Posts Tagged present

Present Perfect – The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe*, UCC

Plymouth Church UCC, Shaker Heights, OH

Luke 1:46b-55

3rd Sunday of Advent – Year A

December 11, 2016

Our scripture reading today drops us into the middle of an intimate encounter between two extraordinary women: There is the elderly, once-barren Elizabeth and her newly expectant young cousin Mary. As Luke tells it, God is at work through the lives of both women and their words express nothing but joy.

Our reading begins in the middle of the conversation. Elizabeth, touched by the Holy Spirit, has already cried out in delight, offering words of praise: “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of thy womb!”

Mary responds in the form of a song, “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. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” You may recognize this as the opening words of the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise. Her beautiful words are surprising yet familiar, for though her pregnancy is without precedent, her words place her in a long tradition.

As Mary sings the Magnificat, we hear echoes of the songs of other faithful women, like Miriam and Deborah and Hannah. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible notes that this is a sign of how “deeply imbedded is Mary’s story in the traditions of her people.” (The Living Pulpit, vol. 10, No. 4, October-December 2001, page. 8).

Mary goes on to tell of all the great and glorious things God has done. He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It’s a beautiful passage from scripture, but what catches my attention is the tense: Mary is singing in the present tense. She’s not praising God for what God will do, but proclaiming what God has done.

The prophetic tradition is mostly concerned with the future, what God will do and what shall happen. Consider the words of Isaiah, chapter 35: “The wilderness and the dry land SHALL be glad, the desert SHALL rejoice and blossom.” Or turn to the Revelation of John, chapter 21: “He WILL wipe every tear from their eyes. Death WILL be no more.” (21:4a)

But not Mary: Mary is singing in the present tense. Actually, if you know your English grammar, she’s singing in the present perfect.

Why would Mary sing about the present? Her song and its vision of a just and peaceful world seem to have no basis in reality. Consider the facts: She was an insignificant girl from a family of no repute. She lived in a dusty village carved out of the hills in Galilee. She was PWP–pregnant without permission–and because of that, her future was, at best, uncertain. More than that, her people were oppressed, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Anyone hearing her song could see for themselves: The proud were not scattered, the hungry were not fed, and the powerful sat comfortably upon their thrones, some might say much as they do today. It makes no sense: Mary’s song is disconnected from reality.

Or is it?

In 1955, British philosopher J.L. Austin published a book entitled How to Do Things With Words. In this volume, he laid out his theory that words do not just assert things, but can actually do things. Austin used the example of a wedding ceremony in which a person says, “I do,” and the words generate a new reality. He called such words “performative utterances.” To say it is to do it. Austin concluded that some words had generative power.

Anyone who has done strategic planning knows that this is true. Recently, I was part of a strategic planning process for a local non-profit. We wanted to chart a new course for the future of the organization, and we hired a facilitator to guide us through the process of strategic planning. Our main task was to create a vision statement–not to be mistaken for a mission statement. The vision statement needed to be clear and compelling and could include two or three long-term goals that were almost out of reach. Most importantly, our facilitator said, the vision statement needs to be written in the present tense.

I asked what she meant by that. “Don’t tell me what you will be, tell me what you are.” To me, it seemed disingenuous to write a vision statement in the present tense. After all, if we had actually accomplished our goals, we wouldn’t need a vision statement. Why would we express our hopes in the present tense? It turns out there is conclusive research that proves organizations that express their goals in the present tense are more likely to achieve those goals. The right vision statement can create a sense of unity, purpose and excitement in an organization.

What works in organizations also works for individuals. Since the 1960s, Olympic athletes have been using visualization and imagery as part of the training regime. One sports psychologist said, “The more completely an athlete can imagine competing successfully, the better the outcome.” Visualization helps people anticipate and overcome obstacles, as well as lessen distractions. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that training the mind is more important to athletic performance than training the body. As the saying goes, “If you can conceive it, you can believe it, and you can achieve it.”

Visualization techniques and vision statements inspire because they paint a vivid picture of a hoped-for reality. Not only can you see the future, you can practically live in it–and if you can live IN it, you can live INTO it. For that is the real power of a compelling vision: it can instruct.

By establishing a new reality, one that diverges from, or even competes with, the present reality, a clear vision enables us to discern what actions, what ideas and what attitudes are in line with that reality and bring us closer to achieving our goals.

That’s why there is power in the present perfect tense.

We see this most vividly in the clear and compelling mission statement Black Lives Matter. Like Mary’s Magnificat, this slogan describes a reality for which there is little evidence. Whether you consider the gap in student achievement, the disparity of family income, the lack of access to healthcare, or the tragic outcomes of police encounters, it seems clear that in the United States, Black Lives Don’t Matter. But that is not the way it should be. That is not the way it will be, thus sayeth the Lord.

Think of this slogan NOT as a protest, but as a vision statement like the Magnificat, a hoped-for reality. Black lives matter, so we have to address the chronic, crippling poverty that is the unwelcomed inheritance from centuries of oppression. Black lives matter, so we must raise our expectations for those who have the authority to use deadly force. Black lives matter, so even the smallest vestige of implicit racism must be addressed.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not asking a question or hoping for a better day: They are charting a new course into the future for this country, a future where the color of one’s skin does not determine one’s prospects for prosperity and happiness.

Some people may find this vision statement controversial or even threatening, just as some people surely took offense at the Magnificat. Let’s face it: It’s not really good news for the rich, the proud or the powerful.

But the Magnificat is a clear and compelling vision of God’s intentions for all creation. It offers inspiration and instruction so that anyone–high born or low brow–can participate in this magnificent future. We may not see evidence yet of Mary’s vision of the world, but these words she’s singing have the power to generate a new reality.

All we need is for enough people to join in the singing. Let us sing the Magnificat together. Let us believe that the world will be made whole. If we can believe it, we can achieve it, for this is the present perfected. Amen.

*The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe is senior minister of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, OH. I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Monroe for giving me permission to re-post this sermon.


Tags: , ,

What Writing a Spiritual Autobiography Taught Me –

When I started writing Our Father: Discovering Family, the working title was, Our Father: From Certainty to Faith. I had two questions in mind stemming from an amazing, eye-opening, soul-stretching experience I had at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. How did my spiritual development bring me to this point from where I started life in a small provincial town in South Carolina during the days of racial segregation? The second question was equally daunting. What am I to do with the remaining years of my life?

I discovered that God had a much bigger plan. God wanted to expand my vision as to who is in God’s family. God always has a bigger plan than we have. I am reluctant to put words in God’s mouth, but it is as if he were saying, Mitch, you can’t understand me until you know who is in my family.

In 1998 my new wife and I were in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. At 11:00 a.m. the priest for the day announced, “At this time every day we stop and say together the Our Father Prayer.” An amazing thing happened. People from all over the world: white, black, brown, male, female, tall, short, handicapped, able-bodied gay, straight were all praying the Our Father Prayer. For the first time in my life the true meaning of what “Our” means swept over me. I knew at that moment that my life had changed forever and that my faith had taken a quantum leap forward.

The process of prayer, reflection, research and writing lead me to two conclusions. First, I needed to drastically expand my understanding of who composes God’s family and second God had been preparing me all of my life to be a voice for fostering better understanding and communication between Christians and between Christians and the rest of the world. We need a more Christ-like dialogue. Striving to improve Christian communication became my mission for both writing and speaking.

The book is best described as a spiritual autobiography. I grew up in the segregated South where learning about the brotherhood of man wasn’t easy. As a child I could not understand how a church that preached God’s love could turn black people away from its doors. Much later, I struggled through the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and a church split. My late wife, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, challenged all of my provincial ideas in a loving but forceful way. Her death coming just days before Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston and my beloved church was an unimaginable tragedy. One from which I was not sure I could recover, but God provided abundant expressions of love and reassurance.

In 2006 my wife asked me to volunteer to teach creative writing to her students in an inner-city minority middle school. The atmosphere reeked with negativity from both faculty and students. That experience lead me to write a little booklet, Say Something Nice; Be a Lifter. Then I founded the Say Something Nice Day observance now listed in the Chase Calendar of Event. In 2007 because of the rising tide of animosity between Christian groups, I spearheaded the Say Something Nice Sunday Movement celebrated on the first Sunday in June… This movement has gained support from Baptists, Catholics, Disciples, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. The book I edited and contributed a chapter to in 2009, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, which brought together leaders from various denominations grew out of these events.

God brought great Christian thinkers into my life through my visits at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State and the many speakers at the John Hamrick Lectures at First Baptists Church of Charleston: Bill Leonard, Molly Marshall, Glenn Hinson, Martin Marty, Thomas McKibbens, Arthur Caliandro, Timothy George, John Claypool, Paul Raushenbush and Joan Brown Campbell to name a few. I owe a great debt to my childhood pastor, Rev. Roy R. Gowan. One day he said to me, “Mitchell, God made all of you and that includes your brain. He does not expect you to park it at the door when you come to church.” It took me years to fully grasp what this wonderful man had said to me.

As I researched and wrote, Our Father; Discovering Family, all these isolated events – a career in communication disorders, Sunday school teacher, life-long church and civic volunteer, deacon, writer and speaker, consultant – began to fit together. They revealed to me that God has been leading me step by step to discover meaning and mission in my life. There are no coincidences. God’s Word says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV) It also lead me to understand that the God I had been worshiping all of my life far exceeded anything that I could imagine or comprehend. Insights keep coming. It is an amazing journey.

An Excerpt from Our Father: Discovering Family

London and St. Paul’s Cathedral are light years away from Woodruff, South Carolina and Northside Baptist Church but each is an essential mile marker on a journey – a journey to discover a fuller understanding of who God really is and how I can be more like him.  In the process God revealed a much broader plan for me. He wanted to open my eyes and mind to see who his children are.  It is as if he is saying,” Mitch, you can’t understand me without knowing and loving my children, your sisters and brothers. I am the Father of all.” He is constantly reminding me that I am one of his children and that I belong to a family that is much larger, much more diverse, much more inclusive than I imagined at the start of my journey.

There are no shutouts in God’s family or as Dr. John Hamrick says, “People are not throw-aways.”  We all belong.  Just as my aunt tried to do 50 years ago, someone or some group is always trying to exclude some other group from God’s family for reasons of their own.  It never works.  You and I are members of the family.  We are loved, but we are not the head of the family.  That is the basis of all sin – wanting to take the place of God.  God is the head of the family.  He alone decides who is in and who is out. His greatest desire is that everyone should be a member of his family.  My role as a member of the family is to invite others to join by living a life that is truly reflective of what being a child of God is all about. It is about inclusion, not exclusion.  It is about love not hate. It is about accepting the invitation, “Come and learn of Me.”

For more about Mitch’s books, including Our Father: Discovering Family, click here.

Tags: , , ,

Fifty-two Keys for Living, Loving and Working

Show up

Don’t be missing in action. Be where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there. Life will not send out a search party. You are responsible for you. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Be ready to participate. Have your entire person show up – your body, your mind, your will, your attention. Most of us have experienced the frustration of having someone bodily present, but mentally absent. Don’t let that be you.

Tags: , , ,

Fifty-two Keys for Living, Loving and Working

Be present

Be present is by far the most important key. Be in the moment with your whole being not thinking of what will come next or what has happened in the past. Be in this moment fully committed to it. We need to glean from each moment what it has to reveal to us. This is the now. What is happening this very instant? We cannot detain the moment, or recall it, but we can easily miss it.

When we are at work, we spend much of our time thinking about what we would like to be doing at home. Sometimes we are planning our vacation, thinking about our daughter’s impending wedding, thinking about our grandchildren or perhaps retirement. Our mind has temporarily taken flight. We are not present with the current project or with the other people in the room. We miss what is taking place in the moment.

When we are at home, we think about what awaits at work again missing the now. We miss the smiles, sparkling eyes, sighs, stiffened body language and the lilt in the voice. We are focused on another place and time.

Liza Minnelli, the fabulous Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy winner, has it right when she says, “If you’ve got one foot in yesterday and one foot in tomorrow, you’re missing today.”[1]

Be in the now. That is why we call it the present.


[1] Liz Smith. Parade Magazine. March 01, 2009

Tags: , , ,