What Mary Knew

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Magnificat, Benjamin Wildflower

Before we begin, let me offer a disclaimer. You’re allowed to like the song Mary Did You Know. I’m not saying you can’t like it, or sing it, or use it in worship in your churches. I am not here to pry Mary Did You Know from your ever loving hands. I am not here to rain on the warm or profound Christmas moments and memories you may have attached to this song.

But I also need to be very honest with you:
I cannot “Mary Did you Know?” and #MeToo at the same time.

While this particular song’s lyrics have troubled me for some time, they’ve troubled me for reasons that the songwriter couldn’t really control. After all, it’s not Mark Lowry’s fault that people have repeatedly and habitually assumed that I am clueless about things I am an expert in.
It’s not Mark Lowry’s fault that men have silenced me when I am trying to advocate for myself, because they feel they speak for me better than I can speak for myself.
It’s not Mark Lowry’s fault that I’m used to people doubting me when I tell them important things, especially about important things that I see or experience because I move through the world and the church in a woman’s body.
And it’s not Mark Lowery’s fault that, this Advent, we are living through a great reckoning as our culture finally begins to grapple with the all-encompassing scope of sexual harassment, abuse, and oppression of women at all tiers of employment and in all halls of power.

I’m not laying the problems of sexism and patriarchy at Mark Lowry’s feet.
But I can’t listen to this song without listening through those problems, either.

For thousands of years, the church has taught the wisdom of Mary as captured in our Gospels.

Mary is on record, in black and white, right there in the bible that we American churches hold so dear. She is brave and bossy, revolutionary and strong. Her voice tells us that she knew the stories of her foremothers. In her mouth we hear the echoes of the songs of Miriam, Deborah, and Hannah. She is too self-assured, too wise, too powerful for a young teen woman living in occupied Israel. But her voice in scripture tells us that she knew.

So when we, in our worship spaces, turn around and ask “Mary Did You Know?” without pausing for the answer, or worse yet, smugly assuming that we know better than her – it feels like choosing ignorance over wrestling. It feels like taking the easy way out. And it feels like just another instance of what too many women have come to expect out of their churches: You do not want our answers. You do not want our voice. You only want to pretend like you do.

And I’ll be honest, in this moment of #MeToo,  it is demoralizing to me. If we the faithful can’t or won’t even listen to the mother of God Incarnate, straight from scripture, how can I ever believe that you will hear me? Or any other woman? Or any other person who we’ve grown accustomed to projecting onto and talking over?

So in this season (and in all Advent moments), I would invite us to spend time remembering some of what Mary did know. And this will require the unthinkable:

We have to listen to a woman and let her be the authority on her own experiences.

Deep breaths. We can do this. It’s good practice, I promise.

Mary knew pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous and women did not always survive. When the angel visited, she was promised that her son would be Most High. (Luke 1:32) She was not promised that she would survive that birth.

When we are unwilling to risk ourselves and our lives in order to help God’s world to be birthed – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.

Mary knew her life, reputation, and all else would be at risk. She was engaged. Her engagement (and her stability and safety in the world) were reliant on her status as a virgin. She was defined by the men in her life – her father, and her fiancéee. A pregnancy was a disgrace to both and a great risk to her. In a move of great trust, and knowing her whole identity to her community and her world would shift around her, she said a triumphant Yes. “Let it be unto me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38).

When we turn away from the hard work that God calls us to because our identity is more closely tied to patriarchy than to God’s calling – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.

Mary knew the little baby boy she was carrying would live life as a Jewish man in an occupied territory. She knew that as he grew, he could be compelled by Roman officers and soldiers to carry their burdens for a mile on a moment’s notice – where he would be out of her reach and protection. (If you don’t believe me, recall her son’s words about going the extra mile).

When we want to turn away from the harm that our systems of culture and government perpetuate on minority people – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.

Mary knew what God was about – a total inversion of how our world normally works. A revolution where the mighty are brought low and the lowly lifted up, where the poor are filled with good things but the rich are sent away empty. She proclaims, in a Roman occupied territory, the sovereignty of God and the nation of Israel.

When we worry about the political repercussions of proclaiming the difference between God’s kingdom and our own government – we should remind ourselves what Mary knew.

Mary knew the God she trusted with her life and body and future, as much as any of us can. Mary knew that nothing about being a God-bearer guaranteed her safety – in fact, it greatly jeopardized it.

When we choose safety over pursuing God’s works of justice, when we ask for peace without being willing to lose everything in order to achieve it – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.

If the four minute performance of Mary Did You Know? Is the total time that the church spends thinking about, and learning from Mary – we are robbing ourselves of some of the most profound theology of the season and substituting it with a poor, thin replica. Something that is all shine on the surface, but of little substance. A candy theology that, without balance, will cause decay.

So in closing – remember. Yes, you are allowed to like the song. And even sing it. Loudly, and emotionally.

But if we’re going to ask Mary loud and emotional questions, we must listen to her answers. We must treat her like a person.

When you do, I promise she will deliver, with greater power than we’re ready for. She will answer loudly and emotionally. In all her raw and revolutionary power. She will give you permission to break out of your boxes, deny those who would belittle you, and put wild hope and trust in the God we strive to serve.

And, after all, it’s great practice for listening to women and treating them like people, too.

Murmuration: My Hope for the Women’s March

It is Inauguration Day. Or, as I have been prone to think of it, the eve of the Women’s March.

Like all big movements, we haven’t gotten here smoothly or quietly. In fact, I’d guess that the people I’ll be marching with tomorrow would rather they didn’t feel compelled to be there.

After all, if we felt safe and cared for, if we felt equal, if we felt our futures were reasonably safeguarded, we’d spend our Saturday morning sleeping in. Or at the farmer’s market. Or snuggling our pets. Or nuzzling a cup of coffee. Or nursing a hangover. Or nursing a baby.

But we know that we do not feel safe, or equal, or like our futures are a priority. So instead of doing what we’d rather do, instead of doing the things we’d do if our lives were not hanging in the balance, we march.

For some of us this is a new feeling. The election was a wake-up call. This seems to be true of many national and local organizers, who in their zeal to do something forgot that the fight was not born in the moment of their epiphany but has instead been carried all along by those who have never been granted the privilege of safety.

For some of us, this will be the first time our soles hit the street in response to the pain in our souls. It will be the first time our feet and bodies ache in unison with our internal tensions – fear hanging with hope, despair with determination, this-is-not-right with it-can-be-better.

For some of us, this will be only the latest in a long line of miles stretching behind. For some of us, the fight for justice has never been optional. For some of us, there’s never been the option to not be awake. Some of us have fought just to stay alive.

And some of us, long wearied by the treadmill of injustice, may just need to sit this one out.

Even still, they expect us to be numerous. The expect us to fill streets. They expect us to show up, because we’ve said we will.

And I hope we do.

I hope we show up with every fierce and flawed molecule. With every miscarriage story, every scar, every preexisting condition, every moment we’ve had to pause and consider how to correct the man in power without damaging our own credibility. I hope we show up with our children. I hope we show up with our tattoos. I hope we show up with our wheelchairs. I hope we show up with our bras and our binders. I hope we show up with our tears and our daring and our laughter, the laughter that sparks bravery and reveals just how small our abusers are.

And I hope, when we step on each other, we apologize and adjust.

I hope when we white women demand that our sisters of color claim allegiance to one part of their identity over the other, we apologize.

I hope when we cis women ignore the unique fears of our trans sisters, erase their experience, or respond to them in fear, we repent.

I hope when we straight women downplay our queer sisters’ concerns, we hear ourselves inflicting on them the same minimizing that’s been done to us.

I hope when we all show up with all of ourselves, we plan to adjust and make room accordingly.

I hope we can, like starlings, respond to this threat with flight and dance.

As it turns out, the way groups of thousands of starlings manage to twist and undulate and accelerate in seeming unison is an adapted technique. When one bird senses a predator, like a hawk or falcon, it takes off. And the whole group takes off with it.

These movements, I’ve learned, are called a “critical transition.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

But what seems like a liquid, unified, choreographed motion actually comes down to each bird taking its cue from the bird closest to it. When your neighbor moves, you move. This is why, during a murmuration, small groups may break off from the larger group for a time before rejoining. And yet each motion serves the same purpose: to confuse the predator and protect all birds in the group.

And this is my hope for the Women’s March, and for all our actions in the ongoing march toward justice. That we attend closely to one another. That we adjust for one another. That we remember that a movement that benefits and protects one of us protects us all. That we go where the person we are next to in that moment needs to go, whether we know them or not. That, as we fight for ourselves, we create a spectacle worth remembering. That we remember unity is not a perfect goal if it means we sacrifice agility and protecting our neighbor. That we remember when a group separates from the larger body, it is not a defection, but a defensive distraction to those who seek to harm.

And that when we land at home after the big show, we keep watch, ready to take flight again when it’s time to dance our way out of danger.

Just as this is not a beginning, neither is it the end.

If we are fortunate, there will be more slow Saturdays in between. Saturdays for bloody marys and football and the weekend crossword puzzle. But we must remain ready to get back in the street when we are called.

I hope we white women will take off work and take flights and take our babies and take our moxy to march as other vulnerable people are placed in danger by the Administration our white sisters voted in.

I hope we cis women will fight like hellfire for our trans sisters, for their healthcare and safety and freedom.

I hope we straight women will get creative and take action alongside our queer siblings, to preserve and further their rights.

I hope we Christians will defend our neighbors of other faiths and will denounce fear and hatred whenever we encounter it. Perfect love casts out fear.

I hope when a predator comes for one of us, we know they’ve come for us all. And rather than lash out and destroy, we murmurate.

Tomorrow we practice. Tomorrow we learn. Tomorrow we show up.

Fly right and fly well.

Remember Mary

On this Christmas Eve I am thinking about Mary. And I’m silently begging, as I have all Advent long, for the preachers and teachers who will work all this night to get Mary right. Or at least, to not get her wrong.

Maybe it’s because it’s Year A* and we still see little wrong with a liturgical practice that all but erases a birth mother every third year.

Maybe because we need the church, now more than ever, to stand up and say “God doesn’t rape.”

Maybe because I’ve felt the tug of the gravity of a child and the temptation to slip under and behind one, to allow my identity to be subsumed. To disappear into mothering and have my songs of faith, strength and revolution ignored.

Maybe because I’ve sat through too many Christmas seasons where the only time Mary is mentioned is when someone sings a song pondering her perceived ignorance of what God asked her, and what she said yes to.

But whatever the reason, I’m asking now.

Parents.
Christians.
Preachers.
Friends.

If you haven’t done so yet this year, mention Mary. And when you talk about Mary, talk about her as a human. Not as a disembodied uterus, not as a mere servant, not as a meek virgin.

Let her have her body, broken.
Let her have her blood, shed.
Let her keep her labor, her sweat, her fever as her body staved off any infection that may have tried to take her after birthing in a manger.

Let her be seen, along with Christ and the angels and shepherds and Joseph and Charlie Brown.

Let the Incarnation be every inch of its miracle, including the guts and the milk and the helplessness of Godself thrust into the arms of two exhausted and terrified and elated humans.

We don’t celebrate God Alone on this night, we celebrate God With Us.

And God-With-Us had company, including a mother.

There isn’t a tidy end to this. All I know is that too many times, I’ve been asked to show up in worship as a disembodied woman, and it would be truly awesome for the church to name, name, name that even God gets consent first. And that mothers of all kinds are not asked or expected to disappear.

 

*Year A is the name for the current part of the cycle of the Common Lectionary, a calendar used by some Christians that guides the church’s path through Scripture. Many churches use the Lectionary, many do not. It happens that this year in the cycle, Mary is all but absent from the chosen Scripture readings for the season.

The Other Sister: A Christmas Tradition

This story was told live for Second Tuesdays St. Louis, a monthly storytelling gathering. 

It is December 1992. You are in your favorite acid-wash jeans and flannel-lined denim jacket. You are also in some ridiculous hat that your mother insisted upon, probably some cast off from your older brother. You are seated on the tailgate of a silver Chevy S-10 sporting the license plate “SOLJER” on the back. Your feet dangle freely and the air in this cut-your-own Christmas tree patch smells like clean, American country. Like pine and diesel fueled chainsaws.

You are ten, and you have the misfortune of being my sister.

I am four. I am loud. I am unpredictable and unwieldy, and you are my favorite target. Your reverie is broken, again and again, by my shrieks, taunts, dawdling, and general brattiness. I am an Id on legs, and my puffy fuschia snowsuit has my panties in a wad.

We bump slowly through the Christmas tree patch, ostensibly looking for the Perfect White Pine to murder and drag home for the annual corpse decoration. When someone sees a tree they like, a shout goes up, we traipse out to measure it, and if it’s a contender we mark its location with a scuff mark in the sandy road through the patch.

I fall in a patch of cacti. I am covered, head to toe, and no needles pierce my skin but I shriek and sob anyway. You roll your eyes as mom and dad pick me up, dust me off and, in their sweet Midwestern way, tell me to “suck it up!”

Seated securely again on the tailgate, I start in. Whether it was the “I’m not touching you” bit or playing the repeat until your head caves in, one of my bits finally sends you over the edge. You snap. But this is you we’re talking about. Whip smart, but understated. Calculating. A glint comes into your eye and then it’s gone in an instant. An air of sophisticated calm comes over you as you lean down and look me straight in the face.

“If you don’t quit it right now, you’re going to end up like our other sister.”

I am four. I also am too smart for my own good, but I trust you. You are my older sister. I idolize you, even as I annoy the shit out of you. My beady eyes narrow with skepticism.

“What other sister?”

You unspool a tale of horror, about a long-lost sister who existed before me, who was, like us, taken into this very Christmas tree patch. A sister who, like me, was annoying you to no end, driving you to THROW HER OFF THE TAILGATE OF THE SILVER CHEVY S-10 AND INTO THE WOODS. Mom and Dad didn’t realize she wasn’t in the truck until after we drove all the way home, and by then it was too late. They could never find her, and she’s never been seen or heard from again, though some hear tell of a feral girl in the woods of Cass County who’s been raised by coyotes.

My four year old mouth hangs slack. You adjust yourself on the tailgate and swing your legs freely, again enjoying the quiet and the crisp air. Mission accomplished.

Or so you thought.

For now I am twenty-eight. And for twenty two years, I have insisted that you tell me the same. damn. story., over and over, every time we go back to Rawlins Tree Farm for our poor tannenbaums. For twenty-two years straight, I have begged you in person or called you over the phone, asking to hear the tale of our other sister.

This year when I called, your seven-year-old daughter recited the story along with you on speakerphone. And as the story ended, she shrieked “AND THEN SHE BECAME A WEREWOLF.”

And so the legend grows, and you will be doomed to tell the tale again and again for the next generation.

Merry Christmas.

A Table in the Presence of My Enemies

I learned something yesterday.

I shared my table with a few beloved friends over the course of the day. And, like so many of us these days, we all had some really difficult and bizarre things hanging off our shoulders – some little and annoying, some bigger and heavier.

I tidied the house, forgave the spaces that weren’t going to get tidied, and did my best to warmly arrange those places I
could. A space at the table, a clean high chair, a pot of tea, fresh baked pumpkin bread. And don’t get me wrong, Martha Stewart does not live here. I’m talking about shabby hospitality at its finest, complete with clumps of dog hair in the corners and my annoyingly shallow sink overflowing with dirty dishes along with the bread and tea and tiny decorative gourds.

As I made space for us, though, the Spirit whispered. “This is what we meant in Psalm 23. This is the table prepared in the presence
of enemies.”

In the act of setting the table, I finally understood that part of the psalm.

It’s not flaunting God’s favor in the face of the enemies, it’s not feasting the night before battle so we have more energy to spill the enemy’s blood. It’s rounding a corner, all bedraggled and wet and smelly with effort and finding a place lovingly set for you. It’s being surprised again when God ambushes you and says, like your favorite doting great aunt, “Sit, sit, sit! You look hungry. Here, take your shoes off, I’ll
fix you something.”

Now that I get it, I can see all the places in my past where I stumbled onto tables in the wilderness, tables in the presence of my enemies.

The Ronald McDonald room at Mercy Hospital.
Kara‘s apartment, during my dad’s sickness.
Morning coffee at St. Paul’s.
Roommate dinners.
Good friends with broad shoulders at McGurks.

This is our work – just to set the table for our neighbors, to keep a place that’s warm and dry and safe when folks need to come out of the rain.

This is our work – to allow ourselves to sit when we stumble across the surprise table in the presence of our enemies. To let ourselves be dried off, fed, and reminded that we are bigger than the battle and more than the path.

Keep an eye out, beloved friends. The ambush table will pop up, probably sooner than we’re expecting. Open the door, even with your mess on display. Whether you’re the one setting or the one sitting, it doesn’t matter. We both walk away better and fuller

 

Try it/Write it: Five Minute Friday

I was deep in my notebook at the Festival of Faith & Writing when a boisterous group of women nearby started assembling for a photo. I hadn’t paid them much attention, but they seemed to loosely know one another and I noticed their genuine enjoyment of one another’s company and enthusiasm for each others’ writing.

Then there was a tap on my table.

“Would you mind taking our picture?”

After a couple of good photos and then a set of Burst Mode, just for good measure, I asked what they were gathered for. Turns out, these were devout followers of Five Minute Friday.

Every Thursday evening, the group leader posts a prompt. And every Friday, participants write for five minutes based on the prompt. No editing, no corrections. And then they post that unedited, raw work on their blogs.

“That’s ballsy” I said. “That’s why we like it” they said. And everyone’s invited to the party.

You can find Five Minute Friday posts on Facebook, and on Twitter with #fmfparty. I’ll be participating as often as possible. Write along with me!


Five Minute Friday: Pass/Fail

I never had to work to pass classes at school. But I still felt like a failure. I was passed over in every round of picking teams on the recess yard, and in P.E.

I was two-thirds the size of most of my classmates, with little physical power. Last for kickball, red rover, freeze tag – everything but dodgeball, and even then I was only not-last because I had the least surface area.

I spent hours practicing softball and developed some of the best skills on my little league teams. But I never felt like I was really a good player, at least not compared to my all-star teammates. Even when batting lead-off, a position that goes to players with high on-base percentages, I still thought it was due to my small strike zone.
At the nearby university’s softball camp, I was so underestimated by the college athletes that my father had to pull them aside and tell them to work me harder, that if I was to improve they needed to increase the skill level.

So the grounders started going harder. Faster. And farther from my base.

Later, the athletes found my father. “You were right. At the end, we were just trying to hit something to get past her and we couldn’t do it. Keep making her work her backhand, ’cause she can reach farther than she thinks.”

He told me in the car on the ride home and I smiled.

Nineteen years later, I still remember. I remember because I still struggle with that same demon of impostor syndrome, and I’m startled to note how early it began. And I remember because that was the first time I felt it melt away for awhile.

 

The Festival of Faith & Writing: A trip log from a first-year

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If I had to come up with a headline for the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, it would sound something like this:

Two thousand writers (introverted, neurotic, or both) assemble in a single place to eat lunch alone, together.

And yet, to most of us, this contained the feeling of finally arriving at Hogwarts – a sense of magic, of suddenly stumbling across a long-lost home…and moments of feeling like an intense outsider.

We yearned to get books signed, but had conversations in the waiting line about the exhaustion of the author and how s/he probably just wanted to have some tea and relax.

Like the Grinch, we found our hearts had suddenly grown two sizes bigger in a very short time span.
Unlike the Grinch, we spent all of the following day expecting to go into a cardiac episode due to the above.

We were intoxicated by the experience but dreading the inevitable hangover. Because, you see, when it comes to concentrated grace we’re total lightweights.

We tried to suck the marrow out of the experience and then struggled to shake hands and smile at others, lest they see evidence of our overexertion stuck in our teeth.

There are a lot of things I could gush about.

Meeting Andrew Clements, my childhood writer-hero whose characters were often my best friends,
Finally seeing The Mountain Goats live in concert
Hearing Nadia Bolz-Weber speak from the heart about what happens when people tell us true things that we can’t see about ourselves, things like “You are not stupid” and the life-changing freedom that comes from those words.
Watching M.T. Anderson make Harry Potter jokes about Shostakovich

…you know, the amazing celebrity worship things. And the outstanding quote things. And the words that land on your heart like gentle rain, soothing the areas in yourself that you didn’t know were parched to the point of aching until just now.

But my time at FFW was defined most by the tiny things, the things I’d never consider worthy of the price of admission until I found myself in the midst of them.

Top of the list? Overheard conversations. Again, gather 2,000 bookish people in one spot and then listen to them coax one another into sharing their work. A formula emerges: Impostor syndrome –> “Me too!” –> I hardly write, actually –> Me too! –> It’s kind of a weird blend, I’m not sure whether it has any legs to it –> “Oh, but no, that sounds really interesting! Have you read X by Y?” –> And then they’re off to the races, comparing notes about what it takes to get work done and absolutely reveling in conversation about good books, possibilities, and daring to hope.

Again and again, I (over)heard first hand how listening is the gift that goes before, listening creates space for others to breathe life and dare to stretch out and make a home in the thing they’re working on.

The witty banter is extra keen, too. Gather a lot of people who are working on paying attention to the small things and making connections and then follow them in their huddles. After their conversation partner speaks at length on some profound matter, the listener summarizes “YES! It’s like drinking a Corona without a lime in it – technically it’s just the thing itself, but really it’s entirely wrong.”

Finally, there’s a viscosity that hangs in the air in a room with people intensely listening, drinking in – as though you can hear everyone’s soul breathing “Yes, it is so. YES! That rings true. Yes, and I didn’t know I needed to hear that. Yes, and the story is bigger.”

The Festival – or, really, the hundreds of sincere, funny, attentive people there – woke up a part of my mind that had been comatose for years.

But then, it would be difficult to spend three days watching people give and receive deep gifts and not have it change you.

I’ll have my space reserved in 2018.

Thanks. Wow. Next year in Jerusalem.