Not by Might

2959436086As I read through Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 this week, I couldn’t help but notice that parallelism is everywhere:
“My heart exults in the Lord; / my strength is exalted in my God.”
“Talk no more so very proudly, / let not arrogance come from your mouth;”
“The bows of the mighty are broken, ~ but the feeble gird on strength.”

As a recovering English major, I got terribly excited about this. I went through the whole poem pairing off lines, making one mark to show lines with similar meanings and a different mark to show lines of opposite meaning. Line after line after line . . . until I got to verse 9: “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, ~ but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.”

It’s this last phrase that threw me. “For not by might does one prevail.” There is no parallel line. There is no opposite line. Out of this entire poem, this one line stands alone.

“For not by might does one prevail.”

Sometimes the power of the powerful is found in unexpected ways. (Like in this example about Nelson Mandela.)

“For not by might does one prevail.”

Sometimes, one prevails with instruments of peace and playfulness in the midst of foreign troops and roadside bombs. (Like in this example of the circus parade in Afghanistan.)

“For not by might does one prevail.”

Sometimes, one prevails in ways that seem, at first, to be defeat. (I encourage you to listen to this father’s story–starting at 13:10; or read the transcript–last section of Act 1. )

“For not by might does one prevail.”

Hannah sang it in the temple. Mary sang it in the home of Elizabeth. God sang it in that Bethlehem stable, amidst the blood and sweat and joy of birth. Jesus sang it from the cross.

“Not by might does one prevail.”

As people of the resurrection, it is the song we sing. It is the promise to which we cling: “Not by might does one prevail.”

Thanks be to God.

[This post is adapted from the sermon I preached on December 8, 2013.]




On Living Close to Death

“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death.

“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem and that legendary manger.
Just east of Jerusalem and that infamous cross.
“Jesus came to Bethany.” Wedged between his birth and his death.

It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table in Bethany, six days before Passover.
Because the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death.

The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me:
“I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.”
But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy experiences in my life, and I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.

I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this same intense and disorienting way.
Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death.
A threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.

And then Jesus shows up with his followers–only one and a half miles from Jerusalem,
where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Where there are armed soldiers looking for him.
Where guards carry whips.
Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.

Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.

And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of life, the energy of death.
Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.

We usually focus on Mary-the sharp scent of her nard, the caress of her long silky hair.
It’s easy to miss the second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
All three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death.
Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment. They are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.

It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume so we could give the money to the poor?”
“Oh,” says Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Even those who hadn’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death could not escape the sharp, minty scent of the oil as Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.

Even my 8-year-old daughter knew the closeness of death as she clung to her grandfather’s hand in the hospice room.

Sometimes we know how close death is.
Because the warrant is out and the cross posts are set.
Because the tests have come back and diagnosis is in.

Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us.Easy to let other things go as we massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know.
God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air.

Yet still, we live always wedged between the temporal and the eternal.
Any moment could be a threshold between life and death.
Any moment could be that holy ground.
And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.

– – – – – –

*This reflection is excerpted from the sermon I preached on John 12:1-11 last Sunday–the Sunday following my father’s funeral. Afterwards, the worship leader said that the whole sermon felt like a poem (which may be the best sermon compliment I’ve ever received). So I decided to pare it down and form it into a pseudo-poem for this space.

Advent Reflections: Mary

My oldest two children came into our family as a foster-to-adopt placement. We were told that their biological dad was not in the picture and mom would not be able to get custody. They were foster children that would be available for adoption soon.

James was three and a half. Jasmine had just turned two. We welcomed them into our family and took them into our hearts. They quickly became our children.

Then their bio dad came back into the picture. A good-hearted man who simply did not have the resources–internally speaking–to care well for his children. But he tried. Sort of. He put in enough effort that about a year after James and Jasmine came to live with us, the judge sent them back to live with him.

This is the point in my life when I heard the voice of God more clearly than I ever had before–or since. God told me: “James and Jasmine will be all right.”

And I believed God’s words. I didn’t know if “all right” meant that their bio dad would get his act together and manage to be a good father. Or if “all right” meant that they would come back to us. But during that heart-wrenching time, I leaned into the promise that my children would be all right.

And a few agonizing months later, their bio dad relinquished his parental rights and they came back to us. At the time I thought, “Yes. The promise was true. They are all right.”

But now they are both teenagers, and I cling to that promise more than ever. Through screaming fights and silent treatments. Through school troubles and friend troubles. Through counseling sessions and appendicitis and school dances. I still need to lean into the promise: “James and Jasmine will be all right.”

Ink, paper, and tape transfer collage by Joanna Harader.
Ink, paper, and tape transfer collage by Joanna Harader.

I imagine Mary, hearing those words from God in the midst of her own heart-wrenching moment: “Do not be afraid.” She must have clung desperately to this command/promise from God as her hands shook and her heart pounded in the angel’s presence.

“Do not be afraid.” Surely it is this promise that gets her from “How shall this be?” to “I am the Lord’s servant.” And it may be this promise that gets her through the morning sickness and the back aches; through the scornful glances in the marketplace, the shut doors, the guarded whispers, the turned backs.

“Do not be afraid.” I imagine these words carried her through the beginning contractions; through the frantic search for some place–any place–to stay for the night; through the intensifying labor pains to the birth of the bloody, squalling baby.

But I am beginning to understand that the angel’s words were not just for the annunciation, the pregnancy, the birth. I have a feeling Mary grabbed at these words all through her life; forced her ears to again hear the voice; coerced her heart to listen and believe: “Do not be afraid.”

When her husband led her and the baby away from home and into Egypt.

When Simeon said, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

When she was a day’s journey away from Jerusalem and suddenly realized that Jesus was not with them.

When her son spoke harshly to her in front of his new-found audience.

When she felt the tension in the festival air and saw her son riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people waving branches and placing their coats on the ground.

When she heard, “This is my body. This is my blood.”

When she saw her body, her blood–her son–hanging on a cross. Dead at the hands of Roman officials.

How often did Gabrielle’s words echo in Mary’s memory: “Do not be afraid”?

How deeply was she able to trust them?

What stubborn words from God pound in your heart during these weeks of Advent waiting?

– – – – – – – – –

*You can find another reflection on the story of the Annunciation here.

*Colored Pencil Prayer books are ready to go!

How shall this be?

The following reflection on Luke’s story of the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) is adapted from a sermon I preached on December 13, 2009.

You might have noticed by now that the writer of Luke gives us a lot of detail here in the first chapter. We know who was king. We know what priestly division Zechariah was in. We know that Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary hears from Gabriel. We know the name of Mary’s village and the name of her fiancée.

Scholars cannot say exactly who wrote the Gospel of Luke—and it’s sequel known as the book of Acts. But we can deduce that the writer of these books was articulate, well-educated, rational.

Sound like anyone you know?

Actually, tradition claims that Luke was a physician. Which, I think, makes this conversation he records between Gabriel and Mary that much more fascinating.

This scene is one of my favorite scenes in the Bible. And it has been a favorite of artists for centuries. Many of the medieval paintings of this scene show a mature woman with a beatific smile on her face gazing at a handsome winged creature.

“The Annunciation” by Henry O. Tanner, 1898

But my favorite painting of the annunciation is by Henry O. Tanner. The entire scene is bathed in an eerie yellow glow. A young Mary sits on a bed in a dingy room, considering the ambiguous presence of light that has invaded her space. The best way to describe the look on her face is skeptical.

One thing I love about this story is that–despite her youth, despite the shock of having an angel show up in her room and announce this terrible prospect of her pregnancy–Mary looks the angel Gabriel in the eye and asks, How will this be since I am a virgin?

Can you imagine discussing your sexual status with the angel Gabriel?

Which makes me wonder if this is at least as much Luke’s question as Mary’s. If Luke was indeed a physician, this part of the story must have bothered him. Even though medical technology wasn’t very advanced back then, they did know certain things about human reproduction. Perhaps Luke had a sincere physician’s curiosity about this virginal conception. He wanted details. “How will this be?”

Unfortunately, this is one part of the story for which Luke does not have details. Maybe you noticed: Gabriel doesn’t answer Mary’s question in any helpful way.

“How will this be?” Mary (with Luke) asks.

“Ummm,” says Gabriel. “How . . . let’s see . . . how will this be? A virgin you say . . . well . . . umm . . . The Holy Spirit, yeah, that’s it, the Holy Spirit will come upon you and . . . and . . . the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Luke doesn’t record the fumbling pauses, but I can certainly imagine them. The truth is that the answer Gabrielle gives is not really an answer. Certainly not a medically satisfying one.

But it is the only answer Mary gets. The only answer that Luke has. And, therefore, the only answer that we have to a question that all educated, rational people must want to ask about this story.

A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.

How shall this be?

Your child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his Kingdom will never end.

How shall this be?

Rulers will be brought down from their thrones and the humble will be lifted up.The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty.

How shall this be?

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light will dawn.

How shall this be?

Nation will not rage against nation. Neither will they learn war any more.

How shall this be?

The promises of God are beyond what reasonable, intelligent people can expect. Yet still, these promises come.

They came to Mary through an angel. They come to us, usually, in more subtle ways. Through the words of scripture. Through dreams. Through the beauty of God’s creation. Through the words of friends and strangers. Through glimpses of God’s love, justice, and peace breaking out in our world.

We read of Jesus’ healings and his promise of abundant life, and we see in this God’s promise of health care for all people.

How shall this be?

The faithful will pray. Groups will lobby politicians. Medical staff will volunteer at clinics. Mennonite Church USA will practice mutual aid so that all pastors can have health care.

This is not really an answer. At least not a logically satisfying one. But it is the answer we have for now.

We follow the Prince of Peace; we read God’s promises of peace over and over again in the scriptures. We know these promises include peace in the Middle East. Peace between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

How shall this be?

People will pray for peace. The Christian Peacemaker Teams will work with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. We will join with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors to work for the good of our communities.

This is not really an answer. Not an intellectually satisfying one. But it is the answer we have for now.

We know God’s amazing promises are not just for the world at large, but the promises are also for each of us. That we will have life abundant. Work that allows us to meet our physical needs and that sustains our spirits. Rich, deep, loving relationships. Health and happiness for those we love. Time and energy for the things that enliven us and for the things that bring life to others. These also are part of the promises of God.

How shall this be?

We don’t know, exactly. All we know is that it involves the Holy Spirit acting in our lives. All we know is that it involves the presence of God coming close.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

I’m afraid that is the only answer I have for you this morning.

For Mary, it was enough.

Thanks be to God.

What Power in the Womb

It’s probably bad form for a pastor to post her “first thoughts” about Sunday’s scripture passages on Thursday night. I know I should be well past the “first thoughts” stage by now . . . but it’s been one of those weeks.

Here’s part of what we read this Sunday from Isaiah: “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; / with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”

And from Matthew’s gospel: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

And yet, in the chronological narrative of Advent, we are about a month away from the birth of Jesus. He is a developing fetus in the womb of an unwed Jewish girl.

This is a detail from a paper collage and ink piece that I made for Advent last year.

He does not hold a rod or a winnowing fork; instead his little perfect hands are floating aimlessly around in the amniotic fluid. He is not in a position to judge or slay anybody; instead, he is wholly dependent on the nutrients flowing to him from Mary through the umbilical cord.

In an article in Christian Century magazine (Oct. 19, 2010), Miroslav Volf claims that “God is by definition inviolable. Human beings are not. To be human is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is the essential condition of human life.”

Now, those of us who toe the theological line drawn at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. So where does that leave us in these darkening days of Advent?

It leaves us in the heart of the paradox: serving the omnipotent helpless One; seeking the eternal temporal One; following the inviolable One made vulnerable for our salvation.

On our lips is Mary’s question to Gabriel: How can this be?

May our hearts ring with the answer: Nothing is impossible with God.