After months of avoiding the hype, I finally came around to watching Avatar a couple weeks ago and its impact on me was far greater than most films I've watched in recent years. There's that particular phrase which you become familiar with throughout the movie that has surfaced again and again for me after first hearing it... “I see you.”
The significance of that statement for the people of Pandora represented a perspective that ultimately separated their worldview from the humans who show up only interested in stripping the valuable resources from their planet.
The film was a provoking metaphor and poignant reminder regarding this idea that how we see takes precedence over what we see. Before describing or making judgements regarding what we see it is vital to recognize and own our preferences and biases that cloud how we see. This important process of recognition and owning is also known as humility.
There's a song we used to sing in Sunday School growing up... “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and Yellow, Black and White they're all precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And somewhere along life's journey, unfortunate stereotypes and assumptions eventually creep in and what we see in external appearances begins to impact our judgements on whether or not an individual or certain group of people belongs.
Throughout the past several months I've developed a friendship with a woman named Kate. Kate comes around the Network Cafe on Wednesday nights with her usual bubbly and outgoing persona, but a few weeks ago something was noticeably different. She was uncharacteristically aloof and withdrawn. I asked her if she was ok and she replied that she was and just needed some extra space that evening. She obviously wasn't fine and if her odd mood wasn't evidence enough the increased sores on her face affirmed it.
Biologically Kate isn't a woman. And the sores on her already mishaped face unveil the reality that she is likely dying of Aids.
This disturbing reality caused me to wander what it might mean to look carefully and compassionately upon Kate in order to sincerely say, “I see you."? The Apostle Paul indicates in his first letter to the Corinthians that there is more to our decaying flesh and bone than meets the eye.
The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:47-49)
This points to a significant tension. In Jesus, God was proclaiming that divinity looks just like him- ordinary, smelly, wounded, in the form of brown, black, red, or white skin- in other words, human. And it's no easy task to wrap our mind around the idea that someone can exist as both human and divine all at once, but Jesus, our brother, embodied the paradox. He, like the people of Pandora, was able to sincerely look upon all shades and types of people, knowing they were made in God's image and say, “I see you.” Like he did with the woman at the well, he was able to genuinely know and express it because he was able to identify himself as not exclusively human or exclusively divine, but rather a mysterious and beautiful combination of both.
How do we move beyond the duality of seeing people as exclusively human to the place of knowing and saying, “I see you for who you really are"?
I think this has much to do with presence. Typically known as “wasting time,” it's presence with people that not only gives me the opportunity to see them for who they are but also somehow gives me a clearer understanding of who I am. It's the scandal of the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” A scandal because ironically Jesus says loving your neighbor as you love yourself IS the same thing as loving God with your heart, soul, and mind.
I know I've posted this before but this honest expression from Henri Nouwen comes to mind again...
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilige to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant or to be a part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing should't be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them. (Gracias 147-148)
Henri is a great teacher on this subject only because he was willing to explore the way of descent along with the discipline of presence. I'm slowly and stubbornly sitting with this as well as I also learn the reality of Jesus' paradoxical lesson of losing your life in order to find it. The pain of the process feels like dying and yet there's a strong sense that out there on the horizon is an emerging freedom. Freedom that only comes at the risk of presence... or wasting time depending on how you see it.