Why I Enjoy Stephen King Novels (Even Though They Keep Me Up at Night)

ItPoster

For most of my life, I avoided the horror genre.

If I saw a poster with Freddy Krueger on the front, I struggled to sleep for a week. Classic horror monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Nosferatu gave me the heebie-jeebies. The giggling of the Green Ghosts from Scooby Doo could make my hair stand on end as a teenager (and even as an adult, if I’m completely honest). I couldn’t even be in the same room as my mom when she watched CSI or Law and Order, because I found those horrifying incidents as terrifying as any otherworldly creature.

I couldn’t handle these scary things. With anxiety, life itself is already plenty frightful. Give me a horror flick or book, and my overactive imagination would take those freaky scenarios, make me the main character, and turn the terror dial up to 11.

But this week, I am going into a crowded movie theater (with a friend) to see the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s It.

When the first trailer dropped, I watched it three times in one day. I followed all the news about its release, checked out all the behind the scenes and teaser photos, listened to cast interviews, and even watched a few leaked scenes online.

When something scares me, I research it like crazy. Spoilers have always been acceptable when it comes to scary things. I don’t want to be surprised. I don’t want to be a victim of “jump scares.” I want to know when every monster appearance will occur, when any victim breathes their last, when any twist comes out of no where.

But I never had a reason to research horror movies before. I just avoided them like the plague. Somehow, I found It’s premise and story fascinating enough to want to engage with it, despite (and even because of) my fear.

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It all began in 2016 as I was finishing up my final year of seminary. In an effort to really hone my craft, I read Stephen King’s On Writing. His tips were helpful, but more importantly, I fell in love with his writing style and storytelling voice. I wanted to keep hearing what that voice had to say.

I knew horror and I had an all but absent relationship, so before I went to the library, I set up a boundary: I would not read any of his books in my bed, in order to keep a bit of distance from me and the horrors. This often meant I would read on a mattress pad in my room below my bed, giving me at least one degree of separation, but eventually, I became so engrossed with the stories that I broke the boundary and read them until I fitfully fell asleep.

One of the first King books I read was ‘Salem’s Lot. It seemed like a safe choice. King’s monster in this one is vampires, and I figured an upbringing of Twilight and Buffy made me immune to vampire terror.

I slept with a cross by my bed for a week after I finished the book.

And yet, ‘Salem’s Lot, a story about “a vampire’s attempt to colonize a modern-day New England town,” is one of my favorite books.

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To pacify my fears, regarding the horror genre and my own anxieties, people often tell me they are “made up” and the products of a “dark imagination.” While I understand this to be true, I continue to believe in the scary things. That’s why I find them so damn scary.

I believe the darkest parts of our human brokenness can be made manifest physically, in everything from racist microaggressions to lynching, from “harmless” sexist jokes to rape and victim blaming, from “hating the sin but loving the sinner” to traumatizing LGBTQ+ people by putting them through “therapy.”

Because I believe in these very real horrors, I believe in the power of horrific symbols to help us better grapple with the ones we encounter everyday.

And that’s why I embraced Stephen King’s storytelling, not in spite of how much his writing haunts me, but because of how it does.

From shape-shifting clowns and colonizing vampires to abusive husbands and high school bullies, King confronts evil, both supernatural and terrestrial, head on.

King gives us the scary monsters to teach us how to deal with the real ones. He teaches us how to look the things that terrify us right in the eye, even if our bodies tremble as we do.

The scary stories, even more than the Church of my youth and beyond, taught me how to look evil in the eye and fight it.

‘Salem’s Lot taught me about the importance of forces of good combating against evil, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean an easy or immediate victory. The Stand helped me make peace with a chaotic world and an equally chaotic but just God. Revival kept me thinking about unbound science and untested religion long after my final seminary course. 11/22/63 reminded me of the dangers we inflict when we act on our own Messiah complexes.

And collectively, King’s stories taught me how to look white supremacists in the eye as I defended my friends of color from them, to know they were scary, but we were stronger than the fear they induced.

The Church of my youth taught me to avoid anything evil and monstrous, to put my hands over my ears when hell whispered at me. King taught me how to be bold and brave when the monsters broke loose and threatened to take over the world, and how to look into the depths of hell while pushing it back from whence it came.

So even though I’m freaking out about going to see It, I’m also encouraged that I will walk away not only with an adrenaline rush and a good story, but more strength and ability to deal with the world around me.

It will haunt me, and It will embolden me to keep showing up against evil in this world.

Thanks be to God.

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I Haven’t Been to Church in Four Months, and I’m OK

Church

Outlook Mag

Next week will officially mark four months since I’ve gotten myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to attend a church service.

I’ve kept myself otherwise occupied.

I played card games with Bryce and our roommate. I visited my mother and helped her with yard work. I watched a lot of TV and read a few books. I spent Mother’s and Father’s Day with my future in-laws. I added to our wedding registry. I fasted from social media.

I slept in.

But I haven’t been with a traditional community of believers.

I have become what I once feared: a non-church attending Christian.

The congregation members I grew up with attached a lot of adjectives to people like me: lukewarm, backsliding, and hedonistic are probably some of the nicer ones.

You can’t be a Christian without a faith community, they insist. If you’re not part of a gathering of believers, you will follow a God in your own image and become idolatrous, they warn. Why must you be one of those pesky Burger King Christians who has to have everything their way, they fuss.

But guess what?

I’m OK.

I’m well-rested, emotionally stable (to an extent), and still in love with the Church, the Bible, and the Holy Trinity.

This being said, I still struggle to read the Bible. I find following Jesus into the difficult places harder than ever. I find God to be more mysterious than I could have imagined. And I am more annoyed by the Spirit’s non-stop calls to lay everything down and open myself up to love.

I still talk about theology and what it means to follow Jesus, although I’m even less reverent than I’ve ever been. I partake in communion, but I break the bread of gigantic slices of Manhattan Pizza with my co-workers and gluten-free, vegan rolls with racial justice co-conspirators. I pray more than I have in some time: for peace, for my loved ones to get through their days, for mercy and justice, and for people to just listen. I look for God’s presence everywhere and in everything, in the breaths I take during a run, in my fiance doing the laundry for me, in protesters as cops beat them, and in writers who share their stories and trust they will mean something to someone.

I know there will be people who will read every single thing I’ve just said and see it all as lies and heresies, more evidence of my backsliding ways.

But in reality, I feel more solid in my faith and more confident claiming a Christian identity than I have in a long time.

It could be because I’m living with my fiance and not afraid of anyone’s nosy judgment, or because I’m politically and socially engaged with no fear that a theological higher-up is breathing down my neck, waiting for me to make a theological mishap and tear me down. Maybe it’s because I have more freedom to actually ask a variety of people a lot of interesting, difficult, uncomfortable questions without having the authenticity of my faith put on trial.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting more sleep.

I’m not saying I will never attend a traditional church again. By no means. In fact, I can no longer pass an Episcopal church without feeling a tremendous pang in my heart and an intense longing for choir anthems and collects.

I also have to admit there are some drawbacks to not having a faith community right now. I miss the communal life of choir practices and youth Sunday School. I miss long, deep conversations with clergy. I miss coffee hours after Sunday service and lunch time gatherings around the seminary table.

But I can’t say my lack of a “real” faith community is completely awful either. And I definitely can’t say I will regret this time in my life, or that I feel like a failure and a backslider in my walk with Christ.

For once in my life, I feel OK with where my faith journey has taken and is taking me, even if it’s the non-traditional route.

And I’m going to soak that up for all it’s worth.

Theater is Church

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Eastern Mennonite University Black Box Theater

I met my Dad halfway through my sophomore year of college. I remember hearing his voice on the phone for the first time in 15 years and thinking to myself, “He sounds just like he did on those old home videos.”

During those early phone calls, he told me about my siblings, my stepmom, her pregnancy with my then unborn brother, his upbringing as a Palestinian born and raised in Jordan, and about his life as an Arab American.

That same semester, my Theater professor assigned My Name is Rachel Corrie for my class and I to read, a one-woman play about the late activist who lost her life defending a Palestinian home in the Gaza strip from being bulldozed by the Israeli army.

This play brought me closer to my father and our shared roots, and it pushed me into an inner confrontation with American and international policy. It is a story I return to when my Dad tells me about the pain of displacement and when I continue to see the plight of Palestinians, who are my family by blood, ignored by American and international media.

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During the first semester of my senior year at college, I took a Basics of Acting class. For our final project, my fellow actors and I acted out scenes from a themed series called “University.”

At this point in my life, I was in the deep throes of my faith crisis. Day by day, my firm foundation revealed its unsteady nature. I kept hoping to find solid ground but continued to be met with sinking sand.

It was in this state of mind that I found out my professor had assigned me the role of a young college student who had just had an abortion and found herself in a confrontation with her one night stand about it.

I hated him for that.

And yet, it was this acting exercise that met me where I was in my crisis, in all of my uncertainty over my previous ideologies and biases, and pushed me into the mind and body of someone I had once deemed “other.” It was in the black box theater, as I worked on memorizing my character’s lines and getting into her skin, that I realized how to play with a story, discover the crazy nuances of human lives, and remember that when we talk about “issues,” we are always talking about divinely made human beings.

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My second year of seminary, I joined the cast and crew of Corpus Christi, a play depicting Jesus as a young gay man living and proclaiming the Gospel in Texas. I served as the dramaturg (a nice, fancy, theater word for the one who does lots of research) to prepare the cast and help them understand their roles as disciples, and I joined rather last minute as an actor to play the part of John the Baptist, in which I baptized (read: washed the hands of) all of our cast members.

Unfortunately, due to the “controversial” nature of the show, we had to shut it down.

That didn’t stop us from holding a final and open dress rehearsal to a packed house, though.

The powers that were also couldn’t stop us from sitting around during rehearsal time and trading laughter, tears, university cafe treats, and stories about how the Church had wounded the LGBTQ community.

The powers that were could never take from us the power this production had, in many ways, to save and heal the lives of the cast and crew, most of whom identify as LGBTQ+.

In this communal theater experiment, I found myself pushed into a story that was and wasn’t mine. I found myself in the supporting role, and as such, I learned to listen and be present instead of my more natural role of taking charge and stealing the spotlight. I confronted my own pain and the pain of others suffering in ways I cannot completely understand but with whom I can sit, stand, and live in love and camaraderie.

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Theater is not frivolous. It is not for the faint of heart or the narrow of mind, but it is for the experienced and inexperienced, the diva and the shy, the believer and the skeptic. Theater molds, shapes, and even break us in ways we spend a lifetime unpacking.

There are times when theater is the voice, body, and spirit of God when churches remain silent, paralyzed, and breathless. There are times when theater becomes the Church to the doubters, skeptics, LGBTQ+, people of color, and the oppressed when the churches all but slam the door in their faces.

 

Theater does this, because theater is story. It’s the stories with the immense power to make us confront our “others” and our own roots. It’s the stories which wake us up and wind us up. It’s the stories which comfort the uncomfortable and discomfort the comfortable.

It was stories Jesus used to illustrate the finer points of his gospel message, through parables of seeds and soil, great banquets, feuding families, and pestering widows. It was theater Jesus employed when he caused a public and zealous disturbance in the temple. It was these stories that baffled the disciples and the religious elite but made sense to the ones who had lived them in some capacity.

And throughout all of those stories and theatrical displays was the call to remember we are God’s, and we belong to each other.

While many fear the “death of the Church,” I have no fear of this, because as long as theater and stories exist, and as long as we continue to tell the stories to each other without fear or shame, the Church will survive and thrive.

I’ve seen the theater be Church for me and for others, and it gives me hope that Church will outlive every congregation we ever make or attempt.

For the Literal Love of Christ, Stop Making Jesus White

 

Superstar

Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar

I was browsing Buzzfeed the other day when I found an article about the Mary Magdalene film starring Rooney Mara (as Mary) and Joaquin Phoenix (as Jesus).

To be honest, at first I thought it was great that a film about Mary Magdalene would be coming to theaters soon, especially because of the issues many in the Church might have with her story being portrayed well on screen (she wasn’t a prostitute?!).

Then I saw the casting, and I got frustrated at the fact that once again, two white actors are portraying religious and historical figures of color.

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Daily Mail

I quickly went to IMBD to check out the rest of the cast, and I discovered that black, Israeli, and Algerian actors will be playing Jesus’ disciples.

Which is…better than having them all be white, too, I suppose. At least this casting is a bit more accurate.

Starting from top left: Australian actor Ryan Corr as Joseph, Israeli actor Tawfeek Barhom as James, Matthew Moshonov as Matthew, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, and French actor Tahar Rahim

This being said, Hollywood is not off the hook. The fact that in most biblical films, Jesus is cast as a white man while the people of color are relegated to the supporting cast is a greater symptom of the American white savior complex.

 

The simplest way to define the white savior as an entertainment trope is a white character rescuing people of color from their plight. While many well-meaning people defend these characters as benign and even admirable (perhaps citing that they learn a lesson about themselves and “those people” and become “better” in the end), they are actually rather harmful.

The danger of the white savior mentality is that it enables the savior to look down on the ones they try to “save.” It allows the savior to say, “You are only worthy of my time, attention, and compassion as long as you are beneath me. Never equal to me, and definitely not above me.”

The white savior complex “racializes morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems.”

This racialization of morality frames white people as the good guys, and the people of color as either the bad guys or the ones needing saved.

White savior mentality does not embolden people on the “receiving” end to take agency over their own lives.

One of the primary results of the white savior/one needing saved relationship is enmeshment, which can occur “in any relationship where there is a power imbalance due to structural inequality, and ensures that the power imbalance stays firmly in place, resulting in frustration and resentment for the oppressed group.” This ensures that the person or people being saved become fully dependent on their saviors to survive and thrive, while the saviors get a nice dose of purpose and goodwill from having saved someone. They are dependent on each other for the wrong reasons.

The white savior mentality does not allow people of color, or those being “rescued” or “saved,” to voice their own concerns or opinions about their own lives. Instead, the saved remain subservient to their saviors, who tell them to trust in the savior’s goodness and logic above their own needs.

This is prevalent in reality, as seen in the accusations of TV personalities and news anchors concerning black culture and black individuals. There seem to be zero forms of protest that a person of color can participate in which white leaders will not criticize. This is why Black Lives Matter can be deemed “the new KKK” with little to no mainstream backlash. It’s why any criticism about white supremacy and privilege is clapped back against with cries of “reverse racism” and accusations of “not letting the past be past.”

Feminists are not exempt from this.

Rafia Zakaria writes in Al Jazeera, “Nonwhites are expected to approbate and modify their own lives or positions to participate in this [white feminist] narrative. The parameters of this paradigm ignore differences in privilege that separate the white and nonwhite feminisms. White women dominate the mainstream American feminism because they can still draw on white privilege and occupy the entire category.”

If left ignored, women of color will continue to be ostracized by a movement which claims to seek liberation for all.

This is why, for the literal love of Jesus, we need to drop the white savior complex, from our media and from our lives.

Jesus regarded everyone with whom he interacted as inherently worthy of his love and attention. But white savior mentality does not acknowledge the inherent dignity within every human being as a child of God.

If we continue to call ourselves the Body of Christ on earth, yet continue to ignore our siblings’ cries for justice, then we are attempting to cast off our hands and feet, destroying the Body from the inside out.

We will also damage our testimony as Christ’s body on earth to those who are not in the Church.

A personal case in point: I have a Middle Eastern, Muslim father, but I did not grow up with him. I grew up with my white mother and white family, so I learned about Arabic culture from them and the media.

And they didn’t exactly paint the best picture. Especially post 9-11.

Post 9/11, I thought all Arabs were terrorists, because that’s all I saw in the news, in TV shows, and in movies. I thought they were oppressive to women and democracy and all the other things Americans claim to hold dear (but they really don’t).

I know how this affected me, and I know how it could affect my younger siblings, and the people with whom they interact, especially in an era of proposed “Muslim bans” and chants to “Build the Wall.”

I worry about representation because of what it will tell the world about my family.

So what do we, the white Americans wrestling with our white savior complexes, need to do?

A small way to break this oppressive cycle is to consume more media with better representations of people of color, in which they, not us, are the predominant actors, writers, producers, and directors.

Love comics? Check out Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, and America Chavez.

Looking for a new show to binge-watch on Netflix? Check out Luke Cage, The Get Down, or 3%.

Want a Redbox night? Rent Moonlight or Get Out.

If you don’t consume media with predominantly POC casts and production because you think it’s “too harsh” on white people, or you wonder why you’re not in the lead role like you’re used to, you might be feeling a trace of what black, Latinx, Arab, and other “minority” communities have felt for years.

We often have the audacity to ask, in a culture we dominate, “What about me?”

I asked that question as a four year old when I was dyeing Easter eggs with my cousins because I didn’t want to share the Easter egg dye with them. As a child, I acted like a child, as do we all. Now, it’s time to leave our childish ways behind.

Will watching and reading more stories in which people of color are the heroes and heroines change the world overnight?

Of course not.

It can, however, begin to change our mentality, break stereotypes, and empower people of color.

And for the literal love of Christ, we can do that much.

Church Runaways, Meet Marvel’s Runaways

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This year, I didn’t go to church on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday.

Instead, I binge-read 3 volumes of Marvel’s Runaways, the comic series about “a group of young teens [who] find out their parents are actually supervillains and do the rebellious thing…they become superheroes.” (Read the whole article if you’re a new fan to graphic novels and comics, while you’re at it!)

The group consists of 6 individuals: Chase Stein, the oldest and a stereotypical jock (with a penchant for lasers and vehicles) despite having mad genius parents; Alex Wilder, a lonely MMORPG lover with firm but loving parents who is considered the brains of the group; Nico Minoru, the daughter of two sorcerers who wields the Staff of One, a magical device which can do any spell but only once; Karolina Dean, a Majesdanian alien whose parents hid and suppressed her powers for her whole life; Gertrude “Gert” Yorkes, whose time-traveling parents gifted her a dinosaur with whom she shares a telepathic link; and young Molly Hayes, a precocious pre-teen mutant with the power to lift all the big things.

The series sees the teens coming to terms with their parents true selves, the motives behind their actions, familial and fraternal betrayal, coming of age without the parental guidance they expected to receive, and living with and leading each other through these difficult and new days.

It’s the perfect read for people struggling with the Church, those who have left the Church, those who are thankful they left, and those who still feel remorse over leaving.

There’s Molly Hayes, the youngest Runaway, who is perhaps the most confused over her situation. She is still in that stage of life where adults can still be trusted. She doesn’t have her house, her bed, or her parents, and while she knows they did something wrong, she never witnessed it herself, because the older kids didn’t think she could handle seeing it. She is a runaway, but a reluctant one.

There’s Chase Stein, who rather willingly abandoned his abusive household and came into his own as a member of the Runaways, providing them with a hideout (albeit it literally unstable), fighting baddies with his parents’ technology, and piloting their Leapfrog ship. Being a runaway, in some ways, saves him, and he finds a true family with the rest of the gang.

There’s Nico, Gert, and Karolina, who are aware of their families villainous ways and know they have no choice but to flee them, yet they continue to be haunted by the lives and legacies from which they left behind.

And there’s Alex, the group’s leader, who seems to easily leave his family and lead the Runaways but refuses to cast off his familial identity indefinitely, hoping instead to redeem them.

We’ve seen Big Church, the Christian Machine, act in ways they believe will save us but harm us more. And we’ve become runaways as a result.

But it’s not an easy decision to make, even if it’s a necessary one.

It’s not easy to leave our church homes, our comfy beds of unquestioning faith, the warm hugs from the Christians we love and who love us but suddenly become cold and false, the routine traditions. Sometimes, even after we’ve been gone a while, we still dream of those “good ol’ days” and want them back. Even when we understand that staying would have meant falsehood or even death, returning to business as usual is appealing. At least it meant a home was involved.

Runaway status isn’t always fun. Not having one place to call “home” can wear on you after a while. Rootlessness isn’t the safest way to live. We are creatures of habit and security, and while having nowhere to settle gives greater freedom to make nests in other places, there really is nothing or no place like home.

But Runaways reminds me that realizing the home you once loved is no longer there, and perhaps never was, can be the Good Friday which eventually moves into the Easter of finding family in the ones who have also fled.

Running away is sacred and scary. It can involve putting down roots for a time only to yank them up again. It is being honest with the beauty and the brokenness of our upbringing and figuring out what’s left to salvage. It is dropping our nets and leaving our tax collector booths like Jesus’ disciples and following the One who calls us into a new way of life, one more risky and more fantastic than we care to imagine.

Most of all, running away can remind us we are the Church, and we make home wherever we go, on the run or otherwise.

To the runaways, take comfort and know you are in good company, and even though some may say you’ve fled God, God is with you through the wilderness and in the homestead.

Also, may you find out you have an 87th-century dinosaur with whom you share a telekinetic bond. Because that would be freakin’ awesome.

Saved

Media Cache

On Easter Sunday 2008, I joined my youth group drama team to do a dance to This Blood by Carman. With our bodies, we acted out the story of the torture and violence Jesus endured at the hands of his Roman captors, from the the binding of his arms and flogging of his body, to the painful carrying of the cross up the hill and his body’s convulsions when his captors dropped the cross in the grave.

It was a graphic song, filled with gory language that to this day I’m surprised my overly sensitive self could stomach enough to put on this performance.

It held a clear Easter message: This blood, spilled willingly and violently, is for you. All of you.

It was a powerful message, and I invited my mom, who didn’t often come to Sunday services, to see our performance on Easter Sunday. I wanted my mom to hear it, because I wasn’t convinced she was saved.

With the youth group team, I fervently prayed for her soul, that it would find Jesus, not only so she could go to heaven with me at the end of her life, but so she could find some peace and happiness in this life, too.

I knew she was in an unhappy marriage. I knew she was frustrated at work and life hadn’t worked out the way she had planned. She knew turmoil and loss I’d never had to know.

And I knew Jesus’ blood could save her. I knew a relationship with Him could make her better, even if it didn’t make her actual situation better. I knew this, because the people at church told me this was true, and I convinced myself it was true to my life and it could be for hers.

I wanted to save Mom, and that Easter Sunday, as I listened to the brutal lyrics and imitated Jesus’ pain to my congregation, I focused mostly on Mom. I did my best to meet her eyes as we pointed across the audience for the final “This blood is for you,” and I prayed she would feel the stirring in her heart and be moved to accept that blood sacrifice and find a new joy in life.

Nine years later, I don’t know what it means to be saved.

I thought it meant accepting the love and blood of Jesus, but what does it mean to accept a violent sacrifice? What does it mean to be made clean by the blood of the Lamb? Why would blood save us anyways? Why did God need to kill God’s own Son to save our sorry, sinful selves? What did this do?

So much violence and suffering, and for what? What does this sacrifice even mean anymore? What did it ever mean? How could it save me from myself, or my mom from herself, or us from ourselves?

What does it mean to be saved? Does it result in praying a rosary, or praying in tongues? Does it condemn people based on their race, sexuality, gender identity, and income, or does it welcome those at the bottom of the ladder? Does it save us from ourselves, or does it give us abstract words that comfort us enough to get us through each day?

These concepts I once accepted with joy are foreign, confusing, and even hostile to me now. They are disconnected from the world I live in, a reality in which Christians can claim to be washed in the blood of the lamb but do nothing on this earth to relieve their brothers and sisters in physical pain. They tell me to cast off my doubt and rebuke the enemy, but the enemy seems to have infiltrated their ranks and filled them with hatred, hostility, and division.

They tell me “Jesus Saves,” and I ask them, “From what?”

So You Wanna Keep Christ in Christmas?

keepchristinchristmas

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In the past month, I’ve read countless signs in front of churches demanding, “Remember, Jesus is the reason for the season!”

This week, I even saw a sign on a grocery store declaring “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

And just to keep kids from getting a little too excited, some signs went so far as to say, “Santa never died for anybody!”

Every Advent season, I see signs like these, and year after year, I grow more exhausted with them. I’m tired of the energy expended over the so-called “War on Christmas” when we are still reeling from the aftermath of a poisonous election season and actual wars are destroying the lives of thousands.

I see these signs, and I can’t help but wonder: Who has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, the “unchurched,” or the Christians?

I wonder if so many congregations put messages like this on their signs, because they don’t want to do the hard work of living out the Gospel. They want the words, doctrines, and signs to do all the talking, and more often than not, the message is loud, clear, and cruel: we don’t want you unless you’re ready to prescribe to our rules. They want to say “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” and “It’s Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays!” because that’s a lot easier than saying “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” It’s a lot easier to make Jesus seem as proud and fear-mongering as we are instead of proclaiming the true words of God incarnate: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

This is tough, counter-cultural stuff to swallow. Proclaiming a war to defend and maintain our already high privilege and supremacy is so much easier and, as such, more prevalent. From personal experience, it’s much easier to act with false pride than to live in true humility.

It’s easier to act like shoving the slogan of the culture wards down the throats of “non-believers” is more effective than doing justice for the oppressed, showing mercy towards those who have hurt us, and walking humbly with the God who guides us through times of joy and deep sorrow.

It’s so easy, for everyone, to put words on a church sign, believing in the false hope that this is what will save our dwindling numbers.

It’s not so easy to live in such a way that people already know the deep good news of the Gospel in real ways, ways that can’t be fit onto church signs.

Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” isn’t a proclamation of the good news of Christmas. It’s an empty, guilt-invoking phrase which does nothing to invite people into living a life devoted to the God who sent him. It does nothing to point to the God of Jesus, who upset the natural order of things in Jesus’ very birth in order to live among us and bring the good news of the beautiful, upside-down kingdom to a dark, hopeless world. It’s a phrase evoked in the name of a baseless culture war that continues to remind those who aren’t already aware that the Church is more concerned with having power than it is with caring for actual people.

It does nothing to explain why Mary accepted such a dangerous, beautiful mission from God. It does nothing to explain why Joseph accepted his role as co-parent to God. It does nothing to explain how significant it is for the Creator of the world to be wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough, because no one would give up their rooms to make way for God in flesh.

Only teaching and living the whole story does that, and it involves more than church signs.

It involves being willing to accept God’s dangerous, beautiful call to live a life of love for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, doubting, and abused. It involves making space not just in your heart, but in your own home and life, for weary travelers like Mary and Joseph. It involves clearing out physical space in your life to welcome the infant Jesus in the form of actual people whom the rest of the world wants to cast aside.

So sure, you can keep doing the “easy” task of putting the same ol’ guilt-inducing messages on your boards each year.

Just remember that eventually, it becomes the hard work of explaining to a lot of those same people who didn’t want to come why you were so preoccupied with proclaiming Jesus’ birthday instead of actually throwing a party for the ones Jesus came to love.

Please, keep Christ in Christmas, but not by forcing people to tell you “Merry Christmas” and demanding the right to put a nativity in front of your store.

Do it by living like Jesus. Then you won’t have to say much of anything, even on a church sign.