Many years ago, I had dinner at a place called Windows on the World. The restaurant sat atop a skyscraper so high that the wait staff literally wore flight attendant uniforms! From the window next to my table, I gazed down on a vast circuit board of buildings, bridges, and waterways, electrified by the pin-prick lights of countless cars, offices, and homes. It suddenly struck me that every one of those millions upon millions of lights down there represented some individual, group, or family. I couldn't see their color or their class, their age or their politics. All I could see were their tiny lights—some faint or strong, some blinking or moving, some flickering out. Each light represented someone with gifts and baggage, worries and dreams, trying to make their way through life, searching for significance, love, hope, or help, as I was.
Is this how God sees the world all the time? I wondered. From his elevated vantage point—high above the grit and grime, the disputes and differences that so occupy our vision at life's street level—does God see all that actually unites us? Does his heart pound (as mine did in that moment) over the glorious beauty of humanity? Does he ache and yearn to see each one of those unique beings discovering they are not alone, finding his grace for life, finally fulfilling their promise? What do you think?
I never got to sit at that table again. That amazing "window on the world" was on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Nearly 16 years ago, it fell from the sky to Ground Zero, snuffing out thousands of those precious points of light. On 9/11, many of our worldviews changed dramatically. Suddenly, and with an intensity we'd rarely felt before, we began to worry about "the Others" out there. Behind the faces of some around us was not light at all, but a terrible darkness—a hatred and evil bent on murdering us or our loved ones and destroying our way of life. It wasn't paranoia. It had actually happened.
There was a time before all this when Americans were among the most hopeful, open-hearted people on the planet. As the inscription on our Statue of Liberty said, we were the refuge of the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." We were the people who crossed oceans to rescue others from fascism and then sacrificed to rebuild the lives of even our former enemies. We were the melting pot that fused the genius of many ethnicities into an exceptionally productive society. We might be South or North-siders, Republicans or Democrats, but we were Chicagoans and Americans first. We had a passion for the underdog, an interest in our neighbors, a zeal to see liberty and justice for all. We were never perfect—always tainted by a variety of "isms"—but the outreaching, open-heartedness of America was admired around the world, for good reason.
September 11 dealt a severe blow to that spirit. It shattered the window through which many of us looked at the world. Americans have become increasingly oriented toward protecting ourselves from "the Others," and not just the ones who are trying to kill us. We ought to be very concerned about them. Now, however, it feels like we are struggling with a generalized anxiety toward all kinds of Others. As America becomes more diverse and less religious, and the multiple generations that once shared a common life no longer do, there are just so many more Others. All around us are so many people who don't look like us or think like us or vote like us or dress like us or worship like us. Listen to the media from the left or the right these days and hear a constant diatribe about those awful, stupid, or dangerous Others.
Even as Christians, we have been profoundly affected by this. We turn inward, retreat to our echo chambers, cocoon ourselves in our safe circles—much as non-Christians do. We bury ourselves in our TV programs and trivial pursuits and consumer obsessions in much the same way. We think more about whether the song we just sang suited us than whether it blessed that person over there. We talk far more about how we can get an upper hand over those irreligious Others out there than about how we can humbly adapt ourselves to fulfill the Great Commission.
I don't think we meant to lose a God's-eye view of the world. But we've been under such immense pressure, so much change and violence. We've lost our seat at the table. Wounded and worried by some particularly bad people out there, we've found it harder to look for the light in those not like us. We've increasingly seen Others as obstacles and opponents, when—if we are Christians—we are meant to regard Others as the object of our life. This is why, at this critical moment in our country and our church, our greatest need is to again meet Jesus.
Meeting Jesus again
Many centuries ago, the apostle Paul spoke to the Christians at Philippi with a similar concern. The early church was under fierce pressure from a pagan society and a variety of social and political conflicts. Paul saw the believers losing their perspective. They were becoming just as self-focused and hard of heart as the world around them. So he wrote these words to try to restore their view.
"Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion"—in other words, "If knowing Christ makes any real difference in your life … if Jesus and his Spirit have made any dent on you …"—"then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind" (Phil. 2:1-2). Who is Paul suggesting Christians are meant to be like-minded with, have the same love as? Is it my favorite pundit, political candidate, sports hero, talk-show host, celebrity, or social network? Are they with whom I'm called to be one in spirit and of one mind? No. Whose mind and worldview are Christians called to relentlessly seek? That's right: It's Jesus.
You see, if you are a Christian, you have accepted the invitation of Jesus Christ to sit at his table and to look out his window on the world. It's a really high table and a really high window from which you and I are to learn to look at life and people in a way that is often missed at street level: that is, with radical love. We are going to experience a lot in life that tries to pull that viewpoint down—to make us bitter, prideful, prejudiced, resentful, callous, unforgiving, consumeristic, and otherwise self-focused.
But because we are with Jesus, we are to resist that impulse as if we were fighting satanic terrorism. Instead, says Paul: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves" (Phil. 2:3). And then, in case we still might not get this, Paul underlines the viewpoint again. Make sure your driving orientation is "not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:4-5).
Then, in one of the most famous passages of the Bible, Paul goes off on a riff in which he describes Jesus. He reveals Christ as so utterly committed to the best interests of the Others in his universe that he leaves his seat at the high table of heaven, gets into the elevator, and travels a lot more than 110 stories down to the earth. Though he is the God of infinity and beyond—so much better, so much brighter than everyone else—he utterly humbles himself to get close to them. He cherishes the light in them so much that he adopts their form, goes into the neighborhoods where they live, speaks their language, and becomes their servant. And to serve their greatest need—to be forgiven of their sins and reconciled with God—he gives his very life on a cross, for the sake of Others (Phil. 2:6-8).
Practices of otherward people
Do you and I get this? Do we understand, at least intellectually, that Christians seek to live in an otherward direction because that's the way God rolls? In fact, I would go so far as to say that the distinctive characteristic of Christianity is its God-modeled devotion to living an otherward life. More importantly, perhaps, are you living an otherward life? Am I? How could we tell?
Well, first of all, otherward people are outgoing. Even if they are introverts by temperament, they are willing to make a move to build a relationship with an Other. In Philippians 2, Paul describes the huge lengths to which God went to get close to others. The Gospels are constantly picturing Jesus crossing rooms and streets and boundaries to build relationships with Others. Could you and I do more of that? Could you take a risk today to reach out to someone other than your familiar circle and learn something about their interests?
That suggests a second orientation worth noting: Otherward people are treasure-seekers. They don't simply say "Hello" or shake hands or ramble on about themselves. They want to discover the story and gifts that lie beneath the surface of others' lives, so they dig for them. Read the Gospels and notice how often you see Jesus asking questions or inviting people to tell their stories, because he cares about uncovering the treasure inside of people. Do you realize how much treasure is buried out there? God does not make junk. People are amazing. Dig for the gold in them.
Thirdly, otherward people are hospitable. By that, I mean they don't want to just brush up against others; they want to sit at the table with them. They issue invitations into safe and nourishing circles. Many of you know my personal story: I was hostile toward even the notion of God and the church. But a group of Jesus-followers were outgoing toward me. I was arrogant, angry, and obnoxious, but they treated me like I contained buried treasure. They invited me into their circle. They were hospitable toward my questions and beliefs, and it made me open to theirs. Is there a widow, a stranger, a skeptic, a person on the edge of the crowd, or some Other to whom you could extend an invitation this week?
Otherward people are also empathetic. You may have heard the story of the child who was late in coming home for dinner. Asked by her dad to account for this, the girl said she'd met another kid who'd dropped a bottle of milk on his way home from the store. "So you stayed to help him clean it up?" asked the father.
"No," said the child, "I stayed to help him cry till he got the courage to go home."
Again, look at the example of Jesus. Watch how he sits with people in their pain, in their doubt, in their struggles. You can't always recover spilt milk or solve people's problems, but you can be "God with them." Find an Other who needs that empathetic presence this week. Let someone know you feel with and for them.
Fifthly, otherward people are resourceful. They work to link others with resources that can help them. I'm betting that along the path of your life have been some resourceful people who shared with you something they didn't have to. They didn't need to provide that meal or pass along that book or write you that reference. They didn't need to help you with school or introduce you to that person or give you that wise counsel. They could have kept all those resources to themselves, but they chose to look and live otherward instead. God is the ultimate example of this. He is the source of all resource. He could have so easily just lived forever in the self-sufficiency of the Trinity. But he poured out his resource for the sake of Others. When you meet someone this week who needs resourcing of some kind, what will you do?
The final quality of otherward people I want to highlight today is that they are also self-sacrificing: They are willing to pay a price to redeem the lives of others.
Nino's was just an ordinary, family-style restaurant on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan: nothing special, just a place where people from the neighborhood gathered. On a good night, Nino's might have seated 100 people.
On September 12, 2001, however, Nino's restaurant near Ground Zero opened its doors to a new clientele. In the weeks and months that followed, Nino's served 7,000 meals a day on average: 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its customers didn't pay a dime. They were New York's finest: police officers, firefighters, members of the Port Authority, FBI and CIA agents, construction engineers, and Red Cross workers, all laboring on the front lines to help their world recover.
If you went there, you might see a police officer unable to keep their eyes open a moment longer, fast asleep over their food. You might run into a 6'5" fireman on his way in, with only the tracks of tears revealing his true skin color beneath a soot-smeared face. Maybe you'd hear the accents of a church group from South Carolina coming for two weeks to wash the walls of strangers' apartments. You'd see trucks arriving from who knows where to re-supply the tables—food and drink paid for by someone else, freely given, for those who needed it most.
One September morning, evil did its worst. As I've said, it would accelerate the closing-down, the bunkering-down, the fear and hostility that still afflicts us too much in America. But even then there were people who kept on looking through a window on the world like God looks through—people who kept setting a table like the one God presides over eternally. Evil thought to make America collapse in upon itself like those great towers, but a faithful remnant of servants kept looking otherward instead. They became even more outgoing, treasure-seeking, hospitable, empathetic, resourceful, and self-sacrificing: which is to say, they became more like Jesus. And he is what our world still needs most. My question is: Will you and I, his church, conceal him or reveal him by the way we look and live in days ahead?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.