Salt and Light Series – This Little Light

Read: Matthew 5:14-16

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16, NRSV).

Jesus may have actually gotten a laugh for this line: “No one after lighting a lamp puts in under the bushel basket….” It’s a ridiculous idea, after all. For one thing, it would be a fire hazard. For another, it would negate the purpose of lighting the lamp in the first place.

So, whether we are first or twenty-first century believers, we know better than to hide our light under a bushel.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering whether it’s enough just to know better. Sometimes the basket itself seems to have a mind of its own. Here’s what I mean.

There is something about this pandemic that stifles the soul. It’s as if the psychological symptoms reflect the physical effects of COVID-19. We are weary and depressed—suffocated by isolation and anxiety.

This bushel basket feels like it’s out to get us. But if that’s the case, what can we do?

In these circumstances, it’s not enough proclaim, “Just say NO to bushel baskets!” Although I am not an expert, I can personally vouch for a generous prescription of exercise, therapy, Netflix, and prayer. But something else occurred to me while re-reading Louise Penny’s wonderful Inspector Gamache mysteries. A trip to Penny’s fictional village of Three Pines is itself refreshing, of course, but there was a particular description that helped chase back my “basket”.

In The Long Way Home, Penny describes one of her characters this way: “Marianna ate it up, a glutton at a bad news banquet.”

We all know someone like Marianna. They are not happy unless they are unhappy. They gorge themselves on bad news, and they can’t wait to share it with you.

If we’re honest, however, we all have our “Marianna moments.” It’s easy to become addicted to the news. We reach reflexively for our phones, eager to feed at the bad news buffet.

Since reading that description of Marianna, I have added another item to my pandemic prescription. I turn off the news sometimes. I intentionally leave my phone on another floor of the house. I put on some music. (Ola Gjeilo works wonders.) In short, I limit my intake at the bad news banquet.

I know that Jesus wasn’t talking about psychological strategies for surviving a pandemic when he urged us to “let your light shine before others.” But if we’re going to shine, we may need some strategies to keep that basket from getting the better of us.

It helps, of course, to remember that Jesus is the light of the world. At the end of the day, it’s not just a matter of “this little light of mine.” Jesus’ light is a match for any basket.

Ponder: What are your strategies for keeping the basket at bay? What is one small way you might help someone else keep their basket from quenching their light?

Pray: We are not strong enough to lift the basket by ourselves. Help us to do what we can—for ourselves and for others. Then come in your power to do the heavy lifting, so that we may give light to all in the house.

Salt and Light Series – Christians in Conflict

Read: John 20:19-29

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:26, NRSV).

Jesus was not the only unexpected visitor that day. There was also an elephant in the room.

Of course, the Bible doesn’t mention the elephant, but it was there just the same. It must have materialized in the time between Jesus’ two post-resurrection appearances that are recorded in John 20:19-29. And it could not have been comfortable for the disciples.

It all started on a Sunday night. Jesus had been dead for over two days. The disciples (minus Thomas) were hiding in a house, wondering what to make of Peter’s report that Jesus’ tomb was empty. And Mary Magdalene had come back claiming to have actually seen Jesus alive. They must have wanted to believe it—but after all they’d been through, it hurt to get their hopes up.

Then Jesus showed up. All of the sudden there he was among them, and they heard his familiar, beloved voice saying, “Peace be with you.” He must have really meant it because, after showing them his wounds, he said it again: “Peace be with you.”

By the time Thomas got back, Jesus was gone. (Enter the elephant.) The rest of the disciples were ecstatic. “We have seen the Lord!” they announced. Thomas must have thought they had lost their minds. So he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

The Bible doesn’t tell us what it was like for the disciples during the week that followed. All it tells us is that one week later, just as before, Jesus appeared again in their midst. Except this time, Thomas was there. And Jesus, who seemed to know that for Thomas, touching was believing, offered the doubting disciple his wounded hands and side.

There are some important lessons in this story for believers who find themselves at loggerheads with other believers.

Can you imagine all the arguments that must have taken place in the space of that week in between Jesus’ appearances? They weren’t petty arguments, either. The very heart of the faith was at stake. On the one side were the disciples who had seen with their own eyes that Jesus was alive again. On the other side was Thomas, refusing to budge, no matter how passionate or compelling their claims.

I have always thought that those of us who weren’t there should be grateful to Thomas for not “caving” right away. His doubts make it easier for us to believe, after all, since no one could ever accuse him of giving way to wishful thinking.

But beyond that, Christian communities in conflict can be thankful for this story as well. Here’s why.

I once heard a sermon on this passage by a preacher whose name I have, alas, forgotten. He talked about how important it was that Thomas was still welcome among the rest of the disciples in spite of his initial disbelief. And he said that the fact that they were still in community in this situation told us three very important things about the disciples who had seen and believed:

  • First, it shows they were humble. Though they surely tried to share their belief, they didn’t try to force in on Thomas. He would never have stuck around if they had.
  • Second, they were hospitable. Thomas was still welcome among them, even if they had deep disagreements.
  • Third, they were honest. They must have kept telling the truth as they understood it, patiently waiting, praying, and listening to the brother they still loved.

Christians disagree about many things. Sometimes the disagreements are petty; sometimes they are serious. Sometimes our fights flair into arguments that split denominations. Other times they simmer just beneath the surface, making everyone uncomfortable, and gradually sapping the body’s vitality. And sometimes they are just the awkward elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but nobody wants to talk about. But whatever the level of hostility, every Christian community could do with a dose of the “three h’s” listed above.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus repeats the words, “Peace be with you” three times in this story? Why? It’s hard to tell. But the fact that he does makes them sound less like a greeting and more like a command.

That command becomes even more meaningful when we remember that Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic. The Aramaic/Hebrew word for peace is shalom. While shalom is often translated “peace,” it means much more than that. Shalom is not simply the absence of conflict, but the presence of health and wholeness. Perhaps one of the reasons for Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is so that he can say to us, Shalom be with you! That’s an order!

Does shalom mean there will never be disagreement in the Christian community? I doubt it. But it does suggest that there can be unity even when there is not uniformity. And it calls us—no, commands us—to pray and work toward a state of health where humility, hospitality and honesty hold sway.

Ponder: Think of specific situations where you disagree with another believer. Why is it so hard to be humble, hospitable, and honest? Why is it so urgent?

Pray: Teach us to be more humble, hospitable, and honest when we disagree. Come among us, and grant us your shalom.

Salt and Light Series-A Suitable Celebration

Read: Nahum 2:10-13; 3:18-19

There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?  (Nahum 3:19, NRSV).

Let’s not kid ourselves. The book of Nahum will never be a devotional classic. Yet, every once in a while, I find myself flipping to its three vitriolic little chapters. I don’t go there for comfort, obviously, but there’s nothing like the book of Nahum for some straight up catharsis. It also offers some guidance for those of us who occasionally wrestle with the question, “Am I allowed to celebrate the downfall of my enemy?”

First, a refresher on the occasion for Nahum’s prophetic outburst. In short, the theme of the book is “Na-na-na-na-na.” Nahum was dancing a jig on the grave of the city of Nineveh, which had finally fallen to the Babylonian army in 612 B.C.E. As the capitol city of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh was the symbol of every imaginable evil for Nahum. Although it had been over a century since this ancient enemy had committed its imaginative atrocities against the northern kingdom of Israel, the memory was still fresh in the prophet’s mind.

Christians tend to turn up their noses at Nahum. His words are, after all, a far cry from Jesus’ command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43). But I wonder if Nahum’s words capture something that even Jesus might have appreciated: the very human need to rejoice when good triumphs over evil. That, after all, is something we don’t see every day. And at the end of the day, it is more God’s victory than ours.

Some years ago a friend called to tell me that a mutual enemy of ours had experienced a public fall from favor. I will spare you the details of why we counted this person as an enemy, but suffice to say, we had our reasons. We had done our best to love him—to the extent that we could do so without excusing his lies. But all the love and forgiveness we could muster still didn’t mean we trusted him any further than we could throw him.

So, when my friend called with the news of our enemy’s downfall, I felt a complicated kind of elation. His lies had finally caught up with him. But was it all right to rejoice?

There was a long pause on the telephone line as I wrestled with my reaction. Finally, my friend said, “It’s OK, Carol. It’s OK to be happy. We’re allowed to celebrate as long as it takes to drink a bottle of champagne.”

There was wisdom in her words, and I think of them now every time I teach the book of Nahum. The fact that this book is in the Bible at all suggests that it has something to teach us. But the fact that it is only three chapters long suggests that we shouldn’t wait too long before we move on.

Are we allowed to celebrate the downfall of our enemy? Yes, but only about as long as it takes to drink a bottle of champagne.

Ponder: Have you ever felt that “complicated elation” over an enemy’s downfall? How did you handle it? If you could make a list of “Ten Considerations for Christians” in this situation, what would that list include?

Pray: Gracious God, help us to be faithful to ourselves, our neighbors, and to you as we respond to the downfall of our enemies. Then help us to move on from those moments, so that we may be open to reconciliation, healing, and renewal.

Salt and Light Series – George Washington Weighs In

Introduction to the Salt and Light Series

 

 

It’s a tall order.

Jesus must have known that when he instructed his disciples to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). In these challenging times, it seems even taller.

This series does not offer answers. It does offer opportunities to think together about what it means to be being salt and light in complicated contexts.  It won’t be easy, but it may be urgent.

Fortunately for us, Jesus also said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). I, for one, am counting on that.

Glad we’re in this together,

Carol M. Bechtel

 

George Washington Weighs In

 

Read: Matthew 5:13-16

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house  (Matthew 5:14-15, NRSV).

Nobody’s perfect.

That’s an important thing to remember when we look to others for inspiration. Because if we hold out for perfection, we will miss out on a lot of inspiration.

I thought of that this week when I was doing a bit of research on George Washington. The reasons for my research will become obvious in a moment. For now, however, suffice it to say that even someone as revered as George Washington has some troubling pages in his life scrapbook.

I’m thinking primarily about the fact that he was a slaveholder. Before we let him off the hook on the grounds of historical context, we should also acknowledge that even in that context Washington himself had misgivings about the practice. In his will, for instance, he specified that his slaves should be set free after his death. More precisely, he specified that they be set free after his wife Martha’s death. That created some unforeseen complications, since Martha quickly realized that said slaves might have incentive to hasten her demise. So, she freed them early. Was it because she recognized their right to be free, or was it in the interest of self-preservation? It’s hard to tell. But again I say—nobody’s perfect.

The last thing I want to do is to make light of George and Martha Washington’s participation in what is a barbaric and tragic page in the U.S.A.’s own life scrapbook. That’s especially true in a week when we have seen with our own eyes how differently the police response was to a white supremacist mob storming the Capitol than it was to peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters just a few months before.

But when I came across an amazing quote from George Washington, I was reminded of how—in spite of his flaws—this man’s light shone—and still shines—to give “light to all in the house.”

The quote was from George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796.  The first thing to appreciate was that this president was stepping down with dignity. Even though others begged him to remain in office, he left with words of grace, modesty, and gratitude:

“In looking forward to the moment which is intended to terminate the career of my  public life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that  debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for  the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment, by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal.”

But the best—and most prophetic—part comes later in the speech:

“The Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the  right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Preach it, President Washington.

George Washington was a Christian. Not everything about him was exemplary. But more than 200 years after he wrote these words, they are still a shining “light for all in the house.” Whether we use that light to find our way out of the present darkness remains to be seen.

Ponder: Which of Washington’s words inspire you to light up your corner of the world? At what point do our imperfections dim/extinguish our ability to shine?

Pray: Help us to see and to be the light you call us to be in the world.

 

God With Us – Come What May

 

Read: Luke 2:25-35

Simeon took [the child Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28-32, NRSV).

“What did you get for Christmas?”

It’s a question we have asked and answered all our lives. And yet, this year I have found myself asking it less and responding to it differently. Contentment, I have caught myself saying. That’s what I got for Christmas. Contentment wrapped in trust.

That, of course, is on my best days. On days when I’m having trouble with my contentment quotient, I turn to other more resilient saints for inspiration.

So when a friend from Milan sent me a recording of “By Gentle Powers,” I seized it gratefully, especially when I realized that it was a setting of a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Written from a Gestapo prison in December of 1944, the poem was part of a Christmas and New Year’s greeting Bonhoeffer sent to his fiancé and family. In the letter he claims to be content, surrounded by “your prayers and kind thoughts, passages from the Bible, long-forgotten conversations, pieces of music, books….” But his contentment is also grounded in a strong sense of God’s presence. He talks about being preserved, “night and morning, by kindly, unseen powers.”

And so, the poem begins—

With every power for good to stay and guide me,

comforted and inspired beyond all fear,

I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,

and pass, with you, into the coming year.

Poem turns into prayer as he continues:

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;

the long days of our sorrow still endure;

Father, grant to the souls thou has been chastening

that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Now there’s a prayer that works in a COVID-weary world.

It seems to me that one of the keys to contentment in any century is this ability to find comfort and strength in God’s presence. Old Simeon cradled it in his arms and called it “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Maybe it was this same Christ-light shining in the darkness that enabled Bonhoeffer to write these words from his prison cell:

Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting,

lo, on our darkness are they not thy light

leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?

Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

And oh, most surely on each newborn day!

Just a few months after he wrote these words, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. It must have been the true test of his conviction that we can face the future boldly, come what may. Let us hope that he, like Simeon, could find contentment cradling the Christ-light in his arms. This verse of his poem would suggest that he did:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

We will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.

Ponder: How is your contentment quotient? Is that something you pray about? Why or why not?

Listen to By Gentle Powers – Bonhoeffer/Siegfried Fietz. Here is another version with choir and orchestra: Von Guten Mächten-Animato Choir. A version of the poem also appears in many hymnals (e.g. Glory to God, #818) as “By Gracious Powers”.

Pray: May all your powers of good attend us, gracious God. Help us to face the future boldly, come what may. Help us to live these days with you in thought beside us, and pass with you into the coming year.

 

 

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

God With Us – A Merry Christmas Carol

 

Read: Luke 2:15-20

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19, NRSV).

My childhood pastor used to annoy me on an annual basis with the greeting, “Merry Christmas Carol!” (Get it? “Merry Christmas Carol” vs. Merry Christmas, Carol”?) At the time, I did not appreciate the joke. And with all due respect to my pastor, it wasn’t a very good joke.

Over the years, however, I have come to realize that it’s not a bad thing to have this somewhat seasonal name. Carol, after all, means song of joy. If I can carry that connotation with me throughout the year, I may do the world some good.

In spite of the word carol’s meaning, we don’t always sing them with a smile. We certainly don’t expect to burst out laughing.

That’s what caught my attention about this footnote in the hymnal, Glory to God (WJK, 2013). Here is what the editors wrote underneath #138, “Who Would Think That What Was Needed” (alternate title, “God’s Surprise”).

“Hindsight is nearly always clearer than foresight, and with gentle good humor this Christmas hymn points out how great was the gap between human expectation and God’s actual way of providing a means of salvation for us. God’s ways continually exceed our claims to comprehend them.”

The hymn is by John L. Bell and the late Graham Maule of the Iona Community. See if you sense a smile coming on as you read the first verse.

Who would think that what was needed
To transform and save the earth
Might not be a plan or army,
Proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision,
That a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven,
Coming here on Christmas Day
.

OK, so it’s not a knee-slapper. But it does highlight the surprise at the center of the Christmas story. God chose to by-pass all our plans, our power structures, and our expectations by sending a baby to save the world. To paraphrase the question at the heart of this verse, “Who’d a thunk it?”

It’s this same surprise that Mary “ponders” in her heart at the close of the Christmas story in Luke 2:19. The shepherds have just stumbled up to the manger with their report about an angelic announcement of the birth of a child—her child. This child, the angel had said, is “good news of great joy for all people,” no less than “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Even though Mary had heard a similar angelic announcement earlier in the chapter, this had to have been a lot to take in. But Luke tells us that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

The Greek word behind the word “ponder” means that she considers or engages the shepherd’s words. This doesn’t mean that she understands them, but that she keeps coming back to them, turning them over like a pebble in her pocket.

I like this reminder of the fact that we don’t need to understand God’s surprise in order to treasure it. We can just keep pondering it, smiling, and shaking our heads. God surprises earth with heaven coming here on Christmas Day. Who’d a thunk it?

Ponder the last verse of “Who Would Think That What Was Needed,” by John L. Bell and Graham Maule:

Centuries of skill and science
Span the past from which we move,
Yet experience questions whether,
With such progress, we improve.
While the human lot we ponder,
Lest our hopes and humour fray,
God surprises earth with heaven
Coming here on Christmas Day.

© 1987, Iona Community, GIA Publications, Inc. agent

Listen to this simple but classy recording of “Who Would Think That What Was Needed” (Tune: WHITE ROSETTES). For the full text of the hymn, see this link or #138 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal. For a version of the hymn using a different tune plus visuals, see this mix by the North Allerton Methodist Church (Tune: SCARLET RIBBONS).

Pray: Open our hearts to all the ways you wait to surprise us this Christmas and in the new year.

 

 

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

God With Us – A Socially Distanced Nativity

 

Read: Luke 2:1-14

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12, NRSV).

My daughter recently sent me a picture of a “socially distanced nativity scene.”

My first thought was, “Only in 2020.” But my next thought was, “Of course. That’s my girl!”

I remember the first time I caught my kids messing with the manger scene. It was over 20 years ago. I had just come home from work, and as I walked past the manger scene we had set up the night before, I noticed a few unorthodox additions. Elmo and Barbie were socializing with the shepherds. A Tyrannosaurus rex was hot on the heels of the wise men. Batman had the best seat in the house, wedged in between Mary and Joseph. His wings were outstretched (protectively, I hoped) over the whole holy family.

My initial reaction was, “That’s not right.” But by the grace of God I resisted the urge to banish Batman and his friends. Might there be something more going on here, I wondered?

Right on cue, the kids came running, eager to show off their improvements to the traditional scene. Batman and his friends, they explained, had wanted to see the Baby Jesus, too.

Of course they had. In that moment I understood that my children had grasped something essential about the story that I—in my literalism—had almost missed. The Christmas story is all about incarnation, after all. Batman in the manger was their way of saying, “Welcome to our world, Baby Jesus!”

In the decades since, our family nativity scenes have grown increasingly crowded. It’s our way of personalizing the old, old story. So, I suppose it’s not all that surprising that 2020 should inspire a socially distanced scene. This, too, is the world that Jesus risks everything to save. This, too, is the world that God embraces in the incarnation.

Something of the same instinct prevails in Edwin Spear’s carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” While the carol is set on the hillside with the shepherds, its subject is the “peace on earth” for which its author was longing in 1849. A Unitarian pastor, Spear was recovering from a breakdown of some kind. (Burned out pastors of 2020, take note.) The nation was recovering from the Mexican-American war, even as the tensions that led to the Civil War were heating up. (Racially and politically polarized U.S. citizens of 2020, take note.) No wonder Spear wrote this verse that cheery anthologies sometimes prefer to skip:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife,
the world has suffered long;
beneath the heav’nly hymn have rolled
two thousand years of wrong,
and warring humankind hears not
the tidings which they bring.
O hush the noise and cease your strife
and hear the angels sing.

This may be just the carol we need for 2020. It may be a very 2020 way to celebrate the incarnation.  It may be one way the “weary world” of 2020 says, “Welcome to our world, Baby Jesus.”

Even if we have to be distant from one another this Christmas, God is not distant from us. More than ever, Jesus’ birth reminds us that God is with us.

Ponder this verse from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” How does it speak to you this year in ways that it may not have before?

And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now, for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing:
O, rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing.

Text by Edwin Spears, 1849, alt.

 

Listen to this recording of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” by Chanticleer. For the full (and slightly updated) text of the hymn, see this link or #123 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal.

 

Pray: Bring peace and health to your weary world, gracious God. Give strength and hope to all of us who make our way to the manger “with painful steps and slow.”

 

 

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

God With Us – World Interrupted

 

Read: Luke 1:39-56

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53, NRSV).

Back before Netflix was even a flicker in anyone’s imagination, daytime television was devoted to what were called “soap operas.” (The name reflected the fact that most were sponsored by soap companies.) If you were home in the afternoon and lucky enough to have the leisure to watch TV, chances are you looked forward to the daily dose of melodrama provided by programs like As the World Turns.

In spite of its pretentious title, nothing earth-shattering every happened on As the World Turns. Or at least it didn’t until that day in November 1963 when Walter Cronkite’s voice broke into the broadcast to announce that John F. Kennedy had been shot. Since the soap opera was live—and the president, tragically, was not—there followed several awkward minutes of reality television. For those members of the cast that had overheard the news, it became a true test of their acting skills to stay in character. Eventually, the network mercifully decided that the show did not in fact have to go on, and they broke away to cover the news of the president’s assassination.

Sometimes reality has a way of interrupting our lives in ways that cannot be ignored.

Mary is having one of those moments in today’s passage from Luke. Or to be more precise, she is reflecting on such a moment. It had taken place just a few verses before when the angel Gabriel showed up at her door to ask her if she would consider being mother to the Messiah.

It’s clear that nothing will ever be the same for her personally. But what’s remarkable about the Magnificat is how little attention Mary pays to her own story. Even when she acknowledges that “from now on all generations will call me blessed,” she firmly redirects the focus to what God has done. And from the sounds of it, nothing is ever going to be the same for anybody.

There is both challenge and comfort in her outburst of praise. If you are rich and powerful, it’s hard not to read her words without feeling a frisson of fear. If you are hungry and oppressed, it’s the best news you’re likely to hear in your lifetime. But wherever you fall on the power spectrum, it’s clear that there’ll be some changes made.

Novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans to her friends) once observed that most of us walk around “well-wadded in stupidity.” For many of us, the pandemic has intensified this sorry state. If we’re lucky enough not to be in the hospital or planning a funeral, many of us are caught living what feels like the same day over and over. We seek relief and escape in front of our screens. This isn’t wrong; in fact, it is often a blessing. But as we listen to the familiar words of the Magnificat this Christmas, let them be a reminder that God has interrupted our regularly scheduled program to bring us a special news bulletin: Jesus Christ is born. Whether we realize it or not, nothing will ever be the same again.

Ponder this paraphrase of Mary’s song. Ask yourself:  What difference is Jesus’ birth making in my life right now?

From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone.

Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne.

The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;

There are tables spread; every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.

Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.

From “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” by Rory Cooney

 

Listen to this recording of the Goshen College Chamber Choir singing Rory Cooney’s paraphrase of the Magnificat on a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion in 2015. For the full text of the hymn, also known as the “Canticle of the Turning,” see this link or #100 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal.

 

Pray: Break through whatever would keep me from a searing awareness of the significance of your birth, Lord Jesus. Then let that good news be reflected in my life and the life of your world.

Extras:

Here is a short clip of the opening of the old soap opera, As the World Turns.

 

Here is November 22, 2013 article from the New York Times by Thomas Vinciguerra about the interrupted episode of As the World Turns. It’s called The Day the World Stopped Turning.

Here is a link to the November 22, 1963 episode of As the World Turns.

 

 

 

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

God With Us – Tell God I Say, “Yes”

 

Read: Luke 1:26-38

And [the angel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:28-29, NRSV).

What would it take to help you see this old story with new eyes?

For me it was the final verse of John L. Bell’s hymn, “No Wind at the Window.”*

No payment was promised, no promises made;

no wedding was dated, no blueprint displayed.

 Yet Mary, consenting to what none could guess,

replied with conviction, “Tell God I say, Yes.”

Bell’s paraphrase prompts us to see what was there all along, namely, that Mary’s response was not a foregone conclusion.

The would-be novelist in me wants to run with what would have happened if she had said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Would Gabriel have resorted to strong-arm tactics? Or would he have sighed and gone back to his list, flying down the street to call on some other unsuspecting girl of good repute?

We don’t know, of course. But the very act of imagining a negative response jolts us into appreciating Mary’s positive response. And it underscores the fact that Gabriel came bearing an invitation and not a command. Mary had a choice, and it could not have been an easy one.

What else might we have missed in this story? And what might we notice about Mary if we try to read with fresh eyes?

I like her caution. Even though Gabriel tries to sound reassuring with his opening gambit, she’s not sure what to make of it. Then things go from strange to stranger. Gabriel launches into an elaborate speech about how she is going to conceive a son who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…” There is more, but if it had been me, I think it would have been hard to hear anything else after that first bit.

And sure enough. She skips the theology and fires back with a practical question. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel has an answer for that, too, although it strains credulity. One wonders if he is responding to the look on Mary’s face when he rushes on with the news that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, is six months gone. This, evidently, is intended to reassure her in a “stranger things” kind of way. Gabriel finishes with a flourish, reminding her that “nothing will be impossible with God.”

That last line makes me wonder if Gabriel was a bit nervous about how Mary would respond. After all, the last time we heard those words was in the story of Sarah, who laughed at the prospect of her own unexpected pregnancy (Genesis 18:14). Was Gabriel worried that Mary might laugh in his face?

Well, he needn’t have worried. Mary says yes—and nothing is ever the same again—for her or for us.

Gabriel, for his part, makes an abrupt exit. Best not to give Mary a chance to change her mind.

Ponder: What new things did you see in this story? Why is it significant that God issues an invitation and not a command? How is God inviting you to say, “Yes”?

Listen to/watch No Wind at the Window, which sets John L. Bell’s text to a traditional Irish tune and features artistic representations of the Annunciation. Notice the pattern of the poetry, which points out the many choices swirling around this familiar story: Not this—not this—not this—but this.

 

Pray:  Give me the wisdom to hear your invitation clearly, O God. Then give me the courage to say, “Yes.”

 

*Text and music © 1992 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications)

 

 

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

God With Us – Breaking News

 

Read: Psalm 96 and/or 98

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth…. (Psalm 96: 11-13a, NRSV).

For decades, my grandmother, Bernadine Bielema Green, wrote a weekly newspaper column called the “Spring Valley News.” Since Spring Valley was not a town, but a sleepy little valley in rural Illinois, there was rarely any news of the conventional kind. But that did not mean there wasn’t a lot going on.

Grandma (Dena to her friends) regularly reported on the day to day life of “all creatures great and small.” Sometimes, this included the antics of her grandchildren. (This explains the frequent refrain, “Don’t tell Grandma!” when we were getting up to something that we didn’t want our parents to read about in the paper.) But more often, she turned her attention to the flora and fauna right outside her kitchen window. The bluebirds who made their home in a box on the fence post at the edge of the pasture were particular favorites.

These bluebirds achieved a kind of celebrity status. Long after she had stopped writing the column, people would smile and say, “Oh, yes. I always turned to Dena’s column first to find out what was going on with the bluebirds!”

I used to assume that Grandma’s preoccupation with the bluebirds was the result of Spring Valley’s lack of breaking news. Pretty much every day was a slow news day in the valley, after all. But in reading back over my grandmother’s columns, I’ve begun to suspect that her choices reflected a genuine interest—and a different set of priorities. She reported on things she knew to be important—in the eyes of God and, increasingly, in the eyes of many of her readers.

If we have eyes to see, there are hints of this same set of priorities in Scripture—and in certain Advent and Christmas carols. Isaac Watts’ iconic carol, “Joy to the World” is one of these, and it is based on Psalm 98. Did you ever wonder why “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains” were being urged to “repeat the sounding joy”? It’s because Christ’s coming is breaking news for them as well as for us. Romans 8:22 describes “the whole creation” as “groaning in labor” as it anticipates the renewal of all creation that is signaled in Jesus Christ.

But if you’re looking for a less familiar Advent Carol with similar insights, check out “People, Look East” by Eleanor Farjeon. While people are the focus of the first verse, the remaining verses address other parts of creation, calling them to “look east” to greet the coming Christ. Here is my favorite verse:

Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.

Even the hour when wings are frozen God for fledging time has chosen.

Grandma would have loved that. It’s her kind of breaking news.

Ponder: Why is Jesus good news for all creation? How does our preoccupation with people blind us to the bigger story? What are the consequences?

Listen: This video mix of People, Look East, features choir, harpsichord, and recorder. The tempo is a bit slow, and there are a few missed opportunities in terms of visuals (how hard would it be to show a bird?!), but it is lovely, nonetheless. For a bit more background on Eleanor Farjeon (who also wrote the words to “Morning Has Broken”), see this article by Michael Hawn.

 

Pray:                  

Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

(from “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts, v. 1)

 

 

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!