Friday, January 28, 2011

God's Image

During last fall's EV Theological Conversation, Colin Greene told a story that has stuck with me ever since. It's not just that I've remembered it, but that it keeps confronting me. I'm challenged over and over, in myriad contexts, to face that story, to measure myself against it. It's an unavoidably convicting story. It's also a beautiful one. And I'm never convicted without simultaneously feeling inspired, encouraged, and even--oddly enough, affirmed. The story is a simple one:

Colin once visited a Greek Orthodox church with a friend. After a ceremony of chanting and incense burning, the priest turned and bowed to the congregation. The people then bowed in return. Colin leaned over to his friend and asked what all the bowing was about, and his friend responded, "He is bowing to the image of God in us."

Struck by the beauty of that sacramental practice, I've been challenged over and over to put its truth into action. Less than 24 hours later, I was shuttling through the Atlanta airport behind a gray-haired army commander. Political inclinations aside, I was unspeakably grieved by this reminder that in our world, there are people who make a living from the business of killing. My visceral response to this reality is typically a show-stopping one, but here, on an airport escalator, I could not escape Colin's story. With face burning and tears in my eyes, I ever-so-subtly bowed to this man's camo-clad back.

Only yesterday this story took on new meaning for me as I read the closing chapter of "An Interrupted Life" by Etty Hillesum. Etty was a Dutch Jew, chronicling her way through the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and her own parallel spiritual awakening. In this final letter, she describes a round-up of 1000 Jews for a transport to a camp in Poland.
‎"When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green-uniformed guards--my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me."
Finding God in the image of the other, I think, can sometimes be an impossible task. Its impossibility, however, doesn't get us off the hook. We are called, repeatedly and continually, to look for God's image in the other - and whether we find it or not - to honor its presence.

(*Note: as I wrote this on Friday morning, halfway around the world an Egyptian woman was putting these same thoughts into action. During a protest for change and freedom for her people, she chose love - over anger - as her means of challenge to power. I've added her picture, widely circulated by the news media, above.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Causality of Negative Space

I came downstairs the other day to find my dh reading a book with the title: "Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use" and - I am not making this up - grinning from ear to ear. He paused long enough to furiously scribble a note in the margin and then went back to the book, loving every minute of his "just-for-fun" reading. Now, I'm hardly one to cast stones - after all, I read philosophy and theology, neuroscience and even occasionally quantum physics thrown in for good measure. But I must admit, watching my husband go back to school and find his passion has been a kick.
We've both been surprised to discover the number of ideas his studies have stirred up with significant parallel applications in our respective fields of geek-dom. What he gets all excited about exploring in the context of evaluation often has fascinating relevance for my theological investigations. His note in the margin on Sunday was one of those ideas: "the causality of negative space." I'm sure he'll take that and run with it in a paper for grad school or a journal article, but I've been brewing over what that looks like in my own context.
We Americans focus a lot of energy on cause-and-effect, generally assuming that the greater force we exert on the cause end of the equation, the greater effect we'll achieve. We're proactive doers, and intimately familiar with the causal nature of activity.
But what about "negative space?" Silence, stillness, inactivity - do these yield results as well? Looking back over my life, I think many of the very best things were actually brought about by an active participation in, or at least embracing of, "negative space." My attempts to meditate, for instance. Miserable a failure as I may be, the regular practice of stillness has softened and slowed me down. Or having learned to [very occasionally] be silent in conversation. What a gift, to sit and simply enjoy the presence of one I care for. And what remarkable connections have been forged in silence, rather than in frantic conversation. My husband's extended unemployment years ago - negative space in so many ways cleared the way for a fullness we could never have dreamed up. In the arena of faith - the empty place of darkness and doubt yielded fruit that could have grown in no other way. In parenting, sometimes making myself "absent" is precisely the motivator my children need to step up and fill the space with their own efforts and achievements.
I think we busy doers have much to learn from this notion. The goals we so often "tackle head-on" and strive after are perhaps best pursued in a radically different way. The inverse of our instinct, in fact, may often be the most effective means of reaching our objectives. We would do well to look for this "negative space" - to see where in our life it has been formative, to consider where in our lives it might be put to constructive use.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Heaps of Rubble

I've been thinking lately about faith, and about what life looks like after faith has fallen apart. So many of us, particularly in my generation, have reached a point in life where circumstances, or education, or our own questioning, brought us to a point of doubt--and then beyond.
Like many of my peers, I grew up with a strong sense of commitment to God, faithfulness to my local Christian church, and a passion to make that God known. My faith in God was a strong wall - a place of protection and comfort, of direction and purpose. It guided my decisions and gave my life meaning.
Then the hard times came. A [liberal arts] education started running cracks through the mortar of my assumptions. Suffering--my own, and that of the world at large--tore at the bricks so carefully laid. A deep spiritual and emotional darkness descended over my life, and crumbled the few remaining bits of wall. When light at last began to dawn, I found myself disoriented, standing in a heap of rubble, with dust and smoke drifting past me into the obscure distance.
Out of the haze, I eventually began to discern other figures. They stood amidst their own heaps of rubble, shaking their heads and sorting the confusion of their own crumbled faith. Many of them dusted themselves off and began to walk away. Some chose to walk in the direction of the receding darkness, while others followed the rays of light that cut through the swirling dust. Still others slowly began rebuilding, right where they stood. They lifted each brick, brushed it off, and put it back in place.
As for myself, I spent quite a while in that rubble. I was angry about it, I grieved the loss of my wall, and I watched closely what others were doing. Then, almost without knowing it, I picked up one of my bricks and laid it on the ground in front of me. I laid another after that, and then another. Over time, I found I was laying a path. Not a path with a definite destination, to be clear, but one that circled and wove its way through (and perhaps beyond) the debris. I'm still laying that path, dusting off the old bricks, mixing in a few new ones, even occasionally stepping off the pavers into the mud. It has turned out to be a confusing, hopeful, sometimes painful, joyful adventure - finding my way forward on this path of faith.
One of the greatest surprises of this stage of my faith has been the communion that has grown with other rubble-dwellers. Regardless of what we've chosen to do with our heaps of debris, we have in common this experience - our once trusted walls have crumbled, we have breathed the dust of their extinction. Our eyes have burned with the fine grit of crushed faith, and we have grieved the loss of what we once held dear. Our conversations grow out of deep empathy and shared questions. We have suffered, perhaps not together, or identically, but still alongside one another; we have learned of darkness and doubt and shock. As we chart our courses in the wake of this disaster, our parallel experiences draw us together.
Some of us will walk away, some of us will rebuild, some of us will survey the confusion indefinitely. So far, there seems to be no one "right way" to sort out this loss. While our future paths might lead in varied directions, we are comforted, and yes--blessed--by the privilege of this shared memory. What we may or may not do in the days to come remains to be seen, but this we do know: we are held together in the solidarity of the rubble.

(Photo used with permission,