Monday, December 22, 2014

The imagination of our hearts (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 21, 2014)

Christmas is a season of the imagination. We say that Christmas is for children. Maybe that’s because their imaginations are richer and more active than ours are. Children can still imagine a magic sleigh that flies through the air pulled by eight tiny reindeer (nine, if you count Rudolf). Children can still imagine a white Christmas, even in Las Vegas. Children can still imagine shepherds coming to the manger, three, wise kings traveling over “field and fountain, moor and mountain” to visit the newborn King, and that an angel asked a Jewish peasant girl if she would become the mother of God.

Immediately after the story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that God was inviting her to be the mother of “the Son of the Most High”, Mary left Nazareth and went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth greeted by saying, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you,” Mary responded with the Magnificat.

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

I especially like the phrase, “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” Mary herself was no slouch at imagination. She imagined that God would come to help of his people Israel, that God would put down the mighty from their seats and lift up the lowly and meek; that God would fill the hungry with good things but send the rich away with empty bellies.

In one his best known songs, former Beatle John Lennon also invites us to imagine:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

I like John Lennon, and I used to like the song “Imagine” until I began to think carefully about what Lennon was saying.

I really like the bit about

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
Imagine no possessions…
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

But frankly, I think this song shows Lennon’s lack of imagination. First, he seems to buy into the idea that religion is responsible for all the world’s problems. Now to be perfectly honest, and if we just do a superficial investigation of things, there seems to be some support for that idea. After all, wasn’t religion responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the tension in the Middle East between Muslims and Jews, and the tension in India and Pakistan between Hindus and Muslims?

I don’t think so. I believe in all those instances religion is the excuse for violence, not the reason. The terrible crimes of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and so on, were not committed by nice people who would have lived in peace with their neighbors had they not been religious. They were committed by bad people who would have been responsible for murder and mayhem regardless of what they believed or didn’t believe.

On the whole, religion helps more than it harms. Religion gave us Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance to tyranny; it gave us Martin Luther King, Jr., and his inspiring call for people to be evaluated by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Religion gave us Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer, and I could go on and on.

John Lennon gave us some great songs, but his world is flat, colorless, one dimensional.

I believe there is a heaven above us, and although I have serious doubts about a hell down below. However, I do believe that our actions have consequences, both here and in eternity.

I think Mary’s song, the Magnificat, beats John Lennon’s “Imagine” hands down in the, well, in the imagination department.

Long before John Lennon, the prophet Mary sang:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek;
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Long before John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah sang,

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Long before John Lennon, the prophet Amos sang, “I hate, I despise your feasts, but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Why do you suppose that God “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts”?

Well, what is it that the proud were imagining? Being proud, their imaginations were probably mostly concerned with themselves. Fourth century theologian Augustine of Hippo said that the human heart is curvatus in se, curved in upon itself. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that Augustine was right. We are selfish; we want the world to revolve around us, and we do everything in our power to make that happen.

We imagine more power and money for ourselves. We imagine a world arranged to suit our needs and desires.

So when Mary sang, “God hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” she wasn’t talking about someone else, she was talking about me… and you, too.

What is that you are imagining this Christmas? Are you imagining a new car, a new house, a bigger bank account? Are you imagining a trip to Tahiti or a cruise to the South Pole? There’s not a thing wrong with any of that, but this Advent I’d like to join the prophet Mary in imagining a very different world.

Imagine a world in which religious militants don’t kill innocent children in their school in Pakistan.

Imagine a world in which police officers are not targeted while carrying out their responsibilities.

Imagine a world in which black mothers and fathers do not have to weep because their children are suddenly and unjustly taken away from them.

Because if we imagine these things, then maybe, with God’s help, we can build a different world, a world that more closely resembles Mary’s song.

I’m not sure, but it’s possible that our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers have put too much emphasis on Mary. I just don’t know. But I do believe that we Protestants have paid too little attention to Mary. Maybe part of the reason we have done that is that she frightens us. Her uncompromising obedience to God is so different from our halfhearted obedience. Her boundless faith is a far cry from our doubts and uncertainties. And most of all, her song about God’s fierce and uncompromising justice troubles us, because we are so reluctant to imagine a world in which the mighty are brought low and the meek and humble are raised up; the poor and hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away with empty bellies. Because we ARE the powerful, and we ARE the rich.