Tag Archives: religion

Repent…the end is not at hand

My favorite pop psych carpe diem mental masturbation exercise is imagining what I would do with the time I have left if I only had a year to live.  Being “of the cloth,” I fantasize about devoting my few remaining days to delivering desperately needed inoculations to people dying of highly contagious bleed-out diseases in godforsaken banana republics laced with landmines and crawling with the minions of local wackadoo dictators.

But let’s get real.  Like most people, I’d probably spend my last days watching Glee reruns and eating Girl Scout cookies by the sleeve.*  Given an expiration date, very few of us make an about-face, amend our errant ways, and get any more firmly on the straight and narrow that we’ve ever been.  Where genuine repentance is concerned, the last minute isn’t much of a motivator.

In the wake of the latest school-shooting-de la semaine and the inevitable ensuing firestorm about firearms, I’ve read several variations of the following on Facebook:  “Guns aren’t the problem.  People are the problem.”  These gemlike bumper sticker policy statements unleash predictable surges of political and moral controversy and streams of uninformative/uninformed, unkind, and unoriginal responses as people on all sides of the issue weigh in, yet again, on how and why our children are dying in hails of gunfire in their classrooms.  Then, just as predictably, those same outraged authors immediately scroll on to click “Like” on the latest videos of a cat in a shark suit riding on a Roomba.**

I try not to engage in exchanges of verbal gunfire on social media, preferring, as I do, to hide behind a Norton security screen and fire random shots into crowds via this blog.  But I’ll tell you what I would have posted to Facebook if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked by dogs on skateboards.  People are the problem.  People have been the problem since Adam and Eve got dressed and escaped Eden.  All of us bear the weight of sins we’ve inherited from our ancestors – social sins, sins of inequality, systemic “isms,” and systematic injustice; and we bear within us the sins we ourselves have committed and keep committing.  Being human gives human beings a deservedly bad name.

Gun control, mental health treatment, arming teachers, encasing our children in Kevlar; the solutions fly in a frenzy of hand-wringing for about a week after every mass shooting, then we go back to business as usual, acting as if none of this has anything really to do with us until the next barrage of media images showing sobbing teenagers in front of makeshift memorials with stuffed animals and crosses and balloons and handmade signs that say, “We will never forget you.”

Except we do.  These days, mass murder seems to be the cost of participating in our free and democratic society.  It’s positively routine anymore.  And it’s precisely our business-as-usual approach to routine civilian slaughter that makes these catastrophes possible again and again and again.

By itself, all the gun control – or gun stockpiling – in the world will not end events like Columbine, Pulse, Aurora, Las Vegas, Sutherland, Sandy Hook, and Parkland.  Because guns – or the lack of them – aren’t the root of this kind of evil.  Our society, pathologically permissive of violence, is.

Which brings me to repentance.

Popularly associated with hair shirts, self-flagellation, sackcloth, ashes, and consuming entire sleeves of Girl Scout cookies in a single sitting, repentance is one of the most misused theological concepts in the Christian playbook.  The Greek word metanoia, which we translate as “repentance,” literally means “turning around.”  Repentance is a course-correction made possible by the understanding that we are not moving in the right direction.  Unfortunately, the people most interested in repentance – Christians, supposedly – are among those most guilty of failing to do it.

I remember watching professional football games on TV as a kid and seeing a season ticket holder seated behind the goal posts raise a sign during every field goal and extra point that read: “Repent!  The end is at hand!”

Despite the personal satisfaction obtained via such broad-spectrum guilt-baiting (not dissimilar, I suspect, from the satisfaction gleaned from posting things on Facebook such as, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”), to my knowledge, no one in the Bible ever said, “Repent, for the end of the world is at hand.”  They did say repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

One of the other most misused theological concepts in the Christian playbook is the concept of the kingdom of heaven.  Contrary to opinion popular among the “Jesus Loves You and Burns Sinners in Hell” crowd, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven in the Bible, he’s not talking about some heavenly reward for the deceased faithful.  He’s talking about a state of grace in this life, on this space-time continuum.  He’s talking about something we do in this life, not something we earn our way into in the next.

People who truly repent — who take a fearless moral inventory of their world and then make substantive behavioral changes — actually do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven.  Starting today.  Right now.  Not after breakfast.  Not after death.  Repentance, that active course correction, brings the kingdom of heaven to the present moment.  That’s what Jesus meant when he prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven.”  Understood this way, repentance is less a sentiment and more a decision; less a feeling than a course of action.

We are called to repent because the end is NOT at hand.  But for those of us who do repent, the kingdom of heaven on earth may be.  In any case, keeping on keeping on for American society should not be an option, especially for people of faith.  Keeping on keeping on will not usher in the earthly rule of the Prince of Peace.  It is, however, successfully managing to make life hell on earth for far, far too many.


* I’d also book a trip to Hawaii so I could scratch “spit off the rim of a live volcano” off my bucket list.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I fucking love this one.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2018



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.


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.


[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.


(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

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