There was a cartoon in the New Yorker this week my dad sent me in an email. I believe one of my dad’s greatest joys in retirement is to send me funny stuff he’s reading. And, surprisingly, this one I agreed was actually funny. Doesn’t always happen that way. But, I wanted to share it with you, and I promise this will all make sense later.
The title of this series is “Things I Pretend to Care About” by Ali Solomon. You are also allowed to think this is funny and laugh if you feel so moved.
When my dad sent me the link to that New Yorker cartoon earlier this week, I wrote him back and said, I think I’m getting worse at pretending. He responded right away and said, “that’ll happen as you age.” Thanks, dad.
Christmas, though, is a season of negotiation, of what we will choose to care about. What will take our priority? Our time? What will draw our undivided attention, and what will fall to the wayside?
One of the young adults in WestConnect recently said at a Bible Study that he can’t fit all the Christmas stuff he wants to do into just a few short weeks. He said he sometimes gets so overwhelmed by how much seasonal fun is to be had that it just doesn’t feel fun anymore- it kind of feels like a hustle. If you’re experiencing the Christmas hustle right now, you’re not alone. There is so much joy and celebration this season, but it can also be a time of year that depletes our energy and our bank accounts, takes a toll on our mental health and family systems, and ends up making us feel relieved when it’s all over.
Sometimes, though, as soon as I start feeling a little grinchy about all the holiday obligations piling up, it’s almost as if the Holy Spirit gives me a little kick in the behind to put it all in perspective. I was bringing home communion to an 87-year-old church member earlier this week- he’s now not driving and doesn’t get out all that often, so there isn’t much hustle in his life, nowadays. But, he is still excited about Christmas, and what he’s most looking forward to is his extended family gathering in his living room to exchange not physical gifts, but the gift of each other’s conversation. As a retired psychiatrist, he said we’re losing the ability to have meaningful, nuanced conversations with one another where we can adequately express what we actually care about. His comments felt like a shot in the arm, especially this week, as the impeachment went through and, as a nation, we all collectively wondered what about it, exactly, deserved our care and attention. Especially at this time of year.
There has been much debate through the centuries regarding what we should care about when it comes to this story of the virgin birth- in other words, how exactly Mary got pregnant. The crux of the story, of course, is that God becomes incarnate. God enters the world in human flesh, becoming one of us, living and breathing among us, dying at the hands of evil because of us, and then rising from the grave despite us and for us. The Christmas story is just the beginning of showing us the posture God takes, coming in the greatest amount of humility to show solidarity with the least and call attention to those of us with an undue amount of privilege. But, somehow we’ve decided to focus our attention over the last two millennia on the virgin part of the story. Creating doctrine on immaculate conception, obsessing about the biology of it all. The virgin birth has been concocted into a recipe of disaster for women. I grew up in Wheaton, IL, an evangelical mecca of sorts, and right in the middle of purity culture, which praised virginity outside of marriage, and made sex and childbearing evil until it was within the confines of a same sex marriage. That way of thinking is directly related to this story, including the subsequent idea that marriage and motherhood should be the goal for all women and the means to a woman’s salvation.
Because this story tells us Mary was a virgin has made a lot of things overly complicated, and messy, when, I suspect, the original intent was beauty and wonder at, miraculously, what is possible with God. I will admit, at my worst I too find this less than helpful. At my best, though, at my Christmas best, the virgin birth adds a layer of otherworldliness that is sacred, and mysterious, and even empowering. Mary gets pregnant without the help of a man- I mean, there’s something to that, right? And Joseph! Joseph is able to reject the toxic masculinity of his culture and find freedom in loving the woman he loves. It causes me to dwell in the audacity of God and reprioritize what I thought I cared about; to stop obsessing and brooding about what I can’t control and care about what could be if I, like Mary and Joseph, threw caution to the wind. If you think about it, there is even some relief in this moment- the thrill of it, the complexity, the brokenness and healing of Mary and Joseph’s relationship- the miracle stands in the middle of real life, of birth! reminding us that this is exactly where God is, allowing Mary and Joseph, and you and me, to simply and courageously be ourselves.
Even if you don’t think this virgin birth happened, or you can’t quite wrap your head around miracles, hear me out. My friend Sarah has a convincing argument for miracles, no matter how you slice them. She says, “If you love the traditional interpretation that this is a wild miracle, an affirmation of God’s power and God’s solidarity with the poor, then that’s beautiful. Hold on to that. But, if you tend to think Mary got pregnant the old-fashioned way, this is still a story that affirms each of us are born of the Spirit and are all worthy of God’s love and attention. Hold fast to that. If you imagine Joseph was the father and they were just two teenage kids who couldn’t wait, then we’re reminded God is with us in love that overtakes us, that isn’t convenient. And If you imagine that Mary stepped out on Joseph and got pregnant with someone she shouldn’t have, or was forced into a situation she shouldn’t have been, but Joseph still chose to love and raise this child as his own, then we’re reminded that we’re all adopted, and claimed by a God whose love breaks every taboo. Turn this story every which way, and it’s still miraculously the gospel.”
You see, this story makes a case for miracles, but our distrust- mine included- is often proof that it’s easy to deny them when life is privileged, and what we care about does not depend on them. The way I journey through the world, for instance, is not fraught with anxiety about where the rest of the rent money is coming from, or fear about my black son walking home from school, or devastation at a fatal diagnosis. Who do you think cares about miracles in this world? Did you know 28 percent of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year play the lottery at least once a week. They spend $412 a year on tickets. And I don’t mean to suggest they don’t know what they’re doing. Because it also happens that the poorest in our nation are more generous than the wealthy, giving a higher percentage of their income away. Of the $360 billion given away each year, 81% of that comes from household incomes less than $200,000. So my point is this- the hope for miracles is real. Human beings in less than ideal circumstances are willing to go out on a major limb and lean into something more. And I wonder, where do they get the gumption to live life so freely, while I sit and twiddle my privileged life away caring about… what? That’s the thing about miracles, in order to trust them, you must first realize there’s nothing real to lose, and everything you really care about to gain. You see, the virgin birth wasn’t about physics, it was about metaphysics, and the crazy, out of this world notion that God wanted to join us in setting the world on another course. Poor folks who give away so much of their income think the same way- that if they give enough, miraculously, everyone might have enough.
I will acknowledge, yet again, it is not easy to believe in miracles. At least for me. But, I consider it part of my calling to try. If I don’t I’ll end up like that woman in the cartoon, wandering through life pretending to care about absolutely nothing. I don’t know about you, but I can’t live like that. I can’t fake it, and neither could Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph chose not to pretend the world wasn’t broken, they didn’t pretend to be anything but unmarried teenagers living in dangerous colonized territory, with the threat of being stoned to death. They chose to give a dang, to believe, to trust, even when everything suggested they shouldn’t. They decided, in fact, to care about each other, knowing they were stronger together than apart, and hoping their lives would be a witness to God’s love. If that’s not miraculous, I don’t know what is.
This Christmas, mere days away now, what will you care about? And- the pressure’s on now- what’s at stake if you don’t? As, your pastor, what I want you to know is, I care about you, which means I care that you know this: God showers each one us with love and miracles… if we are brave enough to believe it’s true.