In God’s Image
If someone were to ask , “What do you consider the most useful single chapter in Christian scripture?” I would pick the one we have reached this morning in our series on great themes from the book of Romans. The key word in such a judgment is the word “useful.” Romans 12 is neither the most eloquent nor the most profound chapter in the New Testament, but I can’t think of one filled with more practical advice about patience and compassion, about the use of your own unique gifts, about how to get along with other people — especially when they are unpleasant. Last week we talked about Paul’s concern that we not allow the world around us to squeeze us into its own mold, a piece of advice easy to give but extremely hard, most of the time, to follow. Even when we are not conscious of it, perhaps most of all when we are not conscious of it, our cultural environment exerts a tremendous influence on the value system we live by. No sudden thrusts, usually — just a slow, almost imperceptible squeezing until we have been shaped into the dominant patterns of thought and behavior around us.
One of the most familiar motifs in American literature is Henry David Thoreau’s obvious fondness for people with the courage to march to the sound of a different drummer, but that was not easy in his time and it is much, murch harder now. Mainly, I think, because we know almost instantly through an omnipresent media what everybody else is doing. Thoreau, meditating on Walden Pond, could hardly have imagined the power movies and television have to shape our vocabulary, our choice of food and fashion, how we think about politics and religion, how we define success, how we express love. But he reminds us of something we need to hear constantly: “You may have to live in a crowd, but you do not have to live like it, or subsist on its food. You can have your own orchard. You can drink at a hidden spring.” We owe a huge debt to people whose refusal to hold the majority opinion has been a blessing to the rest of us.
But every good thing has a flip side. Few people are more annoying than those who become nonconformists not out of principle but simply to attract attention by being different. They remind me of a very minor poet named Samuel Rogers who, when asked why he said so many disagreeable things, explained that he had a weak voice and that unless he said something nasty nobody would listen to him. Some nonconformity is a matter of ego, so right after telling his friends in Rome not to be molded by the world, Paul thinks it wise to warn them against conceit. “I give this piece of advice to each one of you. Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but think your way to a sane and sober estimate.” Sounds good, and easy enough, this having a sane and sober estimate of yourself — until you try it. The truth is that we tend to swing to one extreme or the other: we think too highly of ourselves, or we think too little of ourselves. Surely every professional counselor has discovered that kind of perpetual adolescence in some of us that’s like watching a person walk through the magic mirror house at a carnival. You’ve been there at least once in your life, I suppose: first, you see an image of yourself swollen in all directions like the 700-pound fat man on the carnival midway, and then, at the next mirror, you’re eight feet tall and four inches wide — suddenly shrunk to a grotesquely thin toothpick. They don’t intend to be, but those distorted images of the body are exact pictures of how we might look if our personalities could be shown in a mirror — some of us puffed up beyond any estimate common sense permits, some of us so crippled by lack of healthy ego that we go through life hoping no one will call our name.
Paul happens to be concerned in his letter with those who cherish exaggerated ideas of their own importance, people who always operate in a bull market with regard to their own stock, so arrogance must have been a problem in that Roman churche, but my experience in churches and in college classrooms tells me that there may be more people who hurt themselves at the other end of the line, people who love themselves too little. One of the great sayings of Jesus is, “You are to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It turns out to have been a profound remark. If I do not love myself, I will make a casualty of my neighbor, I will make a casualty of my partner in marriage, I will make a casualty of anybody I get to know well. If I have no self-respect, no pride in myself, I will not have any idea how to deal with those qualities in other people.
It was the first day of school for a 7th grade class in Oklahoma and the teacher, who had no concept of how important self-respect is, began to call the roll. She got all the way to the “T’s” and read out the name of Pauline Thomas, a 13-year-old girl so painfully shy she seemed almost to flinch at the very sound of her name. The teacher stopped to look up and locate Pauline. “Is Billy Thomas your brother?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Is Jack Thomas your father?” In the brief pause before the girl replied a second time, every kid in the room recognized the names. Both men had served prison terms. “Yes, ma’am.” “Well,” said the teacher, who may have had Billy in class, “I certainly hope you are not like them.” She went on calling the roll, but he should have gone to prison. The brother had robbed a filling station, the father had stolen a car. If you believe in human potential, an even worse crime was committed that day in the classroom. One of God’s wounded children was robbed of the last shred of self-respect.
The recurring tragedy is that those who cannot love themselves cannot love others. I believe that even those we call arrogant, who get on our nerves by incessant bragging and self-promotion, are often as not people so insecure that they must have constant reassurance. Once, a long time ago, I came to know a fellow professor who struck the rest of us on the faculty as insufferably pompous. To my later regret, I confess that like others I began to avoid him as much as possible. Had there been a prize for the most arrogant man on campus, Paul would have won by a huge margin. But one night when it was his turn to lead a faculty Great Books discussion of John Milton’s Areopagitica and its bearing on the whole question of freedom of speech, I learned dramatically what I wish I had been smart enough to guess before. I sat next to Paul as he tried to be coherent about some of the nuances of Milton’s argument, and as I watched his face I suddenly saw that he was terrified and hopelessly in over his head. All his defenses crumbled. Always ramrod straight on campus and in the classroom, he slumped in his seat before the eyes of the colleagues he wanted so desperately to impress. The face that had annoyed us by excessive self-assurance seemed to me to break up in small, scared pieces — like those movie cartoon characters we used to watch long ago when there were cartoons before a movie instead of ads for cars and popcorn. When his voice broke and when it seemed to me he was perilously close to breaking into tears, we all got over our astonishment and stepped in to save him. To this day I’m not sure I have ever seen so clearly or so painfully how great a price insecurity can make us pay. I remember going home that night to say to Billie, “I’ve changed my mind about Paul. Tonight, I saw past all the protective layers to a frightened child, and I will never again be able to think of him as arrogant.” Perhaps, if we saw more deeply, people who offend us with incessant bluster would have more of our sympathy. Their sense of self-worth may be starved.
Others damage our pride, of course, but we also do damage to ourselves. There is a strange verse in the ancient Hebrew book of law and ritual known as Leviticus [19:14]. “You shall not curse the deaf,” it says. But what difference does it make? you ask yourself. After all, she can’t hear you, so what harm is done? I think it must mean first that you don’t take advantage of somebody’s handicap, because even if he doesn’t know, God knows. But there is another way to look at it. Even if the one you curse can’t hear you, you can hear yourself — and you are diminished. You are to take no child of God lightly, no matter what her handicap, but you are not to take yourself lightly, either. You are worth too much to diminish yourself by cursing even the deaf who cannot hear you. I heard a similar lesson in self-respect one day when a woman said to a friend of mine whose mother was in a nursing home, “Have you seen your mother lately?” “No,” he said. “She doesn’t even know I’m there.” To which the woman responded, “Yes….but you know you were there.” She knew that f Mom might be out of reach, but her son still needed to stay in touch with his own best self.
That nameless priest who wrote the great Creation Hymn of Genesis 1 celebrated human worth by saying that in creation God made the earth and the stars, grass and trees, oceans and animals — and then said, Now, finally, I am going to make something like myself, in my image….and made us. That is Biblical poetry for expressing faith in the supreme value of human beings. It is wrong, scholar-preacher Fred Craddock likes to tell his audiences, to put ourselves down. Instead of celebrating our humanity, we are forever excusing ourselves by it. The basketball player misses a crucial free throw and says, “Hey, after all I’m only human.” A soprano I know can make the most fabulous lemon meringue pie in the world, but said one day when there was a failure, “Well, you have to remember, I’m only human.” As if being human should serve, somehow, as our excuse for failure instead of being the reason we are able to do great things so often. We need to sing the song of an ancient Hebrew poet who marveled at the wonders of the universe but refused to put himself down. “When I look up, O Lord, at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established — what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” For a moment by the campfire those cold and distant stars and the great round harvest moon threaten to make his life seem trivial, but he is much too proud to embrace that thought and so he hurls into the immense and lonely skies the conviction that makes his life possible: “Yet you have made us little less than yourself, crowning us with glory and honor.”
Perhaps we need to change the way we use that apologetic phrase about our humanity. Instead of saying, “Well, I’m only human” on that one occasion when the meringue was flat, you say about all those other successes, “What did you expect? After all, I’m human!” When we are complimented for the three-point shot, the generous gift, the moment of heroism, perhaps we ought to say, “Well, you have to keep in mindthat we’re human.” Those firemen in Chicago on that bitterly cold and windy night, climbing up a swaying ladder to save people from their burning apartment building — they were hailed as heroes a day or so later. People came out despite the cold to honor them. They might appropriately have said, “What did you expect? After all, we’re human.” And if that strikes you as sure to confuse most other people, how about just quietly reminding yourself frequently that you are, after all, made in the image of God.
And think what a huge difference it would make in our relationships with other people if we reminded ourselves often that they, too, are made in the image of God — and reminding them, in case they’ve forgotten. There are some very simple ways of doing that. Fred Craddock, to whom I am indebted for many reasons, remembers an elderly woman who lived near his home in Enid, Oklahoma. He noticed how she would pull up a little stool under her mailbox and seem to be foraging in the contents instead of just pulling out whatever bills and advertisements she might have. He gently asked her one day, “Ellie, what are you doing?” She said, “I’m looking for those little ones.” He said, “What do you mean?” She said, “I’m looking for those little ones, you know — the ones that say “Happy Birthday.” The ones that say, “Can I stop by to see you for a minute on Friday?” The ones that say, “We miss you at church.” And week after week, Fred could not help but notice, there was nothing….and there was nobody. Want to be creative in the name of God? Want to minister to somebody’s sense of dignity and self-worth? Send one of those cards. Make one of those calls. Stop by.
It’s really amazing how easily we can make people feel better about themselves. My son in Aspen had a funny little story for me the last time we saw him. A girl he had dated a few times told him she envied the confidence he seemed to have in himself. She said, “I’ll bet your parents had some way of making you feel good about yourself. What did they say?” I was curious about this. I said, “OK, what did you tell her?“ I told her,” Devon said, “that when I was growing up you guys always used to call me ‘Devo The Magnificent.’ I guess I must have believed some of it!” I fell asleep that night thinking, every child should believe some of it! When we help people have more respect for themselves, we bestow one of the greatest blessings within our power to give.
I like this story of how easily it can be done, and how much it may mean. The woman was not young anymore. She was not pretty, she was not very quick or sophisticated, and despite the hope she held on to through her teens that someday she would have a home and children, she had been left out of the marriage game. She realized as time passed that she was not a highly marketable commodity, in either the marriage or the job market, and so she took a job — at the time I am remembering — as a cleaning maid in a motel owned by a man who had very little of the milk of human kindness in his veins. He yelled at her a lot, scolded her every time she made the smallest mistake, and never, never, never spoke a word of praise or encouragement. She had four years of this treatment, and with each passing month her sense of self-esteem dropped lower. She dressed with less and less care, her face and her hair neglected. Why bother, she must have reasoned. Who cares? Once in a while some boys in that small town would drive past in their pickup and yell crude insults at her, painful things about how she looked, and about her loveless life. She appeared not to notice, but each time she seemed to shrink a little more in body and soul.s
One day, about 5:30 in the evening, a well-dressed man drove up to the lobby, came inside, and since she was working alone in a corridor nearby, asked if she could tell him, please, where 212 North Pine was, and how he could find it easily since he needed to see someone on business. He was the kind of man who sensed, when he saw her, that life had robbed her of pride in herself. He was also the kind of man who in cases like that would look for some redeeming quality he could praise. “I gather you must be the housekeeper,” he said. She mumbled that she was, head down. “Well,” he said, “you certainly do a good job. This is one of the cleanest places I’ve ever seen.” Her head came up and she looked at him as if he had come from some other planet. “In fact,” he said, “after I complete my business on North Pine I’d like to come back here and rent a room for the night in a place that’s as well kept as you keep this one. My wife is coming along on the next trip; she’ll like your work, too. I shall look forward to seeing you again in the morning to thank you for making your place look so clean and inviting.”
He turned to leave. When he was gone, her hand touched her hair for a moment in that long forgotten gesture every woman understands, and as she walked up the stairs to her room she stood straighter than usual. In her room she sat on the bed for a few minutes, and then she got up and walked over to the closet — and looked — and said:
“I think I’ll wear the yellow dress tomorrow.”
Remind us, gracious God, that we have incredible powers of
creation. Send us now into this new week with the will and
wisdom to use them. Amen.