Friday, January 28, 2011

God's Image

During last fall's EV Theological Conversation, Colin Greene told a story that has stuck with me ever since. It's not just that I've remembered it, but that it keeps confronting me. I'm challenged over and over, in myriad contexts, to face that story, to measure myself against it. It's an unavoidably convicting story. It's also a beautiful one. And I'm never convicted without simultaneously feeling inspired, encouraged, and even--oddly enough, affirmed. The story is a simple one:

Colin once visited a Greek Orthodox church with a friend. After a ceremony of chanting and incense burning, the priest turned and bowed to the congregation. The people then bowed in return. Colin leaned over to his friend and asked what all the bowing was about, and his friend responded, "He is bowing to the image of God in us."

Struck by the beauty of that sacramental practice, I've been challenged over and over to put its truth into action. Less than 24 hours later, I was shuttling through the Atlanta airport behind a gray-haired army commander. Political inclinations aside, I was unspeakably grieved by this reminder that in our world, there are people who make a living from the business of killing. My visceral response to this reality is typically a show-stopping one, but here, on an airport escalator, I could not escape Colin's story. With face burning and tears in my eyes, I ever-so-subtly bowed to this man's camo-clad back.

Only yesterday this story took on new meaning for me as I read the closing chapter of "An Interrupted Life" by Etty Hillesum. Etty was a Dutch Jew, chronicling her way through the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and her own parallel spiritual awakening. In this final letter, she describes a round-up of 1000 Jews for a transport to a camp in Poland.
‎"When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green-uniformed guards--my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me."
Finding God in the image of the other, I think, can sometimes be an impossible task. Its impossibility, however, doesn't get us off the hook. We are called, repeatedly and continually, to look for God's image in the other - and whether we find it or not - to honor its presence.

(*Note: as I wrote this on Friday morning, halfway around the world an Egyptian woman was putting these same thoughts into action. During a protest for change and freedom for her people, she chose love - over anger - as her means of challenge to power. I've added her picture, widely circulated by the news media, above.)

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