God’s phoropter

Why the people I disagree with sharpen my understanding of God and his purposes


The other day I had a routine eye exam. Resting my chin and forehead on the foam pads, I looked at an eye chart through the optometrist’s phoropter. The doctor selected a couple of lenses and asked: “Does it look clearer with this lens or—(click)—this one?”

Speaker, author and former Mennonite pastor Shane Hipps is one of the voices that some Mennonite Brethren consider outside the orthodox. Speaking at Fresno Pacific University’s Ministry Forum last spring, Hipps said that each person looks at God’s Word through his or her own unique set of lenses. The lenses are made up of life experiences and exposures, bringing certain aspects of God’s Word into clearer focus and opening up new understandings.

Hipps shared the story of a change in his own lens. Before he became a father, Hipps pictured God as a night watchman as he read a psalm that said that God doesn’t sleep. It was a negative picture of a watchful God. “(God) was looking out for a criminal—and maybe that criminal was me!” said Hipps.

“But then I had children,” said Hipps. “The first two months of my daughter’s life were spent with me being vertical. Rocking my daughter and thinking about the suffering we parents would go through for our children, I heard that passage through a completely different lens—the lens of a parent who was suffering for a child.”

Hipps’s experience of parenting was like a lens in a phoropter—in this case a lens that brought God’s character into new focus for him.

What would happen if we would think of people speaking from different points of view as lenses in God’s phoropter? As my spiritual optometrist, God’s goal is to bring everything into clearer focus. Instead of a threat to my belief system, each encounter or new idea becomes a lens God is inviting me to look through in an effort to improve my vision.

During my eye exam, not every lens in the phoropter made things clearer. In fact, some made it impossible to see the letters on the chart. In the same way, not every voice or experience we explore will give clear focus to our understanding of Scripture. But, just as all the lenses the optometrist uses are essential along the path to clear vision, each exposure is another opportunity for God to shape our lenses and bring himself and his purpose into clearer focus in our lives.

So how do we go about trying new lenses that can lead to greater understanding?

Recognize our lenses

Recognizing our own lenses is an essential first step in growing in our understanding of God and his Word. At the ministry forum, Hipps outlined several of his own lenses on Scripture and invited forum participants to challenge those lenses and share their own.

“We can have a debate about any of these,” he said, “because we are just talking about lenses and not about the Bible itself. What we’re not talking about is changing the Bible; we’re talking about changing how we see the Bible.”

Tim Neufeld, an FPU faculty member who helped host the ministry forum, agrees that self-awareness is key to growing in our understanding of Scripture and to having meaningful dialog about it. “I can speak for the lenses I wear if I recognize what they are, but when people don’t understand they’re wearing lenses we can’t have a conversation,” says Neufeld.

Knowing we have lenses and understanding what those lenses are gives us freedom to discuss and debate with humility and grace for others’ points of view.

 Be active listeners

Once we have taken the first step of acknowledging our own lenses, we are ready to engage with others. While that engagement may involve arguments in support of our own lenses, it must also be characterized by a willingness to listen to others.

In exploring the topic of lenses I checked in with Tabor College President Jules Glanzer. He recommends a method they use at Tabor called “appreciative inquiry” which involves recognizing “that everybody’s perspective and experience is different than yours.” In this approach a person makes every effort to understand the other point of view.

Glanzer explains appreciative inquiry this way: “Try to listen to the voices, hear it from their perspective. What is motivating them? What are they trying to say?”

To listen and understand another viewpoint does not mean agreement. But an attitude of attentiveness and trying to understand helps take us beyond our own limited lenses and can open up new vistas of understanding.

Don’t let differences blind you

There’s an old joke that wherever you have three church people you have four different opinions. Often differences in opinion become walls that divide us. Within our own church family we tend to major on the differences and put great energy into correcting the errors, however minor they may be.

Pastor Steve Harms of Neighborhood Church (Visalia, Calif.) had an interesting take on this issue. After talking with him for another writing assignment, I told Harms I was writing an article about the value of listening to a variety of voices. He jumped right in and talked about it from a pastor’s point of view.

As someone who preaches every Sunday, Harms often encounters people who find a flaw in a sermon and just quit listening. He would much prefer that people would hear him out and even come back to him and ask, “This is what I heard you say. Is that what you wanted to say?”

“It’s a mistake for me to write you off because you say something I don’t agree with,” he says. “The fact is, ‘We know in part and prophesy in part.’ We need to learn to listen and take the nuggets that are true.”

Harms advocated listening “through a lens of grace.”

Seek out other voices

Hipps is a great promoter of trying out many lenses. “The more lenses you can be exposed to, the more you have a chance to learn the truth,” he said. “The more exposure we have the clearer and fuller picture of truth we have.”

One author I particularly enjoy is Lauren Winner. In her memoir, Girl Meets God, she talks about her conversion as an adolescent to Orthodox Judaism. She fell in love with the rituals and intense study of Scripture that characterize the Jewish faith. Later, she had an encounter with Jesus in a dream that, during her university years in England, led her to become a Christian believer and join the Anglican Church.

Now I’m not likely to become an Anglican and even less likely to convert to Judaism, but reading about the significance this author found both in the rituals of Judaism and in the liturgy of her Anglican church has expanded my appreciation for the historical roots of the Christian faith, the rhythms of our own church celebrations and the meaning behind our traditions.

By reading an author who sees faith through a different lens than my own, I am seeing God and faith in a way I never would have by just reading the Mennonite Brethren point of view with which I am so familiar.

FPU’s Neufeld agrees: “A requirement for self-awareness is being exposed to something different than who you are.” He notes how in the book of Proverbs wisdom comes from listening to the council of others. Among those others should be people who are coming from a different point of view than our own.

“If I only listen to what I already know, I just reinforce what I already believe,” says Neufeld. “In my mind, that’s the definition of a fool in Proverbs.”

Neufeld sees his own students’ understanding expand as they look at Scripture through lenses of people very different than themselves: “I take students to Los Angles and we read the book of Amos right on skid row. Reading about selling the needy for the price of shoes makes sense in a whole new way when you’re in the context of the sweat shops that are open all night, and you think about where your own clothes come from. It changes the way we read the prophets.”

Glanzer adds that the young leaders in our own denomination have a voice worth seeking out. The Tabor College president advocates listening to how God is leading young leaders in new expressions of faith. “The worst thing we can do is to try to make young people think like old,” says Glanzer. Rather, we need to listen to them and see what their unique perspective has to offer in shaping our own lenses.

Whether it’s reading authors, engaging in dialog, or studying Scripture in the shoes of people coming out a different context, the payoff is profound for people willing to seek out different voices. 

Explore other cultures

Anyone who has been on a cross-cultural mission trip can attest to the transforming power of being immersed in another culture. It’s almost cliché to say you don’t come back the same person as you were when you left.

Cory Seibel, a Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary faculty member involved with the ministry forum, enjoys helping his seminary students try new lenses by taking them into cross-cultural contexts. He challenges them to make the most of these exposures by approaching the new relationships with humility: “Come as learners, understanding that the way you’ve read Scripture to this point is shaped by your life experience and relationships with people like you. You will realize that you haven’t even thought about the kind of question these people are asking.”

Seibel sees his students come away with new questions and insights but also a new awareness of their own lenses. “The goal is to come back seeing differently, both ourselves and others, and to come to Scripture with a fresh ability to ask questions and learn,” he says.

Proverbs 19:20 admonishes those who want to be wise: “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future.”

Advisors and instructors can turn up in unexpected places. I’ve met them in our church youth group and in the form of a beggar in parking lot. They have lived in remote villages in Paraguay and the hollers of Kentucky. I’ve heard their voices in books by Catholic monks and from the podium of an atheist philosophy professor.

As I allowed God to be my optometrist, each of these people became a lens in his phoropter. He dropped each one—(click)—into place and invited me to take a look. Under his guidance their unique lenses helped shape my own view. With my chin resting on God’s phoropter I can enjoy trying out new lenses and trust him to guide me toward a clearer view. It’s a delight to find myself gazing into his face and his Word with a refreshing new perspective.

Kathy Heinrichs Wiest is a freelance writer with a long history in the Mennonite Brethren church, including involvement in four different MB congregations and all three US Mennonite Brethren educational institutions. Currently she and her husband, Steve, are active members at Kingsburg (Calif.) MB. One of her greatest joys is learning from the unique lenses of people who are new to faith and to the Mennonite Brethren.


 A weekend with God’s phoropter

While recently vacationing in San Diego, Calif., my husband and I had three very different church experiences all in the same weekend. Each one offered a unique lens on worship.

Saturday night we attended a “Live” service (with a live preacher instead of a video feed) at a 10,000-member mega church that meets weekly in 27 venues on four campuses. I had some questions about what it means for this church to pattern their church campus along the lines of a contemporary shopping mall, but I was inspired by the biblical preaching and the church’s commitment to serving their community in the big way that only a mega church can.

Sunday morning we joined the seven members of a small Mennonite church temporarily meeting in the chapel of a retirement facility. Together with the elderly people from the facility, the congregation that morning numbered almost 20. I wondered about the sustainability of such a tiny body of believers. At the same time, it was touching to watch a young member of the congregation tenderly greet and minister to the elderly people who had joined them.

We spent the rest of that Sunday morning touring a nearby Spanish mission where a life-sized bronze sculpture of Jesus meeting Mary on the way to Calvary captured my imagination. Even though I don’t identify with the Catholic practice of using icons in worship, the beauty and expressiveness of the work caused me to pause and reflect on Christ’s humanity and suffering.

All of these church experiences diverged from my typical Mennonite Brethren worship experience. Each raised questions in my mind. But each one also offered a new lens that expanded my appreciation for the gift of worship.—KHW



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