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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

Stronger than Death Book Trailer

Annalena Tonelli spent 34 years living and working in the Horn of Africa. Somalis loved her, and still talk about her with great affection, still carry on her legacy, still continue her work.

But someone killed her. Why?

Why did she stay so long as a foreigner, in the face of massacres, famine, tuberculosis, terror, and war? How did she build a strong local community across religious and racial boundaries, boundaries that today often divide communities?

This is not the story of a white savior, or is it? It isn’t the story of a saint either, or is it? Annalena was far from perfect but her example challenges us all to be a little braver. A little more loving. A little more willing to reach out to someone with empathy, faith, and action.

       

Available from Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and Amazon.

Thanks to Matt Erickson for providing video clips and photographs and to the Plough Publishing video team!

Letters Never Sent

If Kleenex boxes could be sent via email, she should have sent me one of those too. I promised to write a review and I’ll say upfront that parents of Third Culture Kids should buy this book (I am not an affiliate of anything and earn nothing if you do). I tried to read the book while in the lobby of a hotel and had to put it away so I wouldn’t snort and sniffle and otherwise disrupt the peace. I finished it at home.

The sub-title of the book is: a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing and that is a perfect description of this book. As the mother of boarding school kids, my eyes and heart burned while I read about her loneliness and the lies she told herself, and that seemed to be perpetuated by the environment, that she must be strong, must not feel the hurt.

The book is a series of letters Ruth didn’t write until later in life and chronicles her journey that began the first day of boarding school as a six-year old in the 1950s when, in her words, “her heart got pulled out.” Ruth writes bluntly and honestly and compassionately about her years in boarding school, high school in the US while her parents stayed in Nigeria, college, marriage, having children, and eventually moving overseas herself. She walks through separations and brokenness, loss and deep questions of faith.

Where was God when she was sick at boarding school and there was no comforting mother’s hand to soothe her? Where was God when she had to say good-bye, again, to parents and siblings and Nigerian friends? Where was God when she felt like a failure for crying?

And, I think ultimately, where is God when the pain is unbearable and is it okay to say that something good hurts like death?

She writes, “I wish someone would acknowledge that pain of what He is asking. Just once, I wish someone would give me a hug and say, ‘I understand. It’s okay to say that the right thing to do hurts. Go ahead and cry.'”

Through depression and wrestling, Ruth comes to a fuller understanding of grace and experiencing the comfort of God. The end of the book has a reflection on this comfort and on what it means to be a person made in the image of God. She also describes her journey of coming to write Third Culture Kids, which I found delightful because the process of writing always fascinates me.

Along with prayers and questions for my own children, I came away from this book with a longing to know this comfort of God, and with hope. Hope that through pain, Jesus shines beautiful and true and that the gospel has power. This is the only hope parents can hold when we know our choices are affecting our children for better and for worse, like Kelley wrote about on Tuesday in the Painting Pictures series.

Ruth writes, “There is great richness in this Third Culture Kid lifestyle and there is also great pain – ironically often because of the richness.”

Thank you Ruth, for your vulnerability. Thank you for contributing to this blog, for bringing my soul comfort, and for being a gentle shepherd of so many parents and TCKs.

Have you read any of Ruth’s books? Heard her speak? Other insights to share?

The Tender Season

This week is what I am calling my tender season.

my grandfather's grave, the day we buried my grandmother last August

my grandfather’s grave, the day we buried my grandmother last August. Another tender season.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is, possibly, one of the more divisive aspects of faith. I believe Jesus died, my Muslim friends believe he did not. I believe he rose from the dead, they believe he didn’t have to because he didn’t die. We both believe he is alive now, in paradise, and that he will return one day to earth and will redeem all broken things.

And so, tenderly, (all the more tenderly as the country searches for dry ground and a solid foundation after the flood) I step into this weekend of Good Friday and Easter fully aware of the differences between me and my Djiboutian friends. But I don’t think it needs to be divisive, even as we disagree. I think we can still love and pray and clean up mud together. On Eid or Mawliid or during the Hajj I enjoy hearing from my friends what the holiday means to them. Here is what Easter means to me.

Sometimes I forget to feel things. Or I’m too busy. Or I choose not to. But now, in this tender season, I can’t seem to forget or lose myself in busyness or make the lazy choice to be callous.

There have been many dark and dying things. Cancerous things and grocery stores burning down things and human trafficking things. Broken marriage things and kidnapping things. Post-election discontent and flooding. Loneliness and rising temperatures (including Lucy’s last night of 104). Suicides and murders and arrests. My family divided. My lack of patience, cruel words, unthinking comments, pride.

These things are what Good Friday is for. These things are what Easter is for. During this tender season when emotions are bubbling over, there is no getting around the feeling of it. Easter is not a familiar, chocolate bunny holiday. It is shocking and scandalous and earth-shattering and I feel my need for Jesus.

These dark things have stripped away the façade of self-dependence. Being all five Joneses under one roof for a month is joyfully raw because it is temporary and every game and meal and prayer and tickle mania bears a subtle weight. Heavy rain brought life in the desert and death in the city. We wait for news of people we love in the hospital and in recovery, or not. And through it all, I need Jesus.

As long as I can remember I believed Easter was about Jesus dying and rising to purchase forgiveness for sin.

But as I get older and love more people and enter more suffering (and from what I hear, this is only the beginning) and read the Bible deeper and learn myself better, Easter is oh, so much more. These are some of the things I need Jesus for, some of the things I can write Easter resurrection power over:

Victory over death.

Reclaiming of hope.

Defiance of injustice.

Promise of his Presence.

Comfort in sorrow.

Honor in place of shame.

Courage in place of fear.

Confidence in place of timidity.

Certainty in place of doubt.

A solid foundation and an unshakeable kingdom.

These are part of what Easter means to me and I’m glad for the tender season of it, even though it does mean I have to make sure there are always Kleenexes in my purse.

Do you have a tender season? What brings it on?

By |March 28th, 2013|Categories: Faith, Jesus|Tags: , , |4 Comments
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