Tuesday, November 23, 2010

OKay, okay, I am a thief

Another excerpt from sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com. This woman just blows me away.

"I feel each day as though I am being pulled deeper into the mystery of the faith. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but the deeper I'm drawn, the more like a neophyte I feel. It's as though this sacred, blessed, mystery religion, ripe with endless possibility, meaning and import has been hiding all along behind the facade of the Church; hidden by pews in straight lines and nicy-nice chit-chat, and minutiae of doctrine, and bad organ music, and intolerance or at best irrelevance. Faith to me is an experience and not intellectual assent to a set of propositions and I just want to invite others into the experience, not tell them what it means or try and get them to agree with me, but to create space where they can engage the mystery of Christ. Here's something I read this morning pertaining to the Transfiguration of our Lord which I found to be beautiful:

The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening. The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop. They become a holy sanctuary of adoration and of self-oblation, where we are kept in perfect peace, if our minds be stayed on Him who has found us in the inward springs of our life. And in brief intervals of overpowering visitation we are able to carry the sanctuary from of mind out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and in a hyperaesthesia (pathological increase of sensitivity) of the soul, we see all mankind tinged with deeper shadows, and touched with Galilean glories. Powerfully are the springs of will moved to an abandon of singing love toward God; powerfully are we moved to a new and overcoming love toward time-blinded men and all creation. In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are CHrist's and CHrist is God's. We are owned men ready to run and not be weary and to walk and not faint.

Mary's Magnificat

I stole this from sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com - she's a tattooed Lutheran preacher. Her blog makes me hold my breath and then breathe out heavily - in a mixture of relief, wonder and doubt.

Again this Wednesday we joined the broader church in singing vespers, the evening prayer which always includes Mary’s song, The Magnificat. We joined Christ’s church and Christ’s mother in singing about the wondrous things God has done in blessing us and in casting the mighty from their thrones and in feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty
Some of you know that the church I went to in High School, and where my parents still attend, is a very theologically and socially conservative congregation in Centennial. It’s, suburban, white, very upper middle class, and privileged. Very privileged. Well a few years ago, over 10 years after becoming a Lutheran and singing the Magnificat in Vespers countless times and really loving how radical it was, I visited my parent’s church and was amazed to see in the worship folder that the closing song was The Magnificat. All through the service I kept thinking “I can’t believe that this wealthy suburban evangelical church is going to sing Mary’s song of the poor being fed and the rich being left hungry”. Finally the moment came. The congregation sang a praise music setting of…and I can’t make this up…the first half of the magnificat. They proudly sang a nice praise song based on the Magnificat about how their soul magnifies the Lord who had looked with favor on them and that generations will call them blessed because the mighty one has done great things and holy is his name.” And then the song ended. I was speechless. Well, not really. As I shook the preachers hand on the way out I said that it was theologically irresponsible to allow a profoundly privileged congregation to sing only the first half of Mary’s song.

They may not know what the Magnificat is about, but I do. I felt pretty proud of that.

Progressives see Mary’s song a bit differently. Mary isn’t a docile picture of obedience singing about how great it is to be pregnant. Mary is singing of nothing less than complete overturning of the social and economic order. She’s basically a first century female Che Guevara calling for revolution. There’s a reason why the magnificat is said to of terrified the Russian Czars. Because, the message is that if you find yourself rich and powerful then… watch out! This young little Jewish girl is not singing about a whole lot of good news for you. But the poor…their time is coming because now the poor will be the rich and the rich will be the poor.

The liberals understand the Magnificat and feel pretty proud of that.

But this explanation sounds more like retribution than redemption. Because when the oppressed become the oppressors then the oppression hasn’t actually gone away. It’s a zero sum gain. It’s the exact same play with the same plot and the same ending…just with a different cast. What Mary sings of is not an endless cycle of retribution, but a total dismantling of the entire system. The child she bears is not coming to make the oppressed the oppressors. He is coming to disrupt the whole notion of oppression itself. And the way in which God accomplishes this in the birth of Christ is the same way in which God accomplishes this in the death of Christ: namely vulnerable love. This divinely vulnerable love is the only way out of our cycle of power and oppression.

This all makes it a bit tough to pull of being prideful about knowing what the Magnificat is really about. For me or for anyone else. Ironically, to be prideful about understanding the Magnificat is to not understand it at all. Perhaps it is pride itself which causes the rich to be sent away empty. And not because God doesn’t want us fed, but because we don’t realize that we’re hungry. Maybe in Mary’s song the wealthy are sent away empty because we simply don’t need God. We’ve got plenty of daily bread and seem to be able to handle most stuff that comes our way. But the truly hungry… carry none of these illusions of self-sufficiency. It is our hunger which God feeds, not our fullness. The rich are left hungry because there is no entry point for God.

Mary’s song is perhaps not about being proud of being chosen by God and perhaps it’s not about pride in the coming reordering of things when she and those like her will finally be the ones in power. Maybe the Magnificat is about the entry points of God’s vulnerable love. The cracks into which the light of the Christ enters our hearts and enters our lives and enters our world. The entry points of God’s vulnerable love are not our pride and power and self-sufficiency and wealth, but our need for God…our hunger for God.
It reminds me of the song of another prophet… Leonard Cohen
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

It’s the cracks that allow the light to enter.
These cracks in ourselves and in the world are entry points for God’s redeeming work . The absurdity of Mary: Her insignificance, her poverty, her unwed femaleness, was the perfect crack for the light of Christ to enter. And her kinswoman Elizabeth, this inappropriately pregnant old lady from the hill country was the perfect crack into which the messenger of the light of God to enter.

So the very real suffering in our lives and in our world which makes us question if God is really just, if God is really present, and if the Magnificat is still singable…this suffering is right where God chooses to hang out. Ever since there have been men and women and children who weren’t allowed the dignity of heaven’s children, God has been right there, right next to them, preparing a way out of all that darkness. God has always been like this, and the ones like Mary, the ones who see that truth plainly, finally have all of the world’s power. But this power isn’t the kind we create for ourselves…it’s the power of brokenness and humility. Power-over and retribution and vengeance and oppression be damned. This vulnerable love of God is what claims us and what gives us hope, real hope, in a way that noting else can. Even amidst a world in which we are all very aware that the mighty sit on thrones and the hungry are still hungry we can sing her song. Because Mary doesn’t sing the Magnificat out of ignorance. I’m certain that the reality of empire and oppression and poverty and the abject powerlessness of her very self in her very context was not lost on the mother of our Lord. Quite the opposite. I think she knew. She knew that because of her lowliness and poverty and insignificance - because of this and not in spite of this that God was and is doing an entirely new thing. Never had the poor been so exalted than for God to slip into their skin insistently blessing the whole world in a radical way. She knew you simply can’t speak of such things. They have to be sung.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My roots.

The child was so unbelievably small, a delicate scrap of human, so small in fact, that the fingers were topped with nubs of flesh instead of slivers of nail. The mother had never seen such a small child, despite it being her fourth, and the nurses; well, they, in their starched uniforms had drawn, long faces that spoke volumes of the future the child would endure. Their thin lips spoke also, “She won’t live long outside the incubator. Sign here, here and here. She must remain for at least a year.” The diminutive peasant-woman nodded gravely and signed her daughter away, signed her daughter’s life sentence on that cold October morning. The nurses intoned to the mother “The child will not live. Take her to the priest, baptise her, and give her the last rites so that she may have a proper burial." So she did. Despite having never set foot in a Catholic chapel before, she made that last desperate dash for her daughter. The road back home to the village was long and lonely, made longer by the knowledge her child had never touched her skin, never felt a mother’s embrace.
The father kept a vigil, with tall glasses of hot water placed in a ring around the incubator, a feeble attempt to feel useful, in control. His ocean eyes pleading with God to keep his child alive, save her, keep her.
One routine visit, months later, as she neared the door of the stark room, the mother glanced back to see her daughter’s ice-blue eyes turn towards the window, the sun sparkling through. Her daughter’s eyes followed the light, the warmth, but it was not her eyes that alerted the mother. As the child craned her neck, the shadow of an indentation on her crown caught her eye and she caught her breath. Rushing over, her fingers gently searching the back of the child’s head, her eyes became steel and her heart was resolute. “I am taking my child home now.” The nurses were adamant, “She must stay for another 5 months, you cannot have her yet, it is too soon.” The mother’s brows were knitted, drawn over her dark eyes, “She either comes home with me now, or you can keep her. I will not come back for her.” She drew her headscarf tighter and with a swift movement, re-tied the knot under her chin. “I mean it. I will not come back and she can stay here unless I take her home today.”

With great reluctance, they complied, but not without imposing other, more stringent rules on the young mother. “You go ahead home and we will bring your child to you tomorrow. If we are satisfied that she will have a sanitary environment, then we will leave her with you.” The matron had images of dust-piled floors, unwashed linen, cramped sleeping quarters rush through her mind, knowing exactly what conditions most peasants lived in outside of the city.
The mother washed, wiped, disinfected, changed, and cleaned with the intensity of a woman possessed. Not a word she spoke, and then the crowing of the rooster and the grunting of the pig announced the nurses’ arrival. They swept in, all three like the wise men, and proceeded to make no secret of their inspection. The child was nestled quietly in the bundle they carried, swaddled tightly with only a pink rose of a face peeking out. The mother brought offerings of placinte, hot tea and woven tapestries, hoping to soften their hearts. Satisfied, about to hand the child to the mother, they were stopped by the woman’s demand “Unwrap her and let me see that she is truly my daughter.” There had been a barren woman a few months back, a wealthy doctor at the hospital, who had fallen in love with the tiny child and would not have hesitated in claiming her as her daughter. The mother was thinking of this woman as she questioned their offering, her offspring.

The insinuation incensed them, their noses turning red and nostrils flaring. “How dare you!? Who are you to question us? Be grateful we have allowed her home so soon, take her and be satisfied.” The mother’s face was stone, knowing that such deceptions were not uncommon in Communist-run hospitals “Unwrap her now, show me her birthmark.” Their refusal apparent, she deftly unfolded the swaddling clothes, and, seeing the pinprick of discoloration on her daughter’s thigh, was relieved. The girl grew to be the apple of her father’s eye, sitting often with him as he peeled the sweet fruit; him holding out the coils for her to gnaw on and listen to his gravelly voice intone tales of the old days.

The little girl was destined to be less than ladylike, what with three rambunctious and boisterous boys as brothers. She was nevertheless a cherished child, whose long flaxen hair was brushed every night by her mother’s calloused hands in their small hut in the hills of Parva. But who was to know, that fateful day, on the lonely hillside with just the bleating of sheep for company, that she would breathe her last? That the maiden would be struck down, struck dead by that bolt of electricity from the heavens. Her name meant resurrection. Her youngest brother, the adventurous Nelu, endured a train ride home for her funeral, the window pane streaked with winter rain and his tears. The mother’s hands became idle over time, the father’s voice cut short by the loss of his only daughter.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A word, a line, a sentence, a life

One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

- From The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis.

The line is from C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, which is the 6th book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. It is spoken by Puddleglum in defiant response to the Witch-queen as she tries to enchant and persuade the characters into believing that whatever they cannot perceive with their senses must be imaginary, and as such, that Narnia and Aslan cannot possibly exist. For all of C.S. Lewis's failings as a writer, he managed to create beautiful allegories of life - reminds me so much of Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

As an English teacher, I affirm that one must never limit oneself to an understanding of the world in purely scientific or economic terms. As a reader of books, I believe that a life utterly devoid of the rejuvenating power of imagination can only leave us so much the poorer for it. Yet as a Christian who has been called upon to defend her faith, I am constantly coming back to the fact that what I believe in is indeed considered foolishness by so many others.