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No Longer Covered in Shame

Quick link: Today I have an essay Unclean but Called Clean, at (in)courage.

When I was radioactive and in isolation, I spent a lot of time meditating on shame, fear, healing, and the power of touch, the power of hope, the power of being restored. Here’s what I concluded.


It is a strange and unsettling thing being a danger to society.

I went for a walk and swooped to avoid a woman walking her dog. I crossed the street when a man came toward me, pushing his toddler on a tricycle. The little girl waved and said, “Hi!” and I stepped even further away. I walked down the center of streets, to keep my body as far from animals as possible.

I felt like I should have shouted, “Unclean! Unclean!”

I had every right to go outside. I’d specifically asked my doctor if it’d be okay and she said yes, then backed away from me in the hospital room to demonstrate how far I would have to be from people and pets — a good eight feet.

Still.

What if I slipped and hit my head and people came to help? What if a dog chased me? What if a school bus dropped off a student, and I didn’t get away quickly enough? What if I saw someone I knew and had to ignore or rebuff them?

At home, I lurked in the basement. My mom delivered food but couldn’t stop and chat. I didn’t want her to stay long in the basement air or near my physical space.

I was unclean…


Read the rest of the essay at (in)courage

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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.