Mark 8:22-25; Matthew 20:29-34
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.
These are the great commandments, foundational to both Christianity and Judaism. They are the great truths, in varying words, of nearly every religion. We talk about love all the time. And yet, at times we still wonder, ‘How?’ We know the commandment to love, but how do we live it? We live in a world where these are the great commandments, yet it is not a world operating on love.
This is the big question of our lives, especially as a church. We are gathered together in order to live love, to put love into practice in a way that outsiders, and insiders for that matter, recognize. Jesus called this “being the light of the world, a city set on a hill that cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14). And, “by this will all people know that you are my disciples – if you love one another” (John 13:35). John goes a step further saying that God is love, and that wherever love is, there is God. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7)
Okay. Love. I get that this is the essence – of God and of our practice. But still, I am left with the nagging question, ‘how?’ Even Jesus implied that this was the key: “Do this and you will live,” he told the inquirer. Like Nike, “just do it!” So why don’t we? Why isn’t life operating by love?
Love is complicated. I think that each of us, when we use the word ‘love,’ we know what we mean by it. And we assume that the word means the same thing to the people we are addressing. But I have learned that this is not the case. Imagine for a moment your first experience when you knew you were loved.. Remember the moment. Recall where you were, what you smelled, felt, heard. For many of us this may be associated with our family of origin. Or it may have been a pet, or even an experience in nature. Be in that moment for a minute….
How did you know you were loved? The first knowing of love becomes an imprint on our souls, deep and fast. It becomes like DNA coding to help us recognize love and stays with us all our life. But imagine how different these experiences might be. For one person, it may be the look in a father’s eye of pride and delight in you. For another it will be mother tucking you in at night or reading a story. For another, the big brown eyes of the family dog, deep with pure acceptance. Yet for another, it may be the apologetic hug of remorse after being beaten by a parent. For another it might be gently helping a drunk parent to bed.
Our DNA coding for love is different in each of us. Some of us have healthy first experiences; many of us do not. For some people, pain and love become associated in their soul. A mixed message they have to live with!
And even if we are capable of great love, our world does not operate on this standard. Often because we do not know how to love the other, the one who is truly different from ourselves. Our family, our beloveds – sure – but the stranger, or the one who lives a life we do not approve? We don’t know how to love these, whom Jesus calls the least of these. The ones we look down upon, or discount, or even fear.
Given all the varied experiences and understandings of love, how can we practice love in a way that changes the world, in a way that begins to make love the operating force of life? This was the key question behind a new book by Paul Schroeder, Practice Makes Purpose. His first sentence is: “This is a book about how to love.” We are going to investigate together for the next season how we can learn to love, using Schroeder’s book as our guide.
The first and foundational spiritual practice of love, according to Schroeder, is Compassionate Seeing. So I thought about Jesus’ practice of restoring sight to the blind. It was something which characterized his ministry. In this story of Mark’s, people bring a man to Jesus and ask him to touch him. So Jesus led him by the hand out of the village. He puts saliva on his eyes, and asks if he sees anything. Yes, the man replies. I see people, but they look like trees walking around. And Jesus put his hands on him a second time, and this time, he began to see everything clearly.
I have my guesses about what was going on here, but they are only guesses. Taking him by the hand and leading him gave the man the experience of love as physical, gentle, taking time, touch. No hurry here. Jesus put saliva on his eyes. We know this is something humans do – like a mother who wets her handkerchief with her spit and cleans a child’s dirty face or scraped elbow. Saliva was also known in the ancient world to have healing qualities. This may have been Jesus acting as a regular healer. Maybe others had tried this with only partial or temporary results. But when Jesus touches the man’s eyes a second time, without any human healing element, just direct touch, the man’s eyes opened and he saw clearly.
Is there something we can do so that we can see clearly – each other, our world? Is there something we can do which is like this second touch? Schroeder points out that the lens with which we view a situation controls what we find. We find what we are looking for, most times. Judgments keep us from seeing clearly.
The blind man may have been in a place of judgment, thinking: ‘this will not work, it never has.’ Or ‘It is kind of embarrassing to be on display this way, all for nothing.’ He may have been judging Jesus along with all the other healers. Nothing had ever worked, so this wouldn’t work either. His eyes were closed by his judgment.
We do this all the time. Schroeder tells the story of Ned. He talks too loud, laughs too loud, and it is really annoying. We assume Ned has a big ego and must get all the attention. Even his wife has to yell at him at the company party to get his attention. We create a story that Ned is always interrupting people, talking over them, all to draw attention to himself. In our annoyance, we don’t even consider an alternative narrative. Then, a few months later, Ned shows up to work wearing hearing aids. It turns out that he has been slowly losing his hearing for years and now the doctors had found a device to help him. It turns out that we had made assumptions, made up a story that we fully believed, without considering what it might have been like to be in Ned’s shoes (p. 11).
“Our story is not THE story. There is a greater reality, a larger picture of which we see only a small part” (p. 21). We are the blind one in the story. We are the ones who do not see clearly and are in need of another touch, a Spirit touch, a Jesus touch, to bring things to clarity.
The discipline of Compassionate Seeing can be that second touch. Compassionate Seeing is taking a conscious pause, to recognize our judgments and our life experiences as blinding us to the unique and separate experience of the other. The second touch, or pause, to clear our judgments and pre-conceived notions, can clear our sight, so that we no longer see all humans as like us, but their uniquenesses, their particular stories and gifts become apparent.
So, what is Compassionate Seeing? How do we do it? Fortunately there are clear steps we can take.
Compassionate seeing is a moment-by-moment commitment to viewing ourselves and others with complete and unconditional acceptance – no exceptions. WHAT?! Complete and unconditional acceptance?, we protest. For the worst of our world and our community? For the loud Ned’s of our lives? For the people who destroy the environment, live on our streets, or voted for the wrong candidate?
Feel resistance? I can’t possibly accept everything! Some things are simply unacceptable. Remember that acceptance is not synonymous with approval, nor agreement. Accepting something doesn’t mean I have to like it, nor does it mean I have to think it is good or right – those are just as much my own judgments as bad or wrong. Rather it is an acceptance of reality, what is. It is another way of being fully present in the moment with whatever life offers.
Complete and unconditional acceptance. The reality is that our judgment doesn’t change ‘them.’ And it only causes us to suffer under our own anger, annoyance, or even fear.
There are two basic movements to Compassionate Seeing. First, we stop our story and recognize the difference between ourselves (our stories) and the other. We can remind ourselves that the other person has a completely different story than we do, has experienced life completely differently. Thus their perspective, and their decisions are naturally different from our own.
Then the second movement of Compassionate Seeing is to make an imaginative leap. Cultivate curiosity. Make a conscious decision to imagine yourself into the experience of the other person. Put yourself in the other person’s place and ask, “I wonder what it is like to be you right now?” If someone is rude to you, if a mother is not controlling her fussing child in the store, even when you see someone dump their trash out of their car onto the grounds of your favorite National Park, stop. Take a breath (always a good idea). Then ask yourself a question like, “I wonder what kind of day that person is having? What sort of pain in their life might cause them to be so disregarding of others? And if that doesn’t work, try seeing that person as a young child and wonder what experiences of their childhood brought them to this point? These questions change your perspective and allow a moment of grace to shine in. Nothing may change, but you will have had the opportunity to release your own judgment and to imagine a new way of interacting. At least you can free yourself from your own suffering!
One more thing: Compassion is not a feeling. It means “to experience or suffer with.” It is a conscious choice, an action. Not a feeling. The same is true for love. We can practice it. And anything that takes practice, takes time and assumes some “not so good” practice sessions. I remember some of my piano practice sessions. It must have been hard on my Mom, trying to make dinner with all that racket! I can see that now. But also, as a practice, we get better at it the more we do it. It will probably feel awkward and forced at first. But keep trying. Keep a journal of how you are doing.
Don’t do it just with strangers either. Use the practice of reminding yourself that the other is not you and then imagining what it might be like to be them. Do it with friends, family, your church family.
On your bookmark is a “mantra” to use to help you remember this practice. For compassionate seeing, the mantra is: I accept everything I see. Don’t let the word mantra scare you. It is simply a powerful phrase you can repeat out loud or in your head as a way to focus your intentions. Take an extra bookmark and tape it to your mirror or refrigerator.
Jesus gave the gift of sight all the time. This practice of compassionate seeing is a spiritual practice to improve our vision. Seeing a bit more like God might see the people God created – with love, acceptance, and open-armed grace. You have received the grace. Now we are called to practice giving it.
I accept everything I see.
See Practice Makes Purpose: Six Spiritual Practices that Will Change Your Life and Transform You Community, by Paul Schroeder.