Have you ever encountered the phenomenon called the Christian bookstore? Jesus is everywhere. He is on witty coffee mugs, flashlight pens, Thomas Kincaid calendars and Testamints. Devotionals and political material are available for mom, dad and even the kids. It reminds me of Psalm 119 when David asked where he could flee from God’s presence. Is the merchandise in our local family Christian store the Church’s best attempt at revealing God these days?
The ancient city of Ephesus in Asia Minor took a similar approach in presenting their goddess Artemis. Ephesus, like the United States, was a melting pot where the East met the West, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Artemis was a conglomeration of ancient goddesses. Her roles included protector of small animals, eternally virginal mother goddess and other such illustrious matriarchal titles. Like the God of the pop-Christian bookstore, Artemis offered something for everyone.
A whole month was devoted to her, called the Artemisia, during which a million worshippers would make the pilgrimage to Ephesus. The Ephesian silversmiths were famous for making the best representations of Artemis. During the festivities, these silver statues would be taken from Artemis’s temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and paraded through the city while crowds shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
I can identify with the Ephesians, who made statues to worship, as well as the Christian bookstores that try to market a savior. My labors as an evangelist have been marked by afternoons handing out tracts to San Francisco tourists, “winning friends and influencing people for Christ” by handing out free soda, and even (don’t tell anyone!) performing in dramas narrated by Carmen songs. All this, I thought, added up to being a contagious Christian. But, to be honest, I saw very little spiritual transformations result from these activities.
Paul had a different idea for the Ephesian Christians than the frenzied marketing of their faith. He wrote, ““You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which he appointed for you to do” (Ephesians 2:10). The word workmanship comes from the Greek "poema," where we get our words poem and artwork. In one sentence Paul turned conventional thinking on its head, telling a city famous for making art of deities that God wanted to make artwork of them.
But it turns out (and I bet my Ephesian brothers would agree with me) that it’s much harder to submit to God shaping His image in me than it is to shape my image into Him. Maybe this is why God gives us a choice to accept or reject him as the artist. It isn’t easy. God’s holiness sheds light on all our fear, anger, loneliness and lies. We begin to stand out and become different and unique, recognized by the scars of our past and birthmarks we can’t scrub off. And He prefers doing this in the context of community? That’s scary! I imagine all the Church might look like Jackson Pollock’s studio. Paint and passion spilled all over the rooms. And hope for beauty.
In community, we learn a frightening but empowering truth—that the great tragedy of rejecting God as your sculptor isn’t just what you lose, but what we miss out on seeing through you. In his poem W.H. Auden wrote:
God may reduce you to tears
On Judgment Day
As He recites by heart
The poems you would have written
Had your life been good.
There’s no science to being putty in God’s hands, but a great painting (like a great life or a dynamic community) can’t be rushed. It requires many coats and shades of paint, and at several points in the process the art looks ready for the trashcan. But then, another set of finishing touches and all of a sudden it is breathtaking. We have to be able to endure those moments of feeling garbage-worthy, knowing our Creator to use every layer of paint to make the end result all the more beautiful. It just takes time.