A Conversation with Lauren Winner, Part 1

By Mary Kenagy Mitchell
This post originally appeared as a web-exclusive feature accompanying Image issue 84.

Each chapter of Lauren F. Winner’s book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne), explores a single biblical image of God through a mix of exegesis, cultural history, and personal essay. The chapter excerpted in issue 84 is about bread. I asked Winner about her new book, her love of history, her punctuation, and the politics of writing about the Bible.

Mary Kenagy Mitchell for Image: Your new book is about overlooked images of God in the Bible. I imagine there were some images you found that didn’t make it in. Could you talk about some of those?

Lauren Winner: In the scriptures there are a lot of animal and nature images for God—water and rock and so on. I’m especially interested in two from Hosea: there God is likened to dew, and to a tree. I’ve spent time with the tree image, thinking about what trees are, and I have a nascent spiritual practice of tree gazing, where I regularly stare at a magnolia in my yard as a practice of attentiveness.

I love the song “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” It’s not widely known, but it’s wonderful. It’s sung mostly in English churches, or at lessons and carols services at Christmas. I had it sung at my ordination, and I make groups of people sing it whenever possible: [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Prayer”

I used to collect poems that are prayers, so Sharon Cumberland’s “Prayer” immediately leapt out at me from the pages if Image. Leapt out—but then instantly grabbed me uncomfortably in the opening line: “Ignore, O Mystery, this thing You made.” The speaker’s plea to God is not for connection but for separation. Why? Because, as the next lines explain, the speaker feels merely a “thing”—so utterly different from God that she fears even “to conjure You with prayer.” So this will be a prayer about the terrors of praying. Further along, with the line “Hold me, O Mystery,” we think that the relation has changed, that the speaker now longs for connection with God—until the following line (“in your sidelong view”) brutally cuts off any connection in that startling “sidelong view.” The plea to “hold me,” it turns out, is a plea not for physical warmth but for a chilling separation. The poem closes by returning to its opening prayer, but with a difference: the line-breaks now put the speaker as “thing” and a trembling “me” at lines’ ends—until the final, still distant, terrifying “You.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

The “Oh, There You Are” Prayer

image of a large spider dangling from its web.Three egg sacs hang in suspension in the garden near my doorstep. When I look for information online, most resulting websites discuss removal, infestation, means of discarding. The spider has lived between the wall and garden for a little over a month, a strange home in the alley’s wind tunnel. Gusts waver the plants during storms and windy nights, so the spider will sometimes spend hours swinging softly in her silk.

When an egg sac first appeared, I thought it was cloth or dust caught in the web, but then two more sacs jointed the first, cottony orbs like planets stopped in mid-orbit around the spider’s still bulk. One darkened with spiderlings, their bodies softened with newness and the pressure of spherical suspension, all those legs blending and twining together.

The spider and I have an understanding, as spiders and girls understand sometimes wanting to be left alone. She is Steatoda grossa, a false widow. I have no desire to kill her. At first, she was frightened of my footsteps, my tendency to drop my keys into the space of her web. But we’ve learned each other’s habits. I know she rarely moves, preferring to sit fat and splayed in strings that reach to the ground. She is in the same place every morning as she was the previous night. And she doesn’t startle or hide when I run outside, headphones loud, in the early morning.

My heart palpitations are worse in the morning. Cardiologists can’t find a cause or even an effect, the erratic beats a mistake without known consequence. They’re just something to get used to. Because I can’t get used to them, because they still feel like slices of death, I run and shove the headphones all the way in my ears to drown out the mistaken pulse. [Read more…]

This Place is an Altar

black and white image of a large hall filled with chairs and an altar at the front, presumably a church, that is completely empty. By Jason Bruner.

Pastor David—strong, sincere, and confident in his pressed shirt and polished shoes—greets me in the doorway. “This place,” he pauses, looking me in the eye, “is an altar.”

He seems genuinely glad to have an American in attendance, but I am in an entirely different sort of mood.

I’m in Kampala attempting to conduct research on the history of Christianity and medicine, but a staff strike has closed the libraries and archives for most of my trip. And the foreign, bureaucratic process that I hoped would result in a government office’s stamp of approval felt like trying to walk through an M.C. Escher drawing.

Though it is a short trip, I am depressed and lonely. I miss my wife and daughters. But the real problem is not the research or the strike or the distance.

The real problem is that I have been among people for whom faith matters, and not just in the sense of really believing things, but in the sense that they know they wouldn’t be alive—in a strictly biological sense—without it. For them, it is vital, in every sense of that word.

This vitality makes me aware of an absence: What do I have? Do I even believe in God anymore? Does it matter? [Read more…]

God is a Wild Old Dog

Drawing of a dog with its front paws off the ground. The dog is looking backwards slightly, and its tail is up. God is a wild old dog / Someone left out on the highway

—Patty Griffin “Wild Old Dog”

It is the first week of spring and I sit in the small cemetery on our community property. The bench underneath me is green and mossy from the confusion of a mild winter that left us with buds in February and tornado warnings in early March. The daffodils are the earliest signs of life as they begin to bloom around the small gravestones here, some of them marked for infants who died just after birth.

All these natural metaphors are not lost on me: I am seven months pregnant with our fourth child, mourning the death of my dad and the death of our community. After our baby is born, we are likely to move on from this place to another, packing with us all the excitement, grief, worry, and hope we cannot leave behind.

Life, death, suffering, and blessing are huddled so close together that they often resemble one another. It can be confusing to pick through them.

Maybe it is because of my privilege that I don’t wonder where God is in all of this: even if my husband is without a job for a few months, we still have family and friends and savings to fall back on. Or maybe it’s because I’ve discovered something strange about God in the midst of all this confusion and grief. [Read more…]