Use Your Talent, Cast Your Patronus

Over the summer my kids hosted a Harry Potter movie marathon. They chose their four favorite films (out of the eight total) and invited friends over for themed food, decorations and fun. 

I happened to catch what is probably my favorite moment from the entire series, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Near the end of the story, at a moment of extreme peril, Harry looks into the distance and sees what he thinks is his deceased father casting a spell that helps save Harry’s life.

Through the quirks of time travel, he and Hermione are later able to go back to that same spot. They find a good vantage point from which to watch, where Harry crouches with anticipation of his father’s arrival. He watches, as if viewing a play, as a group of sinister wraiths called dementors swirls over him and his godfather, Sirius Black. (Yes, there are “two” Harry Potters. It’s time travel; don’t try to figure it out.) 

And he waits for a glimpse of his father. He watches Sirius’s life (and his own) slipping away under the dementors’ attack, and he waits. Any minute now. My father will be here to save the day.
 

Finally Hermione says quietly, “Harry. Nobody’s coming.” And that’s when Harry realizes—there will be no hero galloping to the rescue. HE was the one he saw casting the spell. It’s up to him. So he steps up and conjures the life-saving patronus, a spell he'd been struggling with for a year.

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He explains to Hermione later in the story, he knew he could do it, because... well, he’d already done it. 

But I believe he also knew he could do it, because he had to do it. There was no other option.

Whether it’s news of another mass shooting, or reports that there are still some 700 children who have not been reunited with their parents at the border, or a wistful feeling at the death of John McCain and wondering where the principled leaders in Washington are, things can seem quite grim. Or maybe the wistfulness is more localized—broken relationships, fear and uncertainty, sadness that things aren’t “the way they used to be.” 

The thing is, though... nobody’s coming, folks. It’s up to us, whatever “it” might be. So we curse the darkness and cast our spell, whatever that looks like. But we cannot wait for someone else. We're it. One of my running mantras is, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” (It applies to more than just running.) 

But, like Harry, we know that we have the strength to survive this terrible threat, because people just like us have done it before, and we don’t do it alone.I’ve long loved the old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And for those of us who identify as Christian, Teresa of Avila nuances this point even further:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good...

Recently I heard my colleague Jim Atwood offer remarks at the Presbyterian Writers Guild luncheon, where he received this year’s Distinguished Writer Award.

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Jim has spent some 30 years writing and advocating for more sensible gun laws; it has become his life’s work. In his reflection, he talked about the parable of the talents, the story told by Jesus in which a landowner gives three servants varying amounts of money, called talents. 

Jim looked around him and saw people with what he considered to be five talents and two talents, and kept waiting for one of them to lend their gifts to the issue of gun violence. Their writing gifts were so much greater than his, he said. They had a larger audience, more influence. He waited and waited… and finally realized that he needed to stop waiting for someone else to pick up the cause that he felt so convicted about. 

He stepped out in faith and conjured his “patronus.” He used his talent to say what he believed, and to be a voice of conscience in the church, and beyond. 

...Somebody oughta. 
That somebody is probably you.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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Reframing Fear

I’ve always loved this image, which I got from the Improvised Life website, an early “conversation partner” for my book:

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I feel the truth of it, and also the incredible challenge of it. The world we live in seems supersaturated with fear these days. I admire people who can transcend that anxiety. How do they do it? I confess I often carry around my fear and anxiety over the state of the world like a banner: Look how vigilant I am. (Can I get an Amen?) 

What would it mean for us to reframe our fear, from “Oof, that’s scary,” to “Wow, that’s interesting”? And to follow up that curiosity with open-hearted response?

I was reminded of the shift from fear to curiosity recently, when I ran across a story by author Anne Fadiman about her father, essayist Clifton Fadiman. In the latter years of his life, he developed extreme vision loss that was so debilitating, so frightening to contemplate, that he begged his daughter to help him end his life. She urged him to at least try to adapt to what was happening to him. He finally agreed to attend a program, called VIP, that taught independent living skills to adults experiencing full or partial blindness. 

It was tough for him, but he found himself surprised and even captivated by the many tricks he learned for getting along in the world. Anne remembers his phone call after the first lesson. Her father, who had led a stimulating and remarkable life, surrounded by fascinating people and deep ideas, said, “That may have been the most interesting day of my life… Except for the first day of my life, it was the most novel.” He learned to fold paper money in particular ways so he could tell them apart. He learned to open milk cartons, and cook. 

The “final exam” for the VIP program was a trip to a simulated McDonald’s, where the participants would make their way through an entire transaction unassisted. Anne speculates that McDonald’s was chosen because everyone was familiar with the place—everyone except, as it turned out, her father. “My father had spent decades complaining about American pop culture without experiencing any. Finally, his opportunity had arrived! …What man can predict the form in which his enlightenment will present itself?” 

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Clifton Fadiman cultivated what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” in which even a trip to McDonald’s can be a source of wonder—an opening to greater self-awareness and abundance. Anne concludes her reflection, “My father completed the VIP program and never mentioned suicide again.” 

Life offers us countless opportunities to move from fear to curiosity. Many of these opportunities are much less dramatic than the one facing Clifton Fadiman. Yet they hold the potential for transformation nonetheless. 

What might you get curious about today?

Onward,
MaryAnn

~

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Surf the Problems

Recently I read an interview with George Miller, co-writer and director of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a phenomenal but brutal-to-watch film. Miller was talking about a pivotal scene in which Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, receives some devastating news: the Green Place of Many Mothers, where Furiosa had lived as a child, and the place to which she and Max (Tom Hardy) have been trying to escape, no longer exists. Furiosa had been clinging to hope that they could find refuge there from the dystopian hellscape that had bound them. The destruction of the Green Place is also the destruction of her hope.

How would Miller capture Furiosa’s reaction to this news? He knew he wanted to film her from a distance, with barren sand dunes all around her. Unfortunately, the wind in the African desert where they were filming that day was blowing, well, furiously.

“Instead of cursing the wind,” Miller says, “I looked behind us and saw that the dunes had this wind blowing sand across them and the sun was getting low in the sky. I thought, ‘She could walk across the bridge of the dune and into the sun and just respond however she would, having completely lost all hope.’” 

With that vague instruction, and not much of a plan, Theron staggered onto the dune like a wounded animal, dropped to her knees, and screamed into the sunset. In an epic film, full of bizarre and arresting images, this one may be the most iconic—and wrenching:

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What struck me is that Miller called this approach “surfing the problems.” The expression resonated with me instantly. I also realized, it’s probably my biggest growing edge as I think about what it means to improvise life.

I know people who surf the problems well—I’m married to one, in fact—who come alive amid a certain amount of chaos, who are at their best when things are at their worst. Sadly, that is not me. In my good moments—in my very good moments—when life is going well, I can approach my life with flexibility, playfulness, and intuition. But what about when everything’s going haywire? That’s when improv is needed the most, and that’s exactly when my resistance takes over, when my need for control and my sense of justice flare up. (Who cares what’s “fair”? What’s happening is what’s happening.)

Today’s reflection doesn’t have a pithy wrap-up, because it really is something I struggle with. Instead I’m wondering, what comes to your mind when you think about “surfing the problems”? When have you done this well? What resources helped you along? Who are the people in your life who show you the way? And what might the world around us look like if we embodied this approach more fully? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

~

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More Light for a Dark Week

I wrote the other day about how dark the world seems lately. Thank you to those who've read, commented and shared that post. It's a comfort to know we're all seeking the light together. Sadly, I wrote that before 145 people---132 children---were killed by the Taliban in an attack on a school in Peshawar. And before I received this update in my Facebook from a missionary member of National Capital Presbytery, where I serve:

Please pray for parents and families of the Ayotzinapa School in the State of Guerrero where 43 students have "disappeared" by local police and criminal drug lords. One of them has been confirmed dead and burned.

Part our Longest Night Service on Sunday will be to lift up prayers for places of terror, death and brokenness in the world. How I wish the list weren't so damn long.

So where is the light?

Here's some light that came to me quite indirectly yesterday. A friend shared this article about late-night TV personality Craig Ferguson, who is going off the air this week. He talked about interviewing Archbishop Desmond Tutu several years ago and this liberating and formative moment:

Ferguson said Tutu told him during a commercial break, “I think you’re crazy.”

“This is a man who talked to some crazy motherf****rs,” Ferguson said. “He said to me, ‘You’re crazy – I don’t mean to be rude.’ I said, ‘I thank you, Father Tutu.’ He said, ‘No,  you are crazy, but the type of crazy we need.’ And, this is not your agent, you know, he’s not like, ‘Keep doing the crazy thing!’ It’s Desmond Tutu saying ‘Be as authentically crazy as you are.’ It was kind of like God saying ‘Just be as crazy as you like.’ I felt weirdly released by that.”

This article led me to the interview itself, which won Ferguson a Peabody award. It's fantastic. Of course Tutu is always brilliant to behold, but these words about good and evil and compassion and justice spoke directly to the events of this week, this month, this year.

Is it possible for light to be fizzy? Tutu's light is fizzy.

Here it is.

Part 1:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xj_l3KV3RVs

Part 2:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YD7GXSixkxk

There's also a Part 3 and a Part 4. Behold... behold.

Abound in Hope... in a Church Business Meeting?

GA-Abound-Hope-2014Over at John Wilkinson's General Assembly website, John writes about this year's GA theme, Abound in Hope, and specifically where his personal story has encountered hope. I hope you'll go check it out, then share your own stories of hope on his Facebook page. With this post I want to go in a different direction, riffing on the theme of General Assembly, "Abound in Hope," by answering a question some of you may be asking:

General Assembly has themes?

Why yes it does! The theme is designed to provide some scriptural grounding for the proceedings---it shows up in worship and in other ways. And "Abound in Hope" is a great theme. So energetic!

There is plenty of hand-wringing over membership statistics and declining budgets and churches leaving the denomination. And yes, we need to think long and hard about how we do ministry and what it means to be faithful in the 21st century. But our hope is not in innovative approaches and fresh ideas. Our hope is in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, which existed way before the Presbyterian Church was a twinkle in John Knox's eye.

So how can commissioners, GA participants, and observers keep Hope at the forefront of what will be a very intense week at GA? Consider this some friendly advice from someone who's been there as an observer and a former Theological Student Advisory Delegate.

  • Attend worship each day, or as much as possible. Yes, you will be tired, and tempted to worship at Bedside Baptist. But worship will serve to ground you, and I suspect, will give you eyes to see and ears to hear the ways that hope is abounding in the work of that day. ~
  • Do an examen each day, with a focus on hope. The Ignatian examen is a wonderful practice in which you reflect on the previous day and ask questions like "Where did I see God today? Where did I feel distant from God?" or "Where did I feel alive today? Where did I feel energy draining from me?" How about questions like "Where did I see Christ's hope expressed? Where did hope seem to be absent?" The good thing about this practice is it can be done in just a matter of moments, as you drift off to sleep. ~
  • Enlist a friend from back home. It's easy to get insulated at GA---there's so much to see and do. So how about asking a colleague, your pastor (if you're a ruling elder) or a friend to send you short hope-filled texts each day about what's happening back home? There's nothing like a picture of the mid-week children's program or an anecdote from the Tuesday tutoring ministry to help remind us why we're doing what we're doing. ~
  • Let yourself be pushed. Be open. I'm reading Anne Lamott's lovely book Stitches, which has tons of "hope quotes" in it. But this one's my favorite, from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." We will come to GA with our own convictions and commitments, but we also need to remember that God is not finished with any of us. I ~

What do you say? Where do you see hope alive, and how do you keep focused on hope when life gets busy and intense? Hope you'll share here or on our Facebook page.

Boston Link Love

proxy I don't know what to say at times like this.

So many people have been quick with eloquent and pertinent words. Advice for talking to kids about traumatic events. Sharp and sensitive theological reflection. Aside from yesterday's post, which is little more than an anecdote and a quote, I've got nothing other than a nodding head and deep sighs. Anything I think about writing feels like that Onion article after 9/11: Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake.

Inadequate.

How do people manage to be so eloquent so fast? It takes me time to process. I guess I am an introvert after all.

But I do read, and appreciate the writings of others. And since I am all about the link love, here is a compendium of the best bits that have come to me. Many of them appeared on Facebook, so you may have seen them. They are worth seeing again. They are hopeful and thoughtful.

~

To Kiss the Ground -- David Ensign, Faithful Agitation

David is a friend, fellow pastor and a runner. He reflects on Boston in light of his own experience of running a half marathon just the day before:

I cannot reconcile the pictures of mayhem from Boston with the joyous celebration that marks the finish of distance races. Those parties are not the only thing that runners run for, but they are the culmination of hours of mostly solitary running and they bring a simple, tired, joyous sense of completion to all that work. I think most of us who run are probably feeling a similar sense of dislocation as we contemplate the horror, suffering and loss from Boston and place those empty feelings alongside what the finish line should feel like.

I've seen lots of pictures over the years of marathon finishers kneeling down to kiss the ground just beyond the finish line. That's what the finish should feel like: kissing the ground in exhausted gratitude.

~

God's Love Wins: Reflections on Boston Marathon Bombing -- Emily C. Heath

Emily is a friend and fellow pastor. Her theological affirmations are my own.

Five months ago we stood just yards from the finish line as our wedding photos were taken, right after we had said our vows. People walking by on the street congratulated us and wished us well. We could almost feel the love surrounding us that day. That's what I remember most about that block of Boylston Street.

And that's what I'm going to keep remembering. What happened today is a tragedy and I will mourn it with Boston and with everyone who has turned their hearts to the city tonight. But whomever it was who tried to blow the block apart, and who tried to forever turn it into a place synonymous with terror and pain...you don't get to.

~

Stories of Kindness after the Bombing -- Atlantic Wire

13 Examples of People Being Awesome after the Attack on the Boston Marathon -- Business Insider

There is some overlap here but both pieces are good. They bear witness to what I posted yesterday from Patton Oswalt, which many have shared as well. The image above is from the second link: "Former New England Patriot Joe Andruzzi was spotted helping an injured woman after the blast."

~

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On -- Atlantic

Excellent use of a phrase that has been riffed and mangled and memed to death. Whatever happened to "nothing to fear but fear itself"? The article provides a sane voice and points to just how rare events like yesterday are. We need to remember that and respond accordingly. And when we do, we neutralize the power of terrorism:

There are things we can do to make us safer, mostly around investigation, intelligence, and emergency response, but we will never be 100-percent safe from terrorism; we need to accept that.

How well this attack succeeds depends much less on what happened in Boston than by our reactions in the coming weeks and months. Terrorism isn't primarily a crime against people or property. It's a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we're indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.

~

And two about running, my adopted sport:

Boston Bombings, A Loss of Innocence -- Runner's World

Marathon running has a long tradition of celebrating, commemorating, and affirming life. The original Olympic marathon in 1896 was to commemorate the man who carried the news of a victory for freedom. The first Boston Marathon a year later followed that idea by honoring the ride of Paul Revere, not on his actual route, but always on his day, Patriots Day in the State of Massachusetts (that's why it's on Monday). The Kosice Marathon in Slovakia and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa were created to commemorate the dead in World War 1. The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon affirms life after the bombings in that city in 1995. This very Boston Marathon mourned and honored the school kids who were gunned down a few months ago in Newtown, Connecticut, not far from here. Out of respect for them, the race was started for the first time in 117 years not with a gun but with an air horn.

Even without that special purpose, marathon running is a sport of goodwill. It's the only sport in the world where if a competitor falls, the others around will pick him or her up. It's the only sport in the world open to absolutely everyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or any other division you can think of. It's the only occasion when thousands of people assemble, often in a major city, for a reason that is totally peaceful, healthy and well-meaning. It's the only sport in the world where no one ever boos anybody.

I don't think road races are as exclusive as this, but what he says is true.

~

If You Are Losing Faith in Human Nature, Go Out and Watch a Marathon -- Ezra Klein

The finish line at a marathon is a small marvel of fellowship. Everyone is there to celebrate how much stronger the runners are than they ever thought they could be. Total strangers line up alongside the route to yell encouragement. Bands play. Some hand out cups of water, Gatorade, even beer. Others dress up in costumes to make the runners smile. The fact that other people can run this far makes us believe we can run that far. It’s a happy thought. It makes us all feel a little bit stronger.

It does indeed.

 

They Ran Into the Fire

Two weekends ago we were in Pennsylvania for Robert's grandmother's 90th birthday party. It was a wonderful weekend of activities that included a buffet lunch on Sunday after church in the fellowship hall. During the lunch we sat with my mother-in-law's cousin, who was a police officer for many years before he retired. He now investigates crime scenes, if I remember correctly.

We were talking about their recent vacation to France when we heard someone call out "Fire! Fire!" The sterno underneath the steam tables had ignited some paper wrappings nearby.

Many people jumped up to help. But nobody moved faster than cousin Will.

After the fire was out and people were settled back into their lunches, we all joked about his superb reflexes and the impulse to be the first into the fray, even during a luncheon for a 90-year-old. I'm sure it's the training.

Thought about him again today when I saw this:

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Hug a first responder today. If you don't have one handy, anyone else will do.

And as a second responder, I agree with Patton Oswalt. For me it's a theological affirmation:

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, "Well, I've had it with humanity."

But I was wrong. I don't know what's going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here's what I DO know. If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."

title comes from the West Wing episode Twenty Hours in America

What I Dream About When I Dream About Running

Friends... I'm low on hope today. I'm still pretty sick about Newtown. And while I'm glad for developments like Sen. Bob Casey's change of heart on increased gun regulation, and I wish Vice President Biden the best, I have little hope that meaningful change will happen. The NRA bills itself as an organization that's all about the rights of individual gun owners, but it is increasingly funded by and cozy with the gazillion-dollar gun industry. I don't care how many earnest Facebook updates we write. It's about money and it's about clout.

I sent some money to Gabby Giffords, but still... I'm low on hope.

~

I woke up on this mid-January morning to discover that after three days of unnerving fog, we will now have three days of rain and ominously mild temperatures.

We have not had meaningful snow in three winters. Our normal average is 15 inches.

This is not the climate I moved into almost ten years ago. Yes... things have noticeably changed in less than a decade. Meanwhile, 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded.

Again, I don't have much hope that our leaders will do anything to combat climate change... despite this:

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It just feels stacked against us, you know? We face difficult problems, and big debates need to happen. I may be wrong about stuff. I need to be called on things. But I don't like the feeling that might equals right and that the ones with the money call the shots. Yet that's what we're dealing with.

Is it a marketplace of ideas? OK fine, it's a marketplace. And some ideas are crackpot, and some are well-intentioned but based on bad data, and some are good but need some work. The problem is, there is no correlation between the validity of an idea and the amount of money behind it.

~

What do you listen to during your morning run when you're convinced the world is screwed? You listen to Krista Tippett. Krista will make it OK.

Boy howdy:

January 10, 2013

Compassion's Edge States: Roshi Joan Halifax on Caring Better

 It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the bad news and horrific pictures in the world. This is a form of empathy, Joan Halifax says, that works against us. The Zen abbot and medical anthropologist has bracing, nourishing thoughts on finding buoyancy rather than burnout in how we work, live, and care.

Touché, Holy Spirit. Touché.

I will include the pertinent bit at the end of this post, because maybe you're feeling low on hope too.

The other part is that I had a dream last night that I was running a half marathon. But it was a ridiculous one. We were running up and down the ramps of a parking garage, again and again, for 13.1 miles. There were no water stations. It was too crowded. Some of the inclines were so steep I had to use my hands to hoist myself along.

I woke up irritated and griped to Robert about this blatant anxiety dream. But then while I was running with Krista and Joan in my ears, I realized something.

I didn't stop running.

No wait---I did stop. I had a hissy fit because this wasn't what I expected and it shouldn't be this way and who's the idiot in charge and I didn't even SIGN UP for this stupid race!!!

But then I started running again. And I didn't reach the end before I woke up. But I knew I was capable of keeping going. And it was enough just to know that. That's enough hope for today.

~

~

Here's the bit from the On Being show:

Ms. Tippett: And, you know, what I was thinking as I was reading this is it touches on something that's happening even also to us as citizens to a different degree. It's come up here at Chautauqua this week. Compassionate people are overwhelmed now with the deluge of terrible news. The pictures are too present and too vivid, you know, the news cycle is too relentless. I see pictures of children in faraway places that wreck me for a day, right? So the question that's in this room and I think is out there in the world and in this country right now is how do we find the courage? How do we heal enough? How do we be present to that and not be overwhelmed by it?

Ms. Halifax: Well, I think this is one of the reasons why I identified these edge states because, when you realize — and the issue that you were bringing up, for example, about violence toward children, whether subtle or direct, and also that we are subjected to these images through our media, bombarded, is, I think, a more accurate statement. So we enter into what we would call a state of moral distress and futility. And the moral distress is something that where we see that something else needs to happen.

Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can't do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don't want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or …

Ms. Tippett: Tune out, right?

Ms. Halifax: Into freeze. And I think a lot of this world that is hooked up in the media right now, that a good part of the globe is going numb. And I don't really agree, Krista, with the term "compassion fatigue." I think what we're seeing actually is not compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there's a resonance, but we're not able to stabilize ourselves when we're exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience. You know, we've got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues. So that's why I call these things edge states because they really call us to our edge.

Ms. Tippett: I remember talking once to Ingrid Jordt who's been a student and a practitioner in the Burmese Buddhist tradition. She talked about a teacher of hers who had also been a teacher to Aung San Suu Kyi who talked about how the great virtues have near enemies. Do you know this teaching?

Ms. Halifax: Oh, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And that a near enemy to compassion is sorrow and that's that sorrow, that's me getting wrecked by the picture of the child in the newspaper so that I can't actually help them.

A Holy 'No'

  I'll share if you will:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church December 16, 2012 Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." 

And Mary said, "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; 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."

Some years ago I taught a class during Advent on the mother of Jesus, called “There’s Something about Mary.” (I may need to reprise that sometime here at IPC!) During the class we looked at how Mary has been portrayed in art and in music:

“Gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,” according to one hymn. “Gentle Mary” laid her child in a manger, says another. “In the Bleak Midwinter” speaks of the “maiden’s bliss.” “Mary was that mother mild,” we sing in “Once in Royal David’s City.”

Ah, gentle Mary—mild, meek, the handmaiden of the Lord, head bowed in reverence. Can’t you see her there on so many paintings, stained glass windows, icons and Christmas cards?

There’s certainly scriptural support for this view of a demure mother of Jesus. When Mary asks, “How will it be that this child will come to me?” the angel answers, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” It’s that word, overshadow. Gentle Mary, meek and mild, will be diminished even further by God’s power, who will overshadow her.

But then… there’s this song.

It’s an improvisation of the song Hannah sings in the Old Testament after the birth of her son Samuel. But it is not a sweet lullaby. It is a battle cry, bold and defiant.

God 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.

Does that sound meek and mild to you?

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My friend and colleague Michael Kirby tells me that several years ago, someone began stealing the baby Jesuses from outdoor manger scenes in his Chicago neighborhood. It turned out to be a prank, and the figurines were later found in a woman’s yard, 32 of them, sorted by size and type. Unfortunately, many people coming to claim their figures tried to walk away with a “nicer” Jesus than the one they’d had. “They were trading up,” he said. “Everybody wanted the freshly painted, unfaded baby.”

Mary would not approve of such cheap attempts at an upgrade.

“[God] has lifted up the lowly,” she sings. God has looked with favor upon the dingy, the faded, the forlorn and discarded figures of this world.

…Because Mary’s song, at the heart of it, is a song of defiance, in the tradition of the old African-American spirituals and of protest songs. It is “We Shall Overcome”; it is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” It is a dissent against the way things are. It is a counter-testimony to the dysfunction that passes for normal in our world.

Mary sings this song, because her pregnancy itself is God’s act of dissent against worldly power. God did not choose a queen, a wealthy noblewoman to bear the Messiah. God chose an unmarried peasant girl. God assessed the demands of the world and expectations of a king that would come in strength and might and prestige and said, “No, I’d just as soon not.” And in her song Mary echoes this divine No:

No to the proud and their haughty ways.

No to hunger that goes unfed.

No to suffering unrelieved.

No, no, no.

We’ve had a lot of occasions to say no this past week. I shared last Sunday about a friend whose son took his life at the age of 14. The moderator of our denomination, Cindy Bolbach, died on Wednesday after a cruel and relentless cancer. And of course, there is Sandy Hook Elementary School. To each of these, especially the last, and to countless other injustices, atrocities and heartbreaks we say No. No. No. And we do not say it meek and mild. We say it with clenched fist. We say it in protest. We say it loud and with a catch in our voice.

No, by the way, to the idea that God let this madness happen because we no longer pray in school. Like clockwork, the political and religious pundits have suggested exactly that. Imagine what kind of a God that is. A narcissistic thug who would allow such carnage because we don't pray in the time and place and manner that God specifies. No.

And if I were ever to find out that that's the kind of being God is, I think I'd have to renounce my ordination and go sell insurance, because that God and I would be finished.

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So say No we must. But it’s not enough to say No. Lament is not enough. Heartbreak is not enough. Mary didn’t stop with a song. She embodied her song in her devotion to God; she lived that song as a witness to the God who is surprising and surpassingly good. And so must we. Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and it did. And so our lives must magnify, enlarge, make clear, the goodness of our God.

Right now, it’s hard to see anything but the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. But slowly, slowly, the stories are coming out of ordinary heroism and great sacrifice. Stories of average people whose lives were magnifiers of love and peace. The teacher who lost her life shielding her students from harm. Or the teacher who piled her class into a restroom and told them to be very quiet… but who also took the time to say how much she loved each of them—so that if this was the end, at least they would hear words of love. Thankfully, they all survived.

There will be more stories like this, coming out of Newtown.

And there must be more stories like this, from Newtown and from Falls Church and from everywhere that good people curse the darkness and long for the light. Our laments are insufficient without action, what my friend Roy this week called “embodied prayer.” There is too much violence, too many guns making their way into the wrong hands. There are too many disturbed people slipping through the cracks rather than receiving the mental health care they need. Time and perspective will guide us into a faithful response. But respond we must.

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If my Facebook feed is any indication, there were a lot of preachers who burned the midnight oil last night. What does one say? What can one say? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that this is “Joy” Sunday, a word that seems to taunt us, especially if we let ourselves imagine 26 families, and many more, who will never be the same again. And yet, as a friend reminded me last night, joy is not the same as happiness. There is always a touch of heartbreak in joy, because joy is hard-earned.  C.S. Lewis, who “Joy is distinct… from pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”

It’s that longing in the midst of joy that we hear from Mary’s lips. Mary sings for the weak and the lowly, the poor and the hungry. And there is a stubbornness to Mary. She's no fool, after all. She must look around and see rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Surely she must see the powerful comfortably on their thrones and the lowly begging for food. She is singing of a world that does not yet exist, but still could.

And Mary invites that same holy stubbornness to erupt from our own hearts and lives.

We must refuse to be defeated.

We must refuse to let the darkness win.

We must refuse to let Friday's atrocities be the lasting legacy of our age.

Yesterday at Cindy Bolbach’s memorial service, we closed with a hymn. Not the Magnificat, but a similar protest song, a song of Martin Luther. We sang it defiantly, we sang it stubbornly, we sang it vigorously, we sang it in honor of our friend who loved it so, and we sang it for the children of Newtown, Connecticut.

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.