Written by Faith Cheng
I was not able to be in the Midwest for the annual MEANS Retreat, which takes place over Labor Day weekend, usually at a beautiful retreat center and involving ample potluck-style food. Fortunately, as most MEANS operations have moved online during this season, I was able to enjoy the fellowship of other volunteers and to participate in the MEANS Retreat 2020 virtually from the West Coast. Though we did not break bread together, our fellowship was blessed by Ate Melba Maggay, founder and Executive Director of Institute of the Studies of Asian Church and Culture (ISACC)
(Ate, pronounced AH-teh, is an honorific for referring to “big sisters”), a beloved friend and colleague of Ate Lina Padilla’s. Ate Melba shared from the Word of God an encouragement to all the MEANS volunteers, which I think will be an encouragement to you too.
“What you see is what you get” begs the question: are we seeing what we need to see? This is how Ate Melba began her sharing with us. Jesus says in Matthew 6, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” Given the stakes, what is it that we are seeing, and are we seeing what really matters?
To continue elaborating on the question, Ate Melba walked us through Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (not the one who rose from the dead at Jesus’s command — this is a parable from Luke 16). The rich man, a character who happens to remain unnamed throughout this parable, lived in abundance and splendor, while Lazarus begged outside the rich man’s house for surplus from the affluent household. In Jesus’s parable, both men die and we glimpse their afterlife: the rich man enduring fiery torment in Hades, while Lazarus ascends to comfort and honor. In response to this reversal of station, the rich man sent for Lazarus, that “he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue.”
“Old habits die hard,” Ate Melba mused with us, “Even in Hades, the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him.” I wondered at the divergent paths that led each man to such contrasting destinations on the other side of death. As the audience and readers of Jesus’s parable, we do not see the rich man actively oppressing Lazarus, nor do we hear of Lazarus actively leading a righteous life. Nevertheless, a closer look at the passage highlights to us the rich man’s sin of omission; or, what he failed to do. To him, Ate Melba observed, Lazarus was scenery, a fixture at the gate that the rich man had grown so accustomed to, he no longer saw.
Continuing the theme of comparisons, we turned our attention to the God of Seeing, through Hagar’s story in the Old Testament (Genesis 16). Mistreated by her mistress and neglected by her master, Hagar the Egyptian slave flees back to Egypt, to safety, to home. On her journey through the wilderness, by a spring of water, Hagar is found by the Angel of the Lord. Hagar’s encounter with God reveals to her a new name for God: “Thou art a God of seeing” or “The One who sees me and cares for me.”
God sees our condition, declared Ate Melba. He alone knows the full extent of what we suffer, a seeing that responds to the plaintive song of a spiritual: “nobody knows the trouble I have seen.” I was reminded of Psalm 139, where David sings, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me…You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” Beyond seeing us with His perceptive eye, the Lord recognizes us, empathizes with our weakness (Hebrews 4), and moves towards us with utmost gentleness: “A bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42). How we long for such tenderness in our hurting, in our disappointments, in our loneliness!
Once we have come to know our God who sees, and have been healed in our relationship with Him, let us ask God to enable us to see what we need to see. The reason we need God’s eye-opening grace is that, as William James so eloquently put, “We have no eyes but for those aspects of things that have been labeled for us.” We all selectively perceive, even in our reading of Scripture. We must entreat the Holy Spirit, asking for the sight to think about the things we don’t normally think about. Ate Melba encouraged us to grow our spiritual practice of Listening Prayer and Silence, for in God’s presence, “when I am speaking, I cannot hear.”
We serve a God who sees — who has eyes for those who feel alone in their affliction. Many have suffered during this COVID-19 pandemic, especially those who died alone in hospitals with no family present in their hour of death. Families in grief do not have the consolation of friends sharing in their bereavement beside them. The elderly feels isolated. And among the poor, the lack is even more amplified: many are without livelihood, no food to eat. Ate Melba urged us to reflect: what do we see? To what need is God opening the eyes of our heart?
To those of us who do not yet see the hurt and need, let us remember that God sees, and longs for us to see.
To those of us who are feeling hopeless ourselves, let us remember that God sees all the trouble we are in, and moves towards us.
To those of us who see the pain of the world and are feeling helpless, let us remember that God sees, that He moves, and that He moves us.