The Invisible


Detail from Salvation Army ad campaign posterShe dutifully drags her mop across the tile floor of the Taco Bell, head down, absorbed in her work. Once finished, she locates a clean towelette and wipes down each table, taking care to avoid spilling anything on the pristine floor.

While my son and I eat, I study her. She’s working every time we stop in, infrequent though our visits may be. I think she’s about thirty, but I may be wrong. Folks with Down Syndrome don’t always look their age.

In the county seat near us, at a McDonalds, she has a counterpart in a young man, also with Down, who also mops the floors of that restaurant and tends the tables. Both the Taco Bell and McDonalds maintain a level of cleanliness unmatched in other fast food restaurants thanks to two hard workers who will never be like the people they serve.

Each time I have the opportunity, I make certain I thank them for keeping the restaurants so neat and clean. I hope next time to remember to ask them their names. Something in me always forgets to ask. Something ingrained. Something that hates to be exposed.

In my observations, the one thing that grips me each time I encounter these two isn’t so much about them, but the people around them. The restaurant patrons don’t look their way, don’t greet them, don’t interact with them in any way. I don’t see the other restaurant employees talking with them, either. For all intents, the two Down Syndrome cleaners don’t exist.

But someone cares for them, I know. The woman carries a cell phone, to my surprise, and she once talked with someone while taking her break. Parents? Guardian? I know the fear of every parent of a Down child, that one day death will come too soon (as many parents of Down children gave birth to them in their older years), then who will look after their special child?

I don’t know the spiritual state of people born without all the faculties we possess. I confess I don’t know how to witness to someone who might not grasp the finer points of sin and redemption. I worked with Down kids in my years in camping ministry, but always felt helpless when it came to knowing how to address their spiritual needs. In the end, I decided that love might be the best I can give them. So in the case of the cleaners, that’s what I try to offer—a smile and a word of thanks.

People don’t have to be afflicted with a genetic disorder to become invisible to us. American society is such that when someone yells, “Hey! Look at me!” we look. In many cases, we can’t tear our eyes off the attention junkies. In our staring at those enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame, we miss those who blend into the background, living, breathing people Christ died to save.

Ann sold high-tech electronics. Her bright smile and smart attention to fashion gave her a twinkle I didn’t find in the other reps who came into our store. When she talked with customers and other sales staff, you could tell she genuinely cared. Her job wasn’t just to sell gizmoes, but meet the needs of others. Her “ministry” consisted of helping other people take charge of their lives.

Little things set Ann apart. On Halloween, she came into the store in an elaborate costume I could tell she’d made herself. Perfect makeup, including prosthetics, and a wig that blended seamlessly completed the look. Dressing up like that meant something to her, the attention to detail telling others how much she enjoyed her work.

In her thirties and divorced, Ann hung around some days longer than her job entailed. I suspect she didn’t have much to go home to, just an apartment or small house filled with echoes. That never sat well with me. She had a lot to offer, but she was still invisible.

When the cuts came at her company, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing her again, and I never did. People like her don’t get noticed. They work hard. They care more than most. But the world doesn’t exalt people like her. And it never will.

We live in an era of the invisible. Despite all the boasting of empowerment, despite laws forged to ensure equality, I can’t help but feel we’re minting more invisible people than ever before.

The illegal immigrant. The single dad. The shy kid in class. The homeless. The old lady in the nursing home whose only crime is she got too slow for the rest of the world. The guy who put in ten good years in the office only to one day clean out his desk against his will and vanish into the ether.

We take people made in the Imago Dei and stick them in front of a computer in a vast array of cubicles and this becomes their life for half a day. And when The Big Cheese phones in from his yacht the day after the stock tanks, someone like Ann finds herself looking for another job at yet another company that could care less that she sewed her own costume for Halloween just to give a thrill to the kids who came in with dad to some podunk electronics store.

In the not-so-distant past, companies used to have Personnel departments. Now they have Human Resource departments. From Person to Resource. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be a person rather than a resource. When I hear a term like “human resource,” I can’t help but think Soylent Green.

Former GE honcho Jack Welch, who seemed to make a career out of being as visible as possible, did a great Darwinian disservice to employees everywhere by reducing even the impersonal human resource into human capital, like so many $20 bills (used to light his cigars after a fine day of downsizing what used to be known as people, I guess). Folks like Jack render people invisible with a snap of their fingers and a drag on their Cuban.

But corporate bigwigs aren’t the only ones who can’t see. Ordinary Joes like us do it, too. You won’t confuse Taco Bell or McDonalds with Le Bernardin or The French Laundry, but even in a fast food joint, we all too easily look right through someone with an 80 IQ and no means.

Jesus said this:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
—Matthew 22:2-10

We’re surrounded by invisible people, but God calls us to go out into the highways and byways, to look hard for them, to find them wherever they might be found.

You see, as Christians, you and I are invisible, too. We’re invisible because we died at the cross, so we no longer live, but the very visible Christ lives in us (if we’re living for Him). So we’re uniquely geared to understand the invisible of the world. And the Lord would have us perpetually seek them out.

The invisible might be the Down Syndrome mop-wielder or she might be the salesperson who caught a couple bad breaks. The Holy Spirit will let us know just who’s invisible if we depend on Him to show us. He wants to show us. We just need to be listening to Him.

Because in His eyes, no one is invisible.

{Image: Detail from an ad campaign poster for the Salvation Army. Other posters can be seen here.}

Unshackling the American Church: Cultivating Essential Beauty


You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch–so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold.
—Exodus 25:31-36 ESV

In this “Unshackling the American Church” series, we’ve talked about conserving family and community, plus the Creation, but we haven’t truly talked about the need for beauty in our lives.

The Bible mentions by name human creators of beauty, the DaVincis, Michaelangelos, Tiffanys, Monets, and Rodins of their day. Moses returns from receiving God’s dictation for the tabernacle requirements and says this:

Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver–by any sort of workman or skilled designer.”
—Exodus 35:30-35 ESV

That passage and others like it scattered throughout the Scriptures carry extremely important connotations:

  • Artists are filled by the Spirit of God to create items of beauty
  • Artworks go beyond mere creativity and incorporate skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship
  • Artists are inspired by God to teach art to others
  • God values what is beautiful and skillfully created
  • God values art
  • God values artists

I’m one of those people who believes Eve was the most beautiful woman ever to grace the universe. I think that God used every bit of his perfect artistry to craft a woman who in her self carried the essence of beauty. If Man is God’s ultimate creation, then some amount of ultimate beauty resides within Man.

More than being a work of art, Man carries the Imago Dei, “The Image of God”, and therefore as God creates works of beauty, so does Man. As God is pleased by what is beautiful, by extension, so is Man.

God placed in us a need for beauty. I’m of the opinion that the need for beauty in people’s lives drives us to the extremes of both artful design and pornography. The onslaught of porn that is hurting so many people is amplified in part by a misplaced need to encounter beauty. Given our need for beauty, if people can’t find it in acceptable venues, they’ll go searching for it in unacceptable ones. As our own art world degenerates into filth, and art acclaimed by “those in the know” is little more than what a chimp can scribble out if given a pack of crayons, people are dying for beauty in their lives.

  • When we desecrate Creation, we destroy beauty.
  • When we build suburbs consisting of one bland house design another, we devalue beauty.
  • When we settle for kitsch rather than skilled art, we parody beauty.
  • When we denigrate artists, especially Christian artists, we tell God that beauty is not worth conserving and that His gift of artistry is not worth receiving. We’re actually quenching the Spirit of God.
  • When we turn our backs on beauty, we lose a precious part of what God formed in us as men and women.

And trust me, we Christians too often reject beauty, whether on purpose or simply from ignorance.

While at a conference earlier this year, Tim Challies was struck by the blandness of an enormous church he was visiting, later learning that this was a deliberate decision by the church leaders. When I read this, I grew angry.


First of all, the reason given—bland so as not to detract from the Gospel—is misguided. In fact, artful craftsmanship and beauty are PART of the Gospel. God’s Spirit now dwells in Man and with that indwelling come the gifts of the Spirit of God, including the artistic gifts mentioned above. To reject this is to ultimately reject beauty. And God does not reject artful beauty. Truthfully, the attitude expressed by the church leaders is the ungodly utilitarianism I mentioned in my last post. Under utilitarianism, nothing has any further inherent value than its function.

But God rejects utilitarianism. Reread the quote that began this post and note the lampstand. Its function is to hold candles inside the tabernacle of God. But God doesn’t concern Himself merely with function, for if He did, there would be no reason for the calyxes, flowers, and blossoms that adorn that lampstand. Nor would it need to have clever design that incorporates all those elements in one piece.

God sees beyond the plain. He also understands that beautiful items enhance worship. Even if we don’t see beauty in other aspects of our meager lives, at least in the presence of God beauty exists. There’s not much to see while wandering in a desert, but at least the tabernacle itself, the very dwelling place of God on Earth, was beautiful. That beauty spoke to the otherness of God in the midst of that stark desert.

The second thing that angers me about the church leaders’ decision to build a bland church is that they’re telling all the artists and craftsmen in that church that their work has no value at all for the church as a whole. How astonishingly bankrupt! And this from supposed Protestants! The Reformation’s imprimatur on all craftsmen and artisans blessed their work as holy unto the Lord. As Luther himself said on this issue of art:

Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and the mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it. That would be a Christian work.

God values artisans. (The Lord Jesus was a carpenter!) When artists and craftsmen serve the Lord with their art, they engage in worship. Yet there are churches that make artists into idolators even though God Himself has filled artisans with His own good Spirit. How utterly tragic when we tell those artisans that their work cannot serve God or their fellow Christians. Talk about quenching the Spirit!

And lastly, what a mind-boggling waste of money to build an enormous multimillion-dollar church complex that is purposefully dull. All across the country I see these piles of boring brick and I just shake my head. I’m sure someone thinks that designing an architecturally-interesting building filled with handcrafted artwork somehow detracts from God, but what detracts from God more than building a costly edifice that equally bores both the saved and the lost?

The truth of God exists in more than what we say with our mouths. His general revelation speaks, as do we when we act out the Gospel in actions rather than mere words. Words are not the only portion of the Gospel. So the leaders of that church are right when they believe that their church building speaks. The message that church building sends in this case? Our God is a dull god. And the people who serve Him are even duller.

When I’m in a beautiful church, it pulls me closer to God. When I’m in a drab and dour church, the opposite happens. Remember again one of the reasons God made the tabernacle beautiful.

It’s not as if beauty somehow detracts from worshiping God. For instance, we love this hymn:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

I suspect folks sing this hymn in those horridly ugly multimillion-dollar brick blocks they call a “church,” but I also suspect they don’t entirely believe it. The correlation between brick block churches and “Christians” who deny all experiencing of God, all wonder, and all mystery—the building blocks of beauty—is shockingly high.

How sad for them.

How sad for us too that folks who reject beauty in life are responsible for the dearth of good Christian art we see today. Where did it go? Simply answered, we saw no purpose in it, stopped being patrons of the arts, and held artists in contempt.

Rather than rehashing old points about Christians and the Arts, I’ll instead point to previous posts detailing this essential aspect of Christian living (especially part 2):

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain – Part 1

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain—Part 2

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain—Part 3 (Conclusion)

We need beauty. God made us with a bent toward it because He Himself deems it valuable.

As I close, I’d like to head off the inevitable cry of “Graven images!”:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
—Exodus 20:3-5 KJV

Idolatry doesn’t begin with the artisan’s idol.  We must be discerning here. Just as true circumcision is not the removing of the foreskin, but the altering of one’s heart, so the other side of that truth shows that graven images are heart-based. If idolatry exists in a man’s heart, he will craft idols that reinforce the idolatry already there.

But a Christian’s heart has been changed, molded to hold the Spirit. Therefore, what a Christian creates is unto God alone, therefore it cannot be an idol, but rather an expression of worship to God. If we fail to understand this, then we fail to understand how God can forbid natural images in one place in Scripture and turn around and ask for their creation in another (our opening passage above.)

Christians harbor the fullness of God’s Spirit, and with that comes the inclination for beauty. Above all other people, we Christians should honor our artists and praise their gifts, even while we praise God for those gifts. To reject beauty is to ultimately reject the fullness of a Spirit-filled life. Those Christians that do renounce beauty miss the full blessing of what God intended for Man.

Today’s Christians must cultivate and conserve the beautiful, because if we don’t, no one will.


Other posts in the “Unshackling the American Church” series:

Monergism, Total Depravity, Creativity, and the Imago Dei


'The Scream' by Edvard MunchIf you’ve got grass to mow, I’ve got more—about nine acres.

Our house sits on 13.2 acres of rolling Ohio farmland. I suspect about four acres of that is wooded, but the rest is grass. Our orchard dots some of that grassland, but I still have to mow around the trees, so it counts. I’ll drop about one and a half acres of grass once we put in our vineyard. (We live in the Ohio Valley Viticultural Area, the largest wine-grape-growing region in the United States. You can put a lot of Napas in here.)

I’ve got a 35hp full-size Kubota tractor that pulls an 8′ finish mower deck. The whole grass-cutting process takes about 5 hours.

That gives me a lot of time to think. The great thing about having land is there’s nothing fast about it. Whatever you do to it takes time. Doesn’t take a lot of brainpower while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing to it, so the mind can concentrate on other things.

Today, a question trickled through my thoughts and I had some trouble reconciling it logically. That’s why I’m opening up responses. If you’ve got some insights, please comment.

Disclaimer: What follows is NOT a teaching. It’s a question I’m posing for my own benefit so I can better understand the issue. It should in no way construe any indication of questioning orthodox Christian belief.

Now for my tractor meditations…

I was thinking about the Imago Dei, the idea that Man is made in God’s image. Not that our physical appearance is like God’s, but that our spiritual state is. We reason, create, and appreciate beauty because God has those traits in Himself and has imbued us with them.

Total Depravity is the condition of Man after the Fall, unable to connect to God because of sin and spiritual death. (See 1 Corinthians 2:14; Genesis 6:5; Romans 3:10-11)

It should follow that as a result of the Fall, Total Depravity dealt a crushing blow to Imago Dei.

The problem begins when we ask how severe that blow was.

Since Total Depravity is truly total, one would think that the Imago Dei would not so much be damaged as utterly annihilated. If it is the spiritual state of Man that is the Imago Dei, then the spiritual death wrought by the Fall should have destroyed the Imago Dei altogether. Dead is dead, not semi-alive. If the root of sin is that deep, then Man would have nothing left of the Imago Dei, or at least have nothing of the Imago Dei that could remain to produce anything sin-free.

Even considering that view, four possibilities remain:

  1. Total Depravity is total; the Imago Dei was completely annihilated.
  2. Total Depravity is total; however, some of the Imago Dei remains pure.
  3. Total Depravity is total; however, the Imago Dei remains but is tainted in such a way that nothing pure comes from any of it.
  4. Total Depravity is not total; this explains why the Imago Dei remains.

All of those positions have problems, however.

#1 is problematic because it is clearly false. I still reason. The very act of me typing this post is a sign of reason—and creativity. I linked words together creatively.

#2 is problematic because it would insist that Total Depravity does not extend to all parts of fallen Man’s being. More on this one later.

#3 is problematic because one could argue that there are things that Man creates that are perfect—or at least profoundly good—that would argue against taint. For instance, in what way is Handel’s Messiah “imperfect” as a piece of music? Or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata? One could say that in order to be perfect, those works would have to appeal to all men at all times in all places. But is that the true test of perfection? Yes, the instruments used to play those works may not be in perfect tune, but the idea of those works as they existed in the minds of those composers would mitigate that issue.

The other problem about #3 is asking the other side of the perfection issue: In what way are those works tainted by sin? Yes, their creators are tainted by sin. There’s no reason to believe that Beethoven was ever a born-again Christian, so this muddies the water further, since the Moonlight Sonata is sublimely beautiful. There is evidence that Beethoven wrote that piece in mourning for an unrequited love affair with a married woman, so his motives for writing it are questionable. But the greater question of the purity of the work as a work unto itself remains.

Lastly on #3, one must ask if a pre-Fall Adam could have composed a piece of music more perfect than the works mentioned.

#4 is problematic because it denies Total Depravity altogether.

The title of this post brings up monergism, that Man has no ability within himself to reach out to God in order to receive forgiveness and salvation. God’s grace through the Holy Spirit is irresistible and God’s use of it alone accounts for conversion. The counterpart to monergism is synergism: Man has within him the active ability to reach out to God and effect—with the grace afforded him by God reaching down to him—conversion.

Considering #2, one could argue that if parts of the Imago Dei remain pure, then those pure parts are the source from which Man can effect synergistic salvation. Obviously, monergists would reject that idea outright.

That #3 is a struggle, though, for other reasons. If the Imago Dei is a spiritual condition and Man is totally spiritually dead to the point that monergism is the only possible outcome, how then can any of the Imago Dei remain? This takes us back to point #1, which is clearly false. Nor does it answer the question about the possible perfection of things that Man creates.

If one argues that the spiritual state of man is dual in nature (that the soul exists apart from the spirit and that this allows the spirit of the unconverted to be dead while the soul—the part that manifests the Imago Dei—is still alive), then you’re arguing for a tripartite nature of Man (body, soul, and spirit), a position that most monergists don’t support.

A person arguing that common grace explains how fallen Men who do not know Christ can still create objects of beauty confuses terms. The Imago Dei is by nature; it is innate because it reflects God’s own nature in some form in Man permanently. Common grace is not innate in that none of it ever issues from Man, only from God. If the Imago Dei persists after the Fall, then its source is of innate nature and not common grace.

Others would argue for the neutrality of created things, whether they be created by God or Man. A cliff created by God may be a neutral moral agent, but if it falls on you, you’re still dead. Music or other arts also have no innate moral agency if you follow the line of thinking that many use, but this says nothing about their beauty and whether that beauty is perfect or not, or whether there are levels of perfection that might distinguish God’s work from Man’s.

Tough questions. If we divorce the Imago Dei from the question, then everything is easily answerable. But factor it in and the logic becomes more difficult to untangle.

Which of those four possibilities above do you most believe and why?