Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Faithful Partner to Mystery

Years before the 1992 release of John Gray’s book Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars, I knew there was something very different about me and my sister.  I think my awareness first came into focus after a middle school youth activity at the church where we grew up.  When we got home my mom asked me what I thought of the event.  “It was fine,” I said.  “Did you have fun,” she asked?  “Yes,” I said.  Then she asked my sister what she though and my sister spent the next two and a half hours describing a church function that lasted only an hour and a half.  Flash forward twenty years and I found myself serving as a priest in a parish when a dear woman made one of the most quotable remarks I have ever heard, “If you can’t talk to my husband about golf or the weather you are going to have a very short conversation!”

This morning we heard about the birth of Jesus as described by Matthew’s gospel.   On Tuesday night we will hear the same event as told by Luke.  Luke follows the story from Mary’s perspective while Matthew traces it through Joseph.  True to all the stereotypes about men and women, Luke’s gospel has detail and drama and flourish and feeling.  Matthew’s gospel follows the model of a ‘Joe Friday’ police report – just the facts mame.  We heard a spiel about Joseph’s anxiety dream and then the basic facts.  This definitely is the way a guy would tell the story.

In spite of this minimalist approach to storytelling, Joseph has been, and remains, a character whose life is well explored; sometimes in surprising ways.  A little while back, the rock group The New Pornographers (whose lyrics, I feel confident, never before have been quoted from this pulpit until now) released a song from Joseph’s perspective:   

Rumors are flying
All over Galilee these days
And Mary, I’m trying 
To be cool

When my friends walk by
They cannot look at me 
In the eye
Baby, I’m trying

You’re asking me to believe in too many things

I know this child
Was sent here to heal our broken time
And some things are bigger
Than we know…

You’re asking me to believe in so many things

And then there is this song released a couple of years by The Killers (a group whose songs I am sure you hum to yourself as you drive home from church):

Well, your eyes just haven’t been the same, Joseph…

Are the rumors eating you alive, Joseph?

When the holy night is upon you

Will you do what's right, the position is yours…

When they’ve driven you so far that you think you’re gonna drop

Do you wish you were back there at the carpenter shop?

With the plane and the lathe, the work never drove you mad

You’re a maker, a creator, not just somebody’s dad

From the temple walls to the New York night

Our decisions rest on a man.

Both songs explore how difficult it would have been to be in Joseph’s position.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a Methodist pastor, publishes a daily meditation on his blogsite called Unfolding Light.  This is his reflection from earlier this week:

in the dumb background,
saint of the detour,
of the unknown road,
no belief or wisdom is asked of you,
only your willingness.

Much is taken;
that divine thief in the darkness
has stripped you of your desire,
your hand upon the tool,
your way,
the plan in your head
with which you needed no other plan.

Now you are asked
to become a tool without knowledge,
faithful partner to a mystery.

“A faithful partner to mystery.”  I like that a lot.  When I think about that husband whose conversations were limited to golf and the weather I remember him as being a faithful partner to mystery.  His wife, she was the spiritual one: loving, nurturing, prayerful, reflective.  He was none of these things, but he knew how and when to sit, stand, and kneel during the service and he knew how to stand by his wife and how to support his family and how to contribute to the work and mission of the parish.  There was more than a little bit of Joseph in him.

During a 1936 lecture on the spiritual life, the writer Evelyn Underhill gave credence to what I am saying.  Listen carefully to what she said:

The riches and beauty of the spiritual landscape are not disclosed to us in order that we may sit in the sun parlor, be grateful for the excellent hospitality, and contemplate the glorious view.  Some people suppose that the spiritual life mainly consists in doing that.  God provides the spectacle.  We gaze with reverent appreciation from our comfortable seats, and call this proceeding Worship.

No idea of our situation could be more mistaken than this.  Our place is not the [sanctuary] but the stage­ – or as the case may be, the field, workshop, study, laboratory – ­because we ourselves form part of the creative apparatus of God, or at least are meant to form part of the creative apparatus of God.  He made us in order to use us, and use us in the most profitable way; for His purpose, not ours… 

Underhill goes on to say that sometimes we know how God is using us while other times we don’t.  Other times we are content with what we are doing, but it gets taken away and we are called to do something else.  And then there are those of us labor at the same task for years and years.  None of it – not a bit – may seem particularly holy or spiritual, but Underhill points out that everything we do in life – from our vocation to our volunteer efforts to simply being a part of a family and a community – can be used by God (as she says) in a profitable way.  No matter what the circumstances, she describes our response as having “all self-willed choices and obstinacy drained out of what we thought to be our work; so that it becomes more and more God’s work in us.”

It seems to me that every Mary needs a Joseph.  Every person whom God calls to do great things needs someone – actually, more like many, many people – who will be faithful partners to mystery.  These people, like Joseph, are not the ones through whom God acts dramatically, but their role is still significant and their participation necessary.  They may only be able to talk about golf and the weather but their contribution is measured not in words, but rather through deeds. 

The holy mystery that was present in Mary needed a faithful partner.  It found this partner in the person of Joseph.  Who bears God’s mystery in your life?  How are you a faithful partner?