In the run-up to Lent, the daily readings take a turn towards length and seriousness. In a parallel to the logic of sanctification –If you want to enjoy God in heaven, start loving your neighbors and God now –, if you’re going to focus on repentance for 7 weeks anyhow, might as well start now. This week there were readings from I John about keeping the commandments.
For all of us, some of the commandments are easier to keep than others. Which ones are tough vary by season, age, experience, and the growing edges of our life in Christ. When I read the I John passages, I started thinking about the earlier commandments, having no other gods before God and not taking God’s name in vain. Suddenly a pattern came into relief.
I had unwittingly, carelessly fallen into a habit of casual, minor blasphemy since adolescence, shouting, “Christ on toast!” or just, “Oh, my God!” when I was exasperated, without feeling I had gone wrong. At once, these erstwhile or ongoing asides seemed ridiculous. I was struck not with a sense of guilt so much as a sense of embarrassment, the way you feel when you talk about someone who’s standing right behind you (even if it’s a good thing you’re saying).
I had picked up the habit of vanity prayers — those spoken as though God was not right there with me — from people whose architecture, thoughts and language made room only for small gods. You can blaspheme small gods with impunity. They aren’t around to hear you.
One of the ways we change when we set aside physical spaces for prayer and remembering God is that we start to notice God with us everywhere. For decades now I’ve walked to a prayer corner to pray, and now, this week, I am watching blasphemy cake off like mud or scales. With an architecture that reminds me I am in God and God is with me, the blasphemy of small gods is redundant, shriveled.
This feels ironic in some ways, given the way our largely Protestant-descended broader culture fears icons as though they’re idols. You can’t know you’re praying to a small god, an idol, until you are comfortable living in the true God with us who loves humankind. One God, unvain prayers, no idols — all of these commandments are best fulfilled when we pray with holy icons, when we have a physical, bodily, visual, touchable, smellable, actionable place for praying.
Today I’m grateful that God showed me my own sins in the light of mercy. Hoping for a good Lent for all of us.
Read more about how spaces make prayers accessible in Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability (Amazon aff. link), available at the Ancient Faith Store, your local library, or wherever books are sold.