My wife and I traveled some this summer. At home we see the same people all the time. From work to the kids’ school to family and friends, we experience a comfortable trickle of humanity. We drive everywhere we go. We sit next to people we know.
It wasn’t that way on vacation. We spent most of our time in cities, traveling by train and subway. The variety and volume of people nearly knocked me over.
There are so many people in the world, and most of them really aren’t that good looking. Put enough of them in the same place and they throw off some nasty smells, too.
Walking down the street in the afternoons, warm whiffs of sickeningly sweet mystery stank often crossed our path. Our pace quickened while we wondered out loud, “Is it rotting garbage?” “Where’s the dumpster?” “Maybe we passed a sewer vent?” A few times going down into the subway we had to sidestep a puddle and it was clear what the smell was.
The guy next to my wife in the subway car was holding a strap attached to the bar above his head. He was an average height. My wife’s face is armpit level to guys of average height. He probably had a shirt on, but the discomfort of seeing my wife’s face in that guy’s armpit already has my memory redrawing him sixty pounds heavier and in a tank top.
We couldn’t move. There were so many not good looking people all pressed up against each other… so many. The subway car’s doors opened. Nobody got out. More got in. One lady had what I hope were just bug bites. The doors closed and we took off, a mass of flesh jiggling along in a dark, underground tunnel.
Hairy skin bags, I thought. We’re all hairy skin bags full of fat, meat and bone… and we’re all slowly rotting.
I like to think of myself as a generally cheery fellow, but that’s kinda creepy, don’t you think?
The Image of God
Later during our trip, I sat next to my wife on a bus. I stared out the window and watched the countryside roll by. I remembered the skin bags on the subway and had one of those thoughts that was so strangely clear it seemed to come from outside of me.
That mass of flesh is the image of God.
That’s crazy… isn’t it? Why would God create a bunch of dirty skin bags to represent him?
“Look at that mess,” God says. “That sweaty, bloody mess is what I look like.”
But then there’s the Fall of Mankind. We aren’t what we were created to be. With our God-given freedom, we twisted and bent ourselves, distorting his image and hurting each other in the process. God had something else in mind. We were supposed to be glorious skin bags filled with the Spirit of God himself.
Life is hard. The clear thinking continued. Take care of one another.
I remembered a quote from Charles Bukowski:
“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t.”
Love. That’s what I’ve always thought of as the essence of the image of God. The scripture says that God is love. When we see someone love self-sacrificially with no thought of getting anything in return (except maybe rejection), isn’t that what God looks like? It has to be love in action, though. Love has to be incarnated… imaged by skin bags.
That’s what Jesus showed us… a sweaty, bloody mess. He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The image of God suffered on the cross to love all the other skin bags, to give up his Spirit that we might breathe in his original vision for humanity… Jesus… Love incarnate… God and man as one.
The countryside continued to roll by, and I continued to think about love in action as the incarnation of God… his image.
Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 32:37-40). The second commandment is like the first because we accomplish the first by doing the second. We love God by loving his image. 1 John 4:20 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
It was all coming together, then I thought of a friend of mine who doesn’t believe in God. He’s an amazing guy who is studying to be an RN. He’s obsessed with helping people, a truly compassionate person. He’s also a very vocal critic of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Why? Why does my friend who doesn’t believe in God, and who thinks we’re all just walking accidental chemistry experiments, why does he care so much about skin bags? I had to know.
When I got back from vacation, I went to my friend and asked him why one cosmic accident should give a crap about the suffering of another cosmic accident.
You know what he said? He said, “I’ve been there and know what it feels like to suffer.” He simply doesn’t want people to go through what he’s been through if he can help it.
There you have it, the image of God again… a skin bag who doesn’t even believe in God walking around looking a lot like Jesus.
I told him my thoughts about compassion coming from seeing people as the image of God and manifesting love and divinity by caring for skin bags. He said he didn’t get the idea. I told him about 1 John 4:20 and he just laughed and said, “4:20, huh?” I guess he thought I’d been smoking something.
I wished I were more like my friend, but I go traveling around contemplating the nature of God and skin bags while he simply helps them.
Just as we were about to wrap up our conversation, my friend said to me, “One more thing. Go easy on yourself, man. You’re doing the best you can.”
There he goes again, looking like God. Yeah, I want to be more like my friend.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
Maybe today I’ll go love a skin bag and enjoy being the image of God.