Madonna and Child

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It was a day filled with meetings, more than usual.  Lucky me, I had time to squeeze in visits with couple of my elderly friends.

I planned to visit Andrew* in the nursing home first, then go through the connecting door to the assisted living building where his mother lives.  Andrew is almost 80 years old and has Alzheimer’s disease.  His mother Margaret is 100 years young and is in robust health, as healthy as you can get when you have lived for a century.  (She insists that potatoes are the secret.  I wonder; Weight Watchers designates them a power food.)

I found both of them in Andrew’s room along with his brother, and Margaret perched on the seat of her walker.  Good timing!  I could give them both communion, a rare opportunity.   Offering the sacrament to Andrew along with his mother somehow helped him focus.

It was a holy moment, made more so by the shared memories embedded in these two as they extended their time-worn hands for the wafer and cup.  Made holier by the painful reality of son suffering, mother still subconsciously charged with looking after her child.

He is meant to be taking care of her, we think.  It is the ironic reversal most families bear at this juncture.  And that is felt by Andrew’s wife and children.  This pair is an oddity, a fluke of health and disease unexpectedly borne.

No matter.  They sit quietly, mother searching for small talk that will connect with the boy she still sees in her mind’s eye.  He, groping too.  Perhaps the ideal setting for body and blood.  Brokenness is all that makes sense today.

*Names have been changed for the sake of privacy.

 

 

Same Song, Next Verse

 

 

Luke 1:26-56

            She was an ordinary girl.  We remind ourselves of it every year at this time.  We know nothing about Mary except that she was pledged to be married to Joseph.  Later on we get a few hints about her personality, and there is one clue even in the annunciation—the encounter with the angel Gabriel.  When he told Mary that God was pleased with her and that the Lord was with her, she was very upset.  Interesting.  She was troubled by a great compliment.  Was she shy?  Would we say today that she had “low self-esteem?”

Luke writes in his gospel that Mary took things to heart, and she “pondered” them.  She certainly had enough to think about, both before and after the birth of her baby.  She would naturally be alert to any hint of Jesus’ future.  Gabriel may have announced a great mystery, but he didn’t leave everything to the imagination.  He seemed to get all excited when he told Mary the news.  Got ahead of himself, really, for a poor girl who had no prior warning:  “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child…”  He could have let that sink in for a bit before rushing to the next part, don’t you think?  But no, he gushes, “He will be great AND WILL BE CALLED THE SON OF THE MOST HIGH!”  “Throne of David…his kingdom will never end…Holy Spirit will come upon you…Son of God…Elizabeth is also going to have a child…”

Did Mary hear any of it after “you will be with child”?  It was all a lot to take for a young woman, of middle school age by today’s standards.  Wait, Elizabeth pregnant?  If this was all true, if it was not some kind of strange dream, then she would have to see if it was coming true for Elizabeth too.  Her parents may have been puzzled by the sudden request to visit relatives, but they did not yet know her secret.  She was keeping it to herself until she knew for sure.

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She had barely made it through the door of Zechariah’s house when she spotted Elizabeth and called her name.  And then Elizabeth turning around with her big belly, her smiling eyes telling Mary all she needed to know.  And the angel’s words coming back to her, more clear and piercing than the first time she heard them: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Elizabeth felt her baby turning over, and she laughed, and she declared Mary the most blessed of all women, ever.  She called Mary “the mother of my Lord.”  Then she repeated the blessing, this time in more detail: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

We don’t know how much Mary really believed it at that point, but by this time there were prophecies happening all over the place, and this was just one more.  Mary would come to trust that what was happening was God’s doing.  She would gradually unfold all the layers of her responsibility.  She would get plenty of practice at pondering, a skill she perfected over Jesus’ lifetime, until she could no longer contain it, and her heart would be broken open by the magnitude of the mystery and the grief at the foot of the cross.

For now, though, her heart was overflowing with wonder, and what came out was a song.  It was in some ways simply the next verse of a song that had begun centuries before.  A tune Abraham hummed under his breath on the long journey.  A song sung by the freed slaves after they passed through the Red Sea.  The song Hannah sang when she was given a child, impossibly, and she reluctantly handed Samuel over to Eli with shaking hands and a heart filled with pain.  A song with countless variations composed by that skilled musician David.  The song of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband.

Every verse of the song praised the God who uses divine power not to grab and oppress as humans do, but to rescue and restore.  The God who finishes every story with justice.  The God who blesses.  The God who is faithful to keep the promises.

Jesus picked up the song himself, in what we call the Beatitudes, when he described the kind of people God blesses.  Not the obvious people who already appear to have their blessings, like money and power and lots of land and plenty of everything.  Instead God blesses the ones who suffer, who are humbled by their circumstances or even their own bad choices, the ones who struggle to survive, the ones who are grateful for small favors.  “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” is the first line of Jesus’s verse in the song.

The words of the songs sung through the ages have a similar theme, it’s true.  Praise to God who deserves effusive praise (not the silly claims to fame and power attempted by dictators and advertisers alike these days).  Expressions of joy that spill out of the hearts and mouths of people who knew what it was to struggle, to be oppressed or poor or unnoticed.  Praise for the blessing from God who saw them and lifted them out of their misery.

But something else happens with these songs.  They not only express faith in God; they also create the trust in God that they sing about.  Mary wasn’t just stating facts in her Magnificat.  She was throwing herself on the God who would have to get her through the coming months and years.  Mary would suffer for saying yes to God.

Which is what also happens every time.  She is one in the long line of God’s people we have been reading about, ordinary folks, minding their own business when God taps them on the shoulder and says, “I have a job for you.”  They have a choice to say yes or to say no.  Who knows?  Maybe there were others God called who said no, and so their stories never made it into the anthology.

But Abraham said yes.  Jacob said yes (eventually).  Joseph and Ruth and Samuel and David said yes.

They are not the heroes just for saying yes.  The storytellers and authors make sure we see that every one of them had feet of clay, even Mary.  God is always the hero, always the rescuer, the redeemer, the promise-keeper and provider.

But because they said yes, God blessed the poor and sick and unlovely through them.  God lets us get in on the blessing.  Blessing is what we get when we say yes.  We also get hardship.  No beatitude is ever complete without it.  Hardship is what makes us ripe for trusting God.  It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the stares and whispers behind Mary’s back.  The nasty names they called her and her child.

But she said yes anyway.  Timid, unassuming Mary became the God-bearer for the world because she told the angel, “Let it be to me as you have said.”  She would never see with her own eyes every single thing that she sang about, but she let God’s story be her story.  Before she was thrust into the long, difficult months of pregnancy, labor, and birth, she got to sing a verse of the song.

“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.

…His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

…He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.”

“Magnificat” is what Mary’s verse has been dubbed, the Latin version of first words of praise out of Mary’s mouth.  I heard two more versions of the Magnificat this week.  No kidding.  One was in the church office, with someone whose life has been transformed by the amazing forgiveness and power and love of God.  “I have never been this happy and content in my entire life,” she said, her own heartfelt lyrics for the ancient song.

The other was in a hospital room, the words of a patient struggling with illness and confusion, but still coherent enough to say it over and over to God, “Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you!”

Hearing those songs of praise with my own ears, in our own time, makes me appreciate what Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, says about Mary.  “We are all meant to be mothers of God.  What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within my self?  And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to this Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?  This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”

Sound strange, gentlemen, to think of being a mother?  Think of yourselves as God-bearers then.  Those charged with saying yes to whatever it is that God asks you to do.  To see God accomplish through you that which you could never in your wildest dreams do on your own.  To say yes to God, again, as Mary did.

Then you will be blessed, as surely as she was, for you have believed that what the Lord has said to you will be accomplished.

Favor, and True Wealth

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A rare visit with my friend Bibi Sangho

Sometimes it feels crappy to be safe.

It was days away from a much anticipated trip to Mali when I awoke to the news that there was a terrorist attack in Paris, where I had planned to spend three days enjoying time alone wandering the streets of the Marais district.  The layover in Paris had to be canceled.  Disappointing, but at least I could still make my connecting flight there and proceed to Mali.

Then the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako happened.  There would be no trip to Mali this year.

The trip was aborted last year because of the ebola epidemic.  A couple of years before, we also had to postpone a trip due to a coup that made the country somewhat unsafe for conspicuous Caucasians.

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Indielou Dougnon educates women about prenatal care and pediatric health

My husband and I are in a Partnership Ministry Team with The Luke Society.   We help support Indielou Dougnon, a dedicated nurse practitioner who serves three tribes in western Mali.  We also have a connection with the Ase Mali orphanage in the capitol city of Bamako.  Our roles in this work are that we work together to offer help and prayer, but I travel with others on the team and use my French language skill, while he stays home at command central.

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I ache to see my friends in Mali, dedicated servants who serve the needs of the poor.  The disappointment is profound.  Yet my sadness over a lost opportunity to reconnect with friends feels self-indulgent, and here’s why.  What difference does it really make whether I get to go to Africa or not?  It doesn’t matter one whit to anyone in my circle here in the U.S.  Life will go on.

At the same time, my Malian friends have to deal with real danger: the threat of famine, the instability of their homeland, the lack of access to adequate health care.  Then there is the risk of being a Christian in a Muslim country where for many years their minority religion has not been a problem, but in these recent times could label them as a threat to extremists who are infiltrating the population.

Visiting our friends is an encouragement to them.  It reminds them that they are not forgotten by their fellow believers in other parts of the world.  At the same time it prevents me from drifting into spiritual apathy or entitlement.  I believe that both of these are worthy reasons to go to Africa, among many others.

I am not satisfied with the role of tourist missionary.  I don’t like merely visiting people and places where the population lives on the edge of danger and then running back to home base where I am safe.  At the same time I am not called to live there; it wouldn’t make sense to live apart from my husband, who clearly is not called to the same thing.  And so I accept the fact that I can visit Mali, but I can’t live there.

Still, it stings to know that I can take safety for granted, in contrast with friends who face hardship.

So what can I do?  I can seek opportunities to tell their story.  I can support them financially, encourage them consistently, pray for them faithfully, and visit them when I am able.  I can remind them that they are not alone.  I can visit them when possible and keep them in mind between the visits.  I can avoid self-pity about canceled trips and pray for my friends who have no choice but to live with elements of danger.  I can look beyond that and see the many wonderful aspects of their lives and culture.  I can recognize that their lot is not less “blessed” than mine, and God is fully present with them, working for them and loving them and their friends daily, faithfully.

On the weekend that my trip to Mali was canceled, I attended church with my husband since I had already arranged pulpit supply for my absence.  The text for the sermon was the Magnificat, Mary’s song about the hope her son would bring to the world.  I was reminded that the poor are the “favored” ones.

“God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”  (Lk 1.53)

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  (Lk 6.20b)

Favor is not about being wealthy.  We in the middle/upper class U.S. cannot point to our abundance and call it God’s blessing, not in the way I understand the Beatitudes.  To me that implies that those who are not wealthy are not blessed.  The Scriptures tell us instead that God’s favor is extended to those who experience poverty on a daily basis.

I have much to learn about God’s favor for the poor.  I am grateful to have friends who are teaching me that poverty often has nothing to do with danger or lack of resources, that wealth in the reign of God is ours because a much deeper security is ours in Jesus Christ.  We are rich when our bonds of love with one another are strong in spite of the distances between us.  We are blessed because we are able to share our stories of God’s faithfulness.  We are favored when we shed tears of disappointment and then remind each other to trust the God who loves us all.

 

 

The Tally, and Grace

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One of the things I have come to realize with age is this: numbers don’t always deliver.

If you are trying to lose weight, it can be helpful to count calories or Weight Watchers points to reach a healthy goal.  Numbers on the scale give you an idea of your progress.

On the other hand, facing the actual size of your heft can mock you and undermine the process with discouragement.  You think your life will improve dramatically if you could just lose the weight.  But then there is this.  The smaller numbers that are so hard won can make you think you are a better person somehow just for fitting into the size of clothing you have coveted.  Neither case makes you more kind or godly, and can distract you from living the abundant life God has intended for you.

If you are trying to earn more money, the opposite effect occurs.  Higher numbers have a soothing effect for a while, but they do not make you more worthy of love or mercy.  Lower numbers do not make you less so.

These are the two subjects of our attention that can get the most air time in our consciousness.  Yet I would suggest that there is a third, even more insidious dynamic with a mathematical dimension.  Jesus addressed it on several occasions with the religious leaders of his day.  I am referring to the unwritten but nevertheless extremely compelling notion of earning God’s favor.

It is as natural to us as breathing, for it is bred into us from day one.  Behave yourself, and receive your parents’ approval.  Misbehave, and be scowled at, or worse.  “Be good,” my mother would say each time as we headed out the door to school.  If we wanted to earn our parents’ blessing, we followed the rules.  When we learned about God, we automatically applied the same principle to that relationship, often with explicit encouragement from our elders.  “God is watching you” was a warning, not a comfort.  And so we strive to keep our personal balance sheets weighted on the side of assets and not liabilities.

I like to run for exercise.  Actually, I jog, but today’s parlance implies that I do more than plod, which is more accurate.  The last time I bought running shoes, I was told that they would be good for around 500 miles, and then the benefits of the design would gradually disappear along with the cushioning in the soles.  I began a tally of the miles I had run, so I would be aware when it was time to buy new shoes.

After a hundred miles or more, I purchased the audio book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, in which he debunks the prevailing wisdom about running and running shoes.  I listened to it during my morning jog.  McDougall cites numerous examples of successful runners who sport old tennis shoes.  He tells the story of a tribe in Mexico that runs extreme distances in homemade sandals.  He quotes experts in sports medicine and university professors who poke holes in the gigantic industry surrounding running shoes, revealing that all the technology and money spent on running shoes is a waste.

Huh.

No reason to keep a tally then, if McDougall et al are to be believed.  But I kept making the hash marks after every workout just in case.  Gradually I realized that the tally had nothing to do with shoes.  It is a record of accomplishment.  It makes me feel great to see how many miles I have run (jogged).  I am feeding my own ego, which feels akin to the earning of God’s favor when I think about it.  The impulse will not die.

It will take courage and humility to throw the list away and simply enjoy the act, and the benefits, of jogging.  It is no wonder that the leap into God’s grace feels risky.  There are no measures, no accounting of my worth to God.  I cannot fiddle with the gauges of God’s regard for me.

Ah, there it is.  Another glimpse of the infinite nature of the Divine.  Paul hints at it in Ephesians 3, when he urges his readers to grasp what cannot be grasped: “How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3.18-19)

When I first started running, I tried doing the “Couch to 5K” that had me gradually increasing my running time in proportion to walking.  I hated it.  I decided instead to just run as far as I could before slowing to walk.  I made it a lot farther than I expected, and I realized that I liked this practice.  I had to consciously avoid improving my speed or comparing myself to other runners.  I simply wanted to feel the strength and mechanics of my own body.  Five years later I still lace up my running shoes and head out the door.

The life God offers is meant to be explored, enjoyed, pushed to the limits with periods of slowness and rest.  It defies accounting, because the standards keep fading into the mist of God’s mysterious, immeasurable love.