At the sound of the seventh trumpet, loud voices were heard in heaven. They said,
“Now the kingdom
of this world
belongs to our Lord
and to his Chosen One!
And he will rule
forever and ever!”
Then the twenty-four elders, who were seated on thrones in God’s presence, knelt down and worshiped him. They said,
“Lord God All-Powerful,
you are and you were,
and we thank you.
You used your great power
and started ruling.
When the nations got angry,
you became angry too!
Now the time has come
for the dead
to be judged.
It is time for you to reward
your servants the prophets
and all of your people
who honor your name,
no matter who they are.
It is time to destroy everyone
who has destroyed
The door to God’s temple in heaven was then opened, and the sacred chest could be seen inside the temple. I saw lightning and heard roars of thunder. The earth trembled and huge hailstones fell to the ground. (CEV)
The book of the Revelation was a vision given to the Apostle John late in his life. At the turn of the first century, Christ’s Church was facing a great deal of difficulty and hardship. Christians were in the minority; looked at with suspect; misunderstood; often persecuted because of false information. In short, all the kinds of things that Jewish people currently face and have faced for millennia were true of the early believers in Jesus.
Therefore, the purpose of the vision to John was not to give slick preachers a reason to craft elaborate prophecy charts about what’s going to happen in the future. Instead, God was concerned for the welfare of his people. The vision was meant to bring encouragement that this present hard situation will not always be this way. The danger and adversity will not last forever. There is a day coming when God’s judgment and benevolent rule will reign in its fullness. In other words, our prayers will be answered that have been offered for centuries: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
God did not want his beloved children to succumb to discouragement and lose heart. So, the vision from John assured them that all will be made right. Jesus is Lord, and his good rule will have the day. Yes, we currently live in a world profoundly touched by sin and death. And because of that we feel pain and must endure the hardships of things like COVID-19 and economic woes. It is possible to observe it all and experience its effects and fall into despair, and, so, give-in to unhealthy ways of coping with the circumstances around us.
We graciously have been given a glimpse into how all of history will shake-out in the end. That peek into what’s coming ahead is meant to bring us needed encouragement, steadfast hope, and patient endurance. There is coming a day when our own personal and local expressions of grief and lament will give way to praise and gratitude to God. And that incredible praise will explode with all believers, past and present, along with all creation, proclaiming together: “Lord God All-Powerful, you are and you were, and we thank you. Now the kingdom of this world belongs to our Lord and to his Chosen One! And he will rule forever and ever!” Amen, and amen.
Click Hope in God to gain some encouragement from singer and songwriter Ken Medema.
my Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy! If you kept track of sins, Lord— my Lord, who would stand a chance? But forgiveness is with you— that’s why you are honored.
I hope, Lord. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord— more than the night watch waits for morning; yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!
Israel, wait for the Lord! Because faithful love is with the Lord; because great redemption is with our God! He is the one who will redeem Israel from all its sin. (CEB)
Throughout church history, the book of Psalms has been used and understood as the Church’s prayer book. Indeed, the psalms are much more than a collection of beautiful poems, words of assurance, and songs of praise – they are designed for regular and ongoing use as prayers. And I’m not just talking about the psalms being somebody else’s prayers; they are my prayers and your prayers.
There are times when words fail us – where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and want to pray. Yet, our stress and/or anxiety is so high that we can neither think straight nor form anything coherent with our mouths. It is in such times that the psalms present themselves to us as the path forward.
What’s more, psalms are meant to be spoken out loud and more than once. And I’m not talking about saying them with a quiet mumble or a flat monotone. No! These precious prayers of Holy Scripture are meant to be declared with full voice and a large amount of flavor! They are to repeatedly roll off our lips with all the emotional and spiritual gusto which resides within us! Tears and yelling are both appropriate and encouraged. For we do not possess merely a heady faith of thoughts and ideas; we possess a faith that is robustly heartfelt, and dwells down deep in the gut where our bowels of compassion have their abode.
Even with a cursory reading of today’s psalm, we easily observe that there’s more going on here than cognitive beliefs of faith, hope, and love. The psalmist is expressive, clinging to faith with a patient longing for God to make good on his promises. It is chocked full of emotion, a prayer coming from the depths of the gut. The whole being is involved, and rightly so, because our faith affects the entirety of a person and everyone in the community of the redeemed.
If this psalm resonates with you in any way, let your proclamation of it be with the expanse of feeling inside you. After all, as people created in the image of God, we share God’s own deep sense of love – and love is truly love when it is outwardly expressed with a sacred combination of words, actions, and feelings.
Click Psalm 130 and enjoy the psalm set to song by Keith and Kristyn Getty.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I have all that I need.” –Psalm 23:1 (NLT)
I once had a neighbor named Art. Art was a shepherd. He spent a good chunk of his day, every day, leading his sheep around his five acres of property across the road from me. On occasion, Art would politely ask if some of his sheep could come to my backyard and feed on some of the wild plants that were in abundance. I was amazed how “artfully” he cared for his sheep.
It seems to me that sheep get a bad rap. I typically hear them referred to as stupid. Having grown up in rural Iowa, I realize there are animals that are not so bright. Sheep aren’t one of them. Cows, however, are. I think when God created cows the raccoons came along and stole some of their brains. There’s a reason sheep possess the reputation of lacking smarts – sheep are prone to being afraid. They get spooked easily. And, when they get skittish and scared, they tend to panic. More than once I’ve seen a flock of sheep run full-steam head-first into a stone wall. If you don’t know much about sheep and come along and see this, they most certainly appear to be downright stupid. Yet, sheep are really, quite intelligent. It’s just when fear overcomes them, they can do some nonsensical things.
The presence of a faithful shepherd makes all the difference. Sheep become familiar with their shepherd and learn to depend on them. There were times that Art had to leave the sheep alone and I would do a sort of babysit with them. Around me the sheep were cautious and had their guard up. The presence of anxiety was clear. When Art showed up, he didn’t have to say a word. I could feel and observe the flock collectively relaxing.
God is the ultimate shepherd of the sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. When we sense the presence of God’s Spirit, there is faith, trust, and confidence which brings to us a settled conviction of calm and comfort. When that sense is not there, we do things like buy two pallets of toilet paper and try to bring it home in a compact car. It’s non-sense.
Psalm 23 is a beloved portion of Scripture for a reason; it helps us as sheep to settle down and trust, even in the middle of uncertainty and anxiety. God’s presence + God’s provision + God’s protection = God’s providential care.
God’s presence is constant, not sporadic; his provision is enough, not stingy; and, his protection is total, not partial.
Experiencing that God is present, that he watches over us and gives generously to us is the balm we need. It melts our fear in the face of pandemics and poverty; helps us relax in a deteriorating economic climate; and, inoculates us from believing the sky is falling. Our courage and confidence cannot be ginned-up through sheer willpower; it comes as we get to know the great shepherd of the sheep standing there watching over us.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” God is personal, not generic. God is the great “I AM,” the God who is. The Lord ismy shepherd, not was, or will be – is. God is not just somebody else’s God and shepherd, but my shepherd. Shepherd is an apt term because a shepherd cares for the sheep – watches over them, is present with them, protects them, and provides whatever they need to both survive and thrive.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God benevolently leads us; and, does not act outside of his character and attributes. If we believe this about the great “I AM,” then worry and anxiety begins to diminish. Too many of us suffer from the heebie-jeebies because we don’t see the shepherd standing in the field watching over us. The answer to our worry is not to keep telling ourselves to stop being anxious. With God on the job as shepherd I shall not be in want: period. We are presently in troubled times. Fear can grab hold and prevent us from living with settled and reasonable intention with a plan toward the future. Every day we see folks running headlong into a stone wall. It’s okay to be afraid; it is not okay to let fear rule our lives. The solution is to speak, despite your fear; to act, despite your worry; to live, knowing God has your back.
This present situation of many people spending time at home and away from others is a kind of forced monastic life. It is an opportunity to let our souls be restored. In this season of Lent, people in the Christian tradition focus on the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, and spiritual reading. The world is getting the chance to discover the spirituality that has always been within them. Perhaps, by the grace of a good God, there will be a great personal and systemic spiritual healing within the lives of millions – as our normal routines are upended and changed.
God Is Present
Within much of Hebrew poetry, the focus of the writing is found smack in the middle. Everything before it builds toward it; everything after it point back. And what is in the middle of Psalm 23 is that God is with us. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though it may seem that everything is bleak and that all things are against me – God is with me, which is why I do not succumb to fear. We walk through the valley, not around it. That is, God is with us right smack in the middle of our trouble. God does not cause us to avoid unpleasant circumstances. Instead, God promises to be with us through them. The way to deliverance is to confront our fears and walk with God, rather than expecting God to take away everything unpleasant that we don’t like.
“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” My neighbor Art had a shepherd’s crook. He mostly used it as a walking stick. Yet, I did see times when he fended-off predators seeking to get to the sheep. More often, Art used his shepherd’s crook as a way of guiding the sheep where they could feed and be protected. The discovery of God’s guidance comes from movement and creativity. We experience the leading we want through embracing the uncomfortable in the confidence that God provides and protects through the trouble, and not apart from it.
“You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” Even with the enemy of disease, death, and disorder surrounding us, God’s presence is such that his protection and provision are providentially working to create blessing in the middle of trouble. Whereas fear and panic believe in a culture of scarcity, a culture of abundance discerns that there is plenty for all and will thus work toward equitable distribution and fostering an egalitarian spirit.
“You anoint my head with oil.” This is an act of refreshment, and of encouragement. It is necessary for me to be at least somewhat out and about these days because of what I do. I have witnessed many instances of basic human kindness and thoughtfulness – deeds done with the other in mind.
“My cup overflows.” This is the reality that the blessings are abundant – even within troubled times. God’s provision is right here, amidst the worst of circumstances. We don’t have to pick a fight with someone in the Costco parking lot who has what I want to get the things we need.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” It is easy to believe that God’s goodness and love will follow me when my health is good, my income is solid, and I have plenty of friends around me. It is another thing to have an awareness of that goodness in dark days. Yet, God’s love and goodness hasn’t sequestered itself. God providentially uses each life situation and bends it to redemptive purposes.
Experiencing God’s presence, provision, and protection brings contentment and confidence. The radical nature of Psalm 23 is that peace is realized while chaos and uncertainty is all around us. Establishing spiritual practices that reinforce our sense of security can aid us through difficulty and hardship. With the settled conviction that God indeed has our backs and stands as the divine sentinel watching over the beloved sheep, we find the ability to relax and trust that all is well with my soul.
Lord, help me to relax.
Take from me the tension
that makes peace impossible.
Take from me the fears
that do not allow me to venture.
Take from me the worries
that blind my sight.
Take from me the distress
that hides your joy.
Help me to know
that I am with you,
that I am in your care,
that I am in your love,
that you and I are one,
I encounter many different people in my daily workaday world as both a church pastor and hospital chaplain. Perhaps it goes without saying that this rapidly changing environment of taking precautions with the COVID-19 virus has us all stressed, me included. From my vantage of daily spiritual ministry with both parishioners and patients, it is important and necessary to take the coronavirus seriously without panicking. Here’s what I see works and what doesn’t work when it comes to the pandemic.
What works is taking the situation seriously. Last year 32 million people contracted the flu in this country. Yes, every year people die from the flu. What’s different about COVID-19 is that, thus far, 1% of everyone who has the virus died. Stick with me here. If there were no precautions, no social distancing, and business as usual, it is likely that tens of millions of people would get the virus. With a 1% death rate, 320,000 Americans would die. Ignorance really does kill people.
Getting your information from reputable sources works. It is available. Use it. The Center for Disease Control keeps its website updated with an abundance of helpful information. And, if you think you may have symptoms of the virus or have been exposed, please, don’t go to your local hospital’s ED. Call the COVID-19 HOTLINE at 866-443-2584. You will likely need to wait, so, please, be patient.
Social distancing works. If I can stop the spread of the virus through canceling church services for a while and speaking with patients on the phone instead of in person, then I’ll do it. If my actions prevent the immunocompromised people I love and even the ones I will never meet to live, then this is not even a question about whether I’ll practice social distancing, or not.
Practicing self-care works. It does neither me nor anyone else any good if we constantly give without receiving. Healthy relationships have a healthy rhythm of both giving and receiving. Taking the time to do what makes your soul happy is vital. I am presently being stretched in new and different ways. Handling two jobs isn’t easy to begin with. Under these present conditions, it could be a crushing load – that is, if I neglect caring for myself.
What doesn’t work is being in panic mode. 80% of the people who contract the virus will be just fine, if they care for themselves, stay home, and get better. Yes, we don’t have a choice whether to go to the gym or eat out at a restaurant. There are things we can’t do, whether it is going to our jobs or our schools. The pandemic is straining our economy and personal finances. That doesn’t mean the sky is falling.
Practicing the age-old sin of avarice through hoarding doesn’t work. Folks panicking through inordinate stocking of meds, goods and services are needlessly and wantonly stretching the healthcare and service systems which are trying to help. We do not live in a culture of scarcity. Hoarding helps no one.
Brazenly telling people to get a grip doesn’t work. Within the same conversation I have heard individuals express things like “It’s all a conspiracy,” to the other extreme of “What are you even doing here? Trying to get me sick?” and overreacting in fear. If I am honest with myself, I sometimes do the same thing in my own head. One minute I want to enter patient rooms and parishioner homes, wanting to help any way I can in a precautions-be-damned sort of mode. The next minute I’m pondering going full Grizzly Adams, secluding myself in the Northwoods and befriending a bear – all in the concern for not passing on the virus to people I care about. All these words and thoughts are windows into people’s grief over the significant losses and changes thrust upon them. They need to express their grief without flippantly being told they need to get a hold of themselves. This is a time for patient listening and basic kindness toward our fellow humanity so that we all get through this experience. It doesn’t work to frame the situation as God’s judgment or people’s lack of faith. Even if that were so, we still need to exercise grace and compassion in a time of need. I invite you to interpret another’s complaining and/or quarreling as a window into their grief of the changes they are experiencing.
Making a joke of the current COVID-19 doesn’t work. Although wise and well-timed levity and laughter can aid in coping within all the brevity, misplaced humor can be cruel and damaging. Those who know me expect funny stuff from me. Yet, there’s nothing funny about a virus going around that could do some real harm to the immunocompromised people that I love and care for. I would suggest this rule of thumb: If making jokes is a way of avoiding your own emotions and feeling the sadness and heaviness of the circumstance, then don’t make jokes; and, if the meme or joke is thoughtful and could lighten people’s load a bit, then, yes, thank you of thinking of others.
There is for us a unique opportunity in this season of Lent. For many Christians, each year during these weeks becomes a focus on solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, spiritual reading, repentance and other disciplines of faith. We seek to journey with Jesus in the desert, following him in his ways. Whether we like it, or not, solitude has been forced upon us. We have the chance to come face to face with our own inner selves; to check-in on our elderly neighbors; to connect with our family; to creatively find new green pastures; to pay attention to the values which are most important to us. We can bless small business owners with our patronage. We can find ways to bless the world.
May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift-up his face to you and grant you peace. Amen.
I recently needed to miss a few days of work because I was down and voiceless with strep throat. Since my bread-and-butter workaday life involves interacting with lots of people, I had to remain alone and sequestered to not get other folks sick, or sicker than they already are. Even though I knew I was right where I’m supposed to be, it didn’t feel good. I’m not really talking about being physically down and uncomfortable; I’m referring to an old insidious inner voice that took the opportunity to chime-in with my inability to speak.
I grew up on a stoic German heritage family farm. Our values (mostly unstated, but you always knew they were there) revolved largely around hard work, independence, and getting things done. Part of the unwritten creed was that you don’t get sick. Illness is weakness. Oh, not so much for other people. For the neighbors that was fine. It was okay and encouraged to help and support them if there was illness.
My dormant inner-critic (apparently lurking in the shadows just looking for the opportunity to be thoroughly revived and imbibed with the tonic of can-do’ism) starts-up with the old creed: “You’re not that sick. You’re just lazy. Get off your butt and quit making other people do your job for you!”
I’m not proud of my inner critic. In fact, he’s downright annoying. I don’t much like him. Yet, by now in life I have come to learn that when the inner critic is having a voice it can only mean one thing: there’s some sort of anxious shame belief fueling him.
Shame researcher (yep, there is such a thing) Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” As my native Wisconsinite friends would say: “Oofda.”
Shame is as old as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It goes beyond the sense of guilt of having done something we regret, to interpreting that sense of wrongness as having to do with our very personhood. Some folks with shame try to work to get their honor restored through being a peacock – a kind of arrogant posturing and preening to put up the appearance that they are valuable and worthy of acknowledgment and love. Others go the opposite direction and thoroughly denigrate themselves, withdrawing into an abyss of self-loathing. This, of course, down deep in the slimy pit, is where the inner critic lives as some sort of large man-child who sits in the basement eating stale potato chips and drinking warm beer, having convinced himself that the world is too dangerous a place to dwell.
Whether a peacock or a man-child, both persons have the common problem of using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with (or avoid) the awful sense of shame. Alcoholism and addictions, and thoughts and plans of suicide are just a few of the ways shame is dealt with. These ways are devised to run as far away from the feelings of shame as one can get. The inner critic, the judgmental voice within, seems to always paint the worst picture of no-win scenarios. If we seek to become vulnerable and speak of what is truly inside us to others, the inner critic chimes-in with what a terrible idea this is – putting yourself at risk for more hurt. Yet, if we clam-up and go back to unhealthy ways of coping, the inner critic berates us with a cascade of expletives that we would never dream of saying to another person.
As you can see, the inner critic is really us. Therefore, he’s not going anywhere. Oh, we could try to ignore him. However, like a four-year-old kid wanting attention, ignoring him won’t make it go away. Just the opposite, the critic will just talk louder and yell. Instead, we need to confront the inner critic – have an inner dialogue and hear him out. After all, the critic is us. In a weird twisted sort of way, the critic wants to protect us. So, like some helicopter mother, she hovers and barks at us. This is really our anxiety talking – the worrisome mother within us that is fearful that harm will come.
You and I already know that we can’t get out of this earthly life without facing some hardship, difficulty, and pain. Unfortunately, many people have endured terrible trauma and their inner critics try desperately to shield them from any further hurt. And no amount of positive thinking and playing spin doctor will take away the memories and the deep pain. As desperately as we might try to run from our emotions and keep our feelings at bay, they aren’t going away. They must be squarely faced.
In the biblical New Testament, we are told that Jesus endured the cross, “scorning its shame,” and sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 12:2). Christ was subjected to severe public shame – beaten, cursed, stripped naked, and lifted-up to ridicule, even death. He did not shy away from facing the full brunt of shame in all its humiliation and degradation. He did it through not allowing shame’s power to have a hold on him. Even the extreme shame brought upon him did not stop Jesus from setting his sights on the salvation of others. Shame cannot survive where vulnerability exists; Christ became vulnerable, and, so, shame slithered away like the coward it is.
The inner critic’s mechanism is shame – the constant message that if I am exposed or vulnerable that everyone will see how weak, inept, stupid, or inadequate I am. It is this barrage of internal judgment that keeps a person imprisoned and leads to unhealthy practices such as getting drunk alone in their room; having the inability to stop and rest; and, scheming to hide the true self through exaggeration and putting up a false face that we are just fine.
Awareness is power. The reason I didn’t stay in the shame lounge smoking cheap cigars with only a lava lamp as light when I was sick is because of awareness – that my judgmental critic was speaking and that I could then interact with him. We cannot face and deal with something or someone we don’t know is even there. If I’m not aware, I am a victim of my own internal machinations, not realizing the inner voice of shame-speak. However, with awareness, I have choices and can choose to acknowledge the inner critic, scorn shame, and voice out loud what is going on inside me.
To scorn shame does not mean to ignore it. Rather, we bring shame into the light and expose it through a dedication to knowing what we are really feeling; making the distinction between our actions and our personhood; becoming aware of what things trigger our inner critic; and, perhaps most important of all, reach out and connect with a trusted person and tell your story of shame.
Our fears need neither to keep us locked in shame nor isolated from genuine human connection. For when a warm relationship opens the way of grace and love to another, shame begins to melt away and a new season of life and growth can happen. What’s more, through Jesus, radical acceptance and compassionate help is continually available. “So, let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:16, NLT)
Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know. I was there for a memorial service. A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear. In a matter of weeks, she was gone. Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful. This one was. And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.
I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time. This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be. It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience. It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry. It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling. No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion. It is this:
Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.
I think I’ve always known this. It just crystallized for me through this experience. After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain. The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament. Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.
It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar. It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal. It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison. Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy. And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity. Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge. A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.
If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand. It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people. Conversely, the heart can grow and expand. The Grinch never went back to his isolation. Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal. It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:
Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.
And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity. It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.
This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:
Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?
The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective. Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint. In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with. Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous. It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.
What’s more, Jesus wept. He cried in public with strangers. For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed. After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table. God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.
Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important. Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.
The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity. She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”
The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me. Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do. Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.
We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort. When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.
Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world. Yet, this occurs only if we show up. Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present. He showed up, and salvation happened.
Art, as I would define it, is the creation of something beautiful and/or meaningful through imagination and skill. This definition is broad enough to encompass everyone as an artist. Each person mirrors the Divine Artist in some unique or special way through the ways in which they imaginatively and skillfully live their lives. Where there is no art, there is no hope. Where art exists, there are possibility and life. None of us could have made it this far in the process of our jobs, our families, let alone in life, without making great art. Art is how we make sense of things and form our views of the world. Art is both subject and object – being both formed and forming us. Life cannot exist without art because we as people are both created and creative in all we think, feel, and do.
I say all this mostly because recently being at my local art museum helped me to remember how vital it is to be an artist, and that there is no other artist like me (or you). The museum enabled me to reconnect with the vast imagination within, as I was reminded how large the world of Tim is and how much that inner world has always sought to make beautiful and meaningful connections with others – to make a difference.
I was also reminded of the ways in which art impacts us. What is beauty to one is disgust in another; and, what is repulsive to one is awe in the other – and everything in between. Yet, in every work of art we are likely to find both charm and ugliness. That reminder helps me to reflect on a recent patient visit I had in the hospital. His story was not too pleasant to me. I was repulsed by many of the patient’s decisions throughout his life. Yet, in the moment, I chose to embrace the whole painting in front of me – which included the beauty and awe of his desire for connection, forgiveness, and reconciliation. At the time, I wasn’t sure I was doing much of anything – my own art seemed rather imperfect and unseemly. When the visit came to an ending, the patient remarked, “Thank you for reminding me of my God and bringing me closer to him.” Into the mix all along was the Divine Artist, creating something gracious between us. If this was to be depicted in an actual art object, that object would include both strange beauty and repugnant representation. The question is: Will the eye of the beholder see only one, or see both? The answer to that question is the answer to whether we are willing and able to see the full scope of any person in front of us. And, like an art object, we could likely sit for hours staring and observing, finding new awareness and insights, and, thus, new meaning – in both of us.
A teaching I appreciate from my Orthodox Christian friends is that every person is a “living icon,” that is, everyone is a hand-crafted image of Christ. Even more than that, everyone is still being formed by God into a unique and special icon. In this view of Christianity, a person’s highest calling is to simply cooperate with the Divine Artist – God is the Potter and I am the clay. I would describe our part as being “actively passive.” We neither act as we see fit and just trust God will direct us, nor do we sit and simply wait for God to do something. Rather we are actively passive. An artist waits for inspiration – and in the meantime he/she intentionally pokes around for ways to be inspired. And when the inspiration comes, the work ensues – with a rhythm of action coupled with taking time to step back and see the big picture before engaging again.
What I am suggesting is that God has divine actions and divine reflections in a rhythm of formation and transformation of all human creatures. God has both given us everything we need for life and godliness in this present age and is continuously weaving life-giving grace into the fabric of our everyday lives. We are icons, and we are being crafted into icons. To put it another way, we are human beings and are continuously being made into humans. The care we receive is the care we give.