Are You Ready?

 

I stood in her kitchen, holding a pan of lasagna.

She was a new mother and she had the disoriented look of someone who had just parachuted into enemy territory. I guess you could say that’s exactly what had happened to her, because this was not the homecoming she had planned. For one thing, after spending an extended time in the hospital, her newborn was already a month old. For another, his head was held in place by a metal bolt through his neck.

My friend who was involved in a ministry to parents of babies born with major cranio-facial abnormalities asked if I would bring this new mother dinner, since we lived in the same town. Even more than most new mothers, this woman had very little time or energy to worry about such mundane tasks as making dinner. So there I was, making awkward small talk with this woman I had never met.

After thanking me several times, she finally asked, “Why did you do this for someone you don’t know?”

I blathered on about how happy I was to help, that I knew she needed one less thing to worry about. All that was true, of course, but I could tell it wasn’t a satisfying answer. After all, why would a perfect stranger walk into her house bearing dinner?

I offered something bland and vague, along the lines of “I’m happy to help,” but even I knew that was inadequate.

Here’s what I wished I had said:

“I’m here because God loves you and I am just His caterer.”

“I’m here because God wants you to know that you and your son are perfect and precious to him.”

“I made you lasagna because God has rescued me from pain and confusion and exhaustion and I want you to know that he will do the same for you.”

Most of all, I wished I had said that I didn’t bring dinner because it was the nice thing to do. I didn’t cook for her because, as the Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying, ” My religion is kindness.”

The world can certainly use all the kindness it can get; I’m not discouraging it.  God knows (and I mean that literally) that we need to be more tolerant, compassionate and helpful to one another.

But the kindness of bringing dinner fills your belly, but not your soul.

Kindness can offer kinship and fellowship, but it doesn’t offer hope and it doesn’t comfort you when everyone has gone home and you are alone with your pain and fear.

No, my religion isn’t kindness.

My religion is belief in a God who sees beauty where the world sees deformity. My religion worships a God who knows what it means to be human, in all its glory and all its pain, and never leaves us.

My religion is in awe of a God whose Holy Spirit could overcome my fears and allow me to hold this mother’s child, looking past the rod in his neck, and smile at his sweet face.  I brought her a meal and she was appreciative.  I cooed at her baby boy and she was joyous.

Still, I regret my silence all those years ago. I take comfort in the possibility that maybe someone else was bolder than I and told her all the things I should have.

I’ll be ready next time.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;  yet do it with gentleness and reverence.   

                                                                                                       1 Peter 3:15-16

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The Gift of Hope

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This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope.  

I don’t mean the kind of hope we casually toss about in our every day conversations. We say “I hope you feel better” and what we really mean is that we want it to be true, and — fingers crossed — maybe it will be. It is no more than a wish we might make on a shooting star.

That kind of hope is easy, cheap and useless.

No, the hope I want is different. Not a facile, throwaway pleasantry, the hope I want is grounded in certainty and expectation. When God’s people say they have hope, it means they fully expect something to happen, despite any evidence to the contrary.

In the times of trouble, when darkness whispers that there is no light and never will be again, people of hope hear another voice. Probably the most radical thing the Christian faith teaches is that even in these dark moments — especially in these dark moments — we can can hear that other voice, reminding us that God is faithful. Faint at first, then growing stronger and louder, we hear the words that say we can hope in God because He has never forsaken us and never will.

Although we can’t be certain how or why or when, hope says we can be confident that God will act.

Scripture is full of this kind of hope. The Psalms declare over and over God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; the Prophets warn of God’s judgement, but just as often remind us of his inviolable covenant with us. But for my money, if you want to know what real hope looks like, listen to Mary’s song in the gospel of Luke:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate 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 away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Now this is a young woman who has every reason to be afraid and worried. She knows that her pregnancy will, at best, make her the subject of gossip, snickering and shaming. She knows that at worst, it could lead to her death as an adulterer.  She has been given the unimaginable responsibility of raising the Messiah, something nothing can really prepare you for.

And yet she has hope — not the wishing kind that would have her saying, “Man,it would really be nice if God shows up!”

Her hope is the expecting kind, the kind that says, “I know what God has done in the past, and I know He will do it again.”

Confession: There’s a cynical world-weariness still lurking in dark corners of my soul that thinks this not something a real person could actually do or feel in times of trouble. The Mary I met in Sunday school was someone so impossibly holy that although I found her admirable, she was no more real than a princess in a fairy tale.

And yet, as I have grown in age and faith, I know that there are people — real people — who have the same kind of expecting hope as Mary. Real people who face uncertainty with the certainty that God will act. Ordinary people who face death — their own or others’ — with a peace that undergirds to their grief. And I ask myself, how do they do it?  How did Mary? 

The answer lies in the angel’s declaration to Mary: “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 called holy—the Son of God.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is what will make the impossible — a virgin conceiving — happen. It is also what makes it possible for her to have the joyous hope she sings about in her great song of praise.

Her expecting hope is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit.

My jaded reaction that having this kind of hope isn’t something that real people could do is partly right: it isn’t something that comes naturally to us, or something we can manufacture. It is a gift we receive from God, a gift we can ask for and that will be joyfully given, a gift we can nurture, a gift that is nothing less than a beautiful mystery.

This gift allows Mary and us to do two things: remember God’s faithfulness to the individual and the community.   First, the gift of the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has already done for her:

“For He who is mighty has done great things for me”  

Second, the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has done for her community:

“He has shown strength with his arm…
he has exalted those of humble estate …
he has filled the hungry with good things …
He has helped his servant Israel …”
This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to come upon me and the power of the Most High to overshadow me, as He did to Mary.   I am praying Paul’s powerful prayer from Romans Chapter 15 over myself and over a world sorely in need:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope.”

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