In the Academy Award nominated movie “Nebraska” Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is losing what little of himself is left via dementia, or via a life and a brain damaged by alcoholism. He receives a clearing house letter that convinces him he has won one million dollars. All he has to do, he believes, is get from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize. The trouble is he can barely walk much less drive. That and he hasn’t really won anything.
His youngest son, David (Will Forte), however, agrees to take him to Lincoln, if only to shut the old man up, prove to him he is not a millionaire, and—maybe—spend a little time with his mentally disappearing father.
Along the way they stop in Hawthorne, South Dakota where Woody was born and grew up. Also, along the way David learns more about who his dad really is, both a miserable failure and a man with a gigantic heart.
In one scene Woody staggers out of a bar with David following. Woody just told his long-lost friends he is going to be a millionaire.
“Did you see their faces? Did you see their faces?” Woody asks amazed.
Suddenly the almost gone Woody is alive. It’s as if Woody remained a good-for nothing-drunk until the proud looks on the faces of his friends lifted him out his wasted life and proved, finally, that Woody Grant is somebody.
We’ve all had Woody’s experience of being affirmed or destroyed by the looks on the faces of those around us. If looks could kill, as a preacher, I would have died several painful deaths. Once, while preaching, I had an 103 degree temperature and kept saying the same non-sensical thing over and over again. It’s a good thing I was too bleary-eyed to see the looks on the faces of the congregation.
God seems to have given us an eye, literally, that seeks approval or disapproval in the faces of others. Scientists call this facial processing. New
born infants’ eyes track their parents’ faces in a pattern that seems to give them clues about the world they were just launched into. And within days newborns begin to mimic their parents’ expressions. Parents learn just as quickly to mask any facial response to their child’s many near death encounters, else the child actually die of hyperventilating while crying.
But do these faces we put so much stock in reflect reality?
But often not. For example, single guys are perpetually and particularly bad at female facial processing. This may be why they remain single.
But we can all remember times when we misread facial clues. Sometimes these misreadings have lifelong ramifications. I remember my dad’s face being blank in response to me. And I interpreted that as lack of interest and worse lack of love. Because he died when I was eleven, it has been hard to go back and correct that misperception. So, I’ve looked for love elsewhere. Thank God, I found it.
Giving God a face maybe one of the best of the many reasons God became flesh in Jesus.
Remember that sad story in the Gospel of John about a woman who has been caught in the act of having sex with a man she is not married to and is dragged in front of Jesus (that kind of sex was a big deal back then and would have called for not only seriously ugly facial processing but stoning)?
Jesus nonchalantly kneels down and draws in the dirt.
“Go ahead and kill her,” he says. “If you too are without sin.”
Slowly her ugly faced accusers sneak away.
“Where are those who condemn you?” The woman doesn’t know.
“Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Here’s the beautiful thing I’ve seen in this story recently. The passage doesn’t say Jesus looked her in the face or that he had a kind look on his face. But I can’t imagine it any other way.
Such kind, firm, life-giving words cannot come from a mouth formed in a scowl. Nor scorching eyes or knit brow. We can all accurately imagine what her accusers’ faces looked like and how Jesus’ face contrasted their withering hate and disapproval.
She could well have said, “Did you see the look on his face?”
And maybe that, along with Jesus’ words, and, of course, his death and resurrection, are what transformed her and allowed her to become who she really was: go and get false love from sex and men’s faces no more.
The question for us is the same as the one Jesus asked this long ago prostitute. “Where are the faces of those who condemn you?” Like the woman, when we focus on his face instead of the myriad of our accusers, we see love and forgiveness, not condemnation. We see his honest omniscient, open face and hear him say, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. Look no more at faces beside mine”