Jeff Shrowder: During a week in the Taizē Comminity in France some years ago I explored the Church of reconciliation outside the scheduled prayer times. Large, cavernous and quiet. A series of small, modern stained-glass windows contributed to the subdued lighting. I photographed the one depicting the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth.
There are many traditional symbols for Mary in worship and art.
The apple is a reference to Mary as the second Eve.
A book, when closed is a reference to Mary’s chastity; when open, wisdom.
A fountain or a garden is a reference to Song of Solomon (4:12).
The lily (or fleur-de-lis) is a flower representing the Annunciation.
A mirror refers to Mary’s nature as a reflection of God.
The rose is a symbol of Mary as Mystical Rose, the “rose without thorns.”
A well, closed up, refers to Mary’s virginity (Sol. 4:12).
(Source: Jenny Gallo, Carrot Top Studios)
Magnificat (a haiku)
One young and one old,
pregnant with the fullfilment
of what was spoken. © Jeff Shrowder, 2015.
when the little become the leaders of the mighty;
when the least get the most of our attention;
when the lost find their way into our hearts;
when the last become the ones we follow,
then all our lives will be secure. (c) 2015 Thom M. Shuman
My soul sings in gratitude.
I’m dancing in the mystery of God.
The light of the Holy One is within me
and I am blessed, so truly blessed.
This goes deeper than human thinking.
I am filled with awe
at Love whose only condition
is to be received.
The gift is not for the proud,
for they have no room for it.
The strong and self-sufficient ones
don’t have this awareness.
But those who know their emptiness
can rejoice in Love’s fullness.
It’s the Love that we are made for,
the reason for our being.
It fills our inmost heart space
and brings to birth in us, the Holy One.
(Source: John Shelby Spong’s website “A New Christianity for A New World” 19 Dec 2007)
Singing as an act of resistance – a poem
Notes from a flute
or a Medieval recorder.
bringing calm to disorder.
Notes, songs, harmonies
– the silence in-between –
create spaces in the human heart
open to new scenes.
Deep yearnings cry in new songs
while tyrants silence the arts.
Yet, deep, deep, deep in the underground
A new sound is being born.
So sing, Oh, blessed Mary,
radical zealot, gentle mother;
sing of the Time of Jubilee
coming in our newborn brother.
Sing blessed Mother.
Magnify the Lord.
Sing of longed-for justice.
Embody God’s new Word.
“The haughty rich now brought low;
the humble poor lifted high;
no more vast inequities!”
Your cry up to the skies.
Sing, blessed Mary,
become a new song;
birth earth’s longed-for Messiah
who rights our every wrong.
Teach us, Oh Mary,
the song of new birth,
so all of us can embody
God’s peace here on earth.
@A Poem a Sunday – December 14, 2015 – Kenn Storck
Canticle of the Turning (Magnificat)
– a hymn by Rory Cooney
1. My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn!
2. Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.
3. From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.
4. Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise which holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.
Call to Worship (Isaiah 7: 14)
We look for an extraordinary sign of hope for our world
but God’s sign is most ordinary of all:
A young woman is with child.
We look to power for strength in our world
but God points to the most vulnerable:
She gives birth.
We look far and wide for a key to God’s mystery,
but God points us home:
She calls this child Immanuel: God-with-us!
Let us rejoice, and worship our God
in our ordinary, vulnerable lives:
(c) Susan A. Blain
you make your presence known in unexpected ways,
and challenge our comfortable assumptions about how you work.
Meet us here today
and open our hearts to recognize you in our midst
calling us to live into your new thing:
a world where your love takes shape in justice and peace.
In the name of the One who is coming, we pray: Amen!
(c) Susan A. Blain
Prayer of Confession
In this last week before Christmas,
The busyness and the anxieties of this holiday season
May overwhelm us, and keep us from feeling the wonder of these days.
Let us take a moment to re-order our lives in this reality:
In Jesus Christ, the Love, Compassion and Justice of God
is breaking into our world. A silence is kept.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth: Stir up your might, and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine,
and change our lives with your justice.
O God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed us with the bread of tears,
and given us tears to drink in full measure. Restore us, O God;
let your face shine,
and heal our lives with your compassion.
Reveal to us your Promised One,
the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O God;
let your face shine,
and delight our lives with your love.
Assurance of Pardon
In Christ, the light of God’s love shines in our hearts,
and we are forgiven and given strength to forgive.
Let us give thanks that in Jesus, Emmanuel,
God is truly with us.
Let us celebrate this great grace by offering to one another a sign of Christ’s peace.
Passing the Peace
(c) Susan A. Blain
Call to Offering
The Love of God is born new in the world
as often as we embody that love
in the works of compassion, peace and justice.
Let us offer our gifts in a spirit of generosity and hope. (c) Susan A. Blain
Prayer of Dedication
With these gifts, dear God,
accept the praise and thanksgiving of our hearts,
which rejoice in your goodness and love.
Let our gifts point to your presence in the world,
and further your dream for the world
through Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Amen. (c) Susan A. Blain
Let us go forth with eyes to see and ears to hear and voices to proclaim:
In the ordinary and the vulnerable: God-with-us!
In the challenge of the unexpected: God-with-us!
In love giving life in justice and mercy: God-with-us!
In the work of peace: God-with-us! (c) Susan A. Blain
(*Rev. Susan A. Blain, Minister for Faith Formation; Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts, Local Church Ministries. Copyright 2015 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved)
So Much of the Privileged Life Is About Transcendence
by Christena Cleveland
The difficulty in finding hope and God in the midst of devastation has deep roots in many privileged people’s theology. The privileged life is all about transcendence, living a life that lies beyond the limits of ordinary experience. It’s about avoiding, escaping, or anesthetizing systemic/societal pain. It is quite effective as a system of transcendence in that most privileged people are deeply disconnected from the ordinary experience of many.
In 2017, a woman of color regularly faces food insecurity, violence, and/or housing instability. This is the norm. Since privileged people have agency and mobility, we can typically choose which neighborhoods we want to live in, which schools to send our children to, and which churches to attend. Most privileged people make choices that shield them from the realities of those who are excluded from such stable, safe, and prosperous communities. Intentionally or not, when privileged people choose to participate in economically- and racially-stratified neighborhoods, schools, and spiritual communities, they isolate themselves from the majority of people in their region who experience systemic oppression.
Given that transcendence is central to the privileged experience, it’s not surprising that many spiritual practices that are common among privileged people support a theology of transcendence, a belief that God lies beyond, not within, the limits of ordinary experience.
I recently attended a silent meditation retreat in which we spent all day alternating between walking and sitting meditation. Over course of the week-long retreat, we concluded our daily meditation practice by watching hundreds of chimney swallows gracefully circle the sky and eventually acrobatically swoop into the retreat center’s brick chimney for rest. The meditation teachers invited us to allow the “liturgy of the chimney swallows to wash over us,” and the act of watching this stunning natural theater was coined the “swallow meditation,” thus designating it a distinctly spiritual activity on par with the walking and sitting meditation that we had done all day.
I absolutely loved the swallow meditation and found it to be deeply edifying. And yet, as the only person of color at the retreat, I wondered whether a focused, curious meditation on the devastating effects of environmental racism in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods would have also been designated a spiritual activity. I’ve never been to a meditation retreat that included a “contaminated water meditation.”
Turning our attention toward systemic pain is not something we typically associate with spiritual nourishment and liberation, but what if it is? What if we can’t truly experience the hope of the Divine until we are able to experience the Divine in the most hopeless situations?
Throughout human history, the oppressed peoples of the world have, out of necessity, intentionally turned their focus on God in the midst of the most painful experiences.
Within the Christian tradition it is taught that Mary conceived of the Magnificat while living in dire circumstances as a Jew under Roman occupation, further endangered by her status as an unmarried pregnant woman of color. In her song, she articulates a theology of immanence, the belief that the God of hope is precisely to be found in the midst of uncertainty and distress.
Mary’s theology of immanence has three parts. First, she affirms that God has graced her particular situation, that God is by her side as she experiences oppression in her “lowly” social location:
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my savior.
For you have looked with favor
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your Name.”
Second, she affirms that God is a God of justice who works on behalf of the systemically oppressed:
“Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.”
Finally, she looks to the future with hope, affirming that God is coming to her aid and will fulfill the promises that were made to her ancestors:
“You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
mindful of your mercy –
the promise you made to our ancestors
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”
Unlike the privileged life, Mary’s life as a “lowly servant” fell within the limits of ordinary experience. She was unable to transcend the realities of the oppressed women of color of her day. As theologian Grace Ji-sun Kim teaches us, theology is biography. Mary’s theology grew out of her lived experiences of oppression. Her lived experiences required a robust theology that could withstand the pain and disillusionment that she regularly faced. Her understanding of God had to be intimately linked to her pain, so much so that hope and God were found in pain.
What would it look like for privileged Westerners to intentionally turn toward the very pain that we so often avoid, intentionally seeking out evidence that God is present, active, and bringing hope? Because in the end we must ask ourselves: How can we seek hope and God in the midst of devastating systemic pain if our whole lives are about escaping the reality of such pain?