Donuts Burgers Sandwiches

3 Star Coffee Shop on 86th Street and Columbus is at least as old as the era in which three stars defined the apex of Upper West Side dining experiences.

The lower line on the white plastic storefront sign promises “Donuts Burgers Sandwiches,” with unnecessary white space between the letters and each word.  When Teak and I ate there a few weeks ago—its fried sirloin fragrance and blue-purple smoke spewing from a vent to the street drawing me in—the one waiter for all ten tables wore a black silk vest over a slightly frayed white shirt, its collar dirtied but not so much that I felt it affected the food. 1980s rock hits played on the radio, a 14-inch-wide black-and-silver “boom box” with dented speakers at either end that sat on a shelf near the kitchen so the cook could hear it, too. The menu offered omelettes, burgers, and sandwiches of every variety, probably using the same eight or so ingredients in varying combinations. All day, every day. The facade of the corner restaurant is a faux brick flagstone pattern, with large picture windows facing Columbus and also 86th Street.

Teak ate his burger, fries and pickle. As he chewed, his dimples deepened and I thought he might be humming. He smiled when he saw that I was watching him, pieces of meat and bun stuck between his front teeth.

Tears at the altar

I am not Jerome Morrow.

Somewhere between discussing the new Battlestar Galactica with my brother Jim, getting un-friended on Facebook, and witnessing the wedding of my cousin Isabel, all within a span of 48 hours, I gained a new appreciation for the human race. Or at least that segment of our unique species that doesn’t un-friend me.

When Jim and I were kids in the 70s, he recalled as we drove to our cousin’s wedding in Babylon, New York, the Cylons were chrome robots with side-to-side roving red eyes and a deep-pitched humming that riveted your 12-year-old eyes to the tube, waiting to see what Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck would do to save themselves and the060609.Mirovarda42 others. Now, apparently (for I have not watched an episode of the new series, only heard Jim’s reports and logged onto the show’s website), some revamped Cylons look more like Miss California. On top of that, Jim mentioned that at least one expressed her “faith in God” and her “place in God’s plan for humanity.” The show’s Executive Producer went so far as to suggest in a blog that the Cylons represented an Al Qaeda-like group, but if you read their lingo, especially Number Six’s, it sounds more like that of an evangelical Christian.

Now before you get to snarky comments about theistic blonde robots, let me get to my point.

Jim: “So, this episode brought up the whole question about, ‘What does it mean to be human.’”

I considered Jim’s question as I drove past exits to Lindenhurst. My brother and I have discussed faith issues since college, and while we disagree on some key aspects, he is probably one of the more thoughtful and gracious debaters I know.

“Well…” I ask, “do you think faith in God makes us human?”

“I think that it is one thing that can make us more human, yes.”

We agreed on this. Nevertheless, I wanted to go a step further. I wasn’t quite sure if I knew the territory I was entering, but as I said, Jim is gracious.

“Well,” I said, “what we know from the Bible is that God created humans with his image—the imago dei. The image of God. We don’t know whether the angels have this quality—the Bible says that we are made ‘a little lower than the angels’—but it’s unclear whether this means they had the imago dei and more, or something different altogether. What we do know is that humans are alone among creation in having the image of God, at least according to the account in Genesis.”

Animals and plants and rocks are beautiful, some are sentient, and some capture our hearts, like Karen’s dog “Bruter” did hers. However, they don’t have eternal souls as some belief systems posit, again, according to the Hebrew Scriptures. This can be a tough issue with some, especially when dealing with children who, when they ask whether their dead pets have gone to Heaven, it is usually best to answer, “Sweetheart, would you like to go out now and buy that Xbox we said you couldn’t have last week for your birthday? No…no, you don’t need to change out of your pajamas.”

I suggested to Jim that it is this imago dei that makes us fully human and makes only us human, and not other species, whether below us in the food chain or above. For while it is conceivable that a robot could obey an unseen Master out of “faith,” trusting that she should do so because the Master is her “Lord,” it is also apparent that pointing to faith—active or inactive—as the key indicator that makes us human (again, Jim suggested only that it was one of many indicators) leaves the comatose patient, the unborn baby, and atheistic recidivist criminal out in the cold. For me to argue that my faith defines me as a human immediately separates me from those groups above and unwittingly gives me rights to treat them as less than human. However, if I make the imago dei the litmus test, then indeed I cannot treat anyone—no matter what state they’re in (unborn, comatose, or terrorist)—as less than human. Each has dignity, and my first responsibility—whatever my ultimate action—must be to decide my interaction with them based first on their status as reflecting God’s image. The reflection may be but a glint from a mirror shard, but it is a reflection nonetheless. The imago dei is nothing that I choose for myself; it is what God chose for me. Whatever violence I do to myself or others must be done with the realization that I do it against this divine image and, therefore, against God.

When my friend un-friended me on Facebook because of a video I posted that offended him, I didn’t think about the image of God. In fact, I couldn’t at first put my finger on why I was so angry or upset. I am slowly realizing, though, that my friend was looking at me as a collection of beliefs and actions—things that largely I am in control of—rather than as a person. Follow me for a minute. My beliefs and actions matter: if they are truly hurtful, then I need to turn from them and seek forgiveness from those I hurt. But I am more than my beliefs and actions. I assume that while this friend un-friended me and effectively eliminated me from his virtual world—a world, I must admit, that will be a whole lot less funny without me and will contain fewer links to the Wall Street Journal and Red Sox news stories on his home page, if a little less offensive—this same friend, if he saw me lying comatose in a hospital bed, would never in a million years pull the plug out of hatred for my beliefs. That’s because of the person I know him to be and also because I as a person am made of more than my beliefs and actions. He and I, further, have a common history that spans from 1985 roughly to 1990. Similarly, you can’t suddenly call a family member “not family.” You can disinherit them, a legal action, fine. If you’re on Law & Order: SVU, you can say, “I don’t know you anymore!!”—cue the music—to indicate your intention never to sleep with the lover who turned out to be a longtime serial murderer and hid it from you all these years. But you can’t un-realize a relationship that exists in reality because of certain biological facts that will remain true no matter your actions. Note that in war, it is always observed that one side must “dehumanize” the other side in order to kill them. They must look past the beliefs and actions of the enemy and negate even that which transcends these controllable qualities. They must, in fact, deny that the imago dei exists in the enemy in order to have the ability to kill what is “less than human.”

So I’m sitting in the pew at St. Joseph’s church in Babylon on an unexpectedly sunny Friday afternoon watching the groom Billy walk up the aisle before my cousin Isabel does, and I am not thinking about being un-friended, Battlestar Galactica or the imago dei. Rather, I watch as Billy walks forward in his blue-and-white stripe seersucker suit, navy bowtie, and tan-and-white saddle shoes. He gets about even with my pew and his face becomes more flushed. Behind his glasses he’s squinting and begins to cry. His smile, while maybe a bit forced, is forced because he seems to want to cry more than he feels allowed to with some 150 onlookers. Like he’s trying in this beautiful church to uphold a convention of being held together, controlled, stable, solid. “Manly.”

Isabel starts up the aisle. She is…resplendent. Her face is calm. Eyes set toward the altar, occasionally she glances into a pew to smile at a friend or family member. I long to have her catch my eye; I want to grasp the joy that she now feels, the ineffable union of two people who make promises to stay together no matter what. I recall my wedding day with Karen in March 1997. There at St. Joseph’s it is a moment in which many of us transcend our workaday worries and gaze into the imminent union: we leave our pews and are at that altar, staring into the eyes of one who wants us forever, who will love us despite ourselves.

At the end of time, I believe that Jesus Christ—called “the bridegroom” in Scripture—will watch his people—“the bride”—come to him and there will be an eternal wedding resulting in a forever marriage, and somehow I can’t imagine that he will weep at the sight of us. We are not worthy of his tears, for we have done so much to offend him. And deny him. God’s tears offend my sensibilities: that the Author of history would care so passionately about such seemingly insignificant characters. God’s tears challenge my sense of self-worth: that an All-Powerful Creator of the Universe would stoop to become involved with a flawed creature like me. It seems un-right. Until you realize that we have something in us, about us, governing and defining us, making us who we are no matter what we do, which nothing else in creation has. The image of God.

God is re-capturing and grafting in that which is god-like. God weeps joyfully when there is re-union and bitterly when there is separation. For what is lost is eternal.

As, too, is what’s found.

photo: Mirovarda42