St. Mary

are we there yet?

“Are we there yet?”  How many of you have ever heard that question being whined from the back seat of the car?  How many of us have ever whined that question?  Are we there yet?

In my less charitable moments, I imagine an appropriate response to that question: “Look out the window.  Do you see (and fill in the blank, depending on the destination)…  Grandma and Grandpa’s house?…  the amusement park?…  the rest stop?”  (When driving on the interstate, that’s one I keep a lookout for!)

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Of course, that question when uttered with a whine—“Are we there yet?”—is less a request for information than it is a statement.  It is a statement of impatience, a proclamation of longing, a declaration of desire, that a goal be reached.  Geographical distance is irrelevant.  This is a desire expressed in time.  There’s a desire for something to happen now, or at least, very soon.

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we might ask: are we there yet?  We’re encouraged, both by scripture and by the Advent season, to look for the Lord’s return—to look for that return, that presence, in our lives and in the world.  We have the privilege to not only know about Jesus—to believe certain things about him—but to know Jesus.  So, are we there yet?

The gospel reading in Luke is quite appropriate for a question like, “Are we there yet?”  That’s because it tells the story of a visit.  It’s one of the best-known visits in the entire Bible: the visit of Mary to Elizabeth.  One pregnant woman comes calling on another.  Of course, as we know, there is a slight twist to this story of two women with child.  We have a virgin visiting a woman described by her husband Zechariah as “getting on in years.”  She gives birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist.

It’s been suggested we may even have a picture of the first church.  Mary and Elizabeth “are the ones who first hear the Gospel Word and [believe] that the messianic age has dawned with the little babe growing in Mary’s womb.  They [believe] that the Messiah has come, the one who is Christ and Savior.  They are the ones who receive the word and obey it.  They are doers of the word.  They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and break out into praise and joy.”[1]

I must confess, I think that description might be a tad premature.  I’m not so certain they had that full awareness.  But I might be wrong.

What we see in these scriptures is indeed amazing, truly revolutionary, especially regarding Mary.  By the standards of her society, Mary is nobody, more or less.  First of all, she’s a woman.  I imagine you’ve heard before, in that culture (as in so many others), women were treated by men as little more than children.

But Mary’s not simply a woman; she’s an unmarried woman.  Actually, from what evidence we have about her age, today we would call her an adolescent.  But whatever her exact age, she still isn’t married to Joseph.  Her pregnancy would have raised eyebrows and set tongues a-wagging.

Add to all this, the fact that Mary is poor.  We learn later in chapter 2 (v. 24), when the time comes to present Jesus in the temple, she offers a dove instead of a sheep, a provision made in the law for those who can’t afford a sheep for sacrifice (Lv 12:8).

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And not only is she poor; she’s from a backward part of the country.  The region of Galilee, and especially Nazareth, is considered to be the boonies.  That’s why elsewhere Nathanael asks the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

So Mary is a poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  She’s a nobody from nowhere.  And now, this nobody from nowhere is presented with the option of being a pregnant poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  To put it quite unkindly, in the eyes of her culture (at least the people whose opinion counts), Mary is riff raff.

And that is what’s so revolutionary.  That is what’s so shocking.  God chooses this riff raff to be the means by which the Messiah enters the world.  Even before he’s born, Jesus is already a scandal.

As I suggested earlier, the events of our scripture reading are prompted by a visit.  Earlier in the chapter, the angel Gabriel tells the virgin Mary how it is that she’ll be able to conceive a child.  That’s actually the visit that sets the stage for everything which follows.

It’s not until Mary hurries off to visit Elizabeth that she indeed acts on the word from Gabriel.  It’s true she makes the courageous decision to be “the servant of the Lord,” and she says, “let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).  But it’s only when Mary takes off to see her relative that she puts her intention into motion.

Something happens in a visit that can happen in no other way.  There is an immediacy, a contact, that can’t be replicated by phone, letter, email, instant messaging, whatever.  In-person visits, as we know, have taken a hit in the past two years.

In these final days of Advent, I ask that we consider what it means to welcome Jesus.  We can’t do it the way that Elizabeth does in our scripture reading.  (Mary, quite literally, brings Jesus to her!)  But we can do it in ways even more powerful.  We can welcome him in the friendless, in the distressed, even in those who annoy us.

But that leads to something even more fundamental: what does it mean to be a Christian?  There are many in the church who know about Jesus, but don’t know and love Jesus.  Knowing about Jesus leads only to dead religion!  Knowing and loving Jesus leads to vibrant, energetic, joyful faith that is willing and able to let its boundaries be continually moved to welcome the least of the least.

3 lkHarry Emerson Fosdick, early twentieth-century pastor, commented on vibrant faith.  During World War 1, he wrote that we “cannot live without faith because [our] relationship with the future is an affair not alone of thought but also of action; life is a continuous adventure into the unknown.”[2]

Remember when he wrote this.  The Great War, the war to end all war, was raging across Europe and other parts of the world.  Who could possibly know what the aftermath would look like?  I don’t want to be simplistic (I really don’t), but the hope in Christ provides a foundation which can help endure anything.  That has been the testimony of believers throughout history who went through distressing times at the societal level.

Energetic faith also displays valor.  On that, Fosdick continued, we “cannot live without faith because the prime requisite in life’s adventure is courage, and the sustenance of courage is faith.”[3]  The Christian faith requires courage.

At the personal level, can we imagine being in a situation that required any more adventure into the unknown than Mary’s?  Can we imagine being in a situation that required any more courage than Mary’s?  Recall what I said before about her station in life.

Nonetheless, this young woman will be the mother of God.  In Greek, she is called theotokos.  This might be confusing to those unfamiliar with the word.  It doesn’t mean anything divine about Mary.  She isn’t a goddess or one to be worshipped.  Theotokos simply means “God-bearer.”  It is a statement about the one in her womb, the one to whom she will give birth.  She is carrying the one who is divine.  Jesus, the infant in her womb, is also God.

The God-man will be born, not from a woman in an exalted position—not from one accustomed to royal surroundings (although that would be incredible enough!), but from a poor virgin.

That would truly be an adventure into the unknown, truly one that would require immense courage.

Have we ever had such a visit?  Clearly, I’m not talking about bringing the messiah into the world.  That has already been done.  I would say we have indeed had such a visit.  We’ve had it many more times than once.  As I wondered earlier, the Lord has come calling on us.  The Lord is knocking on the door.  Have we opened the door?

Have we opened the door to others?  Here is a good and possibly uncomfortable question: have we gone out of our way to open the door?

The Lord comes to us in those who desperately need our help.  As the book of Revelation says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20).  Who do we invite as our dinner guest?  (I told you this would be uncomfortable!)

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["Knocking at the Door" by He Qi]

And yet, we also need to shut the door to certain things.  Here is the first verse of the hymn, “Lord, I Have Shut the Door.”  “Lord, I have shut the door, speak now the word / Which in the din and throng could not be heard / Hushed now my inner heart, whisper Thy will / While I have come apart, while all is still.”

I won’t pretend that I don’t have plenty of work to do on these revolving doors.  I still have much to learn about welcoming the visit of Jesus.

Are we there yet?  Maybe not, but as we continue to learn how to know and love Christ, we come closer to the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth.  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45).



[2] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York: Association Press, 1917), 3

[3] Fosdick, 4.

driving or leading?

The apostle Paul, in many circles, has never had the best of reputations. Some have a very low opinion of him, portraying him, among other things, as insecure, paranoid, sexist, homophobic, and basically, an all-around grouch! Not at all a pleasant fellow. Some of the stuff he writes could easily lead to that conclusion. (At the same time, we also should be mindful of how cultural biases and misunderstandings influence us.)

Having said that, let’s take a quick look at what’s going on in the churches in Galatia. This might help to explain Paul’s “exuberant” approach.

A group known to posterity as the Judaizers finds fault with Paul’s message. They are concerned that he’s being too fast and loose with the gospel. For the life of them, they don’t understand why this guy is casting off so much of the faith of his people. He doesn’t even require circumcision!

And aside from Paul’s teaching, who does he think he is, anyway? James and Peter and the rest of the apostles in Jerusalem have rock-solid credentials. They were with Jesus himself! Meanwhile, this character was wreaking havoc and mayhem among the brothers and sisters. What kind of training is that?

That, very quickly, is the situation that Paul finds. Many, if not most, in the Galatian church are accepting the teaching that would require Gentiles to observe the Jewish law. And for the guys, you have a special treat. Get ready for snip, snip, snip!

It’s been observed, “Paul is mad about what had happened in Galatia.” I would venture that’s an understatement, but happily, it provides a nice segue to some of those forceful words he uses.

In chapter 1, right after he says hello to his readers, he’s already on their case. “I am astonished,” Paul says, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (v. 6). He simply cannot believe how gullible they are, listening to these smooth talkers.

At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul doesn’t bother with sparing anyone’s feelings. “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” The Contemporary English Version displays even less tact: “You stupid Galatians! I told you exactly how Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross. Has someone now put an evil spell on you?” What’s wrong with you? Are you taking crazy pills?

In chapter 4, the apostle again shows his exasperation. “I am afraid I have wasted my time working with you” (v. 11, CEV).

But for me, the best of the worst comes in chapter 5, as he’s discussing those who insist on circumcision. Paul laments, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (v. 12). The Jerusalem Bible is even more cutting: “Tell those who are disturbing you I would like to see the knife slip.” One might say that, in his criticism, the apostle Paul is being quite sharp!

I’ve gone to the trouble of providing these quotes to give a little better picture of his personality. Quotes like these would be ammunition for those who focus on Paul’s bad side. They would likely say that he’s guilty of driving the people; he’s guilty of shoving them. I would say that it’s possible to recognize his flaws (at times, he seems to employ manipulation) and still say that Paul provides a good example of leading the people.

Other than Jesus, even more than Mary or Peter, the New Testament figure whose personality is best revealed is the apostle Paul. We learn more about who he is, and that’s important. As a result of his calling on the road to Damascus, he helps personify the changes during this interim time as the church is discovering its own identity. It’s becoming less a branch of Judaism—and becoming something else.

What will that something else be?

I’m interested by the image of the caterpillar turning into a butterfly. There’s a point in time when the caterpillar in its cocoon can no longer be recognized as a caterpillar. At the same time, it’s not yet a butterfly. It’s in some kind of transitional state. It is gelatinous goo that has the promise of becoming a butterfly. But right now, it sure doesn’t look like it!

That’s us. In many different ways, we are constantly in transitional states. In our own lives, we are transitioning from one thing into another. In verse 17, after his Damascus road experience, when Paul speaks of going “at once into Arabia,” he is neither caterpillar nor butterfly; he is that gelatinous goo. He needs to do some work in figuring out what he’s called to become, or at any rate, what path to follow.

And as I’ve suggested, it’s the same way with the church, both in Paul’s time and in ours. We also are that gelatinous goo, with the promise of becoming something wonderful. As a congregation, it’s easier to recognize those transition times, those interim times. One example is when a congregation is between pastors. Still, that’s what life is all about, constantly transitioning—constantly being that gelatinous goo, in one way or another.

What drives Paul’s concern for the Galatians is just that: what are they becoming? That’s why he goes ballistic. It’s very important for him to establish the origin of his message—where did he get this stuff? As I said earlier, his credentials are being questioned. If his credibility can be ruined, then it’s easier for the ideas of the Judaizers to take hold.

For that reason, Paul insists “that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (vv. 11-12). If anyone wants to trout out pedigrees, Paul can play that game too.

He declares, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (v. 14). I studied under some top-notch rabbis, so don’t lecture me about observing the law and getting circumcised. I know this stuff better than you!

An aspect of who Paul is—something we shouldn’t ignore—is that he has turned away from violence. (It’s easy to miss that with his talk of castration!) His rejection of violence is a message badly needed in our own time, as people continue to hurt each other in the name of God. And this also speaks to the point about seeing him, not as driving others, but as leading them.

He freely admits what he has done. When Paul speaks of his “earlier life in Judaism,” he confesses that he “was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (v. 13). That word “violently” in Greek is the word hyperbolē, our English word “hyperbole.” He admits that he was exaggerating; he was going overboard in his efforts.

Yet how different is the way he ends the chapter! Speaking of the churches in Judea: “they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me” (vv. 23-24). What an image of repentance—that is, turning around.

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Paul is in agony because of what he sees in Galatia. He sees dear sisters and brothers turning from their freedom in Christ and submitting to rules and regulations that the gospel has eradicated. Paul sees the gelatinous goo that they are and realizes they are developing in a way that is unhealthy. He wants to help them establish a different church culture.

The apostle yearns for a church culture in which freedom is embraced and the stumbling blocks put in each other’s way are discarded.

Do you know what we notice when we work on building a church culture in which we seek the peace and freedom of Christ? One thing we notice is that we’re not worrying so much about trivial stuff. We notice that life is too short and too precious to waste time on such stuff.

Again, we see Paul’s desperate desire that the Galatians not miss out—that they don’t blow the opportunities they have. But this has what might be an unexpected twist.

In his book, The Hidden Lives of Congregations, Israel Galindo says, “Perhaps the most challenging idea about congregational leadership [and this applies to both clergy and lay leadership] is that it is not that good pastoral leaders have healthy congregations; rather, healthy congregations possess and enable good pastoral leadership…

“In other words, [it’s] less about the individual personality of the [leader],” even one as admittedly provocative and controversial as the apostle Paul, “and more about the ability of the congregation to accommodate and foster the leadership functions it needs.”

So in the case of Paul, he’s not going to be in Galatia for the rest of his life. The church there has the joyful task of figuring out who they are, as well as who is best suited to lead them. When we are able to claim our own identity, it helps us from being driven—as opposed to being led.

Claiming our identity is related to following our passions. What is it that we really love? Following our passions does come with a caution, however. Sometimes our passions can lead us off course, as is the case with the Judaizers. Their passion prevents them from embracing the future into which God is calling everyone.

In chapter 5, Paul sums it up well. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1).

Having said all of that, what are our passions? How is God calling us to do church? What is the church culture we want to work on that will help enable good pastoral leadership? All of that goes into this wonderful gift of interim time, of being that gelatinous goo, in which the promise is right at our fingertips.

[originally posted on 9 June 2013]

lazy and wasteful

“Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.”

“I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done. I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.”

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in which we are prompted to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I began with two quotes.

First are some lines from the hymn “Open the Doors.” (It’s performed online by the Holy Cross choir at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in High Point, NC.) What gripped my attention was the bit about wasting my life in laziness. My old pal, the deadly sin of acedia, of sloth, rears its ugly head—but takes its time in doing so! It remains a major struggle. I need help, both divine and human, to be shaken from complacency. (That help includes intercession from Mary, the mother of God, as strange as my non-Catholic past would have it.)

The second quote comes from Oliver Sacks’ book Gratitude, a wonderful little book published last year, which consists of four essays that he wrote in the time leading to his death. As the title suggests, he sums up his life with gratitude, of being “a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

But likely due to that sense of gratefulness, the time he has wasted troubles him all the more. Still, posed with expectations of completing his life, he injects levity by wondering what that’s all about anyway!

A few weeks ago, while Banu and I were still in Tennessee, we took my mom to the eye clinic. As we were in the waiting room, a cockroach came walking across the floor. I was requested to step on it, but I refused. I noted that when our civilization has turned to dust, this fellow will still be around. (That is, his or her distant descendants!) Dust to dust; ashes to ashes.

We are reminded of our mortality. We wear the ashes because there is no time like the present. Laziness and wastefulness meet their match in those ashes.

[The inscription on the image is “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust shall return,” Jacques Gamelin, Nouveau receuil d’ostéologie et de myologie dessiné après nature. 1779]