The second of the Ten Commandments is to not make any "graven images" of God. We are studying these curious ten commandments at Vintage Fellowship and two weeks ago, Robb was preparing his sermon on the commandment that follows "Don't have any other gods beside/before me." We've been looking at the commandments through this lens, though: More than "Thou Shalt Nots" these pronouncements from Mt. Sinai are actually quite liberating. In a culture where polytheism was normal, to be told that you didn't need to worry about pleasing the sun god or the fertility god or any other capricious deity, but instead, you could look to GOD in worship and have your spiritual bases covered, was as revolutionary as saying today, "You don't need to worry about striving at your job, or success or getting a lot of stuff or finding someone to love you. You don't even need to sacrifice your soul to some blog deity to get some press coverage and make your etsy shop successful. You can just trust God." (Ironic, no?)
Commandment two is related: Don't make something that claims to encapsulate God or limit what God can do or be. Robb postured a theory that maybe that part of us that rebels a little bit at the thought of being told "this is how you are, you can't really be something else" is actually reflective of being made in God's image. Maybe God doesn't like to be pigeon-holed, stereo-typed and made predictable either. That idea has intrigued me ever since. To assume that God will act in a certain way, that God will hate or love, that God must or won't...we confine him to an image. The image in our own heads. And while we didn't go to the trouble of painting Jesus on an actual canvas depicted as a white, middle class American who finds a number of people and groups really distasteful, I know that I had a fairly detailed graven image of God in my head for many years. Sadly, this image loses it's "punch" after a while. It lacks teeth. Stickiness. Value. Worse, for the time that I maintain that image, I miss the chance to see God in unexpected places.
In sermon prep, Robb asked me if I had a story of a time when I suspended my narrow assumptions about what God must be and as a result experienced beauty and mystery in a surprising way. Immediately, I had a memory come to mind:
When Mattie was a little sprite of four, we enrolled her in dance classes. I had an uneasy relationship with dance, personally. Growing up, we sometimes attended recitals for friends enrolled in the Arita Lee Dance Studio, but as little ballarinas turned into future Solid Gold Dancer hopefuls, my parents eloquently expressed their opinion of dance lessons by simply not letting any of their three girls participate. That didn't stop me from making up half dance-half gymnastic routines in the downstairs basement to such body-shaking tunes as the hymn "At Calvary" but I digress.
So, maybe it was living vicariously, but Mattie did indeed participate in a full year of dance lessons taught by a twenty-something girl who's outfits I did actually find distasteful, true to my roots. Dance studios sell their product through putting on a year-end recital meant to impress. Which means expensive costumes, rehearsals and a show week that spans multiple nights of performing. Our little darling's routine was set to the tune of "Santa Baby" and a row of pre-kindergardeners lined up in red velvet dresses with white fur boas and flapper-inspired head-wraps. They were of course, adorable. But to see her, we had to wait through 10 or 12 other performances, including a few Solid Gold hopefuls.
And then, I was to have a moment in my life that I can recall as plain as day these 10 years later. A group of girls took the stage, about fourteen or fifteen years old, in pale blue dresses, long sleeves, and long flowing skirts. There were at least 10 of them, and they began to dance to a song I had never heard before. I was completely surprised to hear the lyrics. The music rose and fell and the girls danced softly and emotionally in perfect synch.
My eyes filled with tears the way they do when something is right...when the beauty hurts the back of your throat. I was taken completely by surprise. I was in a godless theater. I had no expectation of seeing God here. I had no expectation that I would walk away with an ache in my heart to find the people like the girl described in the song and bring them some comfort.
It took me awhile to learn that the singer was Sara Groves. Sara's next album several years later would become a kind of sound-track for my life as we left a safe, traditional ministry to start of church from scratch. A church for the girls in the middle of the field asking questions. A church for people who's God was not too stiff and starched to be found at a dance recital. Or anywhere else at all. Because God is not limited by image. Not even the ones in our heads.