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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What's Become of our "World" View?

I'm just about finished with my first reading of Steve Brown's book Three Free Sins. I say first reading because I fully intend to finish it, flip it over, and read it a second time.

He's old. He's bold. He's tired of hypocrisy. He's realized the fallacy of being a pastor and thinking his job is to restrain others' sin so that the church "looks good" from the outside. He's telling it like it is, like it really is, and making some people mad in the process, or so he says. I have yet to meet anyone who's read his book and come away mad. Rather, it seems to me, every one of us comes away with at least a few scabby scales having fallen off our eyes.

I'm near the end now and have come to a passage which, though he says it more coarsely than I have considered, sums up an undercurrent of thought I've been doing the tango with for a couple of years:

"When Christians get to the point where they read only Christian books, go only to Christian movies, hang out only with other Christians, eat only Christian cookies, and wear only Christian underwear, it's time for a reality check. That's sick, and it's a sickness unto death.

"Once we are set free from the need to defend, protect, and hide, we have the freedom to show up in places where proper Christians don't go for fear of getting dirty. And it is in our showing up that the authenticity of who we are [the extremely needy, terribly sinful, and really weak] becomes the 'flavor' that attracts others to the ice cream maker.

"So go do something that isn't religious. Just show up."

Taken out of the context of the whole book, this might seem a little odd--particularly because of the way he chooses to illustrate his points. But even in his hyperbole, I think we can get what he's saying. We Christiany people Christianize everything, and miss the whole big-picture thing of this world and life view we were almost on the track of grasping back in the 1980s to about the early 2000s. But where did it go?

Where did we lose our confidence that Christ is pre-eminent? That our righteousness comes from him, and can not be tainted by outside forces? Where did we lose our focus that redemption was an overarching, effective thing, and not a fragile, limited, must-be-hidden-behind-the-fortresses-of-our-homes kind of thing? Where did we jettison the truth that he came into the world not to condemn it but to save it--the WORLD, this place, this culture, these people and the products of our existence?

On March 1, it will be 20 years since I took a job working with an organization that existed to promote Christian world and life view. Twenty years. A whole generation has grown up in that time. And yet, with only a few exceptions, I don't see the impact of that mission reaching very far into the culture. And even as I was promoting and working and teaching and writing with that in mind for others, my own life was shrinking further and further into a bubble of Christianese. It happens so easily.

And salt loses its saltiness sitting on a shelf. And talents buried in the ground amount to nothing but a pathetic sort of security in the same old, same old. Like seedless fruit--good only for one-time consumption, or rotting in the crisper drawer.

Is it in the fact that we taught ourselves to say, "I live FOR Jesus" instead of "I live WITH Jesus," and by that little change of preposition, we changed our whole relationship to a set of practices we defined ourselves as "godly" and "holy" and "set apart" and "above reproach" and forgot how very present in the real world he was?

I worked briefly with a college student, a young woman with some potential, for a time. But she could not see how to apply her gifts or develop them in this world. "I just want to marry a pastor and let that be it," she said. All she could see of her ability to live FOR Jesus in this world today, educated and intelligent as she was, was to set up housekeeping for someone else who would be doing the most typically "religious" job we can think of. And my heart sank, because somewhere along the way, we've missed the power and the creativity and the breadth of the calling of being a member of Christ's body in this day and age.

When Francis Schaeffer asked, "How shall we then live?" it wasn't a rhetorical question. It was meant to call us out of just our own minds and into action--living, moving, effective action.

A dinner-table discussion two or three weeks before Christmas in our own home grew out of a poem my second grader had to memorize. "'No room for him,' cry men today as through the world they plod. 'My life is crowded, don't you see? I have no room for God.'"

When I asked my own girls HOW we make "room for God" in our lives, and how we are called to "follow now his star," I got theoretical, detached, generic, and intellectual answers. "Think about good things." "Read the Bible." "Pray more." And my heart began to sink again. The one thing I wanted them to see and know was a living, active, relational faith. And what had we become? Stuck in our own heads.

We have minds. We have bodies. Hands with opposable thumbs! Arms to reach and grasp and draw in close. We have emotions. We have words to use and ideas to bring to materialization (which means to put into material--physical form!), things to create, heart bonds and actual bridges to build. And God has an opinion about every single aspect of it, and every single part of our lives should be in this tension of doing WITH him as we do WHAT we are called to do, WHERE we are called to do it.

What has become of our "worldview" if it never pushes us out into the world? Can one even have a "worldview" if we retract from the world and all the opportunities it affords?

I cannot help but think today that more than anything else this Christmas, I am wanting him to come, not again as a baby, though I am so thankful for that. But I want him to come as a fire. Under me. Return me to what I once knew to be true: a raw, real, enthusiastic, all-encompassing passion to be for him in this very world, this time, whatever place he puts me, with an open mind and an open heart and open doors and a willingness to go where he sends me, and for that to be seen by my children and known by them and by me that it is the power of God and the power of redemption and the power of resurrection that makes it possible, overcoming fears of failure and reputation, overcoming fears of discomfort, even fears of loss, fears that I can't defend God well enough--as if it's up to me to be Protector of his Existence. But all of it with him.

In Philippians, Paul called the religious people--among whom he had once counted himself--the "dogs." And he referred to all his religious righteousness in their eyes as "rubbish," which literally translated "dog food." All his works righteousness was nothing but food for the movement he was warning his beloved believers, "his joy and his crown," to beware of. Whenever we sacrifice a true, outward-looking world and life view and replace it with a Christianized version of a passing of our days meeting what we've come to think of as a certain brand of religious identity in our lives (usually characterized by what we DON'T do, rather that what we are freed TO DO), are we not feeding the dogs ourselves?

I'm tired of dog food. In the words of my friend Brad, who I believe was paraphrasing Tim Keller, I want the steak dinner. The real deal. "Taste and see that the Lord is good." The Lord, who is making all things new. Who came to the teeming, twitching, squirming, pining world--and stood in contrast to the empty, polished religiosity of those who had "an appearance of godliness" about them, but "denying its power."

And so, like Isaiah, I stand and I say, "Here I am Lord. Send me."

What's next?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas in Exodus

It’s Christmastime and our pastor has begun a new sermon series. Naturally, it’s on the Book of the Exodus. At least, it seems natural to me, and even more after today.

I can honestly say that I love the gospels, I love the book of Acts, I love the Peters, the Timothy letters, the letter to the Philippians. At some point, each of those has probably held a position of highest favor among all the other books of the Bible. But every time we come back to the Exodus, I get excited. It’s my story. It’s the story of all of us. It’s the story that encapsulates all of it in one place—our condition, our nature, our perceptions, God’s seeming absence, God’s obvious presence and faithfulness, the practical, nitty-gritty, physical symbols of the great spiritual actions he is up to.

Today we read the passage in chapter 2 in which Moses’ mother has to do the unthinkable. Our pastor is particularly conscious of how instrumental God has made women to be in his redemptive history, and so he spent a good deal of time last week painting a robust picture of the role of Shiphrah and Puah, and again this week on the mother, the sister, the daughter of Pharaoh. But mostly, on the mother.

He also showed us images of the Nile River. “It’s not the French Broad,” he says. “The most dangerous thing you’re likely to find in the French Broad is a rock.” We look on banks writhing with crocodiles and waters with surfaces broken and bumpy with hippos. The threat is startling to our modern, urbanized sensibilities. But there was a greater threat in Egypt.

Pharaoh, we had seen last week, had put himself in the place of God over Egypt—except that he was a god who felt threatened by the abundance of human life. Suppose the Israelites rose up against him? Fearing for his own position and well-being, he tried enslaving them to control their numbers. It didn’t work. So he determined to coerce the midwives to kill the male babies as they were born. Failed again. Enact plan C, then. Pharaoh himself would have the male infants thrown into that predator-infested Nile. Between the current and the animals, the babes hadn’t a chance. The anti-god would control life and protect himself in it.

Then we meet the woman who becomes the mother of a lovely baby boy. She’s a mom of at least two already, we know. And at this point in history, she gives birth to her third, a boy. She knows his fate if the anti-god finds him, so for three months, she keeps him hidden. If you’ve been a parent of a newborn, then you know that around the three-month point, babies begin to spend more time awake, observing and interacting with their world. They find their voices and don’t just cry when hungry, but make happy cooing and gurgling sounds. They begin to imitate patterns of speak/pause/speak that will one day allow for interactive conversation. It became impossible for her to hide him any longer, and so she does what seems like an unthinkable thing: she puts him in the river—or at least in the tall grass by the water’s edge. Because she takes time to make a little “ark” and coat it with waterproof material, I think we can expect that it was, indeed, in contact with the water, though it is unlikely it would be picked up by the current and swept away.

Our pastor suggested that she may have placed it particularly where the Pharaoh’s daughter might find it—an appeal from one mother to the nurturing sensibilities of another woman, in a desperate attempt to bypass the brutal hard-heartedness of the murderous Pharaoh.

I so love this story. Long ago, I connected with the mother of Moses because my first daughter, as a toddler, wanted only one story: The Baby in the Basket. Every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. I could still quote the entire little book to you if pressed. I’m sure I could. And so over and over again, I thought of the mother who had to give up her little baby boy, at just three months of age.

In that same time period, our second daughter was born. She was a sick baby, from birth. And while there was no brutal king going door to door looking to throw her into the Nile, there was still the ongoing anguish over her. What is wrong? How do we help? Is she going to be OK? At one point, the speculation about her condition did include a rare genetic syndrome that could mean death during the preschool or early elementary years of childhood.

It was in that time that I had to come to my first point of real surrender to God. A mother surrendering her child. I thought of Moses’ mother on a daily basis—even when I wasn’t being compelled by a persistent two-year-old to “read it AGAIN, Mommy!” I felt her then, holding her warm little bundle against her body, and knowing: I have to let him go. I was in the same place. I could not myself help or fix or save my baby. I had to entrust her to someone outside myself.

The baby Moses was going in the river. There was no way around it. But how?

I met Pastor Dave in the hall after the service. Interestingly enough, he was on his way to do a baptism—presumably applying the water symbol to another infant, presiding over the surrendering of the parents, in submission to God’s authority and God’s means of salvation, applying the sign and the seal of that salvation to their infant—but he stopped, as he always, always, does, to give me a moment. My excitement over the book of the Exodus is probably puzzling to some, but for two weeks now, he’s taken it in stride and let me gush a bit after the sermon.

In keeping with the attention he calls us to give to the women in the biblical story, I emptied the contents of my head in a passionate verbal deluge: The mother, she’s like the Church, the Bride, the woman parallels the Church in being the physical Body, acting out God’s will in surrender and submission… and what surrender! To give up her little baby, so young, so dependent on her, but she knows, he’s going in the river. She won’t let him go by the hand of the anti-king, but she’s going to trust the sovereign King, the creator who made the river and the animals with her son.

I was excited over the parallel, but there was something else I had not even connected yet. And that’s when Pastor Dave leaned in, like he does. I’m beginning to realize that when he does this, something really good is coming: He touched me on the elbow, and moved to look me straight in the eye, and he said, “Rebecca—she’s not just like the Church. She’s like God.”

And my head exploded with that truth.

(As an aside here, I am going to mention that I have become convinced that what Pastor Dave does to get my attention just has to be what Jesus did to Mary Magdalene in the garden after he rose from the tomb and met her there. She was going on, all empassioned, and thinking she was spilling her guts and grief to the gardener, when, I believe, he leaned in to her, touched her on the elbow, moved to look her in the eye, and said, “Mary.” And her eyes were opened. I think it happened, just like that.)

But back to the point: She is like God. And in some regard, each and every one of us who has experienced that kind of surrender also gets to be like God—to know how he works. What he gave.

I said to him, “If it doesn’t feel like dying, it isn’t really surrender.” It must have felt like dying to her. That tiny baby needed her for his very life. A three-month-old cannot live long without the sustenance he receives from his mother. In just two hours separation from him, her very body would be joining her head and her heart in full awareness of her separation from him, as she would be ready to bring him again to her breast, and nourish him and be relieved and herself fulfilling her design to so supply him. And he was torn from her, by her own desperate submission. She chose to give him up, into the threats of the world. She chose to.

She just had to choose which way he would go, and whose hand she would give him into—the blood-thirsty, self-protective anti-god, or the creator and sustainer, the one her own parents told her about, and their parents before them, keeping alive the stories of the patriarchs and the life-saving deliverance that brought their people to Egypt in the first place.

Some years ago, a board member of the company I work for spent some time working intensively with me in evaluating our business model. It was in trouble and we were looking at all alternatives. He was a pilot, and he gave an example: When a plane is in a tailspin and falling, the gut reaction of the pilot is to try to pull out, opposite of the forces acting on him. But that’s the worst thing he can do, he said. The only saving answer is to drive forward, farther into the fall, create a nosedive, and from that terrifying position of giving in to the inevitable with vigor, the pilot can then regain control and pull out.

I see Moses’ mother as being in a situation like that. There’s no way out—only further in. But she’s trusting in that which is not within her own power, not even within normal intuition. She’s trusting in surrendering her child to the current of God’s will, like the pilot pushing forward into the nosedive. You take this, God. It’s your plan. It’s your child. And she gives him up…to save him, to get him back, to even allow for his placement to set all this people free from the oppression that brought them to the point of this choosing.

And here’s where it becomes about Christmas. Because her surrender of her child is like God’s of his own son. This world is reeling from sin, like the plane in the tailspin. Ruling authorities, who ought to be there for people’s good, are oppressing people and killing babies. We’re all moaning in the darkness, under the oppression. The pain and turmoil and separation comes from within us and from without, and we can’t fix it. And God could have walked away. He could have turned and left us spiraling down eternally. But he didn’t. In himself, he chose to act. He chose to surrender his own Son. The Son chose to surrender to the Father’s will. He willingly entered in, surrendering his glory that he had with the Father, knowing that the threats here were real, and they would get him and bring him down, but that even then, the Sovereign would reign, and his good purposes would be fulfilled.

He drove downward to meet us, with vigor, and in doing so, he rent the Trinity.

If tearing a baby from his mother’s breast is painful and unthinkable, then how much more—even inconceivably so—is this tearing of one person of the eternal Trinity from the others?

This is where the idea gets into me like a grain of sand into an oyster—like an irritant that chafes my very soul until blisters begin to form. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to take a baby from a mother. As a mother, everything in me says, “No!” But that is only a tiny taste of what it must have been like for God the Son to be taken from the Father.   I.can’t.even.imagine.

Christmas is when Jesus entered in to the world. We tend to focus on the humble conditions of manger and poor parents. There’s the good news of glad tidings. Shepherds and magi are united in the same community—worshiping the one true God. All of that is good. It is very, very good. But for it to happen, the bosom of God was torn open. He surrendered his own Son, his very own Son.

And that is the pearl that was produced this morning in me. God doesn’t ask us to do anything he himself isn’t willing to do. So any of us who have wrestled with surrendering to the point that it feels like death can know: He sees. He knows. He does. And in that, we are a little bit like him too.

Exodus 2:25  God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.

Oh, the wonders of his love!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Here on the Island of Misfit Toys

A train with square wheels. A squirt gun that shoots jelly. A cowboy on an ostrich instead of a horse. A darling elephant who isn't grey, but had polka dots. A Charlie-in-the-Box.

For each, one can see some reason for the obvious title "misfit." But what about Dolly?

I always wondered. "A Dolly for Sue" just seemed like a perfectly adorable little red-headed ragdoll to me. Why was she there, on the Island of Misfit Toys?

And all my life, I felt a little bit of a connection to her--fitting in with the misfits, but never quite sure why.

Today, I went looking for other information related to the Rudolph special (in particular--I had just found out that all reindeer, both male and female, have antlers. I don't think I knew that before, and I wondered if Rudolph's mother and Clarice were depicted with antlers in the made-for-TV movie. I honestly don't remember.). I ended up at Wikipedia, obviously the easiest source for non-critical confirmation, and found this about Dolly:

"Dolly is voiced by Corinne Conley and is a seemingly normal girl rag doll with red hair and a red gingham dress. Her misfit problem is never explained on the special, but was possibly revealed on NPR's Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me! news quiz show (broadcast December 8, 2007). The show revealed that Rudolph's producer, Arthur Rankin Jr., says Dolly's problem was psychological, caused by being abandoned by her mistress and suffering depression from feeling unloved."

And that makes a lot of sense, and I can even see how it can bring some light into the purpose of suffering for the otherwise healthy. Why did this happen to me? Well, it happened. But maybe it isn't just about me.

Dolly, abandoned and depressed, doesn't fit in the world of the lavishly loved, valued, and happy. But note: She isn't alone either. Somehow, she made it to this little community.

I've always related to Dolly. She is currently my Facebook profile picture. I never knew the above, and still, of course, don't know if that was what was originally intended, or if the producer just as recently as 2007 got on the bandwagon for the psychologically depressed and found an application he hadn't thought of before. It doesn't really matter, though. I don't care. I still see a parallel and a purpose.

Even if Dolly wasn't able to fulfill her primary purpose, which was to be loved by a little girl somewhere, her existence wasn't meaningless. And even if, in the mental and emotional turmoil I struggle with at this stage of my life, I am never quite sure if I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, what I'm made for, what I will one day know in fulfilment to be my God-given design, my existence isn't meaningless either. Nor is yours.

Imagine being a misfit and truly being alone. I've written before about the importance of community in giving comfort (see The Land of Tears). And here's depressed little Dolly, who works just fine in other ways and only wants to be loved, present among a train that can't roll at all, and all those other unique-but-not-what-you-expect characters. And none of them are alone.

It reminds me of this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. -- 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4

Paul has said that he suffered to the point that he "despaired even of life itself." And yet, he lived to receive comfort and to be able to comfort others. We need one another. I have close to my heart a small band of hurting people. Of course I want to fix them. I can't. But I can be there, on the same island, knowing the pain of the something-we-sometimes-just-can't-identify.

Sometimes we know: It's THIS. Sometimes it is much more vague and nuanced--the longing, the lack of fulfilment, the wondering, the sense of abandonment, the "Where are you, God?" cry. And we just know. We can't fix it, but we can sit together, and share the understanding of this human misfit condition. We can remind one another of when our need was met, our cry was heard. We can remind that even if misfits at this point or that, we are still made by design, and beloved, and beautiful in the sight of the one whose craftmanship we are--and in the sight of one another. I see it most when one of my loved ones shares his or her heart. An honest heart, even a broken, damaged, darkened one, is beautiful.

To my beloved misfits--The day is coming when you will no longer wonder about your place, your purpose, your status. But don't doubt that even now, that is as full and complete as ever it will be. I've needed you, and by your presence on my Island, I have been comforted by you--the Father of mercies working through you to me. I hope you can say the same.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

What's It Like To Be "Happy"?

I saw him a few weeks ago.

The girls and I were in our car and he was in his wheelchair. He was parked on the side of the road. Waiting? Stuck? We didn't know.

But as is common for us, we felt that infuriating pang of desire, helplessness, and paralyzing fear all at war within us. How can I, able bodied and financially supplied, empowered with four good limbs, a checkbook that isn't totally empty yet, and half a tank of gas be more immobilized than a one-legged man with no more possessions than he can carry with him at any point in time?

But I am. Because when we saw him a few weeks ago, I said out loud, "I want to help. I just... we don't know him." We kept driving. One of the little girls waved.

Today, the two older girls had breakfast with him. His name is "Happy," and they say it fits. He is. And he has no home, and very few possessions. He lives day to day. But he has friends. Friends who also know his name and are truly happy to see him. They said it was like watching a reunion unfold. They were under the tent, Emma on coffee duty and Jane cooking hashbrown potatoes. It was cold and rainy. A few others had already gathered to warm their chapped hands with the coffee cups and fill plates with breakfast fare the first time, when up came Happy. The girls instantly recognized him. He was greeted all around by his friends, who had hoped he would join them for breakfast this week, one of the places they normally gather. A chorus of greeting rose upon his arrival, and smiles all around.

He's a veteran. The girls didn't pick up yet which war. I could guess. Emma just said, "He seemed full. It's not what I expected. We have all this stuff. We're always frustrated with it--it's not enough when we want something new. It's too much when we have to take care of it. He just has. . . something else."

She's right. And we've got a lot to learn.

Maybe it got started this morning, because of Happy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Imogene Herdman Can't Be the Mother of God!

Mrs. Armstrong was absolutely scandalized. For as long as anyone could remember, she had directed the church Christmas pageant. And for as long as anyone could remember, Mary, the blessed mother of the sweet little baby Jesus, had been played by a mild and subdued, prim and proper, debutante-in-training. It was just unthinkable that the unchurched, rough and tumble, cigar-smoking, curse-word using, hair-dying girl who came from the welfare family and who was known, along with her brothers, for talking about "sexy things" could possibly be acceptable enough to play "the mother of God!"

And it came on me, too, all at once, like a case of chills and fever: Who else? Who possibly OTHER than an Imogene Herdman could be in such an auspicious role, if the gospel really is good news at all?

It was at that moment, sitting on the second row of the theater with my second-grader, that I knew the good news once more, in my very being. This Jesus is for me. And I started to cry then and I didn't stop until long after getting home from dropping the children back at the school. It came and went, in fits and starts: I'm a Herdman! He came for ME. I couldn't possibly be acceptable enough for the family of God! He came for ME. He's the image of the Creator of the Universe, Immortal, Invisible, God ONLY Wise, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace! He came for ME. He came TO me.

And there I am. More Herdman than the traditional view we have of Mary. Which made me stop and think: Why do I picture Mary like the church people do anyway? Drive to the gospels. Drive to the word. What does it tell us about her anyway, and how does our tradition hold up?

Many scholars believe that Luke, the gospel writer, met and spoke directly with Mary in order to record the story of Jesus' birth. Perhaps she also even described herself and her relatives for him.

It's interesting to note that before telling us Jesus is on his way, we get the word that Zechariah and Elizabeth are finally having a baby, the one who will be John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. Zechariah and Elizabeth get introduced as the people who will be the parents of the herald in this way: "And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord."

Why, they sound just like the church people in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! I'll bet they volunteered to hold the church bazaar every year, and always showed up with their shoes shined for church, and could bake an enviable applesauce cake. Walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Zechariah and Elizabeth really looked good. Just the kind of people that God ought to choose to parent the unique individual who would herald his own coming, right? Just the kind of people you and I would want representing us in our Christmas drama.

But after a bit, we meet her. Mary. And does it say that Mary "was righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord"? Doesn't it? Doesn't it say that she was mild and prim, well-coifed, demure, gentle in nature, obedient to her parents?

Sometimes what is NOT there is not there for a reason. And after such an explanation about the righteous character of Zechariah and Elizabeth prior to their selection by God to bear the one who would proclaim the need for repentance before the coming of the Savior of the entire world, I kind of expected something similar to be said about the one chosen to bear that God himself.

But it isn't there. There is no mention of Mary as righteous, blameless, obedient, walking well in submission to God's laws. It isn't there.

All we know is that she is as of yet unmarried, betrothed to Joseph, and her name is Mary. (It means "bitter," by the way.)

Now I know I am going out on a limb of intense speculation here. I admit it. And I know that with some, any suggestion even of Mary's normal humanity is a hot-button topic. But really, when we think about the humans God chooses, how many of us were wise? How many of us were good? How many of us were influential?

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." -- 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31

Suppose nothing is said about Mary's righteousness and blamelessness because she had no such claims to make? Is it possible that Mary really was more like Imogene Herdman than we have ever stopped to consider? Is it possible that the reason she was greatly troubled by the angel's saying (despite the fact that, come on, an ANGEL is talking to her in the first place--again, it doesn't even say she was troubled by seeing an angel, but troubled by what he said to her), is because she had absolutely no reason to expect him to lead off with the words "O favored one"?

Elizabeth, it says, took relief and pleasure in the knowledge that finally, by being pregnant, she would no longer have to fear other people's reproach. Finally, those who looked at her with skepticism for her barrenness would know: She really was righteous. God was not punishing her with childlessness. (It was the belief in those days that children were a reward from God for obedience. A woman who was barren feared the reproach of others, as if she was living in a state of unrepentance and missing out on blessing specifically because of it.) But Mary seemed to have no reason at all to be considered "favored." Nothing in the passage suggests that Mary was anything special in terms of right conduct or obedience.

Perhaps (again, I admit to my possibly ridiculous level of speculation), in a culture in which sexual immorality was punishable by extreme measures (the Old Testament even allows for stoning, though the Pax Romana looked unfavorably upon such harsh punishment), Joseph's initial decision to simply put her away quietly may have suggested that no one was all that surprised by the word that she was expecting before she was married.

Mary's speech when she arrives at Elizabeth's has a fullness of appreciation in it that seems unlikely for a young girl who had never experienced soul-longing, identity crisis, grief. I think of the woman of whom much was forgiven. It was she who, in return, loved God much. I hear in Mary's words the song of one who has been forgiven much, and is responding with apt awe, adoration, astonishment: Rather than saying, "What in the world am I going to do, an unwed mother? People are going to hate me, they are going to despise me, ostracize me. I don't deserve this! I've been good all my life! I walk in righteousness and this is the thanks I get? Scandal and suspicion?"

No, instead she is floored by the fact that she has been given God's favor, and she, undeserving, is being used as his instrument. He will bring down the proud who would judge. He will fill the empty (perhaps even the emptiness of a teen girl, searching for self in the normal "rebellious" ways most of us have known in our own lives?), and empty the "filled," he is full of mercy--mercy is mentioned twice. She rejoices--her spirit "leaps" within her.

Imogene Herdman wept as she sat by the manger, cradling the doll in her arms, the words of the gospel being read over her. In today's play, her tears were so real that the children afterward asked the director not once but three times if the actress was really crying, and why.

The Apostle Paul called himself the worst of sinners. And yet, he is the vessel chosen by the holy God to carry the word of the good news to the world. He was not the most righteous, but the worst of sinners.

Why then, should we insist that the vessel chosen to carry the Word Made Flesh into the world would be someone particularly blameless and righteous--one who earned her favor?

And what of our role today? He calls us his Body. Jesus took his body and left this place. He left us to take him with us as we go. We are how he chooses now to image himself to others. Can I claim to have earned that favor? When I heard the description of what the child chosen to play Mary should be like, I had to cringe. Because I believed it too, and I knew, it certainly wasn't me. No, I am much more like Imogene than the idealized Mary we envision.

But if the gospel is true, perhaps Mary is more like Imogene than I've ever considered before either. And in that, I find hope. And my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices within me, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

He has helped his servant Israel, the one who wrestles with God--wrestles and strives, tumbles and struggles--in remembrance of his MERCY. So that no one can boast--but only, he or she who boasts, may boast in the Lord.