Over Labor Day weekend we traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to visit good friends from seminary. We had a great time, partly because our daughter Robin is best friends with their daughter, Mary Bentley. They had a blast playing together, except when they didn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I heard: “I’m sorry, Robin.” And “I forgive you, Mary Bentley.” “I’m still your friend, right Robin?” “I’ll always be your friend, Mary Bentley.” If only we adults could so easily forgive and play on! (And for the record, these idyllic exchanges required quite a bit of parental prodding.)
It’s true that we adults have a harder time getting over the troubles between us. I can tell you a story about that. David was the room scheduler for a nonprofit I used to work for, and it was always a pain to work with him. I can’t even tell you exactly why — it may have been that I first picked up a negative energy on his end, but maybe he could say the same thing about me. Frustration slowly built between us; I struggled against this feeling, I didn’t want it to exist, but it did. And then I had a big conference that I needed to get on the calendar, and it was going to take some time working out the details with David, and I was dreading it. I prayed a lot about it. God helped me see my own part I was playing here — that I wasn’t following the procedures in a way that was most helpful for David. God helped me see that my actions could be experienced as quite annoying from David’s perspective. So I started out our meeting with an apology, and an acknowledgement of the tension between us. Relief seemed to stream across his face — and he even started to cry, telling me that his marriage was falling apart, it seemed like nothing in his life was in control, and work was all he had that was stable and predictable. He needed those procedures now more than ever! Our relationship didn’t flower afterward — in fact, I continued to feel frustrated with him for many of the same reasons, but I had some more compassion for him, too.
How do we love one another? St. Paul insists that loving each other is “all” that we have to do as Christians. We know that. But how? The love we Christians aspire to looks and feels different than the world’s ways of relating together, especially in times of conflict. God knows we need help figuring out how to actually do this. There’s someone I think who has some helpful insight along these lines: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian martyred by the Gestapo in the last days of World War II. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer, following his denomination’s tradition all the way back to Martin Luther, starts out with a simple truth, God bless him: we are all sinners. We are all sinners trying to live out our lives side-by-side anyway, bumbling forward in the night. So we need God, with the help of Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection, to reconcile us to God and each other, to light a right path for us to follow.
Okay, you might say. I can handle that. That’s just a bit of straightforward Christian theology. But what Bonhoeffer shares next surprised me: what if we consider that Jesus Christ stands between us and that other person, that person we’re supposed to love but can’t quite figure out how? Christ stands between each of us, Christ is the mediator of our relationships. Does that change anything for you? It means, according to Bonhoeffer, that we’re invited to see one another how Christ sees him or her. That’s fine, you might think. That sure sounds nice! But how do I know how Christ sees other people? I’m not even sure how Christ sees me!
Let’s try an experiment. Close your eyes. I’ll give you a few moments to call to mind someone who drives you nuts. Someone you can’t avoid interacting with on some sort of a regular basis. A relative, a co-worker, the guy at the post office, you name it. As this person comes to view in your mind, what do you feel? Some frustration perhaps? If you do, you’ve found the right person!
Now insert Jesus between you and this person. No, not as a referee desperately holding you back from a fight — no, Jesus is on the cross between you. Suddenly you find that you and the other person are sharing a sacred space at the foot of the cross and Jesus sees you. How does Christ see you now? How does Christ see your neighbor? As Bonhoeffer puts it, we see our sister or brother “under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in [her] that repels us falls away; we see [her] in all [her] destitution and need.” And we feel our own destitution and need alongside. (If you haven’t already, you can open your eyes now.)
This prayer exercise is worth practicing. I know I try to do it daily. Praying for those who frustrate us, anger us, who have a knack for distracting us from Christ’s call to love one another, praying for those folks may be the most important thing we do spiritually every day. You’ll be impressed by the power this practice has to transform your relationships with those who bother you most. And you’ll be amazed by the amount of spiritual energy it takes to keep this practice up day after day; but it sure beats the amount of energy we spend being frustrated, or worse, with one another.
Though I wish I could tell you otherwise, praying for those whom you find most difficult to love is hard, hard work with no cheap miracles that might lessen the effort involved. Reconciliation requires a lifetime of returning to the foot of the cross, seeing ourselves and others as Christ sees us, as imperfectly loving human beings made in the image of a perfectly loving God. No expression of contrition to a co-worker will turn us into best friends and no apology and forgiveness between three-year olds will preclude the next fight five minutes later. But maybe as we work at this through prayer we’re strengthening our compassion, our overall care for one another.
But what if there are those in our life that don’t just annoy us but rather they haunt us? In the quiet of night, when you alone are tormented with more profound past wounds inflicted on you by others, trust the foot of the cross as a starting point for healing. Reconciliation may not be possible. Forgiveness may take a lifetime. Christ sees you in your suffering and knows that suffering as his own.
And how sad it is, but real too, when these more profoundly broken relationships occur within the church! How are we to live out Christ’s love for each other amid such pain? The fact is, loving each other as Christ loved us is difficult, painful work.
I pray that our compassion may be widened and strengthened, that we may redouble our efforts to ensure that our relationships are borne out of and carried forth in love, Christ’s love. See us, Jesus, see us and have mercy upon us!
Jesus sees us always with wide eyes of compassion, we impossibly infuriating human beings who are always deserving of His love. Give us, oh Lord, such compassionate eyes, so that we may see those around us for who they are: your children ever deserving of your great love.
The Rev. Colin Mathewson
this text has been modified for publication