Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pictures of Holiness, Concluded

 A brief overview on the second Nicene Council can be found here and here. So what? What can we, as Christians, learn from a debate that seems to have been settled a good 1200 years ago?

The Second Council of Nicaea -- Part III of III

“You shall worship the Lord your God in spirit and in truth.” John 4:24 (ESV)

Although the second Nicene Council decided, in 787 A.D, that the veneration of sacred images and relics was orthodox, the debate was far from resolved. Iconoclasts continued to agitate in the Eastern empire for the next hundred years, further weakening the empire's political integrity. And images increased the division between the Eastern and Western churches; although the Eastern Orthodox Church eventually decided in favor of images, they disagreed with the Roman Catholic church's use of carved images.

In Europe, the most outspoken opponents of the Council's decision came from the Frankish, or early French, church. In 790, Frankish bishops writing for Charlemagne published Quattuor Libri Carolini in response to Nicaea II's decision. Any form of devotion or reverence directed toward images, the Quattuor Libri claimed, was superstitious and idolatrous. Unlike earlier iconoclasts, however, Charlemagne's book admitted a legitimate place for images, as “adornment” in churches and to instruct or recall Christian history.

By the late Middle Ages, however, the Roman Catholic church had entirely embraced Nicaea II's reverence of images. As devotion to saints and to Mary increased, so did devotion to relics and images; just as the iconoclasts feared, many images came to be viewed as sacred or imbued with power in themselves.

This worship of saints and images deeply offended more radical Reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox. In fact, in 1549 Jean du Tillet – a French bishop and friend of Calvin – returned to the debate when he published the first printed edition of Quattuor Libri Carolini.

The Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed its injunction to worship saints and their relics and images in the 1563 Council of Trent, stating that the
“images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained . . . and due honor and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them; or that anything is to be asked of them; or that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles, who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ, and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear; as by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images.”

The Reformers stoutly maintained Christ alone was to be adored, and His intercession was alone sufficient for believers. Calvin addressed the issue at length in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin used Scripture to argue that God forbids human beings to create images of Himself, sculptural or otherwise, because He would thus necessarily be “represented falsely and with an insult to His majesty” (Vol I., xi.4).

Furthermore, Calvin argued, the human mind is so permeated with sin that it is naturally inclined to create an idol out of any representation of God or a god. The golden calf of the Israelites and the statues of the pagan nations all evidence man's disinclination to trust in the presence and providence of an invisible, all-powerful God. Idolatry is man's attempt to make a god “in his own image.”

Calvin did see a place for painting and sculpture to create instructive, morally uplifting images. However, he saw no place for them in worship. Using images to instruct the mind or emotions about God, as Nicaea II had directed, would yield a false understanding of God's nature.

“I confess, as the matter stands, that today there are not a few who are unable to do without such (images to teach them),” Calvin admitted. “But,” he continued, the unlearned believers' dependence on images is “because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them.”

Calvin contended that we truly see Christ and His work not in pictures or statues, but “by the true preaching of the gospel” (I.xi.9). This was the heart of the Reformation – the “true preaching of the gospel,” making the word of God accessible to every Christian.

The Reformation put God's own representation of Himself in the hands of believers, in their own language. The glorious story of redemption needed no physical images to captivate their thoughts, seize their imaginations, and overwhelm their emotions with response to God's holiness and astonishing love.

For most Protestant denominations, the question of sacred images was decided during the Reformation. The issues informing that old debate, however, are very relevant, and we encourage readers to ponder a few thoughts after considering the decision of the second Council of Nicaea.

First of all, our knowledge of God must come from Scripture. We cannot rely on the thoughts that we “feel” must be true about God – we must first of all trust what He says about Himself.

Secondly, it is not appropriate to worship God in any way that “feels right” or moves our emotions in a positive way. As Calvin pointed out, sin makes even our best intentions an occasion for idolatry. Our worship, too, much be directed by what God Himself, through Scripture, tells us is acceptable. This principle is difficult but vital to apply. Our God is not “like us,” a being able to be contained or explained by anything human beings create, and to misrepresent Him is a fearful thing.

Finally, Christ's sacrifice is always acceptable. We can always approach God, in “fear and trembling” of His holiness, but also in confidence, knowing that we need no other access, no other mediation. God Himself, in the person of Christ, intercedes for us.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pictures of Holiness, Part II

 The first part can be found here.

The Second Council of Nicaea - Part II of III
He (Christ) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature 
(Hebrews 1:3, ESV)
    It was late in the year 787. The seventh great ecumenical council, called by the Byzantine empress Irene to address the legitimacy of sacred images in worship, was holding its fourth session. Attending were officials from the Western church, bearing the support of Pope Hadrian, as well as over 350 Eastern Orthodox bishops. Several bishops who had earlier participated in the iconoclastic Council of Constantinople, thirty years before, recanted their iconoclastic beliefs; they affirmed their support of the veneration of images and appealed to the forgiveness of Christ and the intercession of Mary and the saints.
      So far all attendees had been unanimous in their support of the images; today, the Council turned its attention to arguments against images. In the fourth session, they read aloud the determinations published by the Council of Constantinople. According to the iconoclastic Council, “the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation – namely the Incarnation of Christ.”  Creating or venerating images of Christ was a wordless profession of the heresies of Nestorius and Arius, always a misrepresentation of His divine and human nature. More than that, venerating images of Mary or the saints was “a perpetuation of pagan idolatry.” 
      The iconoclastic Council cited numerous Scriptures, including Exodus 20:2-6, numerous Old Testament passages against idolatry, and God's decree that His worshipers “worship ... in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The Nicaean Council responded by referencing the images God commanded to be placed in the Jewish temple, especially the carved cherubim (e.g. Exodus 25). Images in themselves were not heretical, they argued: it was false worship that was anathema. The Council agreed that images of Christ in particular were the most perfect depiction of “the profundity of the abasement of the incarnate God for our sakes.”
      In fact, the Council argued less from Scripture than from the images' undeniable emotional force. They appealed to the support of early Church fathers, including a sermon in which St. Gregory Nyssen described a painting of the sacrifice of Isaac he could never view “without tears.” John, a representative of the Eastern church, pointed out that if an image could move an educated divine so powerfully, how much more useful it would be to instruct and move “ignorant and simple” believers. Most Christians in the ninth century were illiterate, unable to read the Scriptures or even, in Europe, able to understand the Latin preaching of their shepherds.
      Like previous councils, Nicaea II was concerned at its heart with defending the true nature and worship of Christ. Images themselves were never to be worshiped; instead, honoring images provided a priceless aid to the knowledge and emotions of believers. One by one, attendant bishops affirmed their faith with the words of the Nicene Creed, saluting Christ as the only savior of His people from the worship of false gods. Only “the incarnate God . . . went in and out among us, and cast out the names of idols from the earth, as it was written. But we salute the voices of the Lord and of his Apostles through which we have been taught to honor in the first place her who is properly and truly the Mother of God and exalted above all the heavenly powers; also the holy and angelic powers; and the blessed and altogether lauded Apostles, and the glorious Prophets and the triumphant Martyrs which fought for Christ, . . . and all holy men; and to seek for their intercessions . . .
      “Moreover,” the Council concluded, “we salute the image of the life-giving Cross, and the holy relics of the Saints; and we receive the holy and venerable images: and we salute them, and we embrace them, according to the ancient traditions of the holy Catholic Church of God. . . . Likewise also the images of the holy and incorporeal Angels, who as men appeared to the just. Likewise also the figures and effigies of the divine and all-lauded Apostles, also of the God-speaking Prophets and of the struggling Martyrs and of holy men. So that through their representations we may be able to be led back in memory and recollection to the prototype, and have a share in the holiness of some one of them.”
      Veneration of images continued to spread both in the Eastern and Western churches. The debate was not finished, however: there continued to be opposition to the images from within the church. Join us next week as we look at the Reformation's response to the use of images in worship.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Pictures of Holiness

For lack of anything else to post, here is the first of three articles i'm working on for our local paper. Our church in Troy has been running a series of articles on church history, specifically the history of the great ecumenical Councils that hammered out the nature of Christ and other essential Christian doctrines. Why even bother to inform yourself? The first article, by R.B. Tolar, addresses that very question. The entire "Soli Deo Gloria" series is archived here

The seventh ecumenical Council, the second Council held in Nicaea, was convened in 787 AD to address the question of sacred images--two- and three-dimensional depictions of Christ, Mary, the saints and early martyrs--and their place in worship.

Y'all, it is HARD to write a 500word paper that says much of anything.

The Second Council of Nicaea: Part 1 of 3
      “I am the LORD your God ... You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God ...” (Exodus 20:2-6, ESV)
       As the history of the Church progressed, images of Christ, Mary, and early saints and martyrs became more and more important in Christian worship. Paintings and sculptures became tools to teach unlettered believers – in the vast majority! – to remind them of saints' and martyrs' faith, and to rouse emotions to increase their faith and devotion. Christians in Western Europe and in the East prayed in front of images, kissed them, and lit candles in front of them. Through images, believers could encounter holiness in a form they could see and touch. Just like the relics of the saints, local churches cherished certain images, looking to them for protection, healing, and blessing.
      Church “doctors” were careful to point out that sacred images were aids to devotion; those who honored them were not worshiping or praying to the images themselves, but to Christ or the saints whom they could not see in the flesh. Practically, however, many less-educated worshipers drew no distinction between worship inspired by images and worship of images. Opponents of images, called iconoclasts – Greek for “image-breakers” – called the growing devotion to images nothing less than “idolatry under the appearance of Christianity” (Council of Constantinople, AD 754).
      The iconoclasts and the image-lovers both accepted the six great Councils' declarations about Christ's nature and about the different kinds of reverence due to God, Mary, and the saints. What divided them was a violent difference about how it was appropriate to experience holiness. One of the great defenders of images, the hymn-writer John of Damascus, defended images of Christ as the most immediate and moving way to appreciate the both the fact and the implications of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts adopted a stringent interpretation of the commandment against images, viewing any attempt to depict divine nature as blasphemy. They pointed to Muslim military victories in the Holy Land as proof that God supported Islam's strict prohibition of representational art: Christian cities were defeated because God was judging the Church for idolatry.
      Rulers' personal beliefs led to the ascendancy of iconoclastic laws in the Byzantine empire. In AD 754, Emperor Leo III called a council in Constantinople to establish firm doctrine about sacred images. Around 350 church leaders met to discuss Scriptures and apostolic tradition. They unanimously agreed that “the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation – namely the Incarnation of Christ.” Any image depicting Christ was blasphemy, bound to misrepresent His divine and human natures; any image of Mary or the saints was no different than pagan idolatry. Only the Lord's Supper, instituted by Christ Himself, was an acceptable representation of His nature.
      Leo III implemented the Council's decision immediately and violently. Images were seized from churches and abbeys and destroyed; mosaics were painted over and replaced with blank walls or a simple cross. While the rulers of the Empire and their soldiers supported the Council's attitude toward images, however, most common worshipers and the lower ranks of the clergy grew to love the sacred images even more strongly.
      Throughout the eighth century the debate continued. When Leo III's son, Leo IV, died, his widow Irene assumed the regency for her son Constantine. The Empress Irene was an ambitious, ruthless ruler who did everything possible to increase her power—including an attempt to blind her own son when he grew older. Her support of icons was probably informed by political factors. Whatever her reasons, Irene called another ecumenical Council to reexamine the question of images. Iconoclastic forces broke up a meeting in Constantinople; the following year, AD 787, she called for a meeting in Nicaea. 350 bishops – including many who had participated in the earlier iconoclastic Council, as well as representatives from Pope Hadrian – assembled to denounce iconoclasticism and the Council of Constantinople, and to issue a ruling to define and support the use of images in Christian worship.
     Next week: the second Council of Nicaea, its discussions and its conclusions.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some thoughts on the Trinity

 (prompted by a Sunday morning discussion)

Three persons, all one holy, eternal God. Yet each distinct - not merely a way to describe different roles or functions of a single person.

This is the orthodox definition of the Trinity, hammered out by the Church over centuries of studying the Bible.

 Kevin DeYoung calls this "the most important doctrine you never think about." Our understanding of God is foundational to our faith - to how we relate to Him as we live as Christians. Why is the Trinity important?

I think the most basic implication of the Trinity is that it completely blows out of the water any idea that God needs us. Within the trinity, God has a knowledge of and a love for Himself that is perfect and complete. He did not create mankind because He needed someone to know and love Him. He is secure in Himself forever. More than that, God saves us Himself - it is all His work. Only God Himself could satisfy His need for justice. Christ is not a good man who worked his way to righteousness with God - He is God Himself in skin among us.

At the same time, the relationship within the Trinity also informs the way we relate to others. God is love, and learning love from Him, we are called to live with one another in love.

DeYoung points out that Christianity, seeking to reflect a God who is a unity of diverse Persons, contrasts beautifully with two worldviews that compete with it today across the world: postmodernism (which allows for a diversity which is meaningless and irreconcilable) and Islam (which prescribes unity of language, culture, and thought).

There's more -- a lot more. I leave you with a link to an essay on the Trinity by Jonathan Edwards. Go, read - it's short, i promise! But since it is Jonathan Edwards, here's a brilliant summary by J.K. Jones:

The Father's idea of Himself is so perfect that it has being as a Person. This is the Son, eternally begotten of the Father. The Father and the Son have a love for each other so perfect that it has being as a Person. This is the Holy Spirit.

If that doesn't spark your brain, i don't know what will.

So what do you think? What do you believe about the Trinity? Does it even matter?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


(Japanese): small cute things crocheted in the round. My other mother very patiently showed me the basic crochet stitches. I know myself too well to begin a large-scale, long-term project, so i have had fun with amigurumi. I completed Ningyu-chan over three days, using this pattern as a base (I modified it to suit myself).

And yes, being able to read crochet patterns does make me feel pretty bad@$$.

Here is Ningyu-chan. I single-crocheted her head, body, and arms separately, then sewed them together. You can see where i messed up a little joining her arm to her body.

Since Ningyu-chan is a mermaid, i thought it would be fun to make her a tail. I started at the waist and made it up as i crocheted down, using half-double crochet (i strung pony beads onto the yarn for a more fishy look).

 Here she is wearing her tail.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lazy Post, Funny Link

i think i'm going to snort diet coke out of my nose.
This site is that funny.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

That's Snow Fun

It's been a pretty snowy winter in Tennessee. On the way to the obligatory nurse check-in this morning, i felt like we were driving through a Christmas snowglobe -- the way the morning was glittering off the white snow, the way the tall spikes of grass were crusted with ice, like rock-candy or crystal carvings. Do you ever feel that you are living on top of a faerytale -- that there is some great magic buried underneath the hills you walk on, waiting its time to burst out in a great shining flower of magic and adventure?

Anyway, the good thing about winter in Tennessee -- as compared to winter in, say, IOWA -- is that it never gets so cold you can't enjoy being cold. We are in the 20s (that's ABOVE zero!), and have gotten more snow in the past few days than we have for several years. I can't remember the last time i played outside in the snow. I feel like a little kid -- a decorous walk across the drive to my grandparents' turns into a series of snowbunny hops. Somehow i managed to leave dinosaur footprints in my path, and there are bootprints spelling out a lopsided "EMILY <3 DENNIS" on the hill behind our house.

My sisters were a little more creative. They came up with a Jane Austen snow-woman:

Is that awesome or what?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

OMG, Leviticus

The joke in my family is that every plan to read the whole Bible always falls apart right around the middle of Leviticus. One long book of complicated descriptions of sacrifices, rituals, cultural rules that don't really seem applicable. I know "ALL of Scripture is God-breathed, useful ... " etc, but that doesn't make Leviticus any less boring.

Guess what book i've reached in my "read through the Bible in a year" plan?

I spent this morning reading my Bible's introduction to Leviticus. Possibly this was just a strategy on my part to put off actually reading Leviticus.

But guess what? The Reformation Study Bible actually has me looking forward to reading the book. Well, convinced that it's worthwhile, anyway, and committed to getting through it all again. On the off chance that some of y'all don't have the RSB (the translation is accurate and flowing, the contextual and theological notes are awesome, it weighs 422 pounds, you should get one), here's why i actually want to read Leviticus.

All the cultural prescriptions in Leviticus reflect the concepts and values that are foundational to God's people, Israel. These same ideas inform New Testament writers - especially their understanding of sin, sacrifice, and atonement. Leviticus teaches us to appreciate Christ's work of atonement.

As i read, i'm going to be looking for these main themes:

God's presence among His people. This is what Christ secured for us perfectly - the amazing gift of being able to enjoy God's presence.

Holiness. We are called to bear God's image in everything we do. "You shall be holy, as I am holy" (Lev. 11:45)

Atonement through Sacrifice. If God is holy, and we are not, we're in trouble. Yet God sacrificed his Son to satisfy his holiness and secure us into a relationship with himself. Leviticus should be a great place to see God's character, and his relationship with unholy people, depicted.

I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Throwing Inkwells

This week I had the great privilege to pray with a friend who shared a prayer from Beth Moore's book, So Long Insecurity. I haven't read the book, but that prayer was intense. We were there before God's throne, confessing our deepest fears -- the secret failures to believe His promises to us.

Where does insecurity come from? Why do I protect myself from relationships? Why am I afraid to be known? Why am I so afraid of conflict?

Satan sitting on my shoulder with a pocket mirror, showing me my own face. I know who I am. I don't deserve to be loved. I don't deserve to be happy.

Thomas Merton writes, "The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is a prior commandment, to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God. That faith that one is loved by God although unworthy--or rather, irrespective of one's worth!

"In the true Christian vision of God's love, the idea of worthiness loses its significance. Revelation of the mercy of God makes the whole problem of worthiness something almost laughable: the discovery that worthiness is of no special consequence (since no one could ever, by himself, be worthy to be loved with such a love) is a true liberation of spirit. And until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, man is imprisoned in hate.

"Humanistic love will not serve. As long as we believe that we hate no one, that we are merciful, that we are kind by our very nature, we deceive ourselves; our hatred is merely smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism. We are apparently at peace with everyone because we think we are worthy. That is to say we have lost the capacity to face the question of unworthiness at all. But when we are delivered by the mercy of God the question no longer has a meaning." (New Seeds of Contemplation)

Or to put it more simply, "We love because He first loved us."

Who do I listen to? The devil showing me what i deserve? Or the God who tells me i am His precious possession forever?

If God has called me beloved, who am i to disbelieve Him?

Lord, grant me the trust in Your love to go forth boldly. To live boldly, to love freely, to serve without fear. To live every moment delighting in the relationship You have brought me into.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Should I? Should I?

I'm thinking probably so.

Click on the post title and scroll ALL the way down the page to tell me what you think.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Fear not, stand firm

Since the beginning of January, I've been trying to follow a schedule of readings that will take me through the whole Bible in a year. I have to admit, three chapters of Exodus can be a tough chunk to get through in a morning. Especially before I've finished that vital second cup of coffee.

For every sloggy day, though, God laces a verse into my life like sweet water, and I see sinblind ideas rinse away like so much sediment. Like a few mornings ago. I was camped out in Exodus 14 with the Israelites:

"When Pharoah drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, 'Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not what we said to you in Egypt: 'Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.'
"And Moses said to the people, 

 'Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.'

(Exodus 14:10-14, English Standard Version)

There I am, scared of the "disorder" (fanged chaos!) behind me, trying not to panic at the task that is if anything more horrible, impassible in front of me. And God says He's going to fight the battle for me. 

Here I am, so afraid that I'll fail at the struggle ahead of me. Thinking defeat is so certain I might as well go back to Egypt. And He reminds me that it's not my struggle. It's His. And He's already won. I know Him, His love, His power, His trustworthiness. It doesn't matter that I can't win. I can -- I have the incomparable gift of being able to "delight myself in the Lord," and trust Him to bring me where He wants me to be, in His time.

"For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery," Paul writes (Galatians 5:21).

And now for proof that God does, indeed, have a sense of humor. When I looked for pictures related to "Red Sea crossing," I thought I might find a classical painting of the Biblical scene I could link to. Guess what I found instead?

Apparently there is an underwater restaurant in the Red Sea.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for another high-calorie snack (^_^)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lasagna Bolognese

The bad part about gaining weight is that you get bigger. The good part is that you get to eat. This is a recipe for lasagna that is truly AMAZING. When I first read the recipe, I was skeptical -- white sauce instead of oodles of cheese? Believe me, it works.

(6 generous portions)

Begin by preparing your meat sauce (this sauce is also good used anywhere you would use basic spaghetti sauce):

3 tablespoons butter
1 minced onion
1 minced carrot
1 minced celery
4 oz diced pancetta (or use bacon or smoked ham)
10 1/2 oz ground beef (we use deer meat)
Pinch ground cloves
3/4 cup beef broth
1 tablesoon tomato paste

1/2 cup cream

Melt the butter in a saucepan and saute the veges and bacon for a few minutes. Stir in meat and cloves, browning at high heat. Add broth, tomato paste, and salt and pepper to taste. Add enough water to the pot to cover the mixture. Continue cooking on low till the liquid is absorbed and you have a thick, smooth sauce (it will smell DELICIOUS). Turn off the heat and stir in the cream.


Now you are ready to make the actual lasagna. You will need:

Lasagna noodles to fit an 11x9 inch casserole -- use the no-boil noodles, or cook as the package directs.
1 small box frozen spinach -- thaw, drain, and squeeze out as much liquid as you can.

Prepare a bechamel sauce:
7 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk
grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste
(Melt butter; whisk in flour till smooth. Gradually whisk in milk till smooth; cook over medium heat till the mixture becomes thickened and creamy. Season to taste.)

You will also need 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.

Grease your baking dish and layer pasta - bechamel - ragu - cheese. Repeat layers to fill dish, finishing with a layer of pasta.

Bake at 350 - 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, or till heated through. Let sit a moment before cutting.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What he said

"God's Little Mountain"
Geoffrey Hill, ca. 1952

Below, the river scrambled like a goat
Dislodging stones. The mountain stamped its foot,
Shaking, as from a trance. And I was shut
With wads of sound into a sudden quiet.

I thought the thunder had unsettled heaven,
All was so still. And yet the sky was riven
By flame that left the air cold and engraven.
I waited for the word that was not given,

Pent up into a region of pure force,
Made subject to the pressure of the stars;
I saw the angels lifted like pale straws;
I could not stand before those winnowing eyes

And fell, until I found the world again.
Now I lack grace to tell what I have seen;
For though the head frames words the tongue has none.
And who will prove the surgeon to this stone?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Praying the End of the Story

"My God -- my God! why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me? ... Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest."

In Sunday School at my church here, we've been going through a series on prayer in the Bible. Last week, we studied Christ's prayer from the cross -- the gospel accounts of Christ's prayer all quote from Psalm 22. King David first wrote the words of Psalm 22, but they point unmistakeably to the Cross.

There is so much to learn, so much for which to be grateful in these few verses. Every time I read the passage, I am struck anew at how shocking, how grievous is my Christ's sacrifice on my behalf.
Because of his sacrifice, I can be confident that God will listen to my prayers with the loving attitude of a parent. For me, this means not being ashamed at my weak faith. It means coming boldly to God in all my imperfections -- and asking Him to make up for them. And believing that He wants to.

Look, too, at the way Jesus prays. The prayer divides into two distinct sections. The first section is a prayer of lamentation -- a cry of deep spiritual and physical anguish. "Oh my God, I cry by day ... and by night ... but I find no rest. ...Trouble is near, and there is none to help ... I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint ... you lay me in the dust of earth ... I can count all my bones." Even while he cries out in agony, though, the writer of Psalm 22 affirms what he knows about God: Even though I am in anguish, "Yet You are holy" (v 3). He appeals to the covenant relationship He has with God (9-10). He remembers past times when God has delivered him (21).

David/Christ's knowledge of Who God Is shapes the second part of his prayer. From verse 22, the psalm shifts from a present-tense cry for help to a future-tense certainty of God's goodness. Praise our great and worthy God, he says, even while he suffers (22-24).

We don't see how the psalmist's particular situation turns out -- whether he escapes persecution and suffering. What we do see is that his hope is that God hears the suffering of His servants. "The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever." (26) What we see is the psalmist rejoicing that God will be worshiped as triumphant King (27-31).

Especially when I'm confused and scared, my prayers tend to sound like "Oh God, oh God, oh God, help me! What can I do? I can't handle this, God, oh God!" stuck in the stormy now, full of fear for the future.

So I've been trying to pray more like David, more like Christ. Say, "Oh God, hear me! I'm angry, I'm scared, I'm sad, I'm at the mercy of my emotions and my fears. Thank you for helping me. Thank you for getting me through this difficult time. Thank you for using this situation to make Your goodness known."

Just saying out loud those things I know are true -- that the present I hate and the future I can't see are in God's good and mighty hand -- helps me to persevere.

Y'all probably all figured that out a long time ago, but for what it's worth.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tennessee January

It's winter. January covers the browned hills in soft bluewhite, colours the sky a tender, rosy gray. The short walk over to Grammy's house next door turns into a fairytale trek; the muffled, hollow sounds of the trees, the boys in the trees, my boots crunching on the dead grass make my steps seem innumerable. I hunch over against the cold, see yesterday's shallow puddles frozen at my feet. Snow falling onto the ice has frozen into silver star shapes, delicate flowers, like a hand-beaded vintage dress. The cows in the field beside me are dressed in their own winter coats, snow powdered. They hunch over, shaggy and massive like buffalo. Stolidly ignoring the chill wind, while their winterborn calves frisk behind them like so many delicate fairies. At thirty degrees, the sky above is blank and tender, and every indrawn breath traces itself inside me, cold and sweet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jesus didn't die to save the person I wish I was

Who do you want to be?

Since I was young, I was told that I was brilliant. For a while I believed it. This is who I wanted to be, the creator of astonishing beauty. This is much of what drove my efforts in artwork, music, words. 

I wanted, also, to be a good person. To be self-sacrificing, honourable, strong.

It's hard to confront the fact that the person I thought I was doesn't really exist. That I am a lover of beauty, but not a creator. That I am much more selfish and frightened and weak than I wanted.

How much of my life has been running away from that confrontation? I've poured so much energy into staying thin enough to "feel like myself." Does looking at my thin or not-thin self in the mirror keep me busy enough not to have to look at my character, my true self?

God tells us throughout His word that we are created to show forth His glory. He made me to reflect Himself.

Thomas Merton writes,

     "Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. ... My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love--outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. 
     We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves--the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. 
     All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honour, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
     But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

     "The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. ... Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.
Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him."  (New Seeds of Contemplation, 31-36)

"In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die. The reason for this is that I am born in selfishness and therefore my natural efforts to make myself more real and more myself, make me less real and less myself, because they revolve around a lie." (47)

After regeneration, Merton says, "life becomes a series of choices between the fiction of our false self, whom we feed with the illusions of passion and selfish appetite, and our loving consent to the purely gratuitous mercy of God." (41)

Christ didn't die to save the beautiful person I want to be.

He came to save the person that I am. He looked at me -- me -- and called me His beloved bride.

So do I keep trying to believe I am the person who I want to be, the sad and shining heroine of my own lifestory? Do I distract myself from existence entirely?

Or do I take what I am -- what I really am, so much less than I desire -- and bring it to God? Humbly, gratefully, forget my own desires and seek only to know Him? Forget about the genius I wanted, and take up the small talents He gave me, and say, "Here am I for Your service"?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Should this cake happen?