Who is someone you have thought critically of today? A person or two you have looked at with disdain or disapproval this week? I invite you, pray a blessing on those people. What happens (to you)? Years ago, I thought critically of the pastor of the church I attended. He was a good orator, but often appeared to make up the sermon as he delivered it. He led us in making plans, but not in carrying them out. I could go on, but the point is I had a list of critical thoughts about him. I brought them to church with me each week. Seeing him through the filter of that list made it hard for me to see anything else about him. I had a hyper-sensitive radar to his negative attributes. It was a critical feedback loop. My growing disdain and frustration became a barrier to experiencing positive things that he and the church had to offer and also a barrier to my involvement in the church. My friend and mentor, Doug Frank, suggested that each week at church I imagine the vulnerable hurting little boy within the pastor. (Just as Doug had previously led me to think of the little Mark Baker within me.) What happened? I still had critiques of things the pastor did or did not do, but the starting point was compassion. The filter changed. I saw him differently.
How might it change our days if we wrapped every thought about another person in a blanket of blessing and compassion? How might it change our interactions if blessing and compassion were our starting points? How might that help us live out a centered approach to church? I will say more on that in a moment, but first a few thoughts about God. How might it change our concept of God, our experience of the God we live with, if we knew, in the depth of our being, that God looks at us through eyes of blessing and compassion?
For many, to hear the words, “God sees into the innermost parts of your being” provokes fear. If the peering eyes are unkindly ones, the fear is appropriate. Roberta Bondi, in her memoir, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (great book!) describes a turning point in her relationship with God and Christianity. Through reading one of the early desert monastics she realized, “that only God can judge us because it is only God who can look with compassion on the depth and variety of our individual experience and our suffering, and know us as we really are” (78). God looks at you with eyes of compassion. Rest in that thought for a moment. Imagine Jesus looking at you—looking not just at your actions, but probing with understanding at the roots of those actions.
Having the God revealed by Jesus, the God described by Bondi, at the center is a key element in the difference between the character of a centered church and a bounded church. It is not, however, just because of how it changes an individual’s experience of God. Emphasizing relationship with the center includes the biblical imperative of seeking to live in conformity with the center, to imitate Christ. Deepening relationship with Jesus calls and enables us to view others with compassion. That too will change the character of a church.
Would you like to be part of a church community filled with people like I was with their radar set to highest sensitivity for others’ shortcomings, or with people like Doug Frank who look at others with eyes of compassion? A critical posture feeds a bounded approach. Looking critically at others enables me to feel a sense of superiority. Even if not done consciously, it is an over-and-above move. What happened when I looked at the pastor through different lenses? Thinking compassionately about his hurts and wounds was a leveling move. It was not pity; I too carry wounds. It put his actions that I was critical of in a new light and led to different thoughts about what might bring change in his life.
How about fuzzy? Note that Bondi does not say that the turning point was realizing God does not judge. Doug did not suggest I ignore the pastor’s shortcomings. Experiencing tolerance feels better than a critical unkindly eye, but tolerance is also less than blessing. A fuzzy approach could compassionately understand why a person acts as they do, but would stop there. It would be hesitant to take the next step. It would not seek to use that understanding to work with the person for change. Is that full compassion? Is that naming?
Let us look at others with eyes of compassion and prayers of blessing.