Eye Contact: Why embodied presence matters for fellowship
Two weeks ago, after enjoying a remarkable outing at Oracle Park in San Francisco, (home of the beloved Giants, whose logo alone evokes some of the best kinds of memories from my childhood), my friend who took me to the game generously drove me south to the redwoods, just inland from Santa Cruz. I’d be speaking at a place called Mount Hermon (see previous post). We arrived around 7PM and after saying good bye to my friend and unpacking, I made my way downhill from my room to the conference center where a concert was happening.
This venue, tucked amidst towering redwoods, is classic California. The back wall of the hall opens fully, providing perhaps 250 extra seats so that whatever is happening inside can be experienced outside too. It’s hardly overflow seating. In the perfect California weather, these seats are often filled before the indoor ones, as the scent of redwood hanging in the mist of fog sings with its own voice of holiness and invitation.
From the back of the outdoor seating, its clear that the concert has drawn a full crowd. As I walk past the back row, I see the only open seat anywhere. On the end of the last row, right next to a man who evokes images of the neighbor in the movie Home Alone, there’s an unoccupied folding chair. In the two seconds I invest staring at the chair and weighing whether to stay or go, the man’s eyes catch mine.
It had been almost seven years ago to the day, that eyes spoke so powerfully to me. Then, it was the eyes of a diminutive Catholic woman who ran a guest house in northern Italy. My wife and I were looking for shelter on our 40 day trek through the Alps, unsuccessfully. This woman’s eyes were the eyes of love, compassion, and hospitality, even though she hadn’t a room to offer us. We truly felt we’d encountered Christ, but it wasn’t because of her words (we neither spoke Italian nor German) but her eyes.
This man’s eyes spoke too. The spoke joy, peace, and most of all, offered an unequivocal sense of invitation. “Come. Sit. Listen. Let’s enjoy this together.” Despite my weariness, and longing for solitude, his invitation was irresistible. We sat and listened to a trio from Texas, and soon, after introductions, were engaged in conversation. When he heard my last name, he said, “Dahlstrom…did you by chance have relatives that worked here?” I told him that yes, I did, that my grandma was the baker having moved here in the late 50’s after the death of her husband. “YES!” he said, loud enough to annoy other concert attenders, and limit our conversation to between songs until intermission. I then learned that he worked for my grandma in the kitchen when he was a college student in 1959 and 1960! Soon I was learning about his faith journey and his discovery of Christ after finding Emerson’s Unitarianism and pantheism inadequate.
He then shared his discovery of Christ as the only real source of transformation. “And do you know where I learned that? From a British Major who became an evangelist after fighting in WWII. He spoke a week at Westmont College, and it changed my life completely.”
“Major Ian Thomas of Torchbearers” I said, not as a question, but a certainty.
“Yes! How’d you know?”
“He was my mentor” I said, which led to my recalling a story of sitting amidst these very redwoods, “about fifteen rows further toward the inside,” and hearing Dr. John Hunter speak. His words challenged me as a twelve year old and would ultimately lead me into a relationship with the ministry of which Ian Thomas was the founder.
“YES!” he cried out, loudly, again. “I heard him here many times.” From there the conversation ranged from the power of Christ’s spirit within us to speculation on why this message is so conspicuously absent in the church today, the value of prayer, the place of social justice, aging, how faith changes our relationships with creation and animals, and more. All of it was woven through a sharing of our stories as well, so I learned that he knew Mandarin, and loved horses, trees, and teaching children.
He’d come back every day to hear me speak (though he missed some sessions because of his Good Samaritan behavior, including sharing his car with a woman so she could take her driver’s test for a license). But every day, we’d spend a little time together in genuine fellowship, either sitting under redwoods, or walking, or enjoying ice cream.
I say genuine fellowship because we increasingly live in a time when we think fellowship can be disembodied, by which I mean, that we’ve come to confuse the sharing of life with the sharing of ideas, or opinions, or doctrines. Rubbish.
Many times this summer I’ve been reminded that the difference between fellowship that happens between people sharing physical presence and those sharing zoom, or virtual, or facebook, or Instagram presence is more than just a matter of degree. The two qualities of presence are different species entirely, enough so that I’m longer sure that the word “fellowship” can even apply to what we do virtually.
Believe in ‘auras’, or don’t. It doesn’t matter, because the reality is this: each of us exude a presence to others when we’re in proximity. Our laughter, degree of listening, eye contact, empathy or disengagement, encouragement or challenge; all these serve as reminders that we’re in the presence of the image of God when we’re with others. The image might be more or less visible, depending on factors including our prior encounters, our biases, even our blood sugar, not to mention the well being, or lack of it, in the other.
I offer all of this because of these realities:
1. We say things online we’d never say in person. The communication we’re offering each other on social media is, literally, inhuman. On the one hand, we curate the best of our lives and toss it up on display in ways that can create feelings of resentment or inadequacy in others. On the other hand, our tone online can be mean-spirited, or at the least interpreted as such, in ways that would never happen if we were face to face. You wouldn’t call someone an idiot to their face because of their views on masks, or some other hot button issue, but we essentially do that online, resulting in oceans of wounded relationships.
We’re all connected, all made in the image of God, all filled with vast potential to be expressions of Christ that can heal and bless the world. ALL of us! Paul determines in II Corinthians 5:16 to “know no person according to the flesh” but rather to look for the reality of Christ‘s spirit in the other and fan it into flame. This isn’t an invitation to avoid all hard conversations, but it is a declaration that hard conversations require relationship, love, trust. They happen best in the context of relationship and physical proximity, with eye contact, and listening, and often with shared favorite beverages.
This mindset, though, is increasingly lost on us. It’s been shrouded in COVID isolation and the explosion of social media as our means of "connection," and podcasts/online worship as our means of receiving from God. These things are like spare tires - though good and even necessary in a crisis, we need to get back to the real thing as soon as possible.
2. We’re elevating ‘right beliefs’ over right actions. There’s a check-list of doctrines that we seem to think are the most important things: Virgin birth of Christ, the meaning of what happened on the cross, what kind of transaction is needed in order for you to be right with God, what’s the eternal destiny of those who don’t have these beliefs, how fallen humans are, etc. The list varies by denomination, but the implication is that we need to get this stuff right above all else.
Jesus, though, said that we’d know true believers, not by their doctrinal articulations and capacity to defend said doctrines, but by their fruit, which means by their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self control. Instead, a pastor can scream from the pulpit, unilaterally fire board members, mock people with different beliefs, and be held up as an example because the church is growing. If you’re leading but nobody is following, then something’s wrong, of course, but never presume that because lots of people are following, you must be leading well. Quality of leadership isn’t determined by market share - it’s determined by FRUIT.
Which brings me back to my new friend. His eyes exude joy. He encourages every person he meets, from the keynote speaker (me) to the person scooping his ice cream, to the new acquaintance in need of a car for a driving test. He embodies the presence of Christ.
Orthodox doctrine, by itself, doesn’t embody.
Online verbal grenades don’t embody.
Even online worship, a stop gap measure for challenging times like these, can never fully replace what we desperately need:
Sharing of life
In other words: embodiment!