The year was 1940. A young black boy was walking through the street holding his mother's hand. They were living in South Africa under the Apartheid regime. It was the law that a black person who passed a white person on the street should step aside and let the white person pass. The boy and his mother saw a white man approaching them. They prepared to step aside, when, to their surprise, the white man stepped off the sidewalk and tipped his hat to the boy's mother in a sign of respect and honor.
The boy was shocked. He and his mother walked down the center of the sidewalk and smiled at the man. "Mother," he asked, "Why did that man stand aside for us and tip his hat? I thought that white men didn't do that? Why didn't he want us to step aside?"
"Because, my son, that man is a man of God," his mother answered. "That man is a priest."
It was then and there that the little boy decided what he would do with his life. He too would become a priest. His name was Desmond Tutu.
There is a great painting of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. It is by the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. If you Google Annunciation, all these incredible Renaissance paintings show up on the screen, but amongst them is this modern painting. And it holds its own with the great masters, for it depicts Mary in such a revealing way. It bares her very soul.
In the painting, Mary is young, small, insignificant. She is wearing a dirty brown dress. She is sitting on a simple bed in a cave-like room with dirt walls. There is a pillar of brilliant light before her. This pillar of light is so vibrant that it seems to shimmer and move, but it has no visible shape. It is the angel. Mary is gazing at this magnificence not with same or fear, but with fascination and wonder. But she also looks upon the angel with all humility as if she is saying, "How can I step aside for you?" It is not a position of weakness but one of choice. Mary is bowing before the glory of God.
It is often the smallest acts of surrender, when we give up control rather than try to take it, that we allow God to enter the world in the most powerful ways. Mary did not try to seize power. She was not hungry for fame or acknowledgement. She just agreed to let herself become an instrument of something more than herself. She stepped aside so God could step in.
I love the serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Sometimes the most holy thing that we can do is to step aside so that God can show us what to do. Sometimes the most sacred act is to accept the things we cannot change, for it gives God the space to step into the vortex and act.
God's solutions to the human predicament are so wildly, so profoundly more elegant, healing and fantastic than anything that we could come up with. Mary knew this. She knew that her greatest joy was not to try to do things her way, but to be an instrument in God's great master plan, to be the one to step aside. It was her greatest joy to be of service to God. And her humble acceptance led to the birth of the savior of the world.
This was not an act of weakness but of the greatest kind of strength, for it takes courage to let God be God.
In this time of pandemic, of pain and loss and isolation, I wish that I could be the one to discover a vaccine. I wish that I could solve the divisions which ensnare this country and heal the earth of the pollution and plastic that plague our oceans. On a smaller scale, I wish that I could be the one to convince the alcoholic to go to rehab, to comfort the lonely and bring joy into peoples' lives.
But much more likely is that God is asking me to be the one who steps aside so that God can do these things, to listen, to touch my hat and honor the ones who come after me, the young people with new ideas and innovation that blow my mind away.
Maybe I am to be the one who quietly and reverently says, "Yes. Let it be with me according to your will."
Show me the path, O Lord, and I will walk on it. Make it not my path but yours. Make it not my solution but yours. Make it not my agenda but yours, not my ideas but yours. For you alone know how we are to proceed as a human race. You alone know how we are to learn to love. Make me like Mary, eager to let you take center stage. Willing to give you everything that I am and have so that you may manifest your love into our broken world.
Help me step aside, O Lord. Help me step aside.