A Divine Gift by Elise M. Edwards

Elise Edwards

I recently graduated with a PhD, and I have been fortunate enough to have many occasions to celebrate this milestone within the past month.  At the beginning of this month, I visited my parents in my hometown, and they threw a graduation party for me.  In addition to a great number of family members and friends who came to the party, several members of the Baptist church I attended in my 20s and early 30s came to celebrate as well.  I received many wonderful graduation gifts.  Surprisingly, some of the gifts led me to reflect on my faith convictions, namely some of the tensions I wrestle with.

A woman whom I had served on many committees with and worked closely with on plays and other artistic activities gave me an especially thoughtful gift.  It is a beautiful wooden plaque with the word “STRENGTH” at the top in capital letters and my name at the bottom in capital letters.  In between the two are decorative flourishes and these words from the New King James Bible: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

It is a common verse, one that is recited often by well-meaning Christians in difficult times.  I was delighted to receive the gift that features this Scripture verse.  It seemed to me an acknowledgment of God’s presence with me through the degree process.  And I have to admit, I do feel stronger now that I have emerged from it than I did much of the time I was in graduate school.  But that verse prompted me to ponder this question: Does God give me supernatural strength, support, or some kind of divine favor?

I feel God’s presence, and this is itself a blessing, something that strengthens me and supports me.  But there are also times I feel like God has made my path a little easier, put key people in my path, and placed me in the right place at the right time.  Also, as I admitted to many of my close friends and family members as we were celebrating, I have also felt that God granted me the innermost desires of my heart (another common church phrase based on Scripture) when unexpected things that I hoped for have occurred.

One tension that I struggle with in claiming some kind of special blessing, divine favor or assistance as a Christian is the seeming unfairness of it.  Why should I get some sort of special treatment from God?  This question presumes that God does not give the same kind of treatment or favor or assistance to others who do not share my faith.  I do believe that God blesses non-Christians.  But the tension is in this passage: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  The assumption is that those who do not have a relationship with Christ to not have the same strength.

That this passage comes from one of Paul’s letters also complicates my reading and interpretation of it.  Paul has been accused of being sexist, misogynistic, extremist, and many other things my feminist self challenges.  So to hang words attributed to him on my wall could present a conflict.  But I look forward to hanging this gift in my office, despite the questions intentions it raises.

I feel happiness when I look at the plaque–and that emotion is not conflicted.  The gift is a visible reminder of a friendship that endures despite time and distance.  And as it relates to my faith, it is a reminder that God stands with me, as does a loving faith community.  Philippians 4:13 is at the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, as he is thanking them for thinking of him.  In the New International Version, the Bible I use for personal reflection, this verse and the one before it read: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

By no means have I mastered contentment, but I have learned some key lessons in it during graduate school.  I am grateful to have a visible reminder of the strength that God has given me because I think it sustains even a mind who wrestles to accept it.

Elise M. Edwards is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University, where she recieved a PhD in Religion with an emphasis on Theology, Ethics, and Culture.  In her dissertation, she acknowledges “I owe sincere gratitude to the faith communities that have lifted me up in prayer, equipped me spiritually, and reminded me who my work is intended to ultimately serve: Clifton Park Baptist Church, The Church at Convergence, SHE Mosaic Inland, and a women’s prayer group in Cape Town, South Africa.”  Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

Categories: Bible, Christianity, Community, Feminism, General, God, God-talk, Jesus, Women and Community

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9 replies

  1. The Divine manifests in as many ways we each of us call for intersession. For you, it is Jesus. For me, the Holy Mother.
    This is not polytheism. Simply an aknowledgement of all the uncountable forms in which the order and beauty of divinity is shown to us.
    My Goddess doesn’t privilege me above others, she simply answers, guides and protects me, in the same way as Jesus does you.
    The ways and means with which we turn to the divine are partly cultural, partly of our own discovery, but the underlying truth and beauty is the same for every one of us.


    • “The Divine manifests in as many ways we each of us call for intersession. For you, it is Jesus. For me, the Holy Mother. This is not polytheism.” June, that’s actually the reason for polytheism. Humans — like the blind men and the elephant — see the divine in many different ways. The divine is way beyond our limited abilities to fathom, so we each see just a piece of it. And polytheists, like myself, recognize this truth. We know that the divine is one (just as monotheists tell us), that we are a part of it, and we acknowledge our own limitations while still validating our personal connection(s) to the divine as gods and goddesses that operate in our lives.


  2. Congratulations on your PHD and your newfound strength!

    I have struggled with the issue of divine presence in my life–especially when I felt Goddess/God did not fulfill the desires of my heart. I feel Goddess always with me, but I do not attribute any particular outcome in my life or the lives of others to Her specific will. I think Her will is for all of Her “children” human and other than human to flourish as much as conditions of life on planet earth allow.

    Beyond that, a multiplicity of wills as well as chance determine our specific lives.

    Anyway, that is how I have come to see it.

    Blessings in your post graduate school new life!!! And may you help to make the world a better place for all beings in the web of life.

    I know you will because I sense your loving spirit in all of your words.


    • Carol, to get an ‘outcome’ you need to employ magic !! ie you need to work with the divine as manifested in the natural world in order to bring about certain alignments. (This is so-called ‘natural’ magic, as distinct from ‘ceremonial’ magic which is more a boy thing)

      Magic is every woman’s birthright. But its not the same thing as prayer.
      You can be prayerful and a practicing witch: I know, I am.

      Blessings on y’all, June


    • Your writing about the multiplicity of wills concept really helped me come to a place of understanding of some previously, seemingly-unresolvable questions, Carol. Thanks for that!


  3. Congratulations Elise! And what a wonderful gift from a dear friend, to encourage you in the months and years ahead.

    I’m not an academic: I don’t even have a degree, but I do discuss religion and God with people from many backgrounds and beliefs, including atheists. Even in offices and work canteens!

    What I discern is how divine power works through all people’s lives, particularly through unexpected events, tests, and gifts which the receiver would never have imagined possible. I do encourage people to see this as “good fortune” at the very least, or a manifestation of the divine at best. As for tests, I choose to sit in solidarity beside the person, as too many of us are frightened by tragedy.

    In these straitened times, people everywhere are looking for hope, and that is what our faith and Jesus’s life teaches us. Away from the media glare, that is what distinguishes Christians: hope in the midst of sometimes terrible darkness; that and community. We are given hope, to give hope to others, through words, and kind actions. Christ is for all time and all people. Be blessed


  4. Congratulations on your Ph.D. It’s an initiatory experience that does indeed require great persistence and strength. Someone once told me that if we pray for strength, however, our god or goddess will give us calisthenics to help us build our strength. Spiritual workouts. Hooray!


  5. Congratulations, Elise. Finishing your Ph.D. is indeed a big milestone. I remember.

    I don’t think you need to worry about the Christocentric content of your wall plaque. It’s YOUR truth. For you it is Christ who gives you strength. For me, it’s usually 3 Goddesses who help and guide me. I think it’s important to name our personal truth, and accept the personal truth of others without judgement.

    But each of us also needs to open ourselves up for this spiritual help and guidance. And in this culture we don’t learn how to do that. What I’m doing lately is reminding myself with post-it notes around the house to feel the Goddess’s presence, to be open to Their strength and ease, and to live out of that strength.


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