We see what we are prepared to see


The first time I went to visit my college girlfriend’s family, I got lost. So lost that I was at the other end of the state by the time I was certain I’d missed the turn, and I had to turn around, go back, and try to navigate things differently on the way back. This was in the days when calling from the car was much less of a thing - so by the time I got there, my girlfriend was worried out of her mind. It was like a movie… albeit less because of the plot, and more because my border-to-border round trip took all of about 97 minutes start to finish.

You see, the state I was driving in was Connecticut, along the north-south corridor, and my directions from her family had been “when you get to Litchfield, go right on the other highway”. She and her family couldn’t believe it had taken me all the way to New Haven, 40 minutes south, to know that I wasn’t in Litchfield anymore and that I’d missed my exit onto “the other highway”. “You go to Litchfield and turn right! How can you get simpler than that? How can you miss it?” They asked.

But the sign didn’t say “you’re officially in Litchfield; turn right on this state route.” It just listed a highway number. And I was from Ohio, where just like in Missouri, you can absolutely spend 45 minutes on the highway all in the same metropolitan area. So I missed the sign.

The sign was there, of course - I just didn’t see it. When they saw the sign for State Highway Number Go This Way, they knew it was the sign for home. When I saw it, I saw a random highway number, with no mention of Litchfield whatsoever. I didn’t understand that *this* was the sign that was pointing me to *that*.

It’s funny how often we see only what we think we’re looking for, and how easily we miss the signs that might set us on the right path.

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, John tells us - and his disciples believed in him. (For reasons passing understanding, the CEB translates this in a way that makes it sound like he’s been doing signs for a while and this was his first Cana sign, but most other translations and the general scholarship understand it to be his first public sign overall, and that it simply took place in Cana.) Jesus did his first sign, revealed his glory - and his disciples believed in him.

The Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us, and got baptized by John the baptizer, and told some people ‘Come and see’ and they followed him and became his disciples. And then he turns water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana as his first public sign, and *his disciples* believed in him.

Not the bride and groom. Not the wine steward. Not even the servants who had drawn it from the jars, who we are told definitely knew where the wine came from. His disciples. 

In other words, the strong implication of the narrative is that it was a powerful sign to those who were already following him, but only those who were already looking to see a sign from Jesus end up seeing one. As hard as it seems it would be to miss a sign as clear as changing water into wine, or even a miracle of “whaddya mean, I didn’t save the good wine for last”, there’s a lot to suggest that most of the people at the feast just thought the host was being delightfully quirky in keeping back the better wine for later, and that the invitation of that sign was mostly just to keep on drinking even after all the wine has already been drunk.

I don’t think that was quite the glory that God’s sign was meant to point to.

But we see what we are prepared to see.

This itself was a lesson I didn’t see nearly as clearly until about a year or so ago, when we started looking at how our overwhelmingly white community here could fit unconscious bias training into the same year as we were focusing on discernment of the future. Because these two things appeared in front of us at the same time, we needed a way to tie them together, so we decided to frame the unconscious bias training as a part of our learning about discernment.

It was honestly not until we had already coupled the two that I was able to see the absence of this conversation in most of the discernment work in our church. In the twenty or so years I’d been involved in conversations and practices around discerning questions like “where is God calling us next?” “what is God doing in this situation?” “where do we see God in this?”, not once had unconscious bias been assumed to be part of that conversation.

And yet, once we joined the two, once we heard ourselves saying - and meaning! - “we believe that we will be better able to see and hear what God is showing and telling us about the next phase of our life together if we first take some time to learn about where our blind spots might be and where we might not think to look” - it has become one of those signs I cannot unsee. I hope and intend never again to teach or practice discernment of God’s action and guidance without noting at the outset the ways that our answers to those questions of where we see God can be limited by the places we are willing to look, and where we are willing to look is inescapably bound to how well we know where we subconsciously might not be looking.

We see what we are prepared to see. And what we are not prepared to see, we mostly miss. Even a sign as clear as Jesus in the flesh changing water to wine at our party, we mostly miss if we will not see. It’s one of the most consistent themes throughout both Scripture and history: God is doing a new thing, and we are still looking for the old things.

Of course, not all discernment, not all looking, happens in a yearlong community setting like ours did last year, where we could do official training as a part of it. So in our everyday lives, as individuals and communities and societies, how do we learn to know and see the signs God is doing beyond where we expected to see them?

I don’t think there’s an easy, plug and play sort of answer to that, but I do think there are some tools that can help us with this work, and today I want to highlight two sets of practices in particular.

Among the lesser read of Dr. King’s words, separate from his speeches and sermons, there are a set of 10 commandments for the nonviolent movement, a commitment card he created in 1963 to guide those who were ready to dedicate themselves to the civil rights movement. They read as follows:

I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:

1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

2. Remember always that the non—violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.

3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.

5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.

6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10.Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.

I learned these rules from the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, who pointed out also how remarkable it was that the first commandment of Dr. King’s movement of nonviolent action was to meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.  Not everyone in the movement was a Christian, but for those who were a part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for those in the civil rights movement who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus, the first commandment was to look at Jesus, again and again and again. And as Jesus said of the scriptural commandments, all the rest of Dr. King’s commandments also follow from the first one: the life and teachings of Jesus show us what it looks like to walk and talk in the way of love, to be used by God in order that all might be free, to refrain from violence and commit to courtesy without reconciling oneself to the status quo of the world.

And it is also from Bishop Curry that the second set of practices come, a set of practices that may well be inspired not only by the Bible but by Dr. King’s commandments: the Way of Love. If you are a dedicated Episco-geek, perhaps you’re already familiar with the Way of Love, which Bishop Curry introduced this summer at General Convention as a set of practices for the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, and which will inspire our Bible studies for this semester. They are equal parts simplicity and challenge, and they move in a repeating cycle: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest, and turnabout again. 

We turn from what the world wants us to see and look to Jesus. We learn, as Dr. King asked, from the life and teachings of Jesus, as well as the rest of Scripture - and from other sources, but always from Scripture. We pray, opening ourselves to direct relationship with Jesus. We worship, seeking God especially at the table where Jesus showed us this new sign of grace. We bless others, sharing with others both the ways we have seen God ourselves and the resources we have been given. We go into the world to pursue justice and to see what signs God is doing outside our own comfort zones, outside the places we have already encountered God. We rest, knowing that this looking and seeking and acting is the work of a lifetime, and that we need regular refreshment of body and spirit if we are going to make it through this life and this world.

Look at Jesus. Look at his life. Look for his presence. Look for his glory. Look for opportunities to show Jesus to others, and to see Jesus where we never expected. Rest, rinse, and repeat.

We see what we are prepared to see. We miss so much more that we never look for. So I invite you to consider, this weekend as we honor Dr. King, where you find it easy to see goodness and grace and glory in the world, and where you do not. Sit and wonder why you find it easy in some places, and difficult in others. Meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus. Ask yourselves if there are places and people in whom it has simply never occurred to you to look for that goodness and glory. And then find one place to make a new start. One place to look for a new sign. One entry point you maybe never noticed to step onto the path of following Jesus. See what happens from there. 

Elizabeth Scriven