November 27, 2016
Every Advent Season College Park works with a theme to unite our services as we lead up to Christmas Day. This year’s conversation began at the August staff meeting. We threw out ideas to brainstorm and then adjourned to let them ‘cook.’ A few weeks later, Michael sent an e-mail, floating the idea of using anxiety as our uniting theme. We all felt strong energy around exploring how we live with anxiety and stress daily. Our concern was how living in such an environment affects our bodies, our lives, our relationships with one another and our relationship with God. We especially wanted to look at how holidays can impact the stress and anxiety we all are already living with. And so… “All Is Not Calm” was born. Imagine it’s Christmas Eve, we’re all standing together, singing: “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright….” But while we’re singing, how many of us are on auto-pilot? How many of us are in heated mental debates with ourselves as to exactly what calm looks like and just how long has it been since the we felt calm? So, as we move into this Advent Season, we want you to begin considering what/where in your life is not calm?
Now, Lin and Michael insist that asking the graduate student heading into finals to begin this series was coincidental. But I wonder….
When I think about what All is Not Calm means for me, I kept returning to my old bereavement roots. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Holmes Rahe Stress Inventory, but it was designed in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. They wanted an instrument to measure how stress impacts a person’s health. They believed that stress causes illness. And their research confirmed that the more stress a person feels the more likely their health could be compromised. What most surprised me was how many ‘positive’ or ‘happy’ events ranked as stressful. (15/43) On a scale of 100, a new marriage ranked at 50. Marital reconciliation at 45. Pregnancy was 40. Vacations are at 13 and major holidays are at 12. (perhaps you’d rank that higher?)
After taking the inventory, you add up your score to determine your stress level. As a bereavement counselor, we wanted people to begin recognizing the current stress factors in their life in addition to their loss. But that was just the starting point. Our goal was for people to realize that what most mattered in combatting stress was the importance of resiliency. Resiliency is when a person’s perspective or outlook allows them to look at a stressor and begin finding new ways of thinking and feeling through challenges.
Now I don’t want to move us so quickly to resiliency that we lose the importance of exploring how ‘good news’ can be stressful. Does hearing that surprise you? Do you question how it can be possible? Or can you remember a time when you received good news where as excited as you were, you felt regret, loss or anxiety over this new experience? I’ve got a very recent example. When we plan worship as a staff and are deciding who will play which role…the question we ask is: “Is this good news to you?” So when asked if preaching was good news to me, my answer was (and still is) an emphatic YES…this is great news! But then….. the doubts and questions and worryings began. “What was I thinking? “I haven’t preached since I was a senior in high school!” “I have a Hebrew exam and a timeline due that week. I’m leading a labyrinth walk at school the next day! How can I possibly juggle everything and do as well as I want to do?” “How will I make it up and down the steps with this darn ankle? What was I thinking?!”
Does that sound familiar to anyone? Do similar soundtracks ever play for you?
Or, on a more serious level, being pregnant with my two boys was, for me, the biggest and best ‘good news’ EVER! But my experience with miscarriage colored both of my pregnancies. I had lost the illusion that I could keep my children safe even if they were inside me. So, can ‘good news’ be ‘good news’ even with our fears and our questions? Do we allow ourselves to acknowledge that good news can scare us? To ourselves? To our friends and family? To God?
When I started thinking about relevant Scripture, I really thought I was going to talk to you all about Elizabeth and Mary…. the stress of their unexpected pregnancies and the resilience inherent in their support of one another (which I still think would be an amazing sermon). But in re-reading Luke, an unexpected voice spoke to me of his experience with ‘good news.’ Luke is the only gospel that tells the story of the parents of John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth stand in a well-established Biblical tradition of miraculous children being born to older, barren couples. They also serve as a foil to the story of Jesus’s conception to Mary and the Holy Spirit.
Let’s think about our Scripture for today:
I once heard someone refer to John the Baptist as the ultimate PK (preacher’s kid). His father came from a long line of priest as did his mother. Luke declares that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous and lived blameless lives by following all God’s laws. But they were childless and both were getting on in years. Zechariah still served in the rotation of priests and on this particular day he was chosen to enter the inner temple and offer incense to the Lord. And he found Gabriel, God’s messenger, waiting for him. Gabriel told Zechariah that his prayer had been heard. Elizabeth would bear a son and they would name him John. This child, filled with the Holy Spirit, would return his people back to their God. And Zechariah asked Gabriel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”
“I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news…..”
A man with gray, thinning hair, dressed in his best robes, smelling strongly of the cedar they’d been packed in since last year, his joints stiff on a cold morning, moving into the sacred space, the holy of holies…his mind focused on his duty, the preparation and ritual… the prayers of the people trailing after him like the smoke of the incense he has not yet lit…. And an angel of the Lord appears…an angel of the Lord appears…..offering him the deepest held desire of his and his wife’s hearts. A child. A dream they had tearfully and regretfully let go. A son…’who will be great in the sight of the Lord.’
Zechariah asks: “How will I know that this is so?” and is rendered mute for 9 months.
Traditional translation views his muteness as punishment for disbelief. But in reading this story with an awareness of the stress of ‘good news,’ I can’t help but think another interpretation is possible.
James R. Luck, Jr. writes:
“…Zechariah was hardly the first to be struck mute in the presence of the holy. There are a great many affinities in this pericope with the book of Daniel, especially chapter 10, where Daniel is struck mute. When the holy crashes into our world, and our assumptions are confronted with new realities, a response of fear, shock, and even speechlessness would seem to be reasonable.”
Zechariah is not the first person to wonder at an extraordinary birth announcement. Remember Sarah in Genesis 18? When she eavesdrops on Abraham and his angelic visitors, she hears that she will bear a son to Abraham. And what does she do? She laughs and then denies laughing when questioned.
Also in Luke 1, we have Gabriel’s visitation to Mary. (Luke 1: 30-34, NRSV)
30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[c]
We have two very different characters both receiving the ‘good news’ of a child’s birth from God’s messenger. Zechariah is an elderly, married priest who had long ago realized that his life would be childless. Mary is a young woman, newly engaged, focused on her upcoming marriage not on childbearing. Both respond to Gabriel with a question…but it is Mary, and not Zechariah, who receives an answer. Yet even with the different responses, both Zechariah and Mary come to the same place of glorifying and praising God for news that is not only good, but news which will change the world as they know it…and news which is still changing the world in which we live today.
Mary’s “Magnificat” is well-known. She sings: “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1: 46-47)”. But do you know that Zechariah sings as well? His hymn, the “Benedictus,” occurs in verses 68-79. He sings: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness….” (Luke 1: 78-79). Neither Mary nor Zechariah sing immediately following their encounters with Gabriel. Time elapses before either of them can sing in response to the good news given to them. It is that time of transition that I want to consider. We cannot know, Luke does not tell us, how Zechariah and Mary moved from their questioning to their singing.
This is where I want us to begin thinking about the idea of resiliency. When we receive ‘good news’ that holds mixed emotions for us, how do we begin to move forward? When All Is Not Calm…how do we begin to sing our hymns of praise?
When I ask that question, I keep hearing a verse from Psalm 139. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well” (Psalm 139:14). We are, all of us, fearfully and wonderfully made! The line right before that verse says “it was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” God knows us well enough to know even when we struggle with the good news of the life he offers us. And in knowing us so well, in the very formation of our bones, God gifted us with the capacity for resilience. We have all the tools and resources we need to navigate the challenges that life presents.
When we are resilient, we are aware that we have a choice. It might be the choice to change the situation….or it may be the choice to change how we respond to a situation itself. I heard a story once that speaks to this.
The Farmer and the Donkey
One day, a farmer’s donkey fell into a well. The animal cried and cried as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, the well had dried up…it would be easier to leave the donkey where it was. He asked his neighbors to come help him. They all grabbed shovels and began to fill in the well. When the donkey realized what was happening, its cries grew even more piteous…but then stopped.
The farmer looked down into the well and was astonished. The donkey was shaking off the dirt. As the dirt continued pouring into the well, the donkey would shake it off and step up on the rising mound of dirt. Soon, everyone watched in amazement as the donkey stepped over the edge of the well and trotted off, leaving the farmer behind. Perhaps he was even singing as he went!
Now the donkey was definitely not in what we would consider a good news situation, but its ability to reframe a situation and transform a block into a resource underlines the importance of one’s outlook. When we use what life has given us….in circumstance, in gifts and abilities… we learn how to move forward; we learn how to sing. As Mary sang. As Zechariah sang.
Think back to Michael’s sermon last week. As he spoke, I kept hearing parallels to the message I hoped to write for today. What most resonated with me was when he talked about how that it is what is inside you that helps shape what you see. Today, think about how it is that which is in you that helps shape how you respond. Remember Zechariah. What was it in him that moved from stunned speechlessness to praising God? Think of your life. [This month…this week…this day…] Where do you notice yourself feeling that all is not calm? Where do you find yourself questioning the good news of your life? We never stop noticing or finding such things. But we also never stop realizing that that God’s grace and love give us the answers that we need to begin.
May the God of good news strengthen and support you. Go forth singing your doubts and your joys; your questions and your praises, knowing that God hears and cares for each and every one. And as you leave this space know that as you have chosen God so has God chosen you.