Twenty years ago Carl McCunn, a wildlife photographer, travelled into the remote heart of Alaska, intent on spending several months close to nature, hunting and fending for himself. But he miscalculated. He ran out of food, and the weather turned exceptionally bad. He became weaker and weaker, and recorded every day in his diary his growing despair and crippling frostbite.
But friends, who were wondering how he was managing, asked State Troopers to fly over his camp to see if he was OK. Carl ran out, full of excitement, when he heard the plane, and he wrote in his diary that he was so elated to see the plane that “I recall raising my hand, shoulder high, and shaking my fist – it was like a little cheer.” That was a big mistake – for that was the signal for “All OK – do not wait” – and the plane circled around, the pilot waved and flew off, thinking all was well. Carl had given the wrong signal. Three months later he was dead.
There is something haunting in this story. For me, it is a metaphor of life lived in isolation, where your signal of distress is either not noticed or misunderstood. A friend of mine who is a doctor said that isolation is probably the most common disease in America today. So many family units are fractured and more people live alone today than ever before in American history. The lack of interpersonal relationships causes severe loneliness to millions. Please look at me. Talk to me.
During the year of renovations I lived with some of my brothers in a rented house just on the edge of Somerville. Over the road was a rather old fashioned, run down supermarket. It didn’t look promising. But shopping there was one of the nicest experiences we had during that year. It wasn’t state of the art, but the staff talked to you. I don’t like cooking very much, so I used to go in there with my shopping list and ask the men at the meat counter and the vegetable counter for their advice. Eventually, every time I went in, they’d say hello – “What are you cooking tonight?” And those on the cash register would chat with each other about boyfriends and school, and draw you into the conversations. It was a lot of fun, and I really miss going there now. Old fashioned it was, but people noticed you and looked at you and smiled.
My heart sinks when I see state of the art stores, where you can pay for your purchases automatically and get told what to do by a recorded voice. There’s nothing worse than a recorded voice saying “Have a nice day!” It doesn’t look at you. It doesn’t smile. It doesn’t connect.
Gradually, day-by-day, in our brave new world, machines and technology offer us virtual connection, virtual communication, but there is no substitute for looking at another person in their eyes. Only connect with them, and you notice, you really begin to see that person.
Every day, it seems, there are fewer opportunities for the little chats and smiles which added together form a powerful glue bonding communities together, linking people together into livable units – opportunities to see the other, and to notice, to pick up the signals that we long to give to others. Look at me, notice me.
Jesus was walking one day through a great crowd of people. And right in the middle of the crowd was a little man called Zacchaeus – who was a tax collector. Now I am not very tall myself, and I know how he must have felt. I have often been in a crowd, and had to jump up and down for a quick glance over the tops of people’s heads. But not only was Zacchaeus little in stature, he was also loathed by others because he was a tax collector. Socially ostracized, he must have felt isolated and lonely – and probably resentful and angry.
But he was eager to see Jesus, so, small as he was, he climbed a sycamore tree so as to see Jesus as he passed by. And then this extraordinary thing happened. Amidst the huge crowd, Jesus suddenly stopped and looked up. He looked at Zacchaeus. He looked at him. That is what Jesus did time and time again. He looked deeply and lovingly at individuals. Numbers, statistics, did not interest him – but each precious and unique child of God did. Jesus looked deeply at Zaccheaus, and he picked up the signal. He saw the isolation, the pain, the profound need for healing and salvation. And Jesus said, “Come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Jesus looked at him, loved him, and came to his home. It was to be a transforming encounter. Jesus looked at him and saw a beautiful, beloved child of God, not a greedy, dishonest outcast. And Zacchaeus changed under that loving gaze. He changed and started to become the beautiful person whom God made him to be. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”(Lk 19:10)
When I was ordained priest, I remember the Bishop speaking these words from the English Prayer Book: “Priests are called to search for God’s children lost in the wilderness of this world.” Many people are lost: many lead lives of isolation and loneliness – and long for someone to look at them, and notice them. But it is not just people who are on their own who can feel isolated. It can happen in a marriage, in a family, in a community. You can become so familiar with another person’s presence that you stop really noticing. When that person is sad, or in distress, when they send out signals, often we simply don’t notice. (I had no idea you were feeling like that.)
There is a poem by Stevie Smith which I used to use when I was a teacher in a high school in England. Always, among the class of 15/16 year olds there would be some who would say, “That’s how I feel.” The poem is called “Not Waving but Drowning.”
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead.
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
I wonder if there is someone in your life who is not waving but drowning? Perhaps someone you think you know really well – or someone at home or at work, who you hardly ever notice, because they are familiar. Always there – always the same. Perhaps someone close to you who longs for you to really look at them and pick up the distress signals. Or maybe you yourself long to be looked at, noticed, acknowledged, listened to. Why don’t you notice?
Maybe in a time of prayer, you could read the story of Zacchaeus again. Imagine yourself into the scene – imagine the crowds, the noise, the excitement. Then imagine you are Zacchaeus, longing to see Jesus. Imagine climbing up that sycamore tree. And then, as Jesus comes by, he looks up, and he looks at you. He speaks your name. Imagine what you would say to him – and what he says to you. Perhaps you need to hear again the Good News – that Jesus has noticed you, and understands and loves you. He has picked up the signals of your need and has come close to you.
Nowhere does Jesus come closer to us than in Holy Communion. As you come up to receive him in this sacrament, put out your hands as a signal of your need and your faith. It is a signal which the Lord recognizes and honors. As you eat his body and drink his blood, allow him to heal and transform you, as he did with Zacchaeus.
“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” He came to seek and to save me.
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