Mary, Did You Know?

Epiphany descends upon the Christmas season while lights still twinkle, and the joy and wonder of the incarnation reside spaciously in our hearts. The arrival of the maji affirms Christ’s holy identity, confirming that this baby is the One we’ve been waiting for.

Jesus is born into a world that is already hunting for Him. Christ’s lineage and sex placed Him squarely in King Herrod’s scope. His parents lived the first years of His life in hiding, away from their Nazareth home, in hopes of safeguarding their beloved Son’s life.

In all the teaching I’ve heard about Jesus, our Savior’s cultural identity as a marginalized person – can anything good, after all, come from Nazareth – has been used as a footnote to underscore His holiness while simultaneously setting aside as a microscopic footnote the pain and frustration of this central aspect of His human experience. Furthermore, church teaching tends to skim right past the untold number of innocent children murdered as Christ Himself was highly anticipated and hotly pursued. Insodoing, the church at large has managed to construct a white savior who is glorious in His excruciating agony on the cross without explicitly highlighting our Savior’s state-sanctioned lynching, which followed a lifetime of being pursued by both church and state because of the plain fact that He stated unflinchingly the truth of who He was.

One might say Jesus was killed for living out the truth that His life mattered.

I set myself up here as no spiritual or theological teacher, no seminary degree holder, no learned divinity student. Rather, I offer my perspective as an alternative to the lies of white supremacy, white saviorism, and “holy” hope for the sweet hereafter in place of present-day justice and truth, that the church has been complicit in underscoring time and again.

Truly, is it any wonder that we may find ourselves unable to connect the cross and the lynching tree, when the gross brutality of lynching has been almost entirely left out of the Savior narrative espoused in too many of our pulpits?

I want to draw your attention to the plight of our Holy Mother, a plight similar to that shared by black and brown mothers all over this country. For so many of us, from the moment we are aware of that missed period, even before pregnancy is confirmed, we hold within us the polar opposite emotions of joy and terror. The miraculous life we may be growing within us – all the blessing and anticipation we hold with open hands – will enter this world one step behind white babies because of skin color:

Photo by Julia Volk from Pexels

When our sons are young school-agers walking with their daddies and struggling to get their little legs to keep pace, they will be pushed by a white stranger who is then defended by yet another. 

When our sons are preteens, they cannot play at a park without risk of being murdered by police officers who will not be jailed for their crime. 

When our sons are teens, they cannot walk to a store for tea and Skittles without being accosted and killed by a man who has been told by authorities to cease his pursuit. 

When our sons are grown men and we have preceded them in death, they will call out to us as police officers hold off crowds of onlookers who record their lynching on their phones, horrified that a uniformed protector of peace and enforcer of justice is cutting off their ability to breathe by putting his knee on our son’s neck

All of this not because our children are criminals, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because they exist in black skin, without apology, without shame. Their existence is enough.

Did Mary know all of this? Did she hold all these truths in her heart as she hunkered down in a barn to give birth to our Lord? Did she weep tears of anxiety when she smelled His newborn baby head smell, trying and failing to stave off imaginings of the trouble He would have in his life?

The obvious answer is she did, and yet – too rarely do we turn our eyes to her example of nurturing our Lord throughout His fraught human life, too little attention do we pay to the human side of our Savior’s life.

And thusly do we continue to miss the true meaning of doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and thereby welcoming the new thing God is doing.

Return, Remember

I began the year not with a resolution but with a word: remember. A focus of mine this year has been to return to that which I know I am and have been at my core. To build up confidence and courage from the person I have always been because she is who I was created to be. 

Lately, maybe due to the change of the seasons or the middle of our fall semester, I’ve found myself frustrated more often than usual. I am beginning to think, though, that the root of some of my frustrations is related to my one word for the new year: some people that I share my daily space and life with don’t seem interested in remembering who they are.

In my mind, remembering is individual and collective. We all have been created by the same God, with a divine purpose and plan, and with intention and completeness inextricable from our bodies and souls. To have a relationship with God is to acknowledge that remembrance, and to live a life by faith is to doggedly remain tethered to that same remembrance that drew us into that Created-Creator relationship. 

Case in point: a friend recently shared a podcast episode with me. She found that this episode’s examination of Christians’ responsibility with regard to civic engagement was resonant. For her, the episode represented a refreshing take on what it means to align civically with Christian values rather than aligning civically with a political party that is believed to espouse Christian values.

I, however, couldn’t finish the episode.

The idea that there is a single way to engage civically or politically as a Christian is deeply upsetting to me. It feels like exchanging one type of legalistic indoctrination for another. That isn’t to say that such an idea isn’t valid or shouldn’t resonate with those for whom it lands differently.

But for me, this idea isn’t it.

Take, too, for example, the unfortunately oft-espoused idea that you can love someone but not like them. I cannot count the times I’ve heard people say this, and each time I hear it, my breath holds, my pulse quickens, my heart sinks just a little. What a hurtful, potentially relationship-destroying belief to hold. Can we really not separate people we love from their actions which we may not? Can we not understand that love is a degree of like and therefore the two are inseparable? Have we been so hoodwinked by the idea that love is a choice that we can’t see the truth: that love for each other is a return to the God who made us; that yielding to love means remembering who we are?

As for people who identify as Christians who are conflicted about whom to vote for, if they vote at all – is it really necessary that we confine our identity to a rigid idea that someone besides ourselves decided was the only way a Christian can possibly vote? Since when did a vote change a person’s faith? We are – no matter how we vote – the people God made us to be. And if our faith in Christ compels us to vote a certain way based on our convictions which are rooted in that faith, then that is how we should vote. But in my view, that has to come from within, not from without.

Ever the student of Brene Brown’s insightful call to get curious about the feeling when I’m triggered or angry or hurt, this is the conclusion I have reached: that my desire to remember who I am isn’t always shared by the people around me. This can lead me to take others’ words to mean what they say rather than meaning what they meant to convey by saying them. It is a frustrate for which I have no answers, but the knowledge of which beckons me deeper still into remembrance. 

Charleston: A Watchman Meditation

Charleston Nine

I originally wrote this piece four years ago and published it on my former blog here. Since today is the anniversary of this tragedy, I brushed it off and polished it a bit to share again today.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”  – so says Uncle Jack to his niece Scout in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In Lee’s novel, Uncle Jack’s words to Scout echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 62, verse 6: – “O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD.” But in church this morning, our reading of Psalm 127 pointed out that, “unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.” And as I sat in my pew, mulling over these words and connecting these recurrences of “watchman” to each other – because I’m never not an English teacher – a truth came into focus.

Several months ago, Andrew and a couple friends from church arranged a concert of their music. They played shortly after the Charleston church shooting, during a time when I was still personally deeply wounded, reeling from the horror of such a violent, racially motivated hate crime. During that concert, I noticed for the first time that black church  and white church are different: not just in worship style or length of service, but in the very theological concept of who God is and the reason we meet from week to week. Where white church seems primarily concerned with worship of God for who God is, black church – by contrast – is also concerned with reaching out to God for help not just with daily life but with the deep, ugly struggles we’d sometimes prefer to ignore. In my upbringing in the black church, I always saw a place for catharsis alongside worship. In white church, I’ve missed that.

The priest said today that, “In God’s world, there are no unseen people.” His insight connected very strongly with the Gospel reading from Mark, when the poor widow who gives two small coins is recognized by Christ for giving everything she had from her poverty. When I reflect on my upbringing in black church, I see the collective conscious Uncle Jack told Scout was a myth. And I see, too the call to individual conscience and watchmanship, the invocation of the Lord’s eyes to watch over our collective city, to see our invisible struggle. 

There are no invisible people in God’s kingdom.

And here is why I think white church doesn’t speak to the whole of my spiritual experience: I don’t see there a place for corporate lament, an acknowledgement of our society’s unseen, a call to stand in solidarity with those whose voices the church has historically refused to hear: the LGBTQ individual, the ethnic and socioeconomic minority, the outspoken and assertive woman. These groups are invisible to white church not because they can’t be seen but because there’s no desire to hear them in a way that acknowledges that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as they are. And who can worship freely where one feels oneself is unseen, unacknowledged, unheard?

In one way, I agree with Uncle Jack’s assertion to Scout that every man’s conscience is his watchman. He’s right: we must each be accountable for our own actions, bear responsibility for our own decisions, pay attention to our surroundings enough to see and act accordingly in our day to day lives. But in another way, I think Uncle Jack missed the mark here.

If we are people of faith, then unless the Lord watches over us, our labor as watchmen is in vain. We must look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible. It isn’t enough to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth if we haven’t also taken that same Gospel message to the invisible people around us who are looking to see if our God is also theirs: a God who watches over their city as well as our own. A God who sees and hears them. A God whose love doesn’t confine itself to a single interpretation of a single Bible verse in the name of tradition, but whose love reaches beyond tradition, scriptural misinterpretation, and historical erasure, and offers unconditional, all-encompassing, unashamed love to each heartbroken individual, each unheard people group, each silently weeping minority who’s been told time and again to conform and submit, each individual who has been silenced.

Whether we are people of faith or not, there is work to be done.

If we profess faith, we need to look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible.

If we are not people of faith, there still is work to be done: we must look within our hearts and minds to suss out our motivations. We cannot neglect to watch over the city of humankind because our own personal lives are idyllic. We cannot ignore the plight of our neighbor and focus only on ourselves.

There is indeed a collective conscious, with each individual obligated to do their part for the betterment of us all.

Remember

This holiday season, I’ve carried a particular song with me more than in other years. The first time I heard “Now Behold the Lamb,” I was a fourteen year-old, recently baptized praise dancer trying to learn my first routine. There were maybe eight to ten of us girls who danced together – a few of us had solos during the verses, but mostly we danced in unison during the refrains. By the end of our first performance of that dance during church, I was in tears. I had not cried at all during practice, but something about the congregation’s response and the tears of some of my fellow dancers moved me.

Twenty-three years later, the tears still well up when I hear this song.

I have given some thought lately to new year’s resolutions, to goals and hopes and plans, as one does when a year is ending.

But as I’ve reflected on the largeness of this song in my memory and in my heart, I have wondered if maybe instead of looking forward, I need to look back.

Truly, America’s current political climate has had a hand in leading me down this mental road. How can we possibly be living amid a 21st century rise of anti-Semitism and anti-migrant sentiment? What answer can there be but that we have failed to remember from whence we came? Failed to remember who we are?

I wonder if it may benefit humankind to journey into our past to remember our common nature. At our core, we are relational beings who want to see and be seen, to care and be cared for, to love and be loved. Wouldn’t realizing this truth anew force us to see humanity in each other and act accordingly?

When I look back at my fourteen year-old self, stumbling over my words when an older congregant asked me why I cried near the end of our dance routine, I can help her answer him: I could see God’s grace so clearly, and see too that God’s incarnate grace came low in the full knowledge of who I am, who we are.

As 2020 nears, may we each find time to be still and remember who we are: first and foremost seeing and seen by a loving Creator. And may this bone-deep knowledge guide us forward in grace.