Monday, February 7, 2011

Seeing People

Last post I showed how Jesus' teaching on prayer in Matthew 6 gives us two instructions about prayer: (1) We can and should seek from God in prayer what he says our true needs are in life. (2) The Lord's Prayer directs our way and teaches us what our needs are as the people of God. But even before reading that passage a last week, God has begun to show me that a real need of mine is to learn how to love others better. "To love one's neighbor as oneself is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33).

With this in mind, I borrowed a copy of Paul Miller's excellent book Love Walked among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (NavPress, 2001). In the first several challenging chapters, Miller unpacks several stories of the Gospels to show that love is active compassion.* But compassion cannot be aroused without stopping our own agendas and putting aside our prior values, beliefs, and judgments to consider others' situations. All throughout the Gospels, Jesus is mentioned as "seeing" or "looking at" people in need. "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matt. 9:36) (For a few other examples, see Matt. 9:22; 14:14; Mark 10:21; Luke 7:13; John 19:26-27.)

Seeing someone isn't just collecting aberrant light rays reflected from them. It's taking the time to understand who they are, what their story is, what they're feeling in their situation, and what would make them feel valued and loved in that moment. It's putting yourself in their shoes so that are able to treat them as you yourself would wish to be treated.

I immediately realized how in any given day, I'm generally aloof to a lot of people in my world. A few weeks ago when I went out to lunch with some colleagues, the restaurant manager stopped by our table to ask how our food was and if we needed anything. I paid her little attention, only to later realize she was the mother of one of my students! I felt really stupid.

But God has been good, too, to show me little opportunities to widen my horizon each day, to see that my world's population is more than just one. At Walmart, of all frenzied and God-forsaken places, I actually stopped to watch other people shopping. When babies cried and kids acted up, or people dressed like thugs spoke in some incomprehensible slang, instead of my usual modus operandi of criticizing them I pondered to myself, I wonder what his life is like? What's her story? I bet those parents are just trying to get by and do the best they know how. It was freeing. I took my time at Walmart. I didn't mind waiting in line, even offering a few brief prayers for a few people. I was even blessed to see a few of my old students from last year, who said hi and gave me a hug. And while I am pretty bummed that my wife has had mono for two months, putting myself in her shoes during her illness has made me a lot more cheerful in picking up chores around the house and aware of what she does for us on a daily basis.

Where do you find yourself agenda-driven, self-concerned, and racing through life, unaware of those around you? Who are you quick to judge without first trying to learn why they think and act as they do? If, in starting to see others, do you thank God that right now you might not share in some of their plights? And when you see people with problems in life, do you spend more time thinking about how to fix them, or in talking with them to understand their experiences and perspective? These are all questions I've been forced to reckon with as I do my feeble part to follow Jesus.

* * *

To love one's neighbor may be better than all burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mark 12:33). But sputtering, on-again, off-again neighbors with mixed motives such as I have good news. Jesus himself not only showed how to love, but demonstrated for us the greatest act of love the world has ever seen. The eternally existent Son of God didn't remain in heaven to judge, but himself entered our unloving world to call us his unlikely neighbors and family. He saw the ravages and strain of sin through our own eyes. But because he too saw with God's holy eyes, he was able to enter and bear our own suffering in a way we never could, by giving himself as an offering and sacrifice on the cross to atone for all our self-absorbed lovelessness and to plant a new power for love within the hearts of those who will dare to trust and follow him. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13; see also 2 Cor. 5:14-15, 21; Heb. 10:1-14). Truly love walked among us.

*I honestly feel so challenged by subtle ways I shortcut love for others that I think I'm going to have to read this book twice: once to learn from Jesus what love looks like (or doesn't look like), so that I can be humbled and guided, and again to let Jesus look at me and love me, the loveless bum of a sinner that I all too often am.

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