Psalm 121: A Season for Blessing

BlessingPsalter for Today:  Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Several months ago, I was about to leave a wedding rehearsal that I had just finished when the bride’s parents came up to me and asked if I could give them a blessing.  I have to admit that I was surprised.  We give blessings at baptisms and blessings at weddings.  We bless meals and houses and ships and new buildings.  We even bless our animal companions once a year or so.  But for some reason, blessings just for the sake of blessing, just for the sake of being, has become almost non-existent. Perhaps we’ve become almost distrustful of it, as if it’s some sort of implied expectation that God will shower good things upon us.  Our language has taken that concept of being “blessed” as some sort of reward, as if God has somehow built a bubble of good things and protection around us.  Well, truthfully, that’s just bad theology.  No where are we promised that God will shield us from bad things or continually shower us with good.  Faithful living does not guarantee that one will become healthy, wealthy, and wise.  The promise is that God will journey WITH us through all that life holds, even through the valley of the shadow of death.

This Psalm is known by some as one of the psalms of ascent, a traveler’s psalm.  It was often used as one began a journey and was a reminder to look to that place where God was, to know that God was there, a traveler with the traveler.  It is also a Psalm of blessing, a blessing for one who is about to begin a journey.  In our translation, the scripture begins with a question.  But since there’s no real punctuation in the original Hebrew in which it was written, this may or may not be intended this way.  Maybe, rather than a sojourner looking for help, it is one who acknowledges that he or she is not alone.  “I lift up mine eyes to the hills from where my help will come.”  This is the Lord who, no matter what happens, will keep your life–through all that life holds, darkness and life.  The Lord is always and forever present, never drifting away or slumbering. The chorus from Elijah (Mendelssohn) uses this theme.  “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.”  God is always there.  This is the promise of faith.

The Hebrew call to be a blessing (Parshas Lech Lecha) is used eighty-eight times in the Book of Genesis.  A blessing is a gift.  It involves every sphere of our existence.  It is not, as our language and our culture seems to depict, payment for a life well-lived; it is not taking the bad things of life as God’s way of strengthening us or something; it is not somehow straining to proclaim the bad as good; and it is certainly not living some unreal existence where darkness does not seep in at all.  Being blessed means to be recreated.  It takes time.  To be a blessing is to enter the story.  God calls, God promises, and, as the Psalmist depicts, God walks with us, ever-present and ever-faithful.  That is how God is revealed.  When we enter the story, we are truly blessed.  We begin again.  We are blessed to be a blessing, one who journeys with God.

A Blessing is a beginning, a new beginning, an acknowledgment that, even now, recreation is happening.  Life is a blessing.  Even darkness and wilderness and desert spaces in our lives are blessings as they look ahead for the Light to come.  On Ash Wednesday, we were blessed with ashes as this Lenten journey began, as we were reminded who and whose we are.  We began again.  God walks with us on this journey.  We know that.  Intellectually, we know that.  But knowing it deep within our being is what being blessed is all about.

Blessing is one of the ways that God makes the presence of God known here and now. (Joan Chittister, in Listen with the Heart:  Sacred Moments in Everyday Life, p. 8)

On this second Sunday of our Lenten journey, know yourself blessed, know yourself recreated, know yourself as you begin again.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

A Pondering Faith

 

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel
Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel

Scripture Passage for Reflection:  Luke 1: 26-35

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’* But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear 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 to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* The angel said to her, ‘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 Son of God.

So, what does it mean to ponder?  If you read this Scripture, it does not mean thinking something through until you understand it or until you “get it”.   Nowhere does it say that Mary was ever completely sure about what was going to happen.  Nowhere does it say that she ever stopped asking questions, that she ever stopped pondering what this would mean for her life.  Nowhere does it say that she expected this turn of events.  When you think about it, Mary was probably just like the rest of us.  She probably pretty well had her life figured out.  She was just trying to live it.  And then this angel shows up.  “Excuse me Mary, I know that this might be a little out of the box for you but I need you to stop everything that you’re doing and listen.  God has something special just for you.  See, if it’s not too much trouble, we’d like you to birth the Savior, the Son of God and the Son of Humanity, Emmanual, the Messiah, the very Godself into being.  And, we’d really like to get this show on the road now.”

What if Mary had said no?  What if her fear or her plans had gotten the best of her?  What if she was just too busy planning for whatever was going to happen next in her life?  What if she really didn’t have time to do any pondering today? Now, as much as we’d like to think that we have the whole story of God neatly constructed between the covers of our Bible or on that nifty little Bible app that you have on your iPhone, you and I both know that there is lots of God’s work that is missing.  We really just sort of get the highlights.  Who knows?  Maybe Mary wasn’t the  first that God asked to do this.  Maybe she was the second, or the tenth, or the 386th.  After all, this is a pretty big deal.  I mean, this pretty much shoots that long-term life plan out of the water.  But, you see, this story is not about Mary; it’s about God.  And through her willingness to ponder, her willingness to let go of the life that she had planned, her willingness to open herself to God’s entrance into her life and, indeed, into her womb, this young, dark-haired, dark-skinned girl from the wrong side of the tracks in a sleepy little suburb of Jerusalem called Bethlehem, was suddenly thrust into God’s redemption of the world.  It is in this moment that all those years of envisioning what would be, all those visions that we’ve talked about, it is here, in this moment, that they begin to be.

Annunciation literally means “the announcement”.  The word by itself probably holds no real mystery.  But it is the beginning of the central tenet of our entire Christian faith—The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection.  For us, it begins the mystery of Christ Jesus.  For us, the fog lifts and there before us is the bridge between the human and the Divine.  Now we Protestants really don’t tend to give it much credence.  We sort of speed through this passage we read as some sort of precursor to “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” so we can light our Christmas candle.  This, for us, is the typical beginning of the birth story. But think back.  Something happened nine months before.  This human Jesus, like all of us, had to be grown and nurtured in the womb before the miracles and the ministry started.  The Feast of the Annunciation is the turning point of human history.  It is in this moment, this very moment, that God steps through the fog into humanity and, just like every human that came before, must wait to be fully birthed into this world.

What about us?  When do you let yourself ponder?  When do you expect to encounter the unexpected?  What is your answer when the angel or some other God-sent character comes bursting into your life:  “Excuse me [You], I know that this might be a little out of the box for you but I need you to stop everything that you’re doing and listen.  God has something special just for you.  See, if it’s not too much trouble, we’d like you to birth the Savior, the Son of God and the Son of Humanity, Emmanual, the Messiah, the very Godself into being.  And, we’d really like to get this show on the road now.”  Again, what if Mary had said no?  So, why are we so different from that scared little girl.  So, maybe it’s time for us to get busy pondering!

Annunciation 2Mary pondered these things in her heart, and countless generations have pondered them with her.  Mary’s head is bowed, and she looks up at the angel through her lashes.  There is possibly the faintest trace of a frown on her brow.  “How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man?” she asks, and the angel, the whole of Creation, even God himself, all hold their  breath as they wait for what she will say next.

“Be it unto me according to thy word,” she says, and jewels blossom like morning glories on the arch above them.  Everything has turned to gold.  A golden angel.  A golden girl.  They are caught up together in a stately golden dance.  Their faces are grave.  From a golden cloud between them and above, the Leader of the dance looks on.

The announcement has been made and heard.  The world is with child.

Frederick Buechner, The Faces of Jesus:   A Life Story, p. 8-9

Reflection:  What is God asking you to do with your life?  What part of the story is yours to play, or yours to write, or yours to live?  When have you taken time to ponder?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

Advent 3A: We the People

Upside Down WorldLectionary Passage for Reflection:  Luke 1:47-55
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

We love this passage.  It is Mary’s Song, the poetic rendering of her realization that she has truly been blessed, that she has been called to do what no one else has done, what no one else will do.  She has been called to give birth to God in this world, to deliver the promise that her people have always known.  But, lest we overly-domesticate the young girl that we know as Mary, these words attributed to her are downright radical.  This is a strong and faithful young woman who is responding to her call not just to birth a baby into the world, but to also open the doors to the eternal as it comes flooding in.  She is the forerunner, the one who opens the door that so many have tried desperately to nail shut then and even now.  She has brought God’s Presence into something that we can see, that we can fathom.  But it comes with a price.  No longer can we continue to live our lives as we have.

E. Stanley Jones called The Magnificat “the most revolutionary document in the world”.  It is said that The Magnificat terrified the Russian Czars so much that they tried to dispel its reading.  It is an out and out call to revolution.  Less subversive language has started wars.  Edward F. Marquart depicts it as God’s “magna carta”.  It is the beginning of a new society, the preamble to a Constitution that most of us are not ready to embrace.  We’d rather chalk it up to the poetry of an innocent young woman.  But this…

God will scatter the proud, those who think they have it figured out, those who are so sure of their rightness and their righteousness.  In other words, those of us who think that we have it all nailed down will be shaken to our core.  The powerful–those with money, those with status, those with some false sense of who they are above others–will be brought down from their high places.  The poor and the disenfranchised, those who we think are not good enough or righteous enough, will be raised up. They will become the leaders, the powerful, the ones that we follow.  The hungry will feel pangs no more and those who have everything–the hoarders, the affluent, those are the ones whose coffers will be emptied to feed and house the world.  God is about to turn the world upside-down.  Look around you.  This is not it; this is not what God had in mind.  And God started it all not by choosing a religious leader or a political dynamo or even a charismatic young preacher but a girl, a poor underage girl from a third-world country with dark skin and dark eyes whose family was apparently so questionable that they are not mentioned and whose marital status seemed to teeter on the edge of acceptable society.  God picked the lowliest of the lowly to turn the world upside down.

We try so hard to do things right, to do what we can to fill the needs of the world.  But the Magnificat does not call us to fix things.  It does not call us to share what think we can with the less fortunate.  It calls us to change, to turn our lives upside down.  So, who is supposed to make this happen?  We are.  You know…”We the People”.  What does this mean?  Well, you know that vision that we keep talking about?  This is it.  This is the beginning.  This is the cracking open of the locked door so it can flood into our lives and into our being.  And if we just listen, just let it be, think what it would like:

There will be no more days like today when we remember the first anniversary of the worst mass school killing in our history.   Never again will we remember 20 children and 6 adults who did not have to die before their lives were filled.  The woman who came through my neighborhood Wednesday night looking through the trash cans for food will have more than the meager pasta and sauce and peanut butter and apples and bananas and crackers that I hastily threw in a bag for her.  No more soldiers and no more children that were just in the wrong place at the wrong time will die in needless violence as we fight for control of this world or attempt to insure that weapons of mass destruction will not be used against us.  There will be no more illness or death because someone could not afford medical care or because they live in a place that does not provide it.  There will be no young people who cannot get a good and solid education with the best resources and technical support that our world and our brains now offer.  Our earth will no longer cry in pain as we consume resources beyond what we need and throw the rest away.  And each of God’s creatures–human and others–will have what they need and the relationships that they need to become what God calls them to be.  In other words, everyone will know, finally, that they have a home.

Aren’t we supposed to be looking toward Christmas?  Isn’t this supposed to be a joyous time?  Why in the world, you ask, am I depressing everyone?  Because, you see, God did not wait to come into the world until everything was right.  God chose instead to come and show us how to be who we were created to be.  And that, that is pure joy beyond anything that we can imagine.  That is our blessing.  Now it’s our turn…“We had the option to do nothing, or to do something.  And then when you think of it like that, we didn’t have any options.” (Mark Barden, whose 7-year old son, Daniel, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary one year ago today.)

We the People…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…

Blessed be the God of Israel, who comes to set us free;
he visits and redeems us, he grants us liberty.
The prophets spoke of mercy, of freedom and release;
God shall fulfill his promise and bring his people peace.

(Michael A. Parry)

Reflection:  What part of God’s vision are you called to bring?  What in your life do you need to turn upside down?  In other words, what do you plan to do with this life you’ve been given?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

LENT 2A: Parshas Lech Lecha

LECTIONARY PASSAGE:  Genesis 12: 1-4a
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

It means “to be a blessing”, parshas lech lecha.  This passage begins what is often called the Patriarchal history of Genesis. All of a sudden the camera zooms into a single family of nomads in a small town in Mesopotamia and, finally, to a single individual.  This is where the history of Israel begins.  The truth is, Abram never saw his future.  And yet his response shaped it.  Abram is chosen to be the one through whom God’s blessing is showered upon the whole world. But in order for this to happen, Abram is told to leave what he knows, to in effect sever ties and go to a new place. (We at this point immediately jump to what that would mean for us–to leave our home, our family, our life.  What, we imagine, a great act of faith!) But remember that Abram’s family was nomadic. They probably didn’t really have a concept of home anyway. And there really wasn’t a family, to speak of—Abram had probably long ago outlived his parents and he had no children. So what was he leaving? Maybe God was calling him away from hopelessness and loneliness and finally showing him purpose, showing him home.

And the Lord promises that Abram will not be alone. And, more than that, God promises blessing. No longer is this just one person or one family; it is the conduit to God showering blessing throughout the world.
Abram is called to be a blessing, the Hebrew Parshas Lech Lecha. It becomes an integral part of the Genesis story and is used eighty-eight times in the book. A blessing is a gift. It involves every sphere of existence. It is more than what we 21st century hearers have allowed it to be. It is not payment for a life well-lived. “Being blessed” is being recreated. (For Abram, this meant moving from a life of nomadic purposelessness to being the “father of a great nation” and, thousands of years later, the patriarch of three world religions.) It takes time. I think to be a blessing means that one enters the story. God calls, God promises, and God walks with us. That is how God is revealed. But the blessing doesn’t come and the blessing doesn’t continue unless one enters the story. God calls, God promises, and God blesses.

Blessing is one of the ways that God makes the presence of God known here and now.  (Joan Chittister)

So, go and be a blessing!
 
Grace and Peace,
 
Shelli