“Saper Vedere”

By Joel Van Dyke, Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Street Psalms, Guatemala City, Guatemala

“Too often, we want to move into mission without saper vedere (before ‘knowing how to see’), and in doing so we cause more problems than we solve”

During the summer months here in Guatemala we often host groups of North Americans on what we call “vision trips.” In contrast to a “mission trip” (centered on what an outsider is invited to come and “do” in another culture), a vision trip focuses on the invitation for an outsider to come and “see” what God is doing through local, grassroots leaders serving their own people in hard places. By becoming students of God’s activity in a foreign place, the hope is that well-crafted encounters, historical analysis, and targeted theological reflection will lead participants into an ability to re-imagine and broaden their own personal understanding of life and mission. French author Marcel Proust writes, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”

We are not unaware of the controversy that has risen in the face of such endeavors. In 2010, Kenyan leader Kennedy Odede published an article in the New York Times entitled “Slumdog Tourism,” writing that “slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really ‘seen’ something—and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.” This article ignited a flurry of blogging activity that gave short-term mission trips the additional monikers of “Ghetto Tours,” “Poverty Safaris,” and even “Poverty Porn.”

In hopes of avoiding these pitfalls, we have come to see well-crafted vision trips as a means to liberate “mission” from the limitations of a “trip” or the responsibility of a select “committee” in a church. The idea, rather, is to learn to see mission as lifestyle. One of the passages that inspired a Vision Trip experience this past week for us here in Guatemala City was the story of blind Bartimaeus in Luke 18.

Bartimaeus cannot see anything with his biological eyes, but at a particular moment during the religious parade happening around him, he discerns something with his heart that he must respond to. He asks those around him what is occurring and learns that “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

To the chagrin of the others, Bartimaeus yells and screams until Jesus stops and invites him to a meeting in the street. Looking at the absurdity of his actions, it’s as if Bartimaeus embodies the words in the conclusion to the novel Last Lovers, where author William Wharton writes that “perhaps sometimes it is best to be blind, so one can see the way things really are, and not be blinded by the way they look.”

The climax of this encounter is the beautiful question that Jesus asks to Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” This question animates our work with vision teams as we explore together what it means to have the ability of Bartimaeus to see (discern) with one’s heart “Jesus of Nazareth” passing by in unexpected people and surprising places. First, the presence of the Divine must be discerned, and then one needs to exercise the courage to not let the sacred moment pass by without hearing one’s personal “beautiful question” from the lips of Jesus. It is the art of knowing how to see.

In his book Summoned to Lead, Leonard Sweet described an ad campaign called “Leonardo da Vinci: The Art of Seeing.” It centered on da Vinci’s philosophy as summed up in two words: saper vedere, or “knowing how to see.” As a scientist, philosopher, inventor, and artist, da Vinci enlisted the concept of saper vedere to engage the world around him. To him, life was measured by one’s ability to see correctly. He described the almost mystical process of artists to not simply paint what they see, but to see what they paint.

Too often, we want to move into mission without saper vedere (before “knowing how to see”), and in doing so we cause more problems than we solve—while, at the same time, completely missing the beautiful question rolling off the lips of the Master speaking through very unexpected people in very surprising places.

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