Clothing, Laughter, Fire and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God
Lauren F. Winner
Some books are read sip by sip, like brandy. Some are read one coffee cup at a time. And then there are those into which you put a straw and drink the whole book in one continuous slurp. Reading Wearing God by Lauren F. Winner was just that — a delicious, stimulating, long slurp. Published in 2015 by Harper One, it is the latest offering from Winner who has authored several books, most recently Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, which won the 2013 Christianity Today Book Award in Spirituality.
Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, the sub-title of Wearing God, contains some of the themes of various chapters in the book. Other themes are: Smell, Bread and Vine, and Laboring Woman. All of these words and phrases are contained in scripture and are metaphors for God. These unfamiliar metaphors are the “overlooked ways” identified by Winner as surprising but useful images for people trying to establish an understanding of who God is and what God’s nature is like. This use of familiar elements and events to tell a story about God and God’s kingdom reflects Jesus’ method of teaching, says Winner, “which specialized in asking people to steep themselves in the words of the scriptures, then to look around their ordinary Tuesdays to see what they could see about holiness and life with God.”
Winner was raised as a Jew, and became an Orthodox Jew in college. She converted to Christianity in her later years in college and in 2011 became an ordained Episcopal priest. In Wearing God, Winner writes that the Bible was held up as centrally important in both of the religious communities to which she belonged, but she herself found the Bible boring. When she was thirty-three, she suddenly woke up to the beauty and power of the Bible and became “…like an infatuated schoolgirl — obsessed. I began to see that one of the amazing things about the Bible is that it’s so multilayered. Even when I think I “understand” a biblical story, even when I think I’ve gotten to “the” kernel of insight the story holds — it turns out there is something more there, something I haven’t yet seen…As a rabbi with the wonderful name of Ben Bag Bag once said of the Talmud, ‘Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look deeply into it, and grow old with it, and spend time over it, and do not stir from it, because there is no greater portion.’ “Winner explains that this is not true of any other great literature she has studied or come to respect.”… I do not for a minute believe that even the best novel endlessly overflows in the same way the Bible does. This amazes me, this endless overflowing.”
Winner writes that as she read through the scriptures, especially as she performed her duties as an Episcopal priest, she realized that there were a few main images of God that were emphasized in the liturgy, for instance, God as King, Light of the World, or Shepherd. As she continued her time in the text, she saw there were many more images of God than those three.”[My] newfound wakefulness to the scriptures led me on a search: what pictures, what images and metaphors, does the Bible give us for who God is, and what ways of being with God might those pictures invite?”
Winner also proposes these questions:
“How do our images of God draw us into worship, reverence, adoration of God?”
“How do our images of God help us greet one another as bearers of the image of God?”
“How do we pray to the God who is king or shepherd?…How does the God who is king or shepherd pray in us?”
Here is a sample of what you will find in the chapter entitled Clothing:
“To my eye, the image sitting at the center of all the Bible has to say about clothing is Paul’s startling statement in Galatians 3:’As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’ God doesn’t just clothe us with skin…; God clothes us with God’s own self… If to change clothes can be to change one’s sense of self; if to change clothes is to change one’s way of being in a world; if to clothe yourself in a particular type of garment is to let that garment shape you into its own shape — then what is it to put on Christ?”
“Alexander McLaren was a nineteenth-century Baptist minister in Manchester England. In his commentary on Romans, I read this: ‘It takes a lifetime to fathom Jesus; it takes a lifetime to appropriate Jesus; it takes a lifetime to be clothed with Jesus. And the question comes to each of us, have we ‘put off the old man with his deeds’? Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?’ “
Throughout Wearing God, Winner draws on the richness of her Jewish heritage, on rabbis and teachers who have influenced her, as well as her own experiences — especially from the correctional facility where she co-leads a Bible study — to illustrate and embellish her development of the various metaphors she is investigating. She also includes many obscure and very beautiful quotes that pertain to the metaphor at hand, for instance in the chapter on clothing there is this:
“Our body became your Garment;
Your spirit became our robe.”
— Ephrem of Syria
Since most of us imagine God as a male, some of the metaphors in Wearing God may be disturbing, such as God being portrayed as a midwife, or as a laboring mother or a nursing woman. All of these descriptions appear several times in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus also identifies with the mother-figure when he calls himself a hen who would gather Israel as chicks under his wings. (Matt 23:37) These are challenging metaphors, but to think of God through these scriptures is to open new ways of understanding God’s unparalleled love for us. Here is God as a midwife:
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.” Psalm 22
Words, images, stories all carry the potential to enlarge or diminish a subject, but when God is the subject, how can our words measure up? As Winner shows us, the powerful metaphoric language of the Bible is a good place to start. I didn’t always enjoy the politics and personal focus of her book, but Winner’s pouring out of metaphor in scripture satisfies like cool, sweet water, and for that I commend Winner and her book, Wearing God.
#Pulpit-prompt -If, as a preacher, you want to have the advantage of reading weekly image exegesis from the scriptures with exquisitely developed narrative and metaphor (narraphor), you can find that here at this website when you subscribe to www.preachthestory.com and click on Master Sermons or Story Sermons.