Most of the people in my congregation sit in the same area of the sanctuary most Sundays. A few have been sitting in the exact same pew for 20 years. I know where to look for certain people. I have figured out which faces are good to look at while preaching – engaged, thoughtful and interested faces. I have figured out which faces not to look at while preaching – confused, concerned and disinterested faces.
Most of us like sitting in the same spot. How do we react when we come to the kitchen table and someone is in our place? What happens when we walk into the office and someone is sitting in our chair?
The way we respond says something about us. Some choose not to make it a big deal. We sit in another place and try not to think about it, but we feel strange sitting in someone else’s chair.
Others respond more assertively: “You’re in my chair. You need to move.”
“The willingness to sit where another sits is the beginning of love.”
There must be a third category of people who are not only willing, but eager to sit in a different place and see from a different perspective; but this third group has to be the smallest.
We do not want to sit where others sit, because we like believing that our perspective is the best perspective. This is how we divide the world into us and them.
Doesn’t it feel awkward to walk into a party where everyone is something you are not – different politics, different race, different religion or much younger than you are? Or you are wearing a sweatshirt and everyone else is dressed up? Do you almost unconsciously start looking for someone who looks like you?
If one day you said, “I think I met someone today who’s going to be a good friend,” would the people who know you best be able to guess how old your prospective friend is? Just by hearing that you made a new friend could they estimate how much money the new friend makes, how much education they have or where they live?
Some rich people talk about the poor in a way that makes it obvious that they have never thought about what it is like not to have a home. Some white people talk about people of color in a way that makes it clear that they have never imagined how it feels to be a victim of prejudice. Some straight people talk about gay people in a way that leaves no doubt that they have never considered what it is like to be gay.
Counselors often encourage married couples to argue from the other side. Sometimes they make them switch chairs to help them see from the other’s perspective. Don’t you enjoy it when judges sentence slum lords to spend a month living in their own apartment buildings?
If our parents had a different kind of faith that had led them to a different sanctuary, we would probably have different ideas about faith.
“We need to stop looking for people who are like us and start listening to people who are not.”
If we could trade places for just a day imagine what we would discover – students and teachers, 70 year olds and seven year olds, married and single, natives and immigrants, church people and those who would rather be anything else, and those who have been abused and those who have abused.
When your sister says that she is getting a divorce you learn not to make sweeping judgments. When your best friend gets laid off, you stop seeing the unemployed as a statistic. When your father admits that he is an alcoholic, you stop thinking alcoholics are weak.
We need to stop looking for people who are like us and start listening to people who are not. Sometimes when we listen to a person who is making life miserable for the people around her, we learn that her life at home is more horrible than anything we have had to deal with.
What happens when we sit in someone else’s chair and ask what it is like to be them? What is it like to be your child? What is it like to be your parent? What is it like to be your minister?
What is it like to be 14? What is it like to be 84? What is it like to be a widow whose husband of 50 years just died?
What is it like to be 100 percent certain that Donald Trump should be president? What is it like to be 100 percent certain that Elizabeth Warren should be president?
What is it like to be Jewish? What is it like to be a Syrian refugee? What is it like to be Mexican immigrant?
What is it like to be your neighbor? What is it like to be your enemy?
The willingness to sit where another sits is the beginning of love.