Arts & Culture & Theology 101

Seeing Others with Divine Wonder

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Each time I’ve watched Wonder—the movie based on R.J. Palacio’s award-winning novel—I’ve been ambushed by this oh-so-moving story about a young boy named Auggie. Tears stream every time—and I will own them. 

Born with a genetic disorder, Auggie’s little body required multiple surgeries. He wears his astronaut helmet because his face is distorted, even after plastic surgery. Auggie and his loving family live in Brooklyn. Originally taught at home, he’s finally sent to school in fifth grade. With the helmet off, Auggie faces the full range of staring, pity, mockery, and bullying by kids. This amazing story traces Auggie’s school year, along with his parents, his sister, Via, and his struggling friend, Jack Will. We encounter stunning twists and turns revealing how people see Auggie and how Auggie sees everyone else.

Seeing Those We Serve

The bulk of my daily work involves seeing and serving suffering people who are deeply in need of help. That’s true for most of us. From financial planners to nurses and doctors, school teachers to store clerks, automotive technicians, physical therapists and pastors, we major in helping all sorts of people—precious people with very special needs, capabilities, disabilities, heartaches, hang-ups, hopes, and dreams.

Whether we realize it or not, our most pressing question most days is, “How will I see the person or group of people in my path? Will I see people more deeply, beyond my face-value, knee-jerk reaction?”

The local church where I serve as lead pastor aims to love others with Christ-style love. Our aim is based on Jesus’ holistic call to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). That means our planning and behind-the-scenes efforts often involve figuring out ways to serve  people who are experiencing physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, or mental suffering. Then our very public, weekly events, gatherings, and services include active interface with those precious people.

Every Sunday, a host of people greet me, including multiple individuals with special needs, pressing health crises, and emotional distress. They long for encouragement, a listening ear, affirmation, prayer, a dose of genuine good news, directional wisdom, and practical help. I am regularly challenged with this foundational attitude choice: Will I see them as “too different,” “unique,” “other,” or “awkward?” Will I glance their way, feel uncomfortable, and say to myself, “Yikes! Let’s move along now. Look away. Let’s shift focus to the ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’ people!” Or will I truly and deeply see the precious people in my path?

Changing How We See

Masterfully and subtly, Wonder’s screenplay writers wove the issue of how characters truly see one another all throughout the film. Auggie’s potential new friend, Jack Will, struggles with peer pressure from other boys who don’t want to hang out with Auggie. Jack vacillates between befriending him and bullying him like the other kids do. Eventually, Jack reveals his own true feelings about Auggie: “You get used to his face. … He’s really good at science, and I really do want to be his friend.”

Mr. Tushman, the seasoned school principal, says something so stunning during his office confrontation with the bully Julian and his haughty parents: “Auggie can’t change the way he looks. Maybe we can change the way we see.” 

A wrap-up concept near the movie’s end nails it: “If you really want to see who people are, all you have to do is look.”

How do you see people with whom you work—your clients, coworkers, and employees, especially those who are suffering or just different in light of their disabilities and special needs? I am moved by the divine work of seeing people—really seeing them. At the biblical culmination of creation, right after God crafts humans, we read, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). And in scene after scene during Jesus’ ministry on earth, we read, “When Jesus saw __________ . . .” (Matt. 5:1, 8:14, 9:22, 14:14, just to name a few). When Jesus saw all sorts of people with all sorts of needs, the result was always some deliberate action, instruction, or other form of loving service in response. All because of seeing people with a deeper outlook than what would be revealed at a quick glance.

Let’s slow our steps, fix our gaze, and savor conversation. Let’s ask better questions, hear their stories, and gush kind affirmation. Folks are full of hopes, hurts, special needs, and yes, setbacks, missteps, mistakes, struggles, and heartache. But they also possess such powerful potential to display wondrous love and real joy. 

As we really see people, we’ll recognize more of God’s image and what a wonder people truly are. O, how I need greater doses of divine sight for all my interaction with others. Let’s see each person we encounter with fresh wonder this week!

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