SCRIPTURE: Luke 1:39-55
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
When my grandfather was a missionary in rural China, he would often send me photos of the people he served in the villages. Despite living in a corrupt society where food was scarce and the government had no concerns for its people, his images showed children freely playing, women laughing and chatting, and men engaging over cups of tea.
I remember that his photos were so vivid—they captured expressions of dignity and portrayed stories of hope. These stories, however, were also infused with issues my young mind could never comprehend. Oppression, poverty and affliction were so foreign to my carefree childhood.
Still, I was fascinated with these images that offered a glimpse into the intimate lives of the poor. They were filled with stories: stories of overcoming oppression and persevering with dignity. I began to see that they were reflections of beauty—even in the midst of brokenness.
When I was 12, I received a photograph from my grandfather of a little girl from a poor farming village in rural China. She was around the same age as I was. She was shy, timid and quiet looking with an unforgettable gaze.
In the majority world, girls are automatically born into oppression. With the strict rules on the number of children families can have, little boys are favored in order to carry on the family name, while little girls are shamefully labeled: unworthy of life. Even if they’re lucky enough to survive, little girls often remain in the background—silenced by cultural pressures.
This was the context of her story. My grandfather titled this photo, “She reminds me of you.”
And now, 14 years later, I am faced with the haunting realization that this little girl could have been me. And in some sense, I was like her.
Though I didn’t grow up in a poor village in China, I identified with her brokenness— feeling as if my voice was also silenced by self-afflicted lies of unworthiness that crept into my spirit. I too, had labeled myself unworthy of life.
You see, growing up, I was one of those kids. I never wanted to participate in sunday school. I would avoid eye contact by rolling my eyes. I so desperately tried to hide my true self with a facade and a oversized sweatshirt—a mask which said, “I hate you. Don’t talk to me.” Nothing in particular ever happened to me: I’ve never been abused, my parents were great, I grew up in the church, but I had the spirit of bitterness, hatred, and anger inside of me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape from myself.
My identity was a reflection of a fractured image of the self I had tried to create. The self that was dominated by perfectionism masking the true image—an image I refused to love. I didn’t know what love looked like because I didn’t understand what it meant to be made in the image of God—beauty is found within, where love resides.
I was 14 when my mom became very ill. She had blacked out while out of town, and we learned that she had been diagnosed with cancer from within the organ that gave me life.
The thought of losing the person who represented beauty and grace to me in the most quiet, yet powerful of ways broke my spirit.
That night, I remember going into my room and for the first time, crying out to God, and asking, “Where are you?” And in that moment of broken forsakeness, I felt an overwhelming sense of nearness when God responded saying, “Because I first loved you, learn to love yourself and love others.”
I’m supposed to love myself? Love myself despite my angry heart? In my fears and in my doubts, in this relentless cycle of shame? My words of violence and actions of hatred? The impossibility of perfection that I try so hard to attain?
“Because I first loved you, learn—love yourself—love others.”
Since then, I’ve been on this journey of learning what love looks like.
During my mother’s recovery process, I understood that in Christ, beauty arises out of seemingly broken situations. My mom learned to practice the care of self and in caring for herself, cared for others better.
After my mom regained her health, I traveled around the world photographing stories—trying to grasp this concept of love from other people who similarly experienced brokenness in their lives.
From documenting stories of leprosy in Vietnam to teaching film to foster children in Los Angeles, to capturing portraits of women escaping systems of gross abuse in Kolkata, to meeting men finding forgiveness after one murdered the family of the other in Rwanda, and children—children survivors of unspeakable pain in Nepal.
There, I was confronted with the earth-shattering reality of injustice and I began to see Jesus through the eyes of the broken.
When we look at Mary’s Song, we see the fulfillment of truths birthed from the life within her.
As this day is committed to honoring the women who have given us life, perhaps we can also be reminded of Mary’s story.
Her Song was sung from a powerful spirit of beauty made evident because of her experience of brokenness. Born as a little girl into poverty, she too was given a name of shame—facing rejection and oppression. In her pregnancy, rumors were spread about this young girl who was mysteriously expectant, her name was at stake to the point of Joseph wanting to divorce her. Would her parents even believe this divine encounter and miraculous conception as told by an angel? Being a young teenager, she was probably blamed for promiscuity, risking exile from her community.
But through it, we experience transformation—out of life birthed from oppression.
Instead of names of shame, she was named beautiful—filled with the beauty of God as the angel proclaimed.
Knowing of her low status, Mary recognizes that it is because of this that she is being uplifted to a place of blessing, favor, and honor.
She knows that the life she carries will bring mercy and strength to the weary. He will lift up the victims out of the mud, and satisfy the poor and hungry with all things good. He is a helper to all children, the fulfillment of generational promises.
Through this divine baby, all shame, rejection, and fear is transformed into all that is beautiful.
This is the promise of her redemption, not only for her, but for the world to claim.
Moving on in her story in Luke chapter 2, we see that Mary, similar to many of us parents, also experienced panic—while on a family vacation. When Jesus was 12, his family traveled to Jerusalem for the most important celebration for the Jewish people—the Feast of Passover commemorating liberation from slavery. As they return, Jesus is missing causing Mary and Joseph to panic and ask, “Where is Jesus? Where are you?”
They literally thought that he had been lost.
After 3 days of searching in frantic despair, they find him astonishing doctors and lawyers in the temple.
Jesus is found doing the work of his father—listening, learning, and engaging in the spiritual realm for the development of humanity.
This first proclamation as the son of God was a precursor to his next recorded public appearance in the temple where he made his missional proclamation. We’ll look further into that next week.
When we feel as if Jesus is missing in the world, we recognize that he is always found, always present, always full of love doing that which he was called to in bringing Gods kingdom to earth.
Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. In his humanity he experienced oppression—hunger, thirst, weariness, frustration, and despair. In his divinity, he turned these seemingly broken situations into reflections of his beauty.
We see promise after promise fulfilled in the life and deity of Christ.
Jesus identified most closely with the poor, and that’s evident in how he loved people—the immigrant, the refugee, the exploited, the abused, the silenced. And in identifying with their brokenness, he became a part of our broken world to suffer alongside of the poor, so that he may bring healing and redemption.
Six years ago, I began to learn what this meant.
I was in Zambia when I met a girl named Jean. She was just 14 at the time that we met and I remember she would always give me attitude. She would roll her eyes and roll her neck all the time and I felt like I was just like her when I was her age. But I knew that beneath the mask, was a story that needed to be unveiled.
One day she put her hand in mine, and turned it to reveal a scar. I asked her about it and she said, “I’ll tell you my story—but I hope you understand.”
She said last year she was walking to school one day when three men approached her and they all had knives. They threatened her life, dragging her to a secluded bush and one man raped her. They attempted to gang rape her but she somehow escaped from their hands.
Her dreams were put to death that day—suffocating from the live nightmares that haunted her.
These nightmares are not uncommon because worldwide statistics show that 1 in 3 women are survivors of sexual or physical violence. 1 in 3. Too many cases go unreported. Little girls are silenced by the stigma of rape and violence and so they become victims of societal lies.
They assume blame—forced to remain silent until their bellies begin to swell. Showing evidence of a crime they did not commit, their dreams that were meant to give life, are taken away.
She thought that she was unworthy of life—bearing a burden of pain so great, that she thought, the only means of escape was death. And so she took a knife to her wrist.
WHERE ARE YOU?
Seeing myself in her, I was in frantic despair. Searching for answers, searching in darkness, searching for some semblance of hope—
Again asking, “God—where are you?
You who are all loving, compassionate, merciful and gracious, where are you in the midst of this brokenness?
Where are you in the lives of your children who are suffering from violence?
Where is your protection over your people, God—where are you?
But I feel that God is turning those questions on me: Nikole—where is your love for my children?
Where is your compassion for the innocent? Where is your mercy for the poor?
Where is your grace for those who are exploited?
Where is your advocacy for the insecure? Where are you?
As I’ve asked this question of God so many times, he softly reminds me that—he is there.
In the tears, in the pain, in the woundedness of our world—he is here.
Nearer to us than ever before—he is the embodiment of Love.
FREELY IN HOPE
Compelled by Jean’s desire to heal from her past and pursue her academic dreams, I started an organization called Freely in Hope—we equip survivors and advocates to lead in ending the cycle of sexual violence by providing scholarships for high school and college, psychological counseling, health care, and leadership skills. Our hope is that survivors of violence may be liberated from trauma to pursue their vocational dream—their calling to impact the world around them.
To be honest, it was in this work that I found Jesus—among the brokenness of our world—where Love resides.
Five years ago we moved Jean to a better high school outside the slums so that she would be reminded of her worth rather than her traumatic past. Since she graduated from high school, Jean has been speaking at churches across Zambia to share her testimony of redemption. Today, she is taking her semester exams at a prestigious university in Capetown, South Africa where she is studying psychology. Her dream is to help girls heal from the trauma of sexual violence by sharing her rewritten story filled with hope.
Jean’s story is evident of the promises of Jesus’ healing, redemption, transformation, and divine love.
She later told me, “Do you know what stopped me from taking my life? After I cut myself, I realized that my blood was the blood of Jesus. Because he loves me, I can love myself and love others.”
May we also recognize that we are loved. And because of that love, Jesus gives us the gift of seeing beautiful reflections of his image through the stories of the broken.
Let us respond to the brokenness of the world by reflecting his love. Let us be reminded that because he first loved us, we can learn to love ourselves and to love others around us.
As I am reminded of that little girl in China, of the strength of our mothers, of Mary the mother of Jesus, and of Jean, let us all be reminded of each other—our stories, our worth, our voices—we are reflections of beauty even in the midst of brokenness.