Tag Archives: God

Epistle of Marian to the Followers of this Blog

Marian, servant of God,[i] by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ[ii] and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,[iii]

to Constant Readers:[iv]

Peace out.

I have heard of your faithfulness, good looks, feats of strength, and general thingness.[v]  So…good job and keep circulating those tapes.

It’s been several months since you heard from me.  If this was first century Palestine, you’d attribute the hiatus to slow postal service or me getting eaten by lions somewhere, but thankfully, we’re two thousand years beyond all that, except, possibly, for slow postal service.  Lo, these last many weeks, I’ve been immersed in deep and significant higher learning about Presbyterian polity,[vi] creeds, and confessions,[vii] Biblical Greek,[viii] and Paul’s seminal epistle to the Romans.  It is in regards to Romans that I write you today.

The book of Romans has been freaking people out for centuries.  A madcap hybrid fund-raising letter/theological treatise written in characteristically incomprehensible Pauline Greek,[ix] the book of Romans kept Augustine up nights, inspired Luther to pound his historic list of grievances to the Wittenberg door, gave Calvin the idea of dressing up as a doubly predestined sinner for Halloween – a totally depraved act which, as we all know, led him to invent the Protestant Reformation[x] – and gave Barth something to read in his free time when he wasn’t pissing off the Third Reich.

After two months of dogged study, I am now fully qualified to stand shoulder to shoulder with these theological grandmasters and share my view of what, clearly, is the principal take-home message of this famous letter:

Grace, baby, grace.

kitten

I couldn’t come up with a meaningful picture of grace, so I opted for this kitten that looks like a marshmallow.

Oozing through this letter is the theme of God’s grace, which Paul presents alternately as a) God’s faithfulness to Israel and b) God’s justification of Christ-followers’ through forgiveness of sins.  N.T. Wright, an epicure and soldier on the front lines of the new-perspective-on-Paul, doesn’t see much of a difference between the two:  “Dealing with sin, saving humans from it, giving them grace, forgiveness, justification, glorification – all this was the purpose of the single covenant from the beginning, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”[xi]  Pretty much this means that God had it all figured out for all of us a long time ago and we can just get over our damn selves.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking, “Yeah, but what predestination?”  As a good Calvinist, I turn to Barth.[xii]  He said that humanity’s love for God originates in God, who exists outside chronological time, so a temporal human life can’t predicate predestined outcomes because in the mind of God, whatever we’re hurtling toward is already reality, so we can just get over our damn selves.  And anyway, God gets to pick no matter what and because God’s faithfulness and love surpass human belief or unbelief, we can stop worrying and just get over our damn selves.

Yes, yes, some of you are going to the dark side.  What about double predestination you say?  Paul sums it up best:

Nothing, you name it, separates us from God’s love.  Not even twerking.[xiii]

So, rejoice.  Let’s get over our damn selves and enjoy God’s grace, peace, and general thingness.  Amen.

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[i] Stop laughing.  I’m doing homage to a classic literary form here.

[ii] Please don’t hold this post against Jesus.  He’s been held against enough posts.

[iii] In the cunning guise of Rail Yard Red Ale and Frito pie.

[iv] Or Re-Readers, to which you’ve been reduced to since this blog hasn’t seen two microseconds worth of action in six frickin’ months.

[v] I also heard something about the Guinness people, a deacon clearly operating without adequate adult supervision, and a hot dog eating contest, but since you didn’t break the current record of six hot dogs consumed in under three minutes, I really don’t think that’s something we should broadly advertise.

[vi] Because, loosey goosey as our theology may be, by God, all Presbyterian pastors know how to run a decent and orderly meeting.

[vii] These are kind of like Presbyterian fight songs.  For example:  “Rah, rah, ree!  Total depravity!  Rah, rah, rent!  Limited atonement!  Rah, rah, race!  Irresistible grace!”  We have pompons and everything.

[viii] One of the peculiar hazing rituals to which Presbyterian candidates for ordination are subjected.

[ix] Through an aneurysm-inducing cocktail of participles, serial clauses, and run-on sentences, Paul makes his point in Koine Greek at least as well as I make mine in English with liberal applications of footnotes and semicolons.

[x] And Protestants have been protesting ever since.

[xi] From N.T. Wright’s latest New York Times bestseller, Justification: Twenty Centuries of Low-Fat Cooking on the Road to Damascus, p. 95.

[xii] While avoiding Calvin himself and his five centuries of bad press.

[xiii] Romans 8:38-39, slightly abbreviated and nominally paraphrased.

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(c) Marian the Seminarian, 2014


Immanuel…Bat Man?

Last summer, late one evening, I was ironing a shirt.  And suddenly my vision kind of fluttered and went dark for a second.  So, I look up from my shirt and kind of blink my eyes.  And nothing happens.  So, I go back to ironing and a few seconds later, it happens again.  This time, I’m shaking my head and rubbing my eyes, thinking – oh, my, this is the stroke my doctor warned me about.  And I’m standing there like this and suddenly, I see it.  A bat.  A bat circling frantically around my ceiling.

I scream and run downstairs, scaring the cat half to death.  And the bat is flying and diving and I’m totally freaked out.  So, I’m thinking, how do I get this bat out of my house?  And it comes to me!  I turn off all the lights in the house, open up the back door and turn on the porch light, thinking the bat will follow the light.  It probably took a good five minutes for it to occur to me that a) bats aren’t moths and b) bats are blind.

So, I start knocking around in the dark trying to find my cell phone.  Then I remember again that the bat is blind, so I turn on a light, find my phone and call my husband.  Where’s the bat, he says.  It’s everywhere, I say.  What are you doing, he says.  I’m trying to avoid the bat, I say.  He says, How?  I say, By running around waving my arms.  He says, Sit.  Down.  You are interfering with the bat’s sonar.

So, I huddle on the sofa, watching this albatross-sized bat flying all over.  And I’m equally scared of two things.  One, getting rabies.  Two, guano.

And then, all of a sudden, the bat lands on the curtain rod over our living room window.  And now that I can actually see him, I see that he’s just this tiny little gray thing.  Tiny, no bigger than a sparrow.  And suddenly, I feel really bad for this poor little bat who has been stuck in my house for who knows how long and obviously wants nothing more than to get back outside.  Suddenly, I just wanted to help the bat, to do something to lead it out of my house and outside where it wanted to be.

And then I remembered a story I once heard describing the miracle of the incarnation.  That’s the miracle we’re really celebrating at Christmas –  the dreams of Joseph, the virgin birth, the angelic host singing praises before shepherds – these are all secondary to incarnation of God in Jesus Christ – God made flesh.

And lo, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger...or something to that effect.t

And lo, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger…or something…

It’s an unlikely combination, humanity and divinity, and theologians have been trying to explain it for at least 1700 years.  How did the incarnation happen?  How did it really work?  What did it accomplish?

Our lack of genuinely satisfying answers to these questions has been a stumbling block for many people, even for some of us who have been Christians most or all of our lives.  It’s just such a far-fetched idea – the divine taking on human flesh and then suffering, terribly, in that flesh.  No wonder we try to make rational sense of it.

But, my friends, this is something we can’t think our way through.  The miracle of the incarnation is something that the heart receives.  Because what really matters is not the how and the what of Jesus’ birth and life on earth, but why.  Why did God bother?  Why didn’t God just part the Red Sea again, send some fire down from heaven, make another donkey talk?  (That’s in Numbers 22, if you want to look that one up.)

I’d like to share with you Lauren F. Winner’s understanding of the incarnation.  Winner is the child of a lapsed Baptist and non-practicing Jew who, in her early twenties, converted, fully, to Orthodox Judaism.  But during that process, she became intrigued by the Christian understanding of Immanuel – God with us – and eventually, she abandoned Judaism, lured by the incarnation like a moth to flame (and unlike a bat to a porch light.)

In her memoir, Girl Meets God, she writes:

Here is the thing about God.  He is so big and so perfect that we can’t really understand Him.  We can’t possess Him, or apprehend Him.  Moses learned this when he climbed up Mount Sinai and saw that the radiance of God’s face would burn him up should he gaze upon it directly.  But God so wants to be in relationship with us that He makes himself small, smaller than He really is, smaller and more humble than his infinite, perfect self, so that we might be able to get to Him, a little bit.

Being born a human was not the first time God made Himself small so that we could have access to Him.  First He shrunk Himself when He revealed the Torah at Mount Sinai.  He shrunk Himself into tiny Hebrew words, man’s finite language, so that we might get to Him that way.  Then He shrunk Himself again, down to the size of a baby, down into manger finiteness.

Jane Vonnegut Yarmolinky wrote, “The whole concept of God taking on human shape, and all the liturgy and ritual around that, had simply never made any sense to me.  That was because, I realized one wonderful day, it was so simple.  For people with bodies, important things like love have to be embodied.  That’s all.  God had to be embodied, or else people with bodies would never in a trillion years understand about love.”

Never, in a trillion years.

So, the story that the bat reminded me of goes like this.  A man owns a barn and one day a bird flies into his barn and can’t figure out how to get out.  So, the guy opens up the barn doors and waits to see if the bird can navigate its way out.  Nope, next day, the bird’s still there.  So, he gets a broom and tries to shoo the bird in the right direction, but the bird just gets scared and hides.  So the guy is thinking and thinking about how to free this little bird and he thinks to himself, “If I were a bird, I could lead this bird out of this dark old barn and into the sunlight.”

And friends, that’s what Immanuel – God with us – means.  When Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” I suspect he was talking about getting small, meeting us at eye level, showing us the way himself, sharing in the life we live.  Joining us right where we are, just as God created us – beloved beings crafted in God’s image and “in the flesh.”

As for the bat, after I stopped running around like a maniac, it eventually found its way out of our house and into the night, where it belongs.  We, however, are meant to live in light.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.   Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This Christmas, may God bless you and keep you.  May the grace of Jesus Christ shine upon you.  And may the Holy Spirit give you peace.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


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.

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© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


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