Made in God’s Image, Imperfections and All
He shall speak for you to the people; and he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.
– Exodus 4:16 (RSV)
You can spot ’em a mile away. The glint in her eye, the look on his face, the eagerness to lock on the target: that target would be me, rolling along on my scooter.
Here they come, looming over me, blocking my path. “May I lay my hands on you and pray for you?”
I am a Lutheran pastor, ordained after career work in media, nonprofit management, real estate, and disability-rights hell-raising. So my would-be “healers” seem surprised when I respond that, actually, I’d like to pray for them.
It can happen almost anywhere, to me and countless other disabled people: on the street, at the mall, even in shops and markets.
What they see is a person with a disability, in dire need of healing.
They probably imagine my life as a life not worth living.
They’d be wrong, of course. I am approaching 70, but don’t look it. I am a Lutheran pastor, ordained after a long and varied career in media work, nonprofit management, real estate, and disability-rights hell-raising. So my would-be “healers” seem surprised when I respond that, actually, I’d like to pray for them.
You can see them take a step back, “What? This person with a disability pray for me? Uhh, no thanks.” Often they hem and haw and slink away.
Why are they so surprised, or even horrified? After all, just like them, I am made in God’s image. God finds a place to be in this earthen vessel.
When we think of God, do we see an all-powerful, perfect force? Or rather the One who was wounded for us, the weak and vulnerable one who died a victim of a justice system gone wrong?
When Moses shies away from God’s invitation to be God’s spokesperson, God doesn’t take no for an answer.
“But I have a hard time talking,” says Moses.
“That’s OK, your brother Aaron can be your mouth and you shall be to him as God. I’ll tell you what to say and then you tell Aaron and he’ll speak for you.”
It was no surprise to God that Moses had a hard time talking, and yet Moses was the right person for the task. What’s more, God had already figured out the necessary reasonable accommodations that Moses would need to be successful.
Disability or no, God selected Moses. God is fine with Moses—the one with the speech impairment—representing God to the People of God.
If only the church saw the image of God this way.
The average churchgoer never hears this story. It is not in the Revised Common Lectionary. There are many disability stories that are read, however—for instance, John 9:2, “Who sinned, him or his parents?” In my experience, and you can try this out for yourself, people remember the question, but rarely the answer. In 9:3, “Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’”
What is God Like Anyway?
When such churchgoers see someone with a disability, do they immediately see someone who might reveal God at work?
What is God like anyway? What does it mean to be made in God’s image, as opposed to making God in our image?
Why did God choose Moses and spend so much time talking with him? We know that people are hired at work because the employer feels comfortable with them, they hire people like themselves. Could it be that God has a difficult time talking and enjoys being with someone who takes the time to listen to God and understand God? We seldom think about God having a speech impairment, but what does God sound like anyway?
In 1 Kings 19:12-13 (NIV), Elijah heard God’s voice. “After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” Is this what God sounds like?
Heaven’s Post-it Notes
We think of God having a perfect memory, but in Genesis 8:1 we read, “But God remembered Noah…” What do you mean, “God remembered Noah”? How could God forget Noah? God asked him to build the Ark, load up all the animals, and get ready for a big rain. What do you mean, “God remembered Noah …”?
Then a little further in Gen 9:16, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Many believe the rainbow is to remind us of the covenant, but really it is a way to remind God of God’s covenant, kind of like tying a ribbon around your finger.
While we are thinking about God’s memory, what about Isaiah 49:15-16 (NIV)? “I will not forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands …” So if we were not engraved on the palms of God’s hands God would not remember us? This verse conjures up visions of Heaven covered with Post-it notes—important things that God must not forget: “Let the sun come up.” “Rain is good, not too much.”
Is this why God forgives us unconditionally, because God doesn’t remember? God only remembers God’s love for us.
So what does it mean to be made in God’s image? God likes to be in control. God can be angry, frustrated, jealous, vengeful, forgiving, loving, reasonable, lonely, caring, generous. God enjoys spending time talking with a friend who has a severe speech impairment and is friends with someone such as Adam who doesn’t know the difference between good and evil. And yes, God has a hard time remembering things. God is forgetful.
“Acquainted with Infirmity”
In 1975, when I first approached my Episcopal bishop to say I felt called to the priesthood, he replied that I was short, overweight, handicapped and female. Forty-four years later I was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. How often are those with disabilities denied acceptance into the ordination process by institutions that cannot see how someone with a disability could possibly represent God to the People of God?
Yet on Good Friday we celebrate the one who has borne our infirmities, and we account him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. Every Good Friday every mainline Christian denomination reads Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Is anyone listening?
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
Are people hearing what I’m hearing—how Jesus is like me, a person with a disability? If they were, we would be extending a radical welcome to people with disabilities, celebrating disability. We wouldn’t be quibbling about accessible bathrooms or where “you” can sit or if “you can enter our church.” We would be creating an atmosphere of welcome and belonging because we would understand that you and I are made in God’s image. “All are welcome” would be more than words.
Our Best Selves
What would the world look like if we understood God in this way? What if we truly believed that we, in our imperfect selves, are truly made in God’s image, God’s powerful self with all its frailty and creativity? We would be free to be our best selves with all of our imperfections—with all that we are, made like God, claiming our power to do greater things than Jesus did, but never aiming for an impossible-to-be perfect self. We could get on with being the people God created us to be.
If we understand that God is not perfect (according to our human conceptions of perfection), we don’t have to aim for a perfection that we are incapable of achieving, that not even God possesses. And maybe that is the point. In all our imperfections we are made in God’s image.
The Rev. Cyndi Jones is Associate Pastor at Clairemont Lutheran Church (ELCA) in San Diego. Formerly the publisher of Mainstream Magazine, she is also the Pastor for Disabilities Ministry in the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
 See Speaking Out: Gifts of Ministering Undeterred by Disabilities, edited by Robert L. Walker (CreateSpace Inc, 2012), which is a collection of such stories.