Better songs

We are shaped by the stories we tell. The stories of our childhood, the stories of our families, the stories of our nation. The stories we tell are like river beds in which our lives flow; they give our lives definition and direction.

When I mention Luke, some of you will remember a friend from school or an uncle, others will think of the gospel, and for a good number of us these days, any mention of Luke will make us think of Skywalker. Our lives shape the stories we tell, and the stories in turn shape our lives. I was reminded of that when Nancy, Miles and I went to see the new Star Wars movie. No, I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet by commenting on the plot line or my favorite scenes. It’s not the movie I want to talk about. We went to the theater early to make sure we would get good seats, and that meant we got to see every movie preview and game commercial. Sitting in the dark, surrounded by larger than life sound, I noticed that each of the previews portrayed life on earth as under threat by some alien power, and in each case the very survival of the planet and of humanity depended on heroes who were smarter in their use of violence than the respective enemy. I love it when, against all odds, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles with courage and creativity, in the end the good guys win. I love it when the good guys win and the bad guys run or, better yet, when they fall into their own hellish traps and perish. It’s a very satisfying experience. But I can’t watch those trailers without wondering what those myths of power do to us, why we tell them when we tell them, how they shape us, and what an overwhelming counter narrative they represent to the story the church is called to embody and proclaim, the story of God’s faithfulness revealed in Christ.

The gospel does not overwhelm us, manipulate us, or coerce us. God speaks and patiently awaits our yes, our “let it be with me according to your word,” our consent to let our lives be part of God’s story of life and its consummation. It’s what Mary said to the angel who had told her she would have a child and she would name him Jesus.She didn’t know how this could be, but the angel told her about Elizabeth who in her old age had conceived a son and was now in her sixth month. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said; “let it be with me according to your word,” and then she set out and went to the Judean hill country to see Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted to see for herself what she had heard. Perhaps she needed to be with somebody who had her own experience with God’s wondrous ways. Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child. “Years of trying to have a child of our own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month,” wrote a man who wanted to be a father, reflecting on the experience of infertility.

“Nothing could break the sinister hold of barrenness on our lives, not strict adherence to whatever expert advice we could get, not prayer, not the latest fertility techniques, not fasting, nothing. One hundred months’ worth of hopes, all dashed against the stubborn realities of bodies that just wouldn’t produce offspring. … Every time we would go to worship, the laughter and boisterous-ness of the little ones milling around … would remind me of unfulfilled dreams. The season of Advent was the worst. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,’ I would hear read or sung in hundreds of different variations. But from me a child was withheld. The miracle of Mary’s conception, the rejoicing of the heavens at her newborn child, the exultation of Elizabeth, all became signs of God’s painful absence, not God’s advent.”[1]

Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child, like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, the great mothers of old, and like them, she was surprised by God who makes a way where there is no way. Mary, on the other hand, was a young teenager just entering her childbearing years, engaged but not yet married, and her pregnancy also came as a surprise, difficult to explain to her family and her future husband. She had not auditioned for her part. God entered her experience with a promise that was not even on the horizon of her hopes; she responded with the yes of faith, and the river of her life turned in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of.

Entering the house, Mary greeted Elizabeth and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped. It was John’s first prophetic act, a little dance of joy, a somersault perhaps, the prophet of the Most High greeting the Son of the Most High. And he was not the only prophet. Filled with the Holy Spirit, his mother blessed Mary and the new life she carried and called her “the mother of my Lord.” And then Mary began to sing her song of praise. It was the first Advent congregation welcoming the Son of God with blessing, joy and praise. It was a marvelous moment of long-held hope and fresh fulfillment embracing each other – no media, no press releases, only exuberant, joyful praise from somewhere in the southern hill country, nowhere really on anyone’s map among the movers and shakers of the day.

“The Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary began to sing. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” the church began to sing. What about the couple for whom “years of trying to have a child of [their] own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month”? After nine long years of waiting, Miroslav and Judy adopted two children, and he was surprised by how the river of their life turned.

“During those nine years of infertility, I wasn’t waiting for a child who stubbornly refused to come, though that’s what I thought at the time. In fact, I was waiting for the two boys I now have, Nathanael and Aaron. I love them, and I want them in their unsubstitutable particularity, not children in general of which they happened to be exemplars. Then it dawned on me: Fertility would have robbed me of my boys… Infertility was the condition for the possibility of these two indescribable gifts. And understanding that changed my attitude toward infertility. Since it gave me what I now can’t imagine living without, poison was transmuted into a gift, God’s strange gift. The pain of it remains, of course. But the poison is gone. Nine years of desperate trying were like one long painful childbirth, the purpose of which was to give us Nathanael and Aaron… It’s them that I love. It’s them that I want. And it’s they who redeem the arduous path that led to having them.”

Our lives shape the stories we tell, and the stories in turn shape our lives. We tell the story of God’s faithfulness and of the wondrous ways in which God moves creation toward its consummation with redeeming mercy. We tell the story and we sing it. We sing justice. We sing redemption. We sing the end of hunger and war. We sing with Mary of the One who has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. We sing the resurrection. We sing the triumph of God’s kingdom over the empires of the world. We sing the peace of Christ.

In Guatemala in the 1980’s, the public reading of Mary’s song was forbidden as subversive activity. It wasn’t the first time. When Martin Luther first translated the Bible into German at the beginning of the 16th century, he left Mary’s song in Latin. The German princes who gladly supported Luther in his struggles with Rome, were nervous about the peasants singing too lustily with mother Mary of the One who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. But the princes’ maneuvering did not then nor will it ever prevent God’s merciful gaze from lifting up the lowly.

In the late 80’s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christians in Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings in and around St. Nikolai church to pray for peace and to sing. They lit candles, week after week, and they sang songs of hope and protest and justice, and their numbers grew from a few dozen to more than a thousand and eventually to more than three hundred thousand men, women, and children. After the fall of the Wall, a reporter asked an officer of the Stasi, the dreaded secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others. The officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”[2]

In every generation, the servants of death may have the bigger guns, but we have the better songs. The old woman, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out blessings and wonder, and the young woman began to sing of God’s ancient promise of salvation being fulfilled. Soon, very soon, we will set out once again and go with haste to Bethlehem to see what God has done for us. We will kneel next to the manger and all that is proud and powerful in us will be brought down and scattered. But all that is lowly and poor, humble and hungry in us will be lifted up and strengthened and filled. Soon, very soon, we will hear and tell and sing the story of Jesus’ birth, the good news of great joy for all the people, and with gratitude we will continue to live into God’s story.


[1] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 31-32.

[2] David Lose