Monthly Archives: January 2012


And you, oh desolate one, what will you do?  Jeremiah 4:30a, NASV

Tuesday night, I attended a Presbytery assembly and totally freaked out.

Let me begin by saying I’d attended one Presbytery assembly before, sort of by accident.  Last Tuesday was by design.  I was stoked.  Not only was I a full-fledged seminarian and “under care,” I was now a “commissioned elder.”  I felt awash in self-congratulation at being thusly called to the holy service of the Most High God.

The first several minutes were blissful.  I basked in the glow of eighty-plus pastors and elders, gathered together for the spiritual and practical governance of God’s people.  The presence of God was palpable.  And then, we installed a new moderator.*

Our new moderator is the kind of person who fills a room with good energy.  The meeting attendees met his installation with hugs and a lot of laughter.  They obviously knew him well and respected him highly.  Our new moderator preached an inspired message that night.  And at some point during his inaugural sermon, he mentioned that he’s about my age.  That’s when the sky fell.

Suddenly, I flash back to the career I abandoned seven months ago.  Forget “the call.”  Forget the fact that I am living a life-long dream – attending seminary and pursuing ordination.  I suddenly understand what I’ve given up…because our new moderator has it.  The respect of his peers, a firm foothold in his career, old enough to contribute rich experience to his ministry, and young enough to claim limitless professional opportunities.

And here I am.  Jobless.   Anonymous.   Years away from attaining a position, steady salary, or name for myself.  A stranger in a strange land.  Standing bewildered at the starting line of a race whose end remains, for all my planning, very uncertain at best.

A more gracious sojourner might have rendered a prayer along the lines of, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”  A braver soul might have thought, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”  A less pretentious person might have said, “I am the Lord’s handmaid.”

The thought that immediately sprang to my mind was: “Oh, my God, WTF am I doing????”

Text shorthand for this concept is “OMGWTFAID?”  If nothing else, I found myself this week in good company, because “OMGWTFAID?” moments are legion in the Bible.  A few classic examples:

God tests Abraham

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.”  Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order.  He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son and thought, “OMGWTFAID?” (see Genesis 22:1-18)

David and Goliath

David drew near to the Philistine.  Goliath’s height was six cubits and a span.  He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders.  The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And David thought, “OMGWTFAID?” (see I Samuel 17)

The Prodigal Son

The younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.  And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.  When he came to himself, he said, “OMGWTFAID?” (see Luke 15:11-32)

Initially, I thought “OMGWTFAID?” was a failure of my faith, and a vulgar one at that.  But after some reflection, I’ve concluded that “OMGWTFAID?” may be the purest and most sincere prayer of all.  It’s extemporaneous.  It’s raw desperation.  It’s unadulterated by manners or masks.  We reserve it for those precipitous moments when, like Peter, we discover that we’re walking where no sane person dares to tread

These are “WTF?” moments.  The ultimate Biblical “WTF?” prayer appears three times – once in Psalm 22 and again in Matthew 27 and Mark 15:

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

It’s ironic, actually.  “WTF?” moments happen when we hit a wall…or rock bottom.  They can happen without warning.  They always entail a moment of dreadful realization.  And God is transcendently present in those moments of terrible clarity.  When we become acutely aware of our nakedness and our blindness, the boundaries we so carefully cultivate between ourselves and the divine wear thin.  In such moments, we have the opportunity to draw very close to God, indeed.  

I suspect that God loves “WTF?” moments.  Because when we find ourselves stripped of achievements, reputation, and our footing on the world, we can’t help but collapse into God’s waiting arms.

I mean, WTF else are we supposed to do?

*Presbyterian terminology sometimes suggests a sort of clinical detachment from reality.  “Installation of a new moderator” is something that, ten years ago, I would have sworn my mechanic said my fifteen-year-old Civic needed to remain roadworthy.  In Presbyterian circles, it means the ceremonial appointment of a chairman.

© Copyright 2012, Marian the Seminarian


Bad religion

Another YouTube video went viral this week.  I’m not talking about one by the smug tween Girl Scout from California spouting doggerel about how endangered she is because a Colorado troop has admitted an eight-year-old transgendered boy.  No, this is the quasi-hip-hop screed entitled, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.”

The video has generated more high-pitched wailing and chest beating YouTube responses than I can count, besides a fair number of earnest “Amens” from people who agree unreservedly with the narrator’s message, and even a few rebuttals from atheists weighing in about how religion and Jesus are for the birds.

Before proceeding to analysis, let me say that I get where the narrator’s coming from.  Twenty-one years ago, I shook the dust of a church from my feet, with my friends’ parting words, “Leaving this church means you’re rejecting God!” striating my soul.  Church, especially if you’re brought up in one, can be the cornerstone of your social world, a critical component of your understanding of self, and, in many cases, a thermometer to gauge the health of your personal relationship with God.   Coming to the realization that your church is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially if that realization compels you to leave the church, can catastrophically dismantle your psyche and your spirit. 

As one who has been there, I suspect that’s some of what we’re seeing in “Why I Hate Religion.”

That said, here’s my beef with the video.  It’s stuck in an all-or-nothing paradigm – our choices are reduced to “Jesus = Good” and “Religion = Bad.”  This is not unlike cut-and-dry doctrines that divide the world into tidy categories of “sacred” and “secular,”  “sinful” and “forgiven,” and “saved” and “damned.”   

In attacking religion as universally bad, the message here becomes, in itself, “bad religion.” And in a world full of tweets and sound bites masquerading as real communication, I think we need to be particularly wary of oversimplification, especially in matters involving God.

Religion, essentially, is a social construct in which we make sense of relationships.  Relationships with God, relationships with each other, and relationships with a Gospel message that can be used to build or bulldoze.  And all relationships have the potential of being healthy or unhealthy.

A wise friend once told me, “Only two unhealthy people can have an unhealthy relationship.  Because, if they’re both healthy, the relationship will be healthy.  And if only one of them is healthy, the relationship isn’t going to last because the healthy one will leave.”  The false dichotomy in “Why I Hate Religion” is the faith equivalent of a divorced person saying, “I hate the opposite sex!  All of them are pigs!  I hate all of them…but I love marriage.”

The church’s relationship with Christ is described as a marriage.  So could it not be that, as with love partners, there are other fish in the sea for people of faith who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship with a particular church, or a particular image of God, or even a particular religion?

I’ve sat through a handful of responses to “Why I Hate Religion” and my favorite is “Freestylin’: Jesus = Religion.”  I like the humor and logic of the video’s gung-ho Lutheran narrator.  I get the sense that his experience with church is more like that of the man who built his house upon stone, not sand.  That said, he engages in a little “bad religion” of his own.  Some compassion for the open spiritual wounds of the other narrator would have been a nice touch, albeit not nearly as entertaining.** 

To the narrator of “Why I Hate Religion,” I would say: don’t throw the baby out with the baptismal water.  Jesus was a worshipping Jew – we know he attended temple and synagogue services and he observed Jewish rituals, like Passover, with his friends.  What made his religion “good” religion was that he opened people’s hearts to his message, he opened their eyes to the suffering of one another, and ultimately, opened his hands and arms to reconcile the entire world to God.

There’s a lot of good religion out there.  Let’s find it and pay it forward.

* Come on, faithful readers.  Buy buttloads of Girl Scout cookies this year.  After last year’s “Thin Mint orgy” when I ate an entire box in one sitting during a particularly stressful phone meeting, I swore I would never touch the stuff again.  But in the interest of social justice, I’m making an exception.

** The love of Christ and a good stand-up routine are often strange bedfellows.  As you may have observed in this blog, I sometimes sacrifice the spirit of the former in favor of the social rewards of the latter.  In the absence of any hope of sainthood, I rely on Martin Luther for comfort when he said, “Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

© Copyright 2012, Marian the Seminarian

Mary…starring Marian!

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son.”

And Mary said, “Uh…yeah.  Great plan and all, but I’m a virgin.”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “Oh, hello?  What – you and ya friends been comparin’ notes?  You think you’re so smart you got it all figured out how babies are made?” (Luke 1:31, 34-35, 37; 21st century Brooklyn paraphrase edition) 

The call is a funny thing.  I mean, there’s always been this sort of deep-in-my-bones aspect to it where I feel fundamentally connected to the commission.  But now and then something comes up and I’m left scratching my head, thinking, “Wait…seriously?”

 The children’s minister at my church recently invited me to participate in a multi-week immersion class for children about Jesus’ early life in Nazareth.  The concept is brilliant – we turn our fellowship hall into a first century Judean village, replete with characters in costume, little shops, and food appropriate to the period, like flatbread and dates and deviled eggs.*  Not having kids, I only knew about this class via the grapevine, but I felt confident I could effectively add a little local color by drifting around as a shepherd or a baker or a prostitute.

But, no.  Now that I’m under the church’s care as a seminarian, certain unforeseen obligations have begun to present themselves.  Because they don’t want me adding local color.  They want me participating in the ministry itself.  They want me to be an actual character.  They want me to be Mary.  The meek and mild one, not the frothing-at-the-mouth demoniac one.     

For reasons I won’t elaborate upon here, I’m pretty well certain I’m not the best candidate to portray (ahem) the Virgin Queen of Heaven.  I made this point to the children’s minister, who cheerfully reassured me that Mary wasn’t a virgin after Jesus was born.  I should have leapt at that doctrinal debate in an effort to get out of this detail, but I didn’t think of it.

 There’s also the not insignificant problem of my kid phobia.  It’s like this:

Self-portrait of me in a room full of 300-pound convicted violent felons who’ve eaten nothing but Pop Tarts all day


Self-portrait of me in a room full of children who are acting like they’ve eaten nothing but Pop Tarts all day

And then there’s the fact that my brother got all of the actor genes.  It only took half a semester for my high school thespian club to exile me to the set crew for all eternity.

But, I also really would like the church to feel like it’s making good on its investments in my education and ordination.  (Although, at first, I thought the best way of expressing my appreciation would be to cross-stitch some new decorations for the lobby Christmas tree.)  So, what to do?  I stalled for time by asking the children’s minister for the script.  When she gave it to me, she said, “Please feel free to modify this script any way you want.  Make it yours.” 

I needed two fingers of Scotch and an IV of insulin after I read it.  It seemed to me that Mary’s lines pretty well consisted of:

  • “Isn’t it wonderful to know that Jesus died for our sins?”
  • “Isn’t it sad that some people don’t believe that Jesus died for our sins?”
  • “What will you SAY to someone who doesn’t believe that Jesus died for our sins?”

I absolutely couldn’t go there and even if I did, I couldn’t possibly spend four weeks dragging a bunch of little kids there.  Because if that storyline wasn’t enough to hold my attention (which, thanks to a touch of ADHD, is good for about as long as a preschooler’s), it sure as heck wasn’t going to engage a bunch of little kids.  And if it doesn’t hold their attention, that means I’d have to focus on crowd control.  (Please see the graphics above if you missed the part about my kid phobia.)

So, I debated with myself.  One morning, deep in prayer…okay, okay, it was more like deep in bitching to God about this assignment…the Lord granted me a vision.  It was no wheel-within-a-wheel, but as soon as the image clicked in my head, I emailed the children’s minister to accept the role.

Thus, this Sunday, I will be portraying Mary.  Not Mary, the Virgin Mother of Christ, but Mary, the Jewish Mother of Christ.

Picture this pastoral scene.  Jesus is out playing with his friends and Mary is standing in the doorway of their house:

“Joshie!!!**  You put that lepah down right now – RIGHT NOW!!!  Ya gonna catch ya death!  And if you do, then what am I supposed to do, huh?  Ya tryin’ to kill ya muthah?  Is that what you want?  Don’t give me that sass about inheriting the throne of David – what, you think ya talkin’ to your friends?  DON’T you give me that look, young man, or I’ll send you straight to Herod.  Yeah, you heard me – STRAIGHT TO HEROD!  Now get inside and wash ya hands.  We’re havin’ gefilte fish tonight.  And if it’s cold because of your dawdlin’, don’t look to ME to heat it up for ya.”

Lent is just a few weeks away, so I exempted myself from any discussion about Jesus dying for any reason.  Riding on the tail of Epiphany, this Sunday we’re going to talk about how God sometimes makes us do things we don’t want to do (like give birth to the Messiah before you’re married, or portray Mary in Sunday school class).  Then one week about international travel – specifically Joseph and Mary getting the hell out of Dodge when Herod had his bright idea to kill all the Hebrew boys under the age of two.  And then a couple of weeks putting the whole “Emmanuel – God with Us” theme into preschool context.***

Thirty-six hours before show time, I’m actually kind of looking forward to this gig.  I get to raid the costume closet on Sunday morning and will make every effort to avoid a blue and white robe-and-head-wrap configuration.  I’m thinking something brown would be more authentic.  You never think of the Virgin Mary wiping snotty noses with her apron, but I bet Mary the Jewish Mother did it all the time.  Not that I plan to go near any snotty noses, but still, one must embrace one’s character.

Meryl Streep, who will probably get her ten hundredth Oscar nod this year for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, famously said, “Acting is not about being someone different.  It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”  I suspect we could say something similar about relating to God and other people – that it’s not about overhauling who we are, but really looking closely at who the other person is and finding those places where our reflection looks back at us. 

Buckle your car seats, kids.  Marian’s channeling Mary on Sunday.

* I’m not entirely sure about the historicity of deviled eggs in Nazareth, but last year, there were a whole bunch left over for fellowship hour.  I ate them until I was stupid, although I’ll grant that the transformation was subtle.

** A little Bible trivia here for you.  “Jesus” is actually the Greek form of “Yeshua” (“Joshua” to us gringos.)  It’s highly unlikely that anyone called Jesus “Jesus” during his lifetime, at least not to his face.

*** I briefly considered bringing things down to real little kid level, with a discussion on the diaper consequences of baba ganouj baby food, but I thought better of it.  I don’t want to have to explain what baba ganouj is.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

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