Category Archives: A Theology of Beauty

God’s Kind of Woman

img_1998Reading Peter’s description of the model Christian woman used to send me onto yet another personality diet. Desperately wanting to be the sort of woman who was beautiful in God’s sight, I would attempt to reduce the number of opinionated words I spoke, subdue my boisterous spirit, and lower the level of leadership I naturally took. But try as I might to fit my rotund personality into the tiny box that this passage seemed to construct for me, it was only a matter of time until I would come bursting back out.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
1 Peter 3:1-4

Discouraged and defeated, I prayed that God would re-create me as a more passive, demure version of myself. My picture of His ideal was a soft-voiced woman, listening intently to the men around her and unobtrusively serving their physical needs so they could go on doing the significant spiritual work God had called them to. Next to women who were naturally endowed with quiet natures and gifts of service, I felt less godly. If God wanted me to be a mild, behind-the-scenes woman, then why did He curse me with a sharp mind, pastoral heart, and assertive nature?

Obviously many of my jagged edges were in dire need of sanding down, as God saw fit do through painful but purifying life experiences. As any young leader has to learn, my tongue did need some reigning in, my Tiggerish traits did need more self-restraint to prevent me from bouncing all over others, and my will needed to be trained in submission before it could be qualified for leadership.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6

But coming out the other side of all that, the question still remained: what kind of woman does God like best? I wish I would have read that 1 Peter passage more carefully years ago, because through more recent study I finally noticed the hearty clue it drops at the end. Who were these holy women of old who were being held up as examples for first-century Christian women to imitate? What was it that God commended these Old Testament women for in their own lifetimes? By examining their life stories, especially the way they used their voices, did or did not assert leadership, and related to the men in their lives, I hoped to better interpret what Peter had in mind when he what he wrote what he did.

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.
Hebrews 11:11

Starting with Sarah, the matriarch of our faith, I see a woman who heroically spoke up before kings to protect her husband by offering her own body in place of his. Far from being a passive pushover, she proactively embraced the promise God had made to her husband, travelling homelessly with him at her own peril and (albeit abusively) seeking to produce a descendent for him through her own servant. In honor of her faith, God insisted on establishing His holy nation through her, not just her husband. He also named her in the Hebrews hall of faith.

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Hebrews 11:31
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse…
Matthew 1:5

The Hebrew midwives stood up to the King of Egypt, using their voices to protect the unborn. Likewise Rahab stood up to her male authorities, covering for the foreign men who had come to her brothel for shelter. These women were expressly commended by God for the proactive leadership they took, not giving in to fear but by faith entrusting themselves to God. And, as He did for Sarah, God established their lines in reward for their faithful service, even naming Rahab in His own Son’s genealogy.

God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

Deborah completely turns my docile picture on its head. Though appropriately reticent to take leadership of the army, she had no qualms about judging the Israelites who voluntarily came to her for wisdom, justice, and a word from God. Her voice was one that God expected these men to heed, not to silence. General Barak got seriously shamed for ignoring her words. And contrary to how we often hear her story interpreted, the author of Judges presents her position as prophetess and judge as perfectly normal, even for a married woman. It wasn’t through her husband that God chose to speak to His people—it was through her. The victorious outcome of her story stands as testimony to God’s delight in this godly woman’s bold leadership and outspoken faith.

“The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. …you are a woman of noble character.
Ruth 3:10-11
David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day…
1 Samuel 25:32-33

Abigail overrode her foolish husband, going behind his back to save it. Ruth no longer had a husband to save but instead dedicated her initiative-taking, competent self to saving her dead husband’s mother. Both of these women took leadership through their bold words and their heroic deeds, gently shaming great men into doing what was right (or in David’s case, stopping him in his tracks from doing something horribly wrong). And both the landed-gentry Boaz and his warlord great-grandson David thanked these unexpected leaders for their kindness and considered themselves blessed beyond rubies to get such noble women as lifelong-allies.

My goal as a woman is to blossom within the full range of beautiful role models God has given me to imitate.

This will have to suffice for now as a representative sampling of the holy women of old. But what stands out to me is that these women were a far cry from the silent, second-string players that I had assumed God likes His women to be. They raised their voices, engaged their minds, and asserted their strength for the good of those around them, even when that meant functioning outside of cultural norms and established authority.

The point is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box.

If these are the sorts of examples that Peter was holding up for us in his call to a feminine, unflappable faith, then there is room for my personality in God’s definition of beauty, too. The point isn’t to change God’s Word to adapt to all shapes and sizes, but it is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box. My goal as a woman is no longer to conform to the objectified ideal of the Sunday school magazines, but rather to blossom within the full range of beautiful models God has given me to imitate.

After all, as the passage in 1 Peter concludes, God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

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The Worth of a Woman

img_1675Where does the idea of female inferiority come from? Why, when we survey the atrocities taking place around the world, do so many of them involve attacks on womanhood? Sex trafficking, rape, female genital mutilation, female feticide and infanticide, acid attacks, honor killings, and domestic violence just begin the list of far-too-common practices designed to degrade and destroy the essence of femininity (for more on this, see Darrow Miller’s excellent book Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women in Building Healthy Cultures).

Sadly, the problem doesn’t just exist in headlines and far-off places. The lie of female inferiority springs up in our homes, our church gatherings, our light-hearted jokes, and our social interactions. Of course we would vehemently deny it, affirming that as Christians we believe all humans are created equally in the image of God. We might even go so far as to remember to include women when we cite our belief in the priesthood of all believers.

But our actions betray us. And they speak louder than our words. Why are feminine intuitions laughed at as if they were silly or baseless? Why is an investment in beauty put down as an unspiritual waste of resources? Why is work typically done by women less socially or economically valued than that done by men? And where in the world do we get the idea that men should play leadership roles and women should stick to support ones?

I wince to even raise these questions as I can already mentally hear the defensive reactions that I myself used to respond with. But the questions are valid, and they deserve a biblical response. Rather than raise fear, they should increase our faith in the ability of God’s Word to speak for itself. So rather than continue to dodge the inevitable bullet by avoiding this issue, I am stepping out in faith, hoping that doing this on a public forum will open the way for some healthy, edifying interaction.

My goal over the next several posts is to explore what the Bible actually says about women, with no other agenda but to (attempt to) leave behind my cultural assumptions and examine the Bible through fresh eyes. And I want to avoid the trap of skipping over the first 900 pages in my Bible and running straight to the last few that include the Epistles. As my childhood pastor used to repeatedly emphasize, Scripture should be interpreted with Scripture.

So my question is this: In the overarching narrative of the Bible, what is God’s purpose for women? Why did He create two versions of His image: male and female? What are our shared features and roles and what about us is meant to be different?

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:26-28

Genesis 1, which lays the foundation for our whole story, paints a surprisingly undifferentiated picture of the nature and roles of male and female. Of course there is much more to follow from there, but allowing the full weight of this portion of Scripture to sink in begins already to form a different picture than what I had formerly imagined.

Somehow I suppose I have always inserted my own assumptions about the division of labor in the commission God gave to these first two image-bearers, as if He were implying that the man should take up the bit about ruling and subduing while the woman should stick to being fruitful and multiplying. Or perhaps the man’s area of dominion was the whole earth while the woman’s was contained within the walls of her home. But when I look more honestly at this text, the man’s mandate and the woman’s mandate are identical, because, in fact, there is only one mandate. Men are called to be fruitful just as much as women are. And women are called to rule and subdue the earth just as much as men are.

While the rest of the Bible will offer us plenty of opportunities to unpack what that might look like for each of the sexes, Genesis 1 drives a deep stake into the ground from which all other texts proceed. Male and female are equally embodiments of God’s very nature. And male and female are both called to be leaders, wisely governing the rest of creation as His representatives on earth.

As those foundational truths take their rightful place at the forefront of my thinking on this issue, I am increasingly appalled by the subtle but pervasive ways that we deny them. I am embarrassed to admit that the attitude towards women as inferior beings has found way too much space in my own values and thinking, to the point that I have avoided writing about women’s issues and have spent most of my life secretly wishing I were a man.

But if I, in my feminine form and intuitive responses, am a full-fledged likeness of my Lord, then I’m honored to be a woman. And if I, as a co-recipient of the creation mandate, have been charged with a leadership role over the earth, then I sure need to figure out how God is calling me to faithfully fulfill my commission.

A Mighty Line of Mothers

Mama,

In you I meet Eve,
Embodiment of the Spirit’s glory
Bearer of the seed who will triumph over evil
Mother of all the living

In you I meet Sarah,
Personification of beauty and faith
Bearer of the long-awaited (and sometimes doubted) covenantal heir
Foremother of our faith

In you I meet Miriam,
Prophetess of the Most High
Guardian of the deliverer, worship leader of the delivered
Nurturer of a nation

In you I meet Deborah,
Spokeswoman of the King
Dispensing justice, raising up leaders
Mother of Israel

In you I meet Hannah,
Maidservant of God
Faith-filled in shame, faithful in devotion
Producer of a king-maker

In you I meet Abigail,
Voice of the Holy Spirit
Intelligent in intervention, beautiful in form
Savior of a king

In you I meet Ruth,
Humble bondservant to God
Faithful steward of little, honored with much
Noble woman

In you I meet the Queen of Proverbs,
Essence of feminine nobility
Teacher, manager, businesswoman, homemaker, fashion plate
Glory of her husband, Hero to her children

Happy Mother’s Day

God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

In A People Garden

IMG_9140Would the world be a better place if it weren’t full of people? People, not things, perpetrate violence and atrocities on the earth. People pollute the ground with their waste and the air with their emissions. People overfill certain parts of the planet, cementing over its other inhabitants and upsetting their life-sustaining cycles and webs.

The narrative that rises from focusing in on these harsh realities can often cast people in the role of barbaric imposters, of foreign invaders whose very existence on the earth brings nothing but harm. But is this the picture that God sees? What story does He tell about how we fit in His global garden?

Last Sunday I encountered one of those a-ha moments in which my experience suddenly fleshed out my theology. Literally. I had spent the afternoon meandering quietly through a private walled-in garden. Blooming roses crept up ancient stone walls, weeping willows swayed beside a meandering stream, and birds, wind, and water mingled their voices together in peaceful song. That evening, as the garden began to fill with people coming in for an open-air concert, my mind cynically assumed that the perfection of the garden would be marred with their fabricated fashions, noisy chatter, and energetic gestures.

But to my surprise, I discovered that, far from messing up the beauty of the garden, the people completed it. Their vibrant colors, sounds, and movements filled the garden with a new element of life that I hadn’t even noticed was missing. In fact, as I looked around the by-then familiar green-scape and listened to French horns sounding across the distance, it struck me that the people were the most beautiful flowers in this garden. They were the crowning touch. Their creative accessories complimented the decorative designs on the plants. Their effervescent spirits animated the terrain. And their artistic composition filled the space with melodies that the birds quickly picked up and played back.

As I reflected further on this unexpected discovery, I realized that I was experiencing a foretaste of the garden-city, the new creation for which we long and towards which we proactively work as we wait for God to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This garden resonated with echoes of Eden, bringing human “progress” in harmony with natural development.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
So God created man in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:11,20, 27-28

In the beginning the world was empty, the ground was bare. God planted grass and trees, animals and eventually people in His fertile garden, giving them all the same commission: Live. Grow. Blossom. Reproduce. Spread out. Fill the earth with your unique contribution to its vast array of textures and colors, functions and sounds. Testify in your own limited way to the presence and nature of your Creator. Echo back to Him the song of creation, imitating His innovative work in the world.

God … will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God…
Psalm 52:5-9

Of course the story goes on to show how we have abused our role in God’s garden, stealing the fruit that wasn’t ours to eat and oppressing our fellow inhabitants with our selfishness, greed, and outright contempt. And God has much to say about how He will come and tend His garden, uprooting the weed-like plants who defy their Gardener’s order and choke out His other plants.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

But God also intervenes in His garden to nourish and restore the plants that have been trodden underfoot or impeded from what they need to grow. Jesus came to walk among hillsides of tender shoots, watering weary souls, restoring withered limbs, and even raising dead branches. He cut off fruitless vines who were leeching life from those who needed it, and He grafted in foreign vines who longed to be included under His life-giving care.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

God takes great delight in His people garden. He shines the light of His face on us in warming, life-giving relationship. He satisfies our parched hearts with streams of living love. He crowns us with beauty and fills our branches with fruit, the satisfaction of a project successfully accomplished or the fruition of a dream finally fulfilled.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. … No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.
Revelation 22:1-5

And best of all, God is in the process of planting us as near to Himself as it gets. He is gathering His vast array of plants into one garden-city, built out of organic stones and filled with the light of His presence. Even as we wait for the fulfillment of His story, we are already flourishing in His courtyard, rooted by His stream, and abiding in His Vine.

IMG_9033So who or what are we in the story of creation? Would the world be a better place without us? I am reminded that, according to God’s narrative, humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of His eye. Without us, His garden would be beautiful but incomplete. Our expansion is what He intended from the beginning; our advances are potential reflections of His image within. We are an integral part of His earth, planted here to thrive.

A Place for Pleasure

IMG_8283A post on pleasure in the middle of Lent? The irony has not escaped me. And yet as my husband has astutely pointed out, the very messiness of theology done at the crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come demands a degree of irony. Sweetness in the midst of sorrow. Pleasure in the midst of pain.

For years I have only valued these conflicting experiences the other way around. My mind would resonate in agreement with Wesley’s pithy statement to his Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” Moments of mirth or passing pleasures seemed to me just that: temporary, trivial experiences that had little value in the overall picture of things.

But in His perfect irony, God has chosen this season of Lent to be the time in which He is calling me to make space for pleasure in my life.

The very messiness of theology done at the
crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come
demands a degree of irony.

Since childhood I have been trained in hard work, self-discipline, and kingdom living. As a young adult, I was profoundly influenced by John Piper’s analogy of adopting a war-time mentality in prioritizing my time, efforts, and resources for the work of God’s kingdom. But because my understanding of that kingdom was largely limited to the heavenly realm, I was left with little cause to invest in earthly pleasures. An expensive dinner out with my husband. An indulgent pamper-treatment at home on my own. None of these seemed worth the time or expense in light of eternity.

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–…who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 103:2, 5

But God has been showing me that pleasure is not just bookended on the front and back end of eternity. He did not put it on a cosmic hold once the perfection of the Garden was broken. And He is not waiting for the golden streets of Heaven to finally roll it back out as a godly part of our experience.

He makes …plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:14-15, 28

Pleasure is a part of God’s plan for the here and now, even if it is intermixed with tears and toil. He has created in us desires that He then delights in satisfying. He weaves pleasure into the fabric of our everyday lives: food that is intended to taste good, wine that is meant to make us feel giddy, faces that are designed to look beautiful, and sensory experiences that are supposed to make us stop in our tracks out of sheer ecstasy.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33

Obviously God has much to say about not making a god out of earthly pleasures by overly indulging in or pursuing them before Him. But that does not negate their value in His estimation. If anything, His promise to add all these things to us when we seek first His kingdom reinforces the importance of their place in our lives. He gives us beautiful clothes and delicious food along with His kingdom and His righteousness.

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” …”My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. John 4:32-34
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘
Matthew 11:19

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the example of Jesus. He was all about the kingdom: eating, sleeping, and preaching it day and night. He certainly wasn’t overly attached to creature comforts, voluntarily going without them for long periods of time in His pursuit of God. And yet He also had quite a reputation for enjoying Himself at parties.

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
Matthew 26:6-7

Even in the midst of the intensity and passion of holy week, Jesus made space for pleasure. In between passionate temple cleansings and intensive final instructions, He found the time to hang out at a banquet table, savoring fine food and wine with His friends. He didn’t get the meal to go. And He didn’t rush the perfumed head and foot massage that came with it. He simply enjoyed it as a gift from God.

Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain,
I do it all as an act of worship.

And that is the point. Physical pleasure is a gift from God. Far from being a distraction from God, it is meant to be enjoyed with God. My stripped down, productivity-driven lifestyle may make more room for ministry, but it has crowded out the ability to enjoy God and His good gifts. I need to take a lesson from Jesus, knowing when to push through hardship and when to stop for pleasure.

If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
I Corinthians 10:30-31

So even in the midst of Lent’s austerity, God is punctuating my sobriety with mirth, my fasts with indulgence, and my focus with frivolity. While it all seems a bit unorthodox, I am finding great pleasure in enjoying both ends of the spectrum in His presence. Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain, I do it all as an act of worship.

God’s pleasure is my own. My pleasure is His.

Faded Glory

My friend is dying.

attachmentOnce one of the most beautiful women I knew, her glory is fading. Cancer has sealed her throat, stopping the ready laughter and stilling the spry step that I knew her by. Pain is her constant companion, cutting her off from food, from sleep, from being able to enjoy much of anything. My soul revolts at the thought of her bright eyes dulled with pain, her pretty jaw clenched with suffering. And though her spirit fights on, her body is wasting away.

This is so wrong.

Flowers aren’t supposed to be crushed mid-bloom. Beautiful symphonies aren’t supposed to be cut off mid-note. Exquisite works of art aren’t supposed to be ruthlessly defaced.

And yet death doesn’t follow my rules.

It insists on corroding beauty, on stealing away the final remnant of God’s image in human flesh. And as I watch it do its nasty work in my friend, my soul cries out in protest.

I feel like I am watching glory depart from a temple.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes…”
Say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary–the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection.
Ezekiel 24:15-16, 21

Ezekiel bore the burden of this agonizing process twice over, both times helplessly watching the delight of his eyes being snuffed out. His wife’s premature death was more than a personal loss—it was a tangible enactment of the bigger story he was a part of. That story was one that he was chosen by God to witness and proclaim: the departure of God’s glory from His temple.

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.
Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 9:3; 10:18-19

Carried up in a vision to see it happening, Ezekiel could hardly bear the sight of God’s Spirit leaving the Jerusalem temple. Like the worst kind of death, the fading glory of God’s presence lifting out of its physical dwelling tore at his heart, bereaving him of his most beautiful treasure. What had been a magnificent structure, befitting the glorious Spirit who filled it, was left behind to decay and crumble.

This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.
I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Ezekiel 37:5-6, 26-27

But in the midst of his overwhelming grief, Ezekiel was assured that both of these losses were a gruesome step in an otherwise glorious process. The Spirit would return; the glory would re-ignite. But it wouldn’t look the way it had before. The destruction of one beautiful structure was making room for another.

The glory of the replacement would far outshine the original.

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
This season we celebrate the return of God’s glory to its temple, the coming of His Spirit to a new physical dwelling. Expected and yet not, the birth of Jesus was the reunification of Spirit with body. The glory of heaven returned to earth. The fullness of God contained in one physical space. And yet it didn’t stop there.

The destruction of that temple gave rise to another. The desecration of that sanctuary sanctified another. The emptying of that body gave fullness to another.

This is the reality in which my friend is now participating. Body and soul, she is an integral part of that majestic dwelling, the earthly temple of the Heavenly Spirit. Her life on earth has been a glorious reflection of the Spirit in whose image she was created. The beauty of her face has mirrored the beauty of her spirit, full of joy, of love, of life.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.
1 Peter 3:3-6

And now as her physical beauty fades, the beauty within shines all the more brightly. She has spent a lifetime gazing on the beauty of God, and the beauty of His Spirit has settled deep within hers. Even as her bodily temple is being destroyed, her truest beauty remains unscathed, radiant for all to see.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
1 Corinthians 6:19; 15:36-37, 42-43, 54

As much as it breaks my heart to hear of her suffering, to know of her slow, painful demise, I look forward through my tears to the end of her story. Her magnificent temple is crumbling, but it is making way for another. The beautiful form by which I have always recognized her will depart, but the spirit it has housed will one day return to its dwelling. I don’t know what that new version will look like, but I do know it will be even more gloriously beautiful than the old.

Death may win this day. But it will lose that one.

Unfading glory.

As we gaze on your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell your story
Shine on me, shine on me

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 1987 Make Way Music

Pretty for a Purpose

cartoon+makeup+girlWhen we first moved to South Asia, I was struck by the beauty of the women all around me. High caste or untouchable, pampered ladies of leisure or struggling servant girls, they all invested heavily in beautifying themselves. Exquisitely draped saris. Carefully combed hair. Bright colored bangles jingling on wrists. Decorative dots displayed on foreheads. Even the poorest of women found a way to beautify themselves with flowers in their hair and rings on their toes.

Next to them I felt plain and ugly, a stripped-down, functional version of womanhood that suddenly seemed less than appealing. Sadly, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Kindhearted neighbors stepped in to adjust my clumsily wrapped sari, to slide a few of their bangles on my empty wrist, to stick one of their bindis on my bare forehead.

“Doesn’t your family feel disgraced that you don’t wear the costly gold jewelry they must have presented you at your marriage?”

“Doesn’t your husband mind that you don’t honor him by decorating yourself with lots of color and a bindi?“

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Proverbs 31:30
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
Peter 3:3-4

I had never stopped to think of my physical appearance in those terms before. My dualistic, platonic upbringing had taught me to view beauty as vain and fleeting, a pointless distraction from the things that really mattered. The only Scripture references to beauty that I had been taught to notice were ones which warned against putting too much stock in it. And my stunningly beautiful mother had trained me well that what mattered most to God was the beauty of my spirit, not of my body.

Physical beauty is a reflection of God’s glory.

Of course, none of that stopped me from spending time and money on physical beauty. I cared about dressing nicely and looking pretty (more than I would have liked to admit). But I always felt a bit guilty about it, as if this were an area that I was selfishly holding onto, as if God would probably like it better if I invested those resources in His kingdom rather than in my appearance.

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

But all these years later I realize that my South Asian neighbors understood something that I didn’t. My beauty was meant to be a reflection of someone else’s glory. Far from detracting from God, it is intended to display just how magnificent He is.

I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen.
Ezekiel 16:9-13

No wonder He portrays Himself as the kingly husband, beautifying His new wife’s body in every way imaginable. Purifying skin treatments. Fine facial creams. Designer dresses. Stylish shoes. But He didn’t stop there. Fashion accessories. Over-the-top jewelry. An exclusive diet, carefully designed to bring out the best in her features. No expense or effort was spared in making this woman as beautiful as she could possibly be. And her Husband was delighted when other men noticed.

And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign LORD.
Ezekiel 16:14

But why would God care so much about physical beauty? Why would a husband invest so heavily in his wife’s external appearance, finding pleasure in a public display of her splendor?

But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute…
At the head of every street you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, offering your body with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by.
Ezekiel 16:15, 25

Perhaps the answer lies in what went wrong with the beautified woman. The admiration of others turned her head. Instead of gazing on the Source of her beauty, she began to gaze on its product. The mirror became another opportunity to adore herself rather than to adore the One whose image she reflected. And the more she idolized her own beauty, the more sallow and tarnished it became.

Neglecting our beauty is no godlier
than obsessing over it.

As I reflect on my conflicted attitude towards my own physical appearance, I see that my problem is not spending too much time or effort on it. It is claiming its credit. Downplaying my beauty is just as wrong as obsessing over it, because ultimately it is not mine.

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10

I am God’s masterpiece, His garden to be tended and beautified. The more radiant I look, the more clearly His beauty is seen. Part of the good work that I have been created to do is to cultivate both my spirit and my body. Both are made in His image. Both are the place where His glory dwells.

And so slowly, I am reclaiming my makeup for God. The time I spend in the mirror is an act of worship, not because I am captivated by the image that I see there, but because I am learning to delight in the Artist who designed it. I decorate and frame His artwork each day, reveling in the opportunity to put His beauty on display. Whether it is one of those ugly days when I need a little extra TLC or one of those happy days when I walk away feeling radiant, my appearance reflects God’s glory.

There’s no room for pride in that. It’s pretty for a higher purpose.

Fleshy Theology

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
What’s the point of having a body?

As a college student, I remember finding my body an inconvenient obstruction to being in all the places I wanted to be at the same time. I had a hard time accepting that it wouldn’t allow me to work through the hours of the night and then stay awake in class the next day. Somehow physical limitations didn’t register as a valid reason to lower my ambitions. After all, wasn’t my body simply a temporary vehicle for my soul?

Years of motherhood, physical challenges, and the inevitable experience of aging have forced me to listen to my body (at least with one ear). But only recently have I encountered a compelling argument for why I should value it.

Sitting in an N.T. Wright lecture a few weeks ago, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective (no pun intended) on the physical realm. Far from being the messed-up, spiritually devoid location where our souls are temporarily housed as they await their true home in heaven, Tom Wright challenged me to think of the earth and everything in it as an integral, ongoing part of God’s redemptive plan. The imagery of a delighted God walking through His garden in Eden and the promise of new creation have sparked my imagination to see how infused this physical earth is with the presence of God. What’s more, taking seriously the fact that God manifested His glorious image in fleshy, human bodies has caused me to reconsider my former assumptions about the significance of my own body.

Is it merely a temporary shelter to be minimally maintained? Is it a side-point to my spirituality, a distracting, limiting necessity along my journey to Christ-likeness, or is it, in fact, an integral part of my being re-created in and conformed to His image?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ…
Colossians 1:15; 2:9–10

I suppose the starting point in answering these questions is to consider the significance of Christ’s body. It was the dwelling place of God, the physical space where God’s Spirit was located. But more than that, it was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

I admit I have to take a moment to let that sink in. I am accustomed to conceptualizing this in a spiritual sense but missing its physical reality. But if I have no trouble believing that God really was born of a woman and took a fleshly form, why do I get hung up on thinking of Jesus as a physical replica of God? Perhaps this is where I get caught with my dualist, Neoplatonic slip showing. Has my Western worldview really kept me from appreciating the full meaning of Christ’s incarnation?

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.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay…We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6–10

And yet there it is. Not only is Christ’s body a physical manifestation of God’s image—mine is too! My body is a visible representation of God, the eating, sleeping, moving, breathing, touching, seeing image of its Creator. But more than that, it has become a sacred space in which His Spirit lives. The eyes that I would prefer to be bluer and the wrinkles that are setting in despite my best effort are part of a face that is being transformed to look more and more like His.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16

True, the image I see in the mirror is a far cry from the Original. Ugly expressions, dark circles, and sagging cells betray the fact that this face has been cursed. But there is hope! My body is going through the same process that Jesus’ body did. I can see its weakness, decay and eventual death setting in, but at the same time I experience a renewing force bringing light to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I treasure the fact that my mortal body is the place where Jesus’ life is being currently revealed. Better than that, I look forward to the day when this very body will be raised up from the dead, a new improved version of the same old me.

Our faces are being transformed to look more and more like His.

It may sound silly, but I think that is the beginnings of a theology of beauty, a little extra motivation to care for my body and make it as true an image of its glorious Lord as is possible this side of the new creation.

Godly makeup. Fleshy theology.

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.