YOU SHALL RENEW THE FACE OF THE EARTH
NLS KEYNOTE ADDRESS, THURSDAY, JULY 24, 1997
National Lutheran Secretariat, Annual Meeting
Hickory, North Carolina
Lenoir Rhyne College
Let me say to you today that I'm very pleased - honored would be more like it - to be among you today. I consider myself in pretty good company, all of you and especially our host committee and our executive board. However, I am definitely the new kid on the block. I made my weekend seven and a half years ago in Dallas, Texas. Nothing, of course, has been the same since. God has been busy, just as promised, renewing the face of the earth, and trying despite considerable resistance from the owner of that face, to renew the face of Richard Dow.
I find that any authority I have to do the things I've been called to do must come from God, because I find that I'm so much like the characters I read about in the Bible. And how is that? It's because from Balaam to Barnabas, from Abraham to Samuel to Jeremiah to St. Paul, I have one thing in common with these people God chose. I've never been that overtly religious a person, but, I hope, transformed into a spiritual one. And like the Biblical cast of characters - Jeremiah especially, I still can't figure out quite how I got here. That's why we say to God, "You renew the face of the earth." And God means what God says.
Did I say that I've never been an overtly religious kind of person? I
remember when I was growing up that our best friends and next door neighbors had
wall-mounted containers of special baptismal water by their bedroom doors. We'd
call it Holy Water. Coming home from church on Sunday, we saw that the women
wore lace over their heads. But, mine was a family in search of a denomination.
We had a Baptist background, got involved with several neighborhood churches for
awhile, and then found our way to the Lutheran Church in the early 1970's. When
I was about 12, I considered myself a pretty jaded churchgoer. I had sat through
hot summer Baptist assemblies, in the days when the men (and boys) did not dare
to take off their suitcoats during worship, no matter how hot it got. I had been
saved in my neighbor's church basement when I was about 9; a shocking and arcane
experience that I would not understand or assimilate into my religious life for
years. I had sat through many lectures on how Revelation foretold exactly when
the end of the world would come. Often, I wondered, would the end of the world
come simultaneously, as the veins on the forehead of the overexcited, deeply
frightening - and frightened - preacher exploded as he was explaining what all
signs and portents meant.
That never happened. And after one too many of these suburban but fiery
encounters with God - or God's representatives - was over, I'd decided that I'd
had enough. Not enough of religion, but enough of not knowing, of living and
listening in an overheated atmosphere of biblical references and dire warnings
about everything while knowing... nothing.
So, when my mother and father and sister went into the house after church one
Sunday, I stayed in the backseat of my dad's maroon Impala, sliding around on
the brocaded seats, with my Bible. I decided that I would start at the
beginning. Genesis is the beginning.
I began to read. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep,
and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the earth. I think I got as far as
Noah and the flood, and maybe the tower of Babel, but the genealogy in Chapter
10 was too much for me. That and the hot Chevrolet. I closed the Bible and went
inside, not to reopen it for many years.
Maybe... all God wanted to tell me that day, when I wanted to know
everything, was that God's Spirit passes over the darkness and chaos of an
unformed world and creates the face of the earth.
What a promise to go through your adolescence on: "God, you will move over
the chaos of this world and you shall renew the face of the earth."
All except for the Clown Lady. When I learned to drive, I drove everywhere.
It was almost a matter of principle to put as many miles on my mom's car,
cruising around, as I possibly could. Over the top of a hill I drove one summer
day to see... the Clown Lady. At first I didn't know what to call her. I wanted
to call for help. For there she was, in a 1965 Ford Fairlane, windows rolled up
tight against the world, white coat on, white gloves, white clown makeup beneath
an old fashioned hat, with victory red lipstick. What was this?
Other people had seen the Clown Lady, too. Who was she? What was she? Our
best guess at the time was that the clown lady was a black woman trying, just
for a little bit, to be white. Maybe that was it. Maybe something else. We'll
never know. Let the clown lady stand for all the ones you see, sealed up in
their cars, their protective coloring on, convinced that in this world of ours,
they may not be what they really are... and ever belong.
We say, "God, you shall renew the face of the earth." "God, can you get
thought those rolled up tight windows? Can you get to the clown lady? Or, how
many windows into the human soul are wound up way too tight? How many masks
painted on to where they've burned themselves in, over, and through our God
given faces? Is renewal possible?"
One of the most astonishing things I ever heard was in a church in the
1960's. The west end of town had just burned down in what we referred to as our
"Race Riot." The black community, in a rage over Martin Luther King's death, had
burned down their own homes and shops. No one thought that was ironic. Just
dangerous. So, our church invited a panel of speakers, black and white, to sit
in our church basement and help us reason out why we couldn't be brothers and
sisters. You could have cut the tension with a knife.
That was before it happened. One black man, young, and the best speaker on
the panel, wore sunglasses during the evening presentation. His face was an
impassive mask. At the end, the young woman sitting next to me and from our all
white church, raised her hand. The black man acknowledged her. She asked him a
question. "Why do you wear your sunglasses? I've been told that the black man
wears sunglasses in front of whites to hide the hate in his eyes, so that we
won't guess his true feelings. Is that true?"
Everybody's heart stopped at the same instant.
I don't remember what the black man said: I bet nobody does. But I remember
clearly that he took off his sunglasses, and there was no hate in his eyes, just
a sense of good fun that someone had, at last, dared to cut through the woeful
tension of the night and see the promise in his face that we could love each
There's a way that God tells us that this promise is ours. If I'd read a
little more carefully in Genesis that time in my dad's Impala, maybe I would
have caught it. It's the statement - audacious to the point of unbelief - that
we are made - Adam, Eve, us - made in the image of God.
So, God looks like us. No.
So, we are Gods. There are people out there who believe that, who are missing
the point, are they not?
So, what does it mean, we are made in the image of God?
Al Jarreau used to sing that any man can, reach out his hand, and, touch the
face of God.
Well, maybe Moses. Maybe, and under only certain conditions. Otherwise the
face of God is way too much, too majestic, too powerful for you and me. If we
looked, we would see what he thinks of us. We would see judgment. We would see
grace that would melt our hearts. We would die. Don't take the sunglasses of the
face of God. Don't even try.
But instead, know what Genesis says. That we are made in the image of God.And that would mean that we are designed by God from before we were born to do a couple of real important things. We were designed to be creative. We were designed to nurture. We were designed to be like a child, holding her first pet, with God the parent coaching, coaching, from somewhere behind and above, "not too hard: hold, don't control or grasp, feed and love, don't smother with attention or starve with neglect." That's how God wants his children to be in his image. Be what Luther said. "Little Christs." Jesus Christ shows us how to live in the image of God.
The face of God is the cross. That's where you learn to live in God's image.
The commitment. The caring. The devotion. The face of God is the cross. What do
you know? We can see the face of God. But not live. No one could do what Jesus
did and live.
You know that, don't you? You know all about the cross. You know what that face of God is like. It's hard. It's rough. You know that love is rough. And you're tired. Tired of the sin that scarred the wood of the cross. But we know that where the cross is, the face of Jesus can be seen. Let's look. That face - his face - can renew anyone.
You know, the only time I remember the face of our Lord described in the gospels is when he decided to go ahead and go to Jerusalem and die for us. The gospel says that Jesus - and listen to this - Jesus "set his face toward Jerusalem."
It's like his future was now cast in granite, and he knew it, and from then
on it showed on his face. The people could see the set of the cross in Jesus'
face. I think it frightened them. They didn't know what to think. A godly man -
an there, set into his face forever now, was this cross, and what it meant.
Maybe they didn't want to see the face of God. Maybe the Spirit of God moving
over the face of the earth, renewing it, changing it, wasn't for them. For now
Jesus had set his face, and you could see it all.
It made you cry, or it made you angry, or it frightened you.
I think people know about the cross. They know what it means to set their
faces. To have their whole future carved in granite there, no matter what.
She was pretty, and here name was Florence. Once she was Flo, but now she had
the right clothes, and the right house and car, and her husband made the right
kind of money at the right sort of work. Florence had worked her way up. Her
sons, brawlers both but good guys, were in my youth group. I drove up Florence's
circular driveway one afternoon for a visit. To visit the brawling boys, because
they hadn't been to any youth group meetings for a long time. I got an
invitation from Florence, to come to a party she was giving. It sounded great!
But I couldn't go. Her pretty face cracked open for a minute. Maybe my reasons
for not coming sounded too elaborate, like I was making something up not to
come. But I actually saw her face change for a moment, and she was Flo, having
stepped way up in class and not at all sure of herself, but then a second later
she set her face again and she was Florence, pretty and confident and
That's how you and I set our faces. To hide the sin. To decorate the
desolation. Can Jesus renew the face of the earth? How about the faces of this
life? Genesis says so. It says that he has the whole world in his hands, and by
his hands it was created. Jesus could take Flo - Florence's face - in his hands,
and renew her.
Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. It was hard. We know what that's like.
But it seems to be we set our faces to tasks that are unworthy, a coverup for
the way we feel. And for what we really need to live. That's why the cross looks
so familiar. It's hard, and it's death, and we've set our faces toward the way
of death. Cover it up. Sunglasses for hatred. A clown lady's yearning. God, can
you renew this? Can you renew the face of the earth?
Because we can't. We can't look into the face of God. We can't renew the face
of the earth, or the faces of those around us. Not on our own.
God renewed the face of St. Paul from the inside out, by taking away his
sight and then revealing the world to him again. Slowly this time, face by face,
each one Paul saw, the face of Jesus, waiting for a cup of cold water or a word
It got to the point where Paul was perhaps like the Psalmist when the Psalmist said, "Hide not your face from me, God." And meant it. Show me your face. Not just the shining face of my Lord as he's transfigured glowing white. Hide not your face from me, Lord. Show me you in each face, every one.My piano teacher was old. She didn't use any makeup at all. She had big muscles in her fingers from playing the piano all the time. As far as anyone could tell, her only beauty aid was an occasional can of hairspray. She had no wrinkles in her face at all, either: she was beautiful. And modest. Once my mother asked this piano teacher how she stayed so beautiful. Piano teacher blushed. She was modest. Then she said one word. "Joy."
There are paybacks, of course. My mother, when she was visiting, liked to go with me when I did Sunday afternoon worship services in nursing homes. Mother was then in her mid-sixties, and once the ladies in the nursing home mistook her for my wife. "No," she said, "I'm Pastor Dow's mother."
When we left the ladies had kind of fomed a committee, and asked my mother a
question. THE question. "How do you stay so young looking." She said something
really embarrassing, like, "I love my son." MOTHER! But the answer was really,
Alright, then, so here it is, God. You promise that you will renew the face
of the earth. We believe you. You promise that you have already made us in the
image of God. To love, to nurture, to learn and teach trust and commitment, to
provide the heart's home for love. We believe you.
So, God, here's the question. Can you teach us to set our faces like Jesus?
No, listen for a minute, God. Can you teach us to set our faces like Jesus into
Joy, cast in into our faces, make us, renew us, like that?
Because then that will be you, in us, showing your face to renew the earth.
The last words Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended into heaven -
see Matthew 28 - were these: "Go therefore into the world and make disciples of
all nations, all people, all those faces, baptizing them in the name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
He MEANS the Clown Lady.
He MEANS the black guy with the sunglasses, and the white girl who dared to break through his reserve.
He MEANS that he's going to renew the face of you and me, then carve that JOY into our countenances by means of the cross and resurrection, so that we can talk about the renewal that Jesus is going to do. That's what the weekend experience is for. That is what our small group support on the Fourth day is for.Do you ever lose that vision? I do, sometimes. It just looks like hard work. It looks like the cross, not the resurrection, and I have to set my face to do it. Not good. Not good to lose the vision like that. Has it ever occurred to you that Via de Cristo is the only Christian movement in the world - let me qualify that - the only one I know of - whose one and only aim is to get people to sit still long enough so that they and Jesus can see face to face? We don't do anything else. No causes. No pressure groups. No fierce manifestos. No grim determination to bend the will of society to ours. Instead, we work on a promise. That God will move his Spirit over the chaos of people's souls and lives, and renew the face of the earth.
It's the faces I recall from the weekends I serve on. Like the face of the
grandmother, serene in prayer, animated in worship, thoughtful during the
rollos, whose grandson had died in her home weeks before by a stray bullet
during a drive by shooting. I was drawn to her face, then and now, because of
the way Jesus had spent time setting it. I know what I saw there. With her
grief, there was joy. With her pain, dignity. With the cross, a resurrection!
Once there was a professional actor on a weekend. That was when we did
Saturday night skits, staff and participants. The participants chose to imitate
the staff, and the professional actor got me. And he had me, too, right down to
the way I talked and the round glasses. I could have shot him!
Instead, he became my friend. He helped me laugh at myself. Joy is the way
that God animates our faces and joy is the way of the weekend, the way of
Christ, the Via de Cristo.
So how is God changing your face? What is he casting into it now? If God were
to set your face to show your future as a child of God, what would be there? The
light irony and loving eyes that understands the wisdom of a loving God in a
little carpenter, and that carpenter's presence in a world of chaos?
Maybe the gentle smile that promises the peace of a God who loves with
unlimited grace? Is that one yours? Or perhaps the confident posture, head held
slightly forward, of one eager for service, study, and commitment.
Every time we pray the renewal prayer, I believe we are asking God to set our
faces in joyful expectation toward not only the next weekend, but toward the
fourth day, and those we may win for our Lord. I am amazed, constantly, by those
around me in the Via de Cristo movement who commit themselves over and over and
over again in prayer, in action, and in love to the simple but decisive act of
inviting another person to a weekend, or following up on small group activity.
Those people are watching, joyfully, as God renews the face of the earth. Are
Today God moves over the chaos of our world and renews everything. Lutherans
say that in baptism and a daily remembrance of that baptism God does this
renewing. We are not afraid to liken such renewing to the action of God in
Genesis, creating a whole world out of nothing, pulling together a cosmos and
making it good. I believe that God can do this, and that he will do it as our
movement daily defines itself and keeps faithful.
Word is, we have five new secretariats represented at this assembly, in some
significant way. We have the largest number of delegates in memory, as well.
This is what happens when God renews something: His people. We have in this
outpouring of joy and commitment a reminder that we are called to show our own
renewed faces to the world.
The 25th Anniversary of Via de Cristo is a celebration of the maturing face
of our movement within Christianity, maturing and wiser, filled with deepening
expectations of how our Lord will renew the face of this earth, and all people!
On my parents' 25th Anniversary, my sister and I found them at the site of the
new house we were building. There they were, sorting through piles of antique
Chicago bricks in front of the half-finished house, choosing the best ones for
the workers to use. This year, on their 50th anniversary, I remembered that time
with them and asked whether or not they could have found a more joyous way to
celebrate their marriage then. They replied that it was what they wanted to do:
they found their joy in being together, and in building for the future. So do
we. So do we!
Now, here's Jesus setting joy into our faces in one other way, renewing us to
be his own for eternity. As you know, I'm a pastor, so I got to baptize my son
and daughter. My son came first, and I was unsure if I dared personalize that
moment with affection. My daughter's baptism was different. I remember her face
as the waters of baptism coursed over it, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." She
was created as a child of God then, to last forever. Her face was recast in the
manner of Jesus Christ, so that others could see him in her.
I believe that, and I wanted her to know it from me, too. So I took that baby
and put a kiss on her new face before the baptismal water was dry.
Always remember that in a very important way, that is the mission and
movement of Via de Cristo. To place sign and seal on God's work in other
pilgrims as he renews the faces of the earth. Be faithful to your high and holy
calling, and - don't look now - but your own face has been recast in the joy of
Jesus Christ! How can we but succeed in our calling, our hope, and our mission?
The Eleventh Week of Pentecost,
July 24, 1997
Richard W. Dow