Zachary Bright

The Wonder of it All

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Reflexiones para Adviento y Navidad – parte dos


And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble state of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And 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 mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and his offspring forever.”
And Mary remained with [Elizabeth] about three months
and returned to her home. (Luke 1:46-56, ESV)

You may remember that in my last post, we saw the angel encouraging Mary in her trust in God’s promise of the miraculous birth of a son to Mary, a virgin, with the news that her relative, Elizabeth, too old to have children, was now six months pregnant. Pregnant women might want to have conversation about their common experiences and hopes and concerns; two relatives expecting miraculous births, certainly would. After all, Mary and Elizabeth knew, just as well as you and I know, how improbable it is, seemingly impossible even, that a virgin or an elderly woman would give birth. So Mary “went with haste into the hill country” to visit Elizabeth. You can read in Luke 1:39-45 of how Mary greeted Elizabeth, of how Elizabeth’s baby (who would be known as John the Baptist) “leaped in her womb” in response to that greeting, and then, of Elizabeth joyfully blessing Mary, because Mary “…believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And then Mary passionately and joyfully lifted up praise to God. And yet, the form and content of Mary’s praise reflected the Psalms, the prayerbook of Israel, and the longings of poor and crushed people through the centuries for justice, and the national longings of Israel, and the hopes of faithful Jews for God to fulfill his promises to them. This prayer/praise/song is often called “The Magnificat” after the verb ‘to magnify’, which you can see in the second line of the text that begins this post.

In my last post, we saw Mary’s decision to trust God and his promise: “Let it be to me according to your word.” Now let’s see what follows from that decision.

I find myself needing reading glasses increasingly; sometimes I even need to use the magnifying glass that I keep in the drawer beside me. That which I aim the magnifying glass at, becomes larger in my eyes. The words or other objects that I don’t aim at or focus on remain smaller. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Mary “magnifies the Lord” and the Lord is large in her eyes. Since she is praying aloud, she is implicitly calling others to join her in magnifying the Lord. It’s as if she said, “Everyone join me in making much of God, magnifying and focusing on him. Let’s show (exhibit) his greatness!”

All of us have a decision to make. Will we make God big in our eyes and ourselves small or will we make ourselves big in our eyes and God small? You really can’t look down and up at the same time!

Note that Mary’s praise is not contentless; it is not merely saying, “Yaay God!”. God’s gracious and redemptive acts are displayed, especially his faithfulness to the poor, the oppressed and to Israel. One hears or sees in this Advent and pre-Christmas season, expressions of good will or celebration that are, shall we say, a bit thin on content. It takes a certain passionate intelligence to, as Mary did, take the forms of Hebrew poetry and fill them with audacious claims for God.

Recounting God’s mighty acts give us confidence and faith to have hope for what God will do in the future. What God has done leads us to anticipate what God will do. Let’s use two Greek words to hang this thought on. The practice of ‘anamnesis’ (remembering) leads us to ‘prolepsis’ (anticipation). Israel’s history is punctuated frequently with divine calls to remember what God has done for God’s people. The Lord Jesus told us to receive the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of him. Jesus’ finished work for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension gives us confidence that he will continue to work in and through us by the Holy Spirit, and that he will come back for us and fulfill his promise to us that when we see him, we will be like him. To saturate our minds with all that God has done for us, is to also, live on our tiptoes, to live alert, awake and in anticipation of God’s goodness to us. I am thinking of a verse of the Hymn, “Amazing Grace”, that is often not included: “The Lord has promised good to me; his word my hope secures.”

Note also that Mary’s prayer/praise/song is not merely sentimental. There are edges to Mary’s words: “..he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones…”; “…he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” Somewhere C.S. Lewis wrote that, humanly speaking, Jesus might have received his severe aspect from his mother. Think of Jesus calling the religious leaders “white-washed tombs full of bones” or calling them “the blind leading the blind” or saying that they made converts for hell. Mary does not only proclaim that God “…filled the hungry with good things…” but also that God “…has sent the rich empty away.” One is reminded of these words from Psalm 23:5a (ESV): “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”. I must not only be rescued, with the enemies overcome, but the enemies must know they are wrong. This is in tension with some of Jesus’ teaching: “bless and curse not”, “whoever is not against me is for me”, “turn the other cheek”, “go an extra mile” and “…if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15, ESV) Of course Christians seek, above all else, to become like Jesus and to let him teach us how to live, but the extra twist of the knife in Mary’s praise and David’s psalm reflect the perspective of those who are truly poor and oppressed. They show us what our actions can create in the souls of those we crush. But they also show us that we may pray what we feel, not only what we should. Annie Dillard wrote somewhere in, “Teaching A Stone To Talk”, something like, the Psalms are a record of what has been successfully launched at God without one being fried to a crisp. God is not fragile; he can take what we have to say. God knows what we are thinking and feeling, so we might as well be candid with him.

Notice also how Mary’s prayer reflects, the paradoxes of the kingdom of God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit [the spiritually bankrupt!], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, ESV); “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6, ESV); “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5, ESV); the first shall be last and the last shall be first; “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43b-44, ESV) This is how God works: he raises up the humble, the meek, those that fear the Lord, the poor and the hungry; he casts down the proud, “…those of high estate” (Lk. 1:52b, ESV), the rich and the enemies of God’s kingdom.

We have seen how Mary, the servant of the Lord, the one who received and welcomed the will of God for herself, and through her, for the world; the one who said, “…let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38b, ESV); turned her focus on God, making God big and herself small; proclaiming the works of God, with herself his humble instrument.
Her praise was not vague or contentless, but was specific and intelligent. She prayed the great themes of God’s wonderful works of salvation, not vague sentiments. Her prayer had edges; it was not sentimental (Hallmark would not accept her language for a Christmas card.) She was not afraid of dangerous prayers, but prayed candidly. Mary was at home in the paradoxes of God’s ways, of God’s kingdom. Praying God’s mighty acts, she was confident that God would fulfill his promises. Mary lived awake and alert to God’s acts, and in anticipation of what God would do for Israel in the future.

May we be awake and alert in this Advent season as we live with anticipation of all the ways Jesus the Christ comes to us: in our Christmas celebrations; into our hearts, offered to God “promptly and sincerely”; into the dark places around us where we can shine a light; and when Jesus will come to create new heavens and a new earth. And may our prayers be like Mary’s.

The temperature has dropped at night and Jack Lewis, the Balding Bible Study Dog (BBSD), and I are trying to keep warm. Terry will not let us turn the heater on because she fears it might warp the wood on a nearby piece of wood furniture. The furniture is a little closer to the heater than usual because we have placed our Christmas tree on the other side of it. As a practical, Reformed and Protestant dog, Jack suggested that we toss the @#$%*!# tree,,, I think (he’s hard to understand sometimes). But that will not do. So instead, Jack is sleeping as close to me as he can, with my blanket over both of us, including Jack’s head (until the cold nights came – not nearly as cold as some of the places my readers live – Jack would not let me place a blanket over his head). Jack Lewis shivers for awhile when we first go to bed, and then we both settle down for a warm, toasty night. For me, we have a one dog night, not a colder Alaskan three dog night (think about it a minute – you’ll get it). The Balding Bible Study Dog tries various schemes to keep me in bed as long as possible. Now here is an interesting wonder: the BBSD is growing a little bit of hair back on the crown of his head, on his chest and on his stomach. Perhaps, Jack’s body is responding to the cooler weather. I may need to change his title, either back to the BSD or maybe to the Dog Formerly Known As the Balding Bible Study Dog (DFKABBSD). BTW, don’t tell Terry that sometimes we turn on the heater for a few minutes to take the chill off of the room (Let’s see how far she reads! lol).


This post was powered by the CD, “Divine 3.0 – Songs for Christmas” by The Violet Burning”, the CD, “Songs For Christmas” (2014) by Branches, the CD, “Brutal Romantic” (2014) by Brooke Fraser and the single, “This Holiday – Single” (2011) by Brooke Annibale.

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Understanding With Your Heart


“‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophesy of Isaiah that says:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn –
and I would heal them.
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.'” (Matthew 13:9-16, NRSV)

I conceived this post as a sequel to my posts, “Why Is God Hidden?” of 5/20/14 and “Addendum to Why Is God Hidden?” of 5/24/14. I chose the tongue in cheek title, “Why Is God Hidden? – Part Zwanzig”. Instead, I will let you make the connections, while I make a fresh start.

Jesus ended the Parable of the Four Soils with words he frequently used: “Let anyone with ears listen!” He sought openness and receptivity in his listeners (those are the qualities that attracted the “more” and the “abundance” of knowledge in Jesus’ teaching). Jesus told parables to discover to his hearers their receptivity or lack thereof, and to awaken desire for God. C.S. Lewis wrote of using imaginative literature to get past “the watchful dragons” that seek to guard against God and the undermining of the self-centered heart. Jesus’ parables rarely even mention God. To those who heard them, at first, they seemed to be safe stories about a woman losing a coin or a man stumbling on a treasure, but not about God or the hearer. As the listener walks away, suddenly a bomb goes off in her heart and an abyss opens at her feet, and she realizes the stories are about God and about her!

Jesus explained in the above scripture text, that his parables also reveal those whose “heart has grown dull” and who have “shut their eyes”. To understand spiritual truth, one must first want to see and hear and understand. One might say that intent precedes content. Do you really want to know truth and are you willing to shape your life by truth? Jesus insisted that one must have childlike openness and humility to enter the kingdom of God:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14b-15, NRSV)


Let me remind the reader that I use the word, ‘heart’, roughly the way that Dallas Willard does in his very helpful book, “Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ” (2002). The heart, in distinction from the soul, the body, the mind and the emotions, is synonymous with the spirit and the will. The heart is the decider. Taking input from the mind, the body, the emotions, the external world, social relationships and the spiritual world, the heart makes choices and sets the fundamental direction and orientation for a human life.

Your heart, your intention, your will should be to understand and believe truth. Your mind, emotions, soul, are designed to detect truth. Your heart/will is to keep you oriented toward truth, toward the Son, like my bamboo plant in the kitchen turns to face the sun. Willingness, openness, desire, precede knowledge, and then, you understand or stand under, submit to truth. Once the choice is made, the heart helps us to stay turned toward reality/truth. The 19th century Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald wrote, “To give him truth who loves it not, is to give him plenty of reasons for misinterpretation.” Intent precedes content. Humility and an honest heart are necessary for understanding God’s revelation to you rightly.

Jack Lewis, the Balding Bible Study Dag (BBSD), awoke this morning to his morning routines. They include dancing (!) under the bed, while Terry helps me get ready for the day (I am getting closer to the day when I will have recovered enough from my foot surgery and will not need Terry’s help in this way), and then when Terry leaves the room, Jack enjoys an invigorating game of what I call “the predator game”, just ‘like the next bloke’. The game involves me moving my hands quickly (!) around the BBSD’s head while he snaps his teeth at them. Sometimes I am quicker and sometimes I become painfully aware that Jack Lewis has added to his skills, even over night. We all need some routines and assumptions, or the need to make thousands of choices everyday about trivial actions would paralyze us.

Here is the interesting part of the story. To get on the bed to play the predator game, the BBSD must propel himself almost straight up since there is almost no ‘runway’. Jack Lewis hesitates, makes some false starts, worries about whether he has enough room, tries to visualize success, and looks to me for encouragement, before finally, propulsion and altitude are achieved. Jack’s desire must become strong enough and his intention definite enough before he can become airborne.

To understand, to stand under, truth/revelation we must have a strong desire to know God and his will and make a definite choice to follow truth wherever it leads us. We need a good and open and discerning heart. We need a healthy heart, working as it was created to work. We need a surrendered heart. Half-hearted surrenders make our hearts unreliable and introduce into our lives a false note, a shiftiness, a growing lack of honesty. Further, an incompletely surrendered heart will never be able to escape the specter of doubt. C.S. Lewis asked will you be “a man or a rabbit”?

Our hearts can grow “dull”, as Jesus says in our opening text, so that we shut our eyes and fail to hear, as we seek to avoid God’s claim on our lives. The 16th century Reformer in Geneva, John Calvin (1509-1564), had this motto: “God, here is my heart; I give it to Thee promptly and sincerely.” You may have seen Calvin’s symbol on a Presbyterian pulpit, perhaps where especially the preacher can see it: a hand holding out a heart with flames above the heart, a heart aflame. What if our hearts were so surrendered to God that in every moment, we promptly surrendered control of our heart to God in response to his every desire? And so, our hearts were always turned toward God, like a compass needle always points North?

A heart can become “sick” from simply being frustrated over and over and waiting a long time for it’s godly object: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov. 13:12, NRSV) God, in the Bible, often complains that his people have hard hearts, that is, they are insensitive and unresponsive. Notice in these verses that hardness of heart is associated with willfully not hearing, and therefore not understanding, like in Jesus’ instruction about parables:

After the plague of frogs, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them, just as the LORD said.” (Ex. 6:15, NRSV)
After the plague of gnats, “But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD said.” (Ex. 6:19b&c, NRSV)
After the plague of boils, “The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.” (Ex. 9:12, NRSV)
After Moses warned Pharaoh of the plague of the killing of the firstborn, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’ Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened his heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.” (Ex 11:9-10, NRSV)
Over 1,500 years later Christians were warned, “And it is said, ‘Today if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.'” (Hebrews 3:15, NRSV)
And finally, Christians were warned, “…[God] sets a certain day – ‘today’ – saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.'” (Hebrews 4:7, NRSV)

“Today, if you hear [God’s] voice…”, not later, or as Calvin said, “promptly”, respond sensitively to God’s every desire: offer your heart!
“Today, if you hear [God’s] voice…”, “do not harden your hearts”!
Or more vividly, God speaks through Ezekiel of a “heart of stone”. As Bob Dylan sardonically sang in the song “Property of Jesus” on the album, “Shot of Love” (1981): “He’s the property of Jesus, resent him to the bone; but you’ve got something better, you’ve got a heart of stone…” Just as we don’t want hard arteries in our physical body, we don’t want our will/spirit/heart to be hard. But for us hardhearted disciples, these are hopeful words indeed: “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NRSV)

childlike faith1

Sometimes we can sense an incongruity between someone’s outward demeanor and the words they say, on the one hand, and where their heart is taking them, on the other: “Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are smooth lips with an evil heart.” (Prov. 26:23, NRSV) This is another way of saying that someone with a delightful way of speaking but an insensitive, hard or misdirected heart or otherwise disordered heart, is not to be trusted. And yet we shape each other, heart to heart, for good or evil: “Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects the other.” (Prove. 27:19, NRSV) How important it is that one’s heart is directed toward life in God/Christ and that it is continuously sensitive to God and is “promptly” and “sincerely”, moment by moment, offering the whole person to God! “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:21, NRSV)

Is there a knowledge that is appropriate to the heart? Yes, if the heart is receiving good input from the soul, body, spiritual world, etc., and it is a healthy heart (open, childlike, desiring to know and do truth). The heart knows what to choose (copywrite, 2014, Zachary Bright, lolstc). This is the heart that is turned toward Jesus and is listening to him and is filled and saturated with the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit/the Living Water is flowing out of her or him to others:

“[Jesus]…cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart [Gk out of his belly) shall flow rivers of living water.”‘ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive…” (John 7:37b-39a, NRSV)

woman prause2

This post was powered by the following high octane tunage: the CD, “Silence Worth Breaking” (2011) by Brooke Annibale; the songs, “Lifeline” and “Mystery” on the CD, “What to Do With Daylight” (2004) by Brooke Fraser, and the CDs, “Albertine” (2008), “Live At the Aotea, Auckland, New Zealand” (2008), “Flags (Special Deluxe Edition) (2011), and “Brutal Romantic” (2014), all by Brooke Fraser; and the song, “Planet Waves”, a gorgeous tune, on the CD, “The Ladder” (2010) by Andrew Belle. Probably the most appropriate song for this post is “Hosea’s Wife”, which can be found on the CDs, “Albertine” and “Live At the Aotea, Auckland, New Zealand”. “The C.S. Lewis Song”, also on both those CDs, will appeal to admirers of C.S. Lewis, and also those with a philosophical bent. BTW, if you don’t know where to hear full versions of songs like these before you buy them, than you obviously don’t know about Spotify, Noisetrade or enough about YouTube.

*Footnote – You may find instances of the English word, ‘heart’, in the Bible, where it is not used in the way I used the word in this post. This is primarily because of two realities: 1) there really is a range of meaning for Hebrew and Greek words used to refer to different aspects of humans; and 2) the wide variety of English translations may use different English words to translate the same Hebrew and Greek words.