Sometimes as a young mom, I wanted too much for my children.
And I wanted it a certain way. I wanted easy, and clean, and straightforward. And that probably came at a cost to both of us. But something happened years ago that started to change my perspective. And it prepared me to understand an unwanted role I would one day step into myself.
SURPRISING ROLES AHEAD
We checked the cast list carefully, holding our breath. My daughter had auditioned for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the saga of the unruly Herdman kids, at our community theatre. She had read a generic part, but we both hoped she’d be chosen for Beth Bradley, the main character and narrator of the story. The descriptions on the call materials said Beth had a traditional family and belonged to a church; she had friends in the choir and looked like everyone else. In short, everyone’s favorite.
We were shocked to see that my daughter was instead chosen for Imogene Herdman, the oldest of the outcast clan that would wreck the holiday production and almost burn down the church. She didn’t particularly want to play the rude, smoking, poorly-dressed character. I cringed at the thought of her homeroom class from school coming to the matinee in a few weeks.
Turns out, the character Imogene would end up in a play of her own, a play within a play. In the story, Imogene would be selected for an unlikely role, too, in the church’s Christmas pageant. The ragtag girl would be chosen to portray Mary, the mother of Jesus.Mary's role may hold some keys to accepting our own difficult role.Click To Tweet
As I watched my 14-year-old daughter on that stage holding the newborn Savior doll, I saw through Imogene’s eyes how close Mary’s role is to each of our own. How it may hold some keys to accepting our own difficult role.
LESSON 1: “FAVOR” MEANS GOD IS ENTRUSTING PART OF HIS GRACE STORY TO ORDINARY US
Do not be afraid Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.
(Luke 1: 30-32, NIV)
All my life, the word “favor” has conjured up ideas of fancy parties and high esteem, even privilege—favoritism. So knowing Mary’s full story now, the word “favor” seems an odd choice.
For Mary, God’s favor existed in this: Her unusual assignment came wrapped in the grace to carry her through. Not because she was special, but because she was His. The Bible doesn’t say Mary was chosen because she led an exemplary life. In fact, Scriptures reveal very little about Mary’s prior life. Mary was depicted as naive, unassuming, un-noteworthy—as each one of us. Any time God grants difficult favor, He offers a constant stream of grace. He has an important plan for His child, a plan for us to be part of His continuing story of redemption. No credentials required.
God’s favor is never earned. It is always a gift of grace.
– Jennie Allen
LESSON 2: GOD’S FAVOR MAY NOT LOOK LIKE WE EXPECT—OR HOPE
There’s no guarantee that God’s favor will be straightforward, or convenient, or even make sense. And it’s not always the part we’d hoped to play.
My daughter’s role wasn’t easy or comfortable, but nothing compared to the favor bestowed on Mary. That bible times teen stepped into a role no one would want to audition for, feeling the embarrassment and questions surrounding a surprising pregnancy. Even worse, in Mary’s world, an engaged woman found guilty of adultery was subject to stoning unless the man chose to marry her. Mary’s story of a divine conception could have been seen as a teenager’s attempt to escape the consequences of her actions.
Mary had to know she was accepting the role at the risk of her own life.
Seems a questionable, even dangerous, plan for the entrance of the world’s Savior.
If you have never stood and looked at the Gospel and found it ridiculous, impossible, inconceivable, I don’t think you have really understood it.
– Tim Keller
LESSON 3: GOD’S FAVOR INVOLVES SACRIFICE
Mary carried God Emmanuel in her womb, but we carry Him in our hearts. That “God with us” always requires sacrifice. It did for my daughter and, in a much more significant way, for Jesus’s mother. Mary was engaged to a great guy from a respected family. With the wedding approaching, her future was falling into customary line, full of fresh hopes and glossy expectations. All of that was lost as Mary stepped into her lifelong role.Mary carried God Emmanuel in her womb, but we carry Him in our hearts. That “God with us” always requires sacrifice.Click To Tweet
Decades later, Mary faced humiliation again. She not only endured the demeaning, gruesome public death of her Son, but she did it as a single parent. Scripture doesn’t mention when Joseph died, but Mary showed up at the crucifixion without her husband. Some historical accounts put Joseph’s death near the end of Jesus’s teenage years. She likely lived decades as a widow…and many more years without her Son.
Unless you are willing to move ahead in unfavorable conditions, you can’t truly know the favor of God. Favorable conditions aren’t guaranteed — only the favor of His unconditional love.
– Ann Voskamp
LESSON 4: WE CAN’T EXPECT THE FULL PICTURE
Though the angel gave Mary a few insights into what was happening, the wild nature of her assignment had to leave more questions than answers. Mary didn’t instantly accept the role, but asked “How can this be?” She doubted, she questioned, yet His favor remained. (Mary didn’t fully understand even years later when Jesus was lost at the temple, as noted in Luke 2:50.)
Likewise, my daughter didn’t know by accepting the role, she would be central in the messy manger scene. We can all relate to this in some way. This is not how I saw things unfolding. Where is this all headed?
I have felt that frustrating freefall many times over the past eight years as my heart function ebbs and flows. From my journal last month:
Here we are again, with my Cleveland Clinic cardiologist reaching for the tissue box as she prepares to deliver the unexpected test result. My heart function is down to a dangerously low level. After several years, she has mentioned transplant again and we are all a bit shell-shocked. The uncertainty of this disease is the worst part.
We each hold some version of this story, struggling to be more like Mary. Through all the confusion and sketchy details, she depended on God to eventually fill in the blanks. She came to a place to trust Him with whatever He sent into her life, whether she understood it or not:
I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.
(Luke 1:38, NIV)
LESSON 5: TRUST GIVES US A FOOTHOLD
Spoken trust is the key to moving forward in faith in a challenging role, even without answers, like my daughter verbally accepting the role she didn’t want at the community theater.
Sometimes you can only do what Mary does—just submit and trust despite the fears and reservations. That gives you a foothold for moving forward.
– Tim Keller
Without knowing all the answers, without understanding every step, before realizing the full impact of God’s favor, Mary’s heart overflowed with praise in the Magnificat:
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
(Luke 1:46-49, NIV)
PREPARATION FOR LIFE’S DIFFICULT ROLES
I can still see my daughter’s face beaming from her shabby costume as Imogene sang the Christmas carols in the final scene. And I can still feel the lump in my throat as it all started to sink in, even pre-diagnosis.
My daughter and I saw the part of Imogene Herdman (and Mary) differently by the time the curtain fell on closing night. Though she would still have preferred the safer, cleaner role of Beth, the unpalatable part my daughter was given turned out to be just what we both needed to navigate the challenging roles we would soon face.
That Christmas production took place many years ago. The difference was, we could flip to the end of the script to see how the story ended. Mary couldn’t, and we can’t in real life.
A decade later, I’d be given a role involving chronic illness.
And recently, that reluctant young actress playing Imogene/Mary became a mother herself. She fulfills a very different role in in a very different world than I did as a young mom. But after that Christmas season all those years ago, my daughter embraces this new, oblique assignment. She recognizes the favor, even if she doesn’t know all the answers.
Maybe we both finally know we want to be given a role too big, too mysterious to fulfill without Him.
So each of us is accepting His grace-filled favor for the challenges we know lie ahead.
In whatever our changing role turns out to be.
Listen to this post read by the author HERE.
(A version of this piece first appeared in Sweet to the Soul print magazine.)