While Mary Slept: A story for Christmas Eve

By David Schell
Originally written for the Christmas Eve service at Fairplain Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and originally read in the Christmas Day Special Message.

Joseph stood over the manger looking at his baby boy. Well, his in every sense but one.

After all the fussing over him from his Bethlehem family, Aunt Elizabeth had finally chased them all to bed and given him and Mary a moment’s peace – a moment that Mary used to crash very hard into a dreamless sleep on the bed of straw some niece or nephew had made when he wasn’t paying attention.

It was late. How late, he didn’t know, but it seemed the sun had set hours ago.

He was glad his cousin had cleaned up all the blood. He was so exhausted from supporting Mary all night he wasn’t sure he would have been up for it now.

He knew he should have been adoring, but his mind wandered. Not to the birth, or the surprise of the placenta coming after, or how bloody the baby looked when he came out until they cleaned him up with some cloths, or how the baby hadn’t cried at all – not until the midwife hit him to clear his lungs, and then the little Lord Jesus lots of crying he made, until the midwife placed him on Mary’s chest and he wiggled up to a breast for his first tiny meal..

No, Joseph’s mind was somewhere much more mundane and not very adoring at all.

He was thinking about where *his* next meal would come from.

More to the point, he was thinking about the job offer his cousin Saul had given him, the gig building the wooden frame for a new stone bridge the Romans were maybe or maybe not going to build. It wasn’t a sure thing, and who knew what he’d do after.

Cursed census. It had made him miss a really good job to have to be out of town this long, and, sure, they were understanding about it, but the work had been drying up some in Nazareth. He’d had to take jobs further and further away from home, which was all fine enough when he was a single man and could sleep in his robe wherever was warm and dry, but now – he looked over at his sleeping new wife and their – her – finally sleeping firstborn son, and somehow managed to feel both love and worry at the same time.

No, the cold hard ground would not do for them. He had promised her father he would care for them properly, but he wouldn’t have dreamed of not doing it even if he hadn’t promised.

The baby in the manger woke up and started fussing. Joseph, still exhausted, looked over at his new wife and scooped Jesus up.

It was strange. Before he had always been awkward around babies, uncomfortable holding them, but this one was different. Not because it was holy, but because it was his – again, asterisk – and because after those hours of labor Mary needed all the sleep she could get.

He was still crying. He tried walking around, but this seemed to only make him angrier.

Mary stirred and a female voice from further inside the house whispered loudly, “BURP THE BABY!”

“What?” He whispered loudly back.

“BURP. THE BABY.”

Right. That was something they had told him how to do. He was definitely a grown adult and could do that.

He cautiously held baby Jesus to him, held his mouth over a cloth for burping, and tentatively tapped his back.

His Aunt Ruth appeared in the dark.

“A little harder than that, Joe,” she half-whispered. She always called him Joe. He tapped a little harder.

Ruth gestured that he should hit harder. He did, and was rewarded with a puddle of partially digested milk on the shoulder of his robe, and a silent baby.

“Good job,” Ruth said, and went back to bed.

He could not have known he was far from the first and very far from the last father to have his child intentionally miss the burp cloth.

As a man of the first century, Joseph would also not have known the phrase, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” but as he paced the dirt floor with Mary’s child in his arms and fresh spit-up on his robe, despite his best-laid burp cloth, he considered that maybe this unplanned trip to Bethlehem was, in some way he did not understand, God leading him.

He placed the baby, still securely wrapped, back in the manger.

He didn’t know what would come of the job with Saul. He only knew whatever came, he had to take care of this little family, and that God had always helped him to get by.

Babies don’t smile, you know, at least not on purpose, until a few weeks after they are born, but sometimes their facial muscles spasm just right and it looks like they are.

Baby Jesus smiled, just then, and mercifully went back to sleep.

Joseph laid down in a soft looking pile of hay he had been eyeing while burping the baby, and did the same.

Thoughts About Tradition, Scripture, and Authority

I was thinking a lot about how I relate to tradition over Thanksgiving break, and I kept getting interrupted when I talked about it, so I decided to make it a blog post.

Over Thanksgiving break, I learned something about myself: I talk about faith traditions as faith traditions… a lot.

And my current faith tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has turned out to be more important to me than I knew, particularly related to how and why I consider the Bible authoritative.

Why the Bible is Authoritative for Me

My wife and kids and I drove to Pennsylvania where I’m from, and Thanksgiving night, one of my brothers sat down between my father (still a fundamentalist) and me (a progressive Christian pastor) and tried to stir the pot a little.

I’ll save you the fascinating boring details where my brother thinks it’s going to come as a faith-shattering shock to either of us that Some Guy in a Youtube Video said the Biblical canon was put together at the council of Nicea in 325.

Aside from Youtube Guy With a Faith-Shattering News Flash being rather predictably wrong – Catholic.org says the canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382 – even the correct answer (382, Council of Rome) isn’t faith-shattering for me any more than it was for my fundamentalist dad, though for different reasons.

Continue reading “Thoughts About Tradition, Scripture, and Authority”

Lest They Do to Us What We Did to Them

Belated thoughts about the Ark of the Covenant and the 2016 election.

I had an idea for a sermon, but it didn’t really make sense for my church, so I’m publishing it here.

In I Samuel 4, Israel fights the Philistines. They lose, badly, so they decide to take the Ark of the Covenant into battle. They lose worse, the ark is taken, and the priests are killed.

But what’s interesting to me is I Samuel 4:8-9:

 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” (NRSV)

The Philistines are afraid that if Israel defeats them and gains liberation, Israel will do to them what they did to Israel.

That’s white fear: if white people in the US are outnumbered, white people will be subjected to the same ill treatment white people have subjected Black and Brown people to.

Nevermind that the goal is liberation for everyone, and that privilege is not a zero-sum game: someone else gaining privilege does not necessarily mean I lose mine.

But that fear that you’ll get treated the way other people with less privilege have been treated? That says that at some level, we already know it’s wrong.

That fear is a powerful thing. Look at that quote again:

 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” (NRSV)

That fear of being treated propels the Philistines to action, and in verse 10, Israel is slaughtered and the Ark of the Covenant is captured.

But… Israel had the Ark of the Covenant when they started this battle!

In theory, at least, God is supposed to be on their side. They have a righteous cause. And they get absolutely crushed by the Philistines.

When I saw that, it reminded me of the 2016 election and how every pollster thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. She would’ve been the first female president, and Trump was absolutely terrible. (Yes, Clinton probably also would’ve been terrible, but not as terrible as Trump, or at least not so obvious and celebratory about it).

All the polling showed Clinton was going to win easily, but it failed to take into account the fear the oppressors had of the people they’d been oppressing.


Take courage, “real Americans,” so you won’t find someone else’s religion pushed on you as you have pushed Christianity on them.

Take courage, men, so women won’t start trying to control your bodies.

Take courage, white people, so that you won’t find your kids unable to get into a good school because someone else has an unfair advantage; so that people won’t assume you did something wrong just because of the color of your skin.

Take courage, cishet people, in order to not have someone else shove their ideas about gender and sexuality down their throat as you did to LGBTQ people.

Take courage, people who have a little money in your bank account because of capitalism, lest a socialist come and take what you have and give it to someone who has less.


I’m not saying everyone who voted for Trump had that fear. I personally know a number of people who voted for him because of his stance on abortion (which is a whole other thing) and for no other reason – at least as far as I know.

But I can’t help believe that what the Philistines say they’re afraid of is relevant for some, if not many voters: That they will do to us what we did to them.

(Double that fear if you stack it with the white American evangelical persecution complex).

It’s possible – if not likely – that Israel might have actually subjected the Philistines to forced servitude as they did to Israel, but in the US, people who are less privileged don’t want to harm people who currently benefit from privilege, antifa hoedown and occasional talk about guillotining the rich notwithstanding.


I don’t think that’s the whole answer to “Why did Trump win in 2016,” but I thought it was interesting and wanted to share.

It also makes me a little anxious for other upcoming elections, because, as this story shows, a righteous cause is not always a match for fear that you’ll be mistreated the way you’ve mistreated others.

The First Evangelist

A version of this sermon was originally preached by me at Fairplain Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan on Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022.

CW: brief mention of the death of an adult child, unjust execution, self-harm, mention of the idea that demons cause mental illness.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross with a few other women – the cast changes depending on which gospel you read – John includes Jesus’ mother – who can imagine how she felt watching her son be executed?!

Only John’s gospel includes any of the disciples at the foot of the cross, and then it’s only John.

They stood beside the cross, not really knowing what to do or where to go from here.

Mary had been a true believer, probably ever since Jesus cast out seven demons from her, probably in her hometown of Magdala, just a few miles from Capernaum.

Continue reading “The First Evangelist”

What if Judas…

Content warning: Suicide, betrayal. It’s about Judas, after all.

Was a thief because he was desperate?

Maybe he had a sister, a mother,
a little brother,
a former or current lover,
held in slavery
to someone with power.

Maybe he was trying to buy their freedom
A little at a time.

Or maybe he needed a miracle
that Jesus, somehow, couldn’t
or wouldn’t
Do.

Maybe the sum of money he needed
was a little too big
To find in the mouth of a fish.

Maybe Jesus noticed,
Maybe they all noticed,
but didn’t say anything.

Maybe when the woman
broke the alabaster vial
worth $17,000 or more
his face fell
right along with his heart
and as the nard poured over Jesus
he thought to himself:

That could’ve saved them.
Maybe “the poor”
it could’ve been given to
had names for him.

What if his betrayal
Was because he knew nothing would come of it?
Or wait –
What if Jesus was in on it?

Continue reading “What if Judas…”

The Last Battle

“If you really trust God, one day he’ll [sic] show you that my problematic theology is right.”

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you probably have seen pieces of my deconstruction journey.

I’ve wrestled with whether God will save everyone, whether Jesus’ death on the cross was to appease an angry God, how God feels about LGTBQ people (love), how to read the Bible, the nature of God, God’s love and God’s judgment, whether Jesus would be a Republican, creation and evolution, the rapture, pacifism, feminism, socialism, whether I believe in the resurrection

Until this past week I thought everything was shaken that could be shaken, but that’s a different story.

But in spite of it all, I still wrestled with a narrative that I picked up from talking to people who still hold many of the beliefs I had long since abandoned:

That if I really trusted God and was in relationship with God, eventually I would come to understand why the things I’ve come to believe are horrible are actually loving and holy and righteous and good.

Continue reading “The Last Battle”

Running Errands for the Devil

When I was 21, I got swept away by the love and goodness of God. I felt that God loved me and I was undone and swept into a kind of alive faith that was all about the love of God and that was super reckless because I was ready to do whatever God wanted.

There’s a scene in the Bible where Jesus has this huge moment where God says “You are my beloved son, and I’m so pleased with you” and then Jesus immediately gets hauled off to the desert to be tempted by the devil, and I feel like that’s pretty much what happened to me.

Two of the temptations went along the lines of, “If you are the son of God, do this random hard thing because I said so.”

Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and avoided running errands for the devil.

Me? Less so.

I read a book called Under Cover that said I was supposed to submit to any and all authority because God put authority over me, which (according to the CREEPY author) meant that even if my dad was abusive and I was literally 21, God put my dad in authority over me and I needed to move back in with him and obey him. (Yeah, YIKES.)

But since there were Bible verses that got stitched together to indicate that this was exactly what God wanted, God who loved me – that is, because I was God’s beloved son… I did it. (Non-spoiler: it was terrible).

And then I found that one verse where Jesus told the rich man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor and come, follow me.

I had some money saved up that I was thinking of using to put a down payment on a house, and I felt like God was telling me that I needed to give it all away. I felt it was not as important where I give it away as that I needed to not have it.

Thanks be to God, a friend pulled me back from that ledge.

I later used that money for my freshman year of college.


It was only much later that I came to realize that these things I was doing (or being tempted to do) “for God” weren’t actually things God wanted me to do.

They had nothing to do with loving my neighbor. There was no kindness in them for me. There was nothing good for the world in it. It was brought on by anxious navel-gazing.

There was no good reason for this other than some fancy philosophizing and randomly stitching verses together to build some kind of creepy cultish theology.

It just turned out to be harmful to me and useless for the world, at best, and harmful to me and the world, at worst.


Now to be extra-clear here, I don’t think it makes me a bad person to have fallen for that. It happened because of a sincere faith. Misguided, but sincere. It took me a long time to identify that as “running errands for the devil” rather than just “I’m being obedient to God.”

It’s been super transformative to identify it as busywork I got sent off on rather than what God wanted me to do, because I don’t have to worry anymore that God will send me off to do something like that, and the fact that I can identify it as such now makes me more likely to be able to identify similar tactics in the future.

Anyway, what errands have you run for the devil?*


*I don’t have strong opinions about the existence of a personal devil. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but if there is I’ve always been inspired by this story about Smith Wigglesworth:

He claims to have awakened one night and seen the devil himself sitting in a rocking chair by his bed. He was alarmed until realized it was the devil. Then he said “Oh, it’s only you,” and went back to sleep.

The Maps Are Wrong:

Five Things You Need to Know to Guide Someone Else’s Deconstruction Journey. Step 1: Don’t.

1. Don’t.

Unless they explicitly ask you to.

That’s it. That’s the post. You’re welcome.


Okay, fine, yes, I actually have a lot more to say about this.

Every time I have encountered someone authoritatively saying, “this is how you SHOULD be deconstructing,” I just think to myself that this person doesn’t understand deconstruction. At all.

But first, let’s get this out of the way:

2. Jacques Derrida Has Nothing To Do With This.

JD is the guy who originally coined the term “deconstruction” however long ago he coined it, to mean… something, my academic friends know what,. But he’s dead and when people say they’re deconstructing, they don’t mean what he meant when he made up the word.

And they’re not wrong in using it that way. Dictionaries track usage, not some abstract meaning that God handed down to English speakers. People know what they mean.

From my research, David Hayward was the first person who used it to mean what people who say they are deconstructing their faith mean by it.

So if someone tells you they’re “deconstructing” and they’re not an academic who has ever read or even heard of Jacques D, knowing what he meant by it will probably not be helpful in you having a clue what they’re talking about and you should probably just yeet Mr. Derrida’s definition straight out of the discussion.

3. What People Mean by “Deconstruction”

It means different things to different people. Personally I like Greg Boyd’s illustration of the House of Cards, where all your core, most important beliefs are like a house of cards and if one falls, the whole thing collapses.

I’m also fond of my illustration of a snow globe: you start with a worldview where everything is connected, or a web of knowing, and how a certain professor of mine kept trying to crack my worldview and I kept patching the pieces together and trying to make it hold together until a classmate suggested I just… let it break and see what happens.

Deconstruction, for me, means calling your most core beliefs about reality into question. The existence and nature of God, heaven, hell, who goes where and why, whether arbitrary rules about morality have anything to do with faith in God, and what these pieces have to do with each other.

It’s the undoing of authority, the questioning of the most important things you believed to be true.

It’s a vast desert of lostness, an Escher painting, it’s the staircases in Harry Potter that change orientations and destinations at random.

The reason you can’t guide someone else’s deconstruction is that deconstruction by its very nature is a thing that can’t be guided by the old authorities.

Continue reading “The Maps Are Wrong:”

Should Joe Biden Get Communion?

I don’t think it’s right to jump to “yes” immediately. I think it’s right to land there eventually, but I have serious concerns about jumping directly to “yes.”

Content Warning: Literally all of the content warnings.
Racism, sexism, sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, rape, murder, child abuse… I think the only thing that’s not in here is suicide. They will be mentioned but not discussed in detail.

I’ve been (not really) following this story about the US Council of Catholic Bishops plotting to get US President Joe Biden excommunicated because he doesn’t think abortion should be illegal.

I saw that it’s a thing the bishops are considering, and I’ve heard a lot of hubbub about it. Mostly I’ve seen this tweet from Rev. Daniel Brereton, who I follow on Twitter and greatly appreciate.

Also this one.

Before I go any further, I need to emphasize: I agree with him. I very much agree with him. Open communion is a hill I will die on.

However.

There are a few things about this tweet that make me uncomfortable.

Continue reading “Should Joe Biden Get Communion?”

The Cucumbers, the Melons, and the Leeks

Maybe the spiritual exile of former evangelicals and fundamentalists isn’t an exile at all. Maybe it’s an exodus… and Jesus is the Promised Land.

A couple weeks ago I was out for a run and listening to an episode of Make Me Smart. Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood were talking about how Uber won the fight to not have to treat their drivers as employees (provide benefits, etc). It reminded me of this poster from Despair.com:

Image: (De-)Motivational Poster with a picture of the pyramids, captioned “ACHIEVEMENT: You can do anything you set your mind to when you have vision, determination, and an endless supply of expendable labor.”

Which got me thinking about how the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.

Which got me thinking about the exodus.

Which for some reason got me thinking about their complaints when they were wandering in the wilderness. They say in Numbers 11:5-6,

We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.

Which made me think about my own spiritual journey and the things that I miss about when I was an evangelical.

My leeks and melons and cucumbers

There was an evening this past summer when I was driving to the beach with Ryan and tuned in to a Christian radio station only to hear a Republican Christian railing against Democrats in a way that indicated he had learned about Democrats only from Fox News, or something even more partisan, and had never met a Christian who voted Democrat. While I was watching Ryan play on the playground, I wrote in my journal, “It’s like a whole other religion.”

I didn’t know it would be this hard not having a progressive Christian radio station, where the songs weren’t randomly spiced with all manner of terrible theology and the talk show hosts didn’t believe people with my political affiliation were not only unChristian but acting in bad faith.

Another time, a Saturday morning, I was making pancakes and it took me back to my childhood when my mom used to make pancakes on Saturday mornings and we would listen to the latest episode of Adventures in Odyssey by Focus on the Family. Adventures in Odyssey (AiO) was one of the highlights of many of my childhood days – especially Saturdays, when the new episodes came out.

I listened to a few episodes as a deconstructed-fundamentalist adult and YEESH. Many were… pretty bad. Stereotyping atheists as immoral because they didn’t believe in God, for example. All the villains were so because they weren’t Christians. One of my former favorite episodes, “A Name Not A Number,” featured an arch-villain named Mustafah, with a terrible fake middle-eastern accent. Another villain, if I recall correctly, explicitly said that he could do whatever he wanted because God doesn’t exist and therefore morals are irrelevant. MWAHAHAHA.

All kinds of stuff that just… doesn’t feel safe or right anymore, even though I uncritically accepted it as a child.

I feel it. I keep feeling that sense of exile, of being away from something that was good, and not being able to go back.


Except that it wasn’t good. It was filled with all manner of stuff that was harmful and abusive and traumatic. It was legalism and always being afraid – afraid that my dad would come home, or Jesus would come back before I had really really meant the sinner’s prayer; it was belief in hellfire and damnation, it was smallness, it was always being in service to either fundamentalist or republican ideas.

In other words, it was Egypt.

But I do miss those cucumbers and melons and leeks – the days when I could hear the word “Christian” and safely assume it meant something good; when mainstream Christianity was something that didn’t think I was in the service of the devil.

If evangelicalism was Egypt, then this space, this great unknowing I’ve spent much of the last decade in, is not exile. It’s the wilderness.

Just as Israel gets the new law from God in the wilderness, we who have left fundamentalism have to figure out what it is to exist, how to be human, without being slaves to harmful religion and harmful religious beliefs and practices.

As I mentioned in my last post, I feel like I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for a very long time. I thought of that as I was running, but just in the moment I did, I felt hope.

That sense of despair I’ve had for so many years about being in exile suddenly shifted to a sense of being in the wilderness, freed from Egypt, and on my way to the promised land.

The promised land.

I felt hope that one day I will see the promised land. And it will be better than Egypt. Leeks and melons? How about milk and honey.


As sometimes happens, the sermon I was working on worked its way into my own spirituality.

I was planning my Advent sermon series, “Jesus in the Old Testament.”

The sermon for the coming week was Jesus in the books of history, and suddenly, right there on the road, listening to “Make Me Smart,” I realized that Jesus was leading me into the promised land.

A half-second later, I realized that

not only is Jesus leading me into the promised land,

Jesus IS the promised land.

THAT was a good and beautiful moment.