When Image Matters

I was rushing down the path to class the other morning, doing my best to stay dry. The tropical rain had turned the red dirt road into a flowing mud gulley, but I wasn’t worried. I had cleverly worn my flip-flops and tucked my more professional looking shoes up under my arm to put on when I arrived at the classroom. My mind focused on the extensive content and carefully crafted powerpoint that I was about to present.

I arrived just as the singing began: the rich, harmonized sound of a roomful of African voices raised in worship. Slipping into my seat among the professors at the back, it took me a moment to realize that one of the students was politely trying to get my attention. I followed her gaze down to my legs, and realized that the backs of them were streaked with the red, liquid earth. Mortified, I slipped out of the room and followed her directions to the outdoor cement structure that housed the toilets. I went to work wiping the dark lines off of my white legs, only to discover that the entire back of my dress was covered with mud.

We reflect an imperfect image of our glorious Creator.

My impulse was to wipe off what I could and simply carry on with a dirty dress, but one look at my student’s expression told me that was not an option. To stand before a class of mature, well-groomed master’s degree students looking like that would communicate profound disrespect, towards myself and towards them. As their teacher, my image was bound up with their honor.

As I charged back up the hill for a change of clothes and rushed back down to be in time for class, my mind went to one of the central points that I have been teaching in my Spiritual Formation class this week. If we are made in the image of God, then we are designed to display to a watching world what He looks like. To the extent that we reflect His nature accurately, we bring Him glory.

But what about when the reflection is muddied? What about when the image is marred, smeared with the grime of guilt and shame?

We are familiar with the idea of our own sinful choices corrupting the image of God in us. But we too often overlook the involuntary nature of shame. Despite our best efforts, shame has this way of splashing up and covering us in its degrading ugliness.
Like me standing there in my poor, mud-spattered dress, it redefines our image.

Sharing His image means sharing His glory.

But whatever the cause of our sullied image, the issue remains the same. We reflect an imperfect image of our glorious Creator. Despite how the saying goes, these mirrors do lie. And even though we would like to think that He is above being affected by our choices, the fact is that in entrusting His image to us, He has connected His reputation with ours. His honor is bound up in our image.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:25-26

That level of responsibility baffles me. If only I could wipe my image clean as easily as I wiped my legs and changed my clothes. And yet that is the precisely the language used to describe what God does for us. He washes the filth from our bodies and cleanses the impurity from our souls. He takes us through the long, intensive beauty treatment of a bride being prepared for her groom.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18

Nothing about this image make-over is convenient. Sometimes it hurts. Often we cry out in irritation or pain, wondering what He is up to and why He is so hard on us.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Revelation 21:2

But He knows exactly what He is doing. He has already revealed it to us. God is preparing us to be His bride, to be bound to Him in a forever kind of love. When it’s finally time, He will unveil His finished product: a beautifully decked-out bride, a gloriously perfect counterpart of Himself.

…”Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
Revelation 19:7-8

Now that is an image that I don’t mind going out of my way to cultivate. Bearing His image requires sacrificial devotion to living up to His reputation. But sharing His image also means sharing His glory.

I can’t wait.

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Beheaded Children?–When the Imprecatory Psalms Are Suddenly Relevant

My children and I just looked at internet photographs of an Iraqi child’s beheaded body. Why would we expose ourselves to such horror? Because it is really happening. Because to carry on as if it were not happening would be to perpetuate the crime. Because even the ground cries out for us to acknowledge and respond to the shedding of innocent blood.

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

But having stared such atrocity in the face, what do we do with our newfound awareness? My son comes back into the kitchen teary–eyed, asking me what he can do about it. Send money to a charity? Write a letter to a politician? Our profound sense of horror is slowly replaced by a deep sense of helplessness. When faced with the reality of such unspeakable evil in our world, evil that at this moment is overpowering people no different than we, how do we even begin to pray?

“Lord, have mercy” runs through my mind again and again as I scroll through the footage of severed heads and gunned-down bodies. But what about the gunmen in the pictures, gloating over their fallen victims? My son asks the question that I am already thinking:

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

How can I think of mercy for those butchers while the aftermath of their carnage stares me in the face? They aren’t sorry. They plaster the evidence of their brutality all over the internet, boasting in their conquests, delighting in the devastation they have caused.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

All of a sudden the imprecatory psalms start making a lot more sense to me. No wonder they cry out for God to remember the atrocity these victims have endured. No wonder they recount to Him just how horrific it was. And no wonder they demand His judgment on the perpetrators.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Psalm 137:4-6

How can we sing happy praise songs while our brothers and sisters are being slaughtered or running for their lives to different lands? If we forget their anguish, we may as well forget our own souls. There is a rightness to remembering, to allowing unresolved atrocity to interrupt the peaceful humdrum of our otherwise undisturbed lives. It is an expression of our true humanity, a reflection of God’s image within us that says, “This is not O.K.”

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Psalm 137:7

But we can’t just leave it at that. Awareness without action makes our souls sick. So we take our angst to the street, pounding on God’s door until He does something about it. “Remember what they did! Look at how bad it was! Take action, O God. You are the Judge of the world. Come down and make this right.”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9

But what exactly do we want Him to do? Decapitate their children, too? Repay them blow-for-blow for all the crimes they have committed? That doesn’t seem very Christian of us. Nor does shrugging off genocide as if it isn’t really a big deal. There must be some way to turn the other cheek while holding on to justice.

God will intervene in a way that compromises neither His justice nor His mercy.

The solution to that is beyond me. Thankfully, it is not up to me to arbitrate divine action. This is one of those moments when I am relieved not to be God, because I can’t be impartial. I can vent my unreserved outrage and my vindictive anger to Him, trusting His ability to act as both righteous Judge and merciful Savior. He can find a way to extend mercy while upholding justice. I think of the way He dealt with Saul, one of the original Christian killers.

So I repeat my prayer, “Lord, have mercy. Bring them down to their knees in repentance.”

But lurking underneath that hopeful request is the dark reminder that not all sinners repent. We cheer when the penitent Peters get re-instated, but we also breathe a deep sigh of relief when the hard-hearted Judases finally get what they deserve.

“One way or another, Lord, bring them down.”

My youngest daughter breaks into my reverie with a solution that resonates with my heart, if not my head.

“What if all the Christians in the world just made their own army and marched into Iraq to beat off those bad guys?”

I chuckle, wishing the world were that simple.

But has God not intervened in similar ways in the past? It may be that He will use our political lobbying and social awareness raising to change the outcome of this crisis. It may be that He will bring deliverance to His people through international military action, as He did in response to the Holocaust.

And though I don’t know what the Judge will do, I know what we can do. We can join in the lament for our Iraqi kin. We can beg Him to change the hearts of their oppressors. And we can swamp Him with petitions through fasting and prayer, asking Him to send in an army to protect His people.

Who knows? It could be the kind that comes marching through the treetops.

Vindicating Forgiveness

I sat at lunch with a dear friend recently, swapping stories of past hurts and current healing. Sadly, neither of us was surprised by the other’s experiences of betrayed friendships and smeared reputations, spiritualized power plays and politicized cover-ups. And although we both have been delivered from these abusive situations, the doubts and insecurities they raised within us linger on. The questions they raised about our honor remain unanswered; the accusations they implied about our character stand uncontested. In a way, we both feel like we were taken apart by a team of ruthless examiners and then left in pieces, abandoned on the workbench.

Public shame calls for public honor.

What would finally allow all the pieces to be made whole again? What would lay these past wounds to rest and free us to move on?

In a moment of brutal honesty, we admitted that we want vindication. We want the record set straight about who we are and how we have been treated. We may privately know the truth, but as long as public perception remains inaccurate, the past cannot be laid to rest.

Is vindication a godly desire? Shouldn’t forgiveness eradicate our need for it?

When I think of forgiveness, I picture Jesus on the cross, reputation thoroughly trashed and body totally thrashed, crying out to God to forgive the people who were treating Him this way. No vehement self-defense. No retaliatory threats. Just compassionate, sacrificial love.

Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer– it does not rise from deceitful lips. May my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right.
Psalm 17:1-2

And yet when I read the Psalms (including some of the messianic ones), I can’t escape their repeated prayers for vindication. These prayers are what David claims to be a righteous response to being falsely accused and unjustly persecuted. At least he is going to God for vindication rather than taking it into his own hands, but shouldn’t he just let it go altogether?

Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.
Psalm 26:1-3

But he can’t. The fact is that even in God’s economy, honor matters. David’s integrity has been denounced, and he is coming to the righteous Judge to make it right. He is asking God to look him over, check to see if he is alright, and reapply the stamp of approval that others have stolen from him.

O LORD, you have seen this; be not silent. Do not be far from me, O Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord. Vindicate me in your righteousness, O LORD my God; do not let them gloat over me. Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!” or say, “We have swallowed him up.” … May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.”
Psalm 35:22-27

And a private awards ceremony won’t cut it. Knowing that God sees and knows the truth about him isn’t enough. David boldly asks God to make public what He has already affirmed in private. He has been attacked and shamed before the eyes of others; now he is asking God to restore his honor in the same sphere.

This isn’t just about David’s reputation. It’s about God’s. Is He or is He not just? Does He or does He not care about the well-being of those who entrust themselves to Him? God’s vindication of His servant will vindicate His own character before a watching world.

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Matthew 26:62-64

And this is exactly what I see happening in Jesus’ story. At the height of His trial, in the midst of cruel insults and relentless accusations, He broke His silence to answer a direct attack against His identity as God’s Son. He told His accusers that they would one day witness what they were currently denying. He had no need to argue His position now because God would prove Him right later. He would not defend His honor now because God would publicly exalt it later.

Entrusting our vindication to God allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

Jesus’ ability to forgive His accusers was predicated on His certainty that God would vindicate Him before their eyes. He could let go of His honor because He knew that God wouldn’t.

So is it wrong to ask God for vindication? Far from being wrong, I think it demonstrates a deep trust in God’s righteousness and an unwavering confidence in His unfailing love. Taking vindication into our own hands would betray our lack of faith in God’s justice. Downplaying the idea that God will vindicate us would deny the extent of His care for each of His beloved children, including ourselves. But entrusting our need for vindication to Him allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

We can love them because He first loved us. We can forgive them because He won’t forget us.

My bit of the story…

This time last year I was furiously finishing up writing a book on shame, wondering what next God would lead me to do. Was it time to launch a more public speaking ministry, or should I pursue a more academic track by doing that postgraduate degree down in Edinburgh? The last thing on my radar was writing a blog. I don’t even like blogs!

But what I intended as a sacrificial labor of love for others has turned out to be a blessed source of nurture and growth for myself. My motivation in writing is to address those topics that we often feel are too messy to have anything to do with God. We are comfortable confining them within the sterile walls of a counselor’s office, but we don’t know how to take them to church, to the Scriptures, or into God’s presence.

Writing this blog has taken me beyond just privately relating with God through the ups and downs of my own life to having to put into coherent words what it looks like to live the full range of human emotion and experiences coram deo, before the light of His face. More than anything, I want to capture a perspective of how He sees us: how our struggles make sense in light of His ongoing story, how His eternal story infuses meaning into our everyday experience.

We are part of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative.

The cerebral part of me far prefers doing theology “from above,” losing myself in lofty thoughts about the nature of God and His creative brilliance in littering His natural and written revelation with symbols and themes that point to heavenly realities. But living with my feet planted on earth—my soul splattered with its muck and my hands dirtied with its troubles—has forced me to take my theology to the bathroom. Who God is must be relevant to how I navigate even the most unpleasant or mundane of earthly circumstances. And actually, as I have learned to look more honestly at His Word, I’ve been delightfully surprised to discover just how “earthy” He can be.

Narrative theology has continued to unlock the Scriptures for me, meandering like a flexible stream through eternal truth and unpredictable experience, pristine worship and scrappy struggle, heavenly reality and earthly reflection. It is painful but rewarding labor to perpetually lay distressing human realities on the table next to my Bible and go looking for what God has to say about them. At the same time, it is a joyful act of worship to be able to discover His current awareness through His past interaction with people living the same kind of stories.

I have come to view life and read Scripture through the lens of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative that culminates in our shared glory. If you have wondered about my blog category called “Defining Metanarratives,” it is where I stick those posts that have attempted to retell that overarching story from different angles. This is the big story that makes sense of all our little stories.

Experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story.

At the same time, experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story. Taking the time to reflect both psychologically and theologically on my own past experiences and others’ ongoing struggles has deepened my appreciation of a God who has written Himself into such a convoluted, bitter-sweet plot line. And, in a roundabout way, it has trained me for the next step in my own story.

Later this month I will be travelling to Uganda to teach a masters-level class on spiritual formation. As I have spent this summer preparing for the course, I have been repeatedly struck with the pleasant realization that the massive amounts of reflection and writing I have invested in this blog over the past year have also been equipping me to teach Christian leaders in the developing world. I look forward to the privilege of getting to be a part of their stories as they bring God’s kingdom to their corner of the globe.

Because of this delightful addition to my workload, I am planning to scale back the frequency of my blog posts to once a week. I would rather sustain quality over quantity. I pray God will use what I have written and guide what I keep writing to help you experience your role in His story. It’s a joy to be living it with you.

Dissociative Praise

“Focus on a point in the distance. Escape your body. Leave behind the pain.”

Praise became my mantra,
worship my coping mechanism.

I had read about the benefits of dissociation in a book on natural childbirth, not realizing at the time that this was also a common, involuntary response to overwhelming trauma. The way the book described it, disassociation was a natural, healthy way to cope with intense pain. Separating my mind from my body was fine and good for something as short-lived as childbirth, but in the aftermath of severe, complex trauma, the real challenge came in trying to reintegrate. What the books never explained was where to go when I left my body, or how to find my way back once it was over.

See how they lie in wait for me! Fierce men conspire against me for no offense or sin of mine, O LORD.
How long will you assault a man? Would all of you throw him down– this leaning wall, this tottering fence? They fully intend to topple him from his lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.
Psalm 59:3, 62:3-4

When trauma struck David, he didn’t need a book to tell his soul what to do. In the face of terrifying physical danger and overwhelming emotional pain, his soul evacuated. It could no longer face the constant terror of enemies lurking around every corner, relentlessly pursuing him until they had successfully crushed him to pieces. It could no longer handle the exhausting awareness that no matter where he went people would betray him, that one by one each person he trusted was more likely to turn out as his enemy rather than his friend.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest– I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Psalm 55:6-8

His soul went looking for another place to stay, somewhere where he could escape from his current physical circumstance. Being fully present in his body hurt too much. It might be trapped in the horrors of the moment, but his soul was free to spread its wings and fly away.

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.
Psalm 61:2, 57:1

And so his soul soared to the one place it knew it was safe. It flew to take refuge near God. Here his Companion was trustworthy and his surroundings were secure. Here he could leave behind the chaotic, uncontrollable mess of earth and enter into the beautiful, soothing peace of heaven.

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:2-5

But the center of this dissociative state was not nothingness. It was God. God was what made this place so delightful. He was the light that captivated David’s attention with its indescribable beauty. He was the delicacy that satisfied David’s lips more than the richest of foods. David fell head over heels in love with God, and he never wanted to go back.

On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Psalm 63:6-8

Savoring God’s beauty. Reveling in His love. In light of the horrors that lurked below, David’s prayers overflowed with the most unexpected themes. He lost himself in worship. He escaped into the delights of praise. God became his most tangible circumstance. He didn’t really want to face any other.

For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
Psalm 61:3-4

This is where he wanted to stay forever, or at least until the disaster below had passed. But physical realities pulled at his soul, reminding him that it was not yet fully released from its bodily dwelling. He had to respond to his body’s urgent needs. He had to function within its immediate surroundings.

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.
Psalm 57:7-9

So David took the praise party of his dreams back into the waking nightmare of his world. He worshipped God’s transcendent power and beauty while experiencing his own immanent helplessness and mess. The threats were still as real as ever, the betrayal as relentless. But with God as the center of his focus, he could rise above the storm while walking through it. With God as his sure foundation, He could remain steadfast even while being overwhelmed.

When my soul was overwhelmed by trauma too intense for it to bear, it, too, took wings and flew into the arms of God. During those nightmarish days and weeks on earth, I experienced a sweetness in His presence that I had never known before. God in all His glorious attributes came alive for me, no longer a distant abstraction but now a very real presence. Having tasted and seen His heavenly delights, my life on earth held little appeal for me.

God took my soul by the hand and led me back into my body.

But like it or not, I knew I eventually had to go back, to reintegrate into the life that my body was still living. God took my soul by the hand and led me back into my body. He slowly taught me that it was safe to live there, because His Spirit was living there, too. Praise became my mantra, worship my coping mechanism. As long as I could feel Him with me, as long as I knew He was still on the throne of the universe, I was reassured that I could go on living.

Away from the body. At home with the Lord.
Back home in the body. Never away from the Lord.