Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Girl Before a Mirror

A Shell Ridge Sermon by Rev. Angela Yarber (preached 2/25/2007)
First Sunday of Lent--Gifts of the Wilderness: The Gift of Life
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Text: Luke 4:1-13 Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Child of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Let’s be honest. The question we’re all wondering: was Jesus on the Atkins diet? “One does not live by bread alone.” Was it the insatiable need to count carbs that led Jesus into the wilderness, escaping the temptation of sandwhiches, pita pockets, tortillas, and sourdough bread bowls? Or was bathing suite season lurking just around the corner and Jesus wanted to retreat into the desert for forty days of “hot yoga,” certain that the sun, heat, and plow position, combined with utter starvation, would burn off those extra unwanted pounds?
Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Jesus didn’t struggle with such things! How dare we apply our contemporary struggles, our American and privileged concerns onto the Christ, Jesus, Messiah, Co-Sufferer. Jesus wasn’t concerned with such things…was he?

Today we enter into the season of Lent, a time when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness: 40 days of fasting, heat, temptation, and perhaps fear. At Shell Ridge we are focusing on the Gifts of the Wilderness in the days to come, a time when we recall our own days in the desert, what we learned there, what we needed there, and what provided strength there. Have you ever been in the wilderness? Do you recall spending time in the desert? And, no, I don’t necessarily mean the literal desert or wilderness, though trading stories of camping and hiking is something I love to do. I mean those metaphorical times in the wilderness, the symbolic days in the desert. What did it feel like? Were you hungry, hot, tired, tempted, and a little afraid? What was it that gave you strength during those dry days, your symbolic stream in the metaphorical waste land? We’ve all had our times in the desert, and so did Jesus. Perhaps it was a time when you lost your job, or went through a divorce, or moved far away from family and friends, or watched a loved one suffer and die. These wilderness times are hard and often painful to remember. But we’ve all had our times in the desert.

This morning I would like to share with you some of my wilderness time. Like your time in the desert, it was hard and often painful to remember. One of my heroes in homiletics, Barbara Brown Taylor, describes preaching as “spiritual exhibitionism,” where you lay it all on the line, when you are spiritually naked in front of eager and hungry hearts. And so, at the risk of “baring it all,” so to speak, will you journey with me into the wilderness? It may be hard, painful, or uncomfortable. As we journey, however, remember that we do not brave these desert roads alone: we are on this path together and have a Co-Sufferer by our sides.

Today is, not only the first Sunday in Lent, it is also the beginning of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Did you know that 80% of women in America struggle with a sub-clinical eating disorder? This may not be a word with which you are familiar; we hear about anorexia and bulimia and binge eating and over eating, but what’s a sub-clinical eating disorder and how on earth do the majority of Americans have it? You see, a sub-clinical eating disorder is when an individual is constantly worried about food, eating, appearance, calories, exercise—when food and appearance consume one’s thoughts. For me, this notion is best illustrated in Picasso’s painting Girl Before a Mirror. I remember looking at a picture of Picasso’s painting with a child. The child said that there are two girls in the picture. Interesting: the title is Girl, not Girls, Before a Mirror. One girl. One reflection. But her reflection does not really seem to mirror what she looks like, does it? Rather, the girl, like 80 % of American women, looks into the mirror and cannot clearly see her reflection, but a distortion of it—one that is not pretty enough or skinny enough or good enough. Perhaps the girl Picasso was painting compared herself to all the models that grace the covers of magazines, or television, or movies. Perhaps the girl before Picasso’s mirror looked at her reflection with tears in her hungry and wanting eyes and wondered, “Why can’t I look like _______?” Maybe she was struggling with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. At one point or another we’ve all been Picasso’s girl, Picasso’s person before a mirror, where our eyes could not see our reflection clearly, but instead saw one that was less than, worse than, unworthy to see beauty reflected in the mirror. Such was the case for the majority of my adolescent years.

I’d like to share a story with you, a story that stems from one of my days in the wilderness. A story of a time when I was convinced, like Jesus, that “one does not live by bread alone.” Once upon a time there was a college cheerleader named Angela. Now before you pass judgment on this chipper cheerleader, allow me to elaborate. She was not your typical cheerleader—ditsy and airhead were not a part of her vocabulary. She was actually a star student. 4.0 in the religious studies program. That’s right: religious studies. Not only was the cheerleader a good student, but she was a youth minister at a local church, leading bible studies, mission trips, and camps for teenagers. I suppose it’s safe to say that this cheerleader was an oxymoron. However, despite her paradoxical tendencies to defy stereotypes when it came to the brains or morals of the typical cheerleader, this college student found herself struggling with her reflection, much like Picasso’s girl before a mirror. She had always been a dancer, gymnast, and performer, living her life in a leotard…surrounded by mirrors…on stage for all the world to see…every flaw visible for critique. So, maintaining weight was always an issue for the college cheerleader. In fact, she’d battled anorexia for many of her middle and high school years. But now she found herself in college: studying to make straight As, serving as a minister at the “wise” age of 20, and battling to balance on the quivering hands of her bases that threw her tiny body into the air in cheerleading stunts. The smaller you are, the higher you fly. So, the I cheerleader counted calories and exercised, aware that her 5’5” frame probably did not need to weigh so little. To make matters worse, the cheerleader was a perfectionist. As a performer, her life was always on display and her new-found faith taught her to imitate Christ, to be perfect as her Heavenly Father is perfect, to deny herself, take up her cross and follow Christ. And so, she did. Perfectionism and self-loathing are recurring idioms in disorder eaters. Like the female monastics that lived hundreds of years before her, she denied herself, took up her cross and followed Christ.

In Michelle Lelwica’s stirring book, Starving for Salvation, she quotes a young anorexic’s words, “The whole life is like you are carrying a cross—something heroic, something that is very difficult and demands admiration. I felt [that] doing something that was not hard was quite inconceivable; it would be lazy and despicable.”

So, the cheerleader took up her cross and followed a path that led only to emptiness, hurt, hunger, and a countless number of emergency room visits.

On game day, the squad was required to eat a meal before the game. “You can’t cheer on an empty stomach,” coach said. So, the college cheerleader polished off 6 Saltine crackers and a glass of water. Like, Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, she stood in front her reflection, running her hands over her bony ribcage and protruding hipbones. She did not see an emaciated body staring back at her, but instead saw arms that needed toning, obliques with too much fat, and a waistline that could use some more sit-ups. She saw a hypocrite: “how can I preach to my youth that they are made in the image of God, beautiful and beloved, and struggle so much with what I see? I am not worth the space my body takes up. Furthermore, I am succumbing to patriarchal and materialistic trends that I find oppressive. Why won’t this go away? A girl who was raised in the projects was not made to deal with such a privileged problem. This is my choice, my disorder. Just make it go away,” she thought. So, as she did after every meal, the cheerleader retreated to the bathroom to hold back her hair and force her finger down her throat. When she was finished she brushed her teeth, smoothed out the pleats on her uniform, wiped the tears from her eyes, and smudged cherry-red lipstick across her mouth. As she gathered her thoughts before walking to the gym, she glanced over to her dorm room bed to see her Greek homework laying unfinished and sighed at the thought of post-game studying. She closed her notebook, and reached for her Greek New Testament. And the words of Ephesians 2:10 caught her eye: αυτου γαρ εσμεν ποιημα. “You are God’s workmanship, God’s ποιημα.” This word for “workmanship” in Greek is the word ποιημα from which we derive our English word for poem. You are God’s poem, Angela.

The college cheerleader returned to the bathroom, reopened her cherry-red lipstick and scrawled across her mirror in large letters: αυτου γαρ εσμεν ποιημα, promising herself and the God who created her that she would get help for her disorder. Strength in the wilderness. A stream in the desert of disorder.

You are God’s workmanship. One day, God wrote a beautiful, magnificent poem and titled it Katy, Greg, Eliot, Maura, Willis, Frances. As an artist creates a masterpiece, imbuing each detail with handiwork and care and intentionality, so God has created each of us. God’s fingerprints are all over you. Whether you see your reflection in the mirror and smile, or whether you look, like the Girl Before a Mirror, and see a distortion of that reflection, God looks at you and cries out, “If you could only see yourself through my eyes, you would marvel at the sight.”

So, one does not live by bread alone…but a little bread sure does help.

During this time of year, let us be mindful of those who may still find themselves in the desert. Let us remember that there are those in our world and perhaps here in this place that are struggling in the wilderness, even today. May we be a people that offer streams in dry lands. May we be a church that provides strength in the midst of heartache. If you are in a dry and hungry place, we invite you to take heart. Here is a place where you may find refuge in the wilderness. Here is a place where the living water never runs dry, no matter your situation in the desert. The road may not be easy, but it is one that we commit to taking together. And as we walk hand in hand along these desert pathways, let us remember that One has gone before us and walks beside us still, giving hope and peace and strength for the journey. During this season of Lent, let us be refreshing agents of hope in wilderness, a source of rest in the desert. During this week, may we be mindful of the concerns of struggling men and women around us, who look at their reflections, like Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, and are unable to see the beauty with which they are created.

As Tony Morrison reminds us in her novel Beloved, may we learn to love our flesh, no matter how others perceive it. As Cele proclaims in Alice Walker’s novel turned musical, “I am beautiful!” And even as pop icon Christina Aguillara sings, may we recall that “we are beautiful no matter what they say.” You are beautiful, beloved, and worthy in the wilderness and in the promised land. As the one who created us and sees us wholly tells us, “you are made in my image and that is good.”

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