Neither this nor that

by Elouise

Mary and Martha, He Qi

In the late 1970s I was studying theology at Vanderbilt University. Getting through coursework and comprehensive exams was frightful enough. But more terrifying was the requirement that I write a dissertation that would make a new ‘contribution’ to scholarship.

What could I possibly write that would be new or fresh? I thought I needed a brilliant insight that would feed my teaching and scholarship for the rest of my life. Sort of like finding a gold mine that never fails to deliver.

I didn’t want a Dry Idea, or a Refurbished Model of The Whole Universe under God. I wanted to find a mother lode. Just one brilliantly simple idea I could spin a thousand ways without ever running out of something important to say. Of course I didn’t find a mother lode. Even so, I made it through the hoops and graduated.

Several years later, now teaching theology at a seminary, I developed what amounted to loss of nerve, if not a scholarly phobia. I feared I was running out of interesting things to say or write. Just any day now, my well would run dry, and I’d be up a creek with no water, no canoe, no paddle and no gold.

George MacDonald seems to have something similar in mind.

August 8

It is thyself, and neither this nor that,
Nor anything, told, taught, or dreamed of thee,
That keeps us live. The holy maid who sat
Low at thy feet, choosing the better part,
Rising, bore with her—what a memory!
Yet, brooding only on that treasure, she
Had soon been roused by conscious loss of heart.

George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul
Augsburg Fortress Press 1994

The “holy maid” is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus commends Mary for “choosing the better part.” Going against the culture of her day, she sat there at his feet and listened to him.

Imagine it. One chance in a lifetime to hear Jesus up close and personal. A memory to cherish forever. The moment she’ll never forget.

Yet MacDonald raises a caution flag. Could this be something like hoarding? Clinging to the past? A sign of fear lest this moment pass into oblivion and leave her stranded high and dry?

I know this temptation to hold something close, take it out and look at it, write it down, and repeat it a thousand different ways. Yet sooner or later the glow begins to fade.

Why? Because I’m no longer live. I’m not dead, but maybe I’m fading into a mere shadow of what I might be.

Mary wasn’t live because she was sitting at the feet of Jesus taking in his teaching. She was live because of Jesus—the Son of God. Not just in that moment, but from one second to the next. Totally dependent upon God in Christ connecting with her life to make it live, not dead or dying.

Hoarding doesn’t work, no matter how many insights I might collect or have about Jesus, God or God’s Spirit. Being live isn’t about storing things up so I can draw on them later.

It’s about what God gives you and me from one moment to the next. It’s the capacity to bubble, ferment, grow, energize. Think of live light bulbs, wires, batteries, yogurt cultures and yeast. It seems the only other option is to rot, mold, mildew, and lose heart.

I love high and holy moments. Yet they can’t enliven me from moment to moment. Not even Christian faith can do that. Only the Creator and Sustainer of Life can do that.

This is the treasure, the mother lode. It’s God’s gift received moment by moment. Inexhaustible and good. Good for my life, my heart, my neighbors and this world God loves so much.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 February 2016
Painting by He Qi found at