Infidels

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November 15, 2020

Infidels

Passage: Genesis 1:26–31

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

 

Everybody is trying to figure out how to celebrate Thanksgiving in this year unlike any other, right?

It’s all over the media, but we’re hearing mixed messages. On the one hand, Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot are telling us not to do it. Stay home. Don’t go out. If you must gather with friends and family, do it virtually.

On the other hand, United Airlines is adding 1,400 flights for Thanksgiving weekend, which is fewer than usual but still a lot. AAA tells us that Fifty million Americans will travel at Thanksgiving this year, fewer than last, but still a lot. Can we bring our college students safely home?

I’m already nostalgic for last year’s Thanksgiving. 2019 was an annus mirabilis for my family. Both of my children married the loves of their lives. A beloved niece also got married. Another beloved niece is expecting the first grandbaby in that third generation.

So of course we all gathered at our house on Thanksgiving Day last year to name our good fortune. Kathy and I have a small extended family, but all 12 of the 14 of us were there, too many to fit in the dining room, so we shoved two large tables together in the living room.

Before dinner, we played a game. Everybody wrote something they were thankful for on a 3x5 card, and we threw them all into a basket. Everybody filled out at least ten cards, over 100, and then we went around the table guessing who’d contributed that particular blessing. You got points if you guessed right, and you lost points if your blessing was correctly identified. It took us well over and hour. I forget who won or what the prize was: maybe a free pass to skip the cleanup.

Our Thanksgiving feast will be smaller and quieter this year. My son and his wife will stay in California and the cousins in Grand Haven, and it will be just the four of us who’ve been sheltering together since June. Perhaps the same is true in your family.

But maybe we should all agree that if we must shrink the corporate celebration, we should enlarge the internal doxologies. Even in dark times, maybe especially in dark times, it is important to choir the proper praise to the Unstinting Benefactor who speckles our lives with lavish benedictions.

In Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, a man tries to explain to his children the evolutionary history by which God hammered out the shape of the present earth.

He tells the children that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and asks them to imagine the world as an Earth Woman who is 46 years old.

He tells them that the Earth Woman was 11 years old when the first single-celled organisms appeared. She was 40 before the first simple animals evolved—the worm, the jellyfish, that sort of thing.

Just eight months ago, when she was 45, the dinosaurs roamed the earth. And then he tells them that “the whole of human civilization began just two hours ago, as long as it takes us to drive to [South Bend].”[1]

Archaeologists tell us that humankind has been around for only about 2.3 million years. When the earth entered middle age, God made a new creature, and endowed it with a large brain, an erect carriage, an opposable thumb, the gift of language, a sense of humor (at least in some) and self-consciousness in all.

For the first time in the eons of eternity, the Lord God was not alone. God gave the new creature God’s own face, and some of God’s own mind, and the beginnings of God’s own heart. God called this creature the imago dei, the image of God, because more than all the rest, man and woman wore God’s visage and worked God’s work. This only happened at the end of the sixth and last day of creation.

My favorite priest, Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in LA, says, “God created us because he thought we’d enjoy it.”[2]  We might as well spend our days telling God how much we do.

Before he died in 2016, Huston Smith was probably the world’s leading authority on world religions (Ph.D. in Philosophy, University of Chicago, by the way).  He said that in Arabic, the word for ‘infidel’ describes not the one who disbelieves, but the one who is unthankful.[3]

In Arabic, ‘Infidel’ and ‘Ingrate’ are practically synonymous. The infidel is not the one who gets his doctrine wrong, but the one who gets his gratitude wrong, because the infidel covers or hides God’s blessings, leaves them buried and undiscovered in darkness.

What if—what if—on the last day of history, when all the deeds and accomplishments of our lives are tallied up, the Good Giver were to hold us responsible not just for the things we have done, but for the things we have noticed? The question might be not be, “Have you achieved anything?” But “Have you seen anything?

Have you ever been undone by the beauty of life? Have you ever prayed the prayer “Why me?” Not in complaint or lament, but in bewilderment that one such as yourself should know such extravagant blessings from the first day until now.

When at the birth of a child new life comes crying into the world, or when on a village street the ginkgo trees shed a shower of saffron upon your shoulders, does the unbidden, spontaneous prayer ever leap to your mind: “Dear God, I can no other answer make than Thanks, and Thanks, and ever Thanks”?

We can’t let the infidels win. We can’t let ingratitude prevail. I know, I know, here we are again. It’s March again: soaring infections, a surging death toll, crowded hospitals full of vented patients. It broke my heart to send my colleagues home and close the church.  Again.

And yet. And yet. Elie Wiesel says that those are his two favorite words: “And yet.”

Is it dark? And yet, morning will come. Does tyranny reign? And yet freedom shall prevail. Is the virus winning? And yet, the vaccine will come. If Elie Wiesel can say that after all he’s been through, surely we can too.

Such a tough school year for our students. And yet. I watch these teachers—at AJN Preschool and Sears and New Trier—mobilize flexibility and patience and resilience and creativity, pivot this way and that.

My daughter teaches second grade. Some of her students are in the classroom with her, and some are remote, which means she teaches with a laptop, an ipad, a projector, and a document camera, so that all the students can be together in one place. Sort of. She can write it down and the kids at home can see it too: 8 x 8 = 64. Her classroom looks like Mission Control in Houston.

Crowded hospitals full of vented patients. And yet. And yet, doctors and nurses and paramedics just refuse to quit. With unyielding valor and shrewd intelligence and deep and growing experience, they save who they can and weep for the rest.

In times of plague and racial discord and political hostility, people are not always at their finest. And yet. And yet, everywhere I go I find people of inexhaustible patience, general competence, high honor, good humor, and unyielding grace. The books I read are noble, my friends loyal, the things I buy don’t break, as a rule, and once in a while even the Bears manage to eke out a victory.

One day this summer in Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, I was riding my bicycle around in the dunes. I was going up a hill—I swear it was a 55-degree incline. Jesus didn’t go up that straight when he ascended into heaven.

The sign said, ‘18 miles per hour.’  I thought, “What a strange speed limit! Why not ‘20’ or ‘25’? No, ‘18.’ I decided it wasn’t a limit; it was a challenge. I pedaled as fast as I could, but I couldn’t break ten. That sign mocked me all the way up.

But then, once I got to the top, there they were. To the west, a disc of molten gold dropping into the lake and spreading its flame across the waves. To the east, a harvest moon as big as the sun and almost as bright rising over the dunes.  The two great lights, the emperors of the sky, the sun to rule by day and the moon by night. And behold, it was very, very good.

God created us because he thought we’d enjoy it. We might as well tell God now and then how much we do.

[1]Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (New York: Random House, 1997), pp. 52–53.

[2]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), ?

[3]Huston Smith, The World Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), p. 239.