I am sure you remember those holiday quiz books, crammed full of activities to keep children busy; 'word scrambles,' 'join the dots' and 'spot the difference.' When it came to ‘spot the difference,’ you were given two pictures, side by side, that were, at first glance, exactly the same. But then you had to look again and sometimes you had to look really hard to notice the difference(s).
Variations of this childhood activity are those images made out of tiny dots and you are asked
what you see – an elephant or a chair? A lady with a feathered hat or a horse?
At first you just see dots, but then you look again, more closely, and you see the image. (Apparently if you are using both sides of your brain you will be able to see both the hidden images.)
The point of this illustration is that we tend to miss so much when we don’t look closely, when we don’t look again.
We miss moments. We miss surprises. We miss beauty.
We miss truth. We miss what is really there.
Pausing to look again is time consuming and hard work. We are busy. Leaning on our assumptions and preconceived ideas is a much easier default. We get used to what we quickly see and observe. We don’t bother to look beyond what we see.
This happens all the time.
In family dynamics – you relate to one another from presumed expectations. They normally behave like this so you just expect that. Conversations and judgements are based on the others’ patterns of behaviour, habits and ways of engaging.
We make that normative and we don’t expect to see anything different because we don’t look again. We don’t look closely. Such preconceived notions and presumptions often result in hurt and us missing out on developing richer and deeper relationships. After all, they always do this, say that, or respond like that, don’t they?
It is easier for us if people are one dimensional, in accord with our observations. It justifies our judgements.
In literature these are called flat characters. Characters that don’t develop, change or grow. They fit the expected stereotypes and generalisations. Characters that do develop, change and grow are called round characters.
I believe we have chosen to live in a world made up of flat characters.
That is how we prefer to see.
I remember my dad teaching me to drive. As I was driving, he would regularly ask me to comment on the surroundings we drove past. Depending on the location, I would answer: ‘shops, factories, houses, flats, trees, a park or fields.’ I thought I was quite observant.
Then he would tell me what I had missed; a cyclist, a signpost, a grandmother pushing her shopping cart on the pavement who might need a lift, or a child in the park running after their ball which could land in the road.
He taught me how important it was to look again.
In church dynamics – we love to make the church a congregation of flat characters. We have conveniently boxed pew after pew of brothers and sisters in Christ. In this way we can justify and rationalise our self-protected pride, our gossip and our attitudes. We look no further than the once off rude remark, the offense, the group cliques, the lack of hospitality or the hypocrisy and inconsistency.
Recently, conversations in our church around multi-ethnicity in churches and white evangelicalism have continued. These conversations began in earnest and with intent more than a year ago. The voices have got louder, indignation is rife and low-grade resentment is brewing in pockets in the church. We keep 'seeing' the same thing.
‘The Afrikaner in the church is always insensitive and racist.’ ‘The way we worship is only mono-ethnic and westernised.’ ‘White evangelical cultural preferences are normative, which is not fair.’
‘The black South Africans have chips on their shoulders.’ 'Black African cultural traditions are dismissed and ignored.’ ‘White privilege, injustice, etc., etc…’
Old wounds and frustrations are rehashed and held close. Each side in these dialogues becomes defensive and accusatory. Injustice and unfairness are tossed backwards and forwards like a volley ball. It is easy to find inconsistencies and offences if that is all we are looking for.
We refuse to see any change, no matter how small. We have stopped looking.
We stop trusting that God is at work. We presume the Holy Spirit is boycotting sanctification in the lives of individuals. We ignore the reconciliatory work Christ achieved on the cross. We forget that He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. [Philippians 1:6]
Perhaps we should look again.
It is only when we remove our blinkers and look again that we see
some beautiful moments, some surprises, some truths.
When we look again, we see a young Zimbabwean guy, (the victim of much xenophobia in South Africa), asked to look after five white Afrikaans children in the church. His immediate thought process is that should danger confront them, he would die for these children and take a bullet for them.
When we look again, we see a newly converted Nigerian student in the church locked out of her apartment – her keys won’t work. She phones an 18 year-old white South African guy from a family she has recently got to know in the church, because that was the first person she thought to call.
When we look again, there are twenty young adults from all different African countries in my lounge, who I have met in the church. I count them my friends – across colour lines, border lines and time lines. They have enriched my life and pushed me out of my comfort zones. I have counselled some of them and discipled them. We have laughed together and cried together. We have shared stories and insecurities. Some even call me ‘Mama Leanne.’
This has all happened in a year.
If we don’t look again, we miss these beautiful moments, these surprises and these truths.
Our enemy, the devil, doesn’t want us to look again.
But Jesus says, ‘Look again,’ because that is what He did.
He chose to look again at Zacchaeus in the tree, beyond the corrupt tax collector we would have seen, and invited him to come down so that He could eat with him. And Zacchaeus’ life was completely transformed.
He chose to look again at the wild demoniac, a pariah, left to wander the outlying caves, whom we would have avoided, and he healed him and freed him from his bondage.
He chose to look again at the women caught in adultery, judged by the Pharisees and society, brought to Jesus to be justified in their hypocritical judgement of her. Jesus saw her heart and forgave her. He did not judge her. He showed her compassion and told her to sin no more.
He chose to look again at the Samaritan woman at the well, overcoming social, racial, gender and religious prejudice. A women the disciples would have walked past. A women considered an outcast in her own town due to her many husbands and adulterous affairs. A women we would have ignored. But Jesus stops and spends time with her and offers her living water. He loves her and exposes His divine identity to her. Her life is transformed.
He chose to look again at Mary Magdalene, beyond the accusing glances of the selfish disciples, to her generous sacrifice of love in pouring perfume over his feet. He commends her.
He chose to look again at Martha and her troubled, anxious heart, and realised what she needed; the one thing; to sit at His feet.
He chose to look again at the Peter, James and John, simple fishermen, and called them to be His disciples. He taught them. Peter betrayed Jesus and yet He looked again at Peter after the resurrection and restored him beside the sea.
He chose to look again at Saul, persecutor of the church and of Christ Himself, and blinded him on the road to Damascus to capture His heart and make him see. He changed His name to Paul and sent him to preach the Gospel to those he previously hated.
Jesus chooses to look again at you and me.
He looks beyond our sinful, wretched and rebellious hearts and chooses to love us; to come to earth as a baby in the manger to die on the cross for our sins and take the wrath of God that we deserved so that we could be called co-heirs with Him; so that we could be adopted into His family.
Once our hearts have been captivated by the work of Christ on the cross,
we are no longer flat characters.
We are constantly being conformed, through the indwelling power and presence of the Holy Spirit, to the image of Christ.
When we look again we truly see.
The shepherds and the Magi looked again at the baby Jesus and saw a promised Saviour and the King of kings.
John the Baptist looked again and didn’t see an ordinary Jewish man in sandalled feet, but the Messiah, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
Peter looked again when Jesus asked him, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and he answered with confidence, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ The crowds missed that. They saw what they wanted to see – a healer, a prophet, a political leader.
May we start looking again.
Looking again is hard. It means pausing and listening. It takes time and sometimes it takes much grace. It means we have to lay aside our pride and our assumptions of others. It will probably mean covering over an offence [Proverbs 17:9], considering others better than ourselves [Philippians 2:3] and choosing to believe the best of others [1 Corinthians 13:7].
It is only when we look again that we will really see.
It is only then that we will spot the differences in those around us and in our own hearts.
Only then will we see the beautiful moments, the surprises and the work that is being done in all our hearts and lives.
Only then will we see the fruit of the divine Gardener growing. The fruit may be small, seemingly inconsequential and may take a long time, but the change and growth are promised and assured.
And as we approach Christmas Day, the most significant moment in history when God came down to save His people from their sins, may we look again.
May we humbly look beyond the nostalgia and sentimentality of the Christmas images and nativity scenes and the babe in a manger to the horror and the beauty of the cross, where God the Father turned His face away from His only Son, whom He loved, so that He could love us and choose to make us His own.
If we start looking again at those around us, we will see God growing and changing us all. We will see glorious kingdom work. The One who never changes is ever changing us and making us new. Let us not miss that in our lives or in the lives of others.
Let us stop and choose to look again.
Imagine what we might see.