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Look Into My Eyes

Most of this week was spent at a pastors “retreat” in the foothills northwest of Calgary. I put “retreat” in quotation marks because when you are on a provincial committee and the members of said committee are separated by hundreds of kilometres, opportunities to have face to face meetings are rare. Consequently, times when everyone does happen to be together are generally crammed full of meetings, ordination interviews, etc. So, not much of a “retreat” in the restorative, replenishing, relaxing sense of the word. More of a “three days of meetings and workshops and not-making-any-progress-on-the-sermon and falling-behind-on-countless-others” kind of retreat.

The theme of the retreat was “reflective practice” which, as far as I could discern, meant that we were supposed to pay attention to ourselves in ministry—our dispositions, reactions, anxieties, secrets, hopes, fears, etc.—and ponder what these things might have to say about who we are and what we might hope to be, whether as pastors or as human beings in general. Not normally needing a great deal of encouragement to look inward to sift through the motivations and neuroses therein, and generally suffering from meeting fatigue, I found myself occasionally zoning out of the workshops themselves.

But occasionally, we had to do exercises. Ah, yes, exercises. It will probably not surprise you to learn that I tend to loathe group exercises at retreats. I resent feeling like a lab rat in someone’s social psychology/spirituality experiment. I grumble (mostly inwardly) at the idea that someone is trying to engineer response x to make point y and that I am being used in the process. So generally, when I hear, “we’re going to move toward a group exercise” I tend to think, “I wonder if it’s time for a 15 minute bathroom break?”

But being a little slow on the draw in this particular instance, there was no avoiding the group exercise. And what an exercise it was. The facilitator wanted us to turn to the person beside us and silently maintain direct eye contact for ninety seconds. Ninety seconds! Ninety seconds of staring wordlessly into the eyes of a colleague. I can’t even look in my wife’s eyes for ninety seconds without saying something or looking away! Yes, I think a “bathroom break” would definitely have been the way to go…

But, there was no hiding or escaping. The exercise was beginning. So, I turned to the person beside me and the staring contest began. It was every bit as awkward and uncomfortable as I expected it to be.  I shuffled and averted my gaze. I gulped and swallowed and adjusted my position on the chair. Ninety seconds seemed a veritable eternity. I was inwardly willing the facilitator to make it stop. Please, it must be ninety seconds by now?! Surely. Have mercy on me, dear facilitator!! Don’t you realize that I’ve been in meetings? Whatever point you are trying to make about vulnerability and inwardness and reflection, I’m sure it’s important, but couldn’t you please just tell me about it?! I gladly concede. For pity’s sake, just blow your whistle or call time or whatever it is you do to get us back to the talking and (barely) listening!

Well, eventually the exercise ended. And as I gradually coaxed myself back from the melodramatic precipice, I began to wonder about why, exactly, I found the exercise so difficult. Was it the looking into the eyes of another that I found unsettling? Was it the wondering about the story behind those eyes? Was it the involuntary intimacy of such prolonged, direct attention upon another human being? Was it the violation of social and conversational norms whereby we periodically provide our neighbours with a bit of respite from our attention? Probably.

But the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that far worse than seeing someone else was being seen. What if this person sees me for who I really am? What if my eyes betray the countless duplicities and hypocrisies that add their grimy tinge to all of my days? What if ninety seconds is enough time for carefully constructed and vigilantly maintained walls to begin to crumble? What if the eyes truly are a window into the soul, with all its ugliness and shame? What if this person sees me—truly sees me—and they don’t like what they see?

Earlier that day, we had spent some time in Psalm 139. Book-ending this famous psalm of David are two statements about the reality that we are known, in the deepest and most penetrating ways, by God.

           You have searched me, Lord, and you know me (Psalm 139:1).

You have searched me. Past tense. You already know me. There is nothing I can hide, nowhere to go to get away from the searching divine gaze.

            Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts (Psalm 139:23).

Present tense.   Keep searching, testing. Keep knowing.

I admire David and all, but I’m not sure I want to be known like this. This is a knowing that leaves me vulnerable, out of control, dependent. There is weakness in being known like this. So often, I prefer the illusions of control. I will manage the amount of me that can be known, thank you very much. Take your searching and testing and knowing somewhere else, if you don’t mind. Use it on someone with ninety seconds to spare.

Yesterday morning, after yet more meetings and workshops, we gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper before we all dispersed to the four winds. I was mentally already gone, already on my way home. So much to do, so much to think about, so many things undone, clamouring around for space in my brain. I am embarrassed to admit, that I wanted to get this over with as soon as possible.

I happened to be sitting directly in front of the simple display pictured to the right, when we were invited to pray. I took off my hat and leaned forward in prayer. About halfway through the prayer, I opened my eyes and observed myself from the outside, as it were. Leaning forward, arms on my knees, with my hat upturned in my hands, like a beggar, before these symbols of the One who was shattered for love’s sake. Coming with nothing but open hands to the only One who looks deeply into my eyes, the One who sees behind the eyes, the One who peers into all the nooks and crannies and neglected corners, to all the boarded up rooms and broken down walls, the one who searches, tests, knows, the One who, despite the unpleasantness of the view, continues to stubbornly love and give himself away.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. mmartha #

    I’m not sure this writing was meant to have only one direction. Some find community time less easy than others find it. In our emphasis on fellowship with each other, we can feel guilty about quiet time with God, if we find that the ultimate. Ora et labora.
    If we seek fellowship whether Christian or otherwise to fill the times when we feel a guilt in reverse, that we’re not giving thought to mission in the best sense of serving or waiting before God, loneliness in crowds is a reality. I have over time been interested in prayer walking and/or driving. The head maintenance person in our apt. complex was recently and for weeks critically ill, now back at work. I was involved with praying for him from the hospital parking lot on two occasions. That was looking at his need, if not into his eyes (if there’s a difference). Ora et labora.
    I found this piece excellent in its open-endedness.

    October 18, 2014
    • Thank you for these reflections. Much to think about as we work, as we pray, as we try to see…

      October 18, 2014
    • mike #

      Great comment, Martha. Love the Ora et labora reference(s).

      October 18, 2014
  2. mike #

    Your encounter exercise reminds me somewhat of a good AA meeting where we are free to OPENLY examine ourselves without fear of judgment.
    I can so relate to your example of sitting exposed before the Lords table as a beggar.

    October 18, 2014
    • Those sound like good meetings indeed.

      October 20, 2014
  3. Lonnie #

    Ryan, thanks for the nakedness to this piece. I find the eyes to be the most intimate of organs and to feel so exposed has such fear-with-hope element to it at least for me.

    October 21, 2014
    • Thank you, Lonnie.

      October 22, 2014

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