Message in a Bottle, Part 1

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “You asshole!  Why not just wear a big sign that says, ‘Hey God!  Here’s a sinner!  Kill her son!’” 

After saying to himself, “Oh crap, what do I do now?” he said to her “Give me your son!”  He took the kid to his room and laid him on his own bed and stared at him for a few minutes, biting his fingernails and wondering why he hadn’t just gone to medical school like his mom wanted him to.

Finally, he cried out to God, “You asshole!   Seriously???   You’re killing this widow’s kid after saving him from starving to death in verses 8-16?” 

Then he stretched himself upon the child three times[i], and cried out, “O God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  God listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.   

Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”  And then he poured himself a stiff drink, took some Tylenol, and put his feet up on the coffee table with a cold washcloth over his eyes.  And the woman said to Elijah, “Okay, so you’re not an asshole.”  I Kings 17:17-24 (21st Century Gen X Paraphrase edition)

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I have trouble with miracle stories.  Part of the problem is probably my age.  I’m a card-carrying Gen Xer[ii] who, like my people, inclines more toward skepticism than credulity.  And part of the problem is probably our culture, where the claims of just about everything else[iii] are more socially acceptable than the claims of faith.

But my biggest problem with miracle stories is that they can trip us up, rather than lift us up.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that read every story in the Bible as literal, historical fact.  At this stage in my life and faith journey, I’m not prepared to tell anyone that the miracle stories in the Bible did or did not happen as described.  But I can tell you that I’ve witnessed the spiritual fallout that happens when the miraculous events described in the Bible do not happen when we find ourselves in similar situations.

Our faith is a pretty fragile treasure that doesn’t hold up well when we beg God for something and then we don’t get it.

When that happens, we try to explain why our prayers didn’t work.  Too often this is what we come up with – it must have been because I didn’t have enough faith.  Jesus said if I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I could throw a mountain into the sea.  Jesus said if I asked for anything in his name, it would be granted.  But I didn’t get what I asked God for -so I must not have had enough faith.

The flip side of this mental reasoning is that God isn’t wise and gracious; he’s just a rotten bastard.  God answered Elijah, but not me – God’s not listening.  Jesus raised a widow’s son without even being asked – I asked and asked and asked, but God didn’t answer me – God obviously doesn’t care.

These lines of reasoning undermine our relationship with God.  They either strip God of decision-making authority and power by making our faith, not God’s grace, the thing that motivates events, or they abandon God altogether.

Message In BottleThe problem isn’t the stories; it’s the way we sometimes read the stories.  In order for miracle stories to enrich our faith, we need to pay attention, not to miracle stories as events, but as messages.  The Bible isn’t just peppered with miracles to keep the plot moving. [iv] Just like prayers, prophecies, proverbs, parables, speeches, and epistles, miracle stories are intended to teach us something important about God.

Reading a miracle story simply as a wonderful and self-contained event between God and somebody in crisis is like finding a bottle on the seashore with a note inside and being so impressed by the bottle that we never bother to fish out the note.

We need to look at miracle stories as messages in a bottle.

To be continued…

[i] I used to have trouble with this particular scene, since it struck me as creepy, inappropriate touching.  That was before I interned for a summer at a hospital and saw, on several occasions, family members seated beside sick loved ones, stretching their arms over them and burying their heads in the blankets, crying out to God just like Elijah does here.  Pays to have life experience when you read some of this stuff.

[ii] Someday, I’m going to make my fortune with a t-shirt that reads “I’m Gen X…and I’m very disappointed.”  If you steal my idea and make a million dollars, I’ll be very disappointed.

[iii] If you don’t believe me, watch Home Shopping Network for a few minutes in the middle of the night.  Dollars to doughnuts, they’ll be peddling an ointment that will remove hair where you don’t want it, grow hair where you do, improve muscle tone, raise your IQ, get you promoted at work, bring Ben Affleck to his knees before you, and deliver the winning lottery numbers to you while you sleep.

[iv] Quite frankly, all the miracle stories in the world couldn’t make a book like Numbers interesting.  I’m not kidding.  Don’t read it.  Or if you do decide to try , let me know and I’ll point you to the good parts.  Be sure to budget about three minutes to get through them.


© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


4 responses to “Message in a Bottle, Part 1

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