Broken Images: Santa, Suffering Love & the Wounded Healer

Let us pray.

Dear Santa,
I want a playstation game, new scooter wheeIs, remote control helicopter, a big transformer, and a hulk action figure. hope you enjoy the cookies and milk i’ll leave out on christmas eve, and the reindeer likes the carrot.

Dear Santa,
Please can you bring me a Porsche. Don’t bother bringing it down the chimney, outside on the drive will do.
Thank you. Dad

Dear Santa, Are your reindeer afraid of monsters? Our daddy says last year you tracked ashes across the floor. So this year he’s going to put a picture of a monster on our roof to scare the reindeer, so you can’t land your sleigh on our house.

Until next Christmas.
Amen

Broken Christmas Bulb

Credit: Danny N. Schweers at photoprayer.com

Santa Claus God

I work at uni and study theology.
This year I’ve been visiting philosophy department seminars
– when I understand the title!
Philosophy lectures may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
But being a bit intellectual,
I found one a few months ago moving and meaningful.

The guy was saying that
All of us, whether or not we call ourselves religious, have
patterns that integrate and give structure to our lives,
symbols that give meaning,
images of God that shape our lives.
Images of who or what God is, and how God relates to us.

As it’s Christmas time, I’ve been thinking we often have Santa Claus images of God:

– a distant God, up in the North Pole, somewhere, who doesn’t interfere too much.

– a God who wants us to be happy,
who pops down the chimney to give us nice presents and sort our troubles.

– a cosy, comfy God in a nice tidy box – no nasty surprises.

Let’s face it, don’t you want a God like that?
I often do.
A divine benevolent grand daddy.

Doesn’t the Bible give this?

Take Psalm 23 – “the Lord is my Shepherd.”
How does it go?  “I’ll have everything I want.”
He will always lead me to clear cool water, and soft luscious grass – idyllic.

That’s the sort of God we want.
Who’ll always answer our prayers, our “dear Santa” wish lists.

But on the same Santa’s Factory website, interspersed with the gimme gimme, were other letters:

Dear Santa, All I want for Xmas is for Mum & Dad to get on better!

Hi Santa, I’m a little old for this, but I believe in you just the same. All I want for Christmas is my marriage back, the way it used to be.

Hi Santa; all I want is to get my family together again after ten years and divorce. It would be a treat to meet my four grandchildren for the first time.

Santa, my mom left will u get her back please?

Barbie dolls and PlayStations don’t cut it when Mum has left home.

Will Santa answer these?
How helpful is a ho ho ho merry Christmas!
When our lives fall apart,

When those familiar patterns that gave structure are shattered,
those symbols that gave meaning collapse:

Break-up. Death. Unemployment.  Debt. Sickness.  Failure.  Brokenness.

Our self-image and our God-image are intertwined.
When our lives are broken,
our images of God can be broken.

We don’t know who we are any more.
We don’t know who God is any more.

What do we do when these patterns and symbols of life,
images of God that we relied on, are broken?


When Santa dies

This was the question of that philosophy seminar.
How do we cope when our “gods” die?
How do we face loss?
What do we do when our prayers are not answered?

The speaker gave 3 options:

1. Denial
Pretend things haven’t broken.
Cling to the corpse.
Do the ostrich thing – Hide our hurt in the sand.

2. Idolatry
Fill the hole in the heart, the agonising emptiness inside, with idols:
False gods promise quick relief.
Drugs anaesthetise the emptiness
– whatever your drugs are.

3. But there is a third, better though harder option
Mourning
Mourn the broken image, the lost dream.
Let it go.
Carry the tension of waiting through the winter
until God gives new growth in the spring.
Keep the hole in the heart free.

—————————-

The Old Testament of the Bible asks:

“To whom will you compare God?  Who is his equal?
What image will you liken him to?” (Isaiah 40: 18, 25; 46:5)

The New Testament says
God lives in unapproachable light.
No one has ever seen God
No one can see him (1 Tim 6.16, Jn 1.18, 1 Jn 4.12)

Our words can never grasp God.
Blind from birth, describe a sunset.
Deaf, describe a song.
God transcends all our images.

When we forget this, our ideas of God become idols
– Santa Claus images that give false certainty and security

Sometimes God, in his mercy, allows our idolatrous images to break.
He breaks out of the box we put him in.
He breaks into the cosy prisons we build for ourselves.

This can hurt.

So the philosophy lecturer said the best images of God
“wear their mortality on their sleeve”.

What did he mean?
The idea was that images of God which include brokenness
may better weather the seasons and storms of life, when we are broken.

For example,
the Santa Claus God is an “unbroken” image.
There’s no weakness, vulnerability or brokenness in Santa.

Unbroken images may be tidy, cut-and-dried,
but what is cut and dried is rigid, sterile and dead.
Under pressure,
it crumbles to a meaningless handful of dust.

An unbroken image of God cannot heal us when we are broken.

By contrast,
broken images may be messy, but are flexible, living, life-giving.
Under pressure, a broken image of God may break open to reveal deeper meaning and beauty
like a bud blossoming into a flower,
or an egg cracking to release life

Picasso Weeping Woman

Credit: jmussuto

“Only a broken image of God can heal us when we are broken.”
A few weeks ago, I was at a Christian conference.
The speaker asked us to write down our biggest images of God –
how we view God, what words spring to mind for God.

For me personally, this has been a good year, but a hard year.
A rich year but a lonely year.
So I asked myself, what images of God have helped me?

I wrote three broken images of God, seen in Jesus.
Images that, for me, don’t break down when life breaks down,
but, sometimes, break open to give brief flashes of hope and joy.


Image One: God as Lover

Besotted, head over heels, mostly unrequited, broken-hearted lover.

The tale of Israel, the Bible, the universe is
The old 3-part story:
boy meets girl, heart-rending separation, final reunion and happily ever after.
It’s the divine lover’s romance with his creation.

In the beginning,
God handcrafted humanity out of the dust.
He breathed life into us.
He created us in his image.
Each one of us is an image of some aspect of God
that no one else can show just the same
– a unique portrait of God.

The stars sang for joy.
God loved us, delighted in us, and walked with us in the Garden of Eden.

But we chose to turn away.
Our sin brought death
The portraits of God were defaced.
Now we are broken images.
Those sad Santa letters show our brokenness.

Although we rejected him, God was still in love with us.
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets brought love letters from God

Like a jilted lover, God rages over our adultery.
He threatens to punish, yet his anger dissolves in tears:

“How can I give you up?  My heart is changed within me, my compassion is aroused”, he cries
“I will not carry out my fierce anger.”  (Hosea 11:8)

Like a betrayed lover, God mourns our infidelity:

“Your love is like the morning mist”, he weeps, “like the early dew it disappears.”  (Hosea 6:4)

Like a faithful, heartbroken lover, God wants us back:

“Return faithless people”,  he pleads
“Your maker is your husband, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so your God rejoices over you.”
(Isaiah 54:5, 62:5, Jeremiah 3:14, 20).

We mostly killed his prophets.
Ripped up his love letters.

But God was still in love with us.
He hides love poems throughout nature.

He courts us with rainbows & sunsets & moonlight.
He woos us in birdsong & water & wind,.
He calls us in children’s chatter and the faces of friends.
He plants unfulfilled longings in us that only he can satisfy.

We mostly stop our ears, close our eyes, harden our hearts and shut him out.
No thanks mate, we don’t wanna know.

But God was still in love with us.
Unable to endure the separation,
he longed to see us in the flesh, touch us in the flesh.

Our Lover, who once gave us flesh, took our flesh himself.
Our Creator became one with his creation,
like us in every way.

The Christ child came bloodied and blinking to the manger in Bethlehem.
Little God looking up at the world

We call this incarnation.
Think carnivore means flesh eating.  The in-flesh-ment of God.

We are all little broken images of God
Jesus Christ is the image of God:

The unbroken image – like we were meant to be.
The visible image of the invisible God.
The radiance of God’s glory (Col 1.15; Hebrews 1.3).

No one has seen God, but in Jesus we meet God face to face, flesh to flesh.
God is Christlike, in him there is no un-Christlikeness at all.

Jesus shows us God is:
A Lover who cannot forget us, cannot resist us, and cannot leave us alone.

More about the Lover image later,
But for now, the second broken image of God I wrote down.


Image Two: God as Sufferer

Lonely, bewildered, God-forsaken sufferer.

Because our God loves, he suffers.
Because he loves broken people, he is broken.

Gethsemene
The night before Jesus died,
the longest loneliest night.
Jesus wants his friends with him, but they don’t understand, and fall asleep.
He trembles.  He sweats.  And he prays.

No “dear Santa” wish list of warm fluffy presents from a warm fluffy God.
But a broken, anguished wrestling with God.
My father.
Please, no, another way.
Yet, your will be done.

I’m a fearful person.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, feeling alone and scared about stuff
For the last few weeks – stressing about this sermon!

In the garden of Gethsemane, I see my God afraid, alone.

When we face our fear,
the long sleepless dark night,
because he was alone, we are not alone
The suffering God is there.

Biblical images of God are easily sanitised and Santatised.

But Psalm 23, the Lord is my shepherd,
is not actually a Santa Psalm.
It does not promise we won’t go through
the valley of shadows and fear.
But that when we do, he will be there.

Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

In Jesus, out of broken hearted love,

“God goes incognito
as a beggar among beggars,
an outcast among the outcast
despairing among the despairing
dying among the dying,
but sinless among the sinners.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

But we still didn’t want him
This persistent lover got up our nose.
So we broken images broke the unbroken image of God.
We killed the author of life (Acts 3:15).

An early Christian put it like this:

“He who hung up the earth is himself hung up.
He who fixed the heavens is fixed on a cross.
He who fastened everything is fastened on the wood.
The master is reviled.
God has been killed.”    (Melito of Sardis, O’Collins 46)

Graham Kendrick’s song The Servant King says the same:

“Hands that cast stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered”

Despondent Angel by Chapman Hyams

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
cries the crucified God.
The broken image.

God as lover – embracing us in the incarnation.
God as sufferer – embracing our brokenness in the cross

My third broken image was


Image Three: God as Healer

Wounded healer, broken for us.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote

He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.
By his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53.5)

Broken for our brokenness,
to put us together again.

Jesus Christ, the broken image of God heals us, the broken images of God

How does this happen?
We have only hints and clues.
As Aslan said in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is deep magic from before the dawn of time

Like Aslan,
The crucified Christ was Victim – the innocent sacrifice in our place.
The risen Christ was Victor – triumphant over evil and death.

The resurrected Jesus is the start of God’s new creation.
The first perfect human.
What we will be like one day.

Right now, God is repainting the blemished portraits (Athanasius),
conforming us to the image of Christ.

Jesus became a healer through suffering.
So do we.
As our own wounds begin to heal,
our scars, sometimes even still bleeding, can bring healing to others.

God’s power is most perfect in our weakness.
We carry his glory in fragile jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7, 12.9)
Often God is most visible in broken people:
he shines through their cracks.

I love the image of God as wounded healer,
because sometimes life is painful and confusing,
and it’s hard to see any meaning to the hurt.

Like the Jews in Jesus’ day, I want a Santa Claus Messiah.
A patch it up now, bandaid Messiah.
But all we get is a broken Messiah, a crucified God.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

TS Eliot, 4 Quartets, East Coker, IV

Strong images:
The wounded surgeon.
The dying nurse.
The ruined millionaire.

Unfortunately, resurrection is not resuscitation.
“To be restored, our sickness must grow worse.”
“If we do well, we shall die”.

Winter comes before spring.
Mourning before dancing.
We sow in tears before we reap in joy.
We are crucified with Christ, before we rise with him.
To be born again, first you have to die.

“sharp compassion”

God is a good surgeon.
I sometimes can’t understand why
he gives and takes away,
his scalpel cuts so deep,
it hurts so bad.

New life from dead tree

But he is the wounded healer.
In all things he works for our good.
Indeed “The whole earth is our hospital”.

I can trust my heart to the hands that are scarred.

God as lover, sufferer, wounded healer.

The 3 images of God I wrote that day.
Finally, I want to develop the Lover image,
in a symbol of our journey from death to resurrection:
The transformation of our image of God from mother to lover.


Four: from Mother to Lover

The Old Testament often describes God as gracious and compassionate.
The Hebrew word for compassion is also the word for “womb”.
So God is “womb-like”.
Sustaining our life, nurturing our growth

I can’t remember the details myself,
but I imagine it’s traumatic for baby when the walls of the womb close in.
When baby is forced out of warm wet cosy safety to a big cold scary world.
It must feel like rejection.
Like when God forces us out of our cosy comfort zones.

But it’s the first step of free love.
Baby learns to trust that mother will come back even when she can’t be seen.

And carried in her arms,
nursed at her breast,
for the first time, baby sees mother face to face.

The painful separation, the agony of birth, led to deeper intimacy.
We sometimes experience God’s motherly tenderness like this.
But it may not last.

In the 16th century, John of the Cross describes how, when the time is right,
in his day a mother would put bitter aloes on her breasts
to drive her child away.
Weaning him from milk to eat solid food,
making him stand on his own feet.

Another rejection.
Bewildered shock.
It seems her love has vanished.
She’s not providing any more!

Have you ever felt God led you up the garden path?
Seduced you into trusting him,
set you up,
just to betray you?

Your patterns shatter, your symbols fall, your “god” dies.
Santa Claus becomes the cosmic torturer.

In the Bible, God’s people sometimes felt like that.
C. S. Lewis, author of Narnia, did when his wife died.

Like them, we may think,
“The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”

But He answers,
Look at a mother

 “Can she forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands”     (Isaiah 49.14-16)

We might say, nailed us to the palms of his hands.

————————————-
God is more deeply good than we can imagine
His goodness works through pain.

Unlike the Santa Claus God,
True Love does not firstly want the beloved to be happy.
True Love wants the beloved to be beautiful:

Nothing is inexorable but love. . . love loves unto purity.
Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. . .
so all that is not beautiful in the beloved,
all that comes between and is not of love’s kind,
must be destroyed.
And our God is a consuming fire.
George MacDonald

True Love wants the beloved to be perfect.

God wants us to grow up
to be not only his child, but his bride.
to freely love him in return.
God calls us from childhood to the deeper intimacy of marriage.

Through Jesus we are betrothed to God.
The Holy Spirit is given as
a sort of engagement ring.

At the end of time,
Like a bride dressed for her husband,
clothed in pure white, clear as crystal,
We will be presented to Christ as a radiant church,
without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  (Ephesians 5.25-27)

He will say to us
“you are altogether beautiful my love, there is no flaw in you.” (Song of Songs 4.7)

All our brokenness will be healed.
Our images again made holy, in his image.
The long-lost lovers reunited.
Every quest fulfilled.
The end of desire,
The Wedding of the Lamb will come.

True Love wants the beloved to know Joy.

“God will live with them, and be their God
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

The new creation will be complete.
The new story will begin.

Meanwhile, we see only an enigma, as through a glass darkly.
As we go through life, seasons change,
Our images of God are shaken, sometimes broken.
Superficial, unbroken images burn and die.
Broken images are reborn from the ashes, deeper and purer.
Death and resurrection…

The Santa Claus God.

or

Crown of thorns rose

The Incarnate, Crucified and Risen One,
Suffering Lover and Wounded Healer,
The broken Image of God who heals the broken images of God.

Whom will I worship this Christmas?


A Parable

A certain man decided that life was too hard to bear.  He did not commit suicide.
Instead, he bought a large corrugated iron tank.
He furnished it with a few chosen essentials – a bed to sleep on, books to read, food to eat,
and even a large crucifix on the wall to remind him of God and help him to pray.
There he lived a blameless life without interruption from the world.
But there was one great hardship.

Morning and evening, without fail, volleys of bullets ripped through the walls of his tank.
He learnt to lie on the floor to avoid being shot.  But he did at times sustain wounds.
The walls were pierced with many holes that let in the wind and the daylight,
and some water when the weather was bad.
He plugged up the holes.  He cursed the unknown marksman.
But the police were unhelpful, and there was little he could do about it on his own.

By degrees he began to use the bullet holes for a positive purpose.
He gazed out through one hole or another.
He watched the people passing, the children flying kites, the lovers making love,
the clouds in the sky, the wind in the trees, and the birds feeding on heads of grass.
He would forget himself in observing these things.

The day came when the tank rusted and finally fell to pieces.
He walked out of it with little regret.
There was a man with a gun standing outside.

‘I suppose you will kill me now,’ said the man who had come out of the tank.
‘But before you do it, I would like to know one thing.
Why have you been persecuting me?
Why are you my enemy, when I have never done you any harm?’

The other man laid down the gun and smiled at him.
‘I am not your enemy,’ he said.
And the man who had come out of the tank saw that
there were scars on the other man’s hands and feet, and these scars were shining like the sun.

from GodZone by kiwi Mike Riddell (1992 – see reviews with quotations here and here).


If you found this message encouraging,
you might like my Old Testament sermons:

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