Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Releasing the Divine Image

I love the legendary story that has emerged with regard to Michelangelo’s Pieta (a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture that depicts Jesus being held by his mother Mary after being taken down from the cross).

According to the legend, Michelangelo was too poor to purchase new marble for his work, so he went out among the stones deemed unworkable and discarded by other artists. As he made his way through this graveyard of rejected stones, a particular stone captured his attention. As he studied it, he could see the figures of Jesus and Mary just waiting to be released.

Does God see in us an image just waiting to be released? Of course, the archetypal image for Christians is the Christ image. We are called to follow Jesus, to reflect his love, his grace, his compassion for the downtrodden and his passion for a just world.

What needs to be chiseled away for us to become like Christ? Does God need to chip away at our anger, our indifference, our apathy, our resentment, our greed, our need to be in control? Do we have sharp edges of character that need to be smoothed over? What do we need to be released from in order to become the masterpiece God envisions?

The image of the potter and the clay in Jeremiah 18 functions as an analogy for God’s relationship with Israel. It is a poignant image, but not a perfect one. All analogies break down somewhere and the point of departure for me is found in the nature of the clay. God doesn’t work with lifeless material. I have heard persons who work with clay say that the clay tells the potter what it is meant to be. Well, maybe that’s stretching it.

Our relationship with God is not a passive one. It is a dynamic, interactive relationship. It is a partnership that involves give and take, asking and receiving, even arguing back and forth.

I think of the stories where Moses and Abraham argue (barter?) with God. The implication in these stories is that God is influenced by our actions. The shaping and forming of our lives and communities is a cooperative and collaborative project. We are an active part of the process.

This is a paradox that runs through the Hebrew-Christian tradition. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he instructs: Work out your salvation (liberation, transformation) with fear and trembling. But then, in the very next breath he says: God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (2:12–13).

Which is it? Are we working it out or is God working it out in us and though us. It’s both. We are much more than lumps of clay; we are thinking, reasoning, discerning, acting partners with God, and God values that partnership.

I love the paradox of the creation stories: We are both dirt and divine. Fashioned out of dirt, we possess the divine Spirit. Dirt and divine DNA—what a combination!

It is significant that the clay is “spoiled in the potter’s hand (Jer. 18:4). It is marred and imperfect; there is no flawless material with which to work.

God understands and accepts our flawed humanity. So just because we fall and fail—numerous times, just because our journey involves three steps forward and two steps back or three steps or four steps back, just because there are many twists and turns, setbacks and obstacles, these factors offer us no excuses for failing to keep offering up our lives to the Divine Artist who desires to work in us and with us and through us to help us be all that we can be and do all that we can do to help usher in God’s just world.


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