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. 

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