Tag Archives: faith

Message in a Bottle, Part Deux

The most inquisitive creature in Africa is the baboon.

[A baboon swipes the Coke bottle from Xi, is subsequently chased, and climbs a tree.]

Xi said, “That is a very evil thing you’ve got.  You better give it back so I can take it and throw it off the earth.  It brought unhappiness to my family. If you don’t give it to me it’ll bring grief to you and your family too.”  He spoke long and earnestly until the baboon began to pay attention.  He must have convinced it, and it dropped the thing.  And Xi said, “You have done a very wise thing.”   – The Gods Must Be Crazy

Gods must be crazy

In my June 22 post, I suggested that our tendency to read miracle stories as events, rather than messages, gets us into some sticky theological territory.  Using the Elijah story as a springboard, I suggest that we look for the messages within miracles.

One of the great temptations in reading miracle stories is triggered by lines like this one:  “Elijah prayed and God listened to the voice of Elijah.”  And then God proceeds to bring the child back from the dead.  Right on cue.  Because we’re reading a story of faith here, not a live broadcast on CNN.

We, as readers, should be cautious about assuming that Elijah said some magic words and God responded.  The message of this story is not “presto, change-o, and God raises the dead.  How DOES he do it?”  The messaage is that God is near.

Here’s another message.  Nobody falls outside God’s attention.  Case in point:  Widows had it bad at the time and place in which these stories were written.  Women’s livelihoods depended upon the men in their families.  If their husbands died, their only hope for survival was their sons.  Women back then couldn’t even inherit the property owned by their husbands and sons.  That went to the closest male relative and if he didn’t see fit to support the widow, too bad.  These women were as vulnerable as anyone could possibly be back then.

And yet, we have this account[i] of the greatest of all Hebrew prophets interceding on behalf of people who the rest of society couldn’t care less about.  Through Elijah, God’s grace is freely and fully extended to the most vulnerable people in that world.

Then there is God’s presence, revealed in the compassion the Elijah clearly feels for this family.  Elijah’s is very recognizable human compassion.  The phrase “he stretched himself over the child three times” seems rather creepy at first reading.  But when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I saw more than one person sitting beside a hospital bed, their arms overlying their sick loved one, burying their face in the bedspread and praying just like Elijah prayed.

I have no doubt there are other ways to read Biblical miracle stories like this one; there are many notes inside these bottles.  But I suspect the take-home messages will reveal some consistent themes:

  • Nobody falls outside God’s attention – not widows, not orphans, not immigrants, not non-Christians, not homeless people, not criminals, not people with mental illnesses or with disabilities, not poor people, not old people, not young people, not addicts, not red, yellow, black or white people.  Nobody, nobody lives beyond God’s view.
  • Nobody lives beyond God’s compassion – God is near enough to hear our most fervent prayers, even those too deep for words, even the valley of the shadow of death.

These messages are true heart of these stories.  When our own miracles don’t materialize, these truths still apply.  They are the touchstones of our faith, they are what’s real about our relationship with God.  The miracles are just a container.  The truth is in the message.

Readers, I suspect many if not most of us are praying for miracles right now.  Let’s not get hung up on the bottle – let us not get too hung up on the results we’re hoping for.  Let us contemplate the messages, in our sacred texts and in the events of our lives.   As we pray the desires of our hearts, let us remember that God loves us more than we can believe or even imagine.  That, my friends, is truly a miracle.

[i] See also this story’s New Testament counterpart where Jesus raises a widow’s son in very similar circumstances.  The author of the book of Luke was profoundly concerned with issues of social justice.  It’s likely that he drew upon the Elijah story for inspiration in his retelling of Jesus’ life.


© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


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

God’s silly side in a small, small world

Proof that God has a wicked sense of humor

Proof that God has a wicked sense of humor

It’s often said that God works in mysterious ways.  Quite frankly, I find God’s ways downright frickin’ bizarro most of the time, but that does lend certain capriciousness to life that I think we could all use more of.

Case in point:  I spent half the day last Saturday in the company of 150 of my closest Presbyterian friends[1] at a class entitled “Dangerous Elders.”  Upon arriving, I was crushed to discover that kung fu fighting was not part of the day’s agenda[2], but I soldiered on until we came to lunchtime.

Suddenly struck by the necessity of socializing, I donned my faux extrovert persona and scanned the crowd for familiar faces, trying not to appear pathetic.  Thankfully, I found some friends from Leadville, CO[3] who were too buzzed on all the oxygen at 5200 feet above sea level to notice if I looked pathetic.  Then, a member of one of my favorite rural churches found me and we and some other folks spent the next ten minutes catching up on a perennially relevant and riveting topic to Coloradans:  road construction.

At one point, another solo attendee and I bumped elbows and exchanged a few funny words and then we all got in the lunch line.  I was hoping to sit with my fellow asphalt aficionados.  But when the seating hostess called for two people to fill in an incomplete table, I threw caution to the wind and volunteered.

The hostess sat me next to the other solo flyer I’d run into – literally – a few minutes earlier.  We started chatting (like you do), immediately hitting it off (which is altogether too rare), and the conversation, inevitably, turned to our occupations.

My companion – whom I’ll call Fiona, because that’s not her name – told me that she was in the marriage and family therapy business.  Since I know exactly one marriage and family therapist, I said:  “I realize there are about seven million marriage and family therapists in the world, but I don’t suppose you know Artemisia Donohue[4]?”

She-who-shall-be-known-as-Fiona’s jaw dropped.

“How do you know Artemisia?”

“Her daughter, Electra,[5] and I have been best friends since the fifth grade.”

Fiona started laughing.

“Artemisia and I went to graduate school together and have been best friends ever since!”

Yes, it’s a small world and God moves in mysterious ways.  But the biggest mystery is why Artemisia and Electra both wound up best friends with two Presbyterians.[6]

In any case, the encounter reminded me of God’s wacky, whimsical side.  When we’re tempted – which, in my case, is often – to fixate on the sternness, unfairness, remoteness, and inscrutability of God, it’s important to remember that, for some reason that doesn’t really matter, God invented duckbill platypuses.  God may also have a hand in the discovery of five-dollar bills in the pockets of thrift store purchases.[7]  I’m pretty sure God inspired whoever invented tapioca.[8]  God has got to be behind the darnedest things that kids say.[9]  And I am positive that an almighty creator God with a kick-ass sense of humor is behind wild kingdom behavior like this:

Take time to laugh this week.  Spring is coming.[10]

[1] Which is to say, I was sitting closer to these Presbyterians than to any others at that particular moment.

[2] Thankfully, I took and passed the Colorado DOC’s Pressure Point Control Tactic Training twice.  The second time, one of my sparring partners was a five-foot-tall, ninety-pounds-soakin’-wet chaplain named Gillian.  If you ever find yourself in any of the CDOC’s finer correctional establishments, please, take my advice.  Do not fuck with this chaplain.  She will take your ass down faster than you can say, “Hallelujah.”

[3] At 10,152 feet, Leadville, CO is the highest incorporated city and second highest municipality in the United States.  I have no idea what the difference is between a city and a municipality.

[4] Totally also not her real name.  Duh.

[5] Seriously, people.  Not her real name.  How many times do I have to tell you?

[6] Actually, I suspect it’s because they were unconditionally predestined to be irresistibly attracted to our total depravity.

[7] Especially if you pray over them.  See Marian’s posting from March 8, 2013.

[8] For those of you not up on your highly toxic South American vegetable products, tapioca is made from manioc, which has a rather high cyanide content and is only rendered edible by boiling and draining it several times.  Who the heck stuck around to figure that recipe out?

[9] Granted, I make this last assertion as a non-parent who has derived an endless amount of entertainment from the darnedest things kids say.  Non-non-parents, which is to say, parents, may have a different opinion about things that issue from the mouths of babes.

[10] Unless you’re completely hooked on Game of Thrones, in which case, you know what’s coming.  Winter and dragons and some very ill-advised matrimonies, that’s what!


© Marian the Seminarian, 2013

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