Ed Doherty, my father-in-law, Linda’s dad, died Feb. 8 at the age of 98. He lived his last years in an assisted living center. As our family sat with him in his final hours, staff members frequently came by to comfort us and to let us know much they appreciated knowing Ed.
Ed went out of his way to get to know the staff personally. He knew everyone by name, and he knew some of their children by name, even if he had never met them. And some staff members who had never met us nevertheless knew enough about us from talking with Ed that they could figure out who we were, just at a glance.
It’s not that Ed wasn’t occasionally demanding. He could grouse with the best of them, especially about the food. But he was not unpleasant about it. He didn’t treat the staff as servants or wait persons. They were friends.
I only wish that I might act with such benevolence toward everyone I encounter.
“Benevolent” is one of those words we sometimes toss around without fully taking its meaning to heart. To be benevolent is to have “good will” toward others. It’s that feeling that’s so pervasive in the Christmas season – you know, as the angels said, “peace on earth, good will to all” (Luke 2:14).
Good will is agape. It’s one of the four kinds of love mentioned in that “love commercial,” where it’s called “the most admirable” kind of love because it’s love in action. It’s love toward others not because of anything they’ve done or you hope they will do, but solely because they are.
In his book Reckless Love, which we are studying for Lent, Tom Berlin calls it lavish love. It’slavish because it’s so much more than you might expect. If love is lavish because it’s is more than you expect, you might wonder if your expectations are set too low.
Certainly in America today, our public discourse has become so corrupted by partisanship and the vicious put-down of others that we have very low expectations of how people should behave.
Pass someone on the street, and instead of a smile or a nod, you’re likely to get a glare or a snarl. Wave at someone when they drive by, and you risk them chasing you down and demanding to know what the blank you thought were doing gesturing at them.
Boy, have we got it all wrong.
One of the greatest minds of the modern era was Martin Buber, who died in 1965. One of the greatest books of the modern era was Buber’s book I and Thou, published in Germany in 1923.
Buber was widely known as a philosopher and theologian and teller of stories about Jewish life. He humbly contended that all he did was write about relationships, chiefly about human relationships with God, as shown in their relationships with other humans. If you think that sounds like Jesus, you’re right; it does.
I and Thou is maddeningly difficult to read. Buber says that’s because he wants to challenge people to think, not merely accept what he says without question. Here is one of his challenging assertions: “In the beginning was the Relation.”
Actually, Buber did not capitalize the “R” in “relation,” but I think that’s how he understands it. Buber maintains that to talk about God is idolatry. You can only talk to God.
You can’t talk about God because God is not an object you can observe. God is a subject you must encounter. To even speak of God, you must have a relationship with God, because God is the ultimate relation and the source of all relation.
All of life is encounter, Buber says. The chief task of human life is to become “holy” – that is, to have a genuine relationship with God.
Buber describes two kinds of encounter.
First is “I-It.” This is the kind of relationship you have with an inanimate object such as a tree or a chair. You can also have this kind of relationship with people. For example, when you buy something at the store, you may exchange pleasantries with the cashier, but you don’t establish a real relationship with that person.
Most of the time, you might just as well be using an automated check-out where you interact only with a machine. Your relationship with the cashier is instrumental. It’s transactional. It’s limited to the task at hand. Your encounter is brief and generally impersonal. Outside of an occasional glance, or maybe a smile, there is no genuine relationship here.
It’s different if you know the cashier from outside the store, of if you’ve done enough business with the store that you have started to form a friendship with the person. The relationship may no longer be “I-It.” It may be closer to “I-Thou.”
The chief difference is that now you experience the other person as a genuine human being. The cashier is no longer an object you encounter but someone who is a subject just like you. The cashier is someone who has a personality and a past and hopes and dreams and all those other things that define persons as persons.
The cashier is no longer an It. The cashier is now a Thou. Actually, the cashier is not a Thou but a You. When he saw the English translations of his book, Buber wasn’t happy with the King James English. He thought the language was too formal, too distancing, and put an unnecessary barrier between people. I also want to depose King James. To me, you are not a Thou. You are a You, and I want to relate to You as openly as possible.
And it is through recognizing you as a You that I become more fully myself. My life has meaning only in my relationships. “All real living is meeting,” Buber says. I can find wholeness only through encounter with You and others like You.
And the more whole I become through encounter with You, the closer I can come in relationship with God, who is the Eternal You, the Eternal Thou, the Relation who was there from the start of things.
You want to cultivate I-Thou relationships because those are the relations that give your life meaning. But you cannot live without I-It relationships.
I-Thou relationships also have their I-It moments. Imagine yourself at the Price Chopper and you’re behind a person who is having a half-hour catch-up conversation with the cashier. The Price Chopper checkout may be a time for brief acknowledgements of deeper connection, but it is generally not the place for deep engagement with another person.
If you engaged in nothing but I-Thou relationships all the time, you would never get anything done besides talking and hugging. But if all your relationships are I-It, your life would be an emotional desert. You move between I-It and I-Thou relations all the time.
I think here of Fred Rogers, host of the longtime children’s TV show “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” One of the things that made him such an extraordinary person was his ability to focus entirely on another person.
If you saw the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” you may recall a couple of times when he literally stopped what he was doing to devote his time and full attention to someone. I-Thou relations with Mister Rogers could be intense. When he engaged you one-on-one, he didn’t just give you part of himself. He gave you all of himself.
Even he couldn’t do that full-time. Perhaps no one can. Perhaps only Jesus could. Maybe that’s one of the things that attracted people to Jesus and held them by his side. Whether he was talking to one person or twelve or a thousand, there was never any question where his focus was. It was on those he was facing. It was on you.
Don’t you hate it when it’s clear that someone is paying only partial attention to you?
In the spring of 1982, I flew from Michigan to Kansas City to interview for a copy editing job at the Kansas City Star & Times. I was introduced to one of the top editors. He stuck out a hand and said, “Good to meet you.” But even as he was shaking my hand, his eyes already were moving from me to someone else, and even before we were done shaking hands, he was starting to move away to talk to that other person.
I’m sure he was busy. Fatally busy, I would say. I told myself, “I do not want to work for this guy.” I did get a job there – but, happily, not working for him or directly with him. A few weeks later, when I had started to work there, I re-introduced myself to him, and he appeared to have no memory of me at all. Why should he remember me? I was never anything more to him than a piece of furniture – job applicant, desk, lamp, same thing.
You’ve probably heard the maxim: “Use things, not people. Love people, not things.” Yet how often do we treat people instrumentally, as instruments of our will, to be used for our personal advancement and set aside when they’re no longer useful.
I’ve always had trouble at Chamber of Commerce coffees and similar events. When the ribbon cutting or other program is over, you’re all invited to mingle and network – that is, you’re supposed to make or renew contacts that might be useful to your business.
I’m terrible at this kind of networking. It makes my inner shy boy very uncomfortable. I feel like I’m walking up to someone and saying, “What can you do for me?” On the other hand, I’ve discovered that if I show a genuine interest in another person without an agenda, I can have a great conversation and maybe even make a new friend.
When you treat someone as a Thou, as a You, they most likely will treat you the same way. And isn’t that what Jesus said you should do – treat others the way you want to be treated? (Luke 6:31, Matthew 7:12)
No one wants to be treated like an It. Each of us wants to be treated as a Thou, as a You, as a valued human being and as a friend. That doesn’t mean that you must have an in-depth conversation with every person you know every time you run into them. Sometimes it’s enough just to say, “Hi, how are you?” But if the conversation moves past the superficial, be prepared to listen with both ears open.
Listening is one of the ways you love others as your love yourself. Be a good listener.
I was once in a checkout line at a Wal Mart in the days approaching Christmas. Yeah, I know; not a good time to be at Wal Mart. The guy ahead of me in line was furious about something, and he yelled at the cashier. It was not something she had done, or could do anything about, but he was mad, and she was a convenient target, so he took it out on her.
As she was checking me out, I said something about being sorry she had to endure such treatment. She sighed and said, “Some days it’s hard working at Wal Mart.”
I doubt that anything I said made her feel any better about her day. But at least I didn’t make her feel worse. A little kindness can go a long way in a world like ours. Benevolence is all the more valuable because it is so rare.
Jesus tells us not only to love God and ourselves and our neighbor but also to love our enemies. Some people seem to have a lot of enemies. In fact, the whole world seems to be lined up against them. Or is it that they love no one, not even themselves, and they are taking it out on the world by making so many others their enemies?
When we speak of lavish love, we ought to realize that it’s really not lavish at all. It’s the way love is supposed to be.
Love begets love, Henri Nouwen says. But Tom Berlin reminds us, “All God’s children have to be taught to love.” It’s also true that all God’s children have to be taught to hate. Which are you teaching to those you encounter day by day? Do you treat people like an It, or do you try to love people as a Thou? Remember how God loves you, and do likewise.
This message was delivered March 15, 2020, on the Third Sunday of Lent, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Mark 5:43-48. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, it will be the last message delivered “live” and in person until April.