26 February 2013

The Face That Won't Turn Away

Psalm 27

Second Sunday in Lent/24th February 2013

The psalter reading, Psalm 27, holds up for us two different, but related images: a movement of the heart and a turning of the face.  Heart and face.    

“My heart shall not fear,” the psalmist says (Ps 27:3). Throughout scripture we see that the heart was viewed as something more than simply an organ pumping blood.  It was the center of one’s personality, the core of one’s being. The heart symbolizes one’s sense of self and a healthy heart is essential to the life of faith.  If your heart is not right with God, then something is wrong.  If our hearts are devoted to others gods, instead of the Living God, then our hearts have betrayed us; then the heart is broken, fragmented, alienated, cut off from its deepest desires.  God wants our hearts and wants our hearts to desire after God.  To say that God wants our hearts means that God wants more than part of our lives – more than empty religiosity or piety when it’s convenient or simply good behavior – God desires the heart of our lives, the center of who we are, all that we are.

This idea has always been at the center of Christian discipleship.  When John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, was converted in Oxford, he said that his “heart was strangely warmed.”  And even our own beloved John Calvin (1509-1564) had a heart – which might come as a surprise to many!  We usually don’t think of Calvin as having one, being the brainiac that he was, but he did.  Calvin’s conversion was very similar to Wesley’s.  In fact, the depth of Calvin’s conversion is beautifully symbolized by the logo he created for himself.  It was the image of a heart resting on an upturned open-faced palm.  He gave the passion of his heart, a heart set on fire, the core of his being, to God. The image of the heart on fire was joined with his personal motto: prompte et sincere in opere domini.  Prompt and sincere in the work of the Lord.

Both Wesley and Calvin’s experiences are rooted in the Biblical understanding that the desire to seek after God is first an experience of the heart.  Not an intellectual exercise; it comes from the heart. It comes from the center of who we are.  God wants our hearts.  That’s why the prophet Joel could say, “Rend your hearts, not your clothing.  Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2:13).  Joel’s invitation here is to return to the Lord, to enter into relationship with God – heart to heart.  This is what life is about.  This is why we were created: to be in communion with God and with one another.  Heart-to-heart.

The heart isn’t the only image that captures the importance of relationships.  There’s another image that runs through the pages of the Bible; it’s the image of the face.  Psalm 27 beautifully holds them together.  “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!  ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’  Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me” (vs. 8). The psalmist makes this extraordinary claim: not only does God want our hearts, but the heart also wants God. St. Augustine’s (354-430) well-known prayer captures this best when he confessed, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”[1] And the deepest desire of the human heart is to see the face of God, to find ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with the Living God.

Why is this so critical?  To look at another and to be seen by another creates a tight bond, a connection, a communion. Imagine God looking at you:  God looking at you, looking straight at you, staring at you in the eyes.  In that look you discover that God is looking at you with delight, with the eyes of love, with a look that pierces the defenses of your heart, that connects with your heart of hearts, a look that draws you into communion with him, a look that tells you that you belong to him.  We find this understanding all over the psalms.  In fact, the worst possible judgment of God is not some tragic event, but the withdrawal of God’s gracious glance.[2]  To not be seen by God is the worst possible judgment.  Why?  Without the look of God we are lost.  It’s only when their image is mirrored back from the face of God that the psalmist and Israel know who they are.  The price of sin is the face of God veiled, covered from God’s people. Psalm 88 says, “O LORD, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?” (vs. 14).  The sign of redemption, of forgiveness, is the turning of God’s face towards us with the open look of love, with an unveiled face.  In Psalm 80 we hear, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (vs. 3).

We’re all searching for a face.  Child psychologists have shown us that an infant finds his or her place in the world through the orienting face of a parent.  In his classic work, The First Year of Life, psychologist RenĂ© Spitz (1877-1974) demonstrated that the facial mirroring between parent and child is the primary means through which a person is shaped.  By three months an infant seeks and responds to a particular face for security and identity.  The infant seeks that face and smiles. When that face isn’t there, when it turns away, panic, anxiety, and fear set in.  Psychologists D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971) and Erik Erikson (1902-1994) have both identified the need for the face and the enormous power of this drive to find a face.[3]  It’s especially strong from twelve to eighteen months.  The look of that face tells the child who he or she is.  “The face, then, is the personal center that is innately sought by a child and the focus of the earliest sense of one’s humanity.”[4]  Through the relationship, through the face-to-face interaction, a child finds a place in the world and is confirmed as a self.  The round shape of the face is a symbol of wholeness; it’s a deep archetype of wholeness.  It is round and it bears the imprint of the cross - the vertical line of nose and mouth, the horizontal line of our eyes forming four quadrants.  Justin Martyr (c.100-165) writing from the second century said, “The Cross is imprinted upon man, even upon his face.”[5] 

But as we grow up the face that grants us our identity and place in the world starts to turn away. Instead of one or two faces centering our lives, we encounter many.  We see other faces, children or adults, some that smile and accept us, others that look at us with anger and rejection; some that love us and like us, other faces that tell us that we look ugly or that we’re stupid, or poor, the wrong color, the wrong race, the wrong orientation, the wrong gender.  We see harsh faces, judging faces.  We discover faces that won’t look at us or won’t notice us. The need for the face, though, is still there; we’re all searching for that face that will tell us who we are.  We’re looking for the face that will look upon us directly in the eye and see us for who we really are, will really see us and not look through us or past us.

Several years ago I was wandering around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and stumbled upon the work of American photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976). In an exhibition of Strand’s work there was one photo, one image that struck me and continues to haunt me.  It has the title “Sandwich Man.”  It’s a black and white photo of a man holding two billboards, one in front of him and one behind him, held together with straps that reach across his shoulders.  People who carried billboards like this, a common sighting during the Great Depression, were known as “sandwich men,” men “sandwiched” between billboards that advertised sales at area department stores. (Not unlike what one often sees along Route 40 in Catonsville.)  The man in the image is very poor.  His face is worn and beaten.  But it’s the way Strand composed or framed the photo that’s most arresting.  He’s standing in front of a building, but over his left shoulder you can see the concrete exterior of a building on which was painted this message:  POST NO BILLS.  

Paul Strand, "Sandwich Man."
The message is clear:  It’s okay to advertise on this man, but not on the building.  The building is more important than the person.  Strand’s photographs are biting social commentaries, critical attacks upon commercial and industrial America.  There’s one other thing about this photo, your eye focuses on the billboard so that the man holding the billboard becomes invisible, becoming one who is seen through. The man is unimportant.  It’s a profound statement of the way in which so much in our society – even today – dehumanizes.

We’re all looking for the face that will re-humanize us, the face that will look at us and in whose eyes we will find unconditional love and acceptance.  We’re searching for a face that will look at us and see us and not turn away in shame or embarrassment or fear.  And we’re looking for a face that we can look upon, without turning away our heads in shame or guilt.  The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said that if you want to see the power of sin in the world then look at the city street and all the people who are afraid to look at each another. You don’t have to go to a city street to observe this, just go to the mall. 

We all desire face-to-face interaction.  And yet, because we have all been hurt, we find it extremely difficult to look into another’s eye without turning our heads.  Yet, “The longing of the face that will not go away persists” throughout our lives.  Practical theologian James Loder (1931-2001) put it so well when he said that we are all looking for that experience, for that face, in whose eyes “one is given a place in the cosmos, confirmed as a self, and addressed by the presence of a loving other.”[6]

A loving other can be your friend, your spouse or partner, your girlfriend or boyfriend, your “soul friend” (as the Celtic Christians used to say).  But even the best marriages, the best friendships and relationships, the best soul friends cannot fill this void; they cannot meet this most basic human need because it puts too much strain on the relationship.  The deepest desire of the human heart – we ache and long for this, cry and pray and hope for this – is to be addressed by the presence of a loving other, a Wholly Other, Who is God.  Like Moses and the psalmist, we long to see God face-to-face, to know the face of the One Who is love, the one in whose eyes we are given life, given a purpose in life, confirmed for who we are, addressed by the very Spirit of God!

For me, the place where all of these images of heart and face come together wonderfully is in Paul’s second letter to Corinth.  It’s one of my favorite verses of scripture.  “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Why? Because “…we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord . . . .  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone” [Where?] “in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” [where?] “in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4: 1, 5-6).

Jesus Christ is the face of God.  When we look at him, we see God.  And when Christ looks at us, it is with the face of God.  It is the face of the One for whom we pine all our lives.  It is the face of mercy and grace.  The longing for the face that will not go away is satisfied finally in Jesus Christ.  When we look to him, we find the true desire of our hearts.  T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) knew this so well when he wrote:

 No place of grace for those who avoid the face.
 No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.[7]

And what does Christ tell us?  What do we read and reflect in his face?  In him we find the only One who can really tell us who we are.  He looks upon us and sees us, looks us in the eye and sees us – really sees us.  He doesn’t look through us or around us or beyond us or down on us.  We’re not invisible to him.  He looks at us, not with eyes of shame or scorn, but in love.  When we turn toward the face of Christ and see him, face-to-face, we will encounter the meaning of grace, and we will know, our heart of hearts will know, that we have come home, that in him is the source of our joy. As Augustine knew, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.”

[1]From Augustine’s, Confessions.
[2]See Paul S. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989).
[3]See James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, Second Edition (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989).
[4]Loder, p. 163.
[5]From Justin’s Apologia, cited by J. Jacobi, Complex, Archetype, Symbol (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), quoted in Loder.
[6]Loder, p. 165, 166.  On the centrality of facial mirroring in Loder’s theology see, Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 91-94, 122-123.
[6]T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday,” (1930) The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), p. 65.

No comments: