By Anthony Chvala-Smith
Scripture and theology consultant
“Appearances are deceiving,” says conventional wisdom. Clichés often have a spotty grasp on reality, but this one gets something right. What we see on the surface isn’t always a reliable guide to deeper realities.
When it comes to interpreting what we think we see, caution is crucial. To the biblical tradition this was old news. As the prophet Samuel tried to discern who might replace Saul as Israel’s king, he got a forceful divine reminder:
…the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
A millennium later, the Apostle Paul had to rebut his detractors in Corinth, who said of him:
His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.
Paul knew he didn’t cut a great figure. A much later legend described him as short, hook-nosed, bald, and bow-legged. Whether true or not, Paul himself admitted that on the surface he wasn’t much to look at.
Appearances, indeed, run only skin deep. Thus, neither the untrained eye nor untuned heart is suited to navigating in life’s deeper waters.
When I completed seventh grade, there lay a cloud on the fall horizon: eighth-graders would have to face the social-studies teacher, Mrs. Jackson. I’m not sure how we knew, but she had a reputation for being severe, demanding, unyielding, and hard-edged. As newly “graduated” seventh-graders, we didn’t use words like those, but we knew what “fierce” and “scary” meant. The next school year would bring us face-to-face with Mrs. Jackson. She lurked in our future, like a horrifying Balrog within the Mines of Moria in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
I nevertheless survived eighth grade. Mrs. Jackson became a tiny dot in my life’s rearview mirror. I never thought of her again until, curiously, she reappeared some 25 years later.
While fruitlessly seeking a university teaching position, I had returned for an indeterminate period to my old avocation of landscaping to help us make ends meet. A local nurseryman who no longer did landscape work recommended me to his customers, for which I was thankful. So it was on a September day I got a call from none other than the Mrs. Jackson, who wanted to hire me. Work was work, and this was no time to be choosy. When the agreed-upon date arrived, I packed my equipment and drove to her home.
There I stood—old blue jeans, denim jacket, work boots, tool belt, weathered straw hat, and gloves—knocking on Mrs. Jackson’s door. To my eighth-grade self she had seemed ancient. I must have wondered how she still could be living; but very much alive, she opened the door. To my shocked, 38-year-old eyes, she looked exactly as I remembered her when I was 13! She walked me around her yard to show me what she wanted me to do. Before beginning, I tried to strike up a conversation:
“Mrs. Jackson, you might not remember me, but I was in your eighth-grade social-studies class many years ago.” Scrutinizing me in my work clothes, she said only one thing: “So you didn’t go on to college then.”
Here is a sobering lesson about the human condition: We really don’t see each other. This lesson applies equally to the church.
It wasn’t a question but a declaration of what to her looked like fact. Confounded by her assessment, I replied, “Well yes, I did, Mrs. Jackson. In fact, I just finished my PhD a year ago.” She said nothing and didn’t have to; her face spoke a very loud “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Who could have blamed her? To her eyes nothing about my appearance said “professor” or “scholar” or “Dr.” My shrub-trimmer’s garb didn’t bespeak years of graduate study. No protests from me could have changed her interpretation of what she saw: I didn’t look like Dr. Anybody.
But then, appearances, as they say, are deceiving.
This truth has a double edge. She was unable to see there was “more” to me; but was there not more to her than I could see, more to this Mrs. Jackson than junior-high gossip could ever grasp? I wonder now: In her long life, what struggles had she endured? She was a “Mrs.,” but even in school no one knew anything of her husband or of any family.
What losses had she survived? What griefs had she carried? What dreams had she relinquished as life threw her curves? What hopes had fired her imagination as a young college graduate, in a time of limited options for women? What joys did she cherish? What had formed the apparent rock-hard exterior? And what on earth had ever inspired her to want to teach eighth-graders? I had no access to these person-forming depths, as she had none to mine.
Admittedly, we like shiny facades and tales of glittering success. But the surface is not the depths.
Here is a sobering lesson about the human condition: We really don’t see each other. This lesson applies equally to the church. What does a glance at the church reveal? Often, not much more than small, stressed, underfunded congregations, mismatched to the needs and chaos of the times. Our eyes may see only the disappointing spectacle of “one step forward and two steps back.” And if we dare to look ahead, to borrow 1 John’s language, truly “it does not yet appear what we shall be.”
But there is more here than meets the eye. The church—not unlike Mrs. Jackson and me—has its own, invisible depths. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued a century ago, Christ now exists not in the beyond, but here, as community. Thus, below the surface of the rag-tag, careworn, incompleteness of struggling congregations, what really is at work is not a “what” but a “who”: the Living Christ, who yet tells his disciples, “the kingdom of God is among you.” Things are not always as they seem.
Admittedly, we like shiny facades and tales of glittering success. But the surface is not the depths. To look below the unimpressive exteriors, we need a different kind of “sight,” a graced vision that sees more than the old jeans and shabby straw hats of church life. For faith wagers that hidden deep in what we merely think we see is that which the eye has not seen: something of transforming power and breathtaking beauty, yearning to be known, waiting to be released.