Turn on the lights, I can’t hear you.” My little brother used to remind my mother of this on early winter mornings when she was waking him up for school. My brother is profoundly hearing impaired and in the early morning, without his hearing aids in his ears, the only way for him to understand our mom’s marching orders was to read her lips. Hence, without the lights, he was in the dark in more ways than one. Sometimes I feel like I, too, am listening in the dark. I want to hear and understand, but somehow I know I am missing really important parts of what’s being said.
I confess that at times I find this role of editor a disembodied one. I write these 700-word editorials and then send them out in print and in pixels. I get a few emails in response. More often there are comments on Facebook or the website. I read them all. I respond to emails. I obsess over the comments. I wish the word count allowed more flexibility so that there could be more nuance in my writing, but that really isn’t the problem. The problem is that, like my brother in the pre-dawn hours, I can’t see your face and you can’t see mine and therefore we can’t truly understand each other.
This is symbolic of a lot of our communication in the church and in our culture. It is disembodied, faceless, partial, frustrating and alienating. We simply do not see each other and therefore we cannot begin to understand one another.
Writing in the New Yorker following the mass shooting in his home country of Norway, Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote, “The most powerful human forces are found in the meeting of the face and gaze. Only there do we exist for one another. In the gaze of other, we become, and in our own gaze others become. It is there, too, that we can be destroyed. Being unseen is devastating, and so is not seeing.”
James Baldwin knew this well before Knausgaard, writing in 1962 in his essay, “Down at the Cross.” He wrote about giving up all hope of communion, “Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so it seemed then and has sometimes seemed since, to get through a life, to love your wife and children, or your friends, or your mother and father, or to be loved.”
The psalmist knew it, too. “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.”
Being seen, regarded face-to-face, is to exist, to be known, to be saved and to love and be loved. It is to hear and be heard. It is to be understand in a way that fosters intimacy and maybe even reconciliation. It is embodied, words made flesh, communication — though too often this kind of communication is absent.
Every year I commit to reading “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and this year the following sentences jumped out at me: “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”
His face, transformed through prayer, is now my brother and no longer strange and intolerable. 1 Corinthians reminds us that now we see in a mirror dimly and only in the fullness of God’s time we will see face-to-face and be fully known. In the meantime, we are called to pray for each other trusting that when we do, the light of Christ illumines our darkness and we are able to see more clearly one another’s faces and perhaps truly hear each other, too.
Grace and peace,