Zachary Bright

The Wonder of it All


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Reflexiones para Adviento y Navidad – parte dos

Mary3

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).

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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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Prayer – Part Tres/Trois/Drei/Tre/San/Three

Let’s reflect a bit more about prayer. A helpful device for remembering some of the essential aspects of prayer is the acronym ACTS (like The Book of Acts in the New Testament).
1. “Adoration” This means to praise God for just who he is: good, loving, holy, all-knowing, all-powerful, beautiful, majestic, faithful, source of life, creating, saving, redeeming, etc. (I’m getting excited. Let me stop here and praise the One Who deserves all glory! OK, I’m back.) You can think of many more attributes or find names, titles and attributes for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Bible. To adore and praise the living God is to do what is deeply congruent with our created nature. We come alive and enjoy the pleasure of admiration and appreciation. My early instruction on prayer, contemplation, meditation and other spiritual practices came from immersing myself in the book, “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth” (Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978) by Richard J Foster. I read almost every other book mentioned by Foster in that book. He has also more recently written, “Prayer: Finding the Hearts’ True Home” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), but I have not read it. For a L’Abri approach, you might try, “The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us” (P&R Publishing, 2008) by Jerram Barrs. Also review again my post, “What We Are”.

2. “Confession” This means that entering the Presence of the holy God, we acknowledge that we are sinful. We agree with God about our sins, what we have done and what we have left undone, sinful acts and words but also sinful attitudes in our hearts. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, ESV) (Yikes! I have something to confess. OK, I’m back.) Now we are ready to hear once again the good news: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, ESV) If we are disciples of Jesus, that is if we have thrown ourselves into his arms and he is everything to us, God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin on the cross with his blood, we are now justified before God, just-as-if-I’d never sinned.

3. “Thanksgiving” It is right that we should thank God for all the good he has done for us and others. In older language: “Forget not all his benefits”. Gratitude is so important for what we can see (epistemology). Gratitude is central to the question of whether each of us will bend our knees and acknowledge God as God. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom. 1:21, ESV) Our primary role in life should not be that of the critic, squinting-eyed, suspicious. We should be wide-eyed with wonder and thankfulness. You can see so much more and it is much more fun! Thank God for everything: salvation, life, healing, protection, guidance, answered prayers, family, friends, the Church, creation, the fruit of the Spirit, the Word of the Lord, the pleasures of music, your mind, the grace of bodies in motion, the amazing sight of Jack catching a ball and so much more. Read anything in Psalms 103 -107 to get started.`

4.”Supplication” I have already discussed this in “Prayer – Part Uno, etc.”. I will add this though: everyone prays. If one does not pray to the true and living God, one will pray to an idol or just to the “principles” of reality (I’m thinking of so many laughable projects like that guy on Oprah who suggests that just thinking about what you want will cause it to come to you, for instance, money; yeah, – sarcasm alert – try this where there are immediate dangers, like Nigeria, Sudan, etc.), or maybe one will just whistle in the dark or cross one’s fingers. Intercession is supplication for other people, taking hold of God in behalf of others. My Mother has written about this kind of prayer in her book, “A Passion for Prayer” (Regal/Gospel Light, 2012) by Vonette Bright.

Some day I will probably write about the “Jesus Prayer”, from Eastern Orthodoxy, and the “Lord’s Prayer” (really the “Disciples’ Prayer”) and Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 6-7. But the next few posts are to be about other themes I have been preparing.

This post has been powered by “Kathryn Scott – Live At Focusfest” (2009) by Kathryn Scott and “Brother,Sister” (2006) and “It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright” (2009) both by mewithoutYou.