June 25, 2014

The Face of God

"...men turn away in revulsion from the face of God revealed in his suffering servant." - Ruth Burrows, OCD, in To Believe in Jesus
I had a hard time moving past that sentence.  Revulsion is a strong word.

I discovered Ruth Burrows a couple of weeks ago when I happened upon this blog post.  I felt surprised that I had never heard of her before.  I did, after all, just complete a two year program studying prayer and spiritual direction.  But it didn't feel accidental that I should encounter her now.  I was compelled and ordered two of her books.

They are slim volumes.  I am reading this first one slowly, one short chapter at a time.  I can see why I hadn't stumbled on Ruth Burrows before.  Ruth Burrows takes Jesus very seriously.

Her first point in To Believe in Jesus is that most of us don't.  She's not talking about the average person.  She's talking about the professing Christian.  She unapologetically and frankly states that belief in Jesus crucified as the revelation of God's own face is something that most of us are unwilling or unable to accept.

I like to think I take Jesus very seriously.  I want to take Jesus very seriously.  I want to believe I love the face of God revealed in his suffering servant.  I want to think of myself as one of the women at the foot of the cross, not revolted by the blood and the nakedness and the agony.  At the same time, I have matured enough to recognize that I am not so above-average as I'd like to think I am, so I had to stop and consider that sentence and wonder how it is true of me.  How do I turn away in revulsion from the face of God revealed in his suffering servant?

I sat and thought about other people I have known in their suffering.  I thought about people and situations that I have not turned away from.  I could have stopped there and felt smug, but, this time, I didn't.

How willing am I, really, to watch, to remain, to love what is revolting?  For instance.  I have this sympathy card sitting in my desk.  I bought it many months ago.  I bought it for a woman in my wider circle, an acquaintance, someone I know but not terribly well.  Her young adult child died suddenly.  I bought the card because I'm that kind of person, I told myself, someone who could face that sort of suffering with love.  I had a prior commitment on the day of the memorial service, so I hadn't planned to go.  But then my prior commitment was cancelled, and I still didn't go.  And I never sent the card.

I turned away in revulsion from the face of God in his suffering servant.

Here's where else I turn away -- when I see that face, gaunt held up by a neck whose muscles were too weak to keep it straight, sitting on wasted shoulders, in the mirror.  I claim to be willing to put on Christ, to be the healing hands and feet of Jesus for God's kingdom.  I claim that I am willing to suffer to serve.  But I realize I am not willing to be the face of the suffering servant.  That fills me with revulsion.

What I see in that face is need, and I don't want to be needy.  I have a deep unwillingness to reveal to the world the face that needs to have the blood and tears and sweat wiped away.  I am unwilling to see in myself the weakness, the frailty, or the vulnerability.  I look away in revulsion.

Isaiah 53:2-3 says,
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him. 
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem. 
It's time, at least for me, to get honest about this Jesus I claim to love, whose life I claim to want to allow to be lived through me.  It's time to learn to love the unlovable, what is ugly and broken and dirty, even grotesque -- and not by pretending that it's not.  It's not about putting over the ugliness a lovely shroud of holiness and thereby declaring what is revolting to be beautiful.  That's not Christianity, it's Orwell or Huxley.
To look with love on the revolting face of the Crucified is something God, and only God, can teach me how to do.  I'm starting by looking in the mirror.

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