“Next to faith this is the highest art – to be content with the calling in which God has placed you.” – Martin Luther
Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong? Ever cried in silence as something that was different about you brought on stereotypes, assumptions, and judgement from others?
Has those moments resulted in listening to lyrics like, “I walk a lonely road. The only one that I have ever known. Don’t know where it goes, but it’s home to me, and I walk alone”? (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day)
Being different or perceived as “the other” can be a lonely road to walk; especially in Christian circles. We feel like we do not belong. We feel avoided for one reason or another. We are questioned and looked on with either pity, sorrow, or suspicion.
When you do not fit the typical “Christian mold,” it can be a lonely road. However, there is a story in Scripture that I believer can teach us that grace can be found in the disgrace we feel as we walk a different path than what is considered the ” Christian norm”.
Shattering the stained-glass story
How do we read the story of Mary? Not Mary (the sister of Martha) or Mary Magdalene . How do we read the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus? Is it filled with poised paintings of purity and piety? Is it illustrated with lustrous, light-filled stained glass windows of a virgin holding a child? Is it a picture of a perfect mother posed in prayer over a glowing newborn?
When we think of the story of Mary, we tend to read it like it is a stained-glass artwork or a painting. We romanticize it. We, actually, tend to do that with a lot of Scripture. We think that she must have been this faithful, godly woman full of faith in order to be chosen to birth the Savior. We picture her as this serene, surrendered soul for the will of God.
Please tear up that image. Some of it may be true, but let’s relook at the story. Let’s consider what is actually taking place in a real time period, a real culture, inside the body, soul, and mind of a real person.
mary with the scarlet letter
Go in your mind back to Israel. Before the birth of Jesus. Before the cross. Before Jesus fulfilled the law. See a young woman around 14-16 years old.
Mary’s life was lived under the Mosaic law as taught in the synagogue. The Ten Commandments were known and chiseled on every heart; including commandment seven – do not commit adultery. Mary knew the law. She knew the punishments for transgressing the ancestral law of her people. So, she faithfully did what the Lord required of her. She stayed a virgin until marriage. She performed the correct cleansing rituals for her menstrual cycle. She brought the correct sacrifices. She participated in each festival to remember the works of the Lord.
Then, in what could have a felt like a blur, a strange visitor approached Mary. An angel of God came to Mary. He told her she would give birth to the Messiah! The one everyone was looking forward to. The one who would reestablish the throne of David. She, Mary, would have a son named Jesus, and he would save his people from their sins (Luke 1:26-32; Matthew 1:21).
To many of us today, this is such an exciting story to listen to and watch played out each Christmas season. But, Mary did not live in a vacuum. She was engaged to be married, but was still a virgin like the law required of her. Her reaction was not, at first, submission to this message. Instead, she questioned how this will all happen since she hadn’t had sex yet (Luke 1:34). The angel calmed her by assuring her that God will overshadow her, because nothing is impossible for him (Luke 1:35-37). Mary, then, submits to God as his servant (Luke 1:38).
She submitted as one under the Mosaic law. She knew what people would say. Eventually, she wouldn’t be able to hide the growing child in her womb. Not everyone would listen to her story. She would get the side-eye. Maybe someone told her to give a sacrifice for her “sin”. Joseph, her fiancé, thought about breaking things off with her (Matthew 1:19).
How many people approached Joseph to tell him of their “concern” about Mary? How many considered her “unclean” and avoided her? How did her family treat her? Joseph wanted to wanted to break their engagement, because he did not want to deal with the disgrace (yet, God changed his mind).
Remember, Mary is an unwed, pregnant virgin under the Mosaic law. When the news got out, she was branded with the scarlet letter. God’s will for her life involved disgrace.
But, how did Mary respond?
A Scarlet Song in disgrace
Again, think about Mary’s situation. Think about what she submitted to God for. She did so under the Jewish law of Moses, the culture of the synagogues, and the traditions of the religious leaders.
Yet, Mary praises God in some of the most beautiful words in Scripture:
Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:46-48)
Mary believed what God’s messenger said to her. She was carrying the Messiah. No amount of disgrace could keep her from praising God. Mary didn’t hide from life till she gave birth. She stayed with her cousin for three months, and then returned home (Luke 1:56).
I wonder… did Mary keep singing her song when she felt the side-eye, or when Joseph wanted to break their engagement, or when she was questioned or judged, or when she felt the cultural weight of disgrace?
Delighting through disgrace
Now, what about us?
Is there something in your life that has caused disgrace to fall on you? Have you felt the side-eye of suspicion and judgement cling to you like a scarlet letter? Have you had friends break off from you, because of something “culturally taboo” in your life?
Disgrace comes when we do not fit the “Christian mold” we are told to conform to. And when we don’t, the “misshaped cookie” is seen as not as good as the other perfectly conformed cookies.
However, Psalm 139:13-16 gives me great comfort. God formed us just the way he wanted to. He plans our life moment by moment. He knows what paths we will take. He knows what we will face. That one thing we feel disgrace from, do you think it surprises the Creator of the universe? No. He works all things for our good; even when we can’t see the good, because nothing separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:28; Romans 8:31-39).
So, we can rest on the promises of God, just like Mary did. The whole song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55 is full of references to the Old Testament. It reads like a psalm of David. She remembers the works of God, seeing herself among those great works, and delights through the disgrace. We can too!
wHAT THE ROAD SAID…
Each of us have our own path. God has designed and created us each unique. No one is a clone of another. Christians are not meant to be clones of each other. We are a body of many different, unique parts working together as a whole (I Corinthians 12:12-27). Therefore, no one is going to be just like you. Each of us have to run the race set before us while keeping our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2).
This race may involve things we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. Yet, God still has placed the path before us. We may try to pray things away, or push away the cup God gives us to drink, but what is that saying to God? Did Mary know what she would go through? Yes. Did she try to pray away the child in her womb? No. She submitted to God. She sang through the disgrace, because she believed the promises of God each step of the way.
One of my favorite books I read to my students is What the Road Said by Cleo Wade. The story follows the narrator coming upon an unexpected path. As new steps are taken, the narrator questions the road at each bend, each step, and each new part of the path. The quote repeated in this book is:
I said to the road, “Where do you lead?”
The Road said, “Be a leader and find out.”
(Watch a read aloud of the full book here)
The road before us is God-given. He isn’t surprised at each turn. He doesn’t give us things in our lives thinking we live in a vacuum. He understands the cultural taboos, the stereotypes, the assumptions, and every disgrace we may face. Yet, the call is the same, “Be a leader and find out.” We keep going till we rest in the arms of Jesus as he sweetly calms us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Disgrace is difficult to face. Mary understood that all too well. But, she submitted, she sang, and she lived. Why?
Because from the disgrace Mary faced came the
incarnated grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Grace will come from the disgrace we face. We just need to submit to God’s path, sing his praises with our head held high, and see the grace he will shine through us.