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Christmas is an Act of Subversion

Christmas is an Act of Subversion

Last Sunday our church had its Christmas pageant. The children dressed up in homemade robes with rope belts and paraded down the aisle. They were adorable in their innocence and my heart overflowed, as it does every year, when the story came to life in their sweet little faces.

I love this tradition. Quite frankly, it’s adorable. What’s not to love? Bonus–it also has theological meaning and it serves a pedagogical purpose. My dream would be to do more church-wide pageants for children.

But.

I’m also aware that this lovely tradition carries with it a danger: we cute-sy up the Christmas story. By making it a feel-good story for children, we put it on the level of all of our other Christmas stories. Santa Claus, Rudolph, the Polar Express. All are cute stories that leave us filled with Christmas cheer and a sense of sweet happiness.

But the nativity story was never a feel-good story.

When Matthew and Luke recorded their versions of Jesus birth, they did so with a particular purpose: to demonstrate that Jesus, born to Joseph and Mary, was the Christ, the King, the Messiah. This wasn’t a cute story, this was a subversive one.

Right from the angels’ announcements to Mary and Joseph, we see God’s agenda is to overturn the world order as we know it. Listen to how Mary responds, not with meekness, but with the rallying cry that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

While we’re oohing and aaahing over the cuddly sheep in the field, with shimmering angels illuminated by a twinkling star, we should be asking ourselves a different question: What if the angels brought the good news to the lowly shepherds because these were the only people who would perceive it as good news? The rest of them, safe and warm in their homes and palaces, wouldn’t so much rise to shout with joy as rise up in anger. News that the last will be coming in first isn’t good news for everyone.

See, when we’re on the side of the proud and the powerful, we’re on the losing side of this proclamation. We’re the ones in danger of being scattered, brought down and sent away empty—and that’s when the Good News of Christmas becomes distinctly bad news. The only way to hear this message as the Gospel, which literally means good news, is to take the side of the poor, the lost, the disenfranchised.

Christmas is ultimately about making a choice. It’s our yearly opportunity to decide which gospel we’re ready to believe in. Are we placing our hopes in the cute-sy baby Jesus of the nativity play? The one who makes us feel warm, cozy and safe? Or are we placing our hopes in the revolutionary God who dared to overturn our world order—which is anything but safe?

It’s easy, of course, to say the latter. With the daily deluge of tragic news from around the world, our souls hunger for the world-changing God. But I am reminded that choosing that gospel requires setting aside our own hopes and dreams in favor of the larger promise of justice and mercy for all of humanity. It requires the daily sacrifice of making the choice against our own self-interest in favor of the World’s.

This is where the going gets tough.

But it’s also where the joy of Christmas comes most alive. While the Christmas story might challenge us to get outside ourselves, it also reminds us that the revolution doesn’t rest on our shoulders alone. That, in fact, the most revolutionary act of all has already taken place. Sure, we’re called to live into this Christmas promise of peace on earth. We’re called to work as hard as we can toward that coming reality. But we’re not called to bear the burden on our own.

So as we move toward our Christmas celebrations, may we feel both challenged and renewed. My we all find ourselves searching for the difference we can make in the world, stretching and yearning for a promise that was given long ago. And may we also find ourselves doing this not out of fear but out of joy and hope.

Should We Pray to Mother God?

Should We Pray to Mother God?

Many years ago, I walked into an argument in my Sunday School classroom. It went like this:

“The Bible says “Our Father who art in heaven!”

“Yes, but we know that God isn’t a boy or girl. So I can say ‘Our Mother’ if I want!”

Without knowing it, these two kids were hashing out a battle that was much, much older than they are. The central question: Does it matter what we call God?

Related: Why is God Not Female?

Most Christians affirm that God is neither male nor female: God is God. The challenge is in our language. I speak from the experience of someone who tries hard to refer to God only as “God” and avoid the gender issue altogether.  It gets tedious. “God told God’s people to move into the land God had prepared for them.” It’s fine for a sentence or two, an entire sermon or article that way is a struggle to read and listen to. Quite simply, we need a pronoun.

That’s where things get tricky. In a patriarchal society, like ancient Rome, Medieval England, Renaissance Spain or most other place Christianity has spread, the default pronoun is male. And so while we affirm that God is neither male nor female, we say he/him/his. “It,” as a pronoun for God has never been seriously considered, for good reason

So we press on, calling God “Father,” trusting that we are intellectual people who can appreciate that the maleness of God is simply a matter of language. It is a matter for the head, not the spirit.

The mistake we’ve made in this debate is assuming that our intellectual understanding is really separate from our spiritual understanding. The truth is, what we call God shapes how we think of God, and how we think of God shapes how we connect with God. We can’t divorce our heads from our hearts quite so easily.

We would be better served, I think, if we dropped the emphasis on God’s lack of gender and began emphasizing instead God’s encapsulation of both genders. It is biblical, right from the story of Genesis: male and female, both created in God’s image. 

Where we have tried to teach God’s “nothingness” in gender, many of our spiritual role-models have taken the opposite approach. Julian of Norwich, for example, regularly referred to God as both Mother and Father, using the terms interchangeably as she wrote about her deep experiences of God’s presence. While she frequently used the traditional language for God: Maker, Lord, Father, she also wrote of being nurtured at God’s breast, of Mother God pulling her close and even used feminine imagery in speaking of Christ. “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”

I’ll be the first to admit that gender-bending language like this makes me pause. And yet, it is also a fuller, deeper, richer image of God as One who encompasses all things instead of a remote, heady image of God who encapsulates nothing.

This is why the first question I ask people who are stuck in their spiritual lives is how they address God. I’m not primarily interested in whether they think of God as “man,” most don’t. I’m actually  interested in how they’re addressing God in the intimate moments of prayer: the quiet of their bedtime prayers, or the depth of their souls as they watch the sunrise in the mountains. For many people, the traditional male language for God has become removed and rote; it fails to capture God’s fullness and nearness the way Jesus’ daring language of “Father” or “Dad” once did.

I believe that God continues to reach out to us in ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Click To Tweet

I have come to believe that God continues to reach out to us in the ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Our spiritual journey to “find God,” isn’t about finding God in prayer once but finding God in prayer over and over and over again–and sometimes, this means changing the very way we pray.

 

 

The Realm of God is a Hug Over Apple Pie

The Realm of God is a Hug Over Apple Pie

We were standing around a rather cheap folding table, the kind stored in closets and pulled out for Bunko nights and church potlucks.  This event was one of the latter.  The legs on the table looked suspiciously thin; I worried that the slightest nudge would cause the table to crumple and the apple pies sitting there would fall onto the white linoleum floor.  The old story was that this was a pie baking contest but everyone knew that the judges would proclaim each one “the best” and we’d all happily agree that it was a 20-way tie.  Once the illusion of judgement was blown, we’d eat homemade apple pie with store bought vanilla ice cream and waddle home for Sunday afternoon naps.

“What brings you to town?”  The woman in front of me struck up conversation with the man in front of her, a visitor to the church.

There was a slight hesitation as he fumbled with a serving spoon before looking up to gauge her reaction.  “I’m actually on my way to an alcohol treatment program.  I check in tomorrow.”

“Oh,” now the slight pause was on her end.  Then, “Good for you.”

She said this with real sincerity and warmth, not at all the sanctimonious “good for you,” that sometimes comes out of the mouths of people who mean well but have never encountered struggle.

Pie with Ice Cream

I do not know what was said next, only that that there was a brief conversation and then the woman was reaching for a napkin to wipe her crying eyes.  In the same moment, this stranger wrapped his arms around her in a hug that was at first awkward but then gained confidence.

“What was his name?”  I heard him ask.  Her answer was muffled by the pain of addiction and the grief of a hard death.  “I’m sure he was a wonderful person.  I’m so sorry.”  The man replied.

Then, even though no one was complaining that they were holding up the line, the two gathered up their plates and the man dished a generous serving of apple crumb pie and melty vanilla ice cream for both of them as she scanned the room for a place to sit.

This is everything I know about the gospel.  The wounded will become the healers and the healers will have their chance to hurt.  Jesus says as much, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”

This is not a threat, although we sometimes hear it that way.  This inversion of power is simply a promise; it is a promise that no one has to carry the burden alone.  If you’re downtrodden by life and dependent on others, this isn’t the measure of your worth.  And if you’re shouldering responsibility after responsibility and carrying a heavy load, your help will come from the most unexpected place.

While I don’t understand all this, and sometimes don’t even want it to be true (because I’m usually fine when I’m coming in first), it is a promise we can trust in.  Someday, sometime, all things will be made fair in a big, cosmic way.  Until then, we’ll take our glimpses of God’s kingdom alongside our slices of apple pie–bits of grace, fleeting but ever so sweet.


I’m linking up this week with the #wholemama women who are writing on “question.”  It might be a stretch since I don’t directly even mention the word but at the end of the day, I can’t separate the mystery of unexpected grace from the central questions of faith.  So I’m trusting you all to see the connection, to think about your own apple-pie moments and to embrace the mystery of who God is.  And then check out the other bloggers over at Erika’s place who have written more succinctly on the topic.  Erika wrote the post I planned to write but couldn’t get on the page, Sarah is talking about asking a better question, and Gayle is reminding us of the importance of curiosity and wonder as ways to break down barriers.  Enjoy them and the others!

When Life Has Become Boring (a #wholemama post)

When Life Has Become Boring (a #wholemama post)

The boy was eight years old. He was one of those precocious types. “Smart as a whip,” as the older members of the congregation used to say. “Full of energy,” they would also say. These things were both true.

In addition to being smart and full of energy, he had a certain capacity for getting his way. “Tell it again,” he would demand every Sunday morning and because I believed in following the children’s interests and cultivating their passions, I would oblige.

“One day, Moses was on the mountain when he saw a burning bush. He went closer and heard a voice telling him to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground.”

“We should be taking off our shoes in church.” The boy announced one day. He announced it as certainly as he announced anything else. “This is a holy place.”

Well, of course church seems like a holy place to a child, especially perhaps a child in this church, where the congregants were fiercely proud of their historic church building and talked often about what a special place it was. It is not really unusual for a child to take the holiness of church as a given fact. Children typically know these things about church:

  •                 God loves them and is with them always.
  •                 The stories in the Bible are important
  •                 The answer to any question during the children’s sermon is “Jesus.”

And, of course, the church is a holy place.

So what was surprising about this little person’s observation wasn’t that he believed the church was holy, it was that he demanded that we act in a way that was in line with our beliefs. His logic could be mapped out with the precision of an algebraic equation. If church is holy and the Bible is true then we ought to be taking off our shoes. It checks out.

Bush

As adults, we also have a series of beliefs. For many of us, they are things like this:

  •                 Make the most of each moment.
  •                 The simple life is best.
  •                 Love each other.
  •                 God is with us always.
  •                 There is holiness in the ordinary.

These are good beliefs. We don’t have any trouble believing them, really.  Our challenge is acting in line with them. We have the tendency to forget these things in our normal, everyday life. We forget them because, after living the same story over and over again, we stop finding it interesting. No one ever wakes up and says, “Oh yes! Tell me the story again of how I get to get up and go to work!” Instead, we are more prone to finding that in their familiarity our stories have become boring.

This is normal and human and probably rooted in some practicality.  We can’t wake up every single morning and naively ponder the magic of the washing machine, nothing would ever get done. But sometimes we go the other way. We become bored with our sameness, our ordinary routines. We become listless and even depressed. We feel irrelevant to this great big world, as though our ordinariness is synonymous with meaninglessness.

Last week I stumbled on a little memory garden tucked in the corner of a local park. There was a small spiral walkway made up of bricks. Each brick held the name of a person, assumedly someone being honored with a donation to the project. In the center was a large brick bearing this quote by Anna Quindlan:

Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittery mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to live, really live…to love the journey, not the destination.

I took a picture of it because I love Anna Quindlan and also I desperately need this reminder. The truth is, I am reeling from the realization that I am fairly ordinary. In our young adult years when everything is ahead of us and dreams are cheap, we rest our identity in the fact that we will change the world. Then we grow and realize that following our dreams means making trade-offs.   It is suddenly much, much harder than we once thought it would be.

This is why we must constantly be reminding ourselves of the holy bits of treasure buried in familiar pathways. Otherwise, this would be the end. We would look at the long, gray walk ahead of us and become discouraged from believing that we matter at all. We would sit down and cry, convinced we’ll never reach the end (however we’re measuring that) and simply stop trying.

Path

Friends, I’m not really telling you anything you don’t know. I’m simply saying that if, like me, you sometimes find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer ordinariness of your life that you take a few minutes to recalculate. I’m saying that sometimes, we don’t need anything outside of the life we already have; we just need to balance the equation. If God is with us and there is holiness in the ordinary, then you matter just as you are—boring, mundane, you, right now, walking whatever boring, mundane path is ahead of you. And if this is all true, then the solution to ordinariness isn’t to walk faster, it’s to walk slower. As slowly, perhaps, as if you’d taken off your shoes and were wandering around barefoot.


I’m writing again this week with the #wholemama group.  There is so much good stuff here.  And while I’m truly terrible at managing my social media profiles, I’ll keep posting a few of my favorites to my Facebook page so if you don’t make it to Esther’s site, you can check out a curated version there.

wholemama

Why I Make My Daughter Go to Church

Why I Make My Daughter Go to Church

countrychurch“Why do you like going to church?”

The question was an earnest one from my daughter, as opposed to the “WHY DO WE HAVE TO GO TO CHURCH?” battle we sometimes have. I wanted to answer her question with equal honesty but the truth was, I didn’t have an answer. I was dragging myself out the door that day and the idea of “liking” felt pretty foreign.

“Ummmm…I don’t always like going to church,” I said slowly.

“Then why go?” She countered.

Well that was quite logical wasn’t it? I thought about all the things I do that I don’t want to. Like exercise. Or cleaning. Or volunteering. Or writing. It hit me that most of my life appears to be made up of things that I don’t necessarily like to do.  Perhaps I should simply give all of them up and live for the moment. You know, YOLO and whatever else the kids tweet these days.

She looked expectantly at me as I framed my answer, “Well, church is good for me. I feel better afterwards.”

“Do you really feel better?” This question came from my husband. “Or does it just alleviate feelings of guilt? Maybe you would also feel better if you stopped expecting yourself to go.”

Well, that’s a worthwhile question, too, isn’t it? (I swear, I would not have any deep spiritual thoughts without my family to prod me along.) Could I achieve the same level of satisfaction by not going to church as I did from going to church? Was it really just about perceived expectation leading to perceived guilt leading to perceived satisfaction? It’s always a possibility but I didn’t think so. There have been long periods in my life when I didn’t go to church. Most of my childhood and teenage years. Long stints in college. Years in sleep-deprived young motherhood. I didn’t feel particularly guilty during those times and yet something always called me back. Something deeper than guilt but also much harder to explain.

I was still pondering this discussion, still trying to put my finger on the reason for attending church, when this devotion came to me via email. In the wise words of Br. Robert L’Esperance:

“ There is a value of actually going through the motions of something – whether you have your heart and soul in it is actually immaterial to the practice… There is actually a value in ritual. There is actually a value in doing something – that’s immaterial whether you can rationalize it, whether you can understand it, whether you can put your heart and soul in it – there’s actually a value to just going through the motions, through the steps.” He goes on to offer this heart-stopping advice. “it’s in the doing that we are transformed and we are shaped and we are renewed”

It’s in the doing.

We are so self-conscious of our time. We are so aware that it is fleeting, that it is limited, that we have to make every single minute count, that we must achieve something, that we shouldn’t waste time, kill it or let it slip away. We are so conscious of this that we forget that some things aren’t fun but they are good. Some things are worth spending time on not because we can measure their immediate value but because we feel their effects in the days, months and years to come.

So I’ll continue plugging away, hoping that the rituals and words of church will shape me into the person I want to become. I will also invite/coerce/drag my daughter to come with me so that she, too, might be shaped more fully into the person I see in her future.

Now, if anyone knows how to explain all this to a 7 year old, I’m open to advice.