Have you ever noticed that church members tend to do the same things during each service? You have that one guy that starts nodding off halfway through the sermon. The lady who’s just on fire with everything the pastor says. The kid who’s reading his Bible through the whole thing, even when the speaker isn’t reading a Bible verse? That last one was me.
As a kid I had a few favorite parts of the Bible that I would read every Sabbath during the sermon. Occasionally I would sneak a few glances at Song of Solomon, carefully making sure my parents weren’t reading over my shoulder. I often read through God’s lengthy monologues in Job, but my favorite verses were the ones about super humans. These were people who God had granted abilities beyond the average human being of the time. I read the story of Samson in the book of Judges, how he pushed apart the pillars of a building with his hands. I could tell you the incredible feats of David’s mighty men in 2nd Samuel. There was Benaiah, who the Bible calls “a valiant fighter”, who struck down Moab’s two mightiest warriors. 2nd Samuel 23:20 says he went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. This same guy got in a fight with -and it really says this in verse 21- a HUGE Egyptian. The Egyptian had a spear, Benaiah had only a club in his hand, but Benaiah snatched the spear from the Egyptian’s hand and slew him with it!
I loved my Bible superheroes. In fact, I had a great love for most superheroes. I used to hide Spider-Man comic books beneath my desk at school and read them when my teacher wasn’t looking. I loved the concept of people who could do things beyond what the average person seemed to be able to. I spent hours daydreaming about what it would be like if somehow I could be like them one day. I wished so badly that I could help save people from pain, that I could be brave and powerful and protective.
And then there was Jesus. There was something different about Jesus. He did all these amazing things- healing people with leprosy, bringing the dead back to life, converting water into wine- but there was something else about Him that I wrestled with. There was some hidden aspect of Christ that was more incredible than the rest. He had a way of looking at people that I did not understand. In fact, no one around Jesus seemed to understand it either. He spent time with all kinds of people that his society hated. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He spoke kindly to a Roman soldier- a man who was part of the empire that was oppressing the Jewish people. He touched people who had leprosy. You see, Jesus had X-ray vision. He had the ability to look through all of the social boundaries, all the political drama and physical attributes, directly into the heart of the person in front of Him. We can’t push down buildings like Samson. We can’t fight off huge enemies like Benaiah, but Jesus has given us ways to access His X-ray vision.
So what is this X-ray vision? It sounds like a medical term right? Or something from Superman? For the purposes of this sermon, I’m going to define X-ray vision this way: X-ray vision is the ability to see someone else’s humanity.
As we live our lives we have bad experiences that tend to build up over time. Maybe there have been several times where people have messed up your order at a restaurant. Maybe you drive a lot and people keep tailgating you or cutting you off. The truth is, sometimes people are rude to us. Sometimes people hurt us and don’t even know it. But if we aren’t careful, we can allow these experiences to start building up in our heads. We start going into restaurants expecting our servers to fail. We start getting mad at every little mistake other drivers make, or projecting our frustrations onto entire groups of people. Most people I’ve spoken with have entire groups of people they start resenting. For some, it’s based on whether you are liberal or conservative. For other people it’s racial resentment or frustration with people of a different age group. Over time we start viewing other human beings as less valuable than ourselves. Think about it for a minute. Who makes you uncomfortable? Who do you feel is your opposition?
Jesus didn’t have time for resentment. He showed his disciples what it truly meant to “love your neighbor as yourself.” He presented them with a model so against their ideology that they were constantly confused by him. He loved- regardless of whether someone was a Samaritan or a criminal or a pagan or a widow- regardless of race, accent, social status or personal hygiene. All of that was just dressing, decoration. What mattered to Christ was the person living underneath of all of that. X-ray vision. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
Maybe you’re sitting there wondering right now, how can I overcome this in my life? How can obtain this X-ray vision?
Number one: ask more questions. The greatest obstacle to empathizing with other people is thinking that you know how their life works. We need to be curious instead of pushing our own agendas. Sharing our opinions is great when it’s done in love, but a huge part of understanding others comes from listening to them. Let’s take a look at this in action. Luke 2:43 says, “After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.” So from an early age we see this dynamic at work in Jesus life, this curiosity about other people. As we continue reading through the gospels, Jesus actually does this pretty often. When he sits down at a well to talk with a Samaritan woman in John 4, he doesn’t just go in and start telling her things. He fosters trust and conversation. He took an interest in her life.
The second way we can build up our X-ray vision is found in James 1:19, 20. It says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” Do we even remember this verse when we’re faced with people that annoy us? I believe that we should practice what we preach. I’ll be the first to admit I am an incredibly flawed man, but I’ve taken some opportunities here lately to put this advice into action. Try it this week and see if it works the same way for you as it has for me. When someone comes to you with an opposing political opinion or starts taking their frustration at life out on you, try being quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to become angry. See if you can find a way to ask the other person where they’re coming from. Why are they angry? What’s stressing them out? If it’s politics- what fears and assumptions are they working from? If we assume that other people are just unreasonable it’s pretty hard to build a relationship with them. It’s what shuts down our X-ray vision and keeps us from understanding what’s going on with another person.
And the final piece of the puzzle- continue your relationships outside of the debate. The more experiences you have with a person, the easier it is to see through their individual actions and into their heart. One of the most saddening things I’ve seen here lately is relationships just torn apart by people who make the debate- the argument- more important than their relationship with another person. Don’t stop talking. Keep asking questions. Keep learning and experiencing life together. Nearly every Sabbath my family gets together after church and talks about our lives and our worries. We have three entirely different age groups participating in the conversation- my grandparents, my parents, and my wife and I. We disagree all the time. We each have an entirely different way of viewing the world, and sometimes it’s really hard to hear each other out. But there’s one I always know- no matter how different our opinions are, we will come together again the next Sabbath without animosity. That’s a gift, folks. When you spend time with another person, when you deliberately try to get to know them, when you look at life through their eyes instead of your eyes- that’s when you have super powers.
Ok, I have X-ray vision. Now what? Actress/comedian Amy Poehler once said “If you can speak about what you care about to a person you disagree with, without denigrating them or insulting them, then you may actually be heard.” There’s room for your opinion as you establish relationships. If you’ve spent time listening and asking questions, people are a lot more likely to reciprocate. Then is the time to share your own ideas. It’s what Jesus was doing as a kid in the temple- asking, listening, then sharing.
Why is this important? In a 2008 issue of Ministry Magazine, Pastor Daniel Harrison wrote, “Once people experience the power of empathy, they will spread it amongst themselves, showing an example of functional interaction. People will be drawn to Christ as they see how those who take His message seriously live out His love. If empathy can become a habit in our churches, the differences once deemed insurmountable will fall. Not that conquering such differences will come without great toil, but those who have seen its healing power will be willing to endure the necessary strain and potential for hurt. Eventually, our churches can unite, and we may see God’s kingdom work powerfully in the world.”
We have a couple of major obstacles standing between different people groups right now. A big one we talk about in the Orangeburg SDA Church is age. Frustration and tension between age groups has always been something people dealt with, but we live right in the middle of an incredibly transitional period in history, and it can make it really hard to talk to each other. When it comes to racial relations for example. Many of my fellow church members were adults when it was still illegal to marry outside your own race in South Carolina. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage. For those of us growing up in the 90s and 2000s that seems unreal. We weren’t there for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches or the Civil Rights movements of the 50s and 60s. Many of us didn’t experience what it was like to go to schools that didn’t have several languages being spoken around us or different religions represented. We live in entirely different worlds.
Technology is another huge obstacle when it comes to communicating between generations. I belong to the very last generation that grew up without regular internet access- the last generation to remember before smartphones and Facebook. And the generation behind me? They’re starting college. I can’t overemphasize how much technology has changed youth culture. The words we use, the attitudes we form, the information we work from and the things we think about can be so incredibly different that when we start talking to our older brothers and sisters we can feel lost. The world is changing so quickly that some are even saying Generation Z- people born between 1995 and 2010- may be the last generation we talk about. In his book, “Meet Generation Z”, James Emery White says “The speed of culture, in which change can happen in a day, will make speaking of generations and their markings obsolete. ‘Tomorrow will be less about what difference a generation makes, but more about the difference a day makes.” That’s why this idea of X-ray vision, this ability to look through all of that into the heart of another person is so important right now. We have to ask questions. Not only do we need to be mentors to those younger than us, we also need to swallow our pride and allow them to mentor us. What if, instead of each of insisting that our way was superior, we started learning from each other instead? Imagine the healing and vibrance we could bring into our church. Imagine how different your world would look if people were just interested in listening to you and getting to know you. We can help make that happen. We can’t change the world all at once, but we can change our world in every interaction we have.
There’s a lot of fear out there right now. There are a lot of people saying a lot of things that hurt each of us. We can’t stop bad things from happening. But we can, each one of us, be a beacon of hope to the people around us. And if there’s one thing that will make you brave, it’s understanding. You see, the things we fear the most are the ones we don’t understand. You want to be less afraid? Ask more questions. Learn more about the people you fear. If we could have this empathy, this discernment, this X-ray vision- the world would be wide open to us. It’s such a rare thing to meet people who can truly see you for you, that when it happens you don’t forget it. So let’s try it. Let’s go out there and show people what Jesus’ love looks like. Let’s get to know them. Let’s stop being so afraid that we might taint ourselves and start making a real, positive impact on the lives around us. Let’s be superheroes.