How Can This Be? 12-21-14

December 21, 2014

How Can This Be?

“How can this be?” I asked myself as I started seminary in New York City in 1983. “How is this possible? How did I land here?” A year earlier I had a job as a community organizer that I was very passionate about and I was in a relationship that I was equally passionate about. In that year the job became unmanageable and I was essentially fired, and the relationship fell apart and all of a sudden I was in a different city studying for a different life direction. “How can this be?”
It was terrifying and disheartening, alternating with liberating and exciting, sometimes all at the same time. Life is like that sometimes. Things can be going along for years, and we think everything is under control, and something happens and we can hardly believe it. “How can this be?” I hear people utter words like that all the time. Not always that exact phrase. Sometimes they say it in amazement, sometimes in dismay.
“I can’t believe it! I never thought I’d get a job like this. I must just be really lucky. This is an answer to prayer!”
or “This makes no sense. My brother never displayed an ounce of depression. Why wouldn’t he leave a note?”
“Is this a bad joke or a sweet dream that after 23 years of marriage and no kids, we’re suddenly pregnant with twins?”
“Oh my God, how can this be? Yesterday he told me he loved me like it was just a normal day. Today he’s gone. Packed up and gone.” [Journal for Preachers, Advent p. 8]

Luke tells us Mary said the same thing in response to the angel who told her she was pregnant when she knew she couldn’t be. “How can this be?” I don’t think we have any pictures that portray Mary’s face the way it must have looked when she said that. We always have all these beatific portrayals of this gentle and mild young woman. When she confronted the angel giving her this inconceivable, terrifying news, she must have been crying in dismay and disbelief.
No, we don’t see any pictures of Mary, the mother of Jesus looking the way those words are usually uttered. “How can this be!? I don’t think so. I cannot believe it. This can’t be real. I never imagined this is how my life would go. I have no plan for this. I’m scared to death. How am I going to live with this?”
When we read this story at Christmas time, we glide right past that little phrase, “How can this be?” hearing it in hindsight as a mild exclamation of surprise and delight. Hindsight is like that. Sometimes such big changes in our lives turn into wonderful new directions; sometimes they leave us with a long slog of a recovery and reorientation. With Mary it seems to be the former, but as angelic as we imagine the moment, this is a rough story and Mary’s recovery and reorientation must have taken longer than a few days.

“None of the unexpected circumstances that enter our lives ask for our permission.” [Peter Marty, Journal for Preachers, Advent 2014, p. 9] We are not always in control, and sometimes disasters happen. I would argue that God isn’t even always in control of horrible things that happen sometimes. I would only argue that God is with us at those times, and with God’s help we can make even what seems like a disaster into something that at least doesn’t ruin us, and may make us stronger, and may even leave us dancing in the end.
However it goes, the adventure of faith starts the moment we decide that we are going to deal with these unplanned encounters.  [Peter Marty, Journal for Preachers, Advent 2014, p. 9]  The adventure of faith starts when we decide with God’s help to turn these unexpected turns in our lives into moves toward God, toward humanity, toward hope rather than toward despair. The adventure of faith finds us and inspires us every time life surprises us or beats us up, and we claim, as Mary does, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Let me close with these thoughts from The Season of Hope   by Cathy Talbot

Mary sings for all the generations who have hoped, and hope even still, for God’s promise of justice to be fulfilled in their lives. Even as we wait for the birth of the babe, hope is being born again in today’s world through those who work for God’s justice…
O God, you have created and filled every day with possibility and promise. You have called me to participate in your reign of hope and justice. Help me open to what you are accomplishing in and through me. Amen

*Responsive Hymn      Canticle of the Turning