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Rethinking the Nativity

I am tired of the Christmas story.

Clarification: I’m tired of the way I keep hearing it and seeing it and reading it. Let’s think about the Christmas story, as seen in thousands of movies, children’s pageants, poems, novels, kid’s books every year:

Joseph is kind of a chump. He gets pushed around by some angels and then makes the totally irresponsible decision to drag a pregnant woman in her late third trimester to a town miles and miles away, on foot or maybe on a donkey. He plans this trip so poorly that they barely make it to Bethlehem on time and while Mary is (silently and peacefully) enduring labor pains, he is knocking on the doors of the local Sheraton and Holiday Inns. Apparently though Joseph is from this town, he no longer has any connections or relationship with people there so not only is he irresponsible, he must have been quite the jerk.

The streets are empty, no one sees this pregnant woman and harried man, no one cares until the hapless innkeeper reluctantly allows the couple to use his filthy, though warm and well-supplied with soft, cuddly hay, stable out back.

Mary gives birth, alone, the umbilical cord is magically cut, the placenta just disappears, though Joseph would have had no idea what to do with it and Mary would have been in no state to direct him. The baby has this funny glowing circle over his head, doesn’t cry at all, is wrapped in a dirty, torn blanket, and perhaps licked by the barn animals.

Some shepherds come and see the baby and the parents living in the filth and stink of an animal barn and leave rejoicing.

This makes for beautiful paintings, poetry, songs, and children’s plays. But does it fit the cultural norms? More importantly, is it what the Bible teaches?

nativity

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How about this instead? (for more on this, read This Advent Season, A Look at the Real Setting)

Joseph, a man of courage and faith, realizes that his fiancee is in serious trouble. She could be stoned any day by the villagers because she is pregnant and not married. He is not required to bring Mary along to be counted in the census because she is a woman but he decides to tie his name to hers, tie his reputation to hers, and saves her life by taking her out of the village until the baby is born and emotions can simmer down. Who knows if they walked or rode donkeys but there is a distinct possibility that they rode in a cart. In any case, they arrived in Bethlehem before the day of Jesus’ birth. The Bible says: While they were there the time came for Mary to give birth. The Bible does not say: the moment they arrived they frantically pounded on doors.

He is wise, planned ahead, and is a hero. Not merely a background character, indistinguishable from shepherds in most nativity scenes.

It is hard to imagine that a working man of integrity and faith would have been rejected by relatives, no matter how extended. Not in this culture. In Djibouti people impose on extended relatives all the time, for long periods of time, cramped into small living spaces shared with livestock. No one would turn away a pregnant relative. No, he had family in Bethlehem and he went to the home of relatives where he and Mary rested from their journey and prepared for the birth of the baby.

The word ‘inn’ doesn’t refer to a Holiday Inn or Sheraton style building where a bed and meal can be purchased. It more likely refers to an upper room in a family home. Quite possibly Joseph’s relatives had other distant family in town for the census so the upper room was occupied. This meant the couple had to sleep downstairs in the open living space where animals were kept at night for safety and where they ate from troughs dug into the earth at one end of the room. They maybe slept on mats or piles of blankets, just as they would have upstairs. The room was warm and sheltered, probably filled with other traveling relatives.

Mary didn’t give birth alone. No place in the Bible is this written or implied. More likely she was surrounded by women. A midwife, Joseph’s relatives, neighbors. Shepherds came and found the child and his mother and left rejoicing because not only had they seen Grace and Mercy in the flesh, but they had seen a woman and child well-cared for and surrounded by caring women. Otherwise, they more likely would have praised God for that Grace and Mercy and then said: What are you doing here alone and cold?! Come with us, our women will care for you! No way would they have left a young mother and infant in that state and left rejoicing.

I don’t want to be too harsh, but maybe in the West, the first version, the version we are so used to, is acceptable because we can relate. A man unable to plan well for his pregnant fiancee. A woman in labor turned away, the needy ignored in the streets. Maybe we feel comfortable imagining that in ‘those’ places people only had dirty torn clothes to wrap around their babies, that in ‘those’ places mothers allow cows to lick their newborns. Maybe this, in some way, frees us from responsibility to act. If our Lord was born this way, it is not lowly or demeaning for other babies to be born alone, into a cold and unwelcoming world.

But in the East, in the culture and time in which Jesus was born, no way. Family, hospitality, food, community, these things are highly valued, no less in Jesus’ lifetime. A pregnant woman was not left in the street, especially when relatives were in town and even if she was pregnant out of wedlock. I could list off names and names of women I know in eastern cultures who have been pregnant outside of marriage and who have been neither stoned nor rejected from their families, but lovingly welcomed and cared for.

We want to make the birth of Jesus as hard as possible, as cold and lonely and desperate and painful as possible. Why? Is it because we can’t grasp the infinite coldness, loneliness, desperation, and pain of what the incarnation truly meant? We wrap it up in dirty clothes and stinking animals, in physical loneliness and fear. Is our feeble attempt at re-imagining the Christmas story our way of trying to understand, to put images and emotions to something so powerfully and deeply beyond our comprehension? To bring the miracle of God-made-flesh into our realm of understanding?

No matter what other pictures we paint to describe his birth nothing can make it harder than it was. Nothing can make it more loving than it was. Nothing can make it more miraculous than it was.

Jesus left heaven and was born a human baby, destined to die a human death.

Saying that Jesus was born into the hands of a skilled midwife or into a house filled with light and laughter and community takes nothing away from the glory of that night. It simply makes it more authentic.

*these thoughts stem from the incredible book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey and I highly recommend this book. Highly.

*image credit

John MacArthur Wasn’t Just Demeaning to Women. Part 2

I wrote an essay called What Happened When Jesus Told a Woman to Go Home in my newsletter: Stories from the Horn, last week. If you want to read that essay, sign up here.

Following up on that, here is part 2 of my response to John MacArthur’s video comments from a few weeks ago.


Many people couldn’t watch past the “narcissist” comments and the laughter. But had we continued to watch, we would have heard words that call into question the valid (and necessary and good and beautiful) contribution and basic humanity of Christians of color and marginalized communities.

In an article for the Religion News Service, Rozella Haydée White address this. She writes, “Later in the recording, MacArthur criticizes a suggestion that Latinos, African Americans and women should henceforth be necessary members of Southern Baptist Bible translation committees. He also objects to a resolution agreed to at the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2019 national meeting that deems intersectionality — the theory, developed by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, that describes how overlapping social identities create interconnected systems of oppression — as a useful tool for biblical interpretation.”

The problem with MacArthur’s words weren’t just his treatment of Beth Moore or Paula White, but his dismissive attitude toward people of color and other marginalized communities.

Later on in the video, he seems to claim that people (read marginalized people and minorities) who believe their voices matter and should be part of dialogue, are only after power. And that because they (in his opinion) are after power (apparently for power’s sake), on that basis alone, they should be excluded from the conversation.

I don’t see how wanting to be heard, especially wanting an underrepresented voice to be heard, necessarily means one wants power, or at least not a negative form of power. And anyway, if wanting to be heard is equated with wanting power, the men on that stage wanting to be heard wanted power and by MacArthur’s own logic, thereby should not have power. (watch the video here)

I am not a theologian. I’m not an expert on race theory or gender theory or intersectionality or anything, really. I’m a person in the world who reads or listens to stuff and thinks stuff.

I don’t understand how intersectionality doesn’t matter in the world. When I look at what I experience as a straight white Christian American woman, it seems that all these parts of me, and all the other parts of me, too, have an impact on my life and experiences, many of them overlapping impacts. When I look at how others view and engage in the world, it seems the same for them. When I read the Bible, it seems these intersecting realities of who humans are matters.

I see Hagar, an abused sex slave from Egypt, probably black, a woman. I can’t imagine how her gender and her status and her race don’t intersect. I see Esther, from a despised religious minority and possibly ethnic minority as well, a vulnerable young woman, trafficked into the king’s bedroom and I can’t imagine how her gender, religion, and ethnicity don’t intersect. I see laws about how to treat slaves or laws about how and when to sell off one’s daughters and about whom one is allowed to marry and they all have overlapping spheres of identity. It seems like gender, race, national origin, age, and more have a lot to do with power and life experience.

The problem here wasn’t just about how women are treated and spoken about but about how minorities and marginalized communities are treated and spoken about.

Please, people from these communities, don’t go home. I need your voice, we need your voice. How can we grow and change and sharpen ourselves if we are only surrounded by or hearing from people just like us?

After 17 years in the Horn of Africa, I am beyond grateful for how I’ve grown through being immersed in a community that forces me to be intentional and thoughtful about what I believe and how I behave.

It is not okay to shut out the voices and opinions of people who disagree with us or who challenge us or who are not like us. I’m not saying we need to agree, but we do need to be kind and humane and respectful. We need to exhibit the fruits of the spirit, both those in positions of power and those not in those positions. Cruelty and laughter and disparaging comments are not the way to accomplish this.

#notgoinghome

 

Stronger than Death, Book Cover Reveal!

I wrote a book.

I’ve actually written many books, from the cloth-covered book about animals running a race I wrote in elementary school, to the several novels that are completed and gathering dust on my hard drives (for very good reasons!), to my self-published books the Djiboutilicious cookbook, Finding Home, and two editions of Welcome to Djibouti.

This coming book has been the work of my heart for almost five years. It is the biography of Annalena Tonelli, a woman who faced disease, terrorism, massacres, lonely isolation, and chose love over fear.

“People would call her a doctor, a missionary, and a nun. And they would call her a saint… Should Annalena be made into a saint? That was how I thought of her, at first. I only knew the high points in Annalena’s life. I knew nothing of the dark valleys, her secret and controversial compromise. I knew she had accomplished something remarkable, something about tuberculosis but also about love and faith…”

It is the product of collaboration with Matt Erickson, so many people I interviewed all over the world, those I followed and pestered, and the Plough Publishing team.

A few months ago I shared the book cover in my Stories from the Horn newsletter.

Now, I want to share the cover here, too.

You may have already seen it, if you’ve visited the Plough, Indiebound, or Amazon, but let’s make this the formal “cover reveal”.

Are cover reveal parties a thing? Like for pregnant moms and gender reveal parties? I feel like they should be, with balloons and a cake a fireworks. Well…oh well.

There is so much I want to tell you about the book, like who endorsed it and some behind the scenes stuff. Like how I’ve been changed through this project. Like how it feels to write a book while dealing with cancer. Like all the ways this book connects to current issues from Ebola to cross cultural relationships and humanitarian aid, to conquering fear and talking about race and faith. I love the way this woman turns these conversations upside down in surprising, even shocking ways.

But for now, here’s the cover! No drama, no explosions, no band playing in the background. Just me and my excited little heart.

(Number 1 new release in Kenyan History!)

You can preorder it here

Plough

Amazon

Indiebound

What could be stronger than death? Only a love bigger than fear and bigger than hate. We need this message more than ever.

Confessions from an American Christian Expatriate

Quick link: Dear American Church

I wrote this week for A Life Overseas about the complicated feelings I have as an American expatriate toward the American evangelical church. The essay required a lot of humility and vulnerability because I confess how judgemental I can be.

Its gross.

But it is also good because I relearn, every time I’m back in the USA, why I love the church, in all her imperfections and mess. Because she loves me back, in all of my imperfections and mess.

Here’s part of the piece:

Dear American Church,

Sometimes I feel cynical about you. This should not sound surprising, especially coming from an expatriate. I haven’t engaged deeply with you in almost sixteen years. My ‘church’ has been a motley crew of people from all nations and all denominations and all manner of theological bent in terms of eschatology, gender roles, predestination (or not). My pastors rarely speak English. My family is usually the only white family.

My other church, the BODY, has been women I take long, sweaty, dusty walks with, sometimes chased by wild dogs or men with AK-47s. We pray, we hold hands, we shout, we weep, we fight, we forgive and ask forgiveness. We try to untangle the world’s brokenness and our own. We babysit each other’s children, counsel through hard marriages, donate blood in the hospital. We do Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, baptisms, baby dedications, and grief in each other’s homes. We don’t attend services together inside a building but we live worship together in the world.

We are a small community and a constantly changing one, which means we cannot stagnate. We have to try, really hard, to not close ourselves off to each new arrival or to isolate in sadness after each fresh departure. We know we are a hot (literal) mess.

So sometimes when I come back to America for a visit, the church feels so big. So impersonal. So unengaged in relationship. Focused on politics and national pride. So rich, so much pressure to buy certain books or to dress well enough to look presentable in services. So homogeneous.

And I judge.

Oh God, forgive me, I judge. While I’m away, I cry about loneliness and limited relationship options and the exhaustion of the revolving expatriate door. But then while I’m in the US, I judge.

Click here to read the rest.

On Shoe Boxes, Generosity, Kindness, and Being Helpful

Last year I wrote a post called 13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids. I got a lot of feedback for that essay. I don’t regret posting it or reposting it.

I do regret that I didn’t provide a specific enough list of other ways to serve. Because I am not anti-service, or against giving! I’m not against gifts or generosity! I’m sorry that some have felt paralyzed or personally hurt.

I still have a lot of big feelings about things like the White Savior Complex and the American Christian emphasis on stuff, on consumerism, when we talk about generosity. No family is perfect. But I don’t want to shoot at the Church, who proves over and over to be kind, generous, and loving. I don’t want to take down people I love and care about and I want to be pushed back, to be challenged.

I have been.

I’ve specifically been asked if I could be more useful, which is ultimately the point – not to point fingers or complain, but to help us all grow and do these things better.

Some of these ideas take more time, relational energy, creativity and courage, others are strictly financial.

So…onward to some ideas for helping without hurting.

Send money to the place you want to bless with gifts. Funnel it through someone you know and trust. Don’t know or trust someone in a location you care about? Email me or leave a comment and I’ll try to connect you. Let the local church hire moms and dads to fill boxes with things they purchase locally. They can keep the income from that work to buy Christmas dinner for their families.

Is there a single mom (or dad) near you? In your church, family, neighborhood? She works so hard to care for her family. Call her up or stop by, even if you barely know her. Ask if you could do her laundry. Tell her what day you go to the grocery store and ask if she could give you her shopping list and cash. Pick up her groceries and just drop them off. Tell her that if her kids have a snow day or get sick, that you will babysit so she doesn’t have to miss a day of work.

Visit someone in the hospital, in a home for the elderly or disabled, in your local prison. Read Christmas stories, bring Christmas cookies, a stocking stuffed with goodies like warm socks, a new card game, gum. Bring your kids along. Ask the chaplain at the hospital or prison if there is someone who was recently released and who might need a care package or a home visit. Transitioning out of the hospital and especially out of prison can be really hard and lonely.

Check out Angel Tree Prison Ministry to get involved personally and practically, locally.

Do you live near kids with two working parents? Offer to take their kids sledding when you go with your own kids. Offer to make Christmas cookies with or for them, maybe their favorite recipe.

Is there someone at your child’s school who needs a Christmas tree or who can’t afford to bring treats to the school holiday party? Ask the teacher and ask if you can provide an anonymous gift so that child can participate with pride.

Write letters to people who live far away. You can do this as a family or with a Sunday School class or small group Bible study. Draw pictures, write silly poems. Remind people who were once part of your community that they are still remembered

Pregnant moms nearby? There might be a center near you that serves young, pregnant, or new moms. Sometimes there are homes for them if they need shelter (link to a great new one below), sometimes there are service centers they access for diapers and clothes, counsel, and medical care. Find one of these and see what they need.

Do you live near an area impacted by fire, flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Can you do something in this close-by community that is practical and useful? Maybe a family needs someone to play games with their kids in a shelter for the afternoon so the parents can return to their destroyed home and pick through the debris without traumatizing the kids. Maybe they need warm winter socks or new pots and pans.

Find out who in your town works with refugees, newly arrived immigrants, families with children who have special needs, someone recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness, a nursing home for the elderly…it takes some pre-planning, some initiative, and a lot of courage, but you never know where a willing heart might take you.

Specific local and international opportunities:

Support nurses in Kurdistan. This is run by a dear friend, Marilyn Gardner. Give the gift of life. Marilyn needs $10,000 more to reach her goal. It costs $9.00/per shoe box just for the box and shipping. Average $5-6 more/box for the items inside. That means she needs the equivalent of 667 boxes. Some groups do that in a night. For toys. I realize my frustration is evident, but here is a chance to invest in lives. “Nurses are foundational to health care systems. You can have the best doctors in the world, but without nurses both public health programs and hospital care suffer. Building a strong and accountable group of nurses a world away will have lasting impact.”

Elevate Hope House is run by a childhood friend and is a brand new project. Melinda has big dreams and a huge heart. “Elevate is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established to empower young, single moms and their children in crisis, by providing a safe home and an empowering support system, while each mom learns self-sufficiency and renews, restores, and regains her self-worth through the love of Christ.”

Rowing Dangerously is fellow runner of the Somaliland Marathon, Jordan Wylie. He ‘ran dangerously’ through Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to raise money to help children in need. This year he is rowing across the waters near Djibouti, to raise money for education in the refugee camps of Djibouti, clearly issues near and dear to my own heart.

International School of Djibouti, that’s us!

Resource Exchange International, that’s us, too!

Hidden Treasures Thrift Store. In St. Anthony, Minnesota: “We are a non-profit Christian workplace that partners with a large community of donors, shoppers, and volunteers to provide a place for meaningful employment, Christ-centered life development, and a loving community for those of us who have backgrounds that include addiction or a criminal record.”

The Angel Foundation is a Minnesota-based organization that provides practical, financial, and emotional support for people with cancer and their families. One of their activities is offering a camp for kids whose parents have or had cancer.

And here are two ideas I took from magazine articles I read recently but don’t personally know anything about:

Reader to reader, helping teachers supply their classrooms with books (note that our school in Djibouti is also always building our library, the largest accessible to all English-language library in the country and it fits on five shelves!)

Power My Learning, accepts used computers, laptops, and other technology for low-income families and students.