December 25, 2016

When God Interrupts

On this Christmas Day, or Christmas week, take some time to consider the ways in which the roads and dance of Creation Spirituality were visible in the interaction of the Shepherds and Angels of the Christmas saga. 
The Gospel of Luke says, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)
I would suggest that the Via Positiva was part of the Shepherds daily lives. Living in the fields, watching their sheep and tending to them in order to make a living was simply 'life'. Like us, the Shepherds had a job to do. Like us, most of the time it can seem pretty hum-drum and even repetitive. Like us, they were not expecting God to interrupt their lives. “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them…”
It is not surprising that “they were terrified.” (Certainly fear is a manifestation of the separation of the Via Negativa.) Fortunately, the angels did not leave the Shepherds in suspense for long. “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
By announcing the Good News of the birth of Messiah, the Angels changed the fear of their appearance into a proclamation of something amazing. I suspect that I would still have been a bit afraid and if not for the witness of the other shepherds, I might have thought I was going a bit crazy.
As it is, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” These humble men of the field, who were the first to hear the good news, were also the first to take action and become part of the Via Creativa of God’s work. Instead of huddling in the fields in fear, or dismissing the angels’ visitation as too much to drink, they discussed what they had experienced. In the community of the 'new creation', they experienced solidarity. Then they ‘went in haste and found…the child.’

Not only that, when they had seen that there was a baby truly born in a manger, “they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them…The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” The shepherds were the first to spread the news of Messiah. They were the first to announce the birth of the total Via Transformativa. They were not afraid to tell the story.
Stop and Think: Put yourself in the shepherds’ story. Hear the angels’ announcement and song. Pause to think about the conversation after the angels departed. Imagine the joy at finding the Child.
Let us go, like the Shepherds, to tell others of the real meaning of Christmas. Let those in darkness and fear know that the Light of the Via Transformativa of justice and reconciliation is here!

December 18, 2016

When God comes Knocking

In the past 3 weeks, we have entered the lives and emotions of four of the main characters in the Christmas story. We considered the responses of Elizabeth and Zechariah to God’s ‘yes’. We have walked with Mary and with Joseph as they encounter a God that comes too close and changes human plans.
This week, we’ll stop by the Inn in Bethlehem and explore how the life of a businessman was impacted by God. We’ll ask how his response might inform our own actions along the path of Creation spirituality. There is not a lot to go by in the Gospel record. Most of what we might think about the innkeeper comes from tradition and other stories. In fact, all the Bible says is “there was no place for them in the inn.” This implies an innkeeper, but no person is mentioned. The word translated in the KVJ and other translations as ‘inn’ is kataluma which may also be translated as ‘guest chamber’. (The NIV translation says, “there was no guest room available”.) A ‘guest room’ would imply that Mary and Joseph came to stay with family or friends and were turned away.
In my book, Mary, My Love, the couple does indeed come to a relative’s home. Because of the census, the house is full to overflowing with other descendants of David and so there is no place except the barn (cave) for the late arrivers.
So, let’s explore the response of the innkeeper, be they a family member or stranger, on their journey along the paths of Creation Spirituality.
The Via Positiva of Creation Spirituality is related to holy hospitality. The rich, cosmic, eternal hospitality of God who both creates and is within all of creation. Matthew Fox states, “the Creator God is a gracious, an abundant, and a generous host/hostess. She has spread out for our delight a banquet that was 20 billion years in the making. A banquet of rivers and lakes, of rain and of sunshine, of rich earth and of amazing flowers, of handsome trees and of dancing fishes, of contemplative animals and of whistling winds, of dry and wet season, of cold and hot climates…God has declared that this banquet is ‘very good’ and so are we, blessings ourselves, invited to the banquet.”
Born from the values of desert nomads, where hospitality can mean life or death to the traveler, hospitality was deeply ingrained in Jewish life. Remember the story of Abraham greeting his three visitors by preparing a feast for them. (Genesis 18:1-8). The widow of Zarapheth who cared for Elisha (I Kings 17:8-16) was also honoring that long tradition, even though she was not Hebrew.
When “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…All went to their own towns to be registered.” (Luke 2:2-3) Because many families traced their lineage to King David, many would travel to Bethlehem for this census. This was both an opportunity for hospitality by those in Bethlehem and a burden. I am sure that most residents opened their homes to other relatives and even strangers, as they were able.
Stop and Think: Are you someone who goes overboard for company, or are you more laid back? How does that fit with the extravagant, generous hospitality of God’s creation?
If hospitality is the Via Creativa in the story of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, surely the inability to find lodging is the Via Negativa. I like to give the innkeeper/relative the benefit of the doubt. It is extremely possible that every spare room in Bethlehem WAS filled with travelers when Mary and Joseph arrived.
Some commentators hint that it was because Mary was an ‘unwed’ mother, they were turned away by their family. In fact, she was married to Joseph, at least according to Luke. Matthew simply says, “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” As we saw last week, the betrothal was just as binding as the official ceremony.
For the innkeeper/relative telling the young couple that ‘there is no room’ must have been difficult. He had to admit that he had nothing to give in the way of hospitality. He had to admit to being ‘empty’. No one likes to admit that they didn’t plan well enough or ran out of supplies. I think that is why all the traditions and stories have the innkeeper offering the stable as an alternative. As something poor but at least out of the weather. This was one way to offer some form of hospitality.
Stop and Think: Are there ways you provide ‘just enough’ hospitality in some cases? Does hospitality extend to those who are different or in need?

Providing the stable or cave was a way for the innkeeper to save face. It also made him/her part of the new Via Creativa that was happening. The Gospel tells us, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” Mary gave birth to the Son of God in a humble place. God comes down to our level. In the dust of a stable and the sweat and struggle of a woman giving birth, God becomes Immanuel.
Meister Eckhart asks, “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” He goes on to say “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture.” That is our call to action along the Via Creativa.
As we walk the Via Creativa ‘birthing’ God into the hurting and broken world, we become part of the eternal Via Transformativa. We give life, through our lives, to God with and within us. The good news of God made man changes the dynamic of the world.
CS Lewis explains how the Via Negativa can become the Via Transformativa in The Great Divorce, “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” Lewis uses the same imagery in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan (the great Lion and Christ figure in the book) tells Susan and Lucy, “though the witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little farther back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
Stop and Think: In what ways are you active in the Via Creativa of birthing God into the world?

Consider the words of CS Lewis. What does it imply for your life that ‘agony [will turn into] glory’ and ‘Death itself will start working backward’?
Next week, we'll take a quick look at the Shepherds

December 11, 2016

When God Changes your Plans

This Advent, we are meeting some of the main actors in the Christmas drama in the light of the spiral dance of Creation Spirituality. We’ve seen how Elizabeth and Zechariah encountered God in an amazing ‘yes’ to their years of prayer for a child. That encounter left Zechariah, at least, fumbling in his faith along the darkness of the Via Negativa until he affirmed God’s work by praising and prophesying about his son’s life.
Last week we saw that Mary’s ‘yes’ to God came with consequences when she had to tell her family and her betrothed husband of the words of Gabriel. Mary accepted God’s Spirit into her heart and soul and womb, thereby becoming the bearer of the total Via Transformativa for the world. This week we’ll enter the world of Joseph of Nazareth, Mary’s ‘espoused husband’, as the KJV puts it.
God’s Via Positiva comes crashing into Joseph’s neatly laid plans for a wife and family when Mary tells him of Gabriel’s visit and promise. In the Gospel of Matthew we hear, “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” God’s creative force can prove that our carefully thought out plans are worth nothing. In my book, Mary, My Love, poor Joseph is stunned and unable to believe Mary’s words. She leaves him alone in his shop where “Reeling and devastated, I smashed a fist against the tabletop. The perfection of the smooth finish mocked me with a reminder of my love and her betrayal.”
Stop and Think: When have you encountered God’s plans at odds with your own? What happened?
Joseph was plunged into the Via Negativa, where we can feel like we are far from God. This can happen through our own actions, or through circumstances. In Matthew 1:19 it says simply, “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Because the betrothal is just as binding as the wedding, Joseph was within his rights to divorce Mary or even to have her stoned for adultery. His first response was to doubt her story of an angel visitation and look for ways to get out of the betrothal.
When we are confronted with God’s plan and it seems too incredible or too difficult to comprehend, we can be like Joseph. In my book, he rushes to the hills outside of Nazareth to try and come to terms with what to do. Eventually, “Worn out from the day’s passion, I sank to my knees. The Name of the Most High was all I could say. Over and over I repeated the word. Eventually, I resolved to divorce Mary and send her away to preserve her life.”
The Via Negativa often involves letting go of our deepest desires to accept God’s even better gifts. Joseph decided to divorce Mary, to give up his dreams of life with her, so he could save her life. God sometimes seems to ask us to give up the very thing we most passionately want to hold onto. Many of those ‘tested’ by God are in the genealogy in the first seventeen verses of the Gospel of Matthew. Think of what Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Rachel, Rahab, David, Solomon gave up to be part of God’s work of salvation. In my own life, I was devastated when I had to quit being the “Director of Religious Education” many years ago.
Stop and Think: How does it feel when God seems to take away something special in your life? Is God asking (or has God asked) you to give up something you hold dear?

God does not leave us alone in the Via Negativa. When we turn back to God, we can discover that in fact what we thought was terrible is part of the gracious hand of God as we are involved in the working out of the Via Creativa. For me, leaving the position turned out to be the thing that unlocked other parts of my creativity, like writing. As part of the Via Creativa, we act as part of the divine energy that is the same energy that created and is creating the universe. I recently learned that there is no past tense in Hebrew, so “in the beginning, God creates (not created)”, therefore creation is ongoing and continuous and we are part of it.
Eventually, in the midst of his agonizing struggle with God, and his decision to give up Mary, Joseph finds the path of Via Creativa. The Gospel tells us, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us. (Matthew 1:20-23)
Joseph is assured that his role in the drama is important. ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’ says the angel. Mary will need a husband. The infant will need the protection and nurture of both mother and father. Joseph will be part of the Via Creativa in the child’s life that will help him grow into a good, strong man.
Throughout our lives we circle and ‘dance’ through the four parts of the journey of Creation Spirituality. Matthew Fox quotes Mechtild of Magdeburg who explains, “the Creator has given us two wines to drink from: the white wine of bliss and harmony and ecstasy and the red wine of pain and suffering and loss. To fully live, to live spiritually, therefore is to drink of both wines in our lifetimes.” In the space of time between hearing Mary’s news and coming to accept it as God’s will, Joseph drank of both wines.
Stop and Think: Can you name times when you drank of the white wine of bliss, and of the red wine of pain?

The Gospel of Matthew says, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1: 24-25) In his acceptance of the will of God, Joseph aligns himself with the Via Transformativa. He becomes part of working with God to bring redemptive change to the world.
In my book, when Joseph comes to acceptance, he acts.
The words of Isaiah came to me, ‘A young woman shall be with child, and you shall call his name Emmanuel.’
“Emmanuel.” I said the name aloud. “God is with us.”
The meaning had never seemed so real and possible. Suddenly, God was not a distant figure from the past who only spoke to Abraham and Moses. The One whose true Name was too holy to be spoken had come to a fourteen year-old girl in Nazareth.
“Mary is pregnant by the will of God,” I whispered in awe.
My words were absorbed by the night breeze and my heart thudded at the audacity of such a thought. The memory of my dream reassured me. The touch of the soil in my fist convinced me that I was awake. I watched the moon set. The pre-dawn darkness on the hillside was not frightening. Angels still seemed to hover nearby. A red glow in the eastern sky foretold the dawn.
“I must go to Mary.”
Like Joseph, when we understand that we are, as Madeline L’Engle says “co-creators with God”, we can step onto the Via Transformativa and start working with the Creator of all to change the world for good. That may be just helping a child with homework, posting a positive saying on Facebook, writing a blog, or it could be starting a movement for some social justice issue.
Joseph knew that the path he accepted would not be easy. His part was to be an earthly father and faithful husband. MC Richards notes “Let no one think that the birth of humanity is to be felt without terror. The transformations that await us cost everything in the way of courage and sacrifice. Let no one be deluded that a knowledge of the path can substitute for putting one foot in front of the other.” Joseph had no way of knowing that the journey would take the Holy Family to Egypt and back, or that they would face danger from Herod. He did know that he would need courage. All he knew was that he had accepted God’s will for his life and he must move forward. In fact, all we can each do is step onto the path we think we are called to follow and trust God.
Stop and Think: Do you spend time thinking ABOUT the path, rather than walking the path stretching out in front of you? Are you stuck on the sidelines because you don’t think you have the courage to step out in faith?

Next week, we will see what happens when God comes knocking. 

December 4, 2016

When God is Too Close

This Advent season we are looking at some of the main characters in the Christmas drama through the lens of Creation Spirituality as defined by Matthew Fox. (see last week).
According to Fox there our lives are a four-fold journey that involves the Via Positivia, Via Negativa, Via Creativa, and the Via Transformativa. Throughout our lives we ‘weave through these paths like a spiral danced.’
Mary of Nazareth is a key player in the Christmas story because she agrees to be the one to ‘bear a son and…call his name Emmanuel’ in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to Israel given to King Ahaz centuries earlier. (Isaiah 7:14).

The Via Positiva is defined by Matthew Fox as the part of our life path where we experience awe, delight, amazement in the work of God in the world and in our lives. Mary, a teenage girl in the small town of Nazareth, was not expecting God to interact in her life in any amazing way. She was engaged to the carpenter of Nazareth, a man named Joseph, who she probably didn’t know very well. As was the custom of the time, her parents and his would have made the arrangements for the betrothal. This was much more than a promise to get married. In fact, except for the actual consummation, the Hebrew 1st Century betrothal was equivalent to the wedding. If the man died, the woman inherited just as if she had been his wife.
Mary, as a betrothed girl, would have been busy with preparations for her wedding. She would have been getting blankets and baskets and bowls ready to move to Joseph’s home. He would have been busy renovating or building a home for his bride. Into this everyday world, God comes. Again, it is the angel Gabriel who arrives with an unexpected message. Six months earlier Gabriel visited Zechariah in the Temple. Now, “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.” It must have been an astonishing thing. “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.” Mary appears to be more concerned about why Gabriel calls her favored than by the fact that an angel is talking to her! Perhaps it is easier when confronted with the astonishingly Holy, to cling to the mundane.
Then he continues, ‘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.’
After this astonishing announcement, Mary is understandably confused. “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 as proof of his veracity, Gabriel adds, ‘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.’ Convinced and faithful, “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.” (Luke 1:26-38)
Stop and Think: Consider the difference in response between Mary and Zechariah. Are you more like Mary or Zechariah when you perceive God speaking? Has God ever ‘stepped’ into your everyday world and changed things?

You might wonder what part the Via Negative could play in Mary’s part in the drama. This is the part of our path where things can get rocky. Fox says the Via Negativa is characterized by uncertainty, darkness, suffering, and even letting go. Certainly, Mary had to relinquish her plans for her immediate future. She had to tell her parents and her betrothed husband the news. She had to accept that they were not happy about the situation and maybe even doubted her story.
When she said, “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”, Mary opened herself to the scorn and ridicule of family and friends. Only God could put things right. By trusting God, Mary showed a wisdom above her years. She did not try to convince Joseph or explain things to anyone. She simply waited on God and let go of her own plans. The simple married life she envisioned would never be. God had changed all that when God stepped into her life. Saying ‘yes’ to God’s call isn’t always easy and often means we have to let go of our carefully laid out plans.
Stop and Think: Put yourself in Mary’s sandals. What feelings might you have when you must you’re your parents and Joseph that you are pregnant, by God? What feelings would you have experienced when those who love you, doubt your story?

The Via Creativa is a time for returning to relationship with God which has been broken by the sin, doubt, or suffering of the Via Negativa. With the Via Creativa comes compassion for others. With nowhere else to turn, we can guess that Mary turned to God. There is nothing in scripture that gives any hint. We do know that she acted in a surprising way, for a teenage girl of her time.
She “set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Luke 1:39-40) Perhaps reminded of the angel’s comment about Elizabeth being 6 months pregnant, the girl joined a caravan and went to visit her cousin. This was probably a week-long trek over dirt roads that could be beset by bandits. Mary was very brave both in her ‘yes’ to God, and her journey to see Elizabeth.
Upon reaching their home, she said hello to Elizabeth, who prophesied. ‘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 leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:41-45)
Elizabeth’s words were a balm to Mary’s confused and troubled heart. Seeing that the angel had spoke truthfully about Elizabeth’s pregnancy must have given Mary assurance that she had not imagined the whole incident with Gabriel. She could embrace the promise of God with joy.
 Stop and Think: How often do we try to fix things ourselves instead of turning to God when times get rough? What happened when you let go and let God take care of some difficult situation?

Mary responds to Elizabeth with the famous Magnificat, announcing a change in world order, the arrival of the Via Transformativa, where our lives join with God’s social justice and re-creation. When we come full circle back to union with God’s creativity, we are made more whole than before.
Mary sings, ‘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 for ever.’ (Luke 1:46-55)
In Original Blessing Matthew Fox states, “Justice moves us first because injustice moves us. An erotic justice means first of all getting in touch with our feelings about injustice.” Mary’s Magnificat also calls us to consider the response of God to injustice and our call to work for justice.
Stop and Think: Matthew Fox asks “Do we have such feelings [about injustice]? Do we allow them to be? Do we have feelings toward unemployed…prisoners…small business swallowed by a multicorporate monster?” Do you need to join God in ‘erotic justice’?

The Gospel account in Luke tells us “Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.” The young woman leaves and returns to Nazareth where she will really have to face difficult questions because soon it will be glaringly obvious that she is ‘with child’. She and Joseph will need to face down the gossip. We’ll consider Joseph’s response to Mary and her announcement next week.

For thoughts from another blogger about Mary, her response and ours to God's call to action is on Life for Leaders on December 4.