A human being is a creator of worlds. I didn’t realize how great this power is (or how true the statement) until one day last spring when my wife Missy and I were late for a plane in the Atlanta airport.
As we approached the TSA security checkpoint, we fought the stress and anxiety you would expect in this situation. I noticed that traffic was being directed down a narrow hallway before spilling out into the familiar back and forth, Disneyland-style queue that leads to the metal detectors. On the left side of this passage stood a stern, scowling TSA agent. Her job was to remind us to empty our pockets, remove laptop computers from their cases, and dispose of liquids totaling more than three ounces. And to hurry up – always hurry up.
I can’t believe she enjoys her job, but she certainly went at it with a will. Fixing an expressionless stare at the wall above our heads, she barked orders in a loud, commanding voice that recalled every prison guard in every WWII movie I’ve ever seen. Her commands, and the tone in which she delivered them, were obviously designed for a single purpose: to manipulate, control and “process” us as efficiently as possible. The fact that we were human beings (or that she was) did not figure into this exchange. We may as well have been cattle and her words an electric prod. Never mind that most of us had probably flown before and were at least passingly familiar with the drill. Never mind that many of us were anxious, late, and harried, our capacities for stress management worn thin after a day of packing, fighting traffic, and waiting in line. Never mind the proven fact that a smile and an offer of assistance always work better than a command and a threat of force. Instead, this agent had apparently been taught that people are animals to be processed, and every word and gesture reinforced this assumption.
You might even say that every word and gesture created a world in which this assumption became a reality. I could feel myself becoming positively bovine as I passed through the checkpoint. Eyes down, I dumbly followed orders, seeking the path of least resistance through the maze. No cow could have done it better.
But this wasn’t my only experience at that moment. On the right hand side, facing the TSA agent across the hallway with the the line of travelers between them, sat a young woman with a cello.
She was playing Bach’s cello suites, some of the most peaceful, profound, and transporting music ever written. The sublime melody rose from her instrument and filled the room with beauty. I’ll never forget the expression on her face. There was concentration there, of course, and focused attention, and an intensity that comes from doing something difficult; and yet pleasure and delight sat there too, as if she were discovering the beauty of Bach for the first time. Though she wasn’t looking at us, her face seemed to say, “Can you believe how beautiful this is? I just had to share it.”
The mixture of intelligent concentration, artistic discipline, and sheer delight in beauty spoke to me almost as profoundly as the music she played. The combination created a world just as real as the one in which we stood like cattle, waiting for the TSA full-body scanner. And just as that world was created by a word about our identity, so was this one. In creating that world, TSA said “you are animals;” in this world, Bach and the young cellist said “you are human beings, created for beauty.” In that world, force commanded us to look down and obey; in this world, beauty invited us to look up and wonder, even to worship.
They were competing, those two creators of worlds, using their God-given power of speech to define and identify us as citizens. I would not have noticed the contrast (dumb cow that I am) had they not been arrayed in battle formation, face- to-face across that airport hallway.
As she came to the end of the selection from Bach, the young woman looked up and smiled. I caught her eye and mouthed a silent “thank you.” She nodded, then stood, collected her music and overcoat, and left us in the hallway. The TSA agent continued barking orders and we continued shuffling dumbly toward our destinies. But I was a member of that world in body alone. I had been reminded of my true identity as a man, an image bearer, a living soul, and that other world, the real world, filled my heart and mind.
We are all creators like this, it seems to me. Image bearers, all of us, and part of what it means to bear His image is to have the power of speech, which is the power of making. We call worlds into being for our people every day, and we give them identities as citizens. It’s an awesome responsibility, of course, because we’re all as capable of making them cattle as reminding them of their humanity.
That’s scary to me, because I see an inner TSA agent in my heart, always struggling to get out. I am constantly tempted to use my people to get what I want out of them, to manipulate and control them, to “process” them for my own ends. But at the deepest level, I want to be a Bach-playing cellist for them instead. I want to remind them always of their identities as beloved image bearers, and to give them peace and joy instead of condemnation, command, and threat of force.
Maybe the secret is remembering who I am first. Maybe the key is hearing the cello suites for myself, over and over. Maybe the way to become the creator of a good world for my people is to remember my own place in the world brought forth by the Word Himself. As Paul says in Romans, “we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.”
On such a citizen, a world of metal detectors and cattle prods can make no lasting claim.