Grief, Suffering and Christmastime

Last week a child I never knew, but have prayed for since he was a toddler, slipped away from this life into the next. In those final weeks, people covered that child and that family in prayer, pleading for miracles, for hope, for immediate and entire healing, and knowing what we knew of the family, the God would continued to be glorified through them in this.

There is thought to the idea that during the season while we think of God sending His son to us, it is difficult not to think of those we’ve sent to Him. When we try to conceptualize a God who understands our hearts and our hurts, there must be some lesson in this. God sent His son to us, knowing that He would be delivered back to Him in such a cruel manner. But not just that He gave the person, who would adore Him more than any other, the same perspective. Mary was told she’d bear a son, but she was also told she’d lose a son, and lived mothering a child who she knew that she’d outlive. It is a journey many of us know.

If you are sitting in the penetrating blackness of loss, you know this. If you are walking in the fading light of day with someone, you know this.

I can’t tell anyone what to do with this. I do not feel qualified at all to say, this will make it better or that will put you in the holiday mood. But I would feel honored to share what God’s been sharing with me in this season.

God gave us a gift at Christmas, Jesus, and let Earth receive her king, God with us.

And in turn, we see rich gifts being handed to Him. The wise men come bearing gifts for the baby. We are familiar with the song.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

    The magi brings gold, to honor this baby as an earthly king, director of our daily lives, our physical bodies, our rules, to give over sovereignty from ourselves to Him.

They bring frankincense to worship this baby as High Priest, as heavenly, as director of our spiritual destiny and our immortal souls, to give over adoration from ourselves to Him.

They bring myrrh. The third offering is so beautiful to me this season. In our imaginings, in our portrayal of Christianity, sometimes we can depict faith as this happy, everything is going to be fine, and if you give over control of your earthly lives and your eternal lives to God, it will be all joy. If that is the case however, it’s more likely the wise men would have shown up with gold, frankincense and birthday cake. 

When God sent Jesus to us, from the very beginning, from the first Christmas, Man responded by handing over his ownership, his adoration, and his grief, identifying that Jesus would know all these things intimately and that Jesus longs to receive these gifts from us still.

Still, I do not want to present the idea that Jesus looked at his gifts, leaned out of the manager, patted their heads and bestowed joy immediately upon the givers. Absolutely, joy does come. Absolutely, He has the ability to give joy. But after the magi give these gifts, Matthew tells us that God warns them not to return to Herod, and so they return to their country without passing through the shadow of death. God sends Joseph and Mary to Egypt, to protect Jesus because Herod wanted to kill him, and there they stayed until Herod died.

The gifts are given and then God delivers those involved from death. God gives a gift, that is Jesus. Humanity gives back ownership, adoration and grief, and then God turns around and gives security, protection, salvation. I can only imagine that the loss of a child, the pains that feel magnified and distorted under the Christmas lights, would feel like death chasing you down. What else can that magnitude of grief be?

I think I can safely say, joy will come. Joy, that expectation we hold for Christmas will find us. But maybe for a time God just helps us narrowly escape the shadow of death and hides us far from everything we know to be home, to slip away in the night of our circumstances and hide us until we can safely walk back into our own country, our own home, our own lives, without the darkness of death hounding your steps.

I think, maybe, in the story of the magi and what followed is this. Christmas is not just about the light of the star, brilliant and bright, guiding and light, showy and impressive. It is also about admitting that grief is attached to our experience, particularly our Christmas experience, gathering up tiny God With Us, and allowing Him to hide us from the shadow of death by covering us in the shadow of His wing. I think maybe that Christmas isn’t just about the light of the world, but that Jesus dimmed his glory, glory so much brighter than that star, came to us, and traveled into darkest dark to receive the gift of ownership, adoration, and grief.

If all you can offer this Christmas is admittance, be it joyful or sorrowful, confession that He is in control, a voice that can’t sing with the carols, but a body that allows the music to pass through you, and grief, so deep that the Spirit must speak for you in groans to Him, then offer it, and find yourself next to the Christ child, tiny, fragile, God With You.

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Christmas and Women’s Liberation

It is one of the most perplexing, laughable suggestions to when someone tries to throw into a conversation, “Christianity and the Bible are so oppressive to women!” Surely, they are reading some other book? And while I can admit that there are churches and people who claim to be teaching the a Christian message while demeaning women, that problem is not rooted in truth of the Bible.

This has been so sweetly brought back to mind this past week. We lit the first advent candle on Sunday, a nice moment for our family and a nice moment for me personally, as I have felt our church here became the kind of home here in Virginia that our church in Ohio was. I wondered as I read and reread the passage I was to read if I’d make it through without my voice cracking. This Christmas has felt newer than many in recent years, fresher, brighter, greener. The magic that the movies tell us should be a part of the season and so many years we feel like we’re failing at Christmas because that is missing…well it’s there. But that’s not the reason I thought my voice might break and betray the emotion I felt about the passage.

It’s a story we know. Mary is pregnant. Joseph is supposed to marry her, but, oh no, pregnant fiancee, not the thing you wanted in those days. Joseph had figured out how to handle it. Quietly divorce her. Don’t let her be too disgraced, but certainly, he wasn’t going to hang around and deal with that. Then the angel comes to him in a dream and tells him this, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

And my voice cracks.

We do acknowledge that Mary was in a tough situation, but do we read the story slow enough to recognize these things?

First, God could have formed Jesus from clay. God could have just poofed Jesus down from heaven. But no. Jesus chose that the first interaction he would have, would be with a woman, being intimately connected and totally dependent on a woman. In order for Jesus to come to us in the way he did, He has to value women. He has to value women enough that he is willing to make his life depend on her. If God had to be at that point to come to us, certainly He doesn’t find women less than.

Second, God could have put Mary in that situation and just said “Trust in me and it will all be ok.” But He didn’t. He provided for Mary physically, giving her the social protection of a husband, giving her the daily provision of a wage earner.  And to top it off, it presses in the message that we are designed for community. After God split the cells and began incarnation, he created and ensured community for his son and for her. If God shows up for Mary, to met her physical, social and emotional needs, won’t he do that for us, too?

Third, God anticipated Joseph’s doubts and concerns. God anticipated Joseph issue of pride and prepared an answer to questions I don’t even know if he knew he was asking. “How can I do what is right? It makes no sense to do this, so I will do something easier. And…really? This is the story she’s going with? Pregnant by God? And right there, God anticipates this very human response, but I can also see that he anticipates male pride, male ego, the struggle to fulfill a male stereotype and the concerns that are still to this day very male. And in order to value what He does in a woman, he has to assure a man, what is going on here, you can trust it. If God speaks to the pride of one man to assure him that he is working in one woman, can’t we hear his word echo over our stories as well?

This is the first Christmas I’ve experienced since my decision to go into ministry and that sentence is so sweet to me. Over and over I hear, “What is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”

Some of the brightest highlights of this year was turning to my husband and telling him I wanted to go into ministry and he said “If that’s what you’re supposed to do, then that’s what you do.” A friend told me when I told her “You let me know. Any church that would have you as a pastor is a church I’d go to!” My cousin told me she’s known basically for decades that this was my path. Over and over people this year have stopped me mid-sentence to say “I just want to affirm this for you.”

I am a woman walking towards ministry. I am a person who I know some churches object to, some churches limit opportunities to. I have attended those churches. But in this passage, just like I have heard all year long in encouragement, I hear God saying “Walk ahead in this. What I’ve started is of the Holy Spirit.” It certainly doesn’t mean that everything that a woman puts her mind to is of God, that’s not my point, but it is my assertion that just like at the beginning of the sweetest and best story ever told, God uses a woman, values her immensely and then goes around breaking down pride and adjusting human perceptions to protect his work in a woman.

Just one of many moments in the Bible where God frees women, values women, honors women, uses women. There are certainly enough to tell about all year long, but right now, at Christmastime, this is the one that is singing with my heart. Do not be afraid. God started this. God will provide for what He’s started. God’s got this, girl.