My soul proclaims…

Faith from the Margins to the Web Bible Study for Advent 4, Year C

Opening Prayer:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 1:39-55

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.”

Faith from the Margins to the Web co-authors: Angela and Thomas, with Sarah

I first met Angela and Thomas on a Friday when they came into the lunch program at the parish where I serve and asked for me and this project by name.  Good news travels!. They had been connected by a friend and mutual participant when they had arrived in Richmond after losing all of their possession and home in inland flooding a few months earlier.  They were now rebuilding their lives one day at a time, in faith. They needed money, no doubt. But theirs was a life of faith and Sandra knew that this project was more than just fair compensation: it was also a place where good news was made known.  I was glad to have the time to welcome them to participate.

The three of us sat together with this Gospel in our midst for well over an hour that afternoon, filled with the sharing of loss, recovery, hope and great rejoicing in the face of adversity.  It was a deeply heartfelt sharing, and I remember it vividly. That is a good thing, because the one thing we completely forgot to do was to turn on the tape recorder!

Angela had volunteered the read the Gospel lesson.  She got mid-way through and paused, grabbing my arm, “…and the child leaped in her womb.”   She read it again, nodding her head and really feeling it: “only a woman can know what that is like.  I know that feeling, and I only imagine how that must have felt!” She went on to finish the reading, but the poignancy of this setting of mutual recognition framed Mary’s song as a harmonious duet of these earthly cousins encountering the divine in their midst.

Admittedly, this setting of Mary and Elizabeth’s conversation is one of my own favorite pieces of scripture.  I shared with Angela and Thomas that my background as a social worker in maternal and child health settings has convinced me again and again of the sacred space of that time of expectation.  There was something about Angela’s emotional response to this reading which opened up the maternal urgency of this holy moment. We went on to talk about that.

At this time in their lives, Angela and Thomas were raising a family while living in separate spaces and places, doing the best that they could with the shelter options available to them while doing all the daily things it takes to remake their lives: finding work, learning a new community, re-establishing relationships with schools, services, and supports.  It was clearly a time of great worry and great uncertainty. Angela said, “I feel like this Gospel, while it’s so beautiful and filled with Mary’s song…you know, it misses something. I say that because I can tell you, Mary had to have been scared. So scared! Even if she was rejoicing, even if she had a heart filled with faith: she was a human woman and she was scared.  You cannot convince that she wasn’t. I actually love this story more because I think there is so much of that real, human fear.”

“For Joseph, too” said Thomas, “I mean, he had to be able to trust.  I want to think that I could trust but you know, I admire the guy!”

Angela smiled and squeezed his hand, “I know, honey, I mean I can imagine it and that’s why I think about Mary, wondering how she could possibly convey her story any way other than pure faith.  I mean, just think about last week. It felt like we were on the verge of falling apart…we couldn’t figure out the bus system, and we had tried to spend some time, all of us together before having to go back to the shelter.  I needed to get groceries and then I got on the wrong bus, and ended up walking three miles with all those bags all the while you were worrying about me and I couldn’t even get to my phone to tell you. It felt like we were all falling apart and that was just groceries!  I know what it’s like to just have to do the Mom stuff in the middle of a hard life, and there is Mary doing all of that, too, and having no one to turn to except her cousin. I admire her. I admire them both.”

It turned out, when it came to sharing how this story resonated with our personal lives, that Angela and I both related to Elizabeth because we had both been pregnant during times in our life when we were older than the norm.  It became clear to us that Elizabeth’s own fears as an older expectant woman are so rarely focused on or talked about. Even in a modern age, fears of health, of being too old, of not being able to do what the younger mothers can do: these are real and frightening; they are not new phenomena!  Elizabeth was likely just as filled with doubt about her own pregnancy. “I’ve never thought of this before” I said, “but being of ‘advanced maternal age’ even now the doctors get very concerned about our pregnancy health and viabiity, and pay so much attention to fetal movement. I wonder what happened to Elizabeth’s faith when she felt this child-in-becoming in her womb not only move but LEAP.  It must have been a moment of relief, as well as wonder. I’ve felt that relief, too…and I hadn’t considered that might have been Elizabeth’s experience.”

As we continued to talk and share our stories of faith and hope, this deep admiration felt as if it took on a new depth for all of us.  These two women of old, sharing not only a divine encounter but also a maternal one. These two women who didn’t have social power but did have deep faith.  These two women filled with awe and fear, each in their own way coming to a place of profound rejoicing at the divine in their midst, filling them with expectation in spite of all the odds.

My advent hope rests in the anticipation of these two women, whose hearts would continue be expanded and broken so many times, in so many ways.  And yet, the joy of faith unseen and unspoken flowed forth from them in prayer, and Mary’s song continues to speak to us today.

May it be so for you as well in these Advent days of waiting, hoping, longing, praying…


Nothing is impossible…

When I was preparing these Advent bible studies, I accidentally assigned two pairs of participants to discuss Advent 4.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do about this at first, until I listened to these beautiful, distinctly different interviews.  The stories and styles were unique, but they had one thing in common: the realization that while sometimes things do not turn out as we expect, God is always working through even the seemingly impossible places in our lives to open doors of hope and possibility.  Perhaps this is true even in my own accidental over-pairing this week, too.  So, I have decided to share a bit of both interviews on this week’s blog.  Thank you to Charles, Candy, Dem and Elaine for sharing your stories and illuminating how, like Mary and Elizabeth, we come to realize through the stories of our lives that nothing is impossible with God.

Advent 4, Year B:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Contributing Authors: Charles, Candy, Dem and Elaine

 

Dem and Elaine: Watch out for Gabriel, and watch out for God!

By the end of their interview, Dem and Elaine were laughing so hard together that neither of them wanted the conversation to end.  These two women had never met before, but by the time the interview wrapped up, they realized they shared so much in common with each other that it was uncanny, and their very different yet serendipitously similar perspectives on life brought joy which bubbled over from them.  Listening to their interview, I could practically hear them finish each other sentences as they allowed the Gospel lesson to unfold in their conversation.

Elaine began the conversation after the reading by telling the story in her own words: “So, what we’ve heard then is this: Elizabeth is pregnant, she’s six months along.  Her cousin Mary is sitting down there in Nazareth, engaged to a man but she’s still a virgin.  And along comes this angel, Gabriel, and says, “I know Mary, it doesn’t make any sense but the Holy Spirit is going to visit and poof, you’re pregnant.”

Both women said, at the same time, “Watch out for Gabriel!”

In the midst of their laughter, Elaine picked back up and said, “But then Mary says “how can this be?” and then the angel comforts her and tells her something…the same thing that her cousin, Elizabeth, had also been told by the angel: nothing is impossible with God.  Now, we didn’t read this part today but there is also this other part of the story where Mary goes to stay with with Elizabeth, and when she arrives,  Elizabeth sees her and she just knows by looking at her, “You’re pregnant!” but at the same time, she also knows immediately that this is no ordinary pregnancy; this is God’s child she is carrying.”

Dem had a light bulb of awareness go off:  “OK!  That’s the part that I didn’t get before.  I mean, I know the story because it’s the Christmas story and all of that.  But the part I didn’t get before was the preparedness.  How Mary really thought about this, how Elizabeth also knew this.  I really, really like that.”

Elaine said, “I’m always amazed at how Mary was able to say yes to this, to give herself over to it, especially at that time and in those circumstances.  That giving it over to God is always hard for me.”

“Oh yeah” said Dem, “I can’t do that.  It’s that ‘let go, let God’ thing and I’m not good at that.  I know there’s something bigger than me out there but sometimes I’m not so sure that I can really pray, or find the words.”

Elaine said, “It’s hard, I know.  But I think not all prayer is talk, talk, talk though.  Sometimes prayer is just being there, opening yourself up, being prepared to hear what you need to do, which isn’t always what you want.  It’s scary to do that. Have you ever tried that?”

“I’m uncomfortable just thinking about it,” admitted Dem.  “There’s so very little that I’m in charge of in my life right now that I try to grasp onto whatever I can.”

Dem went on to tell her story.  She had been to several schools with degrees in Education, Theatre in work experience in Horticultural design.  Her path has been very circuitous, though, and not everyone was supportive of her as a woman returning to school in mid-life.  Finally, she found herself in a position where she fell to her backup experience in landscaping, but even in that manual work she hadn’t been able to find work other than something seasonal.  But, as she was telling to to Elaine, Dem added:  ‘actually I think something else is opening up for me.’

“Not everyone knows I live in a shelter” she said, “but I tell my story because I’m grateful to have support and to have places like this and case managers to help me regroup.  I had to think: is this really what I want to do?  And then, the flooding in Texas happened and I thought, I could help there.  So, my shelter case manager got me signed up to volunteer with the Red Cross for hurricane relief.  I went and did all the training but at the end, they said to me, ‘we aren’t going to send you.’ I was so disappointed.  Then, my supervisor said, “But, it’s because we think you would be a great case manager because we see how well you work with people, how you can relate to them and how your own story of needing shelter lets you be open to others and so resourceful.  Let us train you while you’re being supported by the shelter, then we’ll hire you and you can be a part of our travel team, if you’re willing to relocate.’  So, here I am, I’m just finishing up my training.  In a few weeks, I’ll be going wherever they need me, working for them.  And, I’m really excited to be doing something that feels like its so needed for others, and to help others like I have received the help I need.”

Elaine’s voice was soft, rather like Elizabeth’s moment of recognizing the greatness of God at work. “You know, Dem, I think that the cream rises to the top!”  they both chucked. Then, Elaine spoke the truth that was becoming clear between them: “Do you know what you’re doing?  You’re asking for God’s guidance.  You’re opening yourself to God’s will.  You may not know it…but you’re doing it.  You just showed me that.”

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Charles and Candy: Holy Spirit, Healing and Hope

Meanwhile, in another room, Candy and Charles were talking about hope and healing.

“What stands out to me is the Holy Spirit.” Candy said immediately.  She recalled how there were times in her life when it seemed like it would be impossible to do something, but that in praying, she found comfort in the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Charles agreed, “In my own life, I see God as being in my heart and in my mind.  It’s like God puts something inside of me, like love, and it’s there for people I’ve met and even people that I haven’t met.”

As they shared their thoughts on this Gospel lesson, although it wasn’t just the general, mysterious ways of God that stood out to them: it was their direct encounters with the impossibility of profound healing that stood out in this Gospel of hope and reassurance.

Charles related his story first: “Well, one day, you know…I don’t really go to see my Mom as much as I should.  So, maybe it was that my Mom didn’t want to tell me, but I saw a friend and he said, “Look, hey, you need to call your Mom…she’s sick.”  And so I did, I called her right away.  She said, “I didn’t know how to tell you, but I found out that I have breast cancer.”  I felt bad for not calling, and I felt terrible for her.  So, I got off the the phone and I prayed to God.  I prayed, “Please God, heal my Mom.”  And I don’t know what I expected because, you know, well…it just doesn’t always happen that way.  But God did heal my Mom.  She doesn’t have cancer anymore.  And that was a changing point for me, you know, in our relationship, too.  So, I know God was there.”

Candy related a story of unexpected healing in her own life.  She shared about her now late husband, who was having very painful struggles with his health at the time: “It just kept going on, week in and week out.  We’d been to the emergency room and I was just so tired.  But, I knew that I had to come to church.  I felt prompted and pushed by the Holy Spirit to come.  So, I came here and there was this visitor, who was someone that I knew who was an Episcopal priest from another part of town.  I didn’t expect to see him, and of course we knew one another and I knew that he was someone who I thought of as having a real gift of healing.  So, after the service he said to me, ‘is everything alright?’ and so I told him about all the pain and troubles my husband was having.  He said, “can we pray together?” and of course, I said yes.  So he held my hands and we prayed; I was actually holding onto his sleeve, the sleeve of his jacket and I thought about that woman, in another Gospel lesson, who had the terrible issue with bleeding and who touched Jesus’ robe.  So, when I got home, my husband was healed from all of that pain and bleeding.”

“Wow!” said Charles.

“Wow is what I said about your mother, too!” said Candy.

There was a moment of quiet between the two of them, the holy space of realizing that it wasn’t just a long-ago story of the impossible, but of the Holy Spirit making the impossible happen even within the comings and goings of their everyday lives.  As they closed the interview and turned off the tape recorder, they decided to pray for each other, too, before going their separate ways.

Nothing, indeed, is impossible with God.

These stories and struggles of life’s impossibilities: struggling with health, hoping for healing, being older in a youth-seeking workforce, humbly trying to find a place to lie one’s head, the power of realizing one’s potential but not knowing how it will happen.  This week’s story sharing seemed to break open the disbelief that keeps us from seeing and knowing God in our midst, opening up to the possibilities that even when we think we are incapable of allowing God’s movement in our lives, we are often living into divine possibility in those very ordinary moments of our extraordinary lives.  No one in these interviews would say that their lives were perfect, and they are certainly not without struggle or loss.  But God was and is clearly present and moving.  In this sharing as we round out the Sundays of Advent in anticipation of all that is to come, we are filled with the hope and expectation of all that is possible with God.

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