the shepherds: honored outcasts

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”

-Luke 2:10

One of the great wonders of the birth of Jesus is how it signaled the inclusion of those who did not fit into society’s view of an audience fit for a king. Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, he sought to draw near and lift up those who were depicted as outcasts, vagrants, and inferior. This legacy began with his birth.

Besides Mary, the shepherds were the only ones who were directly told of Jesus’ birth. Herod and Joseph were visited in dreams. But Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and the shepherds were visited by a multitude of angels – singing and glorifying God amidst their birth announcement.

Today, we memorialize these shepherds in countless [white-washed] versions of the nativity. We picture the fields lighting up as this respectable bunch of sleepless sheep-herders descended from their fields in order to make good on their personal invitation to the bedside of Christ Jesus.

However, we too often forget that this profession was not one of great honor or recognition. Shepherds were nomadic people, who often traveled with their flock and would not frequently be found in the company of others from differing professions. They spent most of their time with animals and were probably not very well-dressed or clean or “presentable” for a king. And yet, they were the chosen audience to gather around the manger which held the Savior of the world.

The setting of Jesus’ birth would have made the shepherds feel right at home. Their own scents – the smoke of a fire, the stench of manure, the must of dirt-stained garments – masked within the smells of a stable. The animals, familiar. The baby, out of place.

Descending into the physical limitations of earth, bound up in the soft flesh of humanity, Yahweh became a helpless child and placed himself at the feet of those he came to love and lead and serve. Not only did he invite the shepherds to bear witness to his unceremonious birth, he also entered the world in a space that was familiar and known to those with whom he shared his first breaths. And he went on, throughout his ministry, to allude to shepherds in terms of honor and respect in several parables.

As clearly as Jesus entered the world without pomp and circumstance but rather, humbly and meekly, so he also entered the world with a determination to lift up the lowly and exalt the humble and meek into places of great honor. 

There is no single narrative when it comes to knowing and being known by the Lord. We all practice presence in our own ways. But this is clear: those whom Jesus called – and continues to call – often confound the expectations of those who claim to know God best.

During our current season of such religious and political strife, when marginalized people groups are vulnerable and exposed to extreme judgement, hatred, and oppression, it is important to note that the news of Jesus’ birth was declared to be good news “for all people.” All are welcome. All are invited to join in the celebration. There is room for everyone at the table.

He lifts up the lowly. He humbles those who are already exalted and exalts those who are humble. The shepherds did not expect an invitation or place at the table. But their invitation was sealed and their seats of honor were waiting. How they identified, from then on, was changed – because they had an encounter with Jesus unlike any other.

If you are among the marginalized…

If you feel like the black sheep of your family…

If you have ever been hated or misunderstood or alienated…

If you can identify with a longing to be included in the mystery and goodness of Jesus’ love and affection when others have attempted to disqualify you…

This good news is for you. 

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No one can revoke your invitation, because Jesus has already reserved a seat at the table for you.

On this Christmas day, perhaps you don’t feel like there is a place for you at your family table or in a church pew or singing along to a familiar Christmas song. Maybe you feel completely unseen and alone. Perhaps it all feels hard and heavy and wearisome.

But in spite of that feeling, know that you are loved and seen and that there is a special place of belonging and familiarity reserved only for you in which you can see and feel and know that Emmanuel is here – with and for you – and that goodness is yours, too.

You are written into the story in a way unlike any other. Your encounter with the Divine is precious and valid and does not need to be witnessed by someone else who is more religious, or prosperous, or devout in order to be valid and beautiful and holy.

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”

May the goodness find you today.

Amen.

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herod: fear and forfeited souls

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

-Mark 8:36

As with any great story, the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is surrounded and supported by a hundred other narratives from a variety of perspectives. There are so many players on the timeless stage of the nativity scene. There are so many storylines that intersect when a star casts its light on an unassuming stable below.

Mary, the bold and courageous mother of the promised Messiah. Who, great with child, endured a long journey – not intending to labor amongst straw and cattle – to register in the town of her husband’s lineage.

Joseph, the carpenter: betrothed to Mary, visited in dreams by an angel of the Lord, who travels to the city of David for a census, along with his very pregnant wife.

The shepherds. The wise men. The angels.

[Perhaps even a little drummer boy.]

And a tyrant king.

And thus, another storyline begins.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Scene: Southern Palestine, 73 BCE

A child is born to Antipater, a man of Arab descent, known for his wealth and influence and his close dealings with Rome. In fact, Antipater so ingratiated himself with Julius Caesar and his family, that Antipater and his son were granted Roman citizenship.

The name of his son?

Herod. Later to be known as Herod the Great, or King Herod.

Herod was thrust into political influence and rule by his father’s appointment. He was favored by others in power and nominated as the King of Judea in 37 BCE, after finding refuge in Rome in the aftermath of Palestine’s civil war.

This king was known for the palaces and fortresses he built, as well as the prestigious company he kept, such as Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and Agrippa, to name a few.

Perhaps his most fascinating and elaborate achievement was rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem. The same Temple in which the Ark of the Covenant would later reside.

But at the intersection of Jesus’ birth, we know him as the tyrant king who ordered the genocide of all male children in and around Bethlehem. His paranoia and mental instability had gotten the better of him and in his fear of being second-best – of being relegated to a lesser title and a less formidable rule – he sought to end the lives of all would-be competitors for the throne.

In his attempt to eliminate the possibility of a rumored “king of the Jews,” Herod sent out the Magi as spies to seek out Jesus’ location and report back their findings. When the Magi never returned to Herod, he took matters into his own hands by ordering the slaughter of all male children under two years old.

What history tells us, that is left out from the Biblical narrative, is that Herod was in deteriorating physical and mental health. He even murdered one of his wives, in a fit of jealousy, along with her entire family and her two sons. He later murdered his oldest son.

“His mental instability, moreover, was fed by the intrigue and deception that went on within his own family…He was in great pain and in mental and physical disorder. He altered his will three times and finally disinherited and killed his firstborn, Antipater. The slaying, shortly before his death, of the infants of Bethlehem was wholly consistent with the disarray into which he had fallen.” [Source: Brittanica.com]

Herod the Great was, in spite of his title, a tortured and paranoid ruler, perhaps inflicted with a touch of narcissism that fueled his belief that he was the great savior that his nation and the Jewish people so desperately needed.  

I cannot help but notice the similarities between the infamous antagonist of the nativity story and the modern day political figure who continues to plague the nation of his rule with paranoia, fear, and violence.

And yet, amidst the reckless and devastating dealings of a tormented and mentally unstable king…

Amidst bloodshed and fear and devastation as an entire generation of men was annihilated in one town….

Amidst injustice and dirty politics and unfathomable wrongs…

The scene we find in that stable in Bethlehem is one of hope and redemption and love and victory. As light dawned in the darkness of that long, not-so-silent night, a Great Light also arose over the Jewish people – and over all humankind – as a prophecy was fulfilled and the King with no throne, and everlasting rule, was born.

It is no small miracle that the story of Jesus’ birth unfolds amidst a political climate of greed and violence and seeming hopelessness. It is no small coincidence that, in slaughtering so many children, Herod was fulfilling Jeremiah’s long foretold prophecy. And it is no small miracle that, steered away from the dangers of Judea, Joseph led his family to settle in Nazareth, thus, fulfilling the prophecies that Jesus would be from the city of David.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Amidst our present political climate, we are witnessing so many, who proclaim to follow Jesus, sell out the poor, the sick, the forgotten, and the marginalized, all for the sake of political gain. In spite of this devastation, it can be easy to lose hope in faith, in religion, in the promise that light will conquer darkness.

However, we must remember that the promised Messiah defied the empire from birth, merely by existing. 

And throughout his life, Jesus continued to defy political tyrants and hypocritical religious figures by countering their culture of division and hierarchy with a culture of inclusion and love, in which equity and justice reign.

Just as we remember the narrative of Mary and Joseph –

Just as we remember the shepherds in the fields and the Magi who brought gifts of great worth –

Just as we remember the innkeeper who turned away the Christ child and the animals who witnessed Jesus’ birth –

May we also remember the tyranny into which Jesus was born. The world may have been bleak, but it was not without hope. A tyrant felt threatened by the presence of a small baby, whose legacy of love and hope preceded him. Whose promise of deep and abiding peace upset an entire empire.

May we continue to run into love and hope, this Advent season. And into the fullness of the peace of Christ – that such peace may reign wherever fear threatens to linger.

mary: they did not believe her

History has elevated Mary, the mother of Jesus, to a place of honor and reverence. The holy mother who bore the Son of God. However, this is not the same Mary we encounter in the hour of the angel Gabriel’s arrival. Rather, we encounter a young girl, given a holy promise without any proof of the miracle foretold.

We encounter a young woman of great faith who endures scorn and shame from a society that did not believe her account of events. And I wonder if, perhaps, this Mary has something to say to us all. 

As Mary’s body began to change – as it stretched and grew with child – her friends and family presumed her to be nothing more than a cheating harlot who brought shame to her family, her town, and the man to whom she was pledged to be married. Everyone expected her betrothed, Joseph, to denounce Mary as his wife, marking her as untouchable and damning her to a life of shame and struggle. In her culture, Mary had no social merit or value without a man to vouch for her.

And yet, Yahweh – the God of Abraham – spoke a new destiny over her with the announcement that she would carry within her the divine made flesh. Even in her own uncertainty of how events would play out, Mary praised the Lord, calling him “blessed” and “exalted” and “merciful.” Mary carried within her a quiet knowing that neither required proof nor the validation of others to make it true. 

Not only did the angel Gabriel explain to Mary how it was to be that she would carry a child, though she was a virgin; he also gave her the name of a trusted confidante in whom a miracle was also growing. In her wisdom, Mary left her hometown to seek out her distant cousin – perhaps whom she had never met – so that she could celebrate this miracle with someone who shared her deep and abiding faith: Elizabeth.

Somehow, Mary was not overcome by doubt or disbelief in the face of those who disbelieved her and perhaps shunned her during her pregnancy. Rather, Mary tethered herself to the Lord and to his promise and sought out a friend in whom she could confide and find spiritual shelter amidst her days of expectancy. 

How beautiful. How profound.

That the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob would entrust this miracle to two women. That Joseph and other men would only later be let in on the divine secret of Jesus’ prophetic birth. That it would not be up to Mary to prove herself, but rather up to the Lord to intercede on her behalf.

Mary was not the subservient picture of a woman that society had come to expect. She did not keep her head down and she did not apologize for her account of events. Mary clung to what she knew to be true – even in the face of shame and blame and a society that attempted to make her the scapegoat. 

Fortunately, the Lord looped Joseph in and gave Mary an advocate in her husband. But the validity of God’s promise and Mary’s innocence never rested in the approval or understanding of Joseph. Joseph became Mary’s help-mate. Her trusted companion. Joseph took the journey alongside Mary, perhaps also becoming entangled in the scandal surrounding Jesus’ birth. He, too, was of great faith. But the nativity story centers on Mary and her unwavering faith and trust in the Lord – with or without the validation of man.

I wonder if perhaps Mary contemplated all that she might lose – all that could be at stake – if she received Gabriel’s news with a trusting and faithful heart. I wonder if she felt the sorrow of being shunned, the anger at being scandalized, the hurt at being scorned, the helplessness at being disbelieved.

Perhaps her trust in the Lord and his faithfulness outweighed every risk, every loss, every ache. Perhaps the Lord’s provision of Elizabeth was the anchor she needed to hold her head high and stand in her truth. Perhaps the faith of her childhood was the hope she needed to sustain her in the loneliness.

Perhaps her quiet and unrelenting courage has always been and always will be too profound, too holy for words.

 

the baby behind Christmas

I have a confession to make. I don’t really love the Jesus I grew up believing in. In fact, I don’t even really like him. Sure, my understanding was skewed. Even though he was an outcast, I still managed to view him as the holier-than-thou symbol of religiosity who spoke eloquently yet was an unapproachable leader. Marked by those mantle-framed blue eyes, pale skin, and long, flowing golden brown hair, my image of Jesus was skewed in nearly every way.
However, my own broken journey of being misunderstood, alienated, and in search of justice amidst a culture of religiosity left me aching for a more tangible spiritual leader. And wouldn’t you know it…in all of my searching, I found that ragamuffin Jesus on the margins as well. I recently stumbled on a love letter I wrote to Jesus – the actual Jesus – and wondered if perhaps, as we enter the Christmas season, more of us need to be reminded of who we are celebrating and why.
Remember…
  
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating a refugee child born into humanity’s leftovers. We didn’t make room for him then, and we hardly make room for him now.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the Limitless Universe (read: God) appearing in our midst for the first time – as a helpless child – to show us how to be fully human and how to see and know and love one another.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the overthrow of an empire – the meekest and mildest baby upsetting the entire rule of a wealthy king.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the divine purpose entrusted to a young woman, named Mary, who was chosen by the the God of Abraham to carry a deep and secret miracle (that was only explained to her betrothed husband, and other men, later on in the story).
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the truth that it is often the humble and the unsuspecting that shake up the culture and make a way for the oppressed when it seems as if there is no way.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the beauty of belonging to something other than yourself; Mary knew it, Joseph came to know it, the shepherds knew it, the wise men knew it. Something compelled them all to be a part of this great and divine mystery, that mere words could not explain.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the turning of the tides – religiosity being flipped over like tables in a temple as the new temple of faithful spirituality rises in its place.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the gift of Love offered to ALL – without exception.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the miracle of new beginnings, new hope, and prophetic fulfillment.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating light quietly rising, amidst the darkness, and calmly growing up and into a tiny revolution of remarkable faith that pierces through every injustice, oppression, sorrow, and ailment.
 
If these truths seem new or unfamiliar to you, I challenge you to enter this Advent season with an openness to who Jesus really is and all that his birth really represents.
 
Chances are, these new revelations will make an astonishing difference in your life and in how you interact with your own faith story – no matter what chapter you are in.
 
So what would you add?
 
If you, dear reader, are celebrating Christmas…what are you celebrating?
 
May light and hope find you this Advent season,
 
-s

beyond my own dying, resurrection

Four years ago today, I loaded up my shiny new Subaru with all that would fit, and made the long drive from Nashville to Denver.

I was a scared, shell of myself and I felt so alone. But I could taste the sweet freedom that God had waiting for me in the land of the Rockies.

After living in Africa for 6 months, I returned to Tennessee – rocked by reverse culture shock – with a seeming inability to relate to the world I had left before. My faith had been stretched, my theology of doctrine above all else had been eroded by the movement of the Spirit that I had no tidy explanation for. My understanding of Church and my place in it had been shaken and my entire worldview was uprooted.

I came back changed. And resolved to lean into a season of brutal honesty, whatever that might look like.

Four years ago today, I never could have imagined the loneliness, heartbreak, devastation, or agony that awaited me. I never would have imagined that I would barely talk to my family for a year after coming out and living half my life in secret, afraid of being completely cast off.

But I also never would have imagined how much my honesty with myself would completely transform life as I knew it. I never knew how deep friendships could go and how steadfast they would remain, even in the most brutal of storms.

Four years ago today, I didn’t know that I would despair of life completely in 2014. That I almost wouldn’t make it through a year of living in Colorado. That I almost wouldn’t make it at all.

But I also didn’t know that my love for Jesus would grow as my faith in institutionalized religion would fade. And I didn’t know that friends could become so much like family and that family could grow back to a place of love and reconciliation, even if not built on a foundation of agreement.

I didn’t know that I would go to a bunch of faith-based LGBT conferences in 2015, embark on a three week silent retreat in 2016, or launch my coaching business in 2017.

I didn’t know that I would one day feel at home in myself – no longer a stranger to my deepest fears and deepest desires. I didn’t know that one day I would feel free. That my wholeheartedness would sometimes feel devastating, because I was finally allowing myself to feel all my honesty for the first time.

Just as I could not comprehend the agony of my own dying, I could not begin to imagine the beauty and life of my own resurrection.

More and more, I believe there is really something to that radical Jesus. And I’m so grateful that, in my darkest and brightest of days, I never had to walk through it alone.

So here’s to growth. To being brutally honest with yourself. To learning to live in pure authenticity with others. To embracing the hard, the messy, the heartbreaking, the divine, the beautiful.

I hope you find your way out of death and into resurrection.

Those tomb days feel as if they will never end.

But they will. And they do.

Hold onto hoping.

dear one

oh dear one,

you there with the burden of memory and the longing to be soothed and safe and seen – come lay down that back-breaking load.

has no one held your face in their hands, eyes laid upon soul-bearing eyes, and told you that you are a walking miracle?

has no one taken your troubles into the chambers of their well-worn heart and watered the ground under your feet with an ocean of empathy?

has no one reminded you how brave and beautiful you are? or that the cracks running through you like seams – your fragile places – are where the light gets in?

has no one held your hand in theirs and kissed your scars and told you that you are beloved? that your life is a brilliant flame – an enchanting wonder all of its own – that is even more captivating in the darkness?

oh dear heart…take these words in like water for the barren desert that has surely become of your tender heart – seeking moment by moment for an oasis.

you are the treasure.
you are the brilliance.
you are the beauty of the earth.

and you are loved
loved, loved.

you are loved.
you are loved.
you are loved.

for death must have its day

A couple of months ago, I packed up all of my belongings into boxes and suitcases, shoved the ones that would fit into my Subaru, and road tripped from Denver to Seattle to dive into a terrifying experience of silence and solitude and soul-wrenching vulnerability.

A few months before I set out, all I knew was that I was supposed to go SOMEWHERE in January to “walk backwards so I could move forward.” As I began to take baby steps that looked a lot like a leap of faith, everything fell into place (because SOVEREIGNTY), and I found myself, once again, leaning into the stirrings within me and setting off into the much anticipated, yet feared, unknown.

Going to Seattle for a three-week intensive – by myself and without any books or music or contact with anyone other than a therapist (whom I had not yet met) for a little over an hour a day – seemed to line up with the other daring and adventurous experiences that have so marked and transformed my life up to this point.

So I went to face my demons and reconcile with my child self and release the things that I had carried for far too many sunsets. I spent my days speaking aloud and giving voice to pent-up pain that spanned more than a decade of my life. My body pulsed beneath the weight of the trauma being lifted out of my being as I raged and wept and buried my face in the carpet of a strange home in the woods on an island far away from anything and everything that was familiar.

I learned, in the absolute agony of my separation from every familiar face and physical comfort, that the only way to peace is through the pain. And we cannot heal if we do not allow our wounds to bleed out completely and wash the toxic fragments from our fragile souls.

We live in a culture of pretenders. Americans, in particular, play the role of the self-sufficient, self-made, resilient and determined dreamers. Too often, demonstrating vulnerability is seen as weakness; in fact, this vulnerability is even seen as social, political, and occupational suicide. We fear pain and sorrow and unpleasant seasons because they render us broken and incapacitated to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”

But I learned something there in that lonely cabin, where I only had the whispers of the wind and the silence of empty rooms and the warmth of my own salty tears. Somewhere, at the bottom of our sorrow, is a doorway to a peace that surpasses all understanding. Somehow, once our anger has exhausted its energy and grief has given way to quiet tears and sorrow has overcome our body with shaking sobs, there is a light in the deep and enduring abyss of our suffering.

Richard Rohr says this about denying our pain:

“By denying [our] pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths – and therefore have been kept from their own spiritual heights.”

The paradox of this reality is not lost on me, even after having endured three eternal weeks of silence and solitude and enlightenment on an island I have no plans to return to. Somehow, when we are broken open and the pain is finally allowed to have its voice and free itself from our body, we are left with the capacity to carry wholeness and peace and love and hope unlike ever before.

But the only way to peace is through the pain. And while we live in a culture that rewards shortcuts that “get the job done,” there is no shortcut to healing. We must traverse the broken road of anguish and suffering and sadness and heartbreak and remorse and dying in order to get to the place of inner resurrection. 

Look at the seasons of the earth…death and dying are all around us. Trees and flowers must die and winter must have its way so that spring may come in all its glory. There is no hope of resurrection without first observing the agony of death and grieving all that has been lost. Something must be lost in order to be gained.

It is Holy Week. And tonight, we remember the death of Jesus and mourn the agony and sorrow of the one who claimed to be the Messiah breathing his last in front of his followers, family, and friends. It is devastating and heart-wrenching. It felt, to the disciples, like a defeat. Like all hope was lost. Like every hope they had before had suddenly been swallowed up in death.

But Sunday. We know it is coming. We know that it came. We live on the other side of the Resurrection story.

However, we live in this continual cycle of death and resurrection – in the physical realm and also within our spiritual selves.

So tonight, since we are reflecting on the death of the promised Messiah, I challenge you to also reflect on what places within have died or need to die off. It will ache to let go and let it die – be it a relationship, a dream, a way of life, and understanding of the world, etc. And the sorrow should shake you to your core. Tears should blind your vision and pain should well up within your heart. That is the only way to purge the pain from within and give death its due of mourning.

But one day, perhaps not too long from now, you will begin to feel the warmth of Resurrection building in the depths of your very being. For everything that dies gives way to new life.

And Sunday is coming.