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June 14, 2009 | 8:00 a.m.

Under the Eye of the Clock

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 139:1–12, 19–24
1 Peter 3:8–12

“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.”
1 Peter 3:12a (NRSV)

I had a fairly good relationship with the Lord. But I always had this uncomfortable sense that he was looking at me and wanted me to look at him. But I would not, because I was afraid that I should find an accusation there of some unrepented sin or a demand for something he wanted from me. Then one day I looked. There was no accusation or demand. His eyes just said, “I love you.”

Adapted from Anthony de Mello’s
The Song of the Bird

It has been said about those of us who have been around on earth for a long time that our remote memory tends to be more acute and readily available to us than our memory of more recent events. I may not remember what I had for breakfast this morning or, for that matter, whether I had breakfast this morning, but events that occurred twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago can be as vivid and as clear as though happening at the moment.

I remember clearly the time several decades ago, early in my ministry, when I was serving as chaplain of a state mental hospital near Louisville, Kentucky, escorting a group of patients to a concert there by the renowned singer Marian Anderson. At one point in her concert, she sang in her inimitably beautiful way a gospel song, part of whose words were

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free.
For his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.        

At the time, I was seated between two of the patients. At the conclusion of the song, one of the patients turned to me and said, “That was beautiful. But I’m not sure I want God watching me. That’s kind of spooky. Besides, I don’t want God butting into my life and knowing all about me.”

The idea of God as one who is eyeing us is scary. There is something Orwellian about it, particularly in a day of police surveillance cameras at street intersections, identity theft, wiretapping and computer hacking, along with all the other forms of intrusion into our privacy that we know of, to say nothing about those of which we don’t have a clue.

In his beautifully crafted and inspiring autobiography of his childhood, Under the Eye of the Clock, Irish author Christopher Nolan, severely disabled, mute, and paralyzed by cerebral palsy, tells of his struggle with his faith and refers to a large clock on a spired building on the campus of the school in Dublin that he attended as a youth. (By the way, Nolan laboriously typed the manuscript of his book with the aid of a typing stick, called a unicorn stick, attached to his head.)

For Nolan, that clock served as a metaphor for the all-seeing eye of a God, whose pervasive presence constituted both a curse and a comfort in his life. In a similar way, a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the kitchen wall of the farmhouse in which he grew up reminded him constantly that he could not escape either God’s presence or God’s scrutiny.

Throughout the Bible, there are numerous references to both the inevitable presence of God and to God’s roving eye wandering over the face of the world, watching, watching over, and watching for what is going on and what humans are up to. This morning’s scriptures, Psalm 139 and 1 Peter 3, are but two examples. Others can be found with the aid of a good concordance of the Bible.

To be under the eye of the clock—that is, to be continually in the presence of God and to live under the scrutiny of God—is an awesome prospect at best. Indeed, to be under anyone’s scrutiny is unnerving, because we often assume that to be under scrutiny is to be only under judgment, to be found wanting, and hence to be condemned and thus doomed.

To be sure, sometimes this is the case. A number of years ago, eight young student nurses were brutally murdered in their dormitory apartment in South Chicago. Sometime later, the one student nurse who survived that night of terror arrived at the Cermak Memorial Hospital affiliated with the Cook County Jail, looked carefully and intently at Richard Franklin Speck, and said, “This is the man.” Still later, at Speck’s trial, she stepped down from the witness stand, walked over to where the defendant was seated, stared at him, and dramatically stabbing her finger toward his heart, said once more, “This is the man!” Her scrutiny sealed his doom.

The psalmist speaks of God as the one from whose presence and scrutiny we can neither hide nor escape and who knows us through and through, better than we know ourselves. Of course, if you don’t believe in God, you may conclude that what I am referring to is something akin to what Sigmund Freud called the Superego—that is, if you believe in Freud. In any event, it would seem that woven into the fabric of the human condition and the human psyche is a monitoring mechanism that scrutinizes whether and to what degree we conform to or violate whatever code of conduct, whatever set of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots,” we have been exposed to and conditioned to by reason of culture, religion, and the mores of our society. At the same time, the current spate of fear and hate-filled lethal violence fueled by bigotry and prejudice is a reminder that no amount of laws on the books can protect us from those whose inner demons have run amuck.

To come under scrutiny is to risk being known and understood, something we may both long for and dread. But what if the scrutiny of the one watching is malevolent? What if the eye of the clock is an evil eye? What if the God whose eye is on the sparrow and who I know is watching me is primarily interested in catching me in the act and scoring me for my faults and flaws and failures? What if God is like that student nurse who years ago eyed and then fingered Richard Speck as the one who had slaughtered her friends? She was understandably out to get him, for he had done a cruel and despicable thing. There was no mercy in that scrutiny. What if God’s scrutiny is like that?

We tend to experience the scrutiny of God as God’s judgment upon us, in much the same way that the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” experienced the judgment of his fellow seamen. When the ancient mariner had killed the albatross, the bird that was an omen of good luck, and the ship subsequently foundered in a storm and the crew died of thirst, the mariner, as an only survivor, experienced in his guilt the judgment and curse upon him of the crew whose corpses littered the deck of the ship.

The cold sweat melted from their limbs.
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.

The unnerving message of the Bible, and of the psalmist in particular, is that, try as we will, we cannot escape God, we cannot hide from God, we cannot run away from God. Distance is no protection from God, says the psalmist. We are never not in God’s presence, though we may not be aware of that and may act as if it were not so. Besides, God searches us and knows our hearts, examines us thoroughly, looks into all the drawers of the dressers of our lives, turns over all the rocks in the terrain of our lives, and knows us inside out. So says the psalmist. We just can’t escape God’s presence or God’s scrutiny.

Who of us does not tremble at such a prospect, especially if we experience God as a kind of cosmic IRS auditor, scrutinizing our tax returns, as it were, and probing into our affairs with an eye to catching us in some indiscretion, deception, or crime? “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?” asks the psalmist. “Where shall I flee from your presence?” Small wonder he wanted to figure out a way to get out of God’s sight. What irony as he, in self-righteous indignation, calls down the wrath of God upon his enemies and then invites God to search his heart, know his thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in him! With a heart agenda like that, you can bet he had better get out of God’s sight, this God who says, “Vengeance is mine, not yours; I will repay.” What nerve we have sometimes in summarily condemning others when we haven’t the courage to own up to our own sins! No wonder the psalmist wanted to figure out a way to retreat from God’s presence, even if it meant going to hell itself or to the place of the dead, where he might think no self-respecting living God would have any business being.

God’s healing scrutiny, then, is found precisely in its inescapable judgment of us, thus facing us with the chance to be honest with ourselves. And there can be no healing without honesty, no wholeness without integrity. If God were not to notice wrongdoing or merely gloss over it as being of no consequence, we would have no need to flee from someone who served us and our illusions about ourselves so well. The gift of guilt, therefore, is part of God’s healing scrutiny. Without it, the beast in all of us would hold sway, and we might have little need to find our way to a place like this sanctuary to find healing for our souls.

Why then would the psalmist want to expose himself to God’s scrutiny? Was it an exercise in masochism, or did the psalmist know something we don’t know? That’s the other part of God’s healing scrutiny—namely, the gift of grace. Only a person who believed that God’s judgment is a merciful judgment and that God’s scrutiny is not only the scrutiny of candor but also of compassion could pray the psalmist’s prayer without danger of being labeled masochistic.

For if God’s judgment is inescapable, so is God’s grace. The psalmist knew that if God were to find any wicked way in him, it would not be so that God could thus be justified in destroying him, but rather because God has an ultimate desire for each of us, to lead us in the way everlasting, into a life blessed by God and right for all time. God’s business with us is not to clobber us but to cleanse us; not to terrify us but to transform us; not to wreck us but to redeem us; not to destroy us but to direct us, until at last we no longer need to flee the power of God’s healing scrutiny.

Christopher Nolan died February 20 of this year. He was forty-three years old. Years earlier, someone asked him if religious faith had been important to his outlook on his life. In response, using his unicorn stick, he typed, “My religious faith freezes my young desires and gives me the truth within my suffering. Erring youth likens my state to man crucified but really Resurrected Man nests my sanity and gives me healing hope for my future” (Chicago Tribune, 5 February 1988).

Under the eye of the clock, under the divine scrutiny of God—which he had earlier literally cursed—Christopher Nolan at last found not condemnation but compassion, not horror but healing. Like Anthony de Mello, quoted on the cover of this morning’s bulletin, so Christopher Nolan realized that the one whose eye was on him was saying not “I loathe you” but “I love you.” As someone recently observed, “Sometimes the last person you want in your life is the only one who can save it.”