“Seeing and Believing” 4/15/18 by Karen Weisgerber (click on title for audio)

Seeing and Believing:  UCW Sermon 4/15/18

Karen Weisgerber


You gotta see it to believe it!

Maybe some of you have seen those videos of an elderly man approaching local kids at a skate park asking to try out the board.  They reluctantly let him, and very slowly he rolls a bit.  Hesitant and cautious, he pushes a bit more.  Kids around him laugh, make jokes, take pictures.  He falls, and some gasp.  He gets back up and tries again, and we hear mockery in the background.  And then, he takes off.  Stunning runs, jumps, flips of the board –and you see the faces of the crowd transform into amazement.  More gather, iPhones come out, videos are made and all are in awe.  When he stops, the crowd erupts with applause.

Man – you got to see this to believe it!

But what do you need to see? (in actuality, it was a prank).

Initially they saw foolishness, frailty, incapacity, difference – which they associated with “old.”  Then they saw power, capacity, excellence exceeding even their own.  He was not different, but one of us – and even better.  Their belief system was shattered.  They didn’t simply end up believing what they saw, then ended up changing what they believed.

We don’t just believe what we see – what we believe shapes and defines what we see.  If we believe we are seeing frailty, we will continue to see it.   If we believe someone is weak, or lazy , or underserving, we will see it  And unless our beliefs are shattered, we will continue to amass information that confirms our viewpoint.

Psychologists call this the confirmation bias.

The human mind is a meaning-making machine, constantly processing vast quantities of information.  This requires creating patterns of information so we can quickly determine if something is familiar or new, safe or threat, good or bad.

In this unconscious process, we over-attend to some details and disregard others.  We often treat much information as familiar because familiar information is easier to process, something new or different requires a bit of a shake up to the system.   The result:  we are all biased in our thinking.

The most well-meaning, good intentioned, and caring person – you, me, our friends, the ministers – we all carry biases in our heads.  It’s the human condition, and really not new news.

These are more studies than one can shake a stick at about these biases – you’ve probably heard of some.  There are the ones that take the exact same resume and submit it to highly regarded HR personnel.  Same exact qualifications, yet a 50% difference in being called for an interview based on if the applicant’s name was John or Jamal.

Or studies on the sentencing phase of capital trials.   We know what there is a disproportionate number of convictions for persons of color – but what about after the conviction?  At that point, when we are looking at sentencing of blacks, race is no longer a factor.   In cases where the victim was white and the defendant black, the sentence itself was associated not with the nature of the crime, but how stereotypically black that person looked.  Being sentenced to death wasn’t about the crime you were charged with, but about just how black you looked.   And this from jurors who vowed, perhaps even on a bible, to be fair.

And then there are the little things, like the study finding that women and people of color wait just a little longer for their double latte at Starbucks than white men.  No joke.  Do you think the barista in Waban or Greenwich Village or Los Angeles thinks they are slightly preferring white men?  I doubt it – but they are.

So, whether it is conscious or unconscious, we tend to see what we believe, we tend to be somewhat biased in those beliefs, and act accordingly.  Then there’s the whole issue of what we don’t, or don’t allow ourselves, to see at all.

We know this happens all the time.  I remember some years ago I cut my hair from midway down by back to a cute, short cropped above the neck style.  A long time client met with me just after the cut and said,  “Is that a new shirt?”  And just the other day, in front of Stacy, so God as my witness, I said to Alex, my husband, “How long have you had that beard?”

It happens all the time, but not always in such seemingly innocuous ways.   It is amazing what we can allow ourselves to not see.   In a famous study at Harvard, people are shown a video of a basketball being thrown around, and asked to keep track of how many passes are made.  They do a great job – turns out most of us can count.  What more than half the participants miss is that a person dressed up in a gorilla suit saunters onto the court, stops for a moment and beats his chest, then saunters off.  A big black gorilla, in the middle of a basketball drill, beating his chest.  Not only did more than half not see it, they also said they couldn’t have missed it.  Because they believed they were watching basketball – and that’s what they saw.

What’s the cost of not seeing?  Aren’t we just simplifying our information processing?  Maybe. But I would also argue that at stake is a piece of our humanity.  It’s not just gorillas we don’t see

Last month our family had the pleasure of spending a few days of our school vacation in Venice.  It was memorable indeed, yet one memory has haunted me.  As we walked in St. Marks square, sloshing in boots in the high tide, smiling and snapping pictures, lining up to see the grand Doges palace, I spotted a elderly homeless woman sitting hunched over along the walkway, head down, holding up a cup with such frailty.  I looked away.

I know we all have seen many homeless people on the street and know there is much work to be done to provide support, resources, and housing. But what hit me and haunted me is that I instantaneously looked away.  It was too painful in the moment for her to be real for me.  Too much of a juxtaposition to the laughter I was sharing, the moments of discovery and joy in this new and magical place.  It hurt too much in that moment to be reminded of how difficult life is for so very many people.  I – who would put my hand on a bible and with conviction say that part of my purpose in life is to be of service – I looked away.  And in that moment of not wanting to know another human’s pain, I lost part of my own humanity.  How easily it happened.  That is what haunts me.

So, we tend to see what we believe, biased in those beliefs, and we tend not to see many things, particularly those that disturb us.

And it gets more troubling from there.  Because  – as I mentioned – we tend to take in information that confirms and reinforces our beliefs biases, not that which contradicts them.  It turns out it’s hard to change your thinking, even if you want to.  Harder still around issues that have an emotional charge, social or peer support, or personal history.

And here we stand today, in a world pretty divided – certainly the most divided and divisive of my lifetime.   Everything seems emotionally charged.

Tensions are at breaking points in almost all areas: race, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, physical ability – you name it.

Words themselves have become so charged that we can’t say Democrat, Republican, Immigrant, Sanctuary – without assuming great polarities driving us farther and farther from each other.

What we are seeing – depending on your beliefs, is criminal Mexicans, whining women, abusive men, advantage-taking poor folks, deranged leaders, corrupt politicians, second amendment radicals, justice being served.  We all watch intelligent newscasters, which happen to support our views, and enjoy talks with like-minded friends.  We’ve got it right – and those others, how dumb or deluded can they be?  Don’t they see what is going on?

So what do we do, because right now things in the world – no, things right here – are a mess.

Are we lost to this widening divide?  Are we lost to what is human in each other, and what keeps humanity within us?

Some of us might be as fortunate as John Newton.  Like those watching the old skateboarder, his beliefs were shattered, and he saw anew.

Newman, a wealthy slave trader, was on a vessel carrying slaves to the new world when a deadly storm hit.  Survival itself was a question.  And at that moment, it wasn’t slaves and traders on that ship, it was humans, fellow humans.  What he had not allowed himself to see or know came crashing down upon him.  Newton, a non-believer, prayed.  All survived.  Newton subsequently left the slave trade, studied Christian theology, and then wrote Amazing Grace as testimony to his now being able to see.

We all won’t be so lucky to get that kind of wake up call.  So what do we do?

One of the great benefits of getting one’s hair done at a salon is the abundance of magazines to peruse while you wait.  Annie Gatewood and I share the same hairdresser, and Annie put me on to an article that just appeared in Oprah.

Derek Black, an avowed white supremacist, son of a man who runs one of the largest hate group websites and godson of David Duke started off college just fine.  When you know who is right and who is wrong, that’s easy.

“His beliefs: that black people were more likely to commit crimes and had lower IQs than whites, that Jews controlled media and finance (and unfairly “defamed” Hitler), that immigration and affirmative action were leading the country toward a “white genocide.””  Oprah Magazine, April 2018

And when folks on campus got a bit disturbed by this, emotions flared.  Amid the swelling tensions and calls of who should throw whom off campus, an orthodox Jew had a different idea.   Invite Derek to dinner with a diverse group of people.  And Derek went.  For two years, weekly, Derek went to dinner.  Depending on how you look at it, this was a gathering of racists or naive liberals, breaking bread together.  And they became friends.  Gained insight, saw each other.  Not a Jew, a friend.  Not an immigrant, but Juan.  Not an unyielding white supremacist, but Derek.  What they believed about each other changed, and so did what they saw in each other.  Derek did ultimately renounce his connection to the white supremacy movement – not because he was forced to or shamed into it, but because his humanity could no longer allow it.

During this election campaign and after the votes were in, my extended family became engaged in negative and bitter conversations on Facebook.  All of us are from the same coalmining family that relocated to work in the steel industry in Pennsylvania.  And we have all had different roads from there.  We grew up playing in creeks together, catching crayfish and salamanders, attending each other’s weddings, baby showers, funerals for parents, spouses and siblings.  We were family – now sharply divided by beliefs the other was racist, naive, privileged or ignorant.  Nasty words, unfriending, blocking followed.  We were seeing what we believed each other to be; and thought we were seeing who they really were.

In a moment of calm, my sister wrote to her same age cousin and simply said this:  when we were kids, we loved sending letters to each other.  You would share your life with me, I would share mine with you. I want that again.  I don’t understand, and I want to.  Let’s begin with letters – snail mail letters – no Face book, no re-posts, no ones words but our own.  One letter at a time.

And so they did.  It is a long road, but they have started to walk it.  They were each willing to step away from strongly held beliefs to try to see each other.  Perhaps this is one way, and maybe it is the only way.

I think of the popular Police song: Rehumanize yourself

He goes out at night with his big boots on
None of his friends know right from wrong
They kick a boy to death ’cause he don’t belong
You’ve got to humanize yourself

Re-humanize yourself

When Jesus appears in the upper room, the Disciples see what they believe.  Jesus is dead.  They see a ghost.  If they were to see Jesus alive, they might see someone broken, tortured on their watch and in some measure with their complicity.  They might feel their pain and the inhumanity that allowed this to happen.  They can’t see that.  So they see what they believe.

But Jesus offers them peace – he is not broken, he is not betrayed. He is present and open to them, as he knew them and as he loved them.

They look, then they touch, and their beliefs begin to crumble.  It is the intimate moment of sharing food, breaking bread together, eating the fish, that they realize the familiar, the human, the hope in the presence.

It is then that they have an “a ha” moment, a wakening when their belief that all hope is dead is shattered.  They are opened to everything that has led to this moment and to the real possibilities of Jesus’ ministry – that love can be the ultimate command.

They are then called to witness this.  To bring to others the shattering power of forgiveness, of opening up to the hurt, misunderstandings, false assumptions – to allow ourselves to challenge our beliefs, assumptions, our sight, and begin and the very hard work of seeing each other and re-humanizing ourselves.

Let’s don’t look away.  Let’s wonder if we are right.  Let’s extend openness where we have been closed.  Let’s witness.  Then we may be able to see.… and perhaps we’ll be able to find a way out of this mess.