One of the occasional jokes around our church office is, I have to confess, that running a ministry would be so much easier and fun if we just didn't have to deal with people all the time. I've laughed at that sentiment, said it myself, and cringed that we even think that way. Then I read an insightful passage from a wonderful book I highly recommend, Practicing the Presence of People by Mike Mason. He is recounting what a pastor friend once told him:
"I'd like to tell the church to let people be human. I'd like them to learn to enjoy humanity, both their own and others'. To enjoy and to accept humanity, with all its warts and weaknesses, without pulling away in fear and judgment…this is the one thing the church doesn't know. Most churches, I think, are frightened of human beings."
What are we frightened of? Of weakness? Of problems we canƒTt fix? Of pain we canƒTt ease? Of recognizing our own insecurities and fears? Are we afraid that if we canƒTt show a pretty face to the world, weƒTll somehow discredit God and the institution of Church ƒ_" and thus weaken our own already fragile faith? Are we afraid to be human?
Mother Teresa, Mike Mason writes, accomplished something remarkable in her life beyond caring for the poor and sick: ƒoShe was remembering something that had been forgotten: people. She went to gutters and garbage heaps, to places where humanity itself had been thrown away and left to rot, and she set to work patiently and tenderly restoring to people the dignity of being human.... Mother TeresaƒTs days began in prayer, and after meeting God in prayer she went out into the streets of Calcutta to meet Him in the form of people.... her primary goal was not to better the lot of the poor, not to alleviate the suffering of the sick, not even to save lives. Rather, her goal was to recover the image of God in people.ƒ__
We are made in the image of God, the Bible saysƒ"ƒofearfully and wonderfully.ƒ_ And when we become believers He pours Himself into our very being through the power of the Holy Spirit. He actually identifies our bodies as the ƒotemple of the Holy Spirit!ƒ_ ThatƒTs amazing, isnƒ_Tt it?
I know all this in my head, but my heart...thatƒTs another story. I donƒTt know about you, but when I look around at humanity, I find it difficult to see the glory of God residing within. What I often see is a mess. I see a lot of people slogging their way through circumstances that range from tedious to terrifying, from boring to overwhelming. DonƒTt get me wrong ƒ"I also see moments of happiness and joy. But for the most part, most of us humans walk around everyday unaware of what a magnificent creation we are (can you get any better than the image of God?), much less being a vessel where God actually chooses to reside in the form of His Spirit. Most people need to be loved into reflecting Godƒ_Ts glory.
Restoring the Image of God
Mother Teresa accomplished her mission, one person at a time, looking into the dirty, smudged faces of the sad, the poor, and the diseased of this world (which is really all of us in some form), and by gently wiping away the dirt, cupping a small face in her hands, and smiling into those eyes, she communicated love and acceptance. And then, I just know, she saw the reflection of God; she restored the image of God in a person who the rest of the world would have thrown away.
Can we do any less with the people around us? All of us are surrounded by people whose lives are marred and smudged with burdens that weigh them down, and create in them anxiety, unrest, and unhappiness. Can we love one such person back into GodƒTs image? Can we walk out of our doors every morning and expect to witness GodƒTs glory in the lives of our family, friends and co-workers?
Connecting with people actually fills us with joy ƒ" giving, receiving, and thinking about things together is the best therapy for our own angst and dissatisfaction. ƒo I hope to visit you and talk to you face to face,ƒ_ wrote the apostle John (2 John 12), ƒoso that our joy might be complete.ƒ_ Paul wrote, ƒoTherefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mindƒ__ (Philippians 2: 1-2).
But truly connecting and engaging people in our lives is more than just being with other people and interacting. Mike Mason writes of a time when he sat on a plane, and being in a good mood, struck up a conversation with a young man. The time passed quickly and they covered a lot of conversational territory. Then he says, ƒoIt dawned on me that as much as I enjoyed our conversation, it was not the young man I had enjoyed so much as my own charm and conviviality. IƒTd been absorbed in being interesting without being truly interested.ƒ__
I hate it when that happens. HavenƒTt we all been guilty of being ƒointeresting without being truly interested?ƒ_ That reduces people to becoming mere reflections of us, our ego, and our interests ƒ" rather than us seeing other people as reflections of God and His interests.
We are approaching the Easter season, a time when we talk a lot about the glory of Godƒ" a large, ethereal concept that gives us visions of light and thunder in the far away heavens. But when you think about it, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus were such physical events. Jesus walked this earth as a human being. He interacted and loved people. He died in a very painful, human manner. And He didnƒTt rise from the dead as a spirit, but as real flesh and blood; He walked the sandy shores of the Sea of Galilee and broke bread with His friends. How He must have enjoyed looking into each of their amazed faces as He relished the awe and wonder they reflected. How much He must have loved seeing their joy renewed, their faith revivedƒ_"and yes, the image of God restored as their grief and depression were burned away by the glory of His resurrection. Jesus had a genuine, heartfelt, interested, passionate relationship with these dear friends. He knew their weaknesses, their quirks, their failures, and fears. But He loved them all anyway. The Resurrection made their faith real. The relationship they enjoyed with Jesus made Him real.
As we celebrate Easter as a church, we are celebrating something most of us already believe. How can we make this Easter a time when we take that belief and go a step deeper? We can make this a time when we start really looking at the people around us. Really listening, really caring. Let yourself enjoy people! Rather than being annoyed, upset, irritated, or judgmental, start thinking of the six billion people on the planet as facets of Godƒ_Ts character and reflections of His creativity.
If you cannot see the glory of God in people, then youƒTll never experience the joy of glory in your life. Christ in you is the ƒohope of glory,ƒ__ Paul wrote (Colossians 1:27).
Jesus left us with two great commandments:
ƒoYou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.ƒ_ And then He said an amazing thing: ƒoOn these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophetsƒ_ (Matthew 22:37-40).
Love God, and love other people. It is upon these relationships that everything else hangs. He didnƒTt give us a list of ways to behave, dress, talk or live. And, He didnƒTt give us the option of one or the other. He said that loving people is like loving God!
I donƒTt want the church ƒ" my church or the Church at large ƒ" to be afraid of people. Or tired of them, or weary in ministering to them. My prayer is that we can start to look at people through fresh eyes, through GodƒTs eyes. That we will see each other as individual reflections of God, who, with a little love and attention, will shine brighter and radiate the joy of the Lord in the most unexpected circumstances.
I do believe I have glimpsed this glory in othersƒT lives. I know IƒTve seen it in the face of a new believer, in the tender love of a parent for a child, in the radiant eyes of young lovers as they stand on their wedding day...itƒ_Ts there, all around us. Now I pray that God will open my eyes to see Him and His glory in unexpected faces and places.