For the first half of my life, there was the sacred and there was the secular, and never the twain shall meet. I may not have heard this directly from the pulpit, but I definitely saw it lived out in the evangelical world of the eighties and nineties.
We believed God was in church on Sunday, but we spent the rest of our days in the world, a world quite separate from anything holy. Yes, we prayed before meals. Yes, my preacher Dad led family devotions on Friday nights. Yes, we had Bible verses hanging on our walls, but the world outside those walls was dangerous—so we had lots of rules to keep it from getting in. Like listening only to Christian music, and reading mainly Christian books, and watching mostly Christian movies. No one was selling Christian clothes just yet, but we knew the rules of Christian dress and modesty. We were a people set apart after all, forced to be “in the world,” yet striving not to be “of” it.
The idea of experiencing God in things that were not labeled Christian was foreign to me. Seeing God in the physical world around me, in the daily grit of life, was something I never considered until I went away to college. Before that I thought of God as spirit and everything else as flesh. Yes, God made the earth and yes, I lived on it; but that’s where the connection ended. I never saw the natural world as his present or presence to me.
Everything I learned about spiritual life prior to leaving home was just that: spiritual. I viewed my sins as thoughts and words, or the occasional squabble with my siblings; and the solution to that sin was more words. Words about heaven. Words prayed to God. Words of forgiveness written in holy Christian Bibles. Words and thoughts were my only connection to the spiritual realm.
It might be hard to understand if you didn’t grow up in this same atmosphere, but we evangelicals feared icons. Icons led to idolatry—the worship of things which were not God. God was something you couldn’t see; ergo, all the things you could see were not godly. Therefore, we would not worship anything we could see. Fine, good. What was wrong with this logic? Well, just one thing: Jesus.
You see, the churches I attended during my childhood loved Jesus. We preached Jesus. We prayed and sang to him. We baptized folks in his name, and we were born again because of his death. We knew all about his perfect, sacrificial life, and we loved to tell the world about his wonderful love. But we wouldn’t hang a picture of him up in the sanctuary. We couldn’t place a statue of his likeness in the foyer. We would not allow images of a cross which bore his body. For he was not flesh anymore—Amen! He was risen—Hallelujah!! Alive, I say, and living in heaven with God the Father—Praise the Lord!!!
You know, heaven—that far off place no one’s ever seen? That’s where Jesus was. Yes, his Spirit was present with us, but he was not part of the small crackers or grape juice we passed around once a quarter. We did not believe in transubstantiation. We would not stand for such heresy! Communion was merely a symbol, a flag you uttered a pledge to now and again; not a blanket to wrap yourself in every Sunday.
Because our real work was saving souls, scrubbing the sins off those souls, and getting those spiritual souls up to heaven. There was no need to worry about redeeming material things or renewing the world around us. Souls lasted forever, but not this world. Therefore, the only hope we had was for resurrection. Deny your flesh, concentrate on the transformation of your soul, and hold on—heaven comes to those who wait.
Heaven came to me when I left home for college. Like most freshmen, I felt like the whole world was in front of me, and the best part was being in charge of my own life. Finally. Now I could decide whether to move or stay put, because I didn’t have to follow Mom and Dad around anymore. They no longer had a say in what I wore, where I went, or how I spent my time. The freedom was overwhelming and wonderful, but I still felt like something was missing.
In September of my sophomore year, a mutual friend introduced me to a skinny freshman suffering his first college heartbreak. The lead singer of a Christian Ska band, Kevin was not the kind of guy I’d ever imagined dating, but we hit it off due to our mutual love of literature and poetry. Kevin wore baggy pants, oversized flannel shirts, and was a bit too scruffy for boyfriend material in my opinion, but I was still drawn to him. He struggled to keep his extra large clothes from swallowing his small frame, and wore thick glasses that were nearly as big as his face, but he also had a scraggly beard and long wispy hair that made him look somewhat like Jesus in that Da Vinci painting. Add to that his great laugh, wonderful sense of humor, and love of nature walks, and he turned out to be a pretty great friend.
There’s a difference between denying your flesh and pretending it doesn’t exist. We humans are more than mere souls dressed in three-dimensional costumes, and these bodies are an intentional element of our earthly experience.Janna Barber
I reckon there were plenty of men with long hair back in 1995, but I’d never spent time with one before Kevin. All the boys I knew growing up had short, close cuts, because anything else (other than a mullet) was considered girly. Kevin, on the other hand, had battled leukemia in high school, and the chemo made his hair fall out, so when it grew back he couldn’t bring himself to cut it anymore. Kevin became like a younger, wiser brother to me. He seemed to know and love Jesus in a way I hadn’t seen before and there was great depth in him that anyone could see, but he never suspected himself. Struggling with cancer at an early age gave Kevin life experience the rest of us lacked. He told the greatest stories and made me laugh in a way few other guys could. Twenty years later we still email each other, to discuss our latest writing or new favorite works of art.
Another gift I got at college was an introduction to Praise and Worship, a student-led service that met in an old chapel on Thursday nights. Two upperclassmen played guitars and sang choruses from Vineyard Church, Maranatha! and Hillsong (along with a few originals of their own) while the rest of us knelt on the floor, or stood and raised our hands, or even clapped along—gasp! The worship I’d known previous to that time was limited to three hymns and the occasional solo while members sat stiffly in wooden pews. But this new environment paid no mind to schedules or propriety, and reminded me of gathering around campfires late at night during church camp—and the intense devotion I’d felt to Christ as a kid.
Between my friendship with Kevin and all the new things I was being exposed to, I began to see less of a division between sacredness and the “secular world” I’d been sheltered from for eighteen years. To echo Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of John 1:14, it was sort of like the spiritual words I’d grown up with were becoming flesh and blood, and moving into my neighborhood.
Four years later I was a new mom struggling with postpartum depression, so I reached out to another college friend and asked for advice. Neither of us had the vocabulary back then to identify what was going on, as PPD was something I learned about in 2003, but Jerusalem could tell I wasn’t myself anymore. So she suggested I meet with a lady she’d been seeing herself for a couple of months.
Gail wasn’t the kind of therapist who just taught about Jesus; instead, she loved me like Jesus. And it was her flesh and blood, her steady gaze and calm voice, her listening ears and peaceful presence that saved me from hurting myself and my child, and helped me find hope and faith again. The kind of faith that turned me into a poet and led to me telling stories like this one.
There’s a difference between denying your flesh and pretending it doesn’t exist. We humans are more than mere souls dressed in three-dimensional costumes, and these bodies are an intentional element of our earthly experience. So much so that God himself saw it fit to inhabit one for thirty-three years.
The Old Testament warns its readers over and over again: “Do not worship idols carved from stone, or wood, or gold.” If you do, it says, you’ll become just like them, having “eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear, and mouths that cannot speak.” Centuries later, my idols look a bit different than those of the Israelites, but I don’t think they’re icons, nor the world I was warned against as a child.
Instead, they’re much less tangible notions. For example, I’ve worshiped my own sense of health and beauty, as well as wealth, stability, and being part of a “normal” family. But the biggest temptation for me is to worship a God who never allows trouble, heartache, or grief into the lives of his children. And strangely enough, it’s the tangible elements of creation that lead me back to the truth of who God really is.
Like how the first time I kissed each of my babies, I understood more what it means to bear his image. Or how when I listen to a babbling creek in a quiet wood, or smell fresh hyacinth, or taste the salty tears of grief and sorrow, I can sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in my deep breaths. And every time I see a handsome groom waiting for his beloved bride, I know I’m really getting a glimpse into the heart of Jesus toward all humanity.
This post was adapted from chapter five of Hidden In Shadow: Tales of Grief, Lamentation, and Faith, now available as an audiobook. To get your copy, click here.