To See Ourselves as Others See Us

“Oh, would some Power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us!” Robert Burns wrote that in his poem, “To a Louse.” It’s an amusing poem, on the surface at least – about a woman all finely attired, sitting in church with her fashionable clothes and air of self-importance, unaware that those sitting behind her spot lice crawling along the edge of her bonnet. On another level just beneath the surface, however, it’s not so much amusing as alarming because it reminds us of how unself-aware we can sometimes be. “Oh, would some Power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us!” Sadly, that is too infrequently the case.

Sometimes we fail to see the humorous, even laughable, parts of our lives. We don’t see the louse crawling on our bonnet. Who doesn’t love the TV commercial featuring Charles Barkley trying to coach people about how to swing a golf club while he himself makes every conceivable motion incorrectly? He’s in on the joke, of course – but the commercial is staged as if he thinks he knows what he’s doing but, in fact, is the only person there who fails to see that he doesn’t know how to swing a golf club at all.

Years ago, I officiated at a memorial service for a person I had never met. A local funeral chapel called and asked if I would lead a service before a handful of people, none of whom I knew. One of the people attending requested that we start by singing Amazing Grace. Well, there was no organist to accompany, no choir director to lead. So, that lady said to me, “You’re a minister. You know the hymn. You lead us.” My wife often tells me, “You really need to learn to say No sometimes.” That was certainly one of those times. But I plunged ahead, trying to lead a dozen or so people in singing which, as it turned out, apparently none of them really wanted to do. We sang a couple verses, mine being pretty much the only voice anyone heard (especially since I was standing behind the microphone at the pulpit). Following the service, the funeral director, a friend of mine, summed up my vocal talents in just eight words. He said, “Talk about driving a nail in the coffin!” “Oh, would some Power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us!”

Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, and that’s always to our detriment, failing to see the humorous parts of our own lives. And if we cannot laugh at ourselves from time to time, our lives become shallow and painful. Other times, however, we fail to see the tragic aspects of our lives. I knew a man who was a textbook workaholic. He spent ten hours a day, five days a week, on the job and often went back in on weekends. He rarely spent quality time with his wife or kids, almost never seeing his children’s ballet recitals or little league ball games. The man said to me following his divorce, “I never realized how much time I was absent from them until they decided to be permanently absent from me.” “Oh, would some Power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us!”

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus with his friends, Peter, James, and John, going on something of a spiritual retreat – tradition says at the top of a place called Mt. Tabor. There they spent time in prayer and meditation. Though the disciples were not fully aware, Jesus knew that they would soon make their final journey into Jerusalem, and he also knew what was awaiting him once they got there. In fact, just a little further in this same chapter from Mark, Jesus states it clearly, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of evil men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” So, facing that reality, he took his friends and retreated to a quiet place to pray and prepare for what was about to come.

While they were there, Mark says Moses and Elijah appeared (that symbolizes the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in the life of Christ). As they talked with Jesus, the story says, he “was transfigured before them.” His face was aglow with a presence beyond his own. His very being radiated something holy and hallowed. It showed in him and through him. The words Mark wrote are similar to those written about Moses when he descended from Mt. Sinai, “His face glowed with God’s presence but he knew it not.”

If we read those passages and take them to heart, sooner or later we have to ask ourselves, “What do others see when they look at me? When they hear my words? What presence or power shows through when I know it not?”

In summers I’m privileged to preach every Sunday at a lovely seasonal chapel called Blowing Rock Methodist Church. It’s located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and only operates on Sundays from June through September. But each year, during just those four months, the church collects and distributes over $300,000 to assist the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and especially at-risk and vulnerable children who live in those mountains. A resident of the Blowing Rock community, who is aware of the congregation’s mission, said to me, “They see themselves as a part-time church, but we see them as a full-time expression of the love of God.” What do others see when they look at us as churches? Or, as individuals?

In a congregation I served years ago, I got to know a woman who literally emanated kindness. She had only made it through the eighth grade before going to work in a cotton mill. By the time she was eighteen, she was married. By the time she was forty, she was a widow with two children, both of whom she put through college. By the time I knew her, she was in her early 80s, long since retired from the mill, living in a small wood framed house less than a mile from the church. She sang in the choir, taught children’s Sunday School, was active in study and service groups, and regularly baked cakes and cookies for friends and neighbors, especially for anyone who, in her words, was “going through a rough patch.”

People migrated to her little house. Those going through their rough patches of relational difficulties or professional challenges or illness, guilt, loneliness, grief, they found their way to her – far more, in fact, than they did to any of us clergy nearby. She wasn’t a pastor. She wasn’t a trained counselor. She was just someone who cared deeply about people, and it showed. She listened patiently. And, rather than jumping in with advice or stories of her own struggles, she would say gently, “Tell me more about that.” Sometimes she laughed with folks, and sometimes she cried with them, and if they requested it, she prayed with them. She was consistently non-judgmental and just as consistently loving and encouraging. After her death, a friend of hers made the remark, “To be in her presence was like bumping into Jesus.” A humble person by nature, I’m sure she would never have seen herself in that fashion. She “knew it not.” But others knew. They knew, just by being around her, who she belonged to. Her very being radiated something holy and hallowed. It showed in and through her. In a very real sense, her life was transfigured. “Oh, would some Power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us!”

Sometimes we miss the humorous parts of ourselves – or the tragic parts – or, I suppose, even the sacred and noble parts. At the close of Mark’s story, when Jesus descended the mountain to heal a little boy with epilepsy, he didn’t say, “Peter, James, John, I want to show you how holy and loving I am.” He just practiced holiness by sharing love, much like that mountain congregation that shares its resources to help those who have no resources, or like that woman I knew who cared so deeply about people who were “going through a rough patch.” In the end, a person’s real nature always shows through.

Reading this lesson from Mark confronts each of us with a question. “What do others see when they look at me?” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of them answered, “To be in your presence is like bumping into Jesus”?

Let us pray. As your power and presence transfigured Christ, may his power transfigure us, O God, so that we may reveal his presence to others. Amen.