Friday, November 18, 2016

Image-Bearers


This election season has been toxic. Like many, as I watched it all unfold, I felt sickened by how all of this represented a country I love dearly and how what was being said aloud was reflecting what was deep in people's hearts. All of it made me think of Luke 8:17, "For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known and brought out into the light." All of the hateful rhetoric was being lauded as a candidate saying what we are all thinking. This horrified me. Did this language rooted in racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Muslim speak really reveal the hate and fear that underlies our nation?

When the election was over, I found myself feeling like someone just informed me that our country had inoperable cancer - and that we'd chosen it for ourselves. I found myself angry at those who voted for a candidate who so openly displayed and promoted, not our "better angels," as Lincoln said, but our baser selves. The part of us that is steeped in centuries of racism and discrimination. I feared that what people meant when they spoke of making America "great" again was some over-idealized, mythical and nonexistent America. A country that looked less like reality and more like reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. I heard talk of taking back our "Christian" nation. While our country has had patches that reflected Christ, overall, our history has shown more of our fallen state: from slaughtering Native Americans, slavery, the Jim Crow era, the continued inequality of women, and the new Jim Crow era with its backlash against Black Lives Matter without even attempting to understand why it's inappropriate to change it to "All lives matter." What I feared was that making America "great" again meant returning it to a time when white men held all the power. Certainly, it was white men who predominantly put Donald Trump in the White House. But what really bothered me about this was I am a white male. Even if I didn't vote for Trump, can I excuse myself from my race and gender?

The more I meditated on the election and what it meant, I realized that I had to reflect on myself. First, I have to acknowledge my own privilege and that it came at a price. Certainly the wealth and success of our country has often come on the backs and the blood of African Americans. I think of Thomas Jefferson who wrote the words, "All men are created equal." He understood this as a concept. And he did consider freeing his slaves because of that idea. But what stopped him? Wealth. He loved to live lasciviously. His comfort overruled his convictions. It would be easy to judge and criticize him for this, but how much of our country's wealth is still being created by slavery in other countries? Certainly I don't stop to consider them when I am purchasing clothing, technology or even the toys my kids play with or the candy we eat or the coffee I drink. Over this last year, I have looked more closely at my purchases and ensuring that they really were free trade and I've sought out organizations that sell the works of those who are attempting to better themselves and support their families in impoverished countries.

Yes, I must come to terms with myself as the oppressor. Intentionally or not.

I must look into my own heart and thoughts, the ones I keep hidden, and face that within me is the reality of having been born and raised in America and in the South. That I must constantly let the light of Christ shine on my own racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogny, and prejudices I might have against Muslims. To reject the hateful rhetoric that has been espoused, I must truly face it within myself. I cannot simply combat angry rhetoric with loving rhetoric, but with loving actions.

One of the ways I was convicted of this was when, as I drove to work in silence and contemplation, the Spirit spoke these words: Injustice happens when we don't see someone as the image-bearer of God.

Whoa! Those words weighed heavily on my own failure to do just that.

In Genesis 1:26, it's written: God spoke, "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature" (The Message).

We are made in the image of the Trinity, in the image of God the Father, Son and Spirit. And I have to see not only myself, but others this way. We are made to "reflect" them in both our appearance, our actions and our "nature."

Christ told us that the greatest commands were to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and to "Love your neighbor as yourself." There's the rub, isn't it? Too many of us cannot love our neighbors because we do not love ourselves. Why? Partly because we do not think ourselves "beloved" or lovable. One of the first things I have begun to do during this time is to face the reality that within me is a deep well of loneliness and insecurity. When I act from that well and not from the Spirit, I find myself reflecting less the image and nature of God than the image and nature of fallenness. When I draw from that well, I offer not living water, but putrefied and contaminated filth (anger, jealousy, fear, distrust, ambition, selfishness).

In his A Book of Hours, Thomas Merton profoundly wrote:

We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy; we have already achieved something of the fullness of being for which we were destined in our creation. If we love everything else but God, we contradict the image born in our very essence, and we cannot help being unhappy, because we are living a caricature of what we are meant to be.

There is such truth in this passage. When we both love God and allow God to love us, then we find ourselves at rest and not having to defend ourselves or our faith. Instead, we find ourselves better able to love other people. I find that when I am resting in God and not myself, I am more open to those around me. It makes me present, intentional, and available. I find that I am not snappy, irritable, impatient and wanting my way. When I rest in God, I am in and filled with His shalom (peace, well-being, complete) and can then extend that shalom to others. When shalom is within us, then it can flow out of us. I am to "strive for peace" and not to let the "root of bitterness" spring up within me.

To allow God to place me in this state of peace, I pray that, throughout my day, that I choose faith over fear, compassion over cynicism, hope over hate, and, above all, love over division, And when I pray this prayer, God makes sure that their are people placed in my path to see just how much I really mean it. I have to let go of my agenda and be present enough to see those around me as the image-bearers of God. Sometimes this is easy, other times it can be a real test. This election brought up my own judgmentalism when I would paint people with a broad brush of condemnation and dismiss them all as racists or bigots. But then I had to ask myself, do I see that person as having been "fearfully and wonderfully made" by God?

Do I see Donald Trump that way?

Most of the time, I have to admit that I don't and that I willfully don't want to. The same goes for the Evangelical leaders who enthusiastically and vocally supported him as they bowed to the idol of American nationalism. While I do not excuse their actions, I must continue to ensure that my anger doesn't turn to hatred or bitterness. I must not let the hate of others echo in my own life. My trust, after all, is in Christ and not in leaders of men.

I have struggled with Evangelicalism for some time now and no longer identify myself as one. I consider that name to have less to do with the call of Christ and more to do with a brand of conservatism that is tied to a political party and a rigid patriarchal structure.  An example of this is
overhearing a six-year old girl going up to her pastor at the end of the service and, with a broad smile, informed him, "When I grow up, I'm going to do what you do." Her expression became crestfallen when he replied, "You can't. Girls cannot be pastors."

I felt her rejection in that moment. I couldn't believe what he just said to her.

What does that teach her?

That her voice does not matter to God as much as a boy's. That she is inferior in the sight of God. How can a girl grow up to love a God that clearly doesn't value her as much as He does a boy? How does this show her that she, too, is an image-bearer of God?  When the Church silences the voice of women, they are quenching part of the power of the Spirit for God is both male and female, since both are made in the image of the Creator. To deny equality is to dishonor part of our very Maker, who is, portrayed in scripture, as both father and mother.

We must let go of our Patriarchal system and realize that our faith is not in the patriarchs, who were all fallen men, but in Christ. If Christ included women in his ministry, why then should we not do likewise?

Having grown up in conservative, Protestant Evangelicalism, I have been born into that complementarian society and struggled with its stereotypes of the roles of men and women are to play. It has been difficult for me not being the "bread-winner" but working part-time and being the one who takes care of the house and the kids while my wife works full-time. It hasn't been any less easy on her in a church where women traditionally stay home, many home school their kids, and do the grocery shopping and cleaning (Don't get me started on laundry). She finds herself as much as an outsider as I do.

Certainly, it has been hard for me to connect with many males in church when my interests also diverge from theirs: books, music, movies, and having favorite shows like Gilmore Girls. I am someone who doesn't view vulnerability as weakness, but I find that most men around me are incapable of letting their guards down to have open and honest conversations that diverge off sports and work. Having been mostly raised by a mother, I often find it easier to connect with women and to share with them. One of the things that drew me to my wife was her intelligence. She is far more practical and level-headed than I am. I tend to be more of a day-dreamer. God made us both this way and, though it doesn't fall into the gender roles that complementarianism assigns to us. I think we, in the Church, need to let go of such antiquated ideas that are held in place by fear.

There is this fear of relinquishing authority, but the fact of the matter is, only God has true authority and He is the one who created women as an "ezer" to men. (Ezer is not just a helper but is most often used in connection to God). There is a great danger to complementarianism as it stereotypes men as being less sensitive and women as more emotional (I can attest that this is not always the case). Or that men like sports more than women (just ask my wife who yells the loudest and pays closer attention to football).

The Church needs to let go of its patriarchal hierarchy. Philip the evangelist understood this. He had four daughters and all of them prophesied. Or how about the female prophets of the Old Testament? Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah among them. And let us not forget it was the women who followed Jesus, and not the men, who stayed by Christ as he hung on the cross. There are also women in leadership roles all throughout the early Church and Paul does not silence them. We must let go of strident rhetoric that would silence half the voice of God in our midst. We must encourage and exhort our daughters just as much as our sons.

For there to be equality, we, as men, must see women as image-bearers of God just as we are.

Colossians 1:15-17 tells us, "(Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

We were all created in him and for him and are held together by him. How then can we separate ourselves from other people?

As followers of Christ, we can't. For those who follow him, there is no stranger, no other. There are only neighbors we are called to love. How then can anyone who calls himself a Christian hold tightly to nationalism and a sense of narcissistic entitlement? How can we say that we choose not to welcome the sojourner, the refugee, the immigrant? It means that, if a national registry is created for Muslims, then Christians also need to register to stand in solidarity against religious persecution. We are to stand with those who would are oppressed and persecuted. We cannot distance ourselves by putting those of other nationalities or faiths into the category of "them" or "other." How many of us would wince if Jesus told the parable of the "Good Syrian" or "Good Muslim" instead of a Samaritan?

Before Merton (who echoed her), Clare of Assisi wrote:

We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means that we become vessels of God's compassionate love for others.

Once again, if we love God then we will love others. God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sound mind. That means when we choose fear, we turn away from that which God has given us. We are telling our Maker, "We prefer to cling to our own prejudices, fears, and insecurities. We don't want your freedom." At that moment, we stop reflecting God and, instead, merely reflect our own broken selves and our actions are based not in love, but in selfishness and fear. When we realize that we are image-bearers of God, then we can become stewards of beauty and love within creation. Our actions come from a place where our own woundedness is expressed in vulnerability and humility, not to try and coerce others so that we can get our own way, but in an expression of Christ-likeness that offers up that by his wounds we were healed and by our own wounds we can help to heal others in his name and to his glory.

To let go of self, of ego is scary. In his book Breathing Underwater, Richard Rohr wrote:

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often give a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of "Christian" countries that tend to as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious and addictive as everybody else - and often more so, I'm afraid.

I do not exclude myself from that assessment. Too often, I am me-centered, not Christ-centered. It's because I lose sight of my being an image-bearer and of those around me being the same. I lose sight that the world is filled with the glory of God. Too often my days feel more monotonous than miraculous because I have lost sight of the sacred gift they really are. I have to allow myself to be open to the reality that sea of humanity is where the ocean of God flows.

To be an image-bearer means letting go of my fears, my insecurities, my selfishness, my loneliness and my fighting for my own rights. As an image-bearer I let go of my own rights to speak out for those of the poor, those suffering injustice, for the widows and orphans, for those who find themselves forgotten on the fringes of society. I need to climb down, not up, the ladder of society because that's where Jesus is and where he's called me to.

This is not easy. I don't like addressing my own weaknesses, sins, and culpability. It's easier to denounce others than to deal with my own sinfulness, my own pride, my own failures and flaws. It means allowing Christ to transform my own pain so that I don't transmit it onto others. Following Jesus means admitting I am poor in spirit and, in my poverty, desperately in need of grace. It means I surrender all to him so that I no longer go through this world trying to prove myself to others, but I am freed up to love them instead of striving to impress them. It means I embrace and not eliminate others. When I am permeated by the love of God, I cannot help but live in and act on that love. It means I let go of trying to be perfect so that I can be present. It means I stop worrying about performance and focus on passion fueled by an understanding of not only my own belovedness but the belovedness of each and every person who comes across my path. It's not about doctrines or ideologies. It's about understanding the all encompassing grace of God expressed through Christ on the cross and the transformation that occurs when we surrender ourselves to a Father who runs to meet, embrace, and kiss us without hesitation or reservation.

I pray that I am becoming a better reflection of my Creator, that, as His image-bearer, I strive daily for "on earth as it is in heaven." That I may "put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24). I pray that I work towards restoration, which comes only when we offer power to the vulnerable and teach vulnerability to the powerful. And we must face that, if we live in this country, we are among the richest in all of history and that we are the oppressors. In his book Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, Andy Crouch wrote, "To disengage from the profound needs of those caught in suffering is to reject the call to bear the image of God." We must own up to this. I must own up to this. Only then can any of us begin to change the culture around us.




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