Our granddaughter Madeline was visiting us last Saturday. Joan had to go to the grocery store, so I was watching Madeline. Her fifth birthday was this past Friday, so we were talking about that, and were having this wonderful conversation, when she asked me how babies got here. So there I was. Her mom and dad weren’t there, Joan was gone, and Madeline’s the kind of kid who just keeps asking the same question over and over until you answer her, so I told her we went to Beasley’s Orchard and picked her off a tree.
“We were all there,” I said. “Your mommy and daddy, me and Nana, your Grandma Debbie and Grandpa Dale. And there you were, high up on a tree, a beautiful little red-head, and we reached up with a long stick and jiggled you around and down you fell, right into a basket.”
She was looking at me sideways.
I said, “Guess what Nana’s last name was before she married me?”
Madeline said, “What?”
I said, “Apple. And where do we get apples?”
“From trees,” Madeline said.
“Well, there you go.”
I could tell she mostly didn’t believe me, but maybe just a little bit of her did, so when Joan got home, the first thing Madeline asked her was, “Papa told me I grew on a tree. Is that right?”
I love my wife with all my heart, and though she has many virtues, science is not her strong suit, and she told Madeline she didn’t grow on a tree. So now Madeline is confused, thanks to Joan. I sympathize with Madeline. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to believe. I remember feeling the same way about the Bible. I’d read about Moses parting the sea or Jesus feeding five thousand people with a handful of fish and bread and thinking to myself it wasn’t true and dismiss the story, thinking if stories weren’t literally true then they had no value.
It eventually occurred to me that that was the same all-or-nothing approach to the Bible that’s always annoyed me about Christian fundamentalism. Same coin, different side. So I began reading the Bible differently. Instead of reading a story and asking, “What proof is there that this story is literally and historically accurate?,” I began to read the stories and say, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder if there is a lesson in it for me?”
So I was thinking about the virgin birth the other day—it’s that time of year—and wondered how important the virgin birth was to people’s faith. We know at one time it was, but I wondered if it still was. So I did what all theologians do. I went on Facebook and asked my Facebook friends how important the doctrine of the virgin birth was to their faith.
I received several hundred answers, some of them very thoughtful, most of them saying “no, it wasn’t important to them.” Of course, a few people were upset I’d even asked the question. A Catholic friend warned me I was playing with fire. A woman named Cynthia wrote to say, “I’m tired of women’s bodies and sex lives being used to prop up patriarchy.” I have a lot of plain-speaking Facebook friends. My friend Scott, a Quaker pastor in North Carolina, wrote, “I guess next you’re going to tell me Joseph wasn’t really a carpenter!”
A woman named Susan private messaged me, saying she had interpreted the story of the virgin birth differently. She wrote, “It’s one of the first significant times in the Bible where God dealt with a woman directly without a man being involved. For one of the first times, a man wasn’t needed to serve as the interpreter or mediator between God and women.”
She said she felt honored and affirmed by the story of the virgin birth.
Well, that’s a neat way of looking at it that I had never considered before. When you think about it, it makes a great deal of sense, and is consistent with other stories in the Bible of God doing wonderful, surprising things through marginalized, ostracized people.
There’s an ancient Talmudic prayer that contains the line, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not created me a woman.” This was part of a morning prayer. Think about that. Mary lived in a culture where the first thing the men did each morning was thank God they weren’t women. So God up-ends that and does something beautiful without involving a man. God partners with Mary to bring Jesus into a world where men thanked God for not having them be born a woman.
God changed the playing field, which God has a way of doing. We create these conventions, these customs, these traditions, these rituals, and say, “This is how God works. This is how God relates to us. This is the procedure by which God is encountered.” And God says, “Wanna bet?” Then God turns to someone we least expect, someone on the sidelines, someone we’ve rejected or scorned, someone we’ve looked at and said, “Thank God I’m not them,” and God does something beautiful through them.
Do you want to hear from God? People tell me all the time they want to sense the presence of God. Do you want to hear from God? Then pay close attention to the people and groups of people you’ve marginalized. God uses them to teach you something. This happened time and again in the Bible.
When the adults in the time of Eli had grown deaf and God had fallen silent, God said, “If the adults won’t listen, I’ll talk to a child.” So God spoke to Samuel and Samuel listened and Israel was renewed. Why, just this week God did the same thing with a 16 year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg.
Jonah hated the Ninehvites and wanted them destroyed, so God used them to teach Jonah about forgiveness and grace.
When women were objectified and vilified, it was Mary who found favor with God.
When the disciples of Jesus scorned the Gentiles, Jesus said of a Roman centurion, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith as his.”
Before Saul became Paul, he despised Stephen and participated in his murder. Then God used Stephen to teach Paul what it meant to have courage.
You know what would be wonderful? When President Trump dies and goes to heaven, (Remember I’m a universalist.) and he has to take his first class on the subject of grace, it will be immigrants, women, and the poor who teach him. Of course, that cuts two ways. When you and I die and we go to heaven, we’ll have to take that same class. Who’s going to teach you? Who’s going to teach me? Who have we dismissed? Who will God use to impart some great truth to us? Pay close attention to the overlooked, God might use them to help us see.