Hope in the Promise

“A baby?,” she asked, trying to hide the incredulousness from her voice. “But how will you…. How will we... “ her voice trailed off, as the worry began to overtake her face.

To be honest, I didn’t know, either. I didn’t have answers. I mean, I knew HOW it had happened. That part wasn’t a surprise. At least to me. Still, being unmarried…. Living with my girlfriend of almost a year…. There was a sense of shame that washed over me as I had to reveal to my own mother that we were expecting a child. Yet…. a sense of promise. Of responsibility. I was going to be a parent. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and how I was going to do it, but there was a sense of hope in the promise. A sense that everything was going to be okay.

That was almost 17 years ago, and still that sense of shame washes over me with every revelation I have had to share with my parents. The sense that I had let them down. That their dreams of having the perfect son keeps falling short. I remember the moment I told them I was leaving the Catholic Church to join the Calvary Chapel movement. The moment I told them I was dating my girlfriend and then the time I told them I was moving to Fresno to live with her. Behind those eyes…. So much pain, and a sense of disappointment, like I had let them down.

It makes me wonder what Mary felt as her stomach grew with the baby inside. So much wondering...

It’s two days until Christmas Eve.

And as I think back to the all-familiar Christmas story, I have to stop and wonder - how did Mary and Joseph experience it? We have the advantage of looking at the story now with hindsight. But in the moment - how did Mary navigate her pregnancy? How did the townspeople deal with it? Her parents? Considering the response Jesus got when teaching in the temple (John 8:41), it’s not a secret that people were talking about Mary’s pregnancy.

God had sent a promise to Mary in the visit from Gabriel, but how long did that really last? We see Mary, as part of her response to Gabriel’s message, visiting her relative, Elizabeth, where Gabriel’s prophecy was confirmed - she was pregnant, well past the age that women were able to conceive. And it was in that moment, Mary blurts out her praises to God. Luke’s account tells us that Mary then stayed with Elizabeth for 3 months before returning home - just into her second trimester.

I have to wonder how she felt.

We look at the story, and we imagine that she was strong in her faith - holding to the promise that she was holding God’s son in her womb. But yet, what pain and suffering did she have to endure in order to bring Jesus to this world? Rejection? We know that premarital sex in those days was punishable by death. So I’m assuming attending church or temple gatherings would have been out of the question. What about rumors? Her family? Did they, apart from Elizabeth and Zechariah, believe her? Then there was the trip to Bethlehem. 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to be exact. Historians believe that it was a 4 day journey, slower if they travelled with a donkey. By the time they arrived in Bethlehem, they were no doubt, tired, dirty, hungry, and anxious. It wasn’t a secret that Mary was close to giving birth. She may have already been experiencing contractions. Her water may have broken. And I can only imagine the sense of worry and despair with each denial of space.

It is in this mindset that I enter into Christmas this year. God had given His promise to Mary - and yet, in what would seem to be her greatest time of need to date, there seemed no respite in sight. Then, when someone did offer a place, it was in a stable. A place with the animals. I wonder if Mary had earlier thoughts of grandeur. If she had imagined that, in agreeing to give birth to the son of God, they would be granted a space in a palace of sorts. That God would make a way for that to happen. After all, she had stepped out in faith to follow God’s call, right? Instead, she probably had to endure months of rejection, humiliation, and now birth in a stable - hardly a place fit for a King. I wonder what thoughts were running through her head?

When I first took steps to come out and begin my transition, I thought that it would be the act that solidified my place away from God and what I had known of the Evangelical church. I began to embrace the idea that faith for me was only to be found in affirming congregations that were almost foreign to me in the way they worshipped and believed. It was a slight comfort, but far from my past, when I had been so passionate about worshipping God and seeking His presence. All of that was to change when I stepped out in faith at the invitation of a friend to a women’s event at her church.

I’ve written before about that experience, so I’ll spare the details here. Yet, despite the fear, God reached down and met me right where I was. His presence, so real, calling me back to Himself and worship in the way I knew.

“But how,” I wondered.

“Look at me - I am the very antithesis of what these people believe are Christians!” Yet, I can only describe it as a sense of comfort that overwhelmed me as I sat to share my story for the first time with the director of women’s ministry that night. It was in that moment, I felt that Christ was being birthed right before my eyes. Two people from unlikely worlds, sharing in the love of God.

Since that time, I have begun to travel from church to church, trying to find a place to call home. And while some have rejected me, others have left me standing out in the outer court - the “stable,” if you would, wondering if I would ever be invited inside. Perhaps some day, but not today.

It’s been a painful process, I won’t deny that. To fall in love with a worship community only to be told that there really isn’t a place for me to truly belong. That the stigma of who I am - a queer trans woman - was too much for their congregations to handle at the moment. What would people say? How would the others react? And because the topic of sexuality and gender are so sensitive in the church, how can we hope to address the issue of transgender people in our communities? Perhaps it’s safer to just shut the doors.

People have wondered why I do what I do. Why I’ve been travelling this road. Why I’ve bothered to have conversations with pastors of non-affirming churches - some leaders who have even spoken against the LGBTQ+ communities - despite the pain and hurt. All I have in response is, “the promise of God.”

I wonder about how close Mary clung to the promise of God.

That she would be the conduit for God’s redemption here on earth. Jesus’ birth wasn’t the end of it. Mary had to watch as her baby boy was belittled, mocked, arrested, put on a mockery of a trial, and then crucified. All the while, I wonder what was going on through her mind. As a woman at that time, she most likely didn’t have knowledge of the Scripture to know the prophecies foretold. And yet she, in faith, took on the suffering she had to endure in order to fulfill God’s promises to the world.

It makes me think about me. About us. We have God’s promises in front of us - access to it is available in print, on our computers, on our phones even. And yet, within God’s promises, we shudder and question if God is really there when it gets hard. When it doesn’t seem like God could possibly be present.

I think of the pain I’ve suffered in trying to navigate the Evangelical Church as a queer trans woman. I think of how I feel God’s calling to not cause division, but to bring healing. I think of how my marriage has suffered as a result of my coming out. I think of how my relationship with my parents is forever altered. Yet, I look to God’s promise that He is “working all things together for my good and the good of ALL who are called according to His purpose.” And tonight, as we hang on the precipice of the fourth Sunday of Advent, I wonder if that will mean God’s presence will not be found in a mighty temple, but rather in the lowly stable.

I have to hope and look to His promises.

And no matter where you are, I hope that you can, too. For you are never alone. May the Christ child be born to us again this Christmas. And may that give you hope.

Making Room for Jesus

“Eeeeeeeoooooowwwww!!!!!,” howled the girl from deep within her pain. The steady rhythm of her feet on the path stopped for a moment, as she took a deep breath. “I don’t think I can go much further,” she gasped.

“I’m sure we’ll find a place soon, my love,” the man said, embracing the woman. The journey had been long and tedious; no small feat for a woman in the final days of her pregnancy.

The young man knocked on the doorway to the next house, where he was greeted by an older man.

“Yes, can I help you?,” he asked.

“Um, yes, sir…” the man stammered. He knew he had to find shelter, but asking for help wasn’t something he was used to, especially travelling with his fiance, who was pregnant. He knew there would be questions, denials…. Judgement. “My fiance and I have travelled many miles. We’re tired, and need a place to rest and…” his words were cut off by another howl from the pregnant girl.

The man at the door looked at the woman, into his house, and back at the young man with a worried look on his face. “Listen, um, I don’t know….” He grabbed the back of his neck, obviously torn on the decision he had to make. On one hand, he knew they needed a place to stay, but… a pregnant woman? And not only pregnant, but he could tell that she was close to birth. On top of that - the two weren’t married? Surely this would bring some sort of judgment on his house, wouldn’t it? What would the neighbors think?

The young man reached out his hand in desperation, grabbing the older man’s arm. “Please,” he pleaded, “we’ve tried almost every house on this street. Nobody has room. My fiance…. She’s about to give birth. We just need someplace warm. Anything.”

“Well…. I don’t think we’ll have room in the house, but… there’s room over here. In the stable,” he said, motioning across the courtyard. “I haven’t had the chance to clean it, and it kind of smells, but… I have some fresh hay, and it’s out of the elements.”

The young man - Joseph - took a tired glance at his love. Was this really about to happen? “God, is this what you want? I wanted to do so much more for your son. I wanted….,” his thoughts trailed off as a tear formed in the corner of his eye.

“Yes, thank you,” he told the man, taking Mary by the hand, tying up the donkey, and guiding her towards the shelter. It was to be the beginning of a long night, but one that would change the course of the entire world. For Jesus was about to be born.

If I were to be honest, Christmas to me feels more like that every year than the peaceful scene we see on the front of the Christmas cards. Every year, for as long as I can remember, Christmas was a harried mess, and between school, church, shopping, cleaning, and then delivering presents, there was no down time. I remember having to sit in the department stores with books while my parents tried to cross presents for the relatives off of the shopping list. I remember driving all over Los Angeles delivering presents to people I only saw once a year, waiting patiently at each place while my parents talked and caught up on the past year with their friends. I remember rehearsing for and getting ready for the various Christmas Eve and Christmas Day liturgies I was involved in. For me, Christmas was a hectic time. The sense of peace that resonates with “Silent Night” is looked at with incredible disbelief. “All is calm?” Ha. Not in my life.

It was all I could do, once I left the church, to not get caught up in the Christmas activities and stuff and just enjoy the time away from everyone, and everything. Christmas, truth be told, was something I celebrated privately for many years through three simple traditions: Christmas music in the summer before all of the hecticness started, The Candlelight Processional at Disneyland, and the Christmas episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. What are YOUR Christmas traditions, I wonder?

At any rate, back to our story - I have to remember that in the time when Jesus was born, people weren’t looking for a savior, not to mention that their messiah would be born as a baby to an unwed mother. But the Christmas story isn’t pretty. It isn’t fun. To some, it’s absolutely humiliating - that this is how we would welcome the Son of God to this earth. Being born in a stable because nobody else could make room for Him.

I’ve shared in a previous blog post about the historical significance of the inn as it existed in the first century, so I won’t go into that again here. But I have to look at the discomfort that the homeowners would’ve faced when Joseph came knocking on their door. Welcoming the young couple into their home wasn’t comfortable, especially when they began to consider the inconvenience of Mary giving birth. There was no hospital. There was no midwife. More importantly, there was no epidural.

Then there was the fact that the young couple wasn’t married. The stigma of that wasn’t unnoticed. “What would the neighbors say?” “Are they running from someone or something?” “I don’t want any trouble.” “What trouble could I get into with this?” The list of questions goes on and on - which explains why many of the people couldn’t be bothered by the inconvenience of having an unknown unwed mother give birth in their home. As I began to ponder that today, I began to wonder how we face those same inconveniences today. You see, it wasn’t comfortable for the people of those days to welcome in the travelling stranger like that, let alone one that was about to give birth. And yet we criticize them for turning Joseph and Mary away. I’ve even heard criticisms of the final innkeeper, who offered up his stable, as if he should have known that Mary was carrying the Messiah. (Here’s a hint - Mary didn’t have the perpetual halo around her head like we see in the pictures.) Yet…. when we look at our comfortable lives… when we think about how inconvenienced it would make us to care for a stranger…. The refugee… the single mom who’s pregnant…. The addict who has just fallen off the wagon… the person who identifies as LGBTQ+  - how do we react?

As I’ve traveled from church to church in our city, looking for a community to call home, I’m brought back to the Christmas story. And for the first time, I began to see the story through the eyes of God, whose presence was just that - uncomfortable. And because His presence made people uncomfortable, they couldn’t be inconvenienced to make room for Him in the routine of their own lives and homes. In the same way, I know and understand that my presence as a trans woman isn’t comfortable in many houses of worship. And yet I seek God, and I’m not alone. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we all have people in our lives that make us uncomfortable. I wonder who they are? Who would make you uncomfortable to sit next to in the restaurant? In the waiting room at the Doctor’s office? In church? What if it was a gay couple? A transgender person? An immigrant? A muslim? A person of color? A Trump supporter? A Democrat? What about an ICE agent? A cop? Maybe it’s someone from your past that’s hurt you. Each of us in every area of our life - including me - have people who make us uncomfortable, and even the thought of spending any time with them makes you feel uneasy.

Friends, if we truly believe that we are ALL created in the image of God - that we all bear the likeness of God - then each encounter is an opportunity to see the Christ child born in our presence. The question is, will we let Him in, even if it doesn’t look like what we think it should? For the religious leaders of his time, Jesus didn’t look like what they thought the Messiah should look like. Jesus was uncomfortable. Jesus challenged everything the religious leaders knew. And because of it, they not only didn’t accept Him, but they killed Him and even His followers in the early days of the church.

As we enter into this Advent season, I wonder if you would join me in asking God to reveal His birth in the lives around us this season. It’s so easy to scoff at that, and say, “sorry, I don’t have time.” Or, even more dangerous, “I don’t think God would call me to love them.” Yet those are the people God IS calling us to. It’s taken me so many years to recognize that. But that thought - that hope - is what is making a difference this Christmas season as we light that first candle on the road to Christmas Day and beyond. It’s my prayer that as we do so, we would experience Christmas in a way we have never experienced it before as we see Christ born to us in a whole new way.