Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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This week as the church hears again the words of a courageous woman named Mary, I ponder the two courageous women I visited with this week.
Jan is a friend of over fifty years. She and her husband Ray arrived in my life when Ray became associate minister of my home congregation during my early teen age years. He and Jan became advisors, mentors, dear friends. Forty years ago Ray preached at my ordination. This week the Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s that have relentlessly diminished Ray’s mental and physical capacities simply became too much for care at home. Jan had to do the necessary and terrible thing – take Ray to a nursing home where he will live out his years.
The desolation for Jan is, of course, in direct correlation to the devotion of a marriage that has lasted over sixty years. Love’s great gifts sometimes require love’s most profound pain. Jan bravely goes to visit Ray each day, facing her own irrational but entirely understandable fear that she has abandoned him, and bravely returns home to sleep in her empty bed. The morning prayer at breakfast now falls to her, a muted but real Magnificat, giving thanks for a new day, for family, faith, and life and love together, however altered.
Larycia is a far more recent friend, a colleague on a non-profit board here in Chicago and a professor of political science at Wheaton College. This Advent, desiring to demonstrate the importance of what she calls “embodied” rather than simply “theoretical” solidarity, she donned a hijab to express support for Muslim students on the Evangelical campus and beyond amid the vitriol of the national rhetoric. She posted her rationale online, grounding her action in her Christian faith, in her commitment to the love of God and neighbor, and in the common Word of the God Muslims and Christians worship.
In response, Wheaton has placed her on administrative leave for a full semester pending an investigation of her adherence to the College’s Statement of Faith. Eager to placate nervous trustees, donors, and megachurch pastors, Wheaton cast aside any semblance of due process and reminded its students that doctrinal purity of a certain narrow sort is more important than embodied love for neighbor in the midst of a national crisis.
Larycia appeared with many of us and with her students at a press conference this week, graciously offering her own Magnificat. Rather than publicly countering the College’s allegations that she has strayed from orthodoxy, she kept her focus on the vulnerability of her Muslim neighbors. Rather than lashing back at the abusive behavior of the College, she implored us to look always to the margins. Larycia sang her Magnificat, knowing that she may well be dismissed; the first African American woman granted tenure at Wheaton will likely be the first African American woman with tenure to be fired.
Love has taken Jan into an agonizingly painful place laden with intimate loss. Love has taken Larycia into a dangerous public place where the insecure and threatened lash out. Yet both continue to sing Magnificat – “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . . . For the mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.” Through the centuries countless Mary’s have sung Magnificat through personal anguish and public rebuke. They have courageously assumed the risks of love and they have endured its cost. Their praise is neither sentimental nor merry; it is not dependent on submission to condescending power or to the ebb and flow of life’s pleasures.
Jan’s and Larycia’s Magnificat is Advent’s gift this year. The poet W. H. Auden puts it best as Gabriel addresses Mary:
Hear, child, what I am sent to tell:
Love wills your dream to happen, so
Love’s will on earth may be, through you,
No longer a pretend but true.
John H. Thomas
December 17, 2015