One evening last week, my wife and I were out walking the neighborhood with Maya the Wonder Dog. We came across this for sale sign in the front yard of a nearby home. To be honest, we'd never
noticed the house before, but something about the claim "I'm Gorgeous Inside" made us do a double take: no curb appeal . . . neat but rather small and ordinary . . . no Palladium windows or water
features . . . just a gravel driveway leading to a single garage--but we couldn't take our eyes off the house. The sway of the unexpected promise made us pause. We took them at their word,
straining this way and that in an effort to peek through the lit windows and catch a glimpse of the gorgeous home within.
So much of my life is spent as a passerby, either on foot or, often enough, in my truck. I love road trips almost as much as I love taking walks or going for a run. There's something about taking things in as an anonymous stranger that affords its own peculiar connection. I know just enough to kick up my sense of wonder. My good friend Chuck Hussung once said that when he drives by a little church just off the interstate, or standing off by itself in a field of soybeans, he always wants to know what it looks like inside. I do too.
I want to know: Are there hardwood floors, swept and inviting, the kind that make every polished patent leather step resound? Or has the floor been carpeted to absorb the crying babies, the tears of hallelujahs and laments week after week? Are the pews hard and straight-backed, prompting a kind of severe attentiveness, or are they cushioned, forcing us to face off with our own dozing tendencies before God? Is there a baptistry? If so, what's behind it? A screen for praise choruses? A bold-faced (s)creed of proud convictions? Or is there a pastel Jesus rising from the water beneath a descending dove? I might even go beyond wondering to hoping. I hope that inside that sanctuary there's a miniature wooden church resting on the altar, much like the one in the Assembly of God church where my grandparents took me to worship as a child in Dyess, Arkansas. Maybe it too has a thin slot in the steeple. Maybe children come forward during the singing of "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and proudly drop their own offering of nickles, dimes, or the occasional quarter down the steeple's neck. What's it like inside? The tar-papered brick church with the belled turret? The white clapboard church in the Missouri Bootheel with a silver propane tank, eight trucks and two cars parked outside on a Sunday morning?
Questions like these pour in as I pass by. Truth is, I won't ever know what's inside until I venture out. I can guess, speculate, joke, wonder, hope, but I won't really know until I give up my distance and darken the door, meet the people, worship the Lord within. Even then, it might take years to sniff out what's at the heart of this or that church, just as it can take a lifetime to know what's inside a loved one's heart. Heck, I'm surprised most everyday by what I find going on in my own heart! Intimacy can be as much about the humility of not knowing as knowing. As a diehard romantic, I want to think that I know--that everyone and everything is gorgeous inside. I like to lead out with such trust and hope, that is, until I'm proven wrong. Then I try to forgive and adjust. But I'm at my best when I leave all such blanket judgments, whether positive or negative, to the larger love and wisdom of God. I'm just too apt to divvy up what God holds together: I tend to valorize my friends as Saints and demonize my enemies as Sinners, just as I'm given to overindulge my own strengths and deny, shun or shame my many weaknesses.
If gorgeous is possible, I do believe that it's "inside" that the real magic happens. When I say this, I'm referring to what many of the religious traditions call the "heart." They've taken the centrality of the human heart as a physical organ and turned it into a symbol of our life before God. In scriptural language the heart is the seat of our humanity, what touches us in the depths of all that makes up our mystery. It's what most catches God's eye, "for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (I Sam 16:7). Somewhere underneath all our competing affections, passions, desires, knowledge, and thoughts, beneath all our fears and loves, beyond all that is conscience, even all our conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, we are rooted in the One who sees us and loves us through and through. We can lean more fully into this larger life. We can bear it. We can share it. And when we do, we can gradually come to embody the mercy we seek.
If I were for sale, and my sign said "I'm Gorgeous Inside . . ." there might be an ellipsis that indicates hesitation. Then this decisive qualification would follow in fine print, or maybe italics: ". . . where I am rooted in the living love of God that reserves the right to accept me as I am and transform the brass of my imperfections into the gold known as the image of God." I wouldn't offer this as a disclaimer, but more as a proclamation. In fact, let's flip it: I'd prefer that my sign have "I'm Gorgeous Inside" in fine print, and the rest be lit up in flashing neon.
It's the beauty and initiative of God's grace that set us free to live beyond guilt and shame. Rooted here, in a life of response to God's steadfast love, bounded on all sides by the creative, redeeming and sustaining dance of God's Presence, we're free to come clean about our small, egocentric ways. We're free to risk all that we are unto the One who continually renders gorgeous this gloriously flawed and fractured world. We're free to love as Christ loves us, inside and out.