An excerpt from The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise
“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 who are low” (Lk. 1:51-52)
I met Joyce on a Monday evening at Embrace United Methodist Church. For about five years I took a group of students to Embrace each month to help serve the community meal, to feast together, and to worship. Over the past few years we’ve developed some great relationships. Mary is my best friend there. She always takes my picture and holds up her phone next to a yellowed wallet sized photo of her late husband, Dave, and asks (re: tells) everyone about the uncanny resemblance. The other day she used the word “reincarnation.”
But this was my first time meeting Joyce. I think Joyce is young, perhaps in her late thirties, early forties, but it’s hard to say. The age of her hair doesn’t match the number of years under her eyes. I’m afraid she has the quality of a face that has learned to love everyone but herself. She is quick to smile, even quicker to look down. Her eyes sink with her shoulders, low.
When I sat between her and Mary on Monday she was accommodating. Mary did the ritual with the phone and the picture. “I can see it,” Joyce convinced herself. (I look absolutely nothing like Dave.) We then began sharing our stories across the table. It turns out Joyce “grew up in this church. This is my church.” A number of churches had in fact passed through the building, but she knew her church as this building. I know, I know. “The church is the people, not the building.” But the fact is, the faithfulness of the building almost always outlasts the faithfulness of the people. People had not always been there for Joyce, but this building had. This was Joyce’s church.
She spoke about her early days in the way you hear parents talk about children growing up too fast. Her words ached. They made me ache. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it had to do with the thought of Joyce-the-little-girl running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary. It had to do with the thought that there was a time when Joyce had a sanctuary. And it was the awareness that at some point along the way something happened to her, and that sanctuary was gone, or at least the girl who used to play in that sanctuary was gone.
And maybe it also had to do with the memory of Jeremy-the-little boy running up and down the halls in the sanctuary of the place I called ‘my church’ growing up. But the church I grew up in is now part of an irretrievable past that I remember with the same ache in the deep part of Joyce’s eyes and the lost part of Joyce’s words. There was a time when I had a sanctuary, when I was a little boy at home in God’s big house. But at some point along the way something happened, and that sanctuary was gone, and that little boy decided to leave home and grow old. I have so longed to go to that little boy and reassure him, to get him to turn around, to stay, but I cannot. He is back there with that little girl. And now, here we are, older, lower.
During our conversation Joyce was texting back and forth with someone. With each text she seemed to be getting more anxious, and the more anxious she got the more troubled she seemed talking about ‘old times’. It was as though her cherished past was in confrontation with her very heavy present. Then, out of nowhere, she exclaimed, “I heard the voice of God in this church! I heard the voice of God in that room over there!” She began to weep and repeated, “I heard his voice. I heard his voice.”
“What did he say, Joyce?”, I asked.
“I’m not done.” She said it resolutely. “I’m not done!”
I don’t know what that meant to Joyce, but I know she heard it. I know she believed it more than I think most people ever believe anything. I think she believed in those words more than she believed in herself. She believed it like she had to believe it, like if it weren’t true nothing is true, like if there’s no hope in what God is going to do then there’s no hope at all. I also know God said it to her, because that is the kind of thing God is always saying (cf. Phil. 1:6). But it’s something God says on a low frequency. It’s hard to hear God’s hope for the humble when you’re on top of the world.
When It first arrived, Caesar didn’t hear it. Pilate didn’t hear it. Herod didn’t hear it. Annas and Caiaphas didn’t hear it. Scores of scribes and Pharisees didn’t hear it. But Mary heard it. Elizabeth heard it. A peasant named Joseph heard it. A few pagan astrologists (the magi) and some fishermen heard it. Five-men’s-ex-wife-at-a-well and a woman caught in adultery heart it. The town drunks and tax-collecting traitors heard it. A thief on a cross heard it. All the children of the world heard it (Mt. 19:14; Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:16).
They all heard what God said to Joyce. It’s the message of Advent: I’m not done!
The message of Advent is nothing if it is not hope in what God is yet going to do (1 Cor. 15:16-19). The world affords no shortage of false hopes, and sometimes we have to be stripped of them all before we find ourselves hoping in God. As Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “You may never know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” But the good news is this: we do have Jesus, we do have hope. For Christ has come and Christ is coming again!
So lay low, and keep listening.
And when it looked like the sun
was never going to shine again,
God put a rainbow in the clouds.