kindom musings

Thoughts and musings from a pastor in the peace tradition. Perspectives come from a progressive, justice-minded, feminist position. Responses are welcome.

Location: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, United States

I am a Church of the Brethren pastor in my thirties. While I love what I do, I started out with plans to be a veterinarian. God has a great sense of humor, and I wound up in ministry instead. However, my sojourn into veterinary science did make me a vegetarian with a love of animals. (We have two cats and a dog at home -- only a small petting zoo!) My husband is also ordained, and we have a son (LB) and a daughter (KB). My husband keeps me up to date on baseball trivia, and my children keep me giggling. All in all, it makes for a well-rounded life. I was born in Pennsylvania, moved several times for school and work, and have recently returned to my home state. On the Myers-Briggs scale, I'm an INFP.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Reflected Light -- the bulk of Sunday's sermon and an elaboration on earlier posts this week

The following is a myth, an imagining that never happened exactly as I will describe. Nevertheless, I believe it is true. Like many stories, it tells of the beginning of the world, a time when things got turned around, and a time that things began again.

A long time ago, when the earth was still very new and long before people had learned to fight with each other, God, the creator of all things, dreams, and ideas, used to talk regularly with all creatures, and they would talk regularly with God. With God, even the trees and animals could be clearly understood, and in God’s presence all living things simply seemed brighter, more alive, thriving. To borrow the description of another created place: “all the women were strong, all the men were good looking, and all the children were above average.” Life was very good. And mornings and evenings passed.

But after a while – in these stories there is always something to spoil the paradise – some of the people began to feel jealous that God might be spending more time with others than with them. Others felt lonely when they couldn’t see God. On one level, they were right. As time passed, people did see God less, though no one could say for sure if it was because God did not appear as often or because they were often distracted by other things and missed seeing what was right in front of them. However, their uncertainty did not keep them from arguing. They fought with one another, and they forgot who they were. In the process, they completely forgot to recognize the presence of God in their midst. The animals and trees thought this was silly, and they began to separate themselves from conversations with the people. As a result, people felt even more disconnected from the center of life, and some creatures instead became adversaries instead of partners in creation. They were so caught up in their own images they lost sight of why and whom and by whom they were created.

It was all very sad, but God who first designed all things also continued to dream and imagine what could be. After thinking about it for what seemed a long time, God made a very large and very special mirror and placed it in the middle of everything. It sat in a grassy area with the perfect combination of sunlight and shade trees. Its surface was as clear as the calmest of lakes. Although no one saw its arrival, it was obvious that no human or animal could have produced such an exquisite piece. This was a sure sign that God still walked among creation and participated in their lives. But beyond its appearance, the mirror held an allure for those who came near it. This mirror was so special because it didn’t merely show one’s reflection. Instead, anyone who gazed upon this mirror saw the very image of God. It was almost the same as having God right with him or her. As long as someone looked in the mirror, that person would not feel alone or feel abandoned. This very special mirror also brought out all the good qualities that God brought out in a person. It belonged to no one and to everyone. Though nothing was spoken, people and animals alike knew that it had been a gift for all who gazed upon it.

For a while, all was well again. Then slowly, people began to complain that it was too far to travel to see the mirror. As wonderful as the mirror was, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy their needs to have God with them. Jealousy, greed, and suspicion still kept seeping into individual actions. Though the mirror had been freely given, some decided that gazers would only have a certain amount of time each day to look upon it. To make sure someone didn’t try to sneak in extra time, people were issued tickets they had to present in order to gain admittance to the mirror. Out of their own sense of confusion and fear, many people started doing wicked things. Some stole tickets to get extra peeks at the mirror. Others claimed that because they were older or larger that they should have more time than others. The tickets became highly sought after and became more of a focus than the mirror itself. As people fought to look into the mirror, they forgot what it was they were supposed to see in it. Soon, people cared only for their own needs and wants, and the land that should have had enough resources for all people became barren for some and fertile for others.

One night, a very unusual wind blew, and for miles out, creatures heard a loud crash. In the morning, the people and animals ventured out to the center of creation. There, they saw the mirror – or more precisely, what was left of it. Oh the beautiful mirror! In the night, it had blown over, or someone had pushed it over. Now it seemed nothing could be salvaged. The pieces were infinitesimally small, and could never be put back together. No one could pick out a piece to keep for him or her self. As the people watched, their hopes fell. Now how were they supposed to find their direction? Who would comfort them in their loneliness and in the times they were lost? What would happen to the beautiful world God had created? Even the animals, which had not been part of earlier arguing, sensed that something had changed forever. But as the people and animals wondered in their own ways what to do next, the great wind blew through the glen, and picked up all the pieces. A person could see them glittering in the air, scattering them to all parts of the earth.

Well, that was that, thought the people as they returned to their homes. Unless God chose to make another mirror, they were now completely on their own. Strangely, though, they didn’t feel abandoned or nearly as hopeless as they had when they first saw the broken mirror. Even stranger, in the following days, whenever people gathered and shared with one another, they had the same sense of meaning and purpose they had had when God first walked in their midst.

Time passed, and people began to realize that in the winds had not destroyed evidence of the mirror, but had merely spread its influence among all life. Because the pieces were so small, they clung to oxygen molecules, and all breathing creatures took the pieces into their very being. As a result, a little piece of God’s presence resided in each person, visible to all who looked for it. Each person carried a bit of God’s light, shining within them, reflecting in small pieces the fullness of God. As people worked together, they brought their individual pieces of the mirror, and the more they listened to one another and looked deeply into one another’s eyes, the more they remembered who they were and how God looked and responded to them. People couldn’t see it by themselves. They needed to see the reflected light in another person’s eyes, in their words, in their actions. Not everyone was willing to respond or believe God was still with him or her, but for those who could see, the world was beautiful.

To this day, tiny fragments of God’s mirror continue to float in the wind and reside in molecules of oxygen. We breathe them in, unnoticed, undetected. They become implanted in our DNA. Though they can never be detected under even the most powerful microscope, we can still see their existence in acts of service and words of truth. This is the same spirit that was present at the beginning of creation, the same glimmer of hope that tells us we are not alone in the world. And still we live in wonder. No one ever learned how the original mirror broke, though some have speculated that it was God’s own doing, and that perhaps this was all part of a plan from the very beginning.

As Christians, like Jews and Muslims, we read a different creation story in what we call Genesis. There is no mirror, broken or otherwise, but there is a similar theme of longing to experience God’s closeness and presence. We are created in God’s image, though Genesis never goes on to say exactly what that means. In Christianity, we take that claim further to say we model our lives after Christ, God’s very son.

In the book of James, God is called the Father of lights, and those who hear God’s word without doing anything about it are compared to those who look in a mirror and forget what they have seen as soon as they walk away. Those who look and see and remember are the ones who give themselves in care for others who need. They are the ones who are pure reflections of God’s image and essence.

The mirror is a tool for a quick surface check, but it cannot reflect what matters most. What we see is not accurate but is only a reflection of our own opinions and biases. Some see the beauty of youth and do not notice the passage of time. They are caught up in an image that does not match the appearance others notice. Others are convinced that they are utterly unremarkable or ashamed of what they see. Minor imperfections become horrible disfigurements in the eyes of some beholders. Either way, those who spend a lot of their time admiring or hating the image they see in front of mirrors see with only partial vision. They carry an image of what they believe to be true with them throughout the day, blind to what is truly in front of their eyes.

There is something powerful about mirrors and reflections in fairy tales and myths. In Snow White, the witch gazes into a magic mirror to determine who is the “fairest of them all.” In the story of the ugly duckling, a reflection in the surface of the water confirms the low feelings of the mislabeled duckling as well as the beauty in the mature swan. In mythology, Narcissus’s weakness is an overdone fascination with seeing his own reflection. It prevents him from seeing beyond himself. These stories and myths point to surface reflections but also to something that lies deeper in the psyche or the soul. To say that we are made in the image of God is not bound by what we can see or know in a mirror. Like the story of God’s mirror, people see much more when they join with others in acts that reveal their real nature. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.” We see ourselves most clearly when we are able to step away from our dependence and concern for meeting our own needs. When we spend our time peering into our mirror reflections, we see only what we have always seen, things bound to what is physical.

Martin Luther referred to James as a straw gospel, not as worthy as other books of the Bible with its emphasis on actions. It seems to counteract the idea that we find salvation solely on the basis of our faith by saying that faith is meaningless without works. Instead of contradicting the importance of faith, James states that what we do is an extension of what we believe. We participate in acts of faith, not because it brings us salvation or glory, but because they are a natural response to what we have received. The more we grow into the likeness of God, the more we feel driven to live our lives with care for others around us. The author of James gives examples of giving to the poor, caring for orphans and widows. Today, we may not have such clearly defined sources of care but may instead have a more general sense that the more we give ourselves away, the more we become like God.

When we are aware of our gifts and using them for the right reasons, we open ourselves to a light that comes from God and longs to shine in and through us. Instead of burdening ourselves with thought of duty and fulfilling obligations, our call to stewardship, to considering how we care for possessions and gifts, is about lightening our load by living in God’s light. Stewardship is recognizing that we have each been entrusted with incredible gifts, both tangible and intangible ones, and learning how to let go of our need to cling to them so they can be shared by all. In our own way, we are learning how to bring our individual pieces of God’s mirror to a common light.

Instead of looking to imperfect reflections to sort out what is rotten, what is selfish or worthless, James encourages us to see ourselves and the faith we claim by holding up our actions to the pure light of God. The word of Christ is implanted within us and can only be seen through the way we live and give our lives.


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