What if the True Meaning of Christmas is about Self-Worth?

In our hyper-programmed culture of productivity and accomplishment, it can be a relief to reach the Christmas season: those precious few days when there is finally a cultural pressure to just be nice. Time for Christmas, time for Love.

But we also receive very specific messages what that Love should look like. These messages are everywhere, but most powerfully in the inescapable holiday soundtrack that somehow penetrates every public and private event.

In church, it’s often said that faith is defined by music: our truest beliefs are not from the Bible but from the songs we sing each week, whether it’s lofty hymns battling the organ or the not-so-affectionately titled genre of “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs. There’s nowhere in American culture that music more deeply shapes us than at Christmas. Our experience and expectations of the holiday is based on the songs we’ve committed to play in public spaces, whether out of cultural consensus or media manipulation.

The radio-dominating carols of snow and good cheer shape our subconscious holiday landscape, with their parties and presents and mistletoe and food and family and friends. These songs point us toward an elusive sense of comfort and love, but it’s a love wrapped up in a prescribed set of practices, ie., walking in a winter wonderland, getting the turkey and the mistletoe, letting it snow, and rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

The musical consensus tells us Christmas is about more than presents and lights. But only to the degree that the  #1 Billboard Holiday song by Mariah Carey tells it: we believe we can transcend the materialism of the season and access the true spirit of Christmas only by attaching ourselves to a romantic partner. “All I want for Christmas is You.” True Christmas is about falling in love, because the only thing worse than being in an unhappy relationship at Christmas is to be single at Christmas, as if singleness is evidence of unloveability.

Mariah Carey All I Want for Christmas is You

Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit was almost titled, “All I Want for Christmas is to Stake my Self-Worth on Someone Else in order to Cover my Crippling Fear of Unloveability.”

The classic (can we say classic about 1994 yet?) gives voice to one of the deepest American anxieties. If we make the leap to eschew materialism in favor of love, but can’t even master the connection of romantic love, it must mean we are not be loveable.

At Christmas, as at Valentine’s Day, we perform acts of conspicuous love without these displays, we would be unworthy of love.

To hear the Christmas songs tell it, Loving means giving as much of yourself away as you can—to buy presents; to send cards; to attend obligatory gatherings in an endless blur of warm and mildly intoxicating beverages; to socialize in specific and highly programmed ways; to make the season as perfect, as the song says, “as a picture print by Currier and Ives.” But somehow that Currier and Ives print becomes a month lived in a frenzied generosity and accommodation and giving more love than you receive until it all culminates in a sugary crash and a coma of introversion. The American Christmas is about giving away love, even when you have no more love to give. It’s the idea if you don’t give it away, you’ll never be worthy of receiving it.

Christmas can bring out crippling feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy as we race to give away “enough” love to become worthy of receiving it.

From this perspective, Jesus becomes a magic “Love Your Neighbor” card that gives you the energy to give away more love. But the real mystery and challenge of God Incarnate is that your own flesh is worthy of love. In that small baby in the manager, you face the reality that you—you, with your flaws and shame—are deeply loveable.

The Birth of Jesus is the antithesis of the Christmas carols’ message. It’s realizing that love doesn’t keep a scorecard, that no amount of presents or cards will make you more or less deserving. Christmas is about an encounter with a God who challenges you to say, “I am loved.”

This is exactly what the Virgin Mary does, in spite of theological attempts to reduce her to a humble saint who has somehow transcended the need for self-love. In carrying God inside of herself, she names her own self-worth and identifies herself as not only someone who gives love, but someone who receives love.

Annunciation El Greco

“Annunciation,” by El Greco; or, “The Terrifying Possibility of Self-Love.”

Immediately after the angel announces her pregnancy, in Luke 1:39, “Within a few days Mary set out and hurried to the hill country.” She learns she is pregnant and… She’s out. She’s on the road to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Bible says nothing about talking to her parents or consulting with Joseph, she just packs her bags and walks across Roman-occupied Judea by herself. Mary meets the angel and she realizes, “God has a plan for me and I have to get my s*** together.”

And so she creates more space to be herself. As she contemplates engagement, pregnancy, and marriage, as she comes into adulthood with the massive task of forming her own family unit, and as she thinks of how she wants to create a family where she gives love but also receives love, she takes time to be a single woman. She puts her obligations to others on pause in order to reflect on her own patterns of loving.

And she’s gone for 3 months. That’s one-third of her pregnancy devoted to reflecting on love with a trusted woman friend.

Her visit is about adult women making space together to be adult women. Mary and Elizabeth spend three months together. Of course, Elizabeth’s husband is around, Zechariah, but Zechariah got into an argument with an angel and the angel struck him mute. So while Zechariah is around, these three month aren’t about him. It’s truly just a time for the women be together understanding themselves and their capacities to love. To love a child, but also to love themselves.

When Mary arrives, Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished!” (This is the part where John the Baptist leaps in her womb, but let’s de-center the male experience and look at the women beyond their fetus-carrying capacity.)

And Mary responds,

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s blessing by blessing herself. Elizabeth says, “You’re so great!” And Mary replies, “Yes, I am great! And God loves me that way.”

Her song is full of my’s and me’s. It’s about her as an individual. Maybe coming from someone else’s mouth, it would sound self-centered, but here, it is Mary’s understanding that as a woman, she is deeply loved and worthy of all the love she has received.

Only from that place of belovedness does she launch into this vision of dismantling the political system and creating a more equitable world, the lowly lifted up and the powerful pulled down from their thrones, which is what the Magnificat is so well-known for.

Christmas is a season of love and loving. But it’s also a season of belovedness.

Among the pressure of cultural Christmas to perform acts of other-centered love, there is also space and theological precedent to shower yourself in love. To bask in the love of God.

Because you are loved and you are worthy of love. When God takes on flesh and walks among us, God gifts us the stunning truth that we are worthy of love.

 

This post was adapted from a sermon given Dec. 23, 2018.

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A Prayer during Hearings for Supreme Court Nominees Accused of Sexual Assault

The Sunday after Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony and the public re-traumatizing of all survivors of sexual assault in the U.S., my congregation, like many others, was hurting, confused, struggling, trying, wondering, searching for words. We spent some time in prayer, and this is the prayer I offered (as best I remember it):

 

Please join me in a time of silence for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

 

 

 

 

God we give thanks for the silence-breakers.
God we give thanks for the women who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the men who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the trans and gender-nonconforming people who are survivors, in so many ways.

Make our churches instruments of healing and recovery.
Teach us to lament. To listen to the laments of survivors.

We pray that we will have softer ears,
that we will become better listeners to survivors,
that we will learn to center the stories of survivors
and in doing so to create a more just world.

May we enter the public dialogue
practicing support and advocating for survivors.
May we speak healing and, when we make mistakes,
as we inevitably will in our attempts to learn justice, give us
the courage to learn from them and become better allies and better disciples.

And all God’s people said: I believe women.

Congregation: I believe women.

And all God’s people said: I believe survivors.

Congregation: I believe survivors.

Amen.

Four Things the Church should be Saying about Adultery

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The same is true of every instance of adultery. The church tends to preach that there is one formula for dealing with adultery (or, in some traditions, one formula if you’re a woman and another formula if you’re a man). But adultery can’t be “solved” by applying the right formula. It’s a more complicated and emotional conversation. Nearly all of us have firsthand or secondhand experience with adultery—in a present or previous relationship; between parents or siblings or close friends. But we rarely talk about the frameworks that allow us to move through and beyond the pain of adultery.

Here are four guideposts the church should raise on the impact and consequences of adultery.

1. Adultery is a choice. Continue reading

Anabaptists, Abortions, and Moral Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.

Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views. Continue reading

3 Easy Things to Do if You Want to Help with Family Separation but Don’t Know How

If you want to help and you have no idea what to do–that’s okay, and it’s completely normal. It means your heart is working, and you’re trying to translate it to your voice and your hands.

When I arrived at church last Sunday, the weight of all the border issues, pushed into our faces and all at once, threatened to pull all of us down. What to do? What needs to be done? Slowly, together, we built a list of ideas that felt manageable, important, incremental. I  volunteered to work on a list of resources and actions. As I built the list, along with others, several things became clear: my church wasn’t the only one struggling with how to respond. And our response was stunted by years of being systematically under-educated about immigration issues.

The list had to be short—choice paralysis is real; manageable—despair paralysis is real; and informative—ignorance can be paralysis, too.

The result is a list that I hope is to be just long enough to offer options and just short enough to avoid overwhelming.  Continue reading

How we Keep Going When “Not Inhumane” feels like the Only Thing we Can Accomplish

Is this what we’ve come to? Defending the moral claim that families should be together and children should not be in cages? After days of denying the family separation policy and pleading helplessness to change the law, early this afternoon Donald Trump said he would suspend the Homeland Security policy of family separation at the border.

Trump offered no details on the new policy and maintained his tough-on-crime rhetoric. (BTW, almost half of all undocumented immigrants have not broken a criminal law; many immigration violations fall under civil law, which means there’s no crime against the public and should be no prison sentence attached to these violations). As with so many political moves, we’re left with the promise of justice but no evidence of it. Through popular pressure, the Trump Administration made a public promise to not be deliberately inhumane–but that’s far from a promise to treat migrants humanely. Continue reading

Is it Time to Stop Watching the NFL?

Last month when NFL owners approved a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, many activists on the left cried game over. (Activists on the right cried boycott last fall when the protests continued for a second season.) If owners regulate their players’ behavior—in the name of regulating their love of country—it’s time for the populace to tune out. In the words of Chris Long, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl winning team in the 2017 season, “This is not patriotism… These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”

With this declaration from the NFL owners, the ball is in the spectators’ court. Should we stop watching football in 2018? Should these regulations become the straw that broke the camel’s back? After lukewarm responses to domestic violence, after minimizing the risk of brain injury, how many bitter pills will we keep swallowing? Continue reading