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


Who Is My Neighbor?

I noticed them when they arrived. 

The pleats of her skirt made a feminine flounce out of the stiff fabric. Her hair was perfectly coiffed. He wore slacks and a sports jacket, the unassuming tailored affair of the wealthy. 

They were seated at our table. His smile spread warmly across his face, sparkling in his eyes as he firmly shook my hand in introduction. She was quiet, but she leaned towards me in friendly confidence as she spoke with her face close to mine of their recent travels in Europe. 

She asked if I’d gotten to travel much. I told her of my year in Belize. Of my travels in China. Of our time in India. With this last mention, her eyes grew wide as she sat away from me in her chair, her chin tilted. 

“So you’ve been to India,” she said. “What did you think?” She spoke with a hushed frenzy, as if about to hear a piece of juicy gossip. 

I smiled as I remembered our brief trip. I told her of the precious friends we’d made, of the welcome we received. I told her of the delicious food, the beauty of the sea, the rich history. I told her of the incredible ministry and development work we observed, of the people who are tirelessly and creatively working to improve the lives of the children and the poor. 

As I spoke, my mind walked through my memories, transporting me to the other side of the world. We were sitting around the table with our newly made friends. We passed around the bowls filled with the Indian dishes I had watched being made in their kitchen earlier in the day. I had tried to take notes enough to replicate it at home. So many good conversations around that table. So much laughter. My heart swelled with fondness, with a desire to return, with longing to be with those precious people again. 

“We traveled there several years ago,” she said. “I desperately wanted to see the Taj Mahal. So, my sweet husband,” here she smiled across the table at him, “surprised me with a trip.” 

I smiled, nodding. I love hearing about the adventures of others, particularly to places I’ve been, particularly to places I love. 

“Well, I will never go back there,” she said, with breathy disgust. 

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This was not what I was expecting. I tried not to let the confusion show on my face. It was clear I wouldn’t have to ask for the details of their disastrous trip.

“One day, they were driving us around, and they took us through the poor part of the city. The way those people lived! I have never seen anything like it. So much poverty. The dirt. Those children…” 

In my mind, I was on the back of a moped, clinging to the waist of the caseworker as we wound through the streets to the small slum where the transient construction workers were living with their families. The children would spread a tarp under the shadow of the rising concrete facade of an apartment complex and sit at our feet. They brought me their notebooks with deliberately traced letters. I pointed to the figure. “A,” they would say. Then the next. “B,” they would say. I could feel the curious eyes of their mothers as they peeked out from their doors at my back.

I was hearing the voice of the caseworker as we walked away—“I was once one of those children. But people came who cared about me, and they made sure I got an education. Now, I can do the same thing.” I thought of the money she was saving to care for her ailing father. 

My attention returned to the woman beside me, now leaning in again as she spoke. “When you get to be my age, seeing things like that changes you.” She shuddered and shook her head—as if the mental image were on an etch-a-sketch and she could shake it away. 

Mission: Same Call, Different Locations

It’s been interesting to talk to the friends here and hear about their work. So many of them feel like they aren’t actually doing much—but they are, through living faithfully where the Lord has planted them. . . . All of us are called to live faithfully wherever we’re planted in the world and to make the most of every opportunity. All of us are called to love the people around us and seek justice for the oppressed—it just looks a little different for each of us. It’s not that one’s better or higher in any way. I’ve known all of this, but by listening to them, I guess I understand it better. Not at all to diminish what they’re doing here—it is a distinct and challenging call. But the day to day living it out might not actually look that different. 

—Journal entry, May 2011, East Asia

I loved listening to their stories—the adventures, the food, the language blunders, and the snake stories. As I got older, I marveled at the work God was doing around the world and at these modern-day heroes who left behind everything to traverse the jungles and villages of the world for the sake of the Gospel. Each year, my childhood church hosted a missions conference, providing a time for each of the missionaries we supported to share about their work. Each year, I soaked it up. Each year, I wondered if someday I would go to a far off land.

I knew I didn’t want a “normal” life. Increasingly this came to mean that perhaps I would go serve overseas or at least go into ministry. It wasn’t until later that I would come to understand that this life on mission is always the "abnormal" adventure of the Christian. What varies is not the mission—but the location. 

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The Greatest Humanitarian Crisis of Our Time

It was a year ago. I sat in a room filled with pastors, seminarians, and local church members. We gathered for the day to learn about one thing—the Syrian refugee crisis. It was already five years into the civil war which would send millions fleeing for their lives, but as horror piled on horror we were finally asking "What do we do?" 

After lunch, the World Vision presenter diverged from his presentation to draw our attention to a young woman quietly sitting in our midst. With tear-filled eyes, he passed the microphone to her. She had only recently come from this war-torn world we were talking about in the safety of a New England seminary. Curling hair framed her face as she shyly spoke in accented English. Her words were simple: "I just want to say, thank you for caring for my people." Even now, my eyes get watery.

In the year since that day, the refugee crisis has become an increasingly charged topic. The word "refugee" swirls in the midst of a political firestorm. And sadly this political battle has spilled into our Christian communities, creating division, anger, and pain. I'm convinced, though, this is an issue Christians could surround with united concern and compassion. We have a uniting call—to fight our way through the mess of the conflict to see the path of Jesus. We can work together—as the body of Christ—to clear away the fog of politics and of culture and the stories we see on social media to see what Christ-likeness looks like in these particular circumstances.

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Kingdom Living vs. Good Theology: A False Choice

I keep having a recurring conversation—a troubling one. It ends with the statement that it would appear most churches leave us with the choice of prioritizing good theology or good Kingdom living, that it appears we have to choose between orthodox doctrine and this-earth Christ-like engagement. I find this dichotomy to be tragic and frankly un-Christian, but for so many I’ve been talking with lately it is a very real felt choice as they consider which church community to commit themselves to. Let me explain.

These friends hold fast to the traditional beliefs of the Christian faith. They uphold the profound destructive nature of sin, which severs our right relationship with God, and the exclusivity and sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ to atone for that sin and mend that relationship. They value the work of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and enliven our lives to become more Christlike. They love the Scriptures and believe them to be accurate and true, working as our lifeline for instruction and knowledge of God. They see the message of the Gospel to be our only hope in this world and for the one to come. This is the good theology and orthodox doctrine piece, and it’s typically emphasized by conservative Protestant circles. 

These friends also believe that we are not saved only in an otherworldly, future, spiritual sense. Jesus also teaches us the best way to live in this life because this world and our work in it are important. They see that Christ’s work in announcing and bringing the Kingdom of God was not only in saving people’s souls (though this was certainly key!) but also in healing their bodies, feeding their hunger, and mending their relationships.

 

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