Sept. 5, 2010

Soul-Lift          Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18,                     September 5, 2010

We are made in God’s image. So why would we want to improve on that?
To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How can I look young again? Let me count the ways.”

Live cell therapy. Botox injections. Liposuction. Placenta Extracts. Silicone augmentation. Teeth whiteners. Phony tans. Anti-wrinkle creams. Hair-coloring. Hair implants. Skin rejuvenators. Et cetera.

And now, there is a new, and what they say, safe and quick technology that promises to give you a youthful appearance in less than an hour. It’s called threading.

Known as the ThreadLift, the FeatherLift or the OneStitch FaceLift, the cosmetic surgery involves doctors pulling gossamer-thin strings through the sagging areas of the face and neck. According to a report in USA Today, threading not only returns a “youthful appearance” to sagging necklines, but it can be completed without invasive surgery and with nearly no pain, in 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes!

Some have called this “the lunchtime beauty fix” because it can be done so quickly and with a minimum of pain. The cost is an estimated $7,000 to $8,000 for the full treatment. When the ThreadLift wears out in 10 years, as it is estimated, the procedure will need to be done again.

What’s intriguing here is that no one questions what is driving the widespread desire, among men as well as women, to maintain a “youthful” appearance. The assumption appears to be that sooner or later, we all will reach for something — the ThreadLift or more — to restore our former facial glory.

But why is so much attached to maintaining a “youthful appearance”? There is an underlying spiritual question here that needs further exploration. It’s an issue that has something to do with being accepted as who we are. Paul Tillich called this the grace to “accept that you are accepted.”  The Psalmist accepted God’s acceptance of him.

Beyond efforts to stay healthy throughout one’s life by maintaining disciplines of exercise and good nutrition, the quest for external beauty seems to miss what is truly beautiful about us as human beings.
By peeling away a few layers of psychological skin, we uncover a fear that to grow old is to grow unlovely, and to grow unlovely is to become unaccepted, and to become unaccepted is to become useless; or something along this line. Self-worth is equated with physical appearance.
That may sound like modern psychobabble, but the need for acceptance is at least part, if not all, of the force driving the cosmetic surgery industry. We must rethink what the psalmist says about God’s design of the human person.

What we need is not a ThreadLift, or a face lift, but a Soul Lift.

Of course this is the subject of many a psalm: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 43:5). Sometimes the soul sags, just as the body sags. We may or may not be able to keep the body from sagging, but a good Soul Lift will do wonders for us.

And in fact, when the soul is smiling inside, it will do wonders for the body outside. And that’s why we’re at Psalm 139 — a beautiful prayer in which the writer revels in the pervasive presence of God in his life, both now and forever. “You have searched me and known me,” he declares. Accept God’s knowledge of yourself as the self being good. God’s knowledge of us should bring us confidence, not fear. God created us in His image and said it is “very good.” (Genesis 1: 27, 31)
“You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely (and approve of my being). You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (in assurance) (Psalm 139:1-5).

In other words, there is no place the psalmist can hide from God, nor would he want to, because “such knowledge is too wonderful” even to comprehend. God’s presence with him at all times and in every circumstance, is enough to bring him a sense of inner security and comfort.

What about us? Is it enough for us, too? -- Resting securely on the “wonderful” knowledge of God’s presence is the very truth that enables us to know that our changing physical appearance, which is a natural occurrence, has no effect on God’s acceptance of us.

When the Prophet Samuel came to Jesse he initially judged the sons of Jesse based on their physical and external appearance. He was willing to anoint one of these sons as the future king of Israel based on a strong physique and an attractive appearance.

Samuel was guilty of Lookism. Not racism. Not ageism. Not sexism, but Lookism.
“But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7).

David, the shepherd boy, at that age, was not much to look at.

And many of us, perhaps, at our age, are not much to look at.

Fortunately, God’s not looking at outward appearances, and we shouldn’t be either. When it comes to valuing human life, human beings, any and all of those people whom God has placed around us — outward appearance shouldn’t factor into the equation.

We are “wonderfully made.” If God thinks so, whose opinion would be more important?

Our self-worth is grounded in God’s loving acceptance of us. For the psalmist, and for us, this is the truth that keeps us from constantly searching for quick fixes that prove to be an illusion.
It doesn’t matter how many face lifts a person gets, if they expect their ‘looks’ to give them a sense of self-worth or acceptance, they will be disappointed.

What we need is a Soul Lift. A boost to our inner person. Something marvelously divine. What is it that lifts our souls?  

--It could be that God knows us. Let’s look at verses 1-3. God has “searched” us, God “knows” us, and God is “acquainted with all my ways.”

There are a lot of important people in the world who don’t know you.

But wait! God knows you! Okay, then. My soul is lifted.

--It could be that God surrounds us. “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (139:5). Whether I go forward or backward, sideways, upside down ways, inside out ways, catawampus — whichever way -- God is there! Therefore, my soul is lifted.

--It could be that our very life began with the breath of God: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (139:13). You are not an accident. You are not a mistake. There is a reason. Your life, your soul was inflated with the breath of God. My soul is lifted! 
--It could be that my body is a miracle! “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well” (139:14). My soul is lifted up.
Here is a material, corporeal entity that converts nutrients into energy that can heal itself, that perceives reality through five senses that robotics engineers and microbiologists for all of their training and Ph.D.s can only mimic in the crudest of ways.
It’s a body that discards waste, takes in fuel, and can reproduce. The nervous system and pain provide an early warning and detection system. And we could go on and on. It’s a miracle! You and I are a miracle.
In contrast, the standards of youth and outward beauty are culturally determined. Perceptions have varied throughout the centuries, and across cultural boundaries. What’s beautiful in Los Angeles isn’t beautiful in Papua, New Guinea. And what is beauty now, wasn’t beauty to Rubens and other artists 500 years ago.

Outward beauty is all short-lived, transient, changing with the times. But the physical body itself — your body — is a miracle of divine technology! Again, my soul is lifted up!

The good news is that while we age in our physical appearance, while eventually no amount of threading or rethreading will change that, a good soul lift from time to time will always do us good.

Does this mean that our outward appearance means nothing at all and we should all becomes slackers? Yes and no. We are human beings, body and soul together. Therefore, our bodies matter, and taking care of them is a spiritual exercise. We might start young with all the healthy habits that tend to prolong good-looking skin and prevent cancer, i.e., stay out of the sun, stop smoking, etc. All of these are obvious and good things.

The problem begins when we forget that our essential worth is not based on how good we look. Our culture induces this forgetfulness with a steady flow of beauty products and cosmetic surgeries to help us maintain our appearance. That is where things get seriously out of control.
Young girls and boys put so much attention into physical appearance just to be accepted. Men and women do the same. Along the way, the inner beauty that has been given to every human being is forgotten, and our self-worth gets dependent on precisely the wrong things.

The psalmist would have us delight in the truth that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. There is no amount of beauty products or cosmetic surgeries that can improve upon God’s image. Sadly, when we give inordinate attention to the outward appearance, we can actually hinder the radiance of God’s image shining through.

Several years ago, the award-winning television series, Life Goes On, featured a character with Down’s syndrome. Week after week, audiences were able to experience a certain beauty in the sheer humanity of Corky. His facial features and speech patterns were those of a disabled young man. But for discerning viewers, the radiance of his inner person was visible and inspiring. Maybe, because Corky, like other disabled people, had no choice about his appearance, he was able to accept himself and allow the beauty of his person to shine through.  

The rest of us, (who are not so differently-abled, who have the choice to accept who we are or constantly try to improve our appearance,) can learn a great deal from Corky. Then we can all say together with the songwriter: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well” (139:14).

Rev. Rosemary Stelz

  June 2021  
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