Tag Archives: miracles

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.


© 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

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