Spiritual Ophthalmology

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In her article from our Opposite of Shame series, Margot Starbuck writes about the ways our eyes and face, like Jesus', can reflect God's love: "Jesus’ face, voice and body reflected to others that they were still worth knowing, receiving, and loving."

Though it seems a bit scandalous, my stepfather, who’s an ophthalmologist, takes issue with Jesus on the subject of eyes. Specifically, he contests Jesus’ announcement that “The eye is the lamp of the body.” I do see his point. Without a single advanced medical degree, even I know that eyes receive light. Light doesn’t shoot out of someone’s eyes unless he’s an evil robot. Any playground variety five-year-old understands this. And yet I’m coming to believe that Jesus might not be quite as horribly wrong as my stepdad and I think he is.

Last Friday night, Karl, a middle school boy with an intellectual disability, attended my son’s soccer game to cheer on the team. After returning home that night, I learned from my son that several of the players had made some unkind comments about Karl. Their behavior upset my son and angered me.

As I’ve chewed on it for a few days, I’ve become convinced that their shaming remarks—ones not so different from the adult variety—have everything to do with that “light-shooting eyes” business Jesus mentioned.

We know whether we are worth knowing and loving from the faces around us. From birth, an infant is wired to search for a face that will receive her. When she locks eyes with a caregiver’s pleased countenance, she breaks into a broad smile. She thrives in the light of a face that receives her “as she is and not as she should be,” as Brennan Manning wrote. Whether we encounter these gracious faces as infants, during high school, or in middle age, they really do project light.

The soccer players’ faces weren’t like that.

Projecting Shame

As a parent, I’m the first to admit that reflecting 24-7 delight to our children simply isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later, a kid is going to spill chocolate milk on a white rug or come home after prom reeking of alcohol and pot. The face of even the best parent will eventually reflect, “I wish you were other than you actually are.” Parents’ faces, and then peers’, inevitably suggest to a child that we really wish he was different than he actually is.

If it’s possible to shoot shadowy shame—the converse of the gracious light-projecting gaze Jesus describes—out of one's eye sockets, I suspect that shame is what the soccer guys had received from others and then dished out to Karl.

The absurdity is, many folks I know hunger to be around Karl. With his face, voice, and body, Karl both accepts himself and receives others as they are and not as they should be. He demonstrates the lamp-face magic portrayed throughout the gospels in the face of Jesus.

First-century folks who didn’t fit their culture’s mold of acceptability—a woman caught in adultery, a tax collector named Zacchaeus, a Samaritan woman known in her village as a disreputable sinner—were accustomed to seeing shaming faces.

But Jesus’ face was different. Jesus, who’d been identified with the words “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased,” who knew himself to have been fully received by his Father, was free of the anxieties that plague the rest of us. Free of shame, Jesus’ face and voice and body reflected to others, before they had ever cleaned up their acts, that they were still worth knowing, receiving, and loving.

It was, for many, more than a little disarming.

The Humble Man

I see Jesus—and his good lamp-eyes—as the embodiment of the person C. S. Lewis identifies as the “humble man” in his classic, Mere Christianity. For Lewis, humility is recognized by the way one engages with others. Lewis clarifies, “He will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.”

Lewis’ description actually sounds a lot like Karl.

Lewis continues, “If you do dislike [the humble man] it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

That irresistible appeal is why those of us who are hungry to be received are drawn to the sunny aunt who doesn’t seem to notice that we’re overweight or unemployed. Rather, she delights in who we are. It’s why we’re attracted to the folks in our churches who light up when they see us.

It’s why I love being around Karl.

And I suspect it’s what Jesus meant, in part, when he announced in his inaugural address that he’d come to return sight to the blind. As we receive God’s radical acceptance in our bones, the way Jesus had received it, we learn to see differently.

That deep, gracious knowing is my hope and prayer for the soccer boys.

And for me, too.