Thursday, January 18, 2007

Recognizing People

Restless and fidgeting, my thoughts drifted away to the Disney movie I was missing as my body prepared for another long sermon. The pastor stood to welcome our visiting evangelist. He proudly exclaimed that we were honored to have such a man speaking at our church and preceded to list off a wide range of accomplishments. Even then, I resisted the praise and silently wondered, “Why is every evangelist that comes to our church the greatest one that has ever come?”

Sometimes I find it difficult to recognize people.

I recognize faces. Sometimes I even remember names. But recognizing the person poses a challenge. Douglas Knight suggests that an essential part of our human calling requires us to give recognition and honor to one another.

Created in the image of God, we enter and leave this world dependent on other people to care for us and sustain us. These fragile states reveal our true condition, our true nature. Even when we feel strongest and most self-reliant, we really never become independent. Humans need other humans to survive.

Or as the Lord says in Genesis, “It is not good that man should be alone.”

In our fragile condition, we desperately need to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to be confirmed, to be validated. In spite of our personal flaws, we still need to be received. John Eldridge compares the delight of heaven to the delight we feel when we walk into a room and someone jumps up with excitement to welcome us. We put welcome mats outside our front door, and we would do well to keep welcome mats inside our hearts.

Each person we encounter, whether they acknowledge it or not, needs to be welcomed. Jesus welcomes marginal people from shifty tax-collectors to the scorned Samaritans to morally questionable women. Jesus intentionally honors the dis-honored. He doesn’t deny their flaws. In fact, he challenges their sinful actions, but he also speaks value and worth to the heart.

Each of us, like the Samaritan woman, encounters Jesus at our weakest point. He meets us in our desperate need for forgiveness and acceptance, for redemption. When we read the words of Scriptures about God’s love for us, or when other people speak those same healing words of love and affirmation, we feel welcomed, we feel valued, we feel recognized.

Yet this same treasure that heals and renews us is sometimes difficult to give back out. I realize that I want to pick and chose the people I recognize. If someone is selfish or prideful or too busy magnifying himself, I want to deny him recognition. I want to refuse him value. I withdraw the welcome mat and immediately resist him.

But grace compels us to love. Those who hype their own accomplishments (whether they’re a visiting evangelist or a proud co-worker) may be the people in the greatest need of a good welcoming. They may be the very ones who struggle at the margins (even while they put up a good front). St. Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees, and yet he needed redemption. When he encountered the love of God in Christ, he abandoned everything to pursue the lover of his soul.

I rejoice that Christ has welcomed me to the marriage feast: in spite of my endless flaws. Expressing my deep gratitude for his welcoming and redeeming Spirit, compels me to go and welcome others.

And so I pray, “Lord grant me grace to recognize and honor all the people around me as humans created in your image. May my words and actions reveal the welcoming and restoring love of Calvary.”

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Graven Images

Epiphany 2007

January 9, 2007
I’m still holding out. My antiqued nativity figures still light up the end of my driveway. I didn’t actually finish making them and setting them out until the week of Christmas, so I hate to take them down right away.

Last year my sister mentioned buying a plastic yard nativity and antiquing it. That sounded like a good idea, so I (and my sister-in-law) collected Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Wise Men, a camel, a sheep, a donkey and a cow.

In early December, I unpacked my nativity and began painting. The process included applying a primer coat of paint, then applying a copper coat and finally adding a dark antique stain that I would rub off with paper towels. This project gave me opportunity to do something with my hands instead of sitting at a keyboard or reading a book.

As I painted, I reflected on the stories and waited for inspiration. I’ve heard monks often pray and meditate while kneading bread, and this seemed like a perfect exercise for reflection while I worked.

But nothing came to me.

I painted, I stained, and I photographed my progress, but somehow the deep insights seemed hidden away. The only thing that came to mind was how the cow reminded me of the golden calf in Exodus. Surely, there must be some other great insight I could gain from this effort. A graven image on display for Christmas doesn’t seem inspirational.

Night after night, I reflected and the graven image idea returned again and again.

Gradually I began to consider what is a graven image? What is an idol? It is a form, a representation and image of the real, but it lacks one vital thing: breath, pneuma, spirit. It’s void of life.

God forbid the ancient Hebrews from creating graven images, and Jeremiah warns that “every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14). Without breath, without spirit, these images are simply forms—not persons.

God is person, and a person cannot be contained in a spiritless image. So when God chose to create an image of Himself, he breathed into it. Created in the image and likeness of God, humans are persons—not graven images. We are vital, living, changing and reproducing beings. When Adam gives birth to Seth the scriptures say, “he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image.”

Just as God creates humans in His own image and likeness, humans create other humans in their image and likeness. A graven image cannot reproduce. It has no vital life. It has no animating spirit. It is frozen in time.

Each year we revisit the stories of Mary and Joseph through plays, nativities, and Scripture readings. Each year we join them in the journey to Bethlehem. Over time, it may be easy to forget that these were real people with real challenges. They may have lived in a different time and different culture, but they still faced the basic struggles of being human. In other words, they weren’t so very different from us.

And yet, they were caught up into a grand drama that occupies our imagination year after year after year. Our nativities can serve as reminders, signposts or snapshots of a moment in time. But Joseph, Mary and Jesus are not suspended in that moment. They lived, and as they lived they faced all the struggles of living in spite of the miraculous tale.

We face the danger of reducing the Biblical characters to graven images, to mere representations, to 2 dimensional figures in a morality play trying to teach us a lesson. We face the danger of forgetting these are stories about real people. When we do so, they seem to tower above us as some mythical cast of characters who lived divinely inspired lives in spite of their faults.

Yet, in reality, they were humans: real people with real struggles unaware of being caught up in the divine drama. And I suspect, most of us, most of the time live our lives unaware that we are caught up in a divine drama.

Just as God breathed into Adam, he breathed into us. That breath, that pneuma, that animating spirit is a vital, reproducing life bestowed on us by God. We are real persons created in the image and likeness of God. We are not graven images.

Jesus came as the perfect, complete image bearer. Jesus came to restore the image of God in us corrupted by sin. Jesus breathes upon His disciples and tells them, “Receive the Spirit.” He restores the vital, animating life of God within His people.

I fear sometimes that we may not always treat one another as real, vital persons created in the image and likeness of God. Instead, we might at times reduce one another to graven images, to mere representations. So we get angry when someone doesn’t act the way we expect, the way our “image of them” suggests they should act.

We may expect them to perform just as the image in our mind suggests they should perform, but they are not that image. They are real people—separate from us with a unique mind and body and spirit. And it is possible, and in fact probable that they will not always see the world as we do. Just as Paul and Barnabas did not always see eye to eye—neither will we.

As we learn to appreciate the people in our lives, we must give them grace to be the people God created them to be. We must trust that the same Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit who groans and works within us, is working in them. They are not created in our image but in the image of God.

As we enter the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the revealing of God to the world in the person of Jesus. I would hope we might also celebrate the image of God in the people of God around us. I would hope that we might remember that each of us have been created in the image and likeness of God.

We are not graven images. We are corrupted images. The nativity tells the story of Jesus coming as the perfect image. The cross tells the story of Jesus restoring and redeeming our corrupted images. The resurrection tells the story of Jesus breathing into His images His animating Spirit.

My nativity sits on the hill as a reminder of the difference between graven images and images of God. I am reminded afresh to acknowledge the persons in my life: my family, my friends, the clerk at the store, the officer giving me a speeding ticket, the waitress forgetting to refill my drink. These are not graven images, they are vital, glorious, wondrous images of God—some living in the reality of that redeeming love and others waiting to be embraced and told of that redeeming love.