Seeing the Forest

IMG_0459

I’ve got a pop quiz for you. Take out a paper and number it one to ten. No phones. Go.

  1. What is the capital of Alaska?
  2. What year did WW1 end?
  3. What was the official language of Vietnam until 1954?
  4. Who was the 19th president of the US?
  5. When was the Louisiana Purchase made?
  6. What two countries make up the former Rhodesia?
  7. What was the currency of Germany before the European Union?
  8. What countries held the 1956 Olympics?
  9. What state was Custer’s Last Stand in?
  10. When did the War of 1812 begin?

How do you think you did? In case you want to answers, here they are.

Juneau

1918

French

Rutherford B Hayes

1803

Zambia and Zimbabwe

Deutsche Mark

Italy and Australia

Montana

1812

Making It Stick

The thing is, most of us probably learned many of those answers at some point in our lives. But most of it didn’t stick. We might know the capital of Alaska if we know someone who lives there, or we’re deep into the study of the tundra fox, or we really, really like Jack London. (I don’t. The dog always dies.) Or if you, like me, memorized all the capitals in grade school and strangely retained ALL of that information while still unable to recall what day your spouse said he needed an airport ride.

I don’t know most Olympic cities, but I’ll never forget Kerri Strug or seeing Jesse Owens Allee in Berlin mere weeks after its naming and knowing the stories of courage that went with those names.

Those things stick. Those stories strike something in us when their courage speaks to our hearts.

As anyone who really knows me knows, my New Year’s Eve tradition is watching the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, extended editions, every year. (That’s my idea of a party.) One of the most moving parts in the entire twelve hours or so is Sam’s speech on the ramparts of Osgiliath, explaining why he suddenly comprehends the power of stories.

“Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why . . . But I think I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something…”

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy_ How could the world

It’s those stories that matter—the ones that show us the best, and worst, of ourselves. The ones that point us toward the values we know matter but forget in our daily busyness, where knowing things like the capital of Alaska, or the balance in our bank account and exactly where that $4.19 was spent, appear larger than they ought to.

It’s the big themes, interweaving, becoming complex, challenging my assumptions, and coming out strong that attract me, especially because of, or in spite of, the daily minutiae that clogs our spiritual arteries.

Bible Pop Quiz

I think we often approach the Bible too much like it’s a pop quiz of facts. We believe we’re supposed to know instinctively who begat whom, which gospel harbors the story of Zacchaeus, and what order the minor prophets are in, or that a thing called “minor prophets” exists.

much as to know God by it, and therefore know ourselves and our worl

Yet this ends up with a “forest for the trees” form of discipleship—a knowledge of Scripture that might be thorough in its ability to quote chapter and verse but shallow indeed in its ability to sustain faith and life in a windy world.

Scot McKnight believes that, “God did not give us the Bible so we could master him or it but so we could be mastered by it,” and I wonder if that is not closer to what God intended with his word to us. Perhaps the idea of scripture is not so much to know it in minute detail as to know God by and through it, and therefore to know ourselves and our world.

Some research into our discipleship shows a depressing link between our attitudes toward knowing the Bible and our actual ability to grasp it.

Because they know they’ll be told what is important each week, many Christians feel little need to explore the Bible on their own . . . Many Christians believe they are incapable of taking much from the Bible. At the same time, the same Christians tend to believe they know and understand Scripture because they have heard it presented so many times. So these people leave church after a really good speech feeling like their faith has been strengthened. But when they try to put those same ideas into play in the real world, they can’t quite figure out how to do it. They begin to think they are the problem.

The more we hear the Bible, the more we think we know it. The more we realize we don’t know it, the worse we feel about that. The worse we feel, the less we read and know. The cycle continues. People who think they’re the problem don’t tend to have a lot of motivation to overcome the problem. Doug Pagitt, Preaching Reimagined 

Maybe we’re reading the room, and the Scriptures, wrong.

A second issue with this focus on learning chapter and verse, and thinking we’ve learned the Bible because we listen to people talk about it, is the tendency for so many of us to choose our doctrines based on those verses we’ve learned or heard. We haven’t learned to read for overarching themes, to search for the big picture ideas, and so we manufacture our beliefs over a twenty-minute span on one or two verses—and subsequently defend them aggressively over coffee and Twitter.

This seems backward.

C9823B51-3DB9-4F32-BB7A-EC38314A5FC9

If we read God’s word ultimately to know God, why do we spend so much more of our time formulating our ideas of what God wants and what we must do and so much less discerning what he’s telling us about who he is?

Learning who he is inevitably leads us to what he wants us to be and do. We cannot see his passion for justice and not do something. We can’t hear his heart for his people and not act. We  can’t taste and see that he is good without wanting to be good ourselves.

But getting that the other way around never works. Diving into God’s words to come out with a recipe for behavior or doctrine works as well as diving into the ocean and hoping to surface with a fully cooked lobster dinner.

 

IMG_1500 (1)

This is my Scripture goal for 2020, and my preaching goal as well. I want to see the forest. I want to walk beneath its shade and experience the whole of it, while certainly looking at the trees themselves. I think it will enhance the enjoyment of and appreciation for their individuality to focus on their common purpose. What are the great themes that hold all of Scripture together? How do they help me to know God by and through them, and therefore to know myself and my world? I’m looking forward to diving in.

Losing Time

jaelynn-castillo-642286-unsplash
Photo by Jaelynn Castillo on Unsplash

In elementary school I had a trick I used to impress friends and others whom I desperately wanted to impress. I would jump into the air and land, on the sidewalk, on my bum, with knees together sideways and feet turned out. It sounds confusing, but it was impressive, trust me. Especially with the sidewalk element—kind of like tightrope walking without a net. I had the shock and awe factor down back in third grade.

In junior high, I won a toe-sucking contest at my best friend’s sleepover. You read that right. I managed to put my big toe in my mouth and keep it there longer than anyone else. Way longer. It wasn’t even difficult.

Do not ask me why we did this. I do not know whose idea it was or why we all complied, like the lemmings most junior high girls are. I only know I won an event that has very few bragging rights, since no one really wants to admit they excelled at a toe-sucking contest. Except, apparently, me. In my defense, it was junior high, and 1) Junior high humans do very, very strange things, plus 2) This was a pretty tame strange thing as far as junior high humans go.

In high school I wanted to be a cheerleader, and I had the required flexibility, obviously, but I lacked the voice. They told me I couldn’t yell loudly enough or project enough energy, and I bristled at that judgment then. Now, I know it was spot on. Who has the energy to yell over trivial things? Not this INFJ/Enneagram 5. Extraverts and 7’s, this is your territory. Be you.

997884D3-79D3-4E83-9352-B38B0C11C278
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

My body told me decades before doctors did that it had some unusual qualities; I just thought they were normal.

Learning I have EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) this past year has been one of the biggest jourenys-you-don’t-want-to-go-on of my life. I love traveling—but not this time. Sure, I’ve had it all my life and didn’t know it. Yes, I’ve been quite fortunate that the symptoms have only forced themselves into my life in the past couple years. Definitely, many, many people have it far worse. Nevertheless, those symptoms are a pain. Literally.

For those unfamiliar, I try to describe it this way. It’s like your joints don’t have brakes. When other peoples’ bodies tell them, “Whoa there, elbow, pull back a little. You’re going too far too fast,” mine don’t. They sit back and think, “Hey, can’t wait to see how far this will go without disaster. Hand me the popcorn.”

Everything goes too far; everything stretches too much; everything hurts. Yoga teachers are impressed. My physical therapist is not.

david-charles-schuett-363769-unsplash
Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

Most days I fight it. Some days I’m too tired. This is OK.

Often, I struggle because slow is not my groove. I walk fast, work fast, pack my calendar because fast works for me. Except now, walking fast could get my splayed on the ground with an injury, and I walk slowly, watching every sidewalk irregularity and holding on to every stair rail. I have to leave spaces in that datebook, empty whites places where blue ink used to fill, because feet up time is now at least as important as feet on the ground.

It irks me, because it’s not me.

I try to find the grace in the trade-off. And it’s there. This morning, the pink sunrise filtered through the treetops on my way home from dropping my offspring at the train station for work. I got home and wrote a haiku about it. I don’t write poetry. I’m pretty bad at it. Something in the morning told me I could, though, and that something, I think is the time I’ve lost being fast.

9663A7E4-CACF-4FD6-92C6-7704DA42FF24

It seems antithetical, losing time by being fast. But I have. I‘ve lost the present. I’ve lost the ability to sit with the now and not make plans for the not yet. I’ve squanderer  the moments in favor of the days. I’ve said “I don’t have time” so much that I believe it, even though who doesn’t have time for loved ones and silent hugs and sparkling eyes that want to tell you everything going on in their universe?

I’ve lived in the “going to” so much I’ve lost touch with the “is”—the pink of sunrise being combed out by tree fingers in the sky. I’m finding that I like the “is,” and perhaps that’s a gift of this inherited disease. It’s certainly a grace.

That’s one of the reasons my word for 2020 is “Listen.” Followed closely by “Observe.” I loathe passivity, in grammar and in life, but perhaps it’s time to embrace a bit of it. To sit, to watch, to hear, to be present.

Unlike everything else, it can’t hurt.

Be Transformed

E4B88438-A5C7-4EEE-89D9-65DF16F06F91
Photo by Johan Van Wambeke on Unsplash

The airplane winging us back home after a dream trip in Nova Scotia had barely left Boston when our middle child casually said, “I’ve decided I don’t want to go back to school this year.” It was August. Exactly one week before school would start. Did I mention she was entering her senior year of high school?

Obviously, I probed that statement a bit. It turned out she hadn’t gotten into the classes she wanted and had instead been placed in courses in which she had no interest. She couldn’t participate in the elite choir. She only needed one and a half credits to graduate. To her very logical mind, why sit in six hours of classes she didn’t want when she could take one at home and be done?

Logical perhaps, but quite a wild pitch when tossed at your parents at thirty thousand feet.

Fortunately, I had navigated several tricky back-to-school plans by this time, so the ball didn’t fall completely foul on us.

When the Path Doesn’t Fit

When we started the education odyssey, we expected our kids to do as we had: propel forward through thirteen years of public school, graduate, and go on to college. Simple. Clear. A normal path that worked.

80589F63-48FF-45B0-BA02-D62537E92D33
Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash

But it didn’t. The reasons are not my story to tell, but in some seasons that path layered too much pain and pressure on one child or another, and in other seasons being at home proved a struggle. Between our two oldest girls, we went through years of public school, private school, homeschooling, and back again.

The funny thing is, until we had to explore other options, I didn’t know we had them. I assumed one path was the only path. I believed we had to conform to that “normal,” or we were the problem. It never occurred to me that there were a myriad of options out there, and maybe we weren’t the ones who didn’t fit. Maybe our kids’ needs in different seasons required different solutions. Maybe our kids fit just fine, and it was the mold that didn’t.

This realization freed me to take each new situation as it came and act according to our reality then, not our reality when the girls were five. What worked for the giggling kindergartner boarding her first bus no longer felt right for a high school senior, who would be embarking soon on a new season life.

I find this epiphany comforting in much of my life. I don’t have to be the person I once was any more than my girls had to be the students they once were. (Glory hallelujah, when I look back on the person I was at seventeen. Or thirty-seven.) In fact, God promises this: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul tells us that our old, ill-fitting labels, assumptions, and beliefs can disappear. We have a new life to begin, a new creation to live into. God wants to re-create us without the hindrances we allow to pull us back into old molds that don’t fit.

AEA74E8F-F16B-4AF0-A6A6-160E714FAFAD_1_105_c

I need not continue the bad habit I had last year. My responses to hurtful things can change—they are not static. Past choices define nothing but the past—and a new mold awaits me if I choose to step toward it. This goes deeper than a bad habit or a new school, too. As a childhood sexual abuse victim, I know the damage from remaining a victim and the freedom of moving into healing release. For some of us, painful memories try to lock us into molds that will break us if we don’t break them.

Perhaps a new year is a time to break a few molds.

Be Transformed

Again, Paul has something to say to this possibility: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) Literally, “pattern” here is mold. Another translation says, “Don’t let the world shape you into its mold.” Our culture would love to tell us we will always be victims, we will never change those things about us we don’t like, we will always have to tread the same path we’ve been on until we don’t care anymore that it’s chafing and biting at the parts of us that no longer fit.

AAFB67DE-6610-4913-946F-D4EED7207A7A

God has better plans for me and you.

Just as my daughter wasn’t the same as a kindergartner and as a seventeen-year-old, so I need not accept a label from my past at any age. I’m free to make a different choice, and those choices will change over the long haul. Like my kids’ schooling, some combination of options will finally be my best road. The mold of Jesus’ likeness calls me—and the road there will curve, wind, and climb in different ways I don’t even know yet, but it will always lead true.

Our middle daughter did not go back to school that fall. She took ballet and went rock climbing to fulfill a year of physical education. I taught her English (my own area of expertise) for the other half credit. She went to the local community college and got a jump start on university courses. Finishing her last year in public school, even though it sounded like the normal thing to do for a high school senior, turned out to be a wrong option for her. She has a master’s degree now. Seems her wild pitch turned out pretty fair after all.

Notice the wording of Romans 12? Be transformed. Paul doesn’t say “work your way into change.” He knows only the Holy Spirit can create lasting change. He understands that we need to walk toward it, opening our hands and hearts, not striving to recreate ourselves but allowing and desiring God to break us out. Change isn’t our job—it’s our release.

(This post originally appeared in The Glorious Table, a great site for all kinds of writing voices!)

The Angels’ Song (Don’t Be Afraid)

“Don_t be afraid!” the angel said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” Luke 2.10

Perhaps you’ve read that “Don’t be afraid” is in the Bible 365 times—once for every day of the year.

Don’t be afraid

It isn’t true. It’s a nice Hallmark-worthy sentiment, but it isn’t Scripture. However, it is true that “Do not be afraid” occurs a hefty 70 times in Scripture—indeed more than any other command. That doesn’t include variations close to it—have courage, don’t be discouraged, fear not, don’t worry, etc. Simply—

Do not be afraid.

For people who tend to think of God’s commands as cumbersome, restricting, or difficult, this might come as a revelation. God’s most common commands are positive ones.

Praise him. Be thankful. Rejoice. Remember.

Not exactly cumbersome.

We might recall the words of the long-winded Psalmist who told us:

“The commands of the Lord are radiant.” (Psalm 19.8)

Where have we gotten this notion that they’re a burden?

Why be afraid?

Since God went a-calling in the garden asking Adam and Eve where they were hiding, we’ve been afraid. To be fair, there is reason.

We have failed him.

We have disappointed him.

We have chosen to run away from him.

We have caused his creation—of other humans and earth—utter destruction.

Yet his most common command is—“Don’t be afraid.”

What does it mean?
What doesn’t it mean?

nikolas-noonan-fQM8cbGY6iQ-unsplash
Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

It doesn’t mean “There is nothing scary out there. No worries. Hakuna Matata.” Let’s tell the truth—life is scary.

It doesn’t mean if you have enough faith, all is rosy and cheery.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have enough faith if you worry.

It doesn’t mean that if you have fears you’re a terrible Christian.

Let’s look at a few places God says it.

Exodus 14.13  But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today.” (Just as the Egyptian army descends, and God prepares to part the Red Sea. No worries, people. Just sit and chill. That raging army is not scary. It’s fine. Everything is fine.)

Joshua 1.6 Be strong and courageous—Do not be afraid or discouraged. (Just before he is to lead the Hebrews into the promised land)

John 14.27 I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. (Just before he goes to the cross and leaves them)

Luke 5.10 Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” (As he begins to gather his disciples into a life-changing adventure)

Luke 1.30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!” (As she is asked to be part of the most dangerous undertaking ever imagined)

Luke 1.13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.” (John the Baptist, that is)

Matthew 28.5-6 Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead.” (As the world is about to be turned upside down)

Can you see a pattern here?

david-charles-schuett-363769-unsplash
Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

God is about to do something . . .

God doesn’t tell people “fear not” when there is nothing to fear. He often says it when there is a great deal to fear! In fact, a lot of the time, ‘fear not’ is followed by something God is going to do in the person’s life that’s kind of terrifying.

Fear not really means–do you trust me?

Thus we come to another song of Christmas. This time, it’s a very familiar song. It’s a song quoted by the great theologian Linus VanPelt as the most important song ever. Let’s look at the angels’ song.

Luke2.8-15 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

OK, we don’t know they sang those words. That’s tradition. But we’re going with it.

They have one job

Angels’ one job is to be messengers of God almighty—used when he wants to tell humans something important. They possess all the glory and holiness and terror that entails.

The universal human reaction is fear, and justifiably so. Yet—the angels always say—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is

—don’t be afraid.

What a first message. So many things he could have told us to prepare us for his coming. Yet he chose those three words—don’t be afraid. It’s as if he knows humans well.

  • He knows he holds all the cards.
  • He knows his perfection, his holiness, is scary to us.
  • He knows people are afraid of what might happen when he shows up—in their lives and in the world.

Something usually does happen!

So his first words are so often—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is—

The angels herald his entrance into this world with loving concern for his people. They speak to the shepherds of peace. They tell them not to be afraid of the God who comes with lovingkindness  and mercy. With a grace that knows we are deservedly scared and assures us his coming to us face-to-face is good news.

He comes with peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinners, reconciled.

Oh, those angels know.

The angels sing the finale.

They sing the song to end, or begin, all songs.

They sing the last words before the Word is revealed.

They sing the good news to end, or begin, all good news.

But it’s old news to us

We are so used to this angels’ song.

It’s on our Christmas cards and our playlists.

But what does it tell us about the savior, and about us?

If the angels are sent to tell us the Savior is born—in a humble place, to humble people, for all people—that the God of the universe has put his life in the hands of a girl who just grew up quickly herself—what does that mean?

It means He wants to be with us.

He wants to be with you.

He didn’t send a telegram or tweet his love out to the universe.

He came.

God with us.

That tells everything.

Remember what we learned in Hebrews a while back?

“The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (Hebrews 1.3)

It meant that Jesus is the exact image of God—the precise imprint of his character here on earth, like a coin given from the emperor.

virgil-cayasa-UWn64Nvnotk-unsplash
Photo by Virgil Cayasa on unsplash.com

This sacrificial, humble, giving baby who only wanted to be with his creation to show it the way out of darkness and craziness and enveloping confusion is the very expression of God’s heart.

It’s who God is.

Don’t accept substitutes.

Don’t accept people telling you who or what God is or does or feels if it isn’t what you see in Jesus. Jesus, above all, shows us a God who wants to be with his people. It doesn’t matter what those people have done or believed or lived or are. None of those things matter about the person next to us, or far from us in anther country, either.

If that’s not what other people’s God looks like, their God is suspect, according to Hebrews 1. He should look exactly like the One born as Emmanuel, God with us, humbled into a tiny baby’s body to bring peace and good news.

The angels tell the shepherds “don’t be afraid.” God is on the move. He is about to do something scary–and so incredibly, beautifully merciful you will not comprehend it as long as you live. Don’t be afraid. Trust him.

Go and see. Don’t fear to see what God is doing. Don’t  be afraid to take part. Go and see. You will never be the same. That’s both scary and beautiful. Take in both. Don’t shy away from one and choose to embrace only the other. You’ll come away with neither. The angels’ message is the same to us as it was to the shepherds.

Don’t be afraid. Go and see what God is doing.

Point, Counterpoint

Zechariah finds his voice. Or rather, it is given back to him. New and improved. If you missed Zech’s back story, read about it here. It matters to what happens next.

Songs matter, as we’ve determined. Scripture tells us that what comes out of our mouths shows clearly what’s in our hearts. Where is that more certain than a song that bursts forth, unrehearsed, in jubilant, or horrified, feeling?

ronald-rivas-PW8MOkhE2QI-unsplash
Photo by Ronald Rivas on Unsplash

The Israelites could not find their voice in exile, even though they were commanded to sing. In their grief, no words came.

( But how can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
 Psalm 137.4)

In Zechariah’s relief and joy, words come whirling out like a waterfall during spring rain.

Finding a Voice

This is what that voice says, or sings:

“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has visited and redeemed his people.
He has sent us a mighty Savior
    from the royal line of his servant David,
just as he promised
    through his holy prophets long ago.

 Now we will be saved from our enemies
    and from all who hate us.
 He has been merciful to our ancestors
    by remembering his sacred covenant—
 the covenant he swore with an oath
    to our ancestor Abraham.
 We have been rescued from our enemies
    so we can serve God without fear,
 in holiness and righteousness
    for as long as we live.

“And you, my little son,

    will be called the prophet of the Most High,
    because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
 You will tell his people how to find salvation
    through forgiveness of their sins.
 Because of God’s tender mercy,
    the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,[i]
 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    and to guide us to the path of peace.”

(Luke1.68-79)

What would we have said after over nine months? Zechariah’s first words sing a song of praise to God. Praise and gratitude. These are top of mind for him—the first thing that comes tumbling out of lips that haven’t formed words in nearly a year. They must have felt hoarse, straining through a throat dry from disuse, muscles atrophied from lack of exercise.

He sings praise to God. Immediately.

mike-lewis-headsmart-media-waAAaeC9hns-unsplash
Photo by Mike Lewis HeadSmart Media on Unsplash

Praise and Gratitude

I can imagine him cradling his son in this tender moment, seeing the child’s future. Zechariah knows his boy’s great privilege—“He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.”

He must also know the cost—prophets were not historically beloved. Zechariah must have a glimpse of the pain that will come to his family along with the great joy. Nevertheless, his first words are praise and gratitude.

Kindness and Light

His next are also kind of amazing. He speaks of rescue, mercy, peace, light and forgiveness. John will be a firebrand – but his father is different. As we saw two weeks ago, Mary, too, shines in the rebellious, single-minded visionary strength of youth. Her song trumpets joy at the renewal of creation as it was meant to be—and thus the overthrow of human institutions of oppression. She does not shrink from speaking, singing, truth to power.

IMG_9516

Zechariah offers a gentler viewpoint, the experience of age that has seen and known and treads lightly in a harsh world. That he has quite recently been forced to listen, to hear the voices of others, to see their need and their viewpoint, I think changes his words here from what they might have been.

He speaks soft words, words of quiet and hope. Words that do indeed cry for a Savior who will change the world, but less a warrior than a pastor.

John will call people to repent. He will be rough and wild.

Zechariah knows that God’s mercy must fall on us for our repentance—that we are all in need, all fall short.

He realizes the truth Paul will later write:

 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (Romans 2.4)

It’s his kindness that leads us to repentance.

abigail-keenan-hG4qBPj5BJg-unsplash
Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Zechariah is a pastor at heart. He cares deeply about the people. This is why he is worthy to offer prayers for the people. You know he is earnestly praying, deeply hoping, grieving, expecting with them right there in the temple.

He is thrilled that their salvation has come—their darkness is over.

Zechariah’s pastor’s heart and experience make him the perfect parent for one who is to pave the way for the savior.

His kindness leads you to repentance.

How much do we need Zechariahs today? Those who will remind people, recall them, turn them back whit words of kindness—not judgment, anger, or fear? The world is desperate with the need for a quiet soul.

Mary is the point—Zechariah is the counterpoint. Together, they tell a gospel story that many of us try to separate. Jesus is both/and. He is a personal savior of peace and a societal savior of systems rife with sin.

There is room and need for both.

Both/And

In Zechariah, we see a savior who offers us individual salvation and relationship, guidance and mercy, light and hope. We see a Messiah who will later say—“Come to me —I will give you rest.” We imagine a Savior who will touch the heads of tax collectors and prostitutes and tell them they are valuable in the kingdom.

You also see a savior of the world in Mary’s Jesus—A king for justice and rightness and reconciliation in the entire created order.

It’s not one or the other.

It’s not one at expense of the other.

It’s both/and.

They cannot be separated.

The gospel is a gospel for each person and for the world.

It is good news for all of it. The entire mess.

It is reconciliation for everything—everything.

These two songs together give us the picture of the whole gospel and the whole savior. They are the songs of a pastor and a prophet, and they sing a beautiful duet.

Like Zechariah, perhaps we should listen.

Listen

IMG_5702 2

Here and at church, I have started a series on Christmas songs. Not Christmas carols or pop songs – not the ones we hear on the radio October through December—some of which grow increasingly sappy to me every year.

Not to mention the ones that are theologically troubling. (“So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” I think, I just, wait but . . . never mind.)

The Real Songs

I mean the songs of scripture. The ones sung by people right there, in real time, Ground Zero of Jesus’ birth. The ones that ushered him in. The songs that people couldn’t help belting out when they knew he was finally on the way.

We dealt with Mary first. Now, it’s time for her much older cousin-in-law.

Zechariah’s Story

Back story. Zechariah was a priest. The Bible says that he was chosen to go into the temple to light the incense and offer the prayers for the people. There’s a whole order here I didn’t know about. Three entire priests were necessary for this incense thing.

Seriously, the lack of efficiency is astounding. You’d think the Lord didn’t care at all about good, sensible time management.

One took away the ashes from the last time the fire was lit. One brought in the new smoking coals for the next offering. Finally, a third man came in to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, and while the beautiful smell rose up to tickle his nose and calm his head, intercede in prayer for his people.

kirill-pershin-ddmtkhqRQP8-unsplash
Photo by Kirill Pershin on Unsplash

This was Zechariah’s job, and it was the most important and most sacred. I believe the fact that he was chosen for this job says something more than we realize.

Surely, in all those prayers he lifted up, one of them was a desire that the promised Messiah would come. Zechariah woulds never have let the opportunity pass him up, when given this chance to pray for the nation, to pray for its salvation through their shared hope.

Zechariah loved his people. That much will become clear.

Don’t Blink

Suddenly—Surprise! An angel shows up at the altar, right in front of where he stands praying. Angels terrify those who see them. Sweet, lovely, harp-strumming angels do not exist in Scripture. Universally, they scare the heck out of people, and almost always they must first utter the words, ”Don’t be afraid” before they can say anything else to cowering, trembling humans.

 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.’ (Luke 1.17-19)

Zechariah had questions. He doubted Gabriel’s word. This was a very bad idea.

Then the angel said, ‘I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.’ (v. 19-20)

marek-studzinski-jxP73zMBruU-unsplash
Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Zechariah ended up unable to speak as a result of his unbelief. Still, let’s not be too quick to judge him. The scripture also tells us, concerning him and his wife, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” So no one can say he’s struck mute out of disobedience. God must have had other reasons.

He spends over nine months speechless. Let that sink in. I am a pastor myself, and I know what it would be like to carry out my daily work without being able to speak. I know how difficult it would be to care for people without being able to talk to them of their troubles. How does Zechariah manage?

One day, his one and only son is finally born—but the enforced silence is still not over.

When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, ‘No! His name is John!’ ‘What?’ they exclaimed. ‘There is no one in all your family by that name.’ So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, ‘His name is John.’

And he finds his voice.

What that voice says will be the subject of the next blog. Why it was silent for so long is my curiosity for this one. Why would God silence a man he himself calls good? Why is Zechariah punished for questioning an angel while Mary appears to have been blessed for the same behavior?

Here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s punishment. I think it, too, is a blessing.

Perhaps this was God allowing Zechariah some time to listen.

(Some assume from the verse about the people making gestures that he is also deaf, but this is unlikely. Probably, they simple raise their eyebrows or gaped open-mouthed, arms outstretched, signifying that he had better intervene immediately, speechless or not, because his wife is about to do something unheard of! In any case, ten months of observing the world, unable to speak or hear, would be no bad thing, either.)

Listen

IMG_5836

Can you imagine all that Zechariah learned during that ten months or so? What did he hear? What that he had never noticed before did he suddenly find fascinating? What people to whom he had never really paid attention did he finally truly hear? What did he learn from them?

Did he come to deeply appreciate the squealing laughter of children playing by the road, the passionate prayers of his friends, or the tender, quiet voice of his wife at night? Did he learn from the disenfranchised who rarely were able to catch the ear of a priest, but whose calls and cries he suddenly began to heed?

Did he open his eyes to people with whom he didn’t agree, since he had no choice but to listen and not immediately argue back?

Could an awful lot of us use that enforced silence?

He is a good man—that much has been established. Yet he has lessons to learn. For us, this is a hard but beautiful pill to swallow.

God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be

Maybe, God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be.

Zechariah has lessons to learn, even though by all counts be is plenty good enough already.

I do, too.

  • Sometimes it’s when we’re good already.
  • When we’re smart.
  • When we’ve followed a while and know the ways of Jesus.
  • When we’re pretty sure we’ve got this God thing down.

Sometimes it’s then that we trip up.We believe in ourselves more than in Him.

It’s then we find ourselves on a detour out somewhere, unable to speak or really listen, because we thought we could navigate it alone.

One thing we learn from Zechariah is that we must never believe so much in our own goodness, right intentions, best plans, or knowledge of truth that we aren’t teachable.

listen

What might we learn if we listen?

  • If we closed our mouths, cut off the quick reply.
  • Stopped thinking about what we were going to say.
  • Refused the defensive comeback.
  • Chose to hear what someone we don’t agree with feels.

What would we hear and learn?

I’m so fascinated by Zechariah’s silence that I’ve decided my word for 2020—Listen. I want to experience what this man had no choice but to do. I want to know the depths of other people’s hearts, and of God’s. I want to learn. If Zechariah at his age still had much to learn, certainly so do I.

Mary, Mother, Meek (Not) Mild

3073081A-B395-47A2-BF72-59F60C09D68E

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.

    How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.

For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.

He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.

His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.

He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.

He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.

For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.

(Luke1.46-55)

A 15th century English carol begins, “Mary, Mother, meek and mild.” Yeah, not really.

Screen Shot 2019-12-04 at 1.29.29 PM

This Advent, I’ve been studying the songs that begin the New Testament. I’ve thought about how songs burrow their way into our souls. This is how I’ve delved into some deep Christmas theology. This is also how I’ve ended up binge listening to John Denver on YouTube. Because music.

I can’t remember my kids’ phone numbers, but I can recall every lyric of Evita. Even those a pastor should probably not quote in public. I can still sing every Denver tune of my childhood.

Music can give you an ear worm; it can lift you to the face of God; and it can break your heart. We have this sign on our kitchen wall now, because none of us will ever forget singing it together this spring as we knew we were saying goodbye to mom, and it will never again be just a hymn to us.

D3A2D74C-E843-425C-A0A6-652EBC2C838C_1_201_a

Music goes deep.

Mary. Her song is the first of Luke’s gospel, and what a song.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Mary’s Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

76987F2A-BBCC-4BCE-BEE5-1C25C8B5C26D

He’s not wrong.

Her song gives us some kind of “fly on the wall” experience of why God might have chosen Mary to bring Life and Light into the world.

There’s that first word.

Magnificat.

7A43CBA9-7173-46F8-866D-135FA6B58FA2

Magnify. “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

See the picture first. Her cousin Elizabeth has just opened her door on Mary, the tired, pregnant traveler, and covered Mary with a rainstorm of words that praise and glorify her—Mary. 

She could not utter enough good words about how great her little cousin was and would be.

Mary might have responded—“Why yes, yes I am. Now that you mention it, I’m a pretty big deal.” She is. Elizabeth speaks truth.

Screen Shot 2019-12-04 at 1.40.40 PM

She doesn’t. The first word our of her mouth is “magnify.” Magnify whom? God.

Elizabeth—I want to make God bigger! Let’s not talk about me—let’s talk about what an amazing God we share! Mary wants nothing of the temptation to magnify herself, and it must have been real given all the adulation she receives before even stepping foot in the door. Her deepest desire is to make God bigger—that’s what magnification does, right? It enlarges our view of one important thing. Magnification focuses us, allowing us to see something in its most important, valuable detail.

Cousin Beth, I want to enlarge everyone’s view of God.

And she does.

Mary’s first impulse is echoed later by the baby in Elizabeth’s own womb. Years afterward, her son, John, replies similarly to those who ask him—aren’t you just a tad jealous of you cousin Jesus’ success?

Nope.

“He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”

(John 3.30)

Mary and John are on to something.

The world is desperate for humble people. On a recent twitter thread asking about leadership qualities, one person wrote, “Honestly, I only look for humility now. It’s the number one requirement for me.” Why? I suspect because we’re so, so tired of the opposite.

Me Culture

Our world feels so crowded with people whose goal is to stick their heads up the highest. Take a picture of me. Hire me. Choose me. Like my tweet. Buy my book. Love me.

For writers and speakers like me, self-promotion matters as much as writing, but it feels exhausting and inescapable some days. Some days, I get so tired of me. In my head, I assume others do, too.

We have men defending one another at all costs in the pulpit. Christians taking one another apart on social media over points that seem less about God and more about power. Bullies in the White House and other high places.

Our current culture’s obsession with being the strongest, best, and greatest defies what we see played out in these first words of Luke.

Oh, how my soul magnifies the Lord.

Mary displays the greatest quality necessary in all ambassadors for Christ—humility. A quiet knowledge of who God is and who she is, and a clear recognition that the two positions should never be interchanged or leveraged against one another.

This by no means makes Mary weak, meek, or mild. Indeed, it makes her a force of nature. Would any of us dare to sing the song she sings?

4299230E-C847-4E0C-A8B4-F7EBAF0CF4BA

Think for a moment about the society in which Mary sings out her words of joy. Mary is:

  • An unwed, pregnant young woman, in a society where that could be a death sentence.
  • Among the 98% of people who live poor, day-to-day subsistence lives.
  • A minority in a Roman society that despises her ethnicity and a religious culture that even despises her descent (can anything good come out of Nazareth?)
  • A young woman living under foreign oppression. A foreign power that, if it heard the words of her song, could lock up this girl on grounds of rebellion.

He has brought down princes? Sent the rich away? Scattered the proud?

Make no mistake. Mary proclaims a new order. A world where a new King comes and returns the world to its original authorial intent. She’s singing in Genesis 1—the earth as God made it and intends to remake it. The child kicking around in her womb will ensure that renovation.

Mary isn’t making some pie in the sky reference to hopes and dreams.

She is declaring here and now that kingdoms of humans have no chance.

She is uprooting the order of things.

She is calling out injustice as not being of God.

She is challenging the powerful of her day—just as her son would.

She is singing a song of deep rebellion.

She is doing it as a teenage girl.

Mary is kind of amazing.

We’ve lived in a world that is upside down for so long, we don’t even recognize it. Mary sings about the One who will turn it all right side up again.

And she sings as if it has already occurred.

This is no meek and mild teenaged submissive Mary. She is not what we’ve been taught.

She is smart—a theologically sharp young woman who knows her scriptures.

A humble young woman, yet one willing to question an angel.

A young woman willing to be embarrassed, mocked, cast off, misunderstood, and pregnant for the sake of the kingdom.

I love that she sings this in the past tense. It is as good as done for her. She hasn’t even finished three months of morning sickness, yet she speaks as if this unborn child has accomplished it all quite completely. God has promised these things—and that means they are DONE.

7BCFF3FF-E773-46CF-B163-6C9319353B27

In some sense, this gives Mary power as well.

She doesn’t have to fear the powers of the world, and they are real to her people. She does not have to give heed to the proud who would tell her who she was and wasn’t. She doesn’t have to fear lack or scarcity.

She doesn’t have to fear at all.

She has the fulfillment of everything  in her womb.

And so Mary sings out, because she knows she can.

BB4F8308-FE39-4371-8E16-74D4FBF777D2

Being humble does not equal being weak. It means we’ve placed ourselves, our demands, our dreams, our futures and our fears at the feet of the One who is all powerful. We’ve taken ourselves out of the power equation. Because of that posture, we have every confidence in the rightful owner of the power.

There is no greater strength. There is no greater confidence. There is no greater assurance. Because of that, we can fear nothing.

That appears to be Mary’s conclusion, as she sings loud and strong about human pride and self-assurance crashing into oblivion.

One is coming.

One has already come.

I will magnify him, oh my soul.