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Archive for December, 2016

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

All creation from the highest heaven to the deepest seas raises a chorus of praise for God. Brothers sun, wind and air, Sisters moon, stars, and water, rocks and the hills lift up a strong united voice singing praise to the Lord.  All you great diversity of people over the earth from the rich to the poor, the presidents and prime ministers to citizens who vote, farmers and factory workers to doctors and lawyers, men and women, adults and children raise your voices in songs of God’s praise.

The singer of this psalm invites, “All creation be partners in this song! Praise the Lord!” This invitation is an imperative cry. It is strong and exuberant and loud and demanding! It is a cry that cannot be ignored because there are more important things to do. It is a cry that demands not just a simple, “God is great. God is good.” singsong response or a whispering kind of “God is good.”

It is a cry demanding a strong, exuberant, joy filled, shouting, glad, demanding, happy, celebrating, clap your hands, stomp your feet, “God is good! All the time! God is good! All the time!” response. It is a cry to join in an act that is equally poetic and audacious as it is self-abandoning and subversive.

It is a cry that reminds creation that God took a deep, dark, formless void, a hajata tohu vohu, and brought order, light and shape to it. God took a place where life was not and was not possible, then created a place where life exists and where life not only flourishes, it is sustainable. God created by life by speaking life into being by God’s Word. Each day God spoke life, order, shape came into being. First light for day and dark for night. Second, oceans and sky. Third, dry land called earth. At the same time seas and oceans were given boundaries. Then, fruit trees and all other trees and green plants were brought to life. Fourth, sun in the sky for day and the moon and stars for night were given their reason for being. Together, their movements in the sky would be signs for days, weeks, years. For the changing seasons. Fifth, fish and all the other creatures living in the waters were given life. Then birds flying in the air receive life. Sixth, wild and domestic animals and all the creeping things receive life. Then, human kind, men and women, are created in God’s image and likeness and given their purpose. They are to be stewards of God’s creation by relating and exercising dominion of creation in the way God does; as a servant. Seventh, God rests. Creation is whole and complete, so God rests and by resting, God set within creation’s time God’s rhythm of work and rest.

Where there was only formlessness, God created a complex, highly textured, intricate woven tapestry of a dynamic, organic life containing within it the fingerprints of God’s creative touch from the largest mountains and deepest oceans to the minutest sub-atomic particles.

What also becomes clear in our remembrance of how God creates life is the relationship between humanity and land, people and place. Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, makes this point clear in his essay “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” when he writes, “we must not speak or think of the land alone or the people alone, but always and only both together. If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to.” Berry continues to point out how the destructiveness of driving or encouraging people to leave the land in favor of an industrialized life of being consumers instead of being producers, where one has a “Job,” but not a vocational calling or a vocational choice is destroying local communities and local economies. Because,  when a people move to find the “job” to earn the money to buy what one does not produce, they fail to live in a community of mutual usefulness. That place where small store owners know their patrons, skilled craftsman are known by the quality of their work and where farmers grow crops for subsistence and for sale locally because people live in their home counties where they not only know the people going back  generations, but also know the names of all the trees in the forests near them. People were rooted to the land and to the people. Industrialization in all of its forms creates “jobs,” but it also creates the destruction of mutually useful and mutually supportive communities by making people able to be exploited by corporations with wealth and power or to be discarded when the “job” the economy falters or when a machine can perform their jobs.

In our remembrance of how God creates life and how the industrialization of life prompts the need to save both people and the creation in order to save the fragile relationships of mutuality inherent in both, we hear the psalmist’s imperative cry to “Praise the Lord!” as more than a call to exclaim and celebrate our wonderment and awe at God’s creative act. Rather, his loud and demanding cry calls us to speak about God. To describe how our ancestors and we have experienced God’s presence as the key to living into our future.

We speak about God by telling what God has done. We speak about creation because it tells us that God seeks relationships of mutuality defined best by Martin Luther King, Jr. as ”I can never fully be who I ought to be unless you are fully who you are to be.”

We speak about God’s call to Abram, the giving of a child to Sarah and Abram in their old age, the deliverance of the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, the Hebrews being brought to the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they tell us that God keeps God’s promises and God’s promises are about life.

We speak about the Hebrews being fed manna and quail and water in the desert, God sending prophet after prophet to the people Israel, the bringing of Israel out of exile and back to the promised land, the promise of a Messiah bringing justice and peace because they tell us that God is faithful to the relationship with us despite our unfaithfulness.

We speak about God coming to be with us in the midst of creation as a child born in the humblest and unexpected of places, of the healing ministry of Jesus the Christ, of the self-giving love Jesus lived in his relationships with other persons and taught us was God’s way, of Jesus’ willingness to die on a cross for our sakes, of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope it brings into our lives because they tell us God is merciful and forgiving, seeking to reconcile our broken relationship with God by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves-namely bearing the burden and the consequences of the guilt and shame of our sins that break apart all our relationships. And doing this because God loves us with a love that is the full expression of mutuality. A love we can never be separated from no matter the place, time, or circumstance because not even death can separate us from God’s love.

We speak about how God spoke through an angel to Joseph telling him to get up and take his family to Egypt, so they will be safe and far away from Herod’s murder of thousands of innocent children, about how when we felt confused and lost the Holy Spirit led us out of our confusion to the place we belonged, about the time we were alone and weeping tears of grief and God sat beside us and rocked us in God’s loving embrace because in speaking about these times we witness that God is present to protect us, to lead us, to comfort us, to touch us, and to transform our lives by God’s grace and power.

Our exuberant, shouting, celebrating, songs of praise speak of God’s presence, God’s reliability, God’s steadfast and self-giving love, God’s mercy and faithfulness. Yet, these songs of praise also tell us about ourselves.

We use poetic words and metaphorical phrasings in these songs of praise that evoke for us images of God, that generate and suggest to us concrete ways of understanding who God is-the mother that rocks a crying child to sleep in her lap, a mighty fortress strong and able to keep us safe within protective walls, a confidante who walks and talks with us. Yet, these same poetic words and metaphorical phrasings always resist every closed meaning or attempt to put God in a box to be controlled or manipulated. These poetic words of praise are so open to many meanings and ambiguity they leave wide latitude for us, who sing these words to accept and affirm a different version of reality than the one popular culture affirms. For as Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and professor reminds us, “If we eventually become the way we talk, if reality sooner or later follows speech than our utterance of praise may eventually wean us from our memo-shaped mastery-our 30 second sound byte shaped world, so we may fully live in the world God created.

Just as our poetic words and metaphorical phrasings open us to the full reality of God’s kingdom, our act of praise is an audacious act because we seek to show how great and significant God is. How prominent God is in our lives. We dare to do this act of praise as though we are giving something to God that God needs or desires until we are met in moment of our praise with the surprising gift of illumination; our relationship with God is refined and deepened. We realize our praise arises out of an intimate communion with the One who is wholly reliable, who is so fully present with us, who loves us so dearly that in this moment of praise singing we give ourselves completely and unreservedly to God as an act of joyful gratitude for all the goodness of life.

We abandon ourselves to God in gratitude and gladly celebrate the Lord’s claim on our whole lives. Here our praise is subversive because we say there are no other gods, kings, or loyalties who can give us gifts, who have benefits to bestow, no summons to make, and no allegiance to claim. They are massively and forcefully dismissed. Every other loyalty that would put a hedge of vested interest between God and us is critiqued and dismissed in our song of praise.

There is only one Lord of the universe, we sing. God alone is sovereign of our lives. And, this sovereignty is embodied in the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh embodying the reign of God in the ministry of a suffering servant who creates and renews life for us and for the whole of creation just as God created life by God’s Word in the beginning.

Halleu Adonai! Praise Christ the Lord!

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O God-chosen waif down the lane serving families and God with gentle obedience, a smile across your brown face, your brown hair tied back to keep it out of the way of wash cloth, dust mop, dish water and bath water; were you waiting, were you listening for angelic footfalls or the wing startling breeze shaking the world like a snow globe-in an upside down, sideways, topsy-turvy cosmic revolution of grace

Were you, grace filled young woman, singing the ancient song of joy, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!” after Gabriel surprised you with the unfathomable good news?  Did you think mouths full of laughter were as joyful and wondrous as mouths full of Godiva raspberry truffles or Leo Bakery cakes layered with butter cream frosting? Did you know the joy of those who sowed their fields with the tears of exile, but who brought the harvest  home, the home God created for them, with shouts of joy?

Was that what made you race to your cousin Elizabeth? Because you just had to share the joy and wonder with someone? Did you know your aged cousin would share your joy because what mother has not waited for the first stirrings of her child or felt the goodness of God’s blessing in the fullness of her womb? Was your and Elizabeth’s twin joy expressing the joy of all mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child, making every child’s birth a sign of salvation, of being blessed, of living with promise and realizing its fulfillment? Did you sense God’s saving work in your life to be the invitation to consider how the experience of patient expectancy teaches human beings God’s way of gracious work? Was your and Elizabeth’s joy peaked by waiting?  Did you realize your aged cousin’s son was the one who will bring one age to the close while you, the young mother, would birth a son who will usher into being God’s new age? Did you already feel blessed by God? Did you grasp the full meaning of the leaping joy of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb at your arrival? Did you realize your blessing for trusting God had already happened?  Did you hear all of that in Elizabeth’s song to you? Did you think the joining of this wonder with God’s saving work was God’s brilliant idea, so you might experience God’s gracious acts of new life in the same way the prophet Isaiah spoke of the servant in his song, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Was this servant’s song, your song, Mary? Did you feel the way the prophet Isaiah did at his call, you who are the unlikely one living in a remote, country village, yet blessed by God to birth a child who will be a blessing to countless generations throughout the world?

Is that why you sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior?” Was joy filling every nano particle of your being until it overflowed in glad abandonment? Was that why you, Mary, so joyously proclaimed that all of your actions, your thoughts, your daily activities- every aspect of your being—the entirety of all that makes you this distinctive person named Mary-will point all people to see the greatness of God in all that God does? Pointing to the promises of comfort and strength for those who mourn that they might have garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning? Pointing to the promises of new life springing forth like crocus shooting up out of the earth. Pointing to the healing of all who suffer, Pointing to all who have been pushed to margins of society are being drawn toward the communities center.

Is that why Mary sings aloud with the excitement and wonder of a joy that pours out of her like a thunderous spring swollen waterfall cascading down a mountainside, “for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Lord’s servant, Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed?”

Indeed, God’s blessing of life within Mary, transforms her and her life so decisively she will never be the person she dreamed she might become. Instead, she and her life will be celebrated for the wonder and amazement of God creating a new life  the way a caterpillar is transformed by the cocoon into the stunningly beautiful Monarch butterfly that will fly from flower to flower in spring delighting our eyes and imaginations with such amazement and awe that we are compelled to share with others this wonder. Future generations will remember God-transformed Mary and will say, “Yes, God has blessed you Mary with such extraordinary joy that rejoicing and praise is the only possible response to this pure gift of grace.”

“There are those who have in themselves the gift of joy, “a theologian writes. “It has no relation to merit or demerit. It is not a quality they have wrested from the vicissitudes of life. To them joy is given as a precious ingredient in life. And, wherever they go, they give birth to joy in others. To be touched by them is to be blessed of God.”

Mary is one such person. Through her we experience a tantalizing taste of joy in this our season of anticipation and expectation. After all, she is one of us. She was not powerful like a queen or a president. She was not even one of the wise women of the village.

Yet, out of all the women in the world God could choose to take part in this wondrous blessing, God chooses Mary to receive this life-transforming blessing of joy. She didn’t get a detailed explanation about why she was being chosen. God simply sends the angel Gabriel to tell Mary this good news with the familiar, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Which is, but one of the ways grace comes bounding into our lives like a puppy romping through new fallen snow. Mary’s experience of grace was mysterious because it did not fit with the rhyme of common sense or laws of logic, but worked based on some kind of out of left field, principle of divine math where two plus two equals 27.

However, at other times, grace makes a serendipitous appearance, showing up just when we need it most like a non-essential embellishing note in a musical score, whose beauty is unmistakable and carries with it splendor and an over-the-top quality of unanticipated loveliness.

Then, again we may experience grace moving unobtrusively, calmly gliding under our lives, so we might land on our feet when we’ve lost our way. Of course, there is the grace that dresses up in everyday clothes, experienced in the common rough and tumble moments of life, working through our myriad fragilities and adjusting to where we happen to be at any given moment to take us to the place where well-being and joy overflow. But, sometimes grace is weightless, effortlessly entering our lives with levity and humor like a precious buoy of hope reminding us that strident morality lends heaviness to much of life and legalism simply drowns the human spirit.

Whichever way grace chooses to come to us, it brings a fullness of life into being, which move us to songs of gratitude and joy. The same joy recurring throughout the Gospel of Luke from the joy of the annunciation and the visitation and births of John and Jesus to the joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead to new life, outcasts of the community being drawn to the center of Jesus’ ministry to the ascension joy of the disciples returning to Jerusalem with joy and entering the Temple praising God for resurrection and the Holy Spirit pouring over them setting ablaze their passion for humanity transforming justice leading to peace.

This is the joyous praise for a new life as intimately connected to God as Mary is connected to the life within her, compelling all who experience it to sing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” because we too are those whose mouths are filled with laughter, those whose whole being is filled with the overflowing joy of God’s love.

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