One of the simple joys in life is the appreciation of artistic and literary beauty. To stand in amazement the way a simple brush in one’s hand captures a moment in time. How the construction of a sentence can stir the deepest emotions. When I walk into the Albuquerque Museum and encounter Wilson Hurley’s painting of the Sandia’s or read Thoreau’s description of his beloved pond - “Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both.”
But for all the majestic brush strokes or words, it captures just one dimension, a moment in time. While magnificent, we can only appreciate them from a distance. Not life, but an image on canvas or paper. You cannot hear the birds, smell the trees, feel the sun on your face or see the fish moving beneath the water. We are viewing one person’s interpretation of the world.
Have you ever wondered why in all the images of the Good Shepherd, we are always clean, white, innocent lambs? What artist decided that? If I were to be accurately depicted it would be as a raggedy old goat. All different colors - brown, white, red, black, maybe some yellow. Beard sprouting all over, 5 horns going every which way. Crooked leg, blood shot eyes, bloody lip, and a sarcastic grin. I know Jesus would have this exasperated look on his face because I would be struggling to get out of his arms. My life is a testament as to why Jesus has that crook in the shepherd’s staff – to keep bringing me back.
Honestly, don’t we all want to be the spotless lamb over the smelly goat? Therein lies the problem. We create images of ourselves, those around us, and of God. It is said that God and reality are so much greater than our ability to comprehend them that we constantly attempt to tame and control them and thereby alleviate our anxiety. And when we put ourselves in control God and others, we cheat ourselves of the opportunity to know God and others. We settle for life at a distance.
We settle for life at a distance, and go through life wondering why our interactions seem routine and bring little satisfaction. We wonder why people do not respond to us. Why should they? We are living at a distance. We become rigid, find fault with others, and our relationship with God becomes less important. We see is an image of others and blind to the beauty and mystery of who they really are.
I believe this is what Jesus impressing upon the Pharisees. The disciples do not wash their hands before eating. While unsavory, does it matter to God? In the image the Pharisees created - Yes. They question Jesus and his faithfulness to God. Jesus then challenges this created image of God. He points out that they are painting a one dimensional portrait. God at a distance, all while ignoring living, indefinable, all encompassing God.
The Pharisees like their created image of God They can control God and thus others. We believe we know what God wants, what God likes, what pleases God. We fit God into our picture while forgetting we are created in God’s image. You can hear Jesus’ frustration: “Quit trying to control God. Just Experience God. Simply Love God.” When we conform God to our desires, love narrows, sin begins and the rigidity that darkens our lives seems natural.
We notice the dirt on Jesus’ hands, and not the love in his heart. We see an unclean person, and not the cleansing love of Christ. If we do it with God, we do it with others. Fewer people fit in the picture. I decided to play a word game with a group of friends, I would describe a person, and they were to respond with the dominant cultural characterization. I asked them to be honest. These are the results.
I said -Young, unmarried African American Woman with three children, the response – welfare mom. Hispanic teen, with baggy pants standing – gang member, drug dealer. Immigrant – illiterate, free government services. White family living in a trailer – redneck, racist. Overweight – no control. Rich white woman – snob, greedy. We create these images of people, without experiencing who they are. Easier to create an image then asking what led this young women to raise her children alone. What caused the dependence on eating, why the rich woman does not speak, do we care she is lonely or hurting. Creating images is easy because it requires little effort.
If we think this is nonsense, examine the problem of bullying in schools, the high rate of teen suicides, wars across the world, hate crimes, incidences of loneliness and depressions. Each one of us can picture the Grand Canyon, a sunset or a love sonnet. However, we cannot experience the immensity of standing on that cliff’s edge, the grandeur of watching the sun set beyond the ocean or the emotion of falling in love. If we do not experience it, we cheat ourselves of hope, if we do not allow for the mystery, we cheat ourselves of life.
There have been many in my life that influenced my priesthood and one was Greg. We were both 9, and he moved in after school started. He wore dirty clothes with holes, his blond hair never combed. His shoes without laces and wore ill-fitting thick glasses. The first time I noticed him was his first day. Kids ran up from behind called him ugly trailer trash and pushed him to the ground. Glasses flying, chin hitting the dirt, tears welled in his eyes. He got up and continued, like he was used to it.
He would lay his head on the desk and hold this old GI Joe in his arms. I assume it was his only toy. Once, I was riding my bike down the street, and I passed by his rented house, his father had him by the hair, punching him. During lunch, he sat alone at lunch. I decided to take a chance and sat with him. Yes I was teased. I tried to talk, but we sat in silence. As I was about to leave, he said “I like French fries too.” He smiled. We spent time on the playground and he smiled frequently and we carried animated conversations. He became my friend. The taunting never relented, and this scar on my forehead was the result of one of the fights I entered into defending Greg.
One day, I was upset. He noticed and he gently handed me his old GI Joe. He softly said: “I want you to feel better, you are my friend, you can have this – it always makes me feel better. Greg smiled. At the age of 9, I felt holiness in our midst. I felt Christ. The following Monday, he did not show up to school. I learned that his family suddenly moved. I have never seen Greg again, but he led me here. If I had relied upon the image, I would not have seen a person who although experienced the worst in life, offered me his hope. A 9 year old child who others called dirty white trash formed a Priest.
Throw away your preconceived images of all the Greg’s in the world and God and simply experience them. Create something new. Go back again, again, and again. Open yourself to new meaning, new hope, new life. As Father Brian mentioned last week, keep coming back; it works if you work it. When we go back, our lives transform from appreciating beauty at a distance to actually living the beauty we so desire.
I have found that in those times where I am distant from God, my image of God narrows. I rely on a recollection of who I believe God is. My vision of the world becomes smaller. I notice the sins and faults of others, while ignoring my faults and weaknesses. When I run back to Jesus, my world seems to expand, then burden seems lighter.
I begin realize that I will always stumble and fall. I will be more goat than lamb, but there will be a hand to pick me up and brush me off. When I break those images and live in the light of a living God, sin seems like an option and not a requirement. My acceptance of others becomes easier, I focus less on their faults, and more on my understanding. I don’t point a finger, rather, I extend a hand.
Let us break those images of others and transform the world. Make your vision one where everyone of God’s children can fit in. Break those images that someone else created of God, that you created and just stand on that cliff, hold out your arms and let that divine wind take you away. Because in return, when we run to God, you will not find an image, only love, hope, and life.