Sunday, December 19, 2010

Surrender and Conception

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father  David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 
Mary  said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God...
Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.”
Then  the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:30-35, 38


Every other week or so I get the opportunity to partake in Eucharist as a part of Sunday worship.  It is always a wonder and a joy for me, a moment of delight and reverence, though some find it trite, meaningless - an empty tradition.  It is beautiful to me in particular because during worship service I usually take time to journal; I write out a portion of the 12 Steps.  I begin by admitting my powerlessness, then I name my hope. I seek God's intervention and surrender again my life.  And finally, I write an inventory. I fearlessly search my heart before God, giving an account that ends in prayerful confession.  It never fails - and never ceases to amaze me - that as I finish my last words of repentance, it is then that the pastor invites us to come forward and eat the bread and drink from the cup.

It really is a beautiful - dare I say mystical - experience.  I come to meet with God.  He offers His Word through the service and I offer mine through worship and through prayer.  He prepares His table and I prepare my heart and mind.  I confess in my heart and then join in the communion of the saints to confess publicly and accept God's forgiveness and transformation.  As I do, the love of God and the communal act of worship fill all the empty places of my spirit.  God fills my heart and then - then - He invites me to come forward in the flesh, to receive bread and juice in the same way that I just received His Word, His forgiveness, His redemption. There is something astounding about getting up and walking forward to do the very thing that God and I have been doing in the secret places of the heart all along.

On the third Sunday of Advent I journaled and I prayed, but this time ... this time I did not want to go forward when the pastor invited us to partake.  

You see, my whole life I have been taking communion; I have been praying that God might grant me His Spirit.  I have been chasing Him so that I might be where He is, for there is no other place that I would rather be than with Him.  No other place offers me contentment, peace, or happiness.  My whole life I have attempted to prepare a place and I have anticipated God that He might dwell in me, that I might live and thrive the way He has asked me to.  Every time I take communion I am longing for the Deliverer to fulfill, to fulfill His promises. But that morning  I prayed ... and God answered. 

Will you allow me to conceive in you?

Um. Excuse me, God?

Will you allow me to conceive in YOU ... my son, my plan, my kingdom?  Something larger than yourself - that is for your good but is also not about you - something that will break you the way a seed is broken in order to give birth to the life it has inside?  It will require and demand all of you.  It will require and demand all of your sacrifice - the greatest sacrifice.  It will reorder your life.  It will demand your life.  And I will be there; you will be where I am.

In a breath I began to catch the tiniest glimpse of the enormity of that which God asked of Mary, because in a breath it was as if God were asking me to bear a child.

It's a poignant metaphor.  God offers us His Spirit but we do not receive it to remain unchanged, to feel fat, happy and content until the day He comes again, stagnant and rotting in our piety.  No, should the God of the universe overshadow us, should He enter in, He does it to conceive something in us - the very way He did with Mary.  He does it to conceive Christ in us, new life.  
And it sounds all well and good; it sounds so lovely and spiritual.  It even sounds exactly like what I have prayed and asked for and sought through my inventories, my confessions, my participation in communion.  But in the metaphor, in the context of God's commission to Mary - in the context of actual 
pregnancy and birth - well, it really becomes a whole different story.  Think about what it would be like if God asked YOU to have a child. Right now.  Think about how your life would change ... forever.  

I did.  And frankly, the thought made me "sore afraid."

But allow me to offer a glimpse into my context.

I have never wanted children.  I have grown up witnessing the heartache of the world and some of the greatest tragedies known to family.  I have asked the question, "Why would anyone want to bring a child into this?" and I have found no answer.  I myself have gone without and I have watched others experience much worse.  I carry sorrows in my heart that leave me with the solid conviction that I do not have what it takes to bring a life into this world.  Literally.  And once upon a time I was sure I never would have.

If the God of the universe appeared to me and asked me to 'bear a child,' my honest answer would be ... dear God, no.  Not even for you. 

So there you go.  Apparently, I trust God with my life; He has asked me to do some pretty crazy things for Him.  But if it came down to it, in this, I didn't trust even Him enough.  Yet...

We are all Mary.

This thing that He asked her to do, He asks it of us all.

I sat in service and prayed, a secret war raging in my spirit.  Suddenly, pregnancy was a symbol for my very relationship with Christ, and if He had asked anything else of me, I would have done it without a second thought.  But this - I didn't want it or anything like it, not even with Him.  I know the cost.  I know the sacrifice.  I know what I don't have to give.  If he asked me to die, I would die.  If he asked me to move to Africa, I would go.  I would offer anything - except - something that sounds like pregnancy and motherhood.  That is too much.  I don't want to put myself in a position to want or need even GOD that much, so much as to conceive and give birth, to accept responsibility for new life and to lay down and live my life for it, helplessly.

Is this what I have been praying for this whole time?  What was I thinking?

Of course, the blessed irony is, though I sat in the pew holding the elements as if they were contaminated, as if God could swoop down and turn them into a helpless infant that I would have to take home and somehow figure out how to live with, I had already chosen precisely that.

I have already chosen to conceive His new life.  (I couldn't help but choose it, the seductive God that He is.)  I have chosen it every time that I have worked my steps and gone forward to receive communion.  I have chosen it every time I have chosen to do the hard thing in love and obedience to what He has taught me.  I chose it when I chose to take the Land He has commanded me to take.  I have already chosen God, and even as the "reality" of what I have chosen hit me in this Christmas narrative, I knew I wouldn't choose anything else.

Yet God did not demand it of Mary.  He does not demand it of me.  He does not demand it from any of us.  He offers it the way a lover offers himself.  Will you allow me to conceive in you ... my son, my plan, my kingdom ...?  We can say no.  I could say no.  I knew before taking the bread and the cup that I could do so saying no, not this plan, not me - I am yours but that is too much.  And I would have walked from that place still belonging to God and gone back to my life as I had always known it.  But...

I also knew that I wanted to be where God was.  I knew that ever since I prayed to God as a little tiny girl that I had been longing for Him to come and to conceive new life in me.  I did feel it every week at church.  I did pray for it before every taste of communion.  I've longed for it the way the betrothed longs for her bridegroom ... yes, the way a barren woman longs for a child.  I just hadn't thought about what it would be like to ... get it ... how hard it would be, how much it would cost, how scary it is, how powerless - like having a child, becoming a mother.

We are all Mary.

On Christmas Eve I watched the Nativity story again, and I watched with a different insight.  I watched feeling a greater camaraderie with Joseph.  He was a little more startled, I think, a little more affronted by what was happening.  He had it in his mind to divorce Mary quietly, after all.  He had to have been bewildered.  He had to have felt betrayed.  This was not what He had wanted, what He had planned for, what He had worked his whole life for.  He was a man of honor and he certainly had not transgressed.  He lived among a people wherein reputation - a good name - was everything - one's livelihood, one's evidence of dedication to God!  And in one bitter twist of fate, he could be ruined.

And as I watched I realized yet again, isn't that what God asks of us?  He comes to us with something that we did not conceive, something that isn't ours and isn't the way we would have it.  It is for our good, but it doesn't glorify us.  It isn't what we deserve, isn't what we have worked for.  And God asks us to give up our lives for it, to offer all that we have, even though it is amazingly inadequate; it will never be enough.  It is bigger than us and it will cost us everything.  God asks us to offer ourselves like a father offers himself for the life of his child, but to a child that is not even our own, a plan that is not our own, a kingdom that is not our own, but His.

We are all Mary.  And we are all Joseph.

The third Sunday of Advent, after everyone else had eaten of the bread, after everyone else had already drank of the cup, finally I did also.  I did it with new insight into the things that God asks of us, something personal and meaningful to me probably beyond anyone else's comprehension.  It is as if the thing I have most longed for is also the thing I have most feared and turned away from.  But in the end, I have chosen God and I will continue to choose Him, even if my greatest hope and my greatest fear are both in the choosing.

This isn't a traditions post, I suppose, unless it is the recognition that the acts of inventory, confession, repentance, prayer, and communion are Advent and Christmas traditions.  It is, however, the startling recognition that if we really come to God to prepare a place for His arrival, if we really long for Him and hunger for the consummation of His promise, we undoubtedly will come to a point of surrender in which the fruit of the arrival will come to bear in us.  

In other words, do not enter advent unless you are willing to bear the Christ yourself, my friends.  For I have the feeling that the final weeks of advent and Christmas - even the times in which we live - are about labor and giving birth.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Emptying and Inviting

On the first week of advent, in preparation for "arrival," I thought it fitting to commence with a tradition of ... cleaning.

Yes, I know. That is what spring is for. But everywhere I look everyone is encouraging me to accrue, to fill up, to partake. I am supposed to gather up decorations and fill my home and my yard and the office to overflowing. I am supposed to gather ingredients and fill my kitchen (and my belly) with food, food, and more food. I am supposed to buy, buy, and buy some more, gathering up gifts for my family, my friends, and myself. I am supposed to fill my eyes and ears and the very air around me with Christmas programming and Christmas music and Christmas release movies. I am supposed to fill my time with parties and white elephant gift exchanges and maybe some volunteer work and people and, yes, more food and more stuff. And certainly not all of these things are bad by any means.

But part of preparing a place is making room, yes? Part of preparing for "arrival" is creating space, yes? There will be plenty of parties, celebrations, and gifts this year, I'm sure, but it seems appropriate to begin by emptying out and by being quiet.

I was reading in Luke about the preparations the Spirit of God was attending to even before going to Mary to announce his plan. God sent Gabriel to the temple, to the Holy of Holies, to Zachariah to tell him that Elizabeth would bear a son who would prepare the way of the Lord. Zechariah asked for a sign so that he might know that this would truly happen, and Gabriel made him mute. He was unable to speak for the full term of Elizabeth's pregnancy.

He was made to be quiet. And then, when he proclaimed that his son's name would be John, he could speak again, and he filled the air with the sound of his praises.

So, however clumsily, I thought my first experimental tradition would be one of cleaning out and being quiet. As it turned out, it ended up being more of a time of spiritual, emotional, and relational cleaning-out than physical house-cleaning. And the whole experience puts me in mind of fasting. In fact, I unintentionally spent some time fasting. Even beyond food, my covenant group accidentally fasted meeting together and I decided to fast or take a sabbatical from certain forms of ministry. Now that I reflect, I wish it had all been more intentional. Perhaps next year my first week will be cleaning, fasting, and abstaining - emptying out in order to get in touch with my need for God, in order to long for him and for "arrival," in order to seek him. Perhaps in this way I can connect with a people in exile longing for their Messiah.

Which leads me to week two.

So, part of the problem I am having with Christmas and the creation of traditions is the fact that the entire holiday really has absolutely nothing to do with the Jews or their Messiah. Christmas trees and their decorations, lights, the giving of gifts, even this particular time of year - none of it has to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One who delivered a chosen people from slavery to a Land of Promise, the One who became flesh to offer us a new covenant relationship with Him. Oh, we say it is about Jesus, but really it's just a pagan holiday that we invaded. We invaded, in fact, and confiscated all the contraband and paraphernalia ... and used it to worship our God. Which is kinda creepy, in my book, especially if there is any truth to what this contraband and paraphernalia was made of and used for before we 'christened' it.  It's positively disgusting.  Why would I want to put up a tree with anti-semitic meaning to celebrate the God of the Jews, a family in which I have been grafted?

Now I have to confess that on the second Sunday of advent I did in fact pull up my fake Christmas tree and erect it in the living room, cover it with garlands, and plug in the lights.  I did it because I don't have a tradition to replace it yet...

But it puts me in mind of Hanukkah - a celebration I know next to nothing about - and the lighting of the candles in honor of rededicating the temple.  Rededicating the temple?  Hello, talk about preparing a place!  Why don't Christians practice that?  Why didn't they take a Jewish celebration and adapt it to be a rededication of the temple of our hearts, minds, and bodies, to prepare a place for the Messiah?  My understanding is that, when Christ said, "I am the light of the world" what he was actually saying was, "I am the shamash," the candle used in Hanukkah to light all the other candles.  Why don't we remember that this time of year?

Furthermore, the thing I love about my tree and my decorations is the lights.  I've always loved the lights.  I used to get up even as a small child and sneak into the living room not just to peek at the presents under the tree, but to sit and gaze at the lights.  I could stare at them for hours.  There was something remarkable about seeing the Christmas lights glow in the darkness and peace of night.

What I'm probably getting at is the fact that I'm using the wrong calendar and the wrong holidays to begin with, and I really need to research Hanukkah and make that my celebration instead.  But until then...

Week one was a cleaning out, a fasting, an abstaining, an emptying out in order to get in touch with my need for my Messiah.

Week two, then, was an invitation to light and warmth, to prepare a place to receive fellowship and celebration again.  I brought in lights, music, movies, and meetings.  I hope that these will translate into specific traditions for the future.

As for the rest of advent, well, it appears that this is a discovery process for me more than a set of practices I have already ordained in my heart to do.  So I will read the story of Mary as I progress.