Sunday, April 30, 2017

Face Reality

"Face Reality"
Luke 24:13-35

Life can become such serious business.

In one Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown is feeling the seriousness of life.  He walks along, shoulders drooping, mouth turned down, eyes blank, and an audible "sigh" is exhaled from deep within himself.  He sits himself down at Lucy's Psychiatric Help booth, and the gloomy look on his face has infected Lucy with the same blank stare.

"I've never felt more low in all my life," Charlie Brown starts out.  "I don't seem to fit in anywhere!  I don't seem to belong!  Everything I try is a disaster!"
"Well," replies Lucy, "try looking at life this way…People are like decks of cards…we're all part of the deck…some are aces, others are tens, or nines, or twos…We all can't be face cards, can we?  We can't all be kings and queens."
"No, I guess not," Charlie Brown mutters.
Lucy continues, with her head resting on her arms on the desktop of the booth, "Maybe you're the two of clubs, Charlie Brown."
"I doubt it," he retorts.  "Even the two of clubs takes a trick now and then!"

Poor Charlie Brown.  All through that conversation with Lucy, his face reflected the deep sadness that he was expressing.  All the depression, all the loneliness that he tries to hold in gushes up and flows out through his face.

One day, Calvin, in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, is blowing bubbles with his bubble gum.  He blew a huge bubble and it popped covering his whole head with gum.  He can't see anything, and in his wildly imaginative way, says, "Omigosh, I just blew my face inside out."  There's an odd sort of truth to Calvin's statement, in that our faces are our feelings popped out.  Our faces are covered with our feelings, our emotions, our heart and souls, blown inside out, so-to-speak.

Our faces are the permanent records of the inner meanings we give to our life experiences.  Our faces are the outward, visible forms of our temperament and disposition, health or sickness, trouble or joy, disappointments or successes.  No matter how well we think we are at masking our faces, trying to coverup our interior condition, it still leaks out, and usually is as clear as if we had just popped a bubble gum bubble all over ourselves.

By sheer numbers, the face has more muscles in it than all the muscles in our arms and legs combined.  Because of the number and the shape and the placement of those muscles, the combination of facial expressions is nearly limitless.  The constant pull on these muscles by our inner emotional condition will determine our permanent facial characteristics.  (Unless you have a face lift or plastic surgery, of course.)  Infants have typically smooth faces.  They have a virtual clean slate on which to work.  As we live out our lives, year after year, our experiences are written upon that clean slate.

One of Abraham Lincoln's aides asked why a certain man, who had many qualifications, was not appointed to a cabinet position.  Lincoln replied, "I didn't like his face."
Lincoln's adviser protested, "You can't turn a man down for a reason like that.  He can't help the way he looks."
But Abraham Lincoln sternly replied, "Show me a man who is forty years old who is not responsible for his face!"

One of the only parts of my body that I can't see, without some assistance, is my face.  Except by a mirror, the only other way I can see my face is how others reflect it back to me.  Someone else may be brave enough to tell me what my facial expression looks like, especially if I have gotten too serious, or it has gotten too stoically unreadable.

But there's another level to all of this.  My face, your faces, do not only picture what's going on inside, they also determine how and what we see.  They determine how we choose to be, and the attitude with which we approach life.  It is as if we are not only seeing with our faces, we are seeing life through our faces.  If our faces are serious and gloomy, then generally we will view life through that seriousness and gloom.

In another Peanuts comic strip, Lucy is talking to Snoopy.  One of the Peanuts gang is having a party, and Lucy wasn't invited.  She can't figure it out.  "Why shouldn't I be invited to a party?" she asks Snoopy, who is standing and listening dutifully.  "Go ahead and tell me!" she demands of Snoopy.  "Come on, tell me!"

Snoopy thinks to himself for a minute, and by the expression on his face you can tell he is trying to decide if he should tell the truth.  Finally, Snoopy gives Lucy an answer.  Snoopy screws his face up into a mean and sullen scowl and confronted Lucy with it.  In the last frame, Lucy is angrily chasing Snoopy and shouting, "WHO SAYS I'M CRABBY!!?"

What is sculpted on our faces, being etched and formed by what's going on inside of us, is also, then, how we look at life.  It not only forms our looks.  It also determines how we see.

That is why I think the disciples, walking the road together, heading for home—a village called Emmaus—did not recognize the resurrected Jesus.  There was that one line from Luke's story of this conversation that caught my attention.  Jesus had just asked them what they were talking about as they walked along, and here's that line:

The two of them stood there looking sad and gloomy.  Then the one named Cleopas asked Jesus, “Are you the only person from Jerusalem who didn’t know what was happening there these last few days?”

The two disciples had faces "looking sad and gloomy."  Their expressions told the truth of what they were feeling inside.  The experience of having to stand by and watch Jesus be arrested, run through a kangaroo court, spiked to a cross, die, and then laid away in a rock solid tomb was just too much.  It would have been for anyone.  It would have been hard, if not impossible, to mask away the raw seriousness of life that they had encountered.  The way they moped along the road and the cloudy overcast appearance of their faces gave Jesus a clear reading of what lay within their spirits.

By their explanation to Jesus about what they had been talking about, Jesus was able to pick up on how much the two men were also viewing the events they described through their faces.  The men's faces were not only "sad and gloomy," but also the way they were looking at the events of the past two days was sad and gloomy.  That gloom shaded everything they saw, and would see from that day forward.

Have you heard the story about the minister who went to visit a woman from his congregation?  The woman's face was a picture of bitterness.  Everything that came out of her mouth matched her face.

At one point, the woman who lived next door came out of her house with a basket of laundry and began hanging it on the clothes line to dry.  "Do you see that woman's laundry?" the woman the pastor was visiting asked brusquely.  "She never gets it clean.  It's alway dingy and gray.  Probably doesn't use any detergent."

After a while, the minister concluded his visit, and as they were standing outside, he glanced over at the wash that was hanging on the line next door.  It was as clean and bright as the sun.  He realized then that it wasn't the washed clothes that were dingy and gray.  It was the windows of the bitter woman's house.  It was what they were looking through, not what they were looking at, that determined what they saw.

Jesus was aware, then, what the problem was, was the gloomy faces the disciples were looking through, not what they were looking at.  It was what the disciples were looking through that kept them from really seeing clearly.  What they had to see clearly was not only who this stranger was, but what the events of the past two days really meant.  But their gloomy "windows" prevented them.

Jesus' tactic was to firmly reprimand them, not for their faces, but for what lay beneath their faces:  "…how slow of heart you are to believe…" (vs. 25).  Most of the time we go for the face, thinking if we change the outward appearance, the inward will magically change as well.  "Smile, it'll make you feel better."  Or, a bit more brusque, "Smile, it ain't gonna break your face."  But Jesus bypassed the gloomy faces and reached down directly into the gloomy hearts of the two disciples.  He changed the faces by affecting a change in what lay behind and beneath the faces—the human heart.

How did Jesus do that?

First, Jesus approached the two disciples.  Our basic inclination, when we see someone with a face like the disciples had is to avoid them.  Such crabby people are the ones we wouldn't want at our parties.  Who wants to be around such serious looking, depressed people?  There certainly must have been other people on the road, making their way home after the festival in Jerusalem was over.  Certainly some of them would have been smiling, even laughing.  Much more pleasant faces than the two disciples wore.  But still, Jesus took the risk and approached them.  Started up a conversation.  And even when the two snapped back at Jesus with a caustic reply, he hung in there with them.  He kept walking with them.  He let them ventilate their feelings.  He let them talk.  He listened.

Secondly, when they were done, Jesus got their attention with a quick reprimand.  Then slowly, carefully, Jesus began to deal with their inside problem.  How Jesus did that was to redefine the meanings of the past two days events for the disciples.  Usually it isn't an event itself that creates gloom in our lives; it is more the meaning we give to those events that make us so embittered.  A crisis flares in our life, and what we immediately do is begin to layer on what we think that crisis means for our lives and how we think it's going to affect us.  We try to figure out how the crisis got to the point it did, or why it did, and layer meanings upon all that.  If you let all those meanings pile up, but you never check them out to see if they are really true or accurate, you become overwhelmed.  Another word for overwhelmed is gloomy.

What Jesus does for those two disciples is to slowly and carefully examine and change the meanings behind the events of the past two days:  "Jesus then explained everything written about himself in the Scriptures…"  The disciples gradually began to see more clearly, from the inside out.  When they finally realized who Jesus was and the truth of what he had been telling them, Jesus left them to let the whole impact settle upon them, and upon their faces.  Lo and behold!  It worked!  The two men suddenly look at each other, both probably saying at the same time, "Did we not feel our hearts on fire as he talked with us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?"

Did you catch that?  Their hearts were set on fire.  From the inside out, they were transformed.  As they stood and looked at each other, what would you guess their faces portrayed?  "Without a moments delay," Luke wrote, "they set out and returned to Jerusalem."  And through what kind of face do you think they were seeing on this return trip?

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