Psalms of September: A Collection
By Alan W. Dowd
“God created man in His own image.” So begins the Bible, the story of God and His creation. I was recently reminded of that penetrating truth not by a sermon or a sunrise, but by a wall of old pictures at my mom and dad’s house.
I’ve walked by them a thousand times, but on one warm Saturday afternoon last summer, I stopped for a moment to look at the collage of memories. As in many other homes, the pictures adorn the staircase, wrapping around the landing before coming to an abrupt end at the top of the stairs, just outside my little sister’s room. At first glance, it’s a typical collection––black and whites alongside bright colors, baby pictures next to graduations and anniversaries, grandmas before they were grandmas.
But I noticed that the longer I looked at the people in these pictures, the less I saw of them. In the quiet and stillness of that afternoon, their images faded away and another one emerged.
Grandpas and Sea Gulls
My eyes were first drawn to an old picture of my grandpas, their faces just beginning to smile. It almost looks as if they’re waiting for me to join in the conversation. The gentleness and wisdom and humility almost reach out and wrap around me. There’s also a tell-tale trace of pride in their eyes—the good kind of pride, the kind that a dad feels when he looks at his grown son, the kind a granddad feels when he watches his grandchildren learn and love and reach.
Below that, there’s the quintessential picture of the kids at the beach. This one’s from 17 summers and three vans ago. We’re a rag-tag foursome––my brothers, sister and I are trying to form a human pyramid. I don’t think we ever succeeded. But we had fun trying. Their smiles always make me smile. It’s one of those pictures that has an audio component to it in my memory. I can still hear their laughter against the sound of waves and sea gulls.
There’s one of Mom on her wedding day. She’s beautiful. How did I overlook that picture all these years? Her face seems as bright as the gown and flowers that frame it––as bright as it is today.
Leaning against the wall, there’s a stack of brand-new pictures, freshly framed but not yet placed. There’s one of my sister-in-law and sister-in-law-to-be, their arms wrapped around my brothers as they finish a ski trip. There’s another of my wife, with her radiant smile and crystal-blue eyes—eyes that see beyond the superficial and straight into the heart.
And hanging just above that batch, there’s one of Dad and me sitting on the banks of the old canal. I’m looking up at him as he tells a story or answers a question only a four-year-old could ask. He’s patient and certain. I feel special: Daddy is spending time with me.
Photographs have an amazing power to tell and re-tell a story, to punctuate what sometimes is lost amid words or sounds. And they take on a special significance when we consider them the way God sees us, as reflections of Himself.
To say that we see God in the faces of our fellow man is beyond cliché, but there is a profound and awesome truth in this Sunday-sermon catchphrase. It’s one of those truths that has been with us since the very beginning; it’s one of those truths that God gently reminded me of as I stared at those pictures.
I can see Him in my grandfathers’ faces. He is wise and gentle and humble, though He has every right to be haughty and distant, even arrogant and harsh. Like my grandparents, He doesn’t share His wisdom through lectures or boasts; there’s no condescension in His voice. Like them, He’s proud in a good way: He always looks upon us like a father on his son’s graduation day; and He longs to cradle us like a grandfather holding his baby granddaughter. When I visit Him, He’s never the one who has plans with someone else; He’s never in a hurry. With an expectant smile, He patiently waits for me to visit Him and join the conversation. And too often, I keep Him waiting.
My grandpas are both gone now, and this picture has taken on a much deeper meaning since their passing: They are still waiting for me to join the conversation, still gentle and humble and proud. But they’re no longer looking back from a glossy piece of paper or from the front porch as I drive away—they’re looking back from heaven.
Some of my happiest memories are the ones I share with my brothers and sister––three people who know how to laugh and love. It’s little wonder to me why Jesus so often used the language of brotherhood to convey what He feels for us: The closeness between brothers and sisters is the soil where genuine unconditional love takes root––the kind of love God’s people are supposed to share.
The love between my siblings and me has been strained and stretched over the years. It has brought great joy and intense frustration. That’s because no one knows me in the special way my brothers and sister know me. They know my strengths and weaknesses. They know what makes me tick, what makes me laugh, what makes me mad, what makes me sad. And although we push each other’s buttons and push each other’s limits, we would do anything to protect each other from an outsider.
Jesus is the perfect example of what a brother should be. He knows what makes me tick and what makes me grow. He knows me better than anybody else, and yet He still loves me. And while He pushes my limits, He never pushes my buttons. His brotherly love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. And just as a family grows with new marriages and new babies, His family grows with hearts made new by grace. Even an only child or adult can experience brotherly love through Jesus—the friend who sticks closer than a brother, the brother we’ve always had.
Solomon wrote that God makes everything beautiful in its own time. I can see this brought to life in my mom’s face on that wedding day some 32 years ago. Like a bride, God is beautiful simply because of what He is. Like my mom, His beauty comes from a loving and selfless spirit, reaching out from deep within until everything outside it is transformed.
But I should see His beauty in every face––not just the first face I saw, not just the faces I know and love. David wanted “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” all the days of his life. By crafting humanity in His own image, God answered David’s psalm before it was sung. We are beautiful in spite of ourselves and because of Him. We are beautiful––simply and amazingly––because we are reflections of Him. As Paul wrote, we are His workmanship, His poetry. And in each other, we catch a glimpse of God’s beauty.
I have always seen His beauty in my wife. But I’m triply blessed: Before she was my wife, she was a sister in Christ; and before that, she was a friend. Today, she is all of these. And so, I can relate to Solomon’s wedding song: “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes.” Of course, Christ stole it first. And as He gently knits my heart together with my wife’s, I learn more about myself, more about my wife, and more about my savior.
Finally, that wall of weathered 8x10s reminded me that each of us is special to God, just as I’m special to my dad. God is not just our creator. He is our father, our “Daddy.” And He loves us more than we know. Because of this, He is patient with us––like a father is with his new child. No matter how many times we ask “Why?” or “How?” or “When?”—no matter how much we push or probe—He listens and answers. There’s a reason Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” after he wrestled with God: Israel means to “struggle with God.” And God is not angered by our struggle, by our questions, by our search. Our questions delight Him not only because we’re spending time with Him, but because those questions are expressions of His own creativity, reflections of Himself.
God is in all of us. He’s just harder to see in some of us. It’s our choice to look for His features in family and friends and neighbors and strangers; and it’s up to us whether we allow others to see Him when they look back at us.
*Published by The Plain Truth magazine in 2003, Psalms of September is a collection of Dowd's essays on matters of faith.