Mary, Mother, Meek (Not) Mild

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Course Correctors

IMG_7454.jpgWhen our daughter was in high school gymnastics, she had a great team. Without fail, the girls cheered one another on. Shouts of “You got this!” and “You go girl!” bounced off the gym walls at every meet. Other teams noted the camaraderie and envied it.

But I remember one other team. They were highly ranked. They had a reputation. They scored big numbers. The evening I sat close and watched their girls vault, I figured out why. One by one, those girls took off toward the vault and threw some tricks that, judging by the way they hit the floor and sometimes the wall, they should not have been trying. The difficulty, and subsequent scoring, were huge. The danger was, too. Their coaches, who should have discouraged trying skills that could land them in a hospital, stood at the end and cheered as the girls hit the mat.

Cheering for people is great. I love being encouraged to do hard things. Sometimes, though, the best thing we can do for someone is to say, “Um, no, you actually don’t got this. Don’t go, girl.”

We’ve been talking here on the blog about church. What it is. What is could be. What it should be. The primary thing it should be is family. Family encourages one another big time. Sometimes, though, family has to do something more difficult. Sometimes, family has to tell us the truth.

Family keeps us on course

Sometimes, your sister has to tell you not to leave home in that outfit. Or not to date that jerk. We all know that later, we are grateful. It’s a family’s job to keep the weird uncles in check so they don’t embarrass everyone too much. It’s a family’s duty to tell Aunt Ruth she needs a hearing aid because she’s talking so loudly the rock band next door can’t practice.

IMG_9313.JPGWe edit one another’s resumes, practice job interviews, and filter photos before we post them, because we want our family to be shown in their best light. Hey, if it were not for my daughters, I would still be going around in mom jeans and white tennis shoes. Family tells us the truth when we won’t look in a mirror and see for ourselves.

Note: We don’t always appreciate the truth.

If church is our family, we should be keeping one another from that terrible date.

Nudge or Judge?

When someone in our church family is going off the rails, a good family nudges her back over onto the track. Don’t miss that important word. We nudge. We don’t judge. That one letter makes all the difference in whether or not we correct one another’s courses well.

Church has gotten the reputation of being kind of judgy. Let’s be honest, it’s easier to judge someone than it is to correct them. Judging is quick. It’s easy, because we have our set of rules taped to the wall, so we know when someone has broken one. It’s painless, even a morale boost sometimes, because if we can conclude that someone is worse than we are, we feel better about our own missteps. Judging is simple. Walking with someone through resurrection is hard.

Admitting we need someone to walk with us is perhaps even harder.

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. (Galatians 6.1-3)

To share someone’s burden implies that we treat it with reverence and care, like it is our own. Paul’s words create a picture of someone taking another person’s error and cupping it in her hands, like a nest for a baby bird, to support and sustain until the bird is able to fly. They do not leave room for judgment. Quite the opposite.

Gently and humbly.

When is the last time someone did that for you? When is the last time you did it for someone else?

The other side, of course, is that we have to be people who learn to accept correction. We have to begin to trust our families to tell us the truth. The beginning is the most difficult; after you begin, the going on seems natural. It is. It’s the way God meant for us to be.

IMG_6928Moving from relationships based on eggshell walking or grenade lobbing takes intentional effort. It is so much easier to either skirt conflict or to take shots at one another from the safety of our own righteous foxhole. Neither one requires risking rejection. Both keep us at a safe distance. Either allows us to keep “my private life” separate and unassailable from public examination.

It’s just that Jesus never let anyone get away with that.

Gently and humbly. I keep coming back to those words. What would our churches look like if we learned to steer people away from the dangers of life and learned to submit to that steering with those two qualities?

Just Take It

Accepting course correction means giving out rights we might prefer to keep.

When I tell my family that I want to strengthen my muscles, I give them the right to ask every so often—“So, have you been to the gym?”

When I tell them I want to eat better, I freely offer them the right to give side eyes to that frozen custard stop. I’ve invited them into my life as course correctors.

When my daughter tells me she has applied for the job she wants, it’s part of my job to ask her gently, “Have you sent a follow-up yet?” I’ve earned that right after changing hundreds of diapers, wiping grape juice vomit out of the car vents, and driving to approximately twelve hundred gymnastics practices. I’ve gone the difficult distance with her.

Just Earn It

Family gets in your face when it’s for your own good. They’ve earned that right. Church families need to earn the right—by going the difficult distance with us and bearing the burdens we can no longer bear. And when they do, we learn to listen when they tell us the curve is up ahead and we’re going a little too fast.

Family asks—Have you been reading you Bible like you wanted to? What’s your progress on that temper issue you told me about? Are you working on you marriage? These are hard questions. But ultimately, they are kinder than standing on the sidelines and cheering impending disaster because that’s more polite.

Gently and humbly. Good words to ponder. Possibly to paint on our walls.

Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.—Rachel Held Evans

First Encounters with Jesus – Humility and a Laser Light Show

bb58c-img_7197I discovered Jesus as a thirteen-year-old watching Jesus Christ Superstar.

Most pastors and theologians I know would suggest that was a bad beginning. It seemed to take, though, as I’m still following Him some years later. You just never know which way that Holy Spirit wind is going to blow, do you?

I didn’t know the answer to the question the singers kept asking – Who are you, anyway, Jesus? Watching him die on a cross there on late night TV, I suddenly wanted to. I sincerely, desperately wanted to know who that was who would do such an incomprehensible, soul-searing thing. Because Sunday-school born and bred or not, I knew what he was doing, and I knew it was for me. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do about it.

The culture that created that stage play and movie – my culture – was asking some macro and micro-cosmic questions.

Who do you say you are?

Jesus–Who do others say you are? Do you agree with them? Really, they were asking, Are you still relevant? Do you still mean anything? Is who you are still important to anyone here and now?

The answer was yes.

The answer is still yes.

Always, and eternally, yes.

But we have to know which Jesus we mean. Which Jesus is the conversation about? Which Jesus are we allowing to die on that cross and speak truth into our 21st century skeptical existence?

I promised an exploration into those questions, and it starts here, the first time Jesus makes a truly public appearance.

Wrapped now in flesh, the God who once hovered over the waters was plunged beneath them at the hands of a wild-eyed wilderness preacher.” Rachel Held Evans

0e66c-img_0506Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”

But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him. After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” (Matthew 3.13-17)

Do you think you’re who they say you are?

This is a pretty whiz-bang way to make your first public appearance. The clouds open up and James Earl Jones’ voice booms out of heaven. He labels you pretty clearly – God’s son. Well OK then. There should be no more questions.

Jesus could take his special effects show and make bank on it. He could have an instant platform and thousands of followers on twitter. He could get his own reality show. He could talk world domination. He could do ….all the things the devil will soon tempt him to do out in the wilderness. Exert his power. Use his position. Make it big and splashy and all about him.

But he does not.

John knows who he is. He offers to give Jesus his rightful place. He cannot fathom that Jesus would not want to step up into the limelight, nor that he would want to step down toward submission and anonymity.

Humility.

5810f-img_0500It’s the first thing people who encounter Jesus see. A man who has defeated Satan’s temptations and been announced to the world by God Himself, but he calmly walks into the water like he is ambling up to a stoplight and obeying the ‘walk’ sign. As if he is anyone in the crowd of people who need this obedience like they need bread in a famine.

He doesn’t need it, but he chooses it, and in choosing, he says to the people watching him for maybe the first time, “I am here to restore the order of things, and though I could be your Almighty God I choose to be your companion on this journey. I’m starting something new. Come with me.”

Jesus’ first statement before the world was that he could choose power and glory — but he will not.

c3078-img_0982That’s a Jesus we can love, isn’t it? That’s a Jesus we can trust, perhaps, in a world where it seems Christian leaders have not taken that road often enough. That’s a Jesus we can want to get to know more. That’s a Jesus who is still relevant in 2016.

Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  (Philippians 2.6-8)

We are quick to choose the power and glory. That shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s the choice first made in that fate-filled garden. But can’t you love a Savior who chooses humility instead, at a time when the power stakes are at their highest?

We’re told, in this world where Jesus is no longer considered chic, that even His followers have to choose power and glory if we want to have an impact. Perhaps the way of Jesus is more relevant than we realize. It’s relevant to meet anger with humility. It’s incredibly relevant to take the road of quiet obedience rather than offer sound-bites on our position.

I want to know a man who is so completely different. I want to walk beside One who insists on a life so counter to His world’s wisdom. I want to put into practice a relevance that is so radical it’s timeless.

How about you?

I Want Less in 2016

IMG_8764Did you choose a word to focus on during 2015? It’s become a popular practice, and I’ve enjoyed it the last couple years. It helps me to stay focused on one main thing. And we all know that focus, and its arch-nemesis random distraction, are the angel and the devil on our shoulders a lot of the time.

(If you’re interested in the one word idea, there are instructions and ideas here.)

One Word?

My word for 2015 was rest. It wasn’t hard to do. Being sick for 11 of the 12 months made it nearly impossible for me not to rest. I may not have done so willingly – but I definitely pulled back and admitted – I need rest. I cannot do this. Whatever it is. It may have been a severe mercy, as Sheldon VanAuken has said, but I did learn about rest. I believe I am better at taking time out for sheer fun and for people. Sometimes, the two even mix.

For 2016, I’m choosing the word less. I know, strange word. Other people choose way more exciting, active words to focus on. Oh well. “Less” has been on my heart in various ways for a long time.

Less stuff. Less busyness. Less “I need.” Less frustration. Les anger at world events and less taking offense. Less me. Oh, so much less me.

(Or, if you’re a grammar snob as I am, sometimes the word is going to have to be fewer. But that’s beside the point…)

Why less?

Can you think of anything you’d like less of?

A writer/speaker spends fifty to eighty percent of her time self-promoting. It’s part of the business. If I don’t get my name out there, make a constant push to get noticed, I don’t get paid. Simple math, really. Plus, I don’t get the soul-knowledge joy of knowing I’m doing the work I was created to do. It’s tough for an extreme introvert like me.

(When I took the Myers-Briggs in seminary, the prof asked me if I really thought going into ministry was a good idea with my off-the-chart introversion score. Well, it wasn’t my idea, it was God’s, so how was I to say? Plus, I was pregnant and had a ten-month-old. So all those questions about “Are you tired a lot?” Ya think?)

But you know what? Sometimes, so much focus on ‘me’ makes it crowded inside my head. Sometimes, I really hate having to prove to the world how awesome I am. I want to yell, “I’m pretty normal, really, and so are all of you. Can’t we just be that, together??”

Sometimes, I get sick of my own awesomeness.

I have a low threshold for self-promotion anyway. Worse, I start to believe my own press and think I deserve recognition, and then….then entitlement and envy and resentment start driving the car. They do not drive nicely.

So, less in 2016.

IMG_8807Here are the things I want less of:

Less stuff

We are cleaning the basement. I’m not even kidding this time. It is no idle threat. It’s either this or a controlled burn. We are also jettisoning other things we don’t need all over the house. There are people who do need and will use this stuff. OK, no one needs or will use a broken knick knack of a fairy my daughter made ten yeas ago. But the other stuff….it can go somewhere useful.

Working with refugee families has renewed my sense of urgency to rid my life of the excess so I can concentrate on giving more away. I want generosity to bookend my life. That’s hard when the “stuff” exerts its pull so convincingly.

If less stuff appeals to you, I highly recommend Jen Hatmaker’s book 7. It will help you in the letting go process. And, Jen will also kick your but when needed. Try some of these if you want hard core help. I might.

Less anger

A presidential election year is going to make this a tough one. I try to walk the line between being unified and loving in the Christian community and calling out the jerks who give us a bad name. It’s a murky area. Who is to say exactly where the line is drawn? It’s not in my pay grade. So in 2016 I am choosing to find more and better ways of loving those with whom I disagree. While still disagreeing mightily when I feel God is not being honored.

How do you manage to do that?

Less me

Way more putting God and others in the limelight. Less, “Why not me?” It’s fun to encourage others and watch them shine. I want to do more of that. In fact, if you have something you want to shine out there, I’d love to hear about it. And tell others.

My key verses for this year:

 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less. (John 3.30)

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

What do you want to choose for 2016? Less of something? More of something? What are your verses? I’d love to know. I’d love for us to encourage one another toward that goal.

I’m living less in 2016.

Here are some resources if you’re looking to set goals for your new year. Isn’t it a great feeling to start fresh? I love that God gives us that any time, not just at New Year’s, when we ask.

Goal setting activities (I love the practicality here and the ideas)

How to set goals

5 Fun Goal Setting Activities

Other things for 2016:

I’ll be starting a series on who Jesus is. If we stripped away all that we have added to Jesus, what would we see? Whom would we encounter? How would we be changed? It’s going to be fun. And risky. Because Jesus is not the tame lion we have made him out to be. (Or, well, the white American male.) I’d love to hear about your encounters with Jesus.

Next week, I’ll have a surprise guest post!

What topics would you like to talk about?

And remember my promise begun late last year: Anyone who comments on a post, likes my Facebook page, follows me on Twitter, or shares a post is in the running for a surprise gift each month. (I promise, it will not be the broken-winged fairy.) But please tell me you’re from the email list if you do the twitter or facebook thing, or I won’t know!

Stay tuned. I’m looking forward to 2016 with you!