Years ago. I received a note from a close friend that said, “When I’ve been around you lately you seem remote, distracted and so weary.” “Of course,” he added, “this could just be my reading of things. I could be wrong. But let’s grab a lunch and talk, so I can check up on you and see how you are really doing.” I admit, his note took me completely by surprise. My take on our interaction had been completely different: I felt so comfortable in his presence, so at ease with his friendship, that I didn’t feel it necessary to make an effusive effort to reach out to him. I relished his presence without saying so. But it occurred to me that maybe I was unconsciously taking his friendship for granted. I readily accepted his lunch invitation, and we enjoyed a great luncheon, rekindling our warm rapport. It made me realize just how wise my friend was, for he exercised spiritual geometry. He knew that the only way for the truth to come out between us was to practice the principle of spiritual geometry of face to face conversation, because that is the shortest distance between people – and that is when the truth is most likely to emerge.
Grasping that basic principle of spiritual geometry, that the shortest distance between two people is face to face conversation, gives us insight into understanding the texts before us. Early in Mark’s Gospel, just after Jesus had eaten a meal with tax collector Levi and several of his cronies, the religious authorities saw Jesus enjoying fellowship with these people whom they regarded as religiously unclean, morally corrupt, and scandalously unscrupulous – unfit company for a religious leader. Mark leaves no doubt that Jesus’ actions angered and outraged them. How did they respond? Mark says in 2: 16: “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ ”
Now what exactly did the scribes do wrong here? Certainly, they had a right to form their opinion regarding Jesus’ behavior. They had a right to voice it. But they voiced it to the wrong people! Though they were angry with Jesus, they didn’t talk to Jesus! They talked to his disciples instead! They wanted to know “why” Jesus did something – yet they didn’t ask Jesus! Wanting to know Jesus’ motivation for why he ate with tax collectors and sinners, they asked his disciples instead of the person who authored the action! They went “around” Jesus. They engaged in that prevalent and insidious form of communication known in systems analysis as “backchanneling.” “Backchanneling” involves not talking to a person but talking about them, talking around them. Jesus intrigued, disturbed, even enraged these men, yet rather than talk to him directly, they preferred to talk to others about him. Sad to say, “backchanneling” is a form of communication all too prevalent in businesses, institutions, many families, and even churches. So when Jesus hears of the religious authorities’ roundabout question as to his motivation, he answers, “A physician comes to heal the sick.”
In Mark 3, Jesus, by now aware of the religious authorities’ sensitivity to his unorthodox observance of the Sabbath, and noting the presence of a man with a withered hand in the synagogue, goes straight to his adversaries and asks directly, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or do harm, to save life or to kill?” Jesus engages in spiritual geometry. He seeks face to face interaction. However, Mark records, “But they were silent!” Jesus is trying to engage them, to help them understand their perspective and communicate his, but they decline to be engaged. And yet, once Jesus healed the man, rather than talk to him directly, the Pharisees rushed out to hold conversations with supporters of King Herod, so they could plan the eradication of this alleged Messiah. They did not want dialogue with Jesus. When the arresting party came to lay hands on him in Gethsemane, Jesus said to them, “Why are you coming after me like you would a robber? You had ample opportunity to talk with me in the Temple!” But the religious authorities didn’t want to talk with Jesus.
They wanted to talk about him, around him. They wanted only to quell his disturbing of their souls, which was more easily accomplished through backchanneling. They refused to practice the spiritual geometry of honest engagement, direct communication, out of which can most easily emerge the truth.
How different is our next scene. In Mark 8 a blind man is brought to Jesus by a crowd eager for his healing. Jesus pulls the man aside and spits upon his useless eyes and lays hands upon him, and then he asks him a fateful question, “Can you see anything?” Now Jesus is already known as an amazing healer. His reputation as a miracle worker is widespread. His touch is always instantly efficacious. But he does not assume that his healing power has taken immediate effect. He doesn’t assume that his great powers are instantly effective, that his work is finished. Instead he asks the man, “Can you see anything?”
Take note of the fact that there is enormous pressure upon this man to lie. Jesus is an acclaimed healer, and Jesus has taken hold of him and sought to address his need in an intimate and personal way. This is in fact the only instance in the Bible where Jesus’ healing touch is not instantly efficacious. But the question that dominates this encounter is, ‘Will the blind man be honest enough with Jesus to admit it?’ The temptation is very strong for him to say, ‘Sure, I can see.’ Likewise, the temptation is there often for us not to be completely honest with God – or completely honest with each other. We sometimes sense conflict with others, and our first response is not to be honest with them, or allow them to be honest with us. We seldom risk the spiritual geometry for honest, direct communication, which is the approach most likely to reveal the truth.
Incidentally, that is why teachers must give tests. Teachers must give tests because students lie. A professor could be explaining something abstruse and convoluted, like the Missouri Compromise or the Pythagorean Theorem or Einstein’s theory of relativity, or the doctrine of the Trinity, and when the professor is through explaining the concept, he or she asks, “Does everyone understand what I’m saying?” — and dead silence ensues. The unspoken assumption is, ‘Sure, we comprehend completely.’ No one has the courage to say, ‘Uh, I might need a word of additional explanation. I might not completely understand.’ So teachers have to give tests to discover whether students are lying when they say they understand.
The truth is, we have difficulty in telling the truth, telling the truth unto God that our faith is not as strong as people think it is, our love is not as deep, or our character as pure as we would like to think. We sometimes have difficulty admitting unto God that sometimes we need a “second touch” of healing grace and spiritual clarification. We sometimes have trouble sharing the truth with others even in our most vital relationships. We often don’t risk spiritual geometry even in our most profound attachments. When I engage in premarital counseling I begin by asking each couple four simple questions: “Who is the talker between you? Who is the better listener? Who has the worst temper? Who is the brooder?” Sometimes a couple will ask, ‘What do you mean, brooder?’ And I’ll say, “Which one of you is the one who when he or she gets angry walks around silently with that lower lip out to make the point, ‘I’m mad and I want you to know I’m mad, but I’m not going to say anything?’” Then one of them will sheepishly smile and say, ‘Uh, that would be me.’ Those four simple questions relate to the vital issue of communication, and communication is at the heart of every relationship. I remind every couple that successful marriages are founded on three simple factors: sexual attraction, good communication skills and mastering the art of positive agenda-setting. All relationships ultimately rise and fall on three questions: “Who sets the agenda? How is the agenda set? How is the minority report heard?” Couples who don’t have a firm grasp of how to handle these three questions are doomed.
Let me flesh out that counsel a bit. Many years ago, early in our marriage and careers, I was invited to become the minister of a very intriguing church — a wonderful opportunity, with wonderful people, and I was very drawn to it. Melissa knew I was attracted by this opportunity, but the invitation came at a time when she was pregnant with our twin boys. So when I asked her opinion of the move, she responded, “Richard, if you want to do this, we will do it. But we have twins on the way. You will be working every night, and I will be trying to raise these babies alone, while all of my friends will be back at our former church.” What she was saying was, “I will give you the freedom to set our agenda — but here is the minority report — I don’t really want to move just yet.” I had sense enough to know that her minority report was the wisest course. We let that opportunity pass and were the better for it – only because she practiced the spiritual geometry of face to face honesty. If I had said to her, “Do you want to make this move?” and she had responded with a noncommittal, ‘I don’t care,’ when she really did care, she would have introduced an unnecessary element of tension and chaos into our relationship. Part of effective communication and agenda-setting hinges on having the courage to say what you mean, so that ‘I don’t care,’ really means, ‘I don’t care.’
If you don’t master agenda-setting, one of two things will happen: eventually, one person, or both, fed up and frustrated, will blow up at the other over an agenda item – it may be over a matter so small as ‘What kind of pizza do you want tonight?’ Or that person, unable to face conflict but deeply dissatisfied, may begin to sabotage the relationship and derail the common agenda and not even consciously know that he or she is doing it. All because they never mastered the skill of spiritual geometry in recognizing that the shortest distance between two people is speaking to each other honestly face to face.
Jesus asks this blind man, “Can you see?” This brave man risks telling the truth to the Savior. “Uh, yeah. I can see. But men look like trees walking.” The man tells Jesus, in essence, ‘My cable connection is not very good. Can you tighten it up a bit?’ He admits to Jesus, ‘I need a second touch.’ How many of us are willing to say to God, ‘My faith is not as strong as it appears to be. My character is not as pure as others perceive it. My commitment is not as deep as I want others to think it is. My grasp of my future, my understanding of how I should proceed, is so tenuous, I need a second touch. My vision is blurred. My Lord, I need more clarity.’ Sometimes we struggle to admit to each other, ‘I think I understand where you are coming from, but I’m not sure. I may be making wrong assumptions.’ I think back to my friend’s note. My friend didn’t say in his note, “You are distracted, remote and weary.” He said, “I think you are distracted, remote and weary. So let’s break bread together and talk about it.” My friend exercised the spiritual geometry of speaking the truth in love, in a non-judgmental and constructive way. And we were both the better for it.
Jesus stressed spiritual geometry far more than we realized. He advised us directly, “Never let the sun go down on your anger.” His clear implication is, ‘If you are frustrated with someone, go to them directly and immediately and work it out.’ He said, ‘If you find you are being hauled into court by someone, don’t wait for a judge to decide the matter, go directly to this enemy and effect reconciliation.’ Exercise spiritual geometry! Because that is the approach that most easily yields the truth.
I have a favorite story about the Reverend Jesse Jackson that he has often told on himself. It seems that as a high school senior the Reverend Jackson took French, but he was not a diligent student, and in fact he ended the year unable to read or speak a word of French. Yet he managed through sheer charm and oratorical ability to convince his French teacher that he was fluent in the language. For years he boasted of how he got an A in French simply on the power of his charm. Then one night, at the height of his celebrity, the Reverend Jackson found three high-ranking diplomats from North Africa on his doorstep eager for a vital conference. They only spoke one language: French. That’s when Jesse Jackson realized that the joke was really on him. So often we go through our lives posturing that we have a firm grasp on things, that we are competent in so many pursuits, when in fact we know that our posturing is something of a charade. We sometimes go through life practicing the conceit, ‘I understand others and they understand me. I understand God’s will for my life.’ But we know – we know! – that reality is something altogether different, and sometimes we have to say, like that blind man, ‘I need a second touch, Lord. I need more grace. I need more understanding. I don’t have things together like I pretend I do.’ Sometimes we need to practice such honesty with God. Sometimes we need to practice such honesty with each other. The spiritual geometry that Jesus urges us to practice is the realization that direct communication is the shortest distance between people, and formula yields truth – and, as Jesus says, the truth will set you free.