Signs and Signals

Eyebrow Raise

Isaiah 40:31: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

I don’t know if you think a great deal about things like signs nuances. I do, but then I’m retired. Maybe you’ll do the same when you retire. It’s a terrific hobby.

The idea of signs and nuances came up last week when I was working with my trainer Kate at L.A. Fitness. That’s right—I have a trainer named Kate who has made me into the buff power lifter I am today. Or the old guy who’s working on strength and balance so he doesn’t pitch over into the frozen fish at Food Lion. But I digress.

Kate probably knows about 1000 exercises which I promptly forget as soon as she has demonstrated them to me, so she stands in front of me and “mirrors” the motions, encouraging me all the while: “All right, there’s eight…pull those elbows in…nine…lookin’ good…here’s ten… right angle on the arms…now eleven…one more, you can do it, and there’s twelve, the one we’re looking for.” Then she beams at me as if I were the finest physical specimen in the world. I know she’s only humoring me, but it’s nice none the same.

The interesting thing about this oft-repeated process is the way Kate signals when I am (thankfully) approaching the end of exerting myself to the point of harm. On the fourth from the last repetition of an exercise, say eight, her voice rises from the pitch she used for “Seven.” “Nine” is higher, and “Ten” and “Eleven” higher still. Then, on the last rep (as we gym rats like to say), her voice drops and I know I can drop the weight or whatever and collapse on the floor.

Now, of course, Kate (whose son, by the way, had Amy for fourth grade) is not the only person on the planet using subtle verbal and non-verbal signals. Pitchers and catchers used them, the catcher flashing a series of codes with his fingers, calling for a certain pitch, which the pitcher is free to accept or reject by nodding or shaking his head. The first time I heard about this on the radio, I figured the pitcher just about shook his head off conveying his approval or disapproval of the prospective pitch to the catcher. Instead he barely nods or shakes his head. I suppose there is a reason for that.

And then, people like us are pretty good at making our wishes known by this method. Let’s say we’ve gone with our friend or spouse or whatever and we’re having a great time and take a minute to look across the room to see how our important other (a term I just made up and like better than “significant other,” which sounds like a term for historical analysis) and he or she gives us what I call “an eyeball toss,” wherein both eyes are rolled rapidly toward the ceiling to say without saying, “Golly, Ned! Would you come over here and rescue me from this person who wants to go on incessantly about significant other factors in the Crimean War.” And you do your important otherly duty and go over there and suggest that together you depart for the hors d’oeuvres table where they have just set out some incredible shrimp dip.

The subtle sign we are most familiar with is the Eyebrow Flash, in the right context. It’s used after we see someone at work or church and say hello, maybe ask about their health or comment on the weather. You know. If we see the same person that same day within a certain time period, we don’t have to go through the whole process again. We can simply smile and lift an eyebrow. It’s our choice as to which eyebrow to lift, but don’t try lifting both of them at once. The other person will think there is something wrong with them and they have frightened you.

And there are other weapons in the subtle sign arsenal, like the Teacher Stare of Death which has left many a student feeling as if there really death rays like they read about in sci fi comics, or the Eye Blink of Implacability which can mean anything ranging from “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” to “Huh?.” My favorite, though, is the Children’s Choir Hand Clap of the Restoration of Order, Quiet and Dignity, all in Just a Few Seconds. You know it and love it. Here’s the rhythm: Clap, clap. Clap-clap-clap. That was good! Give yourself a single clap.

I think that the spiritual connection for all this lies in God’s use of subtle signs to show us the way. It’s fairly clear that God does not generally knock people off horses with a burst of light or immolate pagan priests for effect these days. No, God seems to work in the realm of the “still, small voice.” It’s up to us, then, to clear away the noise and the clutter and listen for that voice. And while we’re listening, we just might catch sight out of the corner of our eyes a brief eyebrow flash. May we be attuned to see it. Amen.

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