Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Rachel Marie Stone

"Endlessly Overflowing"

An invitation to sacramental wonder.

Like many children, I loved iridescent things—glitter, tinsel, the sparkles on the bay at sunset, jewelry. One of my cherished possessions was an impossibly tiny gold chain necklace graced by an equally tiny pendant consisting of a chip of a diamond set in fragments of white gold. It was given me by a faithful, much-beloved, and too-soon-departed saint of our congregation, a woman who rocked me and sang to me in the church nursery so that my barely adult parents could go to Bible studies and counseling sessions and grow in their fledgling faith. A few weeks before her death, she called me to wish me a happy third birthday. Her strained and tired voice, coming through the yellow rotary phone, spoke of her love for me—and gave me my earliest clear memory.

Years after her death, someone else gave me a glittering necklace of plastic beads with a glass heart pendant, which held a small quantity of cheap fragrance. As I readied for church one Sunday, I left the diamond-and-gold necklace on top of my dresser and put on the glass one. In my absence, the cat batted it off the dresser. Weeks later it turned up, crushed, tangled, and seemingly irreparable. My grief and guilt were considerable.

Now I can see that there may have been a parable of sorts in my forsaking gold and diamonds for plastic, but then, my faith was of the sort which suggested that to set much store in beautiful but ultimately frivolous things was spiritually unsound. So I tried to talk myself out of my sadness. Even so, whenever the hymn implored me to

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace

I pictured my beautiful "things of earth"—my destroyed jewelry, my sequined sweaters, the shimmer of the Long Island Sound I so deeply loved—and felt a little guilty, because, much as I loved Jesus, those beautiful things never did seem to grow strangely dim. Instead they remained bright and appealing, perhaps especially when I felt I was being asked not to delight in them.

But how does a child learn to reckon God as more beautiful, more awe-inspiring, more iridescent than the countless sparkles that dance upon the surface of the water at dawn and dusk unless she first learns to love these beautiful things themselves? Is not the world itself "charged with the grandeur of God" to "flame out like shining from shook foil"?

Winner is exceptionally well-read and unusually gifted with words, and it is precisely these qualities that make credible her caution against assuming the total adequacy of any particular metaphor for the divine.

"Everything I see of the heavens, I know by the earth." So wrote Pattiann Rogers, quoted in the epigraph to Lauren Winner's newest book, Wearing God, a delightful invitation to practice sacramental wonder: to see, perhaps, that a love of luminous things, of a certain slant of light, is not a distraction from God. Rather, Winner says, "you can discover things about God by looking around your ordinary, everyday life." This, she suggests, is an invitation the Bible itself offers to us. While many of our church traditions "hew closely to two or three favored images of God, turning to them in prayer and song and sermon," Scripture—not to mention the church throughout history—suggests hundreds of metaphors for our consideration and contemplation, many of which are as near to us as our own skin, our clothes.

Winner, who has chronicled her spiritual pilgrimage in three previous books, confesses that only recently has what she calls the Bible's "endlessly overflowing" quality impressed itself on her. As she "began to be awake to the Scriptures" in a new way, Winner recognized the inadequacy of her mental image of God: "some combination of sage professor and boyfriend." That didn't satisfy her any more, given the "voluble and variable witness of the Scriptures."

An admirable humility characterizes the book throughout. Winner is exceptionally well-read and unusually gifted with words, and it is precisely these qualities that make credible her caution against assuming the total adequacy of any particular metaphor for the divine. The book carefully honors the apophatic at its opening and its close: "maybe … the best way to speak about God [is] to say and then unsay whatever we say." This would smack of evasiveness were it not for Winner's thoughtful exploration of oft-neglected scriptural metaphors for the divine: clothing, fragrance, laboring woman, bread and vine, flame. "Each image," Winner writes, "invites a different response from us," a different way of being "friends with God." God is bread and the One who offers the bread; God is clothing, the One who clothes, and the One who invites us to share in his work of clothing those in need. God is the One who births, the One birthed, and the One who assists the birth.

In offering these images for our consideration, Winner shows that the things of earth needn't grow strangely dim in order for us to see God; we can see aspects of God's ultimately ineffable nature precisely in the things of this earth. To imagine God as clothing—as the kind of clothing that, like a school uniform, downplays distinction and promotes unity; as a comfortable garment that hugs bodies close and covers whatever shame we carry—is to imagine and perhaps experience the immanence of the transcendent.

Some readers may take the event of this book's publication as an opportunity to denounce Winner as heretical, while others will merely patronize her as confused, trendy, lacking the proper rigor; throughout, she reverently and thoughtfully uses both feminine and masculine pronouns for God. But images of God as Mother are as old as Isaiah and older than the church. Winner does not invoke them for shock value or to advance a particular agenda but rather to underline that the Bible insistently reminds us of the inadequacy of any single metaphor or family of metaphors for the God who will always exceed our grasp.

And Wearing God is pastorally grounded. Throughout the book, Winner draws on her weekly work teaching in a women's prison near Duke Divinity School, where she is a professor. At any given time, 6-10 percent of incarcerated women in the United States are pregnant, Winner notes. What does it look like for God to be with them, in their identical prison uniforms, shackled in childbirth? Winner reflects that the first images that come to her mind when she considers many familiar biblical metaphors (white upper-middle-class versions of bread and wine and breastfeeding and clothing) are quite distant from the experience of her prison students.

But the reality of the living God—at once the Creator of all that is, utterly beyond our ken; the Savior who came among us; and the Spirit indwelling us—challenges the understanding of all people, everywhere, whatever their circumstances (most definitely including those who have been brought up in Christian settings). "Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?" Winner asks, musing that "the lectionary crafters [must have found Isaiah's] picture of God squatting and grunting [in labor] as discomfiting as I do." The Bible, in its endlessly overflowing language, does not share our squeamishness. It can still surprise and unsettle us. Winner's book is a winsome prod to regard Scripture—and the world around us—afresh, again and again, and, in so doing, to renew our sense of wonder and strengthen our friendship with God.

Wearing God made me think of my younger son, who loves the beautiful things of nature and culture and is on friendly terms with God. He's often the first one to point out the glittering fractals of frost on the windows, or the watercolor luminescence of a sunset, and to attribute it to God's paintbrush, God's ice-sculpture. And he is the first to admire a particularly beautiful piece of jewelry. For him there is no dimness in the things of earth, no need to look away from them to see the glory of God. And perhaps that's as it should be.

Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press).

Most ReadMost Shared