Beyond Our Glittering Images

Many years ago a friend recommended I read Susan Howatch's "Church of England" novel series. Howatch was a best-selling British writer of gothic fiction prior to her conversion to Christianity in the early 1980s ( After this, with proceeds from her writings, she endowed a chair at Cambridge University for the study of theology and science. During this period her writing took a new turn as she embarked on her ecclesiastical fiction series with her first novel, Glittering Images ( Set in the 1930s, this first novel is a tasty blend of deception, intrigue, generational sin, sexuality, theology, spirituality, and psychological healing. Her protagonist, Charles Ashworth, an Anglican canon, professor of theology, and spy for the Archbishop of Canterbury, is dispatched to unearth incriminating evidence against a rogue bishop. As Ashworth sleuths out the bishop's secrets, he finds himself unraveling spiritually and psychologically. Helpless in his disintegration, he lands in an Anglican monastery under the care of a brilliant spiritual director, Jonathan Darrow. Darrow assists Ashworth in exploring areas of his personality where his faith has been unintegrated, areas of darkness and sin, pain and loss, much of it related to unresolved issues in his family of origin--and ways these have played out in his faith. Through this painful process of examination, Ashworth finds congruence and healing: his layers of pain and brokenness begin to mend as he realizes he's constructed a false persona to mask his wounds and cover over his deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. He's used this glittering image to help him win acclaim in the church and in all areas of his life. Ashworth must confront this false persona and move beyond it.

Susan Howatch is a brilliant student of the human psyche; as a Christian, she sensitively portrays God's Spirit working to transform the human personality. This painful soul surgery slices through layers of self-deception, cutting through the tangled web of broken families and generational sin. The best recommendation I can give for her writings is that when I read them, I find myself wanting to pray: to explore with God areas of my own mess, to contemplate how God is seeking to integrate my whole personality through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Howatch makes me marvel at God's skill in forming us spiritually. Through her writings I admire in new ways how God willingly works with all our raw material and loose ends, our shame and guilt, our hidden pain and the brokenness of our past, weaving together a tapestry that is beautiful and seamless.

I believe that, like Charles Ashworth, each of us has some aspect of a "glittering image" we've constructed, a persona we've developed to earn the approval of parents or other important authority figures. In some cases, this image is highly refined, burnished to a gleaming luster, so carefully constructed we've actually fooled ourselves: we really think this is who we are! And yet beneath the glittering image is a broken person, someone longing for unconditional love, someone desperately seeking the light of truth and healing and integration. It is this person, not the image, that God loves and for whom Christ has died. It is this person, not the persona, that can relate authentically to others in deep fellowship and Christian community. It is this person, and not the glittering image, that God woos in love and welcomes in worship.

Discipleship is Christ's call to the painful process of tearing off our masks, shedding our personas, and stripping away our glittering images. This is the hard way and narrow path that Jesus spoke of (Matthew 7:13-14); it is exquisitely humbling, even terrifying. Few choose to pursue it. But to those who've journeyed a bit into this region, it is a place of beauty, gentleness, honesty, and great freedom. For in the end, carrying the weight of the glittering image is exhausting. Letting it go is greatly liberating, particularly when we discover beneath it the freshness and newness of the person God's designed us to be all along.

Cycling as an Image of Sacrificial Service

I enjoy reading Boulder local and High Road cycling professional Michael Barry's writings on the website. He's thoughtful, articulate, and, if I may say so, deep! Today I stumbled on his article, "On the Domestique Life." A domestique in pro cycling is literally a "servant", a helper who sacrifices his own personal glory for the success of his team and especially his leader. Barry gives great insights into the unique privilege it is to lay down your life for your friends, something Jesus spoke of as the pinnacle of love. Granted, this is just cycling...but there's more to this, a parable of sorts. This is a "crossroads" insight, and so I share it in full, hoping you find it interesting, if not challenging.

Barry writes:

"Cycling dynasties are built around one or two leaders and a team of domestiques who are willing to pedal to the death for their leader. Faema, Molteni, Flandria, La Vie Claire, Systeme U, Banesto, ONCE, U.S. Postal all became dynasties, not only because they had leaders who could win the biggest events but also because those teams included a core of riders who were strong enough to perform but sacrificed their own chances for the leader and, above all, for the team.

During the Amstel Gold Race [a recent Dutch one-day classic] I spent a good portion of the six hour race on the front pulling, setting the tempo and chasing a breakaway, with four other riders—all of us from different teams but all with the same goal: to set up the race for our leaders. I love riding on the front for a teammate and learned how to do it properly in my first races with US Postal in 2002.

Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong built a team of domestiques that were of the highest caliber. Chechu Rubiera, Pavel Padrnos, Jose Azevedo, Matthew White and dozens more sacrificed themselves for the team knowing that it was not only their job but also an honor to ride for a champion. And, the team won as the leader knew he had the support of his men giving him confidence and positive pressure going into the final. When riders sacrifice and give themselves completely to the team it puts the leader in a position where he doesn’t want to disappoint.

George Hincapie’s finest moments as a cyclist have been while guiding Lance in the Tour, perhaps also the moments he should be most proud of, and certainly the moments he will be remembered for as a cyclist. It is one thing to win but an entirely different thing to devote yourself to someone else’s dream ─ for seven years with Lance and an eighth with Contador ─ and to sacrifice your dreams for that. Dynasties are made on selfless efforts of individuals striving towards a common goal and the sport’s greatest champions all had men that would ride at their side, until their death for that goal.

In Amstel, I sat on the front for hours pulling with the four others and not seeing much of the rest of the peloton [the main group of cyclists] except for when we went around a hairpin and saw, in our periphery, the tail end of the group rattling away behind us. A small acceleration on the front is ten times harder at the back as the serpentine peloton whips away, the back end being the tip of that whip. There is a pleasure in knowing that with every effort we make the others behind are suffering as well, often more than we are up front.

Amstel is a great course to ride on the front of the peloton. We could feel the crowds’ emotion, see their faces, hear their screams, and smell the beer, sausage and frits. This year, the weather was ideal, sunny and warm, so it seemed all of Holland was out to watch and soak up the sun, the beer, and the race. The course is hilly with what seems to be a corner every kilometer—so, the race is much easier on the front as we could shoot through the corners, set our own speed on the climbs and avoid the panic in the peloton that spills over into the grass ditches, sidewalks and bike-paths as everybody fights to get into a good position for the next difficulty. Ironically, the difficult sections on the course become the run into the climbs and not the actual climbs as the fight is harder than the acceleration on the ascent.

Prior to the race I had a sleepless night as my throat was sore and when I got up for breakfast the doctor diagnosed the inflammation as strep throat. I was told to ride 100 km and to pull over in the feed zone and call it a day. It was a better option than sitting in the hotel all day alone. I agreed; but as the race began I realized my legs were reasonably good and that I could likely go further than the predetermined 100 and do my job for the team. Prudence told me to stop when the doctor had told me but my legs, the race, the moment, all told me to keep going at least until the second feed zone at 180 km.

The emotion, ebullience of the crowd and my legs carried me just beyond that, for another twenty kilometers or so, until the final action where riders began to ignite their attacks in front of our foursome on the front, quickly pushing us into the middle of the bunch and finally out the back. It didn’t matter; my legs were done, my work was done and I found my way back to the team bus with one of my companions from the chase, Caisse d’Epargne’s Vincente Garcia Acosta, or “Cente.”

Cente knew the quickest way back but it didn’t seem short enough. My legs were sore and my entire body ached; now that I was no longer in the race every little ache was more noticeable as I could focus on it. My throat hurt intensely, and my muscles twitched as we slowly rode, against a fierce headwind I hadn’t noticed before, back to the bus.

Cente and I chatted about our kids, life in Spain and racing. During our four hours on the front we had somehow developed a bond in that we were both committed to the same goal and had worked together to get to that point; he had given me food during the race when I was out, and in the front we had somewhat nursed each other like teammates to reach our goal. We chatted about riding on the front and he told me how he enjoyed it, how it was his job, he was hired to do and did it because Valverde trusted him and respected that he would give everything for the team.

He told me the new younger generation didn’t understand what it was to ride for a leader and that they all thought they would make the final, none wanted to ride on the front, or do the domestique’s work—and few respected it. He said he was always the first to put up his hand for the job although he has a palmares better than most.

The television audience might only see Cente on the front for the first hours of the race but he is known in the peloton universally, for his strength on the front and for making everybody scrap for some draft as he pedals convincingly up front.

In a quantity over quality society where most dream to be an overnight superstar, a flash in the pan American Idol, hard work has been devalued. A few nights ago, I finished watching the Beatles musical movie “Across the Universe,” and there was a great quote from the protagonist, Jude. The dialogue at the dinner table unfolds between three people:

“What you do defines who you are.”

“No, no Uncle Teddy. Who you are defines what you do, right Jude?” Maxwell replies.

“Surely, it is not what you do, but the way that you do it.”

Thank you, Michael Barry, for illustrating a truth we know in Jesus Christ, the ultimate Domestique, the one who came not to be served, but to serve and to offer his life as a ransom for many.

I Wonder What God Is Doing…

If you’ve been around First Pres in Boulder over the last few months, you’ve no doubt seen some fireworks: this has been a time of unrest and upheaval. We’ve had a capital- and building-campaign terminated over prospects of mounting costs and insufficient donations to cover them; we’ve had a stewardship campaign fall short of our goals for the projected 2008 budget. We’ve had budget reductions and staff layoffs and congregational meetings and kitchen table talks and mailings and endless emails. To say it’s been painful is only the beginning. It’s also been depleting, draining, disorienting, discouraging, and, frankly, depressing. Yuck.

Many of us wonder: What’s going on?! How did we get here? What’s God up to?

Well, which one of us can adequately prognosticate? Who can read the tea leaves clearly? None of us, I’m convinced, has an inside line on God and what God is doing. Beware of those who say they do! But for what it’s worth, here are some of my interim impressions. Feel free to take them or leave them. They are unofficial. I offer them only as my tentative best-guesses, my feeble discernment at this point in time.

I think God may be moving us from being a corporation-styled church, replete with policies, procedures, and professionalism, to a more family-styled church, a place where paid staff partner more authentically with volunteer lay people. I suspect we’re being reshaped from a pyramidal organization to a flatter, more relational organism. Partnership, sharing, mutual ministry—these may become the name of the game.

In light of our past professional proclivities (I love words beginning with P…) I wonder if God may also be challenging our subtle Christian consumerism: how tempting it is to resort to business models which market attractive ministries for consumers in a competitive church economy. I think we may be in a paradigm shift away from Christian consumption to Christian community. Savvy Christian consumers may well depart for better deals elsewhere, so buyer beware!

I wonder if God is humbling us, too. We tend to be an educated, powerful lot—both staff and congregation. Like many Presbyterians we like things done decently and in order. We like stuff neat and clean. We like being in control. Recent developments are anything but. Instead, words like chaos and disorder come to mind. But in it all, I wonder: is God allowing us to experience our essential helplessness as Presbyterian Christians? Are we being stripped of an underlying arrogance that assumes we have the ability to manage our own destinies—even, or especially, in the church? Is God challenging some of our Presbyterian pride?

Out of this messiness and humiliation, could God not be inviting us into a liberating experience of our own brokenness? Could this stripping of our facades of polished professionalism be a fresh invitation to loving relationship—both with our Savior and with each other?

And isn’t this what the gospel is about, after all? How can we expect to find the liberation of God’s amazing grace if we don’t experience our utter helplessness and need along the way? Our theological doctrines may have been orthodox and biblical, but maybe God is giving us the sixteen inch drop from head to heart.

I wonder.

As we wade through our mutual messiness, as we come together for comfort and strength, as we kneel next to one another in prayerful dependence, as we wrestle—staff and congregation—with what to do next, could this not be the beginning of an exciting spiritual renewal? Could this not lead to an awakening to the power of the gospel like never before? Could our newfound community of brokenness and humility be used of God to reach out into our streets and neighborhoods, our schools and businesses, in ways we never imagined possible?

I wonder.

And I wonder what you think…