Out of Egypt: The Exodus Narrative

This is Lesson 3 of the 6-week curriculum series Scripture and Song. In this lesson on the Exodus narrative, students will think about how setting biblical narratives to music encourages meditation and personal application. They will hear two very different uses of narrative: first, a few movements from Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, and then Louis Armstrong’s “Go Down, Moses.” They will discuss how Handel causes them to reflect on their own life, and learn how “Go Down, Moses” used the Exodus narrative to speak hope in the context of American slavery.

To view other lessons in the series, visit the Youth Curriculum page. To download lesson 3, click on the PDF below.


How Long, O Lord? The Lament Psalms

This is Lesson 2 of the 6-week curriculum series Scripture and Song. In this lesson on lament psalms, students will read and analyze Psalm 13, a helpful introduction to lament psalms because it is brief, concise, and paradigmatic of the lament form. They will then listen to two musical settings of Psalm 13 by Nate Hale and Brian Doerksen and discuss how each song interprets the psalm, as well as discussing the role of lament in worship.

To view other lessons in the series, visit the Youth Curriculum page. To download lesson 2, click on the PDF below.

For reflection on Psalm 13 and how these songs interpret it differently, click to download the resource below.

Hallelujah! The Praise Psalms

This is Lesson 1 of the 6-week curriculum series Scripture and Song. In this lesson on praise psalms, students will identify the main themes of Psalms 100 & 150, and they will listen to and analyze two musical settings of psalms: Psalm 100 by contemporary Christian artist Chris Tomlin, and Psalm 150 in Hebrew by Israeli band Miqedem.

To view the other lessons in the series, visit the Youth Curriculum page. To download Lesson 1, click on the PDF below.

Scripture and Song: Introduction

This is the introduction to the 6-week youth curriculum series Scripture and Song, which I will be posting over the next several weeks. To view the other lessons in the series, visit the Youth Curriculum page. The introduction includes the series’ learning goals, suggestions for customization, and an overview of each lesson. To download the introduction, click on the PDF below.

On Patriarchy, Preaching, and Perfectionism

I sit here on a Saturday night, sipping a cup of coffee, reading over my sermon manuscript again, closing my eyes and reciting it to myself, willing the words to engrave themselves on my brain. My eyes open, my brow furrows, and I reach for a pencil. This word isn’t quite right. I need one that’s more…something. Sighing, I put down the paper and pencil and go to my closet, where suddenly none of the thirty dresses I own seem right. This one is too short, this one too tight, and why in the world do I own dresses in six different shades of red, when I never feel like it’s appropriate to wear red to preach? But I have to get it right, because this is the first time I’ve been asked to preach anywhere in three years, and I have no idea how long it will be before I get to do it again.

It’s a Sunday morning, and I’ve been asked to lead a prayer. My knees shake, because I’m the first woman who has ever prayed aloud in this space. I know that I cannot pray the way Jeff did last week. I cannot afford to be dispassionate, nor too passionate. I cannot mumble, I cannot stutter, I cannot get emotional. I know that if I do, I will also be the last woman to pray aloud in this space. Men are sitting in this room who are ready to get up and walk out at my slightest misstep. Grace that is granted to Ted and Justin and Beau will never be granted to me, because if I say something wrong, it will just be confirmation to them that all women are deceived, all women are emotional, all women are incapable of leadership.

“Great job today,” the preacher told me. “I know I can always put you up there, because you’re not going to say anything dumb.” I laughed it off – “Well, thanks, I try. How’d it go? Was anyone upset?” He smiled at me. “Actually, there was one person who told me ahead of time they were planning to walk out, but then they didn’t. I asked them why, and they said, ‘Well, she was doing a really incredible job.'”

For women in ministry in the Church of Christ, there is tremendous pressure for everything they do to be excellent, to be incredible, to be the best version of a sermon or prayer or testimony that the congregation has heard. A sermon that is “fine” or “average” could be the nail in the coffin of future opportunities for others.

At least, that’s what I told myself throughout college, seminary, and the first two years of my Ph.D., as I worked and volunteered at churches where I was among the first women to speak in worship. But then I realized something: my perfection cannot change anyone’s heart. If a church allows women to speak only because they are excellent at it, they have completely missed the point. And if churches are so closed to women’s leadership that one slip-up is a nail in the coffin of the whole enterprise, inclusivity is simply not going to happen in that church. Not right now, anyway.

I was three weeks into a 6-week youth group series I had put a lot of time and thought into, and it was going really well. So well, in fact, that some adults came to sit in on it. Teaching youth group was something that typically didn’t raise a lot of eyebrows because it happened behind the scenes, and there was enough ambiguity about whether youth group “counted” that most people didn’t care. But the moment someone complained, the pastor told me to stop mid-series. Let the drama die down, he said. Then you can get back to teaching.

I never did. Instead, someone threatened to leave, the small steps that had been taken toward gender inclusion faltered and failed, and the leadership quietly retracted their statement that women could teach and pray. No matter how hard I worked or how perfect I was, no matter how many cookies I baked or smiles I gave to make my leadership less threatening, no matter how many perfect prayers I prayed with just the right balance of confidence and deference, it made no difference.

So now, I don’t always memorize my manuscripts. I say “um” on occasion. If I start to get emotional, I roll with it. And sometimes, I wear red to preach.

How Would This Story Change If…? A Discussion Question Template

Quick post here to give you another open-ended discussion question template!

It’s all right there in the title. How would this story change if….? This is a great wondering question that can lead to all kinds of imagining, critical thinking, theologizing, and personal reflection. It can help students look more closely at narrative elements that might otherwise go unnoticed, and the way they shape the story. It can be an opening to discuss divine and human agency – if a key actor hadn’t done their thing, might God have intervened in another way? (Cf. Mordecai telling Esther that if she remained silent, deliverance would arise from elsewhere.) It can also give students a chance to identify with a character and imagine how they might make different choices. If they can imagine Jonah choosing to celebrate with the people of Nineveh, for instance, they might be able to envision themselves celebrating God’s grace to the “undeserving” – or if they can dream up a future for a rich-young-ruler-turned-disciple, it might give them the resources they need to choose to follow Jesus when the call is difficult.

Think, for example, of Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace. How would this story change if God didn’t rescue them? This one simple question provokes so many opportunities for discussion. Someone could answer that it wouldn’t change, because the friends themselves insisted that even if God didn’t save them, it wouldn’t change their faith. Someone else could say that the story would change because the king wouldn’t believe, and another could disagree, arguing that the king might still believe when he saw their faith (cf. the centurion’s response to seeing Jesus’ death). Still another might reflect on a time that they were not delivered in spite of their faith, and how it shaped their story.

As with all discussion questions, though, it should be used as an open-ended exercise, not a leading question to prove a point. If you were to say, for instance, “How would this story change if Jesus weren’t resurrected? That’s right, there would be no hope,” it would defeat the purpose of the exercise. Instead, ask questions you don’t know the answer to. Lean into the conversation that results, following students’ lead and asking follow-up questions, and letting the wind/Spirit “go wherever it pleases” (John 3:8).

Here are a few other examples:

  • Creation. How would this story change if God created the woman first?
  • The Fall. How would this story change if Adam and Eve hadn’t hidden from God?
  • Ruth. How would this story change if Orpah had come back to Bethlehem with Naomi and Ruth? If the other kinsman-redeemer had been willing to care for Naomi’s family?
  • Job. How would this story change if Job’s fortunes weren’t restored? If Job found out about God’s wager with the Accuser?
  • The Birth of Jesus. How would this story change if there had been room in the inn?
  • The Temptation of Jesus. How would this story change if Jesus hadn’t responded to the devil at all?
  • The Bleeding Woman. How would this story change if the woman had slipped away into the crowd instead of responding when Jesus called her out?
  • The Prodigal Son. How would this story change if the son was too afraid of his father to return home? How would it change if the older son chose to come in to the party?

To shake things up a little instead of phrasing the question the same way every time, try the following variations.

  • Ask students, “What are some other possible ways this story could have ended?”
  • Ask students, “If you could change one thing about this story, what would it be? Why?”
  • Have students reflect silently before sharing.
  • Have students act out a story, then ask them to change one element and improvise the rest; then debrief/discuss.

If you’ve used some form of this question in your teaching, feel free to share in the comments – I’d love to hear about it!

Woman Wisdom, The Temptress, and the Beloved: Reading Proverbs with Young Women

How do you seek wisdom when you are folly itself?

This question has haunted me for a while now.

The opening lectures of Proverbs, written as instruction from a father to a son, are intended to cultivate the son’s desire for wisdom and warn against the dangers of folly. To that end, wisdom and folly are compared to something it is assumed the son desires very much: women.

Woman Wisdom and the other woman – referred to as Woman Folly, the Strange Woman, the Adulterous Woman, the Temptress, or the Seductress – both call out to the assumed young male reader, inviting him to join them. Wisdom promises life and prosperity. Folly, personified as a seductress, promises pleasure – and the father gives her invitation a lengthy hearing, painting a sensual picture of just how alluring she can be. He allows the son to envision himself desiring her, before warning him where this desire leads: to death. As the son sees these two possible life paths unfold before him, and watches the consequences of Folly play out, he is persuaded to seek out and pursue Wisdom.

Despite Proverbs’ male orientation, many scholars of wisdom literature – most of them men – are optimistic that it can nonetheless apply to a broader audience. But they are perhaps a bit too optimistic. As William Clifford writes, “True, some scenes portray young men as actors, but readers of both sexes and all ages may apply the scene to themselves” (Clifford, The Wisdom Literature, 46). But it may not be as simple as Clifford assumes for women to envision themselves as the son choosing between the seductress and Woman Wisdom. 

The major difficulty of reading Proverbs with young women boils down to this: While the male readers are assumed to desire women, female readers will find themselves identifying with the women. This is a difference not easily glossed over. It substantially changes young women’s experience of Wisdom’s invitation. Think, for example, of the “Proverbs 31 woman” – a woman that many scholars believe is a continuation of the Woman Wisdom metaphor – and the way it has been used in popular Christian culture to hold women to an impossibly high standard. 

The first 9 chapters of Proverbs are supposed to persuade the reader to seek wisdom. But how do you seek wisdom when you are supposed to be wisdom itself? It is impossible.

But this brings me back to the question with which I began, a question even more difficult, even more impossible. How do you seek wisdom when you are folly itself?

For my dissertation research, I interviewed youth ministers on their experience teaching the wisdom literature to youth. Having mulled for a few years now over the difficulty of the gendered motivation in Proverbs, I was struck by my conversation with Brianna, an African Methodist Episcopal youth pastor. Brianna read through Proverbs with a group of young women, some of whom were sexually active. Because of their church’s stance on premarital sex, the girls struggled with seeing themselves reflected in the Temptress. The girls aspired to the Proverbs 31 ideal, Brianna told me, but they also felt like “their mistakes made them have characteristics of this wicked woman as well. So what did that mean for them?” 

What does it mean for them, indeed? 

Brianna’s girls missed the invitation to wisdom because they were hung up on seeing aspects of themselves reflected in both women. 

Young women desire neither Woman Wisdom nor the Temptress. They are Woman Wisdom and the Temptress. 

The issue was brought into even sharper focus through my interview with Tyler, a Southern Baptist youth pastor who described reading Proverbs with a group of young men: “We visit [Proverbs] often when we talk about lust. Lustfulness, pornography, those things. Hundreds of years ago Solomon was writing about the exact same woman. The only difference is, in Solomon’s time, he’s telling his son, ‘Hey, avoid the street corner she stands on.’ In our time, I’m telling you, ‘Hey, get off the fricking internet and avoid those issues you know are there.’” 

As you can see from Tyler’s interview, again, the Temptress is not just a metaphor for folly. She represents real women – women like Brianna’s girls. So no matter how optimistic Clifford or other biblical scholars may be about women’s ability to simply “apply the scene to themselves,” the way that young men and women are reading these texts show that the issue of gender in Proverbs has real-world implications.

I have no brilliant pedagogical solutions for the problem of gendered motivation in Proverbs. 

But for girls like Brianna’s who identify in different ways with both women, and who wrestle with seeing themselves in the Temptress, there is perhaps a redemptive way to process the tension. Because those young women reminded me of another woman: The Beloved in the Song of Songs. 

There are some striking parallels between the Beloved and… the Temptress. That’s right. The Beloved has just as much, if not more, in common with Woman Folly than with Woman Wisdom. The Temptress and the Beloved both have lips that drip honey – a phrase unique to these two books among extant Ancient Near Eastern literature. They both invite their lover to “drink” of their caresses. They both perfume their beds with the combination of myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.

But the Beloved also shares characteristics with Wisdom. They are both compared to a fountain or spring, and their breasts compared to fawns.

Rosalind Clarke argues that the Song of Songs draws on the imagery of the Temptress to trouble the easy dichotomy between “wives and whores” in Proverbs (Clarke, “Seeking Wisdom in the Song of Songs,” Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature). J.L. Andruska argues the opposite: that Proverbs’ portrayal of the Temptress draws on the Song’s Beloved in order to demonstrate the need for caution and discernment when one is encountered by a desirable woman.

Although Clarke and Andruska have opposite opinions on which text came first, they agree on one thing: the overlapping characteristics of Woman Wisdom, the Temptress, and the Beloved point to the need for discernment in matters of love and sexuality. It is not always as clear-cut as we might hope. Honeyed lips and exotic spices are not signposts to tell men whether a woman is to be sought or avoided, valued or shamed. It is not true, as I learned in youth group, that all sex outside of marriage is equally bad and all sex within marriage is equally good.

To borrow a provocative formula from Proverbs, perhaps we could say “Better is consensual sex outside of marriage than marital abuse.” Or, as many young women would attest, “Better to be the Temptress and have some control than to be Woman Wisdom discarded like trash.” We could say, of course, that the ideal is married consensual sex and a valued virtuous woman. But ideals are not always reality. When presented with only non-ideal options – and let’s face it, we often are – we need wisdom to discern what is “better.” The relationship among these three women forces us to recognize the complexities of identity, sexuality, love, and desire.

From a historical-critical perspective, I think Andruska’s interpretation is more likely. But when we read these texts together in a canonical approach, it does not matter which text is drawing on the other or why. What matters is that the Beloved can hold together the fragmented identities of girls like Brianna’s as they see themselves reflected in a whole woman who is neither Wisdom nor Folly. They can be like the Beloved. They can be complex. Their lips can drip honey without them being a harlot or a harbinger of death. And even if there is not space for them in Proverbs 1-9, there is space for them within the canon of Scripture.

And they are, indeed, Beloved.

Where Do You See…? A Discussion Question Template

As I’ve read and analyzed many different youth curricula, I’ve noticed a common formula in the way discussion questions are structured. It goes kind of like this: “Why is it important that we know/understand/do X?” or, “How does X help us do Y?” Here are some examples:

  • “Why is it important to live disciplined lives?” (Ministry to Youth curriculum)
  • “God is at work in ways we don’t understand. How does knowing that help us in times of trial?” (D6 curriculum)
  • “Why is it important to remember that God is exalted above us and is perfect in His understanding? How do these realizations help us navigate life in a broken world?” (Lifeway curriculum)

When I think about how a youth group might answer these questions, though, I feel pretty sure that the conversation would become stifled after just an answer or two. This is because these questions take a lot for granted, limiting the discussion to the terms of the question. The students cannot answer the question without acquiescing to the importance of X. It is not up for debate whether X is actually important or even true, whether X is helpful for Y or even related at all.

But it can be hard to write good open-ended discussion questions – especially when there is a place you want to lead the conversation. So instead of the “Why is X important?” template, I want to share with you a different question template that I have found helpful.

It goes like this: Where do you see X in this text/story/picture/film? Here are some examples:

  • On the Divine Speeches in Job: “Where do you see suffering in this speech?”
  • On the book of Habakkuk: “Where do you see doubt in this text?”
  • On the Prodigal Son: “Where do you see loneliness in this story?”

I love this question because it is short, simple, and easy to understand; it is focused enough to talk about the topic you have in mind, while allowing for divergent answers; and it points students back to the source to take a closer look. Fill in the blanks endlessly. Where do you see faith in this story? Where do you see fear in this psalm? Where do you see hope in this text? Where do you see sacrifice, irony, wonder, cooperation, commitment, disappointment?

Make sure the question is broad enough that it has more than one answer – “sacrifice,” for example, should probably not be asked about the death of Jesus, because it will seem painfully obvious to the students. But it might be a fun exploration into the birth of Jesus, in which Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the animals, and the wise men might all be considered to be sacrificing something.

A simple variation on this question is turn “where” into “who”:

  • On the story of baby Moses in the reeds: “Who is brave in this story?” (This question comes from my sister-in-law, Karen Cooke, a brilliant children’s minister and preacher.)
  • On the story of Jesus saving a woman from a mob in John 8: “Who has power in this story?”

I have also used this question template in M.Div. classes with more complex concepts. In a class session in which we were talking about individualism and collectivism, I assigned the Disney Pixar film Coco as a sort of “third space” where we could explore them. I asked, “Where do you see individualism in Coco? Collectivism? The tension between the two? Where do you see the theme of vocation in Coco?” This allowed for a much more robust conversation than if I had just asked students to summarize the author’s definitions of these terms.

When students start to respond, continue engaging and following up on the concept. “Pharaoh’s daughter was brave? How was she brave? What was there for her to be afraid of? Ooh, I hadn’t thought about baby Moses being brave, but that’s so interesting. Tell me more. What do you think that says about the relationship between bravery and trust?” “Wow, you all pointed out several different moments in this story where people have faith, and they all look a little different. What do you think it means to have faith? Which of these moments of faith resonates with you?”

As you plan your next lesson or small group discussion, give it a try and see how it goes – I would love to hear what conversations it sparks!

Sunday Solitude: A Poem

I always thought you’d be at church 
The Sunday after you were born
Dressed in Grandma’s handmade clothes
The ones you’ve never worn

But you’ve never seen the sanctuary
The altar or the cross
I tell myself it’s just the architecture
But my heart still grieves the loss

Where will you find meaning
When life becomes too much?
Where will you seek mystery
And feel the sacred’s touch?

I thought that you’d meet God where I did
In sculpted stained glass holiness
But we’re finding God together
In solitude and loneliness

And Mary Pondered

This sermon was delivered at Northlake Church of Christ for Christmas 2019. At the time, I was 3 weeks pregnant with our first baby, whom we would lose in March 2020. I’ve thought back to this sermon so many times throughout this year as I understand the fragility of life – and the hope of Advent – in a deeper way than I have before. To listen to the audio recording, visit: https://www.northlake.org/sermon/luke-21-19/.

As I look back over my life, I think about all the times that it would have been so easy to let fear keep me from living with open hands. And most of it goes back to one night that would change my life forever: the night my son was born. I was exhausted after days of traveling. I was away from my family in an unfamiliar place. And when the contractions began, there was no room in the inn for me to give birth. And so I gave birth in a stable, my fiancé as my midwife, although he had no more idea what he was doing than I did. I was filled with terror, but with every push, holding on to the promise that there would be a future for me and for this child

I remember leaning against the wall by the manger, completely spent, feeling the ache in muscles I didn’t even know I had, barely able to keep my eyes open from exhaustion and yet unable to look away from his. From Jesus. It always feels like you can see a person’s soul through their eyes – their humanness, their aliveness. And as I gazed at him in wonder, utterly captivated by his squishy little face, I marveled at the fact that somehow I had brought this new, tiny little spark of life into the world. I remember being so amazed at his tiny hands and feet. So small. So delicate. So fragile.

That’s what I remember thinking when our first visitors hesitantly ducked through the door of the stable – a ragtag band of shepherds. My first instinct was to reach out and shelter my baby, protect him. Joseph’s was to step in front of the manger and block him from view. But the shepherds spoke up, “Is it true? An angel of the Lord appeared to us, and the glory of the Lord shone around us…” At the mention of the angel, Joseph and I exchanged looks. It was not all that long ago that an angel of the Lord had appeared to me to announce the conception of this child. Or that another angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream, confirming that it was true. Asking him to stay with me. And as I remembered that, I offered a silent prayer of thanks that Joseph stayed. That I wasn’t alone in the stable that night. But if an angel had now appeared to these shepherds…all this must mean something. Joseph looked at me questioningly, and I nodded slightly. He stepped aside, allowing the shepherds to see the manger, and me slumped beside it. 

Their eyes widened, their jaws dropped as their eyes fell upon my child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, just as they had been told. The open-mouthed disbelief of one of the shepherds began to curve upward into a smile so big I thought it wouldn’t fit his face. He set down his crook, resting it against the wall. He stepped forward and reached out his dirty, weathered hand to stroke my baby’s fresh, newborn cheek – as soft as down. And I fought the urge to reach out and smack his hand away, to save my precious child from sheep germs and a stranger’s touch. 

You know how it feels when everyone wants to touch your baby, to hold them? And you can’t help wondering, have they been sick lately? Do they know how to hold a baby? It’s like all your muscles are tensed, just waiting for them to give your child back. I think it’s particularly hard right after giving birth. For nine months, it’s been just the two of you enjoying the intimacy of the mother-child relationship. The mystery of their growth, the rhythm of their movement and stretches and kicks, is a secret only you know. But the moment they’re born, the moment they enter the world, they’re no longer yours alone. They can be seen and touched and held and kissed by others. And now, just hours after my labor, it was strange shepherds that wanted to hold him. Everything in me was crying out, “Oh…oh, my son. He’s so fragile. Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him.”

But I bit my lip and held back. And as I saw the pure joy on the face of the shepherd reaching into the manger, I remembered the words I had sung just nine months before, and the words that would become my life’s refrain: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” There in that stable, in Bethlehem, that night, God was turning the world upside down through the promised child in the manger. For me to reach out and protect this fragile baby from a dirty stranger’s touch – to turn away the lowly – would fly in the face of that proclamation. Because they, too, had been visited by an angel of the Lord. And as a poor unmarried girl quite literally covered in blood, sweat, and tears, with nowhere better to give birth than with the animals – well, maybe I was not all that much cleaner than the shepherds. No, I realized that night, the Christ child couldn’t stay in the manger, hidden away from the world, hidden away from those at the margins of society who rejoiced at his birth. After all, he was born for them. He was mine, but as I learned for the first time that night and would continue to learn throughout his life, he wasn’t mine to keep. He was mine to give away.

The second time I remember having that protective instinct – and having to let it go – was not long after Jesus’ birth. It was when we went up to the temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for our purification. When we entered the temple, there was an old man lurking in the shadows just inside. I would later learn that it was Simeon, a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit. He had been led into the temple by the Spirit, who had told him that he would see the Messiah while he was living. So knowing what I know now, to say he was “lurking” is probably not fair. Standing – he was standing there, off to the side, waiting for someone. But he startled me, because the moment we entered, his gaze was fixed on Jesus. He stared for a moment or two, then purposefully strode toward us, his long legs swallowing up the floor with just a few steps. And without so much as introducing himself or explaining that the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, before I could even process what was happening, he took Jesus from my arms into his. I could only sputter and protest, “Aaah, aah, but…my sonMy son. So fragile. So fragile.” Joseph immediately stepped forward as if to take Jesus back, but just then, Simeon began to speak, looking upward, praying. “Master,” he said, “you are now dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” We paused and held back, staring at him in amazement. Then he blessed Jesus and blessed us – and much to my relief, began to give Jesus back to me. But as he did, Simeon spoke directly to me and said to me, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Then, he looked me straight in the eye and said quietly – knowingly, somehow – “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

I didn’t understand what he meant, but it sounded so ominous it sent a chill down my spine, and I nervously broke his steady gaze as I settled Jesus back into my arms, tucking his blanket underneath him. If I had understood at the time just what Simeon meant, it’s very possible that I would have taken Jesus and run far, far away. But Jesus could not stay in my arms, hidden away from the world. As Simeon prophesied, Jesus was for all peoples. Not even just my own people. No, even the Gentiles. The angel Gabriel had told me he would be the Davidic king of Israel, the long-awaited Messiah. But a light for revelation even to the Gentiles? Salvation for all peoples? Just how far would his reach go? Joseph and I were both amazed at Simeon’s words. It was hard to imagine, standing there in the temple, looking down at Jesus and wondering exactly what his life would look like, and how this would come to be. This baby, for all peoples? My child, for the whole world? My son, so tiny and fragile?

As it turned out, the shepherds and Simeon were only the beginning. People wanted to see Jesus, to be near him, to touch him, his whole life. And of course as he got older, I had less and less say in the matter. Sick people, desperate to be healed, just reaching out to touch the hem of his cloak. Sinful people, desperate for acceptance, embracing and kissing his feet. Self-righteous people, wanting the status of his company. Samaritans, the people we didn’t associate with at all, drank from the same cup as him. Parents of young children – they reminded me of myself all those years ago – they crowded around, bringing their children to my child to be touched, to be blessed. And the ones who made me the most nervous – people who were ceremonially unclean or even had contagious illnesses. It seemed Jesus himself had no hesitation about risking his own skin in touching them. 

It made me uncomfortable more often than I’d like to admit, but I also couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of pride in my son, as I saw people come away from their encounters with him full of new life, full of hope, restored to community. He was living out God’s care for the oppressed in the tradition of the Exodus, of the prophets. Through my child, God was doing what I had prayed about, what I had sung about, what I had taught Jesus about: lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, helping God’s servant Israel. But not everyone loved my son. Because, as it turns out, the powerful resist the reversal the Gospel demands, because it is not good news to them. The mighty do not like to be brought down from their thrones. The rich do not want to be sent away empty. Caring for the oppressed is a threat to the power of the oppressors, and they do not go down without a fight.

And so, ultimately, it was not the hands of the sick that finally took my son away from me. It was not the touch of those who wanted to be well, or the embrace of those who wanted to be near him, but the hands of the religious leaders that were lifted up against him and the hands of the soldiers that carried it out. They reached out their hands not to heal or be healed, but to inflict harm. Not to receive life, but to take it. The lips of Judas kissed the cheek I had kissed so many times. They crowned his head with thorns, the same perfect fuzzy head whose shape I had memorized from spending countless hours looking down at it as he fed. The hands of soldiers beat the body that grew inside my womb, that I had tenderly swaddled and cared for and held. He was a man now, but stripped naked and utterly at the mercy of an unwelcoming world, he was just as fragile and helpless as the night he was born.

And as I collapsed at the foot of the cross, it all came back to me so vividly, from that first night in Bethlehem. Labor was the most painful thing I had ever endured, but even it paled in comparison to this moment. I knew, then, what Simeon meant when he said a sword would pierce my soul. My heart was breaking, my world shattering, everything inside me screaming in agony. And as the soldiers raised the mallet to drive the nails, all I could think as I wept was, “Oh…oh, my son… Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him.” 

But nothing came out except a wordless groan. Instead, the voice I heard was his. “Father, forgive them.” With those words, my son reminded me of the truth I’d lived by, that I’d reminded myself of so many times when it got hard: that the Christ child was for all people, and I couldn’t hide him away. Not from shepherds or sinners. Not even from those who laid hands with the intent to harm. Even for them he was born. 

I was still numb with grief when Mary and Joanna burst in, breathless, that first day of the week. They had gone to the tomb early, to anoint his body with spices. But when they got there, they realized that someone had been there before them. The stone had been rolled away, and his body was missing. Likely stolen. A decent burial was the last thing I could do for the body of my son, and now he had been taken from my arms yet again. It was too much. It seemed too cruel. But then they told me about two strange men who spoke with them at the tomb, who were dressed in dazzling clothes. And I remembered the dazzling clothes of the angel Gabriel who had appeared to me to tell me that I would be the mother of the Messiah. And I remembered the way the shepherds described the angels that appeared to them the night he was born. And as a small spark of hope began to swell even in the midst of my confusion and grief, they told me what the men had said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.” 

I could not hold onto him, but neither could the grave. I had learned the often-painful lesson that Jesus was for the world, that he was mine to give away. But I learned something new that day. I learned that I didn’t have to be so afraid all those years. I learned that giving him away did not mean I had to lose him. Because in the Kingdom of God, everything is turned upside down. The last are first, and the lost are found. The one who seeks to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, save it. In the Kingdom of God, it is not what is kept that lasts forever, but what is given away.

            And yet it is still so easy to cling to what we have out of fear. It’s so easy to keep Jesus – the values he stood for, the good news he embodied – to ourselves. It’s so easy, when unworthy people want a place at the table… or even just to touch the hem of his garment… to withhold from them what they seek. We withhold Jesus every time we choose to withhold love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, or welcome, from anyone in need. Because you see, the Gospel is not just that Christ was born for us, or that Christ died for us. The Gospel is that Christ was born for the world, for all peoples. For the shepherds in the fields, for Simeon in the temple, for those on the margins of society, for the sick and the poor and the sex workers and the ones whose theology was all wrong, and yes, even for corrupt religious leaders and pagan politicians. But when any of these people knock on our door, wanting to see and touch the Gospel we’ve received, the Jesus we’ve been given, we instinctively grasp him a little tighter. We fear what might happen if we give him away. We fear that he is too small and too fragile, that his love is too scarce, and that if we give away the love of God instead of holding onto what belongs to us, there may not be enough for us. As if there is not enough to go around. But Jesus and everything he represents is given to us, not as ours to keep, but as ours to give away – to the people we consider the least worthy. When we share with others what we have been given, it does not matter if they deserve it, if they can give something in return, if they know the value of the gift or even if we consider that the gift is wasted. From the shepherds who marvel to the soldiers who crucify, all are freely given the love of God in Christ Jesus.

            People have heard about this child, this man, this Savior, from far and wide, and the whole world is coming to see if the promise is true. To catch a glimpse of him, to reach out a trembling hand to touch him. And yes, some will misunderstand him. Yes, some will use him. Yes, some will even crucify him. And I have had to make peace with that. I have had to learn the hard lesson, over and over, that I could not keep Jesus to myself. But I have also learned…I have also learned that he was not as fragile as I’d feared. That when sick people touched him, he didn’t get sick, they got well. That when he loved unworthy people, his love made them worthy. That even when he was put to death, when I thought it was over, when I thought he had finally given everything, he didn’t stay dead. That no matter how much he gave, he always had more to give, and that the Gospel is infinite and that the table is big enough for all. Even when enfleshed in the body of a human being, the love of God is not fragile, and it is not scarce. It cannot be used up, and no matter how or where or when it is given, it is never, ever, wasted. Not even – and perhaps especially even – when it is given to those we consider unworthy. No, the love of God, even when it is as small and fragile as a newborn infant, is the most powerful thing in the universe. And when we give away the love we’ve been given, we need not be afraid, because perfect love casts out fear.

Give Jesus away to the hands needing a healing touch, to the mouths needing food, to the bodies needing shelter. Welcome those whom others have turned away. Give love to those who have not known it. Seek justice for those to whom it is denied. Forgive those who don’t deserve it. And do these things – open your arms to others – even when it is hard. Give when everything in you is crying out to protect what you have. Love even if it costs you dearly, as it did him, and as it did me. Share the love of God freely and extravagantly and without reserve, even if it means a sword will pierce your soul, too.