It is now Tuesday evening, and you have had a powerful and beautiful day of prayer. You began the day with prayer, saying the “I am here” prayer before you even got out of bed. You turned off the radio on the turnpike and spent time meditating on your favorite hymn: Amazing Grace. At work, you paused to do a lectio divina – a holy reading – of your place of work, and you have felt all day less anxious, less intimidated, and more at peace than you have before. Now as evening approaches, you are meeting some friends downtown for dinner and to watch the basketball game. You find a great parking spot, where on the short walk to the restaurant, you see him. Right by Signs of Life on Mass, by the pedestrian path with the mural. He is sitting on the ground, holding a cardboard sign: “Born blind. Any money helps. God bless.”
“Come on, God! Our Tuesday of prayer was going so awesome! So now what? What am I supposed to do here? How am I supposed to pray here?”
The man sat in the dirt by the side of the road. Blind from birth, his whole life had been one of relying upon others. People would stream by, some stopping to put something into his cup, most hurrying by, barely noticing the man. Then a man stopped and squatted on the ground by him. Without much fanfare, he spat on the ground, kneaded the mud into paste, and then put it on the man’s eyes. He whispered in his ear to go to the healing pool and wash off and he would see.
And he did. And it was.
And everybody lost their minds.
Of course, the principle actors in this story are the blind man and the healer, Jesus. This event seems pretty normal for them. But no one else in the story can reconcile the reality of visible brokenness with their sense of faith and faith practice. And so they all lost their minds.
The disciples were first. Reality didn’t fit their theology of morality. “Who sinned so that this man is blind? Him or his parents?” For the disciples, when someone was in need, it was probably their own fault. Brokenness equals punishment from God. It made it easier for them to blame the man if they imposed a mentality of morality to him.
Perhaps we can relate. When we see the guy with the sign on Mass Street, we start to moralize. Is he sitting here because his family didn’t want to help him? Or because he was too lazy to get a job? Because those are the only options. When we look to those who are destroyed by the broken systems of our world, is the first thing that we think: “sinner”? Do we blame those on the street corners for their situation? Or those who are forced to live at the shelter for not working hard enough (even though many or most of the shelter residents are currently working)? Or the sick in our world for not having enough health insurance? Like the disciples, it is easy to blame the victim.
The townspeople were next. Reality didn’t fit their theology of apathy. They talked amongst themselves: “Is this the same guy? This must be someone else.” They had not even paid enough attention in all the times that they walked by him on the road to know if it was really him or not!
Again, we can relate. When we pass by the guy with the sign, how often do we want to simply avoid the situation. We avoid eye contact or connection of any kind. Best move by quickly and get to the game. Maybe we whisper to ourselves Jesus’ words, “you will always have the poor with you.” After all, it is easier to whisper that than what he said 10 verses earlier, that when we ignore the “least of these,” we ignore Christ himself. Misinterpreting Jesus words about the poor is a convenient way to stick to our apathy. And, like the townspeople, we don’t ever slow down enough to even see their faces.
Next were the Pharisees. Reality didn’t fit their theology of piety. If you say the right prayers and worship in the right way, everything will be okay. If you break these rules of piety, then bad things will happen to you. When Jesus healed him, they simply couldn’t fathom it. The story gets comical when you count up how many times they demand that the man tell his story: “I was blind but now I see!” It didn’t compute for them because it didn’t fit into their narrative of piety. This isn’t the way this is supposed to go. They simply couldn’t get it.
We hate to admit we are like the Pharisees, but how often does it happen? I know I have been guilty of what I call “the platitude of ‘thoughts and prayers.’” When we hear a painful story of suffering and pain, we mumble the pious phrase: “you are in my thoughts and prayers”? Now, prayer is good, but it can also be a meaningless platitude. In other words we are saying, “I’ll pray for you instead of doing something that I could do to actually help you. Advocate for you. Care for you. Act for you.” Like the Pharisees, we choose piety over investment.
Finally, there were the man’s parents themselves. For them, reality didn’t fit into their theology of authority. You would think that they would be ecstatic that their son was healed, right? But they were terrified. Verse 22 says that they were “afraid of the Jews.” Of course, you have to understand what John means here, because they were Jews. The blind man was a Jew. Jesus and his disciples were Jews. Everyone in the story was a Jew! But what John means is the Jewish authorities. The preachers. The religious executives. They were terrified that the religious authorities were going to blame them or associate them in their witch hunt for Jesus, so they avoided the whole thing. “Go talk to him. We weren’t there; don’t ask us.” They were terrified of authority.
Again, we do the same. We see the guy on the sidewalk and ask “Why won’t the City do something about these people? Or the County? Or someone? It isn’t my responsibility, so don’t ask me!” We recognize it as a systemic problem, but we don’t want to take part in the hard work of system solutions. It is easier to rationalize and walk away.
All four groups of people could not reconcile the suffering they saw and Jesus’ response to it with their sense of faith and faith practice. In the same way, we cannot reconcile the visible brokenness in our world with our sense of faith and faith practice: “How am I supposed to pray, God?”
But, there is another way.
In the passage, when reality didn’t fit into their theology, Jesus gave them a new theology. Jesus gave them new eyes to see and new ears to hear!
First, this is a story about seeing. John plays with these concepts of sightedness and blindness. The man is blind until Jesus heals him. The Pharisees think that they are the only ones seeing correctly, but Jesus calls them blind. Jesus refers to himself as the Light of the World, helping all to see. Sight is a critical concept.
Jesus is calling people to see in a new way. Jesus is calling people to a new way to understand God. The disciples, who saw this man and immediately assumed: “sinner.” But Jesus tells them: “wrong answer!” He is redefining the categories of sin and salvation here. Instead of assuming that sin is bad behavior, and salvation is an action taken to excuse or atone for that behavior, Jesus calling us to see in a new way. Sin is participating in the systems of a broken world, and salvation consists of all of the ways that God is working to transform that brokenness into healing and restoration, including (and most importantly) sending Jesus into it! Salvation is all about transformation, and seeing the world in the way that God created it in the first place. Jesus gave them new eyes to see!
And Jesus gave them new hears to hear. This story has three parts: the healing event in chapter nine, the discussion at the end of the chapter, and the sermon or discourse by Jesus in Chapter 10. It is in that sermon that we hear Jesus famous metaphor about the sheep and the Good Shepherd. “The sheep follow the Shepherd because they know his voice.” For Jesus, the life of faith is one of listening and responding. Of following the Shepherd through the gate. Instead of looking at reality and trying to fit it into old theology – of morality or of apathy or of piety or of authority – Jesus came to give them new ears to hear!
Jesus healed this man in a way that confused and befuddled everyone else in the story. But it was for Jesus a way to say, “this is the way it is supposed to be. This is normal! It is your theologies that don’t fit with reality. Get on board and join the party!”
So it is with us. When our reality doesn’t fit our theology and our faith practice, perhaps it is we who need to open our eyes and our ears! Again, in our series on the practice of prayer, this is our good news: instead of looking with morality eyes, or apathy eyes, or piety eyes, or authority eyes, prayer gives us Jesus eyes.
Frank Laubach, a brilliant missionary and writer on prayer, writes about what he calls open windows. He says “I must be as wide open toward people and their need as I am toward God. Windows open outward as well as upward. Windows open especially downward where people need the most.” Are your windows open to those in our world, as much as they are to God? Prayer must be about seeing with Jesus eyes, with eyes peeled for God’s transformation and not judgment. With open windows to the light. Do we see with Jesus eyes?
Meanwhile, prayer gives us a new way to hear. Prayer gives us “sheep ears.” The Good Shepherd metaphor is such a great model of prayer: “The sheep follow the Shepherd because they know his voice.” Like a sheep who has been trained to listen to the voice of the shepherd, ready to listen to those gentle promptings, and trusting that the shepherd knows best, we too, we listen in prayer to the promptings of God. And, like the sheep, once we hear, we follow.
Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey write that St. Francis, who lived and wrote seven centuries ago, gives us a wonderful model of this kind of prayer. St. Francis was a master of prayer, but not of formal or structured prayer. He didn’t have much use for formal prayer. Instead, he prayed with an openness and willingness to be led by God wherever he felt the Spirit was calling. In other words, he prayed with Jesus eyes and sheep ears. And he gives us a model of prayer that we can use:
- Don’t set limits on prayer. Don’t think about prayer only as the time when you sit down with your Bible and a cup of coffee, or in a worship service, or a prayer meeting. Open yourself to prayer throughout the day, being willing to go where the Spirit goes, and not just when you intentionally sit down to pray. Pray as you go. Open your windows.
- Shoot prayer arrows. Offer spontaneous silent prayers to God as if you were shooting arrows as you go. Pray for those who you experience along your day. When you smell the beautiful aroma of spring flowers, thank God. When you hear an ambulance, pray for the victim and the first responders. When you see a person in need, pray for God to be present in their lives. When you read of a concern in the world, be sensitive to ways that God might be inviting you to meet it.
- Finally, listen to the Spirit. Perhaps God is prompting you to be Jesus to those whom you meet. Listen to that prompting. It was in this way that Francis lived…and prayed.
Francis was a great example of St. Benedict – who lived and wrote prayer seven centuries before him – who first used the phrase, in Latin: “Ora et Labora.” It is best translated as “Pray and Work.” It is a model of prayer that is not simply based on a life of listening to God, but also the actions that we take as a part of life of listening. It recognizes there must be a balance in our life between prayer and action. Between relationship and restoration. Between hearing and healing. There is a danger if our windows only open up. We must have our ears open for the promptings of the Good Shepherd, and then follow him through the gate! Now, I cannot tell you what those promptings will be when you see that person on the street: Buy them a meal? Tell them about the shelter? Use your encounter as a catalyst to give to the shelter or Willow Domestic Violence shelter or LINK? Work on behalf of the affordable housing effort so that those in need can find a permanent and not just temporary place to live? I cannot tell you what God will whisper to you, but that God will whisper, if you have ears to hear. And respond.
I had lunch with Dave Nordlund this past week. I asked him if it would be okay to talk about our conversation, and he readily agreed. If you happen to be new enough to not know Dave, you should get to know him. He is a great example of Ora et Labora. He has a vibrant and profound faith, but he is also a doer. He has been a church member for decades, and just a year or two retired from running the sound booth and, well, half of the church. At lunch, he was sharing with me some of his favorite images for God, including God’s hand. As he talked about God’s hand on his life, guiding and blessing him, I had a mental image of the blind man.
Here he sat, by the side of the road, listening for someone to come and drop something in his cup. It was rare that someone would brush up against him – usually no one ever touched him. Until one day. When a man stopped and squatted next to him. He could hear his breathing, and hear that he was doing something in the dirt. Then, it felt it. The touch of his hand. Covering his face, he felt the cool mud over his eyes. And then he heard the whisper from the man – sending chills down his spine. Go and wash and you will be healed. The man would never forget the touch of that hand.
May we feel God’s hands upon our lives and rejoice in that healing touch.