Ah, yes, “back to school” time, when parents reclaim a little independence after two long, hot summer months of offspring overload, and congratulate themselves for upholding the sixth commandment: “Thou shall not murder.”
When you’re a little kid going off to school, everything gets labeled with your name so it will find its way back home: your lunch box, your jacket, your backpack, your shoes. My mother used to reach down my throat and label my internal organs in case any spilled out on the playground.
By high school, there’s a whole other type of labeling going on: “He’s a nerd.” “She’s a goth.” “He’s a jock.” “She’s a prep.” I was a cross between a nerd and a jock, so my friends called me a “jerk”, which they explained was an affectionate way of combining the two labels. Looking back, I didn’t have quality friends in high school.
Anyway, we humans seem to have a need to label people as a means of figuring out our own place in the social food chain. And it doesn’t really stop as we get older. It happens among teachers in the staff lounge as well, not to mention business offices and –gasp!—churches. “She’s a diva.” “He’s a brown-noser.” “She’s a gold-digger.” “He’s an Episcopalian.” You know. Mean things like that.
Labels tend to devalue people. But sometimes, in the wrong way, we overvalue some people too. The tabloids at the supermarkets show how obsessed we can get with celebrities, placing them on a pedestal simply because they’re famous, or rich, or beautiful.
True story: A friend of mine knows a woman who, years ago, was in an ice cream shop when actor Paul Newman walked in. She got all excited and flustered watching him stroll up to the counter as she bought her mint chocolate chip cone. She finished her purchase and turned to leave, getting one last eyeful of the Hollywood legend. Approaching the front door, she heard his voice: “Excuse me, Miss.” The woman assumed Newman was talking to an employee and so didn’t turn around. She opened the shop door and he spoke again, “Excuse me, Miss!” This time she turned around. Paul Newman was looking at her! Paul Newman was talking to her!
“Yes?” she said, in a trembling voice filled with awe. A hint of a smile played across Newman’s face. “You put your ice cream cone in your purse.”
Best example of “star-struck” I’ve ever heard.
A little awe of another human being can be a good thing, but it needs to be spread around to everyone equally. By that I mean that each of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made”, according to Psalm 139. We are but “a little lower than the angels”, the Psalmist states elsewhere, “crowned.. with glory and honor” (Psalm 8). Each of us has been created in God’s image (Genesis 1). What would the world be like if we acknowledged the spark of the Divine in everyone else around us? How would today unfold for you if, for each person you encounter— friend, family member, co-worker, classmate, stranger, the only label you give them is…“God’s image”?
I encourage you to try it. Think of it as a spiritual assignment. After all, no matter how old we get, God’s always got homework for us.
Class is in session.