Finding Your Part in God’s Song by Rev. Kevin Porter

As we have been reflecting on The Magnificat as a Presbytery staff this Advent, I’ve found inspiration in meditating on the question, “Whose song is it anyway?”

True, when we want to make the rafters of the sanctuary rattle, even many of us “frozen chosen” Presbyterians can belt out a rousing, “This is my story, this is my song…”  We praise the God whose faithfulness has enabled us to own the Blessed Assurance of which we sing.  But my experience has been that the process of owning some of the most meaningful parts of my faith story and song has not necessarily come comfortably.

Much like my experience on several church choirs, I have found myself coming in at the wrong cue or at a different pitch or tempo than intended by God, who is, after all, both the composer and conductor of the life’s song any of us have been created to sing.  Lord knows there have even been times I have been intent on singing an entirely different song altogether than the one I have been called to sing – especially when I believe the courage or confession called for seems out of my range.  And I know I am not alone in that.

“If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.”  This truism was the inspiration behind comedian Julia Sweeney’s choice of God Said, “Ha!” for the title of her autobiographical film.  After having firmly established herself on the American cultural scene as the person behind an iconic Saturday Night Live character (Androgynous Pat), Ms. Sweeny was preparing to use her fame on the show as a launching pad to greater heights in movies and/or television as others before her had done.  Instead, she was faced with the challenge of dealing with a cancer diagnosis for her brother and then for herself.

In Ms. Sweeney’s case, her crisis of faith as she wrestled with her new reality led her to question the existence of God altogether.  In Mary’s case, the prospect of being a young, unwed mother in the first century would have most likely been a daunting one.  However, contrary to Ms. Sweeney’s experience, Mary had no doubt of not only God’s existence, but also of God’s blessing.  And that made all the difference.

I am thankful for the Biblical witness and the witness of history, both full of the testimonies of people of faith named and unnamed, young and old, from all walks of life who, when faced with choices and circumstances that threatened to leave them speechless and hopeless, instead found themselves strengthened in their embracing of the story and song to which God called them:

  • Esther, the queen called to risk her place of privilege for her people;
  • Claudette Colvin, an African-American high school student in Montgomery, Alabama, who refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955. Her arrest set the stage for Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience and the boycott that followed as a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement;
  • the prodigal son, whose decision to change his life’s direction and seek the forgiveness of the father he had wronged;
  • John Newton, the 18th century slave trader who immortalized the sense of God’s forgiveness he experienced in the hymn he left as his legacy, Amazing Grace.

Yes, Mary’s Song is her unique expression of the blessing she received.  Yet, its power to inspire generations after her, and its relationship to the story and song embodied through each of these other saints, lies in its resonance with the God who composed it, conducts every measure, and calls each of us to sing the part only we have the voice to sing, especially in this time when our common life can seem so discordant.

This Advent, may each of us take the time to listen — listen to the song of Mary and the great cloud of witnesses of every time and place who have found God’s song ringing through their lives as the only song that resonates as truly life giving.  And then, as we discern our part, may we be so bold as to make God’s song of blessing our own.

On Finding Space for the Other by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

Third Week of Advent 2016

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

(Luke 1:46-47, 52)

In a Christmas sermon delivered to inmates at a Basel prison, twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth commented on the journey of the holy family, “Thanks be to God the parents and the baby for whom there was no room in the inn found this other spot where this could happen, and indeed did happen” (Deliverance to the Captives).

They found this other spot. In this alternative space, the unexpected happened to the unlikely. The entire Christmas drama hinges on surprise and the unconventional. The lack of vacancy at the local inn only reinforces this truth.

This Advent is unlike any other for our family of five. That is because we are about to become a family of six- with a due date of December 24th. ‬ In many ways, the Christmas narrative has become our personal, real-life pageantry.

It would be an understatement to say this pregnancy was an unexpected surprise. Our first three children, to include twins, were born after years of painfully battling infertility and navigating through the complexities of reproductive technology. Until their arrival, Advent was a darkened four weeks. As someone in congregational ministry, I remember fighting my way through the season. So many of the stories and sacred imageries were reminders of the void we felt and the dreams that became all the more faint with each visit to the doctor. We felt as though we did not belong in the narrative happening all around us, a narrative I was proclaiming through my vocation.

This Advent, however, my wife carries the unexpected and the improbable. We await the birth of what we previously believed and, on many occasions, were told was unlikely to be possible…ever. As we anticipate the arrival of this little girl who has defied all odds through her very existence, we do so with a fair share of angst, mixed with gratitude, uncertainty, and a growing list of questions. One of the more pressing logistical questions, “where will this child sleep?” There is not much room left in our over-crowded inn. We are looking for this other spot.

God’s preference throughout the biblical story is for the other- those who dwell on the fringe of society, the margins of communities, and are dismissed by conventional wisdom and systems of power. This includes the religious. God’s self-revelation happens alongside those who cry out for deliverance, long for hope, and plead for comfort in the midst of increasing despair. The activity of God occurs in these other places like arks and parted seas, prisons and deserts, lions dens and shepherds’ fields. It even happens in the midst of battles with infertility and deep longings for children- Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth among others.

The church must make space for those who presently battle such darkness.

As Mary and Joseph journey towards their makeshift delivery room, she sings the song she composed in the midst of a prolonged visit with her previously-barren cousin who knew such pain and void now redeemed.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:46-47, 52)

Mary knows it is not only the coming of Jesus that announces God’s solidarity with the lowly, but also the way in which the Christ child comes- in the womb of one marked as ‘other’ only to be born in the other spot behind an overly-crowded inn. Mary sings of the incarnation as God finding a spot among the other, the hungry, poor, exploited, and shamed, who now take center stage within this unfolding drama of deliverance.

Mary’s song is a challenge to each of us at Advent. The Magnificat dares us to keep our eyes and ears open to the other spots whereby God’s love and grace may be both born and affirmed. The chorus challenges us to look out for those who feel the weight of being the other, especially in this season whereby voids and a sense of belonging are most vulnerable. The echoes of Mary’s song nudge us to find space for those frequently dismissed and ignored, who look for refuge and sanctuary among us. Even more, Mary’s song is a word of comfort to those who may wonder whose side God is on in the midst of a world most favorable to the powerful and privileged. So sing this Advent and Christmas, but sing in a way that elevates the voice and value of the other. After all, this is the song that has been sung by God’s people throughout the ages. This is a soulful song that magnifies the Lord who draws the other to the center.

Finding a Voice When the Words Don’t Reach by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,…”
Luke 1:46

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Finding a Voice When the Words Don’t Reach
“There are moments that the words don’t reach.”

This phrase from the Broadway musical, Hamilton, reminds us of those moments when we find ourselves in situations when the height of our joy or the depth of our pain cannot be explained by the human construct of language. Even the words we do choose feel inadequate, failing to honor or capture the essence of what we are carrying within us. They cannot successfully convey what we are carrying in our soul, causing us to dig deep to find our voice.

For many, including myself, music has been a vehicle by which I can virtually map out my entire life. For every major season and event, there has been a particular piece of music capturing that moment – giving voice to where I found myself. Music – classical, popular, rap, country – have been able, by the weaving together of words and melody (provided by another), tap into the depth of my soul – somehow telling my story – in a way that gives it and me a voice.

As we make this annual pilgrimage through Advent, I again find myself reflecting on the journey of Mary and her response to the news informing her of her destiny as the mother of the Christ child. I am in awe of her – she is young, unmarried, religious – and now, with child. Not only would she give birth to the Christ child, she would also witness her child being hated and executed. I can’t imagine the complexity of learning of her unique call on behalf of God. Perhaps it was this complexity that compels her to express herself in song – “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Perhaps she would not have otherwise found the words.

I am struck by the power of the imagery of this phrase of what is commonly known as the Magnificat (or Mary’s song). When faced with an unknown reality that would forever change her life, she finds and claims her voice in song. She affirms her humility in song. She proclaims God’s presence in song. Through her song, we get a glimpse into her soul – as she claims that her soul “magnifies the Lord.” Where others might have understandably taken flight, she finds the strength to not be silenced by the complexity of her life. Where others might have sought to hide, her song boldly reflects the presence of God in her life.

Perhaps that is one gift of the Magnificat – a timeless reminder that we who claim to be a people of faith and hope – do not need to be voiceless. It is a reminder that we can find our voice in the midst of it all – especially all that is confusing, questionable, and unwanted. Finding and claiming my voice has not always been easy for me. Feeling “less than” more times than I care to admit while growing up, I often felt silenced by those more articulate, those of a different race or ethnicity, those who appeared to be more sophisticated, more educated, etc… It took years for me to claim that I indeed had a voice – perhaps even one that needed to be heard at times; one that could contribute to the good of our church and society; one that would reflect the longing of my soul for a just world; one that would magnify the Lord’s faithfulness in my life.

And then about a year ago, I was diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia – a vocal cord disorder for which there is no cure. From having sung solos at concerts for most of my life, I suddenly found myself shying away from using my voice in song. This diagnosis has taken my understanding of finding my voice to a new level – combining both the spiritual with the physical act of speaking and singing. In many ways, it is a new form of silencing—from which I have been called to dig deep to find my voice in yet new ways—perhaps in a song that can only be heard in my soul.

I am grateful for Mary’s finding her voice in the midst of the complexities before her. Her witness would not be as prominent as the witness of other disciples – but she faithfully modeled what it means to claim your voice – even in the darkest moments of the unimaginable. She gives me hope because not unlike the reality some 2,000 years ago, the challenges of darkness still threaten to surround us. These challenges can be framed by disease, fear, broken relationships, death, betrayal, loneliness, poverty, and more. But it is precisely there before the unknowns – overwhelming and frightening as they might sometimes be – that you and I are invited, like Mary to find our voice. So as you embark on this Advent journey – if there are places in your life where the words can’t reach, dig deep within and join Mary in her song. Let her words give voice to your journey as your soul yearns to magnify the Lord.