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On our search for meaning …

A reflection on Luke 1:46-55

A fundamental part of being human is our ongoing search in every phase for identity, for intimacy, for involvement in the world around us by creating and nurturing things that will outlast our very limited life spans. 

Throughout Scripture, we hear again and again this phrase “from generation to generation” which speaks of our need to have something of who we are and what we have contributed to our family, to our community, to our society endure beyond ourselves as we enter an unimagined, and maybe unimaginable, eternity. 

Our search for significance is epitomised in our customs around grief as loved ones all gather together to tell stories of how the deceased’s life somehow fundamentally changed us, made the world a better place; and to receive the comfort that they live on in the eternal arms of God and in the legacies that they leave. 

No funeral is sadder than the one where there are no nice words to offer, no pleasant memories to hold on to – or, as we reflected on in one of last week’s images – where the dead are unclaimed, buried in mass graves, simply gone and forgotten.

From the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, and shaped and formed us for relationship with one another and with all that was part of the very good, we have searched for our particular place in the universe, for the unique gift that I, Yvonne, or you (insert your name) have to offer this interconnected symphony of time and place.

We hear the rhythm of significance resound today in the heartbeat of the Christ child within his mother’s womb – causing another to leap for joy! And in the song of praise that pours out of Mary – an unlikely person to be thought of as significant in her time and place at all. 

A young Jewish woman in a patriarchal society ruled by the Romans, from a lineage of priests, bound to a carpenter from Israel’s smallest tribe, bearing the disgrace of having fallen pregnant outside of marriage, would have had little to offer the world in terms of wealth or or influence or power. 

Yet, she gives voice to a God who brings down the powerful to lift up the lowly, who fills the lives of those who have nothing with good things while sending those who have everything away empty-handed, who shows strength in mercy, and scatters the proud while holding firm to the promises to those who would give up all and follow.

How does she know all this? 

Because God has chosen her in her lowliness to become known as blessed and to carry within her the blessing of salvation for a world for which she really should have very little to offer.

Significance. 

Every person, regardless of age or gender, religious affiliation or sexual preference, tribe or language, bank balance or level of education, ability or occupation is significant to God in ways that we will never ever even begin to understand. 

And being part of the people of God, people made in love in the Divine image, people on the way to a much-needed kingdom of perfect peace and justice, means being open to how God might be working out God’s purposes in and through another … often in opposition to what we think is right or normal or logical or important. 

It also means that God probably has a particular purpose for me (and you), a part that we must play in this particular time and place for the good news song to be coherent and whole in this generation and the next.

As Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoice in God, her Saviour, I find myself wondering today just what surprises God has in store for us and what significance your love, your faith, your life story might have in this ongoing and uncertain time. 

In his book, “Man’s search for meaning,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” What is your “why” for living right now? And what is our “why” for being church? 

In the rhythms of love and the rhythms of loss within the world right now, may we find too the rhythms of significance that keep us moving, dancing, laughing, together, in Jesus’ name.      

Rhythms of significance

We all have a part to play in the Good News story. Today, we reflect on Mary’s song from Luke 1:46-55.

As you listen to the words, reflect in the silence:

  • How does this song compare to the songs you like to sing?
  • Why is this song significant enough to appear in Scripture?
  • Are there any parts that are challenging or confronting?
  • Is Mary’s song also your song in any way?

***

With hearts and hands and voices, glorify the Lord.
Within the very depths of who you are, rejoice in God, our Saviour,
who looks beyond what others see,
beyond the sin and shame of our fragile humanity,
with eyes of love and favour.

Surely the Shepherd of Israel,
the Lord Almighty,
has done great things – for you, for me.

A God of mercy and of strength,
he lifts up the meek and lowly
and fills the hungry with all good things.

Just as we think that the world belongs to the proud and the powerful,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore.

Just as we despair at the growing distance between rich and poor, old and young, sick and healthy,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore

Just as we arrogantly grasp for control over the circumstances and struggles of our lives,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore.

Just as we wonder whether there is still a future for your Church and what part we might play in it,
bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore.

*silence*

May the God of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
the God who is faithful from generation to generation,
remember us in mercy forever.
For indeed, from generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures for those alive to the Divine Rhythm 
with and within them.
Bestow on us the blessing of life together, of life forevermore
In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Rhythms of loss

The song that I invite you to focus on today is actually a third of the very short book attributed to Habakkuk, a much lesser prophet to the people of Jerusalem then Jeremiah, who was also active at about the same time.

His rather unattractive name (my boys always get the giggles), in Hebrew, may actually come from the word for “hug” or “hang on tightly” and, in this final song of the Old Testament, that’s exactly what he does – he hangs on to his faith in God.

This particular song is a prayer – written for the director of music to be played on stringed instruments on “shigionoth” – by wandering, by improvising. As you read the words for the very first time, as those musicians did, try to imagine the mood and volume of the music that would accompany it.  

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.

God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
His splendour was like the sunrise;
rays flashed from his hand,
where his power was hidden.

Plague went before him;
pestilence followed his steps.
He stood, and shook the earth;
he looked, and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled
and the age-old hills collapsed—
but he marches on forever.

I saw the tents of Cushan in distress,
the dwellings of Midian in anguish.
Were you angry with the rivers, Lord?
Was your wrath against the streams?
Did you rage against the sea
when you rode your horses
and your chariots to victory?

You uncovered your bow,
you called for many arrows.
You split the earth with rivers;
the mountains saw you and writhed.
Torrents of water swept by;
the deep roared
and lifted its waves on high.

Sun and moon stood still in the heavens
at the glint of your flying arrows,
at the lightning of your flashing spear.
In wrath you strode through the earth
and in anger you threshed the nations.
You came out to deliver your people,
to save your anointed one.

You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness,
you stripped him from head to foot.
With his own spear you pierced his head
when his warriors stormed out to scatter us,
gloating as though about to devour
the wretched who were in hiding.
You trampled the sea with your horses,
churning the great waters.

I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

Habakkuk 3, NIV

Reflect for a moment:

  • How does this song compare to the songs you like to sing?
  • Why do you think it is significant enough to appear in Scripture?
  • Do you find anything about the song challenging or confronting?
  • What is the mood? And does it shift as the song progresses?

Before writing this powerful and, again, rather confronting song that declares Habakkuk’s unshakeable faith in a majestic and forceful God no matter what may befall him, this very minor prophet had been questioning God relentlessly regarding the corruption and lawlessness of Israel’s society, the increasing prosperity of the rich, and the anguished suffering of the poor.

How long must I call to you for help without you listening?

With so much evil going on in the world, with no able to do something to stop it, why don’t you get involved? 

When will you intervene to punish oppression and expose idolatry? 

Why are you delaying your promised kingdom? 

I don’t know if he liked the answer – those who have built their livelihood through oppression and violence will have their houses plundered; those who have brought about the shame of others will find that it’s their own turn to be disgraced. This was the judgement of God – first, against the Israelites; then, against the Babylonians who would invade, violate, and enslave them for a period of time. 

When we look at the state of the world around us in this season, we too may want to hang onto God with all those questions – questions about justice, the decisions that people make for power and profit, whose lives matter most, about the intrusion of the brokenness of our world into our own personal circumstances through disease and violence and stress and conflict, about the presence or absence of God in the midst of all …

… the loss of dignity…
… the loss of capacity… 
… the loss of company … 
… the loss of significance … 
… the loss of love …
… the loss of life …

I don’t know how easily my own heart would sing that song … “I will wait patiently for the day to come …” though there’s no food, no wine, no oil, no meat “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.” 

I don’t want to struggle. 
I don’t want to feel pain.
I don’t want to have my heart broken.
I don’t want to lose someone I love. 
I don’t want to be bullied.
I don’t want to do without. 
I don’t want to worry about where my next meal is coming from. 

But what do we learn about God if we look beyond our own little lives and wants to the violent and escalating rhythm of loss in our world in this season? 

When we hear the anger and the mourning and the desperation and the wondering and the grasping, grasping, grasping for God, for help, for someone to make it stop, for some way to make sense of it all, what do we learn about the universal human need for salvation and a kingdom of perfect peace and justice for all? 

And how does that move us, shape us, challenge us, change us? 

May we grasp on to that this week. 

And may God’s passion and purpose for this world take hold of us so that loss can meet love – again and again and again and again and again – through us.

Stars

Today marks my 44th birthday and our 3rd year in Australia. There will be no cake or candles; no family birthday dinner; not much time at home even. Which is very unlike how we normally celebrate. 

Instead there will be much meaningful “work” – at my dining room table and, later, at a kitchen table in one of the regional congregations with whom I serve through God’s grace and to God’s glory – as we wrestle through the concerns and challenges and practicalities and opportunities of re-gathering within our various communities in the coming months.

It is a deep joy to be able to spend today in conversation with people who display passion and wisdom and humility and care – for one another and for those to whom they embody the encircling love of God. 

It is a far greater joy to know that we are not in this alone but are, ourselves, encircled in a Love so high and wide and deep and long that it cannot be contained by our often-limited language or thinking or overcome by even the darkest circumstances of our lives. 

Today, I’m getting back to a practice long forgotten: that of picking a “theme song” for the year – something to hold on to, a compass for my course, a bright star in the sky that holds steady through the ups and downs that each new day may bring ….

May you know, this day and always, that the One who holds the stars knows your name. https://www.youtube.com/embed/NtzrLpxM298?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent

You spoke a word and life began
Told oceans where to start and where to end
You set in motion time and space
But still You come and You call to me by name
But still You come and You call to me by name

If You can hold the stars in place
You can hold my heart the same
Whenever I fall away
Whenever I start to break
So here I am, lifting up my heart
To the one who holds the stars

The deepest depths, the darkest nights
Can’t separate, can’t keep me from Your sight
I get so lost, forget my way
But still You love and You don’t forget my name

If You can hold the stars in place
You can hold my heart the same
Whenever I fall away
Whenever I start to break
So here I am, lifting up my heart

If You can calm the raging sea
You can calm the storm in me
You’re never too far away
You never show up too late
So here I am, lifting up my heart
To the one who holds the stars

Your love has called my name
What do I have to fear?
What do I have to fear?
Your love has called my name
What do I have to fear?
What do I have to fear?

If You can hold the stars in place
You can hold my heart the same
Whenever I fall away
Whenever I start to break
So here I am, lifting up my heart (lifting up my heart)

If You can calm the raging sea
You can calm the storm in me
You’re never too far away
You never show up too late
So here I am, lifting up my heart
To the one who holds the stars

You’re the one who holds the stars 

“Stars” by Skillet … from the movie “The Shack”

Thursday: can you feel the love?

This is a very unusual pick for a song to share today, but bear with me ….

I first saw Disney’s The Lion King as a very young woman of eighteen who was just starting out on the adventure – and sometimes misadventure – that is love and dating. This movie marked that special moment when I became someone’s girlfriend for the very first time and suddenly had to grapple with what it meant to share myself with another. (I didn’t do it very well, I must admit!)

Many years later, I sat quite contentedly with a child – my child! – nestled in my arms as we saw the story being brought to life on stage. It was pure magic!

Looking at my two young men this morning, there is part of me that wants to turn back time, to make them small again so that I can steal kisses and cuddles whenever I like, to do certain things better and other things exactly the way that we did them before, to slow down and take time to imprint every moment clearly on my memory … in preparation for the growing up and letting go and moving on that is a natural part of many family life cycles. 

So, today, I’m feeling nostalgic and, as restrictions start to relax, there are some who are SO ready for life to “get back to normal” and others who wish that they could just have a few more months free of social obligations and never-finished to-do lists ….

This song speaks truth in a way that still puts a smile on my face: nothing stays the same, the world moves on. Yet, how magical are those moments when all seems to be in harmony and at peace and we are able to lean into them and be our authentic selves. 

In the many moments that are neither harmonious nor peaceful, may we still feel the great love of the Divine enfolding us and holding us right where we are.

Enjoy!

Today’s song has long spoken into the very depths of my heart of the presence of God in the high and low places of my life. 

When I am down, and, oh, my soul, so weary
When troubles come, and my heart burdened be
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence
Until you come and sit awhile with me

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be ….

You raise me up, today’s version performed by Josh Groban

It evokes, particularly, memories of many trips down from the inland plateau of the Highveld in which Johannesburg is located to the southern coast of Kwa-zulu Natal – for family holidays (both as a child and as a parent), formation for ministry, and silent retreat.

The long drive alone was often a wonderful time of contemplation and quiet as I watched the rolling plains give way to flat fields of wheat and sunflowers to the steep and winding pass through the mountains. 

Always, I would stop for a cup of coffee and to stretch my legs just off of Van Reenen’s Pass … and to get my playlist ready for the next part of the journey. Always this song would play (very, very loudly and on repeat) as my eyes took in the wondrous beauty of God’s good creation in its green and browns and the play of light and dark on the open hills and leafy valleys.

Always, the words of the Psalmist would come to mind:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, 
the Maker of heaven and earth. 

Psalm 121:1-2, New International Version

As you listen, may you feel the hands of God enfold you gently,
offering you sufficient help for this day, 
and leading you into life in the wide open spaces
of mercy and grace.

Thursday: in the cross

Well, it’s Thursday already. 

It’s been a morning of running errands that were postponed until the end of Holy Week and of trying to make inroads into the 109 hours that still remain for the learner driver in the house. I am aware of the unread mails and messages lurking behind this (once) almost blank screen and of the rumbling in my belly that says it’s nearly time to do something about lunch. 

How quickly life returns to normal; shifts from the sacred back into the ordinary. And how hard it is to hold on to the passion of Easter and the Good News message of God’s great love for the world when there are practical things that need to be done. 

So … the song I’d like to share with you today is one that I grew up singing in church on Sundays. Even though it’s from the Methodist Hymn Book (number 199), I call it a song because the version below is not at all “hymny” and I love it! 

In our busyness, 
in our dailyness,
in our brokenness,
may Christ keep us close to the cross.

***

Jesus, keep me near the Cross;
There a precious fountain,
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

In the Cross, in the Cross,
Be my glory ever; 
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.

Near the Cross, a trembling soul,
Love and mercy found me;
There the bright and morning star
Shed its beams around me.

In the Cross, in the Cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.

Near the Cross, O Lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day,
With its shadow oe’r me.

In the Cross, in the Cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.

Near the Cross I’ll watch and wait,
Hoping, trusting ever,
Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.

In the Cross, in the Cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.Methodist Hymn Book 199 – Frances Jane van Alstyne

Monday: sanctuary

There is a beautiful song that is usually offered on Easter Sunday evening – a song that is rarely heard after sunrise services and easter egg hunts and roasts with families have left our hearts full and our bodies ready for bed. 

It’s a song that acknowledges the painful history of the people of God – of immigrants, exiles, and slaves. 

It’s a song of the homeless. Of the wanderer. Of the displaced. Of the thirsty – for whom God turns the hard rock into springs of water. 

When Israel came out of Egypt,
Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;
the mountains leaped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Why, Jordan, did you turn back?
Why, mountains, did you leap like rams,
you hills, like lambs?
Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turned the rock into a pool,
the hard rock into springs of water.

Psalm 114, New International Version

This Easter Monday, we rejoice in the Good News that Christ is risen.

But, for those who still find themselves in the hard place, may you know in that still, small space where hope hesitantly holds on that you are the sanctuary of God. 

May God “split open boulders and bring up bubbling water” day by day as we seek to live as people of the resurrection.

Tune in on Thursdays

One of the great gifts that I am discovering in this new time are the “tunes” that really talk to my heart – some pretty ancient and powerful, and some freshly penned as people give expression to the lament and the longing of the world right now. 

This morning I flipped through my granny’s old Methodist hymn book – complete with pencil scribbles – until I came to 431: Love Divine. This was the hymn that I chose before offering my public testimony to God’s continued call upon my life to be ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament, with the middle verse sung in isiXhosa in recognition of the great diversity of God’s people. It will also, one day in the very far future I hope, be sung at my mom’s funeral.

This Thursday, I offer the words to you to reflect on: words which bind me in this present moment to a past that speaks of God’s faithfulness and a future which is full of promise; words which speak of a Church that crosses oceans and transcends time; words which call us to the kind of love that transforms us from the inside out. 

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down;
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown:
Jesu, Thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Come, almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more Thy temple leave:
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray, and praise Thee, without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish then Thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Til in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

Or, if you’d like to listen:

I wonder, what song is in your heart at the moment? You might want to take a minute to comment on this post or to send me an email (yvonne@liturgies4life.com) so that it can be included in a future “Tune in on Thursdays.”

Yours in Christ
Yvonne