Biblically Speaking: “My relationship with God”

(image credit: Flickr / Kevin Dooley)

A student came up to me recently and apologized for not doing his best. He had had a bad attitude, he confessed, and explained that his relationship with God hadn’t been going very well.

What he meant, and what most evangelicals who use this phrase mean, is that he had not been praying or reading the Bible, or that he did these as perfunctory duties rather than delight. Maybe it also meant a relapse into a sinful habit.

“My relationship with God” is a specimen of “Christianese”, a particular kind of church-talk. Christianese isn’t just not found anywhere in the Bible; it actually undermines the Bible. It replaces Biblical language with something that fits more comfortably within our culture, and it does so at the cost of the truth.

In this case, “relationship” talk comes out of a therapeutic culture both outside and inside the church. Once evangelicalism reduced a full-throated Gospel proclamation to “a personal relationship with Jesus”, the distortion continued. We started to project our understanding of human relationships onto Christianity, and by doing so, we have obscured the Gospel.

What we need is Biblical language for this situation, because Biblical language tells us the truth: the truth about ourselves, the truth about God, and the truth about our relationship to Him.

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Miss Marshmallow

“Hi, Miss Marshmallow!”

What?

“Hi, honey. I’m glad to see you. But that’s not my name.”

“Miss Marshmallow?”

“Miss Miller.”

She tries once or twice. “It’s too hard. I’m going to call you Miss Marshmallow.”

No, you will not.

My students are used to being named by others, without any power over it. When I ask them what they prefer to be called, they shrug. If I ask them how to spell their name, the answer is, as often as not, “however you want”. If a teacher calls them the wrong name, or pronounces it wildly wrong, they’ll just go with it, even for a whole semester.

Students accept the names we give them. Sometimes they’re even convinced. “Smart”, or “good kid”, or “doesn’t speak English”. Why challenge it?

I want them to challenge it. I want them to know and to say who they are.

I’d like to help

Every school had an earthquake drill today, scheduled for the same time of day. It fell just after my first recess, in the middle of my 12th grade class. It is possible I have angered some local demon, because this class has the worst case of senioritis I have ever seen. I am struggling to motivate them to do any thinking, let alone produce any work based on that thinking. I was not feeling good about my chances of getting them to take an earthquake drill seriously. Duck and cover? Walk single-file? Act like you’re trying to learn how not to die? Whatever, Miss.

I explained. I cajoled. Results were unimpressive. The shared impression was, well, we’re probably going to die in an earthquake because this building is crap, so why bother?

Until I asked them to be good role models for the younger students. I explained how younger students often get scared during drills, how they have a hard time separating imagination from reality, how some would probably cry. I asked them to help by keeping things calm and orderly, so that the little ones would have a model of what to do and feel safer. Ah, Jesuuuuu, they sighed. The poor little ones.

And they did. Mostly they did fine. They didn’t exactly cover their heads like they were supposed to, but they walked, they got in line, they stayed in control of themselves.

Most people like to help. It made me realize that as a school, we’re not taking advantage of one of our biggest opportunities to foster maturity in our students: leadership. We have toddlers through high schoolers in the same building, but we give few opportunities for the older students to serve the younger. It’s not that the children don’t know each other; many of the older students have siblings even in nursery school, and many of them go to the same churches. We simply don’t give them the chance to interact.

But we could start to change that. Helping someone else is hugely motivational. Who knows that better than teachers?

The spectre of the script

“I am concerned,” said my Ghost, “about the length of this script.”

I kept passing out the pieces (one copy of Act 1, scene 5 to Hamlet, one to the ghost, Horatio, Marcellus) as the players assembled their folders, and pages were flying rapid-fire across the room. “Queen.” “Queen?” “Queen!” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” “Rosencrantz! Guil- guilden- ” “That’s mine.” As the pages mounted, my Ghost, always a little anxious, was turning appropriately pale.

I, too, am concerned about the length of this script. I have chopped it and chopped it and chopped it, axing characters as freely as the King of England. I have shortened speeches, spliced scenes, traded the players for the pantomime. This is a good group of kids, I tell myself, but even so, can they really…?

I can never finish this sentence. Never. We have not come this far by admitting than anything is impossible. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your pedagogy. Second-language speakers, pronouncing words penned four centuries ago, about a country whose name they had never even heard? A month to prepare, no guaranteed electricity, and definitely no budget beyond the kids’ own pocket money? We defy augury.

I put on my most confident disposition. Let your concern motivate you to rise to the challenge, I counsel my Ghost.

He withdraws. He has trusted me this far. Exeunt.

Red shift

When I was small, my grandma had two cats.  One was black and named Sassy. I don’t remember the other one’s name; I’m sure it also started with an ‘S’.    My mother had a horror of animal smells, and the only people we regularly visited were my grandparents, so these cats were the first domesticated animals my brother and I had experience with.  I learned how to pet a cat from front to back, and not against the grain; not to pull a cat’s tail; what a purr sounds like (and, with more years and practice, how to do a convincing imitation); the unusual shape of a cat’s pupils, and the marbling of the iris; what a pet flap is for (and not for, i.e., for small children to crawl through); that cats eat cat food and not, as the cartoons had lead me to believe, primarily mice.

My grandma fed the cats out of the pantry, from what looked like cans of tuna fish.  She would call them by clanging a fork against their metal food bowls, and the cats would drop in as silently as fog.  The pantry was deep, more like a low-ceilinged closet, three feet wide with a plywood door, which was painted, if memory does not betray me, swimming-pool blue.  The door always stood open.

I’m not sure what brought my grandma’s cats to mind today.  The cats vanish from my memory sometime around my middle school years.  The pantry itself was removed in the great kitchen remodeling project that my grandpa and uncle took up around the time I went to college.  The house lost its old zip code when the town had to be split, and the roads to get to my grandparents’ house were redone and expanded when the outlet mall came in, before the Great Recession turned the county upside down.  I still have nightmares in which I am asked to navigate the new roads, five or seven lanes wide, with indecipherable signage and multi-lane roundabouts and flashing yellow left arrow lights (the paper had to run a column at the time to explain what they meant).  Inevitably in these dreams I wind up driving the wrong direction, to the mocking disappointment of my father in the passenger seat.

I thought the pain of nostalgia was the pain of being separated from the past by my changes.  I could go away to college, I could grow into a bona fide adult, but I had imagined that the past I left behind would remain static.  I could come back to my small town and it would be the way it was.  I imagined that nostalgia would mean missing what I used to be.

But the pain of the past is more like the pain of a divorce.  It’s not that I left a past behind; it’s that I and the world I came from have grown apart.  The more times I came back to look for it, the further we had diverged.

I can google my high school and see students attending an institution of the same name, but nothing about it is recognizable.  I scrutinize the walls in their YouTube videos, hoping to catch a glimpse of a familiar piece of architecture while the Spanish 1 students ask each other, “Como tay yamo?”  But like Jerusalem in the wake of the Romans, not one stone has been left upon another.  I can’t tell if they’re in the same building.  I can’t tell if they’re in the same town.

The teachers whose names I know have retired, or left, or been ousted; it has not been a good decade to work in Michigan public education.  Old news stories inform me that bona fide celebrities built a house there, but they appear to have left again.  There was a highway sniper, a bizarrely big-city crime.  A dead Klansman’s robes were auctioned; the local journalist notes, memorably, that they were tinged pink, as though they had accidentally been washed with some red socks. The auction house is gone.

On my first day at college, alone in my dorm room at night, I sobbed.  Not because I was afraid, but because my mother, having delivered her firstborn child into the first official phase of adulthood, had been so obviously eager to get it over with.  I was not ready for her to be ready to move on.

When astronomers turn their telescopes to the night sky, they can see a shift in the light.  The universe is growing, not at the edges, but because every part is moving further away from every other part.  It casts a bloody tinge over all there is.  We are growing up; we are diverging; we are eternally breaking apart.

Voyage (NaPoMo 11)

Soon, you will launch your coracle
to carry a single candle-flame
into a hurricane. Your blindness is a mercy:
you cannot see the piling blue-grey thunderheads
conspiring beyond the planet’s curve, and so-
or, both knowing you and praying, still-
you trust your Navigator, and therefore
so must I. So while the sun-days last,
while the biggest waves that rock you
are only cradle-touches, I
will make myself your prudent deck-hand,
stock your craft with all that may, in time,
be needed for your errand in the dark.

O dear one, Lucy’s bravest daughter,
I do not know what gales may rage against you
or how the lion’s breath may roar
seeking to devour your candle-light.
I know only that when the darkness is complete,
the smallest light is piercing.

Exposure (NaPoMo 9)

She lays herself out
on the stone, showing
her belly, her thighs:
See me, she cries
to a billion inert ties,
and the shutter sound plays
a arms’ length away
through the tremulous space
of an absent embrace.

This is my body.
I give it for you.

She peers down at her belly,
folds over the skin
she thinks she will pierce,
to imagine the glint
that could catch the sun
in her selfie.

For you, I was pierced.
I poured out my self.

She tugs at her hems,
rolls up her cuffs,
to worship the sun
with each inch of herself,
hoping it might be enough.

Let me be enough.

War Cry (NaPoMo 7)

Don’t touch.

I am this body
and you do not own it.
This is my body
and you have no rights to it.

Don’t tell me
my hair would look pretty this way.

Don’t say
don’t worry, it’s fine, you’re not gay.

Don’t tell me
you love my x, y, and z.

Don’t say
you only meant to compliment me.

That is your body,
your responsibility.
You are that body;
what are you gonna be?

Hands up.

Talitha Rising (NaPoMo 5)

The sparrow lays haphazard nests, bundling herself
into the hostile places: concrete edges, cracks in masonry,
the unregarded rusty backs and undersides of things,
wherever man has left his mark but has not left his love.

From these rag-tag scraps of homes, she watches, keeping vigil,
until rising to an instinct born of faith, not observation,
she faces down the dark to declare the coming dawn,
shattering the silence with her one sharp chirp.