Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.—Luke 1:38

Read: Luke 1:26-38

Reflect: The Beatles recognized Mary’s words of wisdom when they sang, “Let it be”. I don’t think it was accidental that God chose a teenage peasant girl to bear salvation to the world, as the unconditional trust of the young is an example for all of us.

The story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to tell her she will bear God’s Son is the central story of the Advent season, and what a story it is! It begins with an affirmation from the angel: “The Lord is with you” (v.28), which perplexes Mary even before the angel tells her the astounding news of her immaculate conception. Mary rightfully wonders, “How can this be?” (v.34). I have a feeling the tone of her question is very different from Zechariah’s doubtful “How will I know?” in the previous scene (v.18). Mary’s trusting “let it be” changes her world forever and, through her, the history of the world in which she lives.

It is good for us to marvel every year at this story: to ask, how does this story speak to us today? What do Mary’s words of wisdom mean for us? I like how Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster put it in their book, The Godbearing Life: “While the coming of Jesus Christ in a virgin’s womb is the unrepeatable mystery of God, God invites all of us to become Godbearers—persons who by the power of the Holy Spirit smuggle Jesus into the world through our own lives, who by virtue of our yes to God find ourselves forever and irrevocably changed.”

Respond: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.—Luke 1:38

This weekend is the first Sunday of Advent. Today is Thanksgiving in USA. I found the following article I wrote some years ago that might serve as an appropriate meditation on this Black Friday Eve that seems the official beginning of the Christmas season in North America.

The life, and especially the birth and death, of Jesus Christ have been the subject of much art, both the laudable and the lousy, but Jesus as art? How is Jesus art?

I see the work of the artist as giving tangible shape and form to the intangible mysteries of existence. A picture, a sculpture, a song, a dance or a poem is a sign of something deeper, but art does not seek to define or control the mystery, just hint at it. This is why different people can experience the same piece of art in different ways. Each person “sees” something that is unique to their experience.

Art is for me a mystical and spiritual experience and yet it is always an embodied spirituality. All of the art forms are rooted in the earth: pigment, clay, water, wood, stones, bodies [made from the earth according to the story of Genesis], voices, instruments of wood and metal… These tangible earthy forms are signs of deeper, yet elusive spiritual realities. These realities are very real but they cannot be commodified, boxed and marketed [although people have tried].

Empires throughout history have attempted to define and control those mysteries.  Economic empires, political empires, military empires and religious empires have all had their turn at attempting to commodify, control, manipulate and manage the human relationship to transcendence. They have all failed. Yet human beings continue their quest to know “God.”

So let’s bring Jesus into this picture. The human Jesus, a living sculpture, is God’s masterpiece that gives us a glimpse into the depths of existence. Jesus is embodied Mystery, the true human. Jesus might be interpreted differently by everyone who takes a look at him, yet the “truth” still sneaks in. I think good art is that way—there’s always more than what appears on the surface.

This might be troubling to people who are caught in the clutches of various empires and they might cry things like, “Heretic! Fanatic! Scandalous!” but it is freeing to those who are open to being touched and transformed. Divine becoming human is the ultimate act of artistic subversion to the agenda of Empire. Jesus as a piece of “divine art” flies in the face of Empire because he is living and moving, an elusive tangible.

Religious and political empires have tried to define, control and even destroy this piece of art called Jesus; and the present Consumer Empire is making a profit from it [especially during so-called “Christian” holidays such as Christmas]. These Empires have caused some damage, but wounds only add to the beauty and the mystery. And the truth of the art is still there waiting to be noticed, pondered and wondered over.

 

 

 

I have been contemplating what to say about the US election. Today I got a fund-raising letter from Christian Peacemaker Teams. I paste it below, aside from their request for funds. They have received some of my donation dollars but I am not in the business of raising funds for anyone. To reflect on peacemaking on this day that has aroused so much violent rhetoric is not a bad idea.

Today, in the U.S., there’s an election happening, and no matter who wins the day, it won’t be a peacemaking revolution. As peacemakers around the world, we want to be taking action for peace, today and every day.

Well today, we have something special for you. Jim Loney, one of four CPTers held captive for 118 days, 10 years ago in Baghdad, has written to all of you, our beloved CPTers and peacemaking supporters. We’ve included here for you Jim’s reflections on peacemaking.

We invite you to support all of our CPTers still working for peace today, 10 years later.

Now, grab a cup of coffee, and scroll down to Jim’s letter. You’ll be glad that you did.

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the One Blue Earth Home,

It is with joy that I greet thee on this day. Joy, because, very simply, it is good to be alive.

It has been ten years since Tom Fox, Norman Kember, Harmeet Singh Sooden and I were kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents while on a CPT delegation in Baghdad. Ten years since Tom was separated from us and murdered. Ten years since our paradoxical release by American and British Special Forces.

Norman and I recently agreed to participate in a documentary series about kidnappings that will air on Netflix come December. My interview was at the end of February, Norman’s on March 23, the very day of the tenth anniversary of our release.

During my interview, I was challenged by the director. Nonviolence is a laudable principle, he said, and certainly no one should ever start a war, which is exactly what the United States and Britain did by invading Iraq. The occupation that followed was a moral and humanitarian catastrophe. But, according to his sources, the men who kidnapped us had kidnapped and killed others. He wanted to know: what do you do when things spiral out of control, and ruthless bad men use and kill innocents with impunity?

His implication was clear: violence is sometimes necessary.

Violence does indeed face us with necessity. The first necessity is to challenge and stop acts of harm. The second is to offer protection. The inescapable question is what by method do we seek these things.

The problem with the method of violence, I told the director, is that it perpetuates the very thing it seeks to stop and prevent. Violence is cyclical, an ever-escalating spiral of death and retribution. You throw a stick, I throw a rock. You shoot a gun, I fire a missile. Violence is like using gasoline to put out a fire. It can only give you more of the same.

I believe the only thing that stops violence is the no of nonviolence. The beautiful no that Tom gave to the world with his life. No, I will not kill. My body broken for you. The violence stops with me.

Barbara Deming gave us the image of two hands to help us understand how we can meet the necessity of action that violence imposes on us. With one hand, we speak with force, seeking to protect. “No! Stop!” we say, arm extended long and palm facing outward. With the other hand we offer invitation. “Come, let’s work together to find another way,” reaching softly with palm facing up.

CPT is an experiment in responding to violence with the two hands of nonviolence. One hand employs the tools of human rights documentation, public witness, and community organizing to say “La! Basta! No more violence!” The other reaches with the power of listening, dialogue and collaboration in search of creative alternatives. Partnered with local peacemakers in Palestine, Kurdish Iraq, Colombia and on Turtle Island, we are working for a transformed world with the two hands of nonviolence. More so now than ever, our Blue Earth Home is in need of this experiment. Will you lend us your hand?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tonight was the final debate in the campaign for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth. I accidentally watched a few minutes of it on TV as well as some CNN reporters arguing over it later. It all seemed like a media circus rather than a serious engagement of issues that could help voters make up their minds. How many billions of dollars and two years of people’s time and attention were wasted on this? It is a cause for global prayers of lament. Perhaps Canadians lament more over the loss of the Blue Jays in a baseball game to a team with a racist team name.

Today, October 19 is also the birthday of John Woolman born in 1720. After refusing as a young man to write a bill of sale for a slave, Woolman went on to play a key role in challenging Quakers to give up slavery and recognize it as unchristian. Thanks to the active faith of Woolman and others, Quakers played an important role in the abolition movement throughout the nineteenth century. John Woolman said, “The only Christian way to treat a slave is to set him free.” [from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals] After eight years of having a black president who attempted to instill hope and bring healing it seems that the USA has taken a step backward in the past few years with all the racial violence and the hateful rhetoric of a certain presidential candidate.

Lord have mercy on us.

I’m sitting in the heartland of USA a few hundred miles southeast of Chicago and I’m being forced to think about the present election campaign in this country, although locals say they see very few visible signs of the election compared to the last few campaigns. People I talk to are visibly nervous, especially after the Brexit vote in the UK and the voting down of the peace accord in Colombia. Because this country happens to be the reigning superpower in the world this election will have impact around the world. What will happen? Perhaps we should all be nervous.

However, I am not in the USA as a political observer, I am here for a spiritual formation conference hosted by our denominational seminary. We came together to discuss Christian spiritual formation in the context of this culture to be sure, but also as it uniquely relates to various age groups: children, youth, young adults, middle age, and the elderly. The seminar I contributed was on midlife spirituality. I made the comment that we hire specialized people to work with all the other age groups except this one, because this one produces most of those being hired and providing leadership. Of course, this is why the election campaign has focused on the health of both candidates—they are both well beyond midlife! People rightly wonder whether they have the stamina to lead a nation.

My concern in the workshop was not who is leading our churches or our nation; my concern was that the challenge of spiritual growth in midlife is to turn from the exterior life toward the interior life. We have been involved in getting educated, advancing careers, building families, buying houses, serving others, leading nations and churches… now is the time to go deep inside. Our world, especially our western world is primarily extraverted and so the journey inward is sometimes difficult, painful, and counter-intuitive. Going deeper can be uncomfortable, even frightening because it leaves us feeling exposed.

This journey inward often means the integration of death and loss into our spirituality. James Fowler has called midlife the conjunctive stage of faith development because the faith task in this stage of life is to combine, unite or integrate the past circumstances and experiences into our present faith. Perhaps the most difficult thing to integrate is the loss of power and control [ironic then that two 70 year olds are still seeking it]. This can happen in many ways.

It might be coming to terms with unrealized vocational hopes and dreams or the loss of a long-term job through various circumstances beyond personal control. For some it might mean mourning the loss of parents through death or a spouse through divorce or the untimely death of a friend or colleague. It might be the loss of physical strength or dexterity or the loss of health we once took for granted. For still others it might be the “empty nest” or the loss of children in the home as they move on to establish homes of their own.

The key to a growing depth of spirituality in midlife is to stop the busyness of the exterior world in order to reflect. The classic inner disciplines of the Christian life: journaling, fasting, prayer, meditation, silence, solitude, and Sabbath rest can help us.

I cycle through a graveyard on a daily basis on my commute home from work and there I am able to contemplate my mortality for a few minutes. It is not a morbid exercise—it is an appreciation for the gift of life each day. As we move into the second half of life, we become more aware of the reality of our death and the limitations of our mind and body. It can be depressing to look back and see life vigorous and exciting and then to look ahead and see a crumbling body and eventually death. Although there is always a fear of death as we contemplate its mystery there is also a contentedness in realizing that since there is nothing we can do to reverse the journey we can savour and enjoy each moment more fully. Thus, we become more alive in life even as our lives draw closer to death.

 

 

Carrie Newcomer’s new album, “The Beautiful Not Yet”, does not depart from the musical or lyrical trajectory which has marked the artist for more than a decade. Newcomer is not a trivial song-writer; she has a way of making the ordinary and every-day become sacred and precious. The “Beautiful Not Yet” seems to me to be one of her more overtly spiritual and hopeful albums with songs such as Lean in Toward the Light, Help in Hard Times, You Can Do this Hard Thing, Where the Light Comes Down, and of course the title track itself. As a professor of practical theology, I say, “this is good theology”, which cannot be said for the majority of albums out there! In many ways it is a theme album rather than a collection of disparate songs. I see that as the strength of the album: it holds together and it is going somewhere hopeful.

Her trademark theme of embracing the sacred in the ordinary on many of her albums comes through in almost every song on this album but particularly in the poignancy of “Three Feet or So” reminding us that we don’t have to look far to see God’s blessings as well as “A Shovel is a Prayer” which explores the theme of “practicing the presence of God.”

Unfortunately, the companion book does not add much to the album for me other than having song lyrics in readable sized font. The poems are, as she explains, often the raw material for her song lyrics, and the very short essays just explain in prose what she has shared in poetry and lyric. I do love her commencement address though! It nicely wraps up all of her song lyrics over the years in three points: be kind, be true, and pay attention.

Musically she also stays with the tried and true folk and roots formula which is an appropriate flesh and bone for the soul of her lyrics. My favourite musical moment is when the background singers chime in with “Lean in toward the light” on the opening song but it does not really get much more adventurous than that musically; and, perhaps it does not need to.

The shadows of this world will say,

There’s no hope—why try anyway?

But every kindness large or slight,

Shifts the balance toward the light.

Each autumn as I begin the academic year and anticipate the arrival of students I often choose a motto, a Bible verse, or a quote that will inspire and ground me for the year. In Joyce Rupp’s book, Dear Heart Come Home, she describes a number of images of midlife generativity that can be applied uniquely to my role as a college professor who teaches primarily in the area of spiritual formation.

I want to be a house at night with light shining from all the windows calling me to be a presence and vision for others.

I want to be an apple with seeds in it reminding me of the potential of growth in all students.

I want my life to be a holy shrine where students can come and feel a sense of peace, wonder, and oneness.

I want my life to be a womb where I can provide a safe place for inquiry and help generate life for those who are searching for it.

“There are days when I dream myself to be a dandelion to the last puff; a full circling miracle hanging onto a fragile stem, complex in my beauty yet simple in my standing—knowing I’ll only grow again if each intricate delicate parachute of mine is pulled off, whirled away and seeded in some strange new soil.”

“I am convinced that if I can be honest and vulnerable with my own process, others will draw courage and comfort from it because they will see some of their own life reflected in mine. This sharing is not easy for me to do. As an introvert I feel as if I am walking naked on the pages. But I also believe I am called to do this and I want to honor this call from within.”