open ourselves to that Spirit-to-spirit relationship, discipline ourselves to receive the love, repent of the sin that has tangled up our relationship with God, so far (mainly the sin of not being open and receiving), the more we have a chance to relax enough to explore how we can connect with all the people we would love to love, and would love to love us.

So what can one do to develop intimacity?

1) Have at least one daily appointment with God. Try reading a book about developing intimacity like Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land. It is one of my favorites from 2011.

2) Get a therapist. You probably need one. Psychotherapy is great for people who are having true difficulty living day-by-day. But it is also great for anyone who is exploring the unconscious ways we all relate that need to be more conscious. We don’t need to spend our whole lives protecting ourselves from disappointing or destructive intimacy.

3) Worship when it is organized for you. If we don’t merely sit through public worship and watch it, sometimes singing songs, our hearts can be softened and love unleashed. It is an easy connecting point that repeatedly gives us a chance to loosen up.

4) Make a plan for how to relate in your cell; don’t just attend it, waiting for something to happen. The cell is a weekly discipline that includes developing our intimacity. I hope it is a safe place for you to move beyond what is typical for you, to be born again in further ways, to have Spirit capacitized in your flesh.

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