Learning to see

I walked into the room and sat down in a comfy chair across from my spiritual director. The table next to us held a glass of fall flowers, the small cross that I love to hold, and, behind the candle, a small, colorful painting.

I almost always love the way my spiritual director arranges the physical space for our times of listening together. The colours, the ways the various items offer reminders of life while holding space for needed lament, and the reminder of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all—together they offer a hospitality that helps settle me and open me up to God. But (confession time) I used to groan inside every time my spiritual director chose to use this particular painting as part of the arrangement. I couldn’t look at it without recoiling from it. I didn’t want to look at it long enough to try to understand it. I didn’t say anything. I just looked elsewhere to avoid what looked to me like a red misshapen face or a miscarried fetus, a small green face layered with distorted orange-red like a frightening Halloween mask. I quietly wondered what beauty my gentle spiritual director could possibly see in such a fearful image.

But this time, instead of turning away, I found myself turning toward it. I’d begun to notice the change in me the last time she displayed the picture. That time, instead of focussing on the fearful red, I’d seen, instead, the white face, quietly attentive to the small one. I hadn’t spent long with the image that time, but this time those beginnings of different seeing drew me in so I could hardly take my eyes from the picture. This time, as I struggled to find words to tell my spiritual director about an experience in which I’d found space to be myself and had felt loved, I ended up motioning toward the image and saying, “It was like that. Safe.” Now the image showed me the most tender scene I could imagine—the larger person with the white face holding the small one, offering a calm, steady gaze in which the child could begin to learn that she existed and mattered, and was seen and loved and safe. This time, instead of turning from the image, I turned again and again toward it, hungry for the gentleness it portrayed, and aching to feel once more the hand cupping my head and see the face that never leaves or looks away but keeps steadily loving, quietly holding me in being and making me who I am.

Intimacy by Valerie Sjodin. Used by permission Valerie Sjodin ©️ www.valeriesjodin.com.

At first, I was so absorbed by the beauty of the interaction that I didn’t look at anything other than the faces. I kept turning to see that white face tenderly looking at me, the hand cupping my head. But later, as I looked again at the painting, another surprise was waiting. The red that I’d first interpreted as death and distortion was, in fact, a heart—the life-giving love that filled the relationship. It wasn’t the love that was distorted. It was my seeing. And once my eyes were taught to see, I didn’t want to stop looking.

I could also now see, and delight in, the mystery in the painting—the flowing, fiery colors shaping themselves into the heart that frames and sustains the interaction. This is not a love that I can create or control, or even fully understand—and that is part of its beauty. It’s vast and wild and tender and freely pouring itself out to me, and never going away.

I wish I could find the words to do justice to a book I read this summer that offered me a fresh glimpse of this tender, fiery, mysterious love that takes my breath away with its magnificence. The book is called Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, and in it Gregory A. Boyd reminded me of something I already knew: Jesus is the perfect revelation of God—a God who loves so deeply, and is so committed to our freedom and flourishing, that he stoops low to be in relationship. That relationship includes meeting us where we are and willingly bearing our sin as he not only acts toward us but lets us act on him. But God’s willingness to stoop and let people act on him did not begin with Jesus. All through the preceding history, God stayed in relationship with his people, continuing to love even when they saw him through dim eyes and could only understand his character in light of their culture around them. Like a parent with a tiny child, God let himself be understood in the only ways the child could understand him at that stage, and slowly, as the child grew, continued to reveal more and more of himself. There is no other way for a child to learn, nor, for that matter, for anyone to learn the heart of another. We have to start from what we know, and slowly, with experience, grow deeper into the truth.

. . . God has always revealed his true character and will as much as possible while stooping to accommodate the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people as much as necessary. In his love, God was willing to allow his people to think of him along the lines of an ANE [Ancient Near East] warrior deity, to the degree this was necessary, in order to progressively influence them to the point where they eventually would be capable of receiving the truth that he is actually radically unlike these violent ANE deities.

. . . [B]y making gradual changes, God beguiled his people into the gospel, wherein it was revealed that God would rather be killed by enemies than kill them.” (Cross Vision, 73-74)

And so we are invited to look and keep looking into the face of love which is gazing on us, and to slowly learn to see there both who God is and who we are.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

And now, may we each live in the blaze of this blessing which God himself commanded his priests to pronounce so that his people would always know that the face that looks upon us is one of blessing and grace and generous peace.

“The Lord bless you

and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine on you

and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you

and give you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26) 

4 thoughts on “Learning to see

  1. Absolutely incredible! For such a time as this. Carolyn I initially saw what you saw as I’m trained as a nurse, but as I looked again and longer oh, how it touches me and reminds me how much I am loved!

  2. Although I have never read nor heard of the book you mentioned, nor the author Gregory Boyd, I feel I must offer a strong word of caution. This is the first time I’ve disagreed with anything on your blog so I offer this with some trepidation.

    God has faithfully revealed Himself, His character and His nature in His Word, both Old and New Testaments. He has also stated that He does not change. I would be greatly distrustful of any theologian’s attempts to remake God into an image that is more palatable to the modern mind by erasing parts of His revealed nature, explaining it as Him being “willing to allow his people to think of him along the lines of” something that was contrary to the way He actually is. This kind of dissembling does not fit the nature of a holy, true, and just God!

    Besides many passages in the Old Testament describing God as a Warrior, what do we do with Revelation 19:12-16, describing Jesus Himself?

    “*His eyes are like a flame of fire*, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is *clothed in a robe dipped in blood*, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God…From his mouth comes a *sharp sword with which to strike down the nations*, and *he will rule them with a rod of iron*. *He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty*. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”

    God is God, and our finite minds can never comprehend Him, only bow in worship. Jesus, the fullest revelation of the Father, also reveals Himself in Revelation as a Man of War. May we not be offended at His judgments, no matter how severe, but receive the grace to sing the song of Moses: “Great and wonderful are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.”

    On Mon, Sep 24, 2018 at 11:47 PM Hearing The Heartbeat wrote:

    > hearingtheheartbeat posted: ” I walked into the room and sat down in a > comfy chair across from my spiritual director. The table next to us held a > glass of fall flowers, the small cross that I love to hold, and, behind the > candle, a small, colorful painting. I almost always love” >

    1. Dear Maia,

      Thanks so much for moving through your trepidation to so carefully and clearly express your concerns. Wrestling with theology is an endeavour that, I believe, should always be undertaken in community, and my desire is that this be a place where we can listen together to God’s heartbeat, so I appreciate your willingness to engage with me on this.

      I’m afraid I have done the book an injustice by trying to summarize in a single paragraph and a single quote what I found helpful about a 300 page book (already reduced from a 2 volume, 900 word, scholarly set on the same topic that Boyd has written). Thanks for giving me the opportunity to try to clarify (though, I fear, short of rewriting the whole book here, I will fail again!)

      To my mind, Boyd did not minimize any of the authority or grandeur or power of God, erase any of his revealed nature, or attempt to remake God in an image more palatable to the modern mind. God is the Righteous Judge and the King of all kings, as you rightly point out. What Boyd did show is that though this King has the right to judge, he does so with sorrow, not pleasure, and only when his every attempt to achieve reconciliation has failed to win us over. And even then, his judgement is not so much an imposed judgement as a releasing us to the consequences of our choices.

      Regarding God being “willing to allow his people to think of him along the lines of” something that does not adequately reflect his character, this is a grace that I have often experienced in my own life as well as in the lives of others with whom I walk. There are many times I have misunderstood something about God’s character, making God in my own image or in the image of a parent or another person, and I have found God exceedingly gentle and patient with me, willing and eager to stay in relationship with me and slowly move me toward a truer understanding of who he is. It’s not at all that he doesn’t care about truth, or wants me to stay in my wrong understanding of him, but that he is willing to bear my weakness and sin and keep walking with me and gently loving me until, through his gentleness and patience, I have grown enough that I can begin to glimpse something about his beautiful self that I was not previously able to grasp. I am brought into worship by this incredible graciousness—I don’t have to understand God perfectly before he will come close and live in communion with me and do his work in me to help me know him more truly!

      Hope that helps a little.

      Together in Him,
      Carolyn

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