You Have Never Met A Mere Mortal

I've been concerned lately about the way we treat our fellow human beings. We could analyze this culturally or historically. But today, I'm specifically thinking of this as a Christian, about how those who claim the name of Christ treat their fellow human beings.

I believe that one of the fundamental principles of the Christian faith is that human beings - both men and women - are created in the image of God. We read of creation being God's handiwork and declaring his glory, yes. But it is only us who are made in his image. We, in some astonishing way, reflect more of what God is like than the most colorful sunset, the richest landscape, the most intricate flora and fauna. Out of all of this, out of all of the beauty of creation, we are the created thing that bears his likeness. 

This bestows an inherent dignity and glory to each human being. It (should) prohibit us from denigrating and dehumanizing each other. It (should) cause us to seek the flourishing and well being of every person on this planet, regardless of the language they speak, the color of their skin, their religion, their political views, their abilities, their lifestyle, because deeper than all of these things is the basic, dignifying image of God stamped on their being. 

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When we see poverty, we should grieve, for these are humans made in God's image. When we see bloodshed and violence - in any corner of the globe - we should grieve, for these are humans made in God's image. When we see evil, we should grieve both for the victim and the perpetrator, for these are humans made in God's image. 

When we can put people into a category of "other," people we can hate or slander or vilify or overlook, we have forgotten. When we think we have found someone who is no longer worthy of our compassion or of grace, we have forgotten. When we are no longer disturbed by lives lost, by people suffering, by exploitation and displacement and abuse, when we can claim that a particular group of people "deserved" what was coming to them (or, God forbid, rejoice in their pain), we have forgotten. 

We have forgotten the image of God stamped on each human being who breathes. We have forgotten that Jesus has called us to love - our neighbor, the stranger, even those we consider our enemy. C.S. Lewis would say we've forgotten that "your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." 

And we forget so often. So often we fall short in this, through our actions and inactions, through our words and attitudes, through overt and subtle means. It’s something I have to continually call myself back to. Our denial of the image of God in our fellow humans calls us to repentance. It draws us back to our desperate need of grace. It brings us to God, begging for his vision and his love for the world. 

I will leave you with some famous words from C.S. Lewis: 

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

That Could Be Me: Friday Morning Coffee #67

I was standing in the driveway talking to our neighbor. He’d been outside when I returned from running errands and the spring warmth provided a pleasant space to catch up on the progress of their home renovations. 

That’s when I saw her coming. She plodded up our hill with an uneven gait, her body sharply bent forward to push her cart. She wore a bright yellow vest, as she always did. It was the flimsy sort worn by crossing guards. Plastic bags peeked over the edge of her boots and clung to her leggings. She pushed bunches of hair from her face. It was thick and dark and slightly curly.  

I saw her walking a few times a week. I had no idea where she came from, where her circuit started or ended. Once, I saw her in the grocery store, nearly two and a half miles away. She was rifling through the bin of recycled plastic bags. 

I wondered what her name was. I wondered what she looked like when she smiled. 

I always wanted to talk to her, but I never seemed to be outside when she passed. Once, I was and said hello. Her chin sharply angled away as she said hello in return. It was as if I’d startled her. 

My neighbor knew her by name and called out to her. “How’s your day going?” he asked. 

“It’s good,” she said. Her voice was low. She continued walking, continued pushing the cart. 

We watched her back as she progressed up the hill. My neighbor turned back to me. He shook his head, pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows. I was expecting a snarky comment as he jerked his chin in her direction.

“That could be me,” he said. “Really. Just a few different life events, slightly different luck.” He looked me in the eyes, his own eyes spread wide in emphasis. “That could be me.” 

Sweep Streets Like Michelangelo: Friday Morning Coffee #66

I've been reading lately about Martin Luther King, Jr. There's so much that could be said, so much that I've learned. His words and his life have been inspiring me, and even more so, convicting me. It's a gift to be able to continue to learn from him. 

This morning, though, I want to share with you a lovely quote of his about work. If you've been around for a while, you know that I think our work is valuable. Your work does not have to be explicitly Christian to be important, though the everyday excellence and faithfulness of Christians in the workplace often goes under-celebrated. We've been celebrating some of those stories here in the Everyday Disciple series (there will be more coming!). 

MLK has this to say: 

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'

"No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

Wherever you are, whatever you're doing today, my friend, your work is not insignificant. Are you sitting at your desk, unread emails blinking on the computer screen, to-be-addressed papers piled on either side? Are you sneaking a break between diapers that need changing, snacks that need preparing, little faces and little hands that need wiping? Are you grading papers? Caring for a spouse? Running computer code? Mopping the floor? Your diligence there is seen by your Father in Heaven, and it brings Him glory. Go "sweep streets" like Michelangelo. 

Neighbors Who Make Me Belong

We rounded the corner, and I felt victorious. I held a garishly orange spoon in my right hand and a waxy cup heaped with a creamy frozen delight in my left. The shop on our block was giving away free frozen yogurt. One of my favorite words—free. I would have walked down for nearly any free treat. But frozen yogurt? What a steal. 

We walked along the wide walkway. It was once a narrow lane, but they’d closed it off for pedestrians years ago. Now it was covered with carefully laid brick. We passed the gift shop with its nautical eccentricities and a clothing store with price tags I could hardly afford to look at. We passed the candy shop, which I somehow managed rarely to enter. We came to the stairwell that led up to our apartment. Our neighbors stood at the bottom: a thin woman with platinum hair and her sometimes live-in boyfriend. They were out for an evening smoke. 

I pointed excitedly at my bowl of frozen yogurt. “The shop around the corner is giving away frozen yogurt,” I said, eager to share our exciting discovery. “They’re open until eight.” 

They looked at me. They looked perplexed. Cautious. Concerned over my excitement perhaps. Or that I was speaking to them in complete sentences. 

“Huh,” our neighbor said. It was a glorified grunt. 

“Well, have a good night,” I said, as Scott and I started up the stairs. I wasn’t sure how to respond. 

We laugh about this now. (I mean, really, who grunts dismissively when told about free frozen yogurt within walking distance?) At the time, it only added to our feeling of isolation. We were newly married, in a new town, with neighbors who barely made eye contact. We were realizing how much we craved a place to belong, how much we missed our roots. 

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In my childhood, our neighbor across the street raised sheep. In the spring, I would walk across the slow road to see the lambs. Their new wool stood out white against the grass’ spring growth. The older sheep were hardly so delicate or so white. Their coats were yellowed from dirt and age, and they would push against the decrepit rails of the fence until they collapsed. My dad would find them grazing along the road—the grass had been greener, or taller at least. He would help our neighbor, who was too frail to do all of the pushing, to get the stubborn sheep back into the pen. By then his wife had died, his daughter lived in the city, and his son was often away. He lived in a few rooms in the old brick farmhouse. 

Across the street was another elderly neighbor. In the summer, I jumped on the trampoline with her granddaughter, who was one of my only occasional playmates in the area. In the winters, my dad and I would trek over after each snowstorm to shovel her out. We’d scrape the snow from her car and clear a path to her door. Her front porch often got a layer as well, and I’d carefully clear the green-coated concrete. She would always appear a few days later with a plastic bag from the local market. It would be ice cream or a pie—some little treat to say thank you. 

Our driveway was cleared on those snowy days by the man who shared the border with our backyard. Our dogs would play together when I was small. He and his wife had two chocolate labs: Fred and Barney. I don’t remember what happened to them. He called me “Termite.” He still occasionally calls me Termite, in those few times Scott and I make a trip home in the summer. In the years when we still had a gravel driveway, he would come to plow us out when those snowstorms hit. He sat high on his John Deere as he pushed the snow into heaps in the turnaround. He would never take money. So we continued the train of culinary thanks and made him chocolate chip cookies. The smell of them baking under my mother’s watchful eye is so linked with a snowstorm that even today I instinctively have an urge to bake when the snow starts falling. 

We all took care of each other. It was a place I belonged. It made me from a place. 

About a year after the grunting incident, we moved to a New Hampshire town. Within a few days of moving in, our next door neighbors walked over while I was unloading the car. They introduced themselves. They shook my hand. We chatted about the neighborhood and about where we’d come from. In the years that have followed, we’ve watched out for each other. We’ve commiserated over the weather. I’ve walked over some of my snowstorm-cookies. She’s come over to make use of our printer. And we’ve kept talking. 

Some, I suppose, would find this intrusive. The chattiness might make them squirm. But me...it makes me feel at home. 

Living Moment By Moment: Friday Morning Coffee #65

Where do you see yourself in five years? 

Most of us have gotten that question at some point in our lives. I increasingly dislike it. It makes me squirm. I get uncomfortable with my inability to answer it. I’ve been around just long enough to know that life takes us places we wouldn’t expect. 

That day I sat in a tiny corner coffee shop telling Scott I didn’t think we should date, I never would have imagined that three years later, we would be married and living in New England. 

The day I sat on the step of the front porch, my legs stretched into the sunshine, finally accepting the direction to go to Grove City College, even though I originally wanted to go elsewhere - little did I know my experiences there would shape my calling, showing me the need for people to gently handle the pain within the church with the Gospel. Little did I know that the result would be for me to go to seminary.

We've had times when seasons of sickness and pain forced us to a screeching halt. When we couldn't focus on next week, next month, next year. When the question "how have you been?" became too broad and shrunk to "how are you today, right now?" We held our plans loosely and focused on making it through moment by moment, doing the next right thing. 

I am sure each of you could tell story after story of ways God surprised you with the course of your life. Of ways He took your plans or your timing and transformed them into something new. 

I'm all for plans and preparation and foresight. Believe me. Ask my friends. Look at my calendar. But when I look at my own short life, and I look at yours, I get the message loud and clear that we should hold our plans with very open hands.

I wonder, though, if that is one of the secrets to a life well lived—focusing on living faithfully, finding joy, and loving others well in each moment we’re given. Maybe the best place to focus our attention isn’t the horizon but the ends of our fingertips and the ground under our feet.