Sunday, December 30, 2018

Whatever You Do!

I’ve been reading a book that’s probably not for everyone, it’s entitled, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect Phrase, by Mark Forsyth. He begins the preface with this provocative assertion:
Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.
The author’s premise is that Shakespeare, and other writers we consider the greats, learned well the basic rules and styles of classic rhetoric and employed them generously. For instance, nearly everyone knows these lines – although not from Shakespeare:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
So begins Charles Dickens’ classic historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The opening sentence, from which this quote was taken, is an example of an antithesis – or in this case, a long list of antitheses known as a progressio – in which Dickens claims with eloquence that some can only describe the times in which we live “in the superlative degree of comparison only.” That was true in 19th century and it’s true in the 21st. Every year, about this time, we are subjected to a plethora of superlatives found in a variety of media—‘tis the season of “The Best of and the Worst of”.

For years, my Christmas stocking contained the annual “Best/Worst” issue of People magazine. It was a tradition to wander through the pages and reflect on the previous year and scrutinize movies, books, music, wardrobe, and relationships as the writers shared their collective wit and wisdom on the prior year. It’s admittedly empty-calorie brain candy—not nearly as intellectually nutritious as Mr. Dickens, but then again not a bad way to pass a post-holiday hour either. I had to give up the practice altogether when I realized that I knew almost none of the references!

It’s a good thing to occasionally take stock of our lives and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day seems the appointed time. Intentional examination of the previous 12 months is a healthy discipline. Giving thought to the best and worst of our 2018s might be a refreshing exercise. Which moments stand out as the best and brightest? Which ones, on the other hand, might you wish to delete or at least hasten their erosion? Which of the most previous were the “best of times” or the “worst of times”?

Some years have monumental events –  new jobs, new homes, new partners, or new babies – they stand out and attract attention and energy. They soar in the pantheon of our stellar days and reside snuggled amongst our most treasured memories. They are the “best of times.”

Yet our lives also know the “worst of times.” Unraveling of relationships, loss of employment or health or purpose, fighting the grip of addiction or the numbing torment of loneliness, the deaths of those we love—all grimly usher us to the valleys of our days.

This is the time of year for reflection. It’s the time of year that marks the end of one episode and the beginning of another. This is the fulcrum, the hinge that connects our past and our future.

But unlike People magazine’s “Best and Worst” issue—our goal is not entertainment. When we thumb through the “best/worst” of our year we do so for self-edification and as a means for adjusting the trajectory of our lives. Like a sea-going vessel we know our direction by the wake we leave. We readjust our course and take new bearings. Making a wrong turn or drifting off course doesn’t mean that we start over—it means that we recalculate, re-plot, and nevertheless continue on our journey.

Life is like that. We don’t get to start over—we’re constantly taking stock of where we’ve been and where we ought to be and then adjust our course. If we don’t look back, if we don’t stop and take bearings. we never really know if we’re on course.

Some of us will chart via our careers. We may have a goal of a specific rank or position and we gauge the success of our lives by climbing that ladder of achievement. If we’re in business, we may hoist sales or profit numbers as our signals of success. In the world of church, we may peg benchmarks of active membership or congregational giving.

Some of us take a much more academic approach and we have certain educational levels that we want to achieve—a bachelor’s by this date, a masters (or two) by another, and then a doctorate before we’re a certain age.

Still others may take a “quality of life” approach—living in a certain house, specific neighborhood, driving a top-end car, owning a vacation home, or retiring before we’re 55.

There are plenty of ways in which we can evaluate our lives—both quantitative and qualitative—yet I would submit that as people of faith, as people of a Christian faith, there is only one way in which our lives are examined, and that is by the quality of our relationships.

In our own “best and worst” annual issue, forget for a moment where you are or aren’t in your career, forget your net worth or portfolio or credit card bill, forget health problems, home repairs, or tax returns—and think relationships. Go right to the top of the list: which relationships are most important to you? Is there one that warrants “superlative” status? Which ones have you intentionally nurtured? Which ones ignored and dismissed? Which ones need attention? Which ones beg for closure?

The writer of Colossians guides us as to the care and feeding of relationships: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Someone summarized that list with these four characteristics:
  • Ready sympathy
  • Generous spirit
  • Humble disposition
  • Willingness to make concessions

Now there’s a list of New Year’s resolutions!

Colossians continues: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Is forgiveness in relationships on your “best” or “worst” list? Or, in keeping with the metaphor prominent in this Bible passage, is forgiveness a part of your everyday wardrobe or is something that sits in the back of the closet that’s either too small or out of date? What about forgiving yourselves?

Presbyterians are a stoic bunch—holding to tougher and tougher standards, never feeling like we’re “doing” enough—how about forgiving yourselves and accepting the fact that what matters is who you are as a person.

Now, the Bible’s not encouraging us to figure out some thing or some one who needs to be forgiven—the Bible is instructing us to adopt a lifestyle of forgiveness. To live our lives always seeking to cut slack and show patience and forbearance. To know that although people may not do things the way we’d always like, or behave according to our standards—their intentions may be nonetheless honorable and living in community or family means living a life of forgiveness. A life of forgiveness is an indelible mark of a Christian.

I wonder how many people believe that? I wonder how many folks equate “forgiveness” with “Christian”? Maybe I’m too hard on us, but it feels as though “Christian” has become more synonymous with narrow-minded, judgmental, moralistic, and punitive than:
  • Ready sympathy
  • Generous spirit
  • Humble disposition
  • Willingness to make concessions

Not unlike the community to which Colossians was written, we live in a tiny minority. As Christians in a post-Christian world in which the prominence of the church is nose-diving and “Christian” values are typically anything but—we strangely have more in common with that early Christian community than ever before. It’s hard to open the newspaper and not read about another case of clergy abuse or see a pastor’s mug shot. Televangelists sell a gospel of wealth and denominations continue to fracture over their zeal to keep people out and folks are paralyzed with panic when membership numbers continue their slalom run downhill.

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful.”

Be thankful—the two things that undergird the life and disposition of a person confessing to follow Christ? One is forgiveness and the other is gratitude. This isn’t about living lives driven by a need to repay God, or in an effort to stay in “good” with God as an insurance policy. No, this is gratitude for both the special and the common gifts of grace.

Relationships steeped in mutual forgiveness and gratitude hardly fail, and may indeed, move quickly to the top of our “best of” lists.

We will know, all of us, the progressio of the “best of times and the worst of times,” in the coming year. But let those not define our lives, let them not be the clothes the comprise our warddrobe – but rather, let us clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through him!


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mary's Manifesto

One only needs to wander into a worship service at First & Central for a few moments to realize that music is an integral part of this congregation. Prior to my arrival here, I had served another congregation which was also deeply committed to excellence in music and to that end, had two large adult choirs, also with paid singers, an elaborate children and youth music program, and bells choirs for all ages and talent levels.

But when I got here, it became instantly clear that music was elevated to a level that I had heretofore not experienced. What you are offered on any given Sunday morning is a collaborative effort of Kaci, David, and me. The Presbyterian Church takes music and worship very seriously – both order and assignment of responsibilities – as stated in our Book of Order:
Specifically, ministers of the Word and Sacrament are responsible for: the selection of Scriptures to be read, the preparation of the sermon, the prayers to be offered, the selection of [hymns], printed [bulletins], and the use of drama, dance, and other art forms.
Where there is a choir director, the minister will confer with that person on anthems and other musical offerings; the session will see that these conferences take on a regular basis.
The three of us meet monthly and plan the worship services about two months out. We all have input but, of course, the preacher for the Sunday has the final word. Kaci and I have both been trained in church music and understand the theme or direction of the service. The music the congregation sings is integral.

David has autonomy when it comes to prelude, postlude, anthem, and offertory which are selected and scheduled often a season in advance. We all do our best to offer a cohesive and coordinated service given all of the moving parts since everyone recognizes that our top priority is this hour on Sunday mornings.

Given all of that, the scripture reading this morning is the perfect intersection between text and song. We’ve already heard a prelude and anthem based upon the “Magnificat”, and we’ll sing a paraphrased hymn on it after the sermon, and then hear yet another rendition for the postlude.

Put into musical terms, in the great opera that is Luke’s gospel, we’ve come to an aria – Mary’s “Magnificat”.

Of course, now I’m out on a limb as soon as I mention “opera”! I enjoy all kinds of live theater from musicals to ballet, from symphonies to concerts, from drama to improv – but I’ve just never been bitten by the “opera bug” – and given that Grant is our liturgist today – I’m choosing my words carefully! Everything I know about opera is from a book I believe he gave me: “Opera for Dummies”. Here’s the authors’ introduction:
We’ll be the first to admit it: Opera’s weird. Everybody’s wearing makeup. They’re singing all the time. Even when they’re singing in your language, which is rare, you still can’t understand the words. Women play men, men play women, and 45-year-olds play teenagers. All the main characters seem to get killed off. And when somebody dies, he takes ten-minutes to sing about it!

By golly, it’s the greatest entertainment on earth!

The highlight of most operas is the aria – those times when action is suspended, and a singer gets a big number to reveal her emotions, and most importantly, to really show off her voice. It’s all about setting a mood, spewing forth great gobs of feeling, and making sure the audience catches the importance of what’s taking place.

True to its genre, Mary’s big number stops the action and the narrative is suspended. In the story, she had just trekked three or four days into the “hill country” and went straight to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house wherein their yet-to-be-born child, John, kicked with intrauterine recognition. Elizabeth then exclaims, in her own arietta,

You're so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?

With those words, Mary winds up and launches into a burst of emotion that she cannot fully describe – of joy and amazement, of humility and honor, of wonder and awe – the tasty stuff of arias which forms the prelude to all that Luke will soon tell us of the person Mary’s baby will grow to become. Within the hypnotic lyric of the song is the gospel in its simplest and most accessible form: God is great and God keeps promises, or as we say sometimes around here, God is good and God will provide! The Gospel for Dummies!

What began as a simple visit to the home of a sidelined priest in the hill country issues forth in a pronouncement of global political and economic import for after Mary proclaims God’s goodness and mercy, she, with equal conviction and certainty, declares not just the event, but the meaning and purpose of the child she is carrying:

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.

This aria is lilting words by a pregnant woman of no account who is in a socially embarrassing situation visiting an elderly cousin in an equally awkward place.

Yet music has not been our friend and has served to obfuscate the manifesto that is Mary’s pronouncement. We cannot allow thousands of years, countless composers and choirs to deceive and neutralize. Mary’s words inaugurate a revolution that will change the course of human history.

Sure, it’s lovely to focus on the preamble:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and 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;
This is “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” and “Away in a Manger” – it’s lovely – but it’s only the preamble. Here’s the heart of the matter:
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.
That’s manifesto and it’s not the stuff of Christmas cards or carols! No, Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat is a political manifesto, delivered fairly publicly, in the home of an official temple priest. In Mary’s manifesto there is evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political savvy.

Mary, wanted by God for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child – for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away.  This is Mary: well-spoken, wise, gritty.

Traveling alone, like every prophet before her, she sets out on her first journey, to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, to declare her agenda.  There will be more journeys: to Bethlehem; to Egypt and back; to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve; to Jerusalem when he is crucified.

She gives birth and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive. She beckons women and men everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.

Music, in this case, has not been our friend. It has served to swaddle a radical message in melody that glazes over the meaning of Mary’s manifesto like royal icing. The incarnation is the in-breaking of an age of God’s justice, an age in which we remain today, for God seeks not straw-laden mangers in which to lie, but hearts that are summoned to the call for justice and peace and equity for we live in a world that is increasingly unbalanced and a world wherein the powerful have farther to fall from their thrones, the lowly have an even steeper climb, the hungry face starvation, and the rich will destroy those who seek to send them away empty.

We do take music very seriously here. My fervent prayer is that we have the same passion for the one who inspired such lovely songs.