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I'm not sure why you clicked on this story, but I feel like it should come with a disclaimer. The goal of this article is not to get you to say "Happy Holidays." I'm not a soldier in the "War on Christmas." Leave the baby Jesus in the manger and say "Merry Christmas" to whomever you choose. Go for it. I am not looking to pick a fight. I’m writing this because I’m struggling with the whole concept of Christmas for the first time in my life, and this blog has always been my safe place to air some of my inner-dialogue.
Christmas in the Grey Area
In most of the circles where I hang these days, people are actively deconstructing their Christian faith. It's humbling to hear the stories of lifelong Christians who have either walked entirely away from the faith of their childhood or much like me, feel trapped somewhere in the grey area.
A phrase I've been using to describe my current stop along the journey of faith is a Christian Agnostic - I just don't know anymore.
But people - it's Christmas! And for me, Christmas has never existed outside the Biblical story of the baby Jesus. Christmas has always been about that little Nativity scene my Mama stitched together when I was just a toddler. It's about memories of my Dad singing "Mary, Did You Know" and remembering how my Grandfather would gather us around the fireplace on Christmas morning to read the Biblical account from the Gospel of Luke, no matter how long it took, or how much his grandchildren squirmed.
During my earliest years, we were pretty close to poor. As such, it was never about the big presents or lots of money. We didn't go to movies on Christmas Day like other families or take elaborate vacations. For us, Christmas was about the miracle in the manger, the Star over Bethlehem, and a stocking full of my favorite candies.
This is the first year in a long time that I haven't written an Advent devotional or visited a local church to watch a Christmas play. I haven't even participated as my wife continues to light the candles each night, celebrating with our children and teaching them about the long-awaited birth of the Christ child.
There's a part of me that wants my kids to have the same experiences I had with a Christian kind of Christmas, but where does Christmas fit for the lifelong cultural Christian who suspects they may no longer buy it?
Did the Wise Men have their doubts? Did they question each other along the way, growing weary with each mile of the journey? Had Joseph faced a theological crisis of his own? After offering the Magnificat, did Mary still lack certainty?
Or should I just shut up and participate in the Advent story and light the damn candles and sing “Away in a Manger” even though my brain can’t quite figure it all out?
Christmas is full of red and greens, and for many people, an American Evangelical Christmas is also very black and white. But what about a Christmas in the grey area? Does it still matter when you no longer feel connected to the story?
I think what I’m really asking is this: can we live a life, full of doubts, while also being intrigued by (and even seeking) genuine faith?
This year, the Nativity speaks to me in a way like never before. I am not a deeply theological person, and I could be flat wrong, but I wonder if this picture of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus is the perfect metaphor to my life? An image of the marriage of uncertainty and faith, but right in the middle of it all...is God.
No matter what name you give it, or what religion it's attributed to, for me, Christmas is ultimately about Hope being birthed in the dark. It's about Joy coming in the midst of despair. Christmas has never been about big presents or lots of money. And maybe my friend Ed Bacon is right, the magic of the Christmas story “is about our hearts savoring what our minds cannot comprehend”. Christmas is the story of wondrous, unconditional love that continues to choose humanity, even 2,000 Decembers later.
For more great discussion on the magic and mystery of Christmas, listen to this week's special Christmas edition of The #AskSteveAustin Podcast.
The Rev. Ed Bacon joins me for this one, plus Christmas carols with my kids and listener stories! Click the "play" button below, or listen at AskSteveAustin.com or on your favorite podcasting app!
I replayed the conversation in my head, over and over again, wishing I could go back to change my words and attitude. My stomach twists and twirls like a tornado is whipping around inside, my head cycling the lies I’m tempted to believe about my whole self: I am ignorant, I am arrogant, I am prideful, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I am a burden, I am not of value...in fact I hurt others so much I shouldn’t even have a voice.
Somehow I’m shoved straight back into multiple conversations that happened on the weekly years ago. We were on staff at a church at the time—my husband the Youth Pastor, me the Outreach-Hospitality-Youth Ministry-Office Assistant—and our pastor frequently reminded me of my pride. His words pierced into me in ways that altered me forever, compounding the lies I already struggled with.
Prideful. Arrogant. A burden. Worthless. Entitled.
These are the identities I’ve battled for years, walked through entire days-turned-weeks covered in shame. At times they’ve won, silencing me into depression and doubt, crippling my daily life and productivity. At other times I find strength to speak Truth over myself, to combat the swords of words turned into identity.
Recently it’s been a fight with the former, using every ounce of excess energy to not fall into the drought of doubt and depression. Discouragement is defeating when it nags at you all day every day.
It’s exhausting, warding off the lies and false identities that like to attach themselves to our souls and selves.
It’s easy to be bogged down with the inner voice demanding: who do you even think you are? You deserve desolation and depression.
Once in a while I wonder if I’m the only one. The only one wondering about myself, believing the absolute worst, listening to the lies threatening to defeat me.
But I’d bet you struggle with doubt and false identities shoving their way into your head and heart.
I’d bargain shame tempts to creep in and cover you, becoming all-consuming, debilitating your every move because you cannot shove the lies from your mind.
I don’t know about you, but once in a very rare while I’ll catch myself protecting my heart by hardening it, writing off other people or putting the blame somewhere else, using every effort to avoid feeling the shame or lie pushing itself in.
But usually I find myself sitting so deep in shame, I am buried beneath it. False identity and lies heap shame on me, forcing me to own the shame instead of the Truth.
In the deepest parts of me I want so badly to share with others the grace that Jesus continues to drench me in. And grace is for the messy, right? His grace is scandalous and unending. If it wasn’t, none of us would need it.
I continue to uncover that I have no way of sharing something I don’t actually have. I cannot release and hand someone something I am not holding onto for myself.
If my greatest goal in life is to chase grace and drag people along with me, then I must intentionally sit in it for myself. Embracing grace for myself is where it all must start, but doing so is stupidly difficult at times.
In order to actually grab ahold of the grace being handed me, I have to actually acknowledge my actual need for it. This only happens when I have the courage to be gut-wrenchingly honest about my mistakes, missteps, faults, and false identities.
I have seven questions I walk myself through when I find myself bogged down with shame and false identities. I’m not a fan of formulas and strategies, but this is something I have done time and time again and it has yet to fail me.
Chasing Grace In An Ungracious World was created initially for myself, printed out and hung in my office, where I often journal and find myself face down crying into carpet fibers of the mess of brokenness I often find myself in. I turned it into an official document for anyone who wants it, walking through the very questions I answer with utmost honesty, as I wade through the trenches of shame.
Honesty is often scary, entirely vulnerable, and sometimes feels ugly. But it is the avenue to wholeness, to healing, to grace.
Let's shed your shame and walk in grace.
Here's 4 Ways to Keep Chasing Grace:
- What lie are you believing about yourself? “I am worthless,” “I am not good enough,” “I am a burden,” “I am prideful,” “I am annoying,” “I am nobody.” You are _____. Sometimes you'll know this immediately, other times it'll take a few moments of intentional processing. Try a naming few things if you’re unsure; when you speak the one you subconsciously believe, you'll know. You'll be overtaken with emotion and possibly shed a few tears.
- Speak the lie out loud. Speak it. Say it. Notice it. Grab it. You cannot empty your hands of something you are not holding.
- It's heavy, isn't it? That lie? The shame?It's so, so heavy. Too heavy to hold for very long. Allow yourself to feel the weight, the emotion, the heaviness. Where did the shame come from? This may be a voice in your head that began as someone else’s voice. Where is your lie coming from?
We have to process our brokenness so we can be whole, grab ahold of grace, and share it with every person we encounter.
Offering ourselves space to process our shame and our pain helps us become better parents, better spouses, better friends, better employees, better employers.
When we know where our shame stems from, we can fight the walls we are tempted to build. We can push back against hardening our hearts, and in doing so, we can love others far better.
When we aren't all about protecting ourselves, we are able to see the world more clearly. When we see the world more clearly, we are able to have true compassion and empathy.
I believe there are oceans of grace waiting for each of us, ready to swallow us whole so the shame doesn’t have a chance to.
So much love to you, dear friend. I hope to see you around.
Natalie Brenner is a wife, mom to virtual twins, and photographer living in Portland, Oregon. She is the best-selling author of This Undeserved Life. She likes her wine red, ice cream served by the pint, and conversations vulnerable. Like you, Natalie is a fierce believer in the impossible and hopes to create safe spaces for every fractured soul. She's addicted to honesty. You can love Jesus or not, go to church or not: she'd love to have coffee with you. Natalie is a bookworm, a speaker, and a lover of fall. Connect with her at NatalieBrennerWrites.com and join her grace-filled email community.
- Instagram: @nataliekbrenner
- Facebook Community Page: Natalie Brenner
- Twitter: @nataliekbrenner
- Pinterest: @nataliekbrenner
Check out more of Natalie's story and details about her new book, This Undeserved Life, on Episode 42 of The #AskSteveAustin Podcast:
Last Thursday on the #AskSteveAustin Podcast, I had the honor of talking with my friend (and best-selling author), Natalie Brenner about her fantastic new book, This Undeserved Life: Uncovering the Gifts of Grief and the Fullness of Life.
Natalie has served alongside her husband in ministry, been wounded by the church, had a miscarriage, and so much more. She knows a little something about grief and looking for life in the midst of hard times.
Is it okay to grieve? What about loss other than death? Can I be sad and still trust God?
Have you ever had the walls of your life shatter and feel you weren't allowed to be upset? Me too. The phrases, "This must be God's plan" and "It was meant to be this way" are often thrown around as encouragement but only deepen the wound.
Loss after loss, I felt these fix-it phrases stripped my consent to grieve and acknowledge sorrow.
This Undeserved Life invites you to honestly grieve your losses. You will recognize loss and brokenness are not a part of God's plan. It isn't weak to grieve; it takes courage and strength to choose to give loss the space it demands.
A few questions from this interview:
- You talk about Jesus in a very genuine and loving way – but your heart at times has nearly been crushed under the weight of grief. How do you reconcile the two? And what the heck do you mean when you say the gifts of grief?
- Can we talk about the struggle with church hurts when all you really want to do is love Jesus and his people?
- Who is Jesus?
- Why is it so important to create a safe space for others to be vulnerable?
- What’s it like to parent a child of a different race?
- Autographed book giveaway! Retweet this week’s pinned post on twitter @iamsteveaustin for your chance to win a personalized, autographed copy of This Undeserved Life by Natalie Brenner
- Compassion means to co-suffer. OMG. Yes, she said that.