It was many years ago, while I was in college, that I was introduced to the life story of St. Ignatius of Loyola—he was born in Spain in the late 1400s, and he studied to become a knight. Ignatius had an accompanying grand image of himself, until his leg was severely injured in battle.
For many months, he was unable to walk. There was no social media, no television, no radio to distract him. Staying in bed, he had a book—the lives of the saints—and his imagination. He read the books and daydreamed, and he noticed how these subjects made him feel. After reading about the lives of the saints, he felt more peaceful and calm. After daydreaming about his heroic pursuits in battle, he felt dissatisfied.
He noticed how he would fluctuate between these feelings during the day, sometimes feeling closer to God and sometimes feeling farther away from God. He called the close-to-God feeling a sense of consolation, and the far-from-God feeling a sense of desolation. At the end of each day he began a practice he called the examen, which was an examination of conscience: when during the day did he feel most close to God, the sense of consolation? And when during the day did he feel farthest away from God, the sense of desolation? And in noticing these things, what was God wanting him to notice?
Some people still take on this spiritual practice of praying the examen, and if you’ve ever been in a group that begins or ends its meetings with “highs and lows,” then you have practiced the examen. I was glad to learn when I arrived here that this is the practice of the confirmation class, to notice the highs and lows of the past week. It doesn’t always feel significant in the moment, but over time, you notice patterns in life, periods of consolation or desolation. And God is there during the whole thing.
So I already had a profound respect for St. Ignatius when I learned about a spiritual direction training program in North Texas while I was living in Dallas—HeartPaths, a three-year term of preparation for spiritual direction. The second of the three years was a full year of Ignatian retreat, which is a period of intense prayer and contemplation meant to draw a person closer to God by noticing where Jesus is active in one’s life.
The meditating and contemplating were fascinating to me, especially since we were encouraged to activate our imaginations. We were invited to imagine a conversation in three stages: starting with conversation with the Holy Spirit, or if we couldn’t imagine speaking with a formless spirit, some of us would imagine in this place a conversation with Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’ll admit this was new for me as a Lutheran, since Ignatius was Roman Catholic, but I was among a pretty open and accepting ecumenical group of spiritual people, so talking with Mary in prayer didn’t feel too threatening. Then that first conversation partner would lead the pray-er to the second conversation with Jesus, and then Jesus would lead to the third conversation with God the Creator, the ultimate source of love.
It was a whole new world of prayer, to let my imagination become part of my prayer. God can work with my imagination? Certainly. And it did. In my prayers with my imagination, often Mary was an old woman. As I started this program, I was a new mother, and it was comforting to speak to an older, wiser mother who had seen a lot in her lifetime and who possessed a deep well of knowledge and compassion.
And then my conversations with Jesus were really interesting because I thought I knew what Jesus looked like—right? Maybe a tall man with striking features and piercing eyes, and…tan-ish skin? What surprised me was that, as I went to prayer time and again, my image of Jesus would change. Sometimes a man, sometimes even a woman, sometimes a person of no specific gender, but always with the markings of nail wounds in the hands, holes all the way through the hands—probably not historically accurate for how people were crucified in the time of the Roman Empire, but that’s how my imagination interpreted it. The healed wounds of the crucifixion were the defining features that identified for me that this was truly Jesus.
And in my imaginative prayer, Jesus would lead me into conversation with God, who didn’t necessarily have physical attributes, because what does ultimate presence look like? What does the emanation of love look like? Sight and image were no longer the goal; basking in the warmth of God’s presence was enough, indeed it was plenty.
For a little while, I wondered if it was okay to have these shifting images of Jesus. Shouldn’t I try to imagine harder what he must have really looked like? I mean, I confess Jesus was a real human being who lived and died at a particular time in human history, and he was resurrected with a body, and he lived within a culture and religious traditions—all of this evidence should give me a clue what he must have really looked like.
But on the other hand, the Jesus I get to know through Scripture says things like “when you clothe the naked, you are doing it for me” and “when you feed the hungry, you are doing this for me” and “I am the good shepherd”—and I don’t think he meant that he was literally a shepherd, if he had any vocation as tradition tells us he was probably a carpenter like his father was, not a shepherd. But Jesus also said “this bread is my body” and “this cup of wine is my blood” so maybe the image of Jesus doesn’t even need to be human, I don’t know.
My point is: these real words of Jesus which I have read and confessed as true from Holy Scripture, lead me to believe that Jesus himself may not be so caught up in a single image of what a savior looks like. It sure sounds like Jesus himself was interested in expanding our idea of what a savior looks like—refer to all his conversations with the disciples about “who is the best” and he tells them over and over again, look for the helpers, the greatest among you will be the servant of all. The greatest is neither the king nor the high priest nor the most charismatic person in the room nor the smooth-talking politician, and the savior is not going to look like any of these. And getting hung up on any particular image of Jesus as a human with any certain physical attributes might be getting dangerously close to idolatry.
If, in your imagination, Jesus must be white, then you might be dangerously close to worshipping not Jesus himself but an idol supplied by white supremacy. Is it wrong to imagine a white-skinned Jesus? No, not necessarily. But if that’s the only way you can imagine Jesus, you might be missing out on a great wealth of wisdom.
I’m not going to tell you that you have to pray the same way I pray. You don’t. Whatever image of God speaks most powerfully to your heart, that is a gift of grace which God has given to you: don’t lose it. But also don’t be deceived into thinking that’s all there is.
And what difference does it make how you imagine Jesus? I would imagine it doesn’t make any difference in terms of your salvation—God loves you the same no matter how you imagine Jesus. But this could be an important place for us white people to pay attention. If we ever hope to grow or to heal our own image of humanity in this culture in which we live, we must confront our own imaginations of what a human being looks like, a human being deserving of life. This is why we need the signs that say “Black Lives Matter”—because we need to be reminded that black lives DO matter. Because as long as there are people saying that it’s okay for black people to keep getting killed for minor infractions of the law, like traffic violations or having an air freshener hanging on the rearview mirror of the car or trying to pass a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill, if it’s okay for black people to die for these things, then we don’t really think black lives matter.
So it’s going to take some reminding, and it’s gonna take some work, and no it’s not fair to us white people that we receive privileges and sympathies and compassions for our lives as if they matter more. Those of us living today, we didn’t invent the theologies developed in the middle ages that suggested people with darker skin weren’t actually human. We didn’t build the systems of oppression. All we do is benefit from these systems, but it doesn’t really help any of us to pretend this doesn’t exist or to suggest that people of color need to work harder to earn what they deserve or to plead ignorance of racism as if that will absolve us of this original sin. It hurts, and it stinks, and we’d rather run away.
But guess what. The Good Shepherd leaves no one behind, not even those of us who prefer to stay lost. The Good Shepherd is coming to redeem our vision of humanity, to help us see the crucified Christ in the body of George Floyd being held down on the pavement. The Good Shepherd is coming to remind us of the great strength that is displayed in tender acts of healing.
And we might need to start by healing our image of what that Good Shepherd looks like. You can probably imagine some artwork of a Good Shepherd—probably a white man wearing a white robe, carrying a gleaming white lamb around his shoulders. Maybe you’ve seen this image in a painting, or in a stained-glass window, or a children’s Bible—we love to surround our children with images of a protector. So take that image, and can you fill in the skin color and imagine the Good Shepherd as a black man? Can you begin to imagine” this dark-skinned Good Shepherd might be the image of your savior, someone coming to save your sorry, undeserving, but utterly beloved self.
Jesus said, in the Gospel we have read today, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” The Greek word for “life” is psyche (SOO-kay), like the word we use for psyche. It means life, soul…and we use that same Greek word psyche to mean our psychological understanding of our self. Can we let Jesus do as he says he will do: lay down his life, his image, and take up that image again, in a new, resurrected image?
What does the resurrected Christ look like? Where will you see the image of the Good Shepherd? Be on the lookout. Listen carefully. Be ready to touch the scars of crucified and risen Christ. And be ready to be amazed when you are so loved for who you are, just as you are.