Some years ago my friend Emile and I were driving back to Huntsville from a monthly clergy lunch in another part of northern Alabama. Emile had retired a decade or so earlier.
My colleagues and I admired and adored Emile as our wise and nurturing elder. And he seemed to know everybody in our part of the world. One of those people was a beekeeper who lived along our return route. At Emile’s request, we stopped to buy some honey.
We pulled off the main road and travelled a short way up a dirt track until we arrived at a battered trailer sitting alone on a scrubby, red-clay lot. The door of the trailer swung wide and a tall, lanky man sprang down the steps and strode energetically toward us.
His long, thinning hair brushed his shoulders. An unruly beard tumbled to his chest. His broad smile revealed large gaps between his few remaining teeth.
We shook hands as Emile briefly introduced me to Jim. I smiled back thinking, “This is so Emile! Everybody sees him as one of us. Poor country folk and sophisticated professionals alike feel right at home with him.”
Jim greeted me warmly and then turned to Emile. He said, “You know, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what you told me about the Oxford Movement.”
Um. What?!? Emile had been talking to this guy about sacramental theology, the relationship between Church and State, and the Incarnation?
This guy! With the thick Alabama accent, the poor grammar, the disheveled appearance.
This guy living in a dilapidated trailer in the middle of nowhere.
And that’s when I realized that Emile was talking to this guy. Not the stereotype I carried around about people who look like him, talk like him, and live where he lives.
Emile had gotten to know and care for Jim, not just a nameless example of the Southern rural demographic. In other words, Emile was living the message of Jesus.
The story of Jesus begins long before the manger. By starting the Gospel with the words “In the beginning,” John invites us to understand Jesus from the perspective of creation. He aims to shape our grasp of God’s love for us and to show us the path toward a new and radical depth in our love for one another.
John likely lumped into one what most scholars today consider two creations stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. So, when he alludes to the creation story he’s likely including the bit about Adam and Eve.
There, we read that God formed Adam out of the dust, breathing life into what would have otherwise remained a mud pie. Crucially, God said, “Let there be Adam.” Let there be this one, unique person.
God did not create a mold called “humanity” so that God could measure each individual’s conformity to a single ideal. On the contrary, God said, “Let there be Jill. Let there be Jose. Let there be Salma.” And Jill is Jill. Jose is Jose. Salma is Salma.
From God’s perspective—from the perspective of perfect love—each of us is one of a kind. Unrepeatable. Irreplaceable. God calls us to this kind of love. To recognize, to respect, and to take joy in each person’s unique beauty and goodness.
Loving at such depth is what it means to be created in the image of God. And if you’re anything like me, you’re still learning how to do that.
We give many people a passing glance. From habit or for convenience, sometimes from fear or prejudice, we react to our own shaky generalizations about groups instead of responding to the deep truth of a specific individual.
We see what we have come to assume about a liberal or a conservative. A gay person, a black male, or a country boy. Condescension, disrespect, and even hatred become much easier when all we see is one of those people instead of a unique individual with a story all their own.
God doesn’t deal with generalizations about people. God gets real. God savors this person’s unmistakable scent and dances to the unique rhythm of this person’s pulse.
God loves those bloodshot eyes, that crooked smile, and that raspy voice. No two laughs, no two souls, no two hearts, no two life-stories are alike.
God loves real flesh and blood people. In all their sweetness and messiness.
That’s what it means to say that God gets real. And the only way for us to love God is to get real with each other.