A Long December (And There’s Reason to Believe.)

It’s been a shitty day, a shitty week… Hell, it’s been a shitty year,” a friend shared with me recently. “I’m just ready for a new year, a fresh start,” a patient solemnly disclosed to me. Isn’t it easy to … Continue reading

Born of the (Un)Virgin Mary? (Questioning the Virgin Birth but Loving Jesus All the Same)

abstinenceLike many Christians, I was taught the Bible through instruction, stories, skits, and songs. My teachers and leaders did a great job in trying to help us learn more about God, Jesus, and faith, but questions weren’t encouraged, especially questions with no easy answers. Then, I graduated college, left a college ministry, began going to more progressive churches, then the kind of Church that doesn’t meet in a building, but in open fields or with friends gathered around a table in community. It’s been here in these outlets that I’ve taken a more critical look at the Bible.

I still remember sitting down at my friend’s kitchen table two years ago, sharing that, “I don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve anymore.” Whew. It felt so good to say. I felt like I was getting a dirty secret off my chest. I felt invigorated. He smiled. “I haven’t believed that for a long time,” he replied. I talked about my other frustrations with the Bible, like how could a loving God wipe the Earth clean from people because S/He was sick of them? He pointed out that almost every major religion- Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for some examples- has a flood story. 

One reason why some people are afraid to question is that often, one question leads to many. And when you get to challenging all that you’ve been taught, for some people that brings up feelings of disloyalty or shame.

I’ve moved on from shame and have now fallen in love with questions. Questions give way to freedom. Questions help me wrestle, scramble, muse, fall deep into the enclaves of wonder, reminding me I will never, ever have it all figured out. Well-known pastor Rob Bell shared in his book Velvet Elvis, “Questions aren’t scary. What’s scary is when people don’t have any.” I can’t agree more. 

So naturally, I’ve found myself questioning again. I was taught to believe that Jesus was born from virgins: Mary and Joseph. And like many Christians, I didn’t question it. That is, until recently. A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a dear friend about my frustration over a verse in the Bible that stated because a woman from a long, long time ago ate a piece of fruit, God punished women with excruciating birth pains. Apparently, this painful birthing predicament is also the same act that will save women. The more we talked, the more I grew to believe that the Bible was indeed written by men (literally, men, since women did not receive the education men did) and that if I lived some thousands of years ago, and didn’t understand how humans were made, maybe I would try to explain why women give birth through some story like that too.

And then my friend said it, said the thought that got me questioning all I’ve been taught to believe, all over again. She laughed, “Yeah, it’s just like Jesus being born of a virgin.”

Wait, what?

Her point was that people living in that timeframe didn’t have reproductive education, therefore if a couple accidentally became pregnant, and sex before marriage was disdainful, then maybe that’s where the fable of Jesus’ virgin birth came about.

So if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, would that make a difference?

Would it make a difference in the lives Jesus touched? The outcasts that Jesus dined with? The poor in spirit that Jesus comforted?

Might it make the Bible not so volatile as to personally be freed from having to believe every bit of it tit-for-tat, line-by-(sometimes angering) line?

Might it put less emphasis on shaming “purity culture” and instead shed light on that, while perhaps not ideal, God can redeem all things, including the stigma of children born out of wed-lock? (For an excellent post in this, see Melanie Springer’s “I Wasn’t Planned, But Am Loved“)

Was the point that Jesus was born of a virgin, or was the point that Jesus’ life would change the world as we know it?

Arguing over whether or not a sexual encounter led to Jesus’ birth is not the point I’m trying to make.

All I’m saying is, isn’t there more than one way to read sacred text when we consider the time frame and potential biases in which this text was written?

Perhaps not everything is literal.

We can think about the context in which passages were written and ask ourselves, “What knowledge did people have at the time?” “If I were a first century Christian, how would I understand this?” (For more on this, check out “Questions for Exegesis“)

If you come away with different beliefs than what was taught to you, that’s ok. Because if “the word became flesh,” isn’t it more important to show the love of Jesus with our actions than nailing down the “right” verbiage?

It words and doctrine bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away.
All that matters is if you are finding God in this journey.

That you discover wrestling and questioning are holy acts of necessity.

That Jesus redeems all brokenness, even “taboo” out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Because wouldn’t that be so like Jesus, to stand in the periphery of all the religious dogma, and show with his actions that all things can be redeemed and made beautiful?

‘Cause Tonight the World Begins Again.

Christmas Eve.

There’s a song that reminds me of this night, no matter what time of year. It’s not your typical Christmas song. You probably won’t hear it on your local soft-rock-turned-Christmas-since-Thanksgiving-Station that’s already played Feliz Navidad 50,000 times. I doubt you’ll sing it in Church, either.

It’s called “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls. I’m not sure what lead singer Johnny Reznik intended for this song, but I can’t hear this song without thinking about the hope of Christmas.

I picture Christmas Eve like looking out the window at midnight after an evening of appreciable snowfall. The roads are unplowed, smooth snow glistening like sugar cookies, fresh in the street, untainted. The media isn’t yet in a frenzy over which facility is closed and which will get a two hour delay. A hushed silence blankets the world, if but for the night, drawing you in closer to the person next to you. There is peace and wonder and beauty, but it doesn’t scream, nor demand your attention. Heaven knows we don’t need more screaming, more arguing. Instead, its peacefulness is what garners our attention and draws us nigh. This is a bit of what Christmas Eve feels like to me- a baby, born in privation, surrounded by the love of God, except this baby isn’t screaming. This baby is sleeping peacefully in Mary’s arms. There is a beckoning to this Jesus that doesn’t yell, but quietly, calmly pulls my soul in deep, especially on a night like tonight. 

This night is always my favorite out of the year. A sense of anticipation churns in my heart as I look up at the stars convinced that hope is always out there for the searching, that life is inherently good, that there is a love out there trying to find ways into every person’s heart.
For the past twenty-some years, I’ve felt a taste of this beauty, this hope, at Church, singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. I remember the peace and stillness in my mother’s voice as she sang. Sometimes I would lower my voice, or stop singing altogether just to hear her sing. She rarely sings, but this night is an exception.

This year, I barely went to Church, as in a place you go to on Sunday mornings. But I’ve experienced Church that much more strongly out here in the wide open spaces. I liken it to how some animals have a poor sense of eyesight, but sharp olfactory acuity. I may not get “fed” through sermons and communion and prayer anymore, but my sense of God in the everyday is clued in more strongly than ever before, and I find God gathered around a fire with friends, in 5 AM foggy sunrises, in sunsets over the mountains, in conversations about reconciliation and peace amongst nations, and in the most boring, trivial parts of life.
So I may be joining the crowd of “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians tonight, but there’s no place I’d rather be. I know I’m not the only one. All sorts of people can find their way to Church on this night. Some who haven’t set foot in a Church in 10 years, only to discover that tonight, there really is plenty of room at the inn for all of us.

We discover, tonight, that in the midst of all the gifts, packages tied up in strings, something isn’t satisfying, and we realize that the greatest gifts that we’ve been given, like the song points out, are faith and trust and peace while we’re alive. We realize that we’re in this together, not focused on ourselves or egotistic societal mores, if but for one night. We’re focused on something bigger, on something we can’t explain, on something we can’t quite put our fingers on, on an event that we weren’t even around for all those thousands of years ago, but still choose to celebrate, year after year after year.

•••

It’s not coincidental to me that Christmas Eve falls one week before New Year’s Eve, and somewhere, at some moment in time tonight, you might find yourself placidly at a pew or lying in bed by candlelight, or perhaps driving home from a Christmas party or wrapping that last gift, turned inward, pensive, musing about the year as it slowly dwindles into its final seven days. And maybe your heart will fill with regret, or even bitterness. Maybe you didn’t treat people around you the way you wish you would have this year. Maybe you’ve had more joys this year than you could have ever foreseen, and on this night, your heart is so full, it just might burst with gratitude. Some of us will have lost someone, or something, this year, perhaps unexpectedly, that meant so much to us. And so our hearts are hurting as we experience our first Christmas without them. And as tears of joy and abundance, or tears of pain and hurt—or perhaps an amalgamation of both—warm your cheeks tonight, may you feel a presence come over you. Dare to believe it is God, softly whispering in your ear, “tonight’s the night we begin again.” All of our unmet hopes, all of our grievances, all of our confusion, all of our gratitude, our story, commingled with God’s story- the hope that on this night, like so many thousands of years ago, the world begins again. A hope rekindles. A baby gets born who will one day encourage the whole wide world to know how much they are loved, forgiven, freed. Whose words will affirm the pushed aside and the misunderstood. Who will flip things upsidedown, claiming that the last shall be first, the first shall be last. Ah, yes, that subversive guy. But wait. He’s just a baby tonight. Not a word has come out of his mouth yet, and his life, the story, is just starting, or re-starting. Ah yes, tonight’s the night the world begins again.

May we come to realize we are loved tonight. All of us, everyone of us, united together, seen with eyes of love. And not with a trite “Jesus loves you” kind of love, but a deep, pursuant, persistent love that never shouts nor excessively coddles, but is after you constantly, desperate for you to know how much- just how much you are loved, dear Child of God.

May we realize that together we “will do even greater things…”

May we each realize that Church doesn’t have to be a place you go to, but a peace you feel when you look up at the stars and can’t explain anything coherent at the moment, taken over by awe, knowing that in the midst of all this chaos is order and solace and constancy and bigness and smallness.
And if Church is a place you go to, should you ever feel dismissed, remember, God’s heart never closes. You are welcome here; there is always room in the inn of God’s heart. 

May we remember that everyone is forgiven. That this night is characterized by the innocence of a Child in a Manger. We are forgiven by a God who longs to lift us up out of shame; a God who will bend down on one knee, lift your chin up for you when your crestfallen glance won’t leave the ground, look you in the eye and say, “Look into my eyes, Child. I love you. You are forgiven. Whatever ‘dirty secret’ you hide, whatever you are so afraid of the world knowing about you, whatever holds you down, traps, and ensnares you… Whatever tries to convince you that you can’t change or that it’s too late or that you’re too far behind… Whatever prevents you from experiencing the allelujah… let it go tonight.”

Because God has promised us better days.

For tonight’s the night the world begins again.

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
And it’s someplace simple where we could live
And something only you can give
And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive
And the one poor child that saved this world
And there’s 10 million more who probably could
If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
I wish everyone was loved tonight
And somehow stop this endless fight
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

On a Cold Winter’s Night That was so Deep

December 16, 2011
It was Friday night and I took in a breath, smiling, as we were driving around to Coldplay on the way to running Christmas errands. You know those Friday nights, where the moon is out, stars-are-shining kinds of nights that give you that “God-it’s-good-to-be-alive” feeling.

And then it shifted.

Flashing lights in Baltimore City are not an uncommon sight. But this time, there were three police cars pulled over and a silent ambulance, lights still flashing. I held in my breath, nervously taking a closer look. In the middle of the adjacent street was a man, lying on his side, not moving. A couple of officers stood over him. A crowd gathered on the sidewalk.

Brian and I were probably behind a red light, looking at this scene for less than a minute. But it felt long, drawn out, like a thick fog of stagnant barrenness surrounding the streets and air. Laughter turned to solemness, like a train derailing, catching its passengers off guard, trying to keep them stuck in that moment. Flashbacks of kids on my block showing me a bullet came to my mind. I saw scenes of conflict and yelling that I’ve observed in neighboring streets. The essence of depravity, as though God himself in heaven was crying, stretching out his arm to rescue, saying, “no, this cannot be, this is not what I have intended for my people.” Perhaps the only thing you can do in such moments is instinctively pray. So we prayed. Prayed for peace. Prayed for reconciliation between whatever and whomever led up to that man lying in the street. We prayed for this city, that God would shed that redeeming love upon in scandalous grace that only a father up above could provide.

We were quiet for a little while.

I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say after you pass by a scene like that.

The green light forced us to move on. We ran some Christmas errands and strolled through the city to dazzle over Christmas lights. But for some reason, my mind kept drifting back to the man in the street. I didn’t know why; I knew this kind of stuff happens in the city. But this wouldn’t leave my mind. Perhaps it was because it was Christmastime, and I’m used to seeing people exchange in acts of good cheer, but instead, this exchange felt dismal. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly, but it felt like that scene was trying to take over, wanting to steal away the joy, the peace, the love that this season so beautifully epitomizes.

We drove home and stepped inside. Slowly, gently, God began showing me what he had to say about that scene that wouldn’t leave my mind.

I began to cry. I stopped fighting to keep the ears from spilling over the corners of my eyes, and let them fall down like rain. I didn’t have to pretend that one could be completely numb to violence, or homelessness, or poverty.

I didn’t have to pretend that I wasn’t scared. I didn’t have to play that game of shoulder-shrugging complacency or ignorance.

I felt it full force. And grieved.

I grieved over the depravity of this world. I grieved over the 193 needless homicides this city experienced this year. I grieved over the fact that perhaps if those men in conflict had grown up their whole life with positive role models guiding them, encouraging them, challenging them, and most importantly, doing life alongside them in a way that lifts up, allowing each individual to remember that we all have so very much to live for; perhaps then things could have been different that night. I grieved over the voices that all too often get stuck in our minds, voices that negate self-worth, that tell us to give up trying, that tell us things can’t change.

No. Surely that’s not what we were created to believe.

I grieved over all the ways in which The Church has directly and indirectly expressed who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “right,” and who is “wrong.” I grieved because I think it is possible for The Church to be synonymous with love, but right now, unfortunately, words such as “judgmental” and “fragmented” can be painstakingly accurate too. I’m sure you can envision such an image or news story right now. Missing the point completely, I am crushed when the world is presented with an incomplete Gospel of the One who loved us before we were born, who says that there is no condemnation for His children.

I grieved harder as I looked inward at myself. I mean, not just a surface check, but a guttural check inside all of those little parts of myself that no one sees, the parts that store my own layers of contempt and self-centeredness. The part that acknowledges how quick I am to dismiss those who don’t see my perspective, the part who still doesn’t love others with a completely unconditional love (like Christ), and who still holds my purse tight when walking around the inner city, because, after all,“they” could be trying to steal, “they” might have a gun, or “they” might otherwise harm me (see the self-centeredness and assumption making?). I grieved over just how stubborn and cynical I’d become over the past few years. I grieved over evil. I grieved because it is still here and present in this world, trying to take life out of our years. I grieved that after living in the inner city, I couldn’t deny the reality of racial polarization and that there is still much work to do if we want to see races completely reconciled one to another. I grieved over ignorance and apathy. That there are voices out there that get us caught up in things that don’t matter, distracted from our purpose. That demean us. That demean others.

BUT.

That’s. Not. How. The. Story. Ends.

That’s not how the story ends.

Dozens of times, I’ve heard the Bible described as something like, “the divinely inspired word of God.” I get that. But I can no longer concede to say the things that I’ve been spoon-fed to say. Instead, I find the Bible …difficult. It’s challenging; it’s beautiful. It’s simple; it’s confusing. I read things that make me angry and never want to open another page again. I read things that seem so unlike the God I know. Then I read things so beautiful that leave me amazed and feeling connected to something that has sustained and enriched millions of lives over the course of hundreds of years. I read of a redemption that can cover every wrong, of a companion, a guide, a friend, who desires nothing more than to journey life with you… or rather, you with Him. To come, as you are, and experience a kind of Kingdom incomparable to this world, but desperate to be experienced in the here and now.

I stop crying; I see it now. Faith, hope and love. Love of God, love of others. We can stop there and leave the rest out. I don’t care anymore. I was drawn to Christ and came back to the message that I can always, always come back to time and time again: love God, love others. That hope entered this world innocent… as innocent as a child in a manger. That hope entered this world naked, comforted by swaddling cloth to keep warm… and I too need to let myself “be naked” and vulnerable and allow others into my heart and life to show God’s love for me through their warmth, their love, their embrace and acceptance in both my weakest and my strongest moments.

Evil never stopped that hope, that joy, that comfort from coming into this world. And evil will never stop what is to come. Evil did not have the last word that Friday night. Evil didn’t win. It never will. Hope won. Love conquered. It always will. Undeterred and more drawn into this redemptive, unable-to-be-stopped kind of love, I knew God had the final say that night and always will. And that final say when we meet with our Creator will be, “welcome home, my child” with music, dancing, and song.

And just then, a familiar tune popped in my head. …On a cold winter’s night that was so deep…. Noel, noel, the soft angelic murmurs sang.

It was a cold winter’s night.
And it was deep.

And just like in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago, hope was still very much alive.