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Freed from mermaid captivity

Scholar, priest Lauren Winner illuminates Sabbath-keeping by telling her conversion story

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Some of the 900 college students attending the College Conference at Montreat sing Friday morning. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

MONTREAT, North Carolina — On Friday the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School and is vicar at a small Episcopal church in North Carolina, told about 900 people attending the College Conference at Montreat a story “it took me many years to tell with a straight face.”

Winner, who grew up an observant Jew, described a dream she had during her sophomore year in college that helped lead to her conversion to Christianity. In her dream, she and a friend are kidnapped by a band of mermaids. “It turns out mermaids are really nice captors,” she said. “We could do what we wanted, but we couldn’t go home.”

After a year in captivity, a group of men came to rescue the two (“I’ve always been troubled by the gender dynamic of this dream,” she said). While most of the rescuers “were paunchy NFL-watching types,” one looked more like Daniel Day Lewis in “The Last of the Mohicans,” she said.

“We were rescued, and I woke up,” Winner said. The unique part of the dream for this Jewish college student was that she woke up “completely certain this dream came from God, and the rescuing figure in my dream was Jesus saving me.”

“This was existentially unsettling for me,” she said, and so she put the dream away for a couple of years.

The Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School and is vicar at a small Episcopal church, was keynote speaker Friday at the College Conference at Montreat. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Two years later, she found herself in a New York bookstore, where she discovered Jan Karon’s Mitford novels. Set in North Carolina, the popular series centers on Father Tim, a pastor to his neighbors who falls in love with “a children’s author with great legs,” Winner said. Their dog, Barnabas, is controlled by the recitation of Bible verses.

“I read two of those books, and I just wanted to move to Mitford even though it’s a fictional town,” Winner said. “They lived lives infused with spirituality, and I just yearned for that.”

“In hindsight, it was God’s humor,” she said. “I would rather tell you it was Dostoevsky or Bath, but it was these middlebrow novels.”

Winner moved to England for a master’s degree, then returned to Columbia for her doctorate.

“I was the most zealous convert you would hope not to meet,” she said of her time in England. Once she was back in New York, she had to “explain myself to those who’d known me as an observant Jew,” she said. “I also had to reckon with what I’d lost by leaving Judaism.”

The foremost thing she lost, she said, was “a robust Sabbath observance. As an observant Jew, (Sabbath) was nothing but a gift. It was a day that was truly set aside from the rhythms of work and the week, for intimacy with others and myself and with God.” By giving that up, “Contemporary Christians have simply abandoned a spiritual gift, and that seems insane to me,” Winner said. “I have tried to recreate for myself what might be a faithful Christian version of that. At best, I have done that inconsistently. I think Sabbath-keeping is a communal undertaking.”

Sabbath, she said, is a “picture of eternity. We are practicing for what the next life will be,” including reconciling with our enemies. “Someday,” she said, “I will not struggle with Sabbath-keeping.”

For Jews, the choreography for Sabbath-keeping is twofold, she said: avoid work and do things that are joyful or playful. For observant Jews, the first task is more complicated, because there’s a relatively long list of activities that are considered work, such as ripping something, including toilet paper, in half.

“It can look burdensome and ridiculous from the outside,” she said. “But all those things we refrain from doing are things that, however subtly, change Creation. When we stop changing Creation for one day a week, we are invited to remember we are not the Creator; we are the creation.”

Think of Sabbath as an invitation, she told the students.

“All of Scripture is a series of invitations to dwell with God,” she said, including the law given on Mt. Sinai and God’s covenants with Abraham and Noah.

“I feel confident God could enjoy Sabbath all by God’s self,” she said. “And yet God so wants to be in relationship and intimacy with us that God invites us to enter into that Sabbath with God. For me, that’s an invitation to a particular kind of intimacy with God.”

She placed two asterisks next to her assertions.

“I don’t mean to suggest we can’t have intimacy with God outside of Sabbath-keeping,” she said. “But Sabbath is when we are most likely to notice God.”

And beware of secular versions of the Sabbath, Winner advised.

“They are capitalist justifications for Sabbath-keeping: Rest one day so you can be more productive the other six days,” she said. “That’s probably true, but it’s not Sabbath-keeping.”

When students go home Sunday, they can “do what you want with this experience,” she said. “But while we’re here, have some focused time with ourselves, our neighbors and with God.”

The College Conference at Montreat concludes Sunday morning with worship. Read about opening worship here.

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