Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Lowlights: Reflections On A Not So Very Good Year

The highlight reels of 2015 are everywhere. I’m watching my friends and family put together a “best of 2015” via pictures, videos, and song. And I am reliving their lives right along with them…babies and marriages and graduations and books and cross-country moves and all the things that make up life. It moves me to tears when I know the full story behind some of the images: the health threat of the now healthy infant; the setbacks that didn’t deter graduation; the marriage crisis that resulted in an even stronger union. The images may reflect the “happy” end result, but the stories behind the images are much more complicated.

2015 was not a good year for me. If I put together a highlight reel, it would showcase disappointment, rejection, loss, failure, betrayal, and grief. This year, my losses outweighed my gains and my sorrows outnumbered my joys. And I have to give myself permission to say this, raised as I was in a tradition that taught me to “count my blessings” but to ignore my pain. I fully acknowledge that every day brings something for which we can be grateful: food on the table; good health; shelter from the cold; or just the reality that we are alive one more day. But there are seasons of despair and grief…there are seasons in which we lament, as in Zechariah 13, that we have been “wounded in the house of a friend” and betrayed by those we love most.

As the year closes, I’m learning not to rush past this pain so that I can present a rosier view of my life. I don’t want to choose the images that only present me at my best or during my highs, when I know that the “lows” also make me who I am. The tears I have shed this year, even this very week, are a part of my essence. This year, I have truly doubted God’s love for me. I have cursed and raged against situations outside my control. I have allowed anger and unforgiveness to linger in my heart. The smiling selfie on all my social media pages and websites has more often been a façade than the truth. Moments of genuine joy, moments of feeling loved and cherished, have been few and far between. And yet…

I have witnessed the sunrise almost every morning of this year and I have sat in the peaceful stillness of the dawn, when all things feel possible. I have written words and spoken truths that I hope have encouraged others. I have loved others fiercely, even when my own cup was empty or that love was not returned. I have tried…and even when I failed, I have tried again. And maybe that is simply all any of us can do.

There is a vulnerability in admitting your lowlights, since we are taught to always put our best selves forward. We are taught to take a million selfies until we capture the perfect one that we wouldn’t mind sharing with the world – the perfect lighting, the perfect smile, the perfect pose, and the perfect backdrop all illuminating our “best side.” But maybe we should share that imperfect picture: the one where we look tired, or our bad side is showing, or our hair is a mess, or our smile is absent. Because if we shared those imperfect images of ourselves more often, someone else might know that he or she is not alone. You are not alone. Even when our images reflect the reality of disappointment and despair, we are still made in the likeness of God. 

©Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mary's Baby: Life Under Penalty of Death

For Christians celebrating the Christmas season, our eyes are fixed upon the Christ child, the tiny babe who is the incarnation of the Holy God. There is perhaps no more iconographic image in all of Christendom than that of the nativity scene: Mary tenderly holding the infant Jesus, while Joseph tenderly watches over them both. American culture particularly loves and worships the idea of babies, so the image of Mary and her infant child evokes deep feelings of religious devotion and pathos.

But while our country loves the abstract idea of an infant, we fail to truly deal with the realities of what it takes to raise a child into adulthood, especially for those already on the margins, like Mary's precious baby boy. We love cute babies, but not sustained conversation regarding the food, clothing, shelter, care, education, and sacrifices needed to rear that child from infancy to adulthood. I think that many of us embrace the Christmas story because it is about a baby and the iconic image of a tender infant in his mother’s arms. I wonder if we would embrace the Christmas story if we truly understood that it is as much about death as it is about life?

Until very recently, with the advent of modern medicine, there was a significantly high possibility that mother or child, or even both, would die in childbirth. And in many countries, this is still the case. There are far too many places, even in the United States, with high rates of infant mortality and/or mothers who die or experiencing life-altering complications after giving birth. Mary, a pregnant teenage girl, would have known of women who died while giving birth, perhaps even someone within her own family.

When the angel greets Mary with news of her impending pregnancy, he tells her to “fear not.” I wonder if Christians take seriously all of the fears that Mary may have had in light of this news. Was this news a death penalty as much as it was a proclamation of life? Will our Christmas carols sing of Mary's fears? Fear of being ostracized or even put to death because of her pregnancy; afraid of the pain and travail of childbirth; fear that her friends and families wouldn’t believe or support her; fear that neither she nor her child would even survive his birth. 

Unless we are ready to sit with death, we are not prepared to fully embrace the message of the birth of Christ. Jesus is a child born to die and his mother is a girl chosen to risk her very life to bring him into the world. There is no Christmas story without the shedding of Mary’s blood, the tearing of her tissues, and the breaking of her body, so that the Savior could be born.

This Christmas season, I am thinking about death and broken bodies. I am thinking about Sandra Bland’s death in a lonely jail cell; I am thinking about the 13 known victims of a police rapist; I am thinking about Tamir Rice’s family spending yet another holiday without him. I am thinking about Freddie Gray and Miriam Carey and Trayvon Martin and Tanisha Anderson and Mike Brown…and the list of so many others. It is Christmas and I am sitting with violent and brutal death in a way that seems more appropriate to the Easter Season than the Advent Season.

But maybe that’s what we need to do for Christmas. The same Mary who tenderly cradles the infant Jesus is the Mary of all the famous pietà images: the sorrowful mother holding the dead body of her crucified son. Did Mary cradle the infant Jesus and think to herself: “I am holding a child who is destined to die?”  

This Christmas, I am holding in prayer the countless black and brown mothers who will cradle their precious children on Christmas morning, wondering if their son or daughter will one day be a hashtag…destined to die before their time at the hands of extrajudicial violence. I am grieving with families for whom there have been no tidings of comfort and joy. I am mourning with those for whom race or social caste creates life under a penalty of death. And in the true spirit of the Advent season, I simply work and wait for justice. And even when justice has been long delayed, I will not lose hope in my belief that God is still with us.

©Yolanda Pierce