October 29, 2000
Do you remember the game Pin the Tail on the Donkey? Being blindfolded and then spun around three times, you were asked to find your way to the paper donkey on the wall and then pin the tail in the appropriate place. Do you remember how confusing that was - that afterwards when the blindfold came off you were sure you had been in a different place?
A student with whom I work on campus shared with me recently an experience she had during the opening days of school this fall. While participating in a leadership training gathering the students were invited to do a trust walk. They were blindfolded and led around campus holding the hand of another student who directed them. "It was eerie," she said. "I was sure he wasn't going to lead me straight into a building but I still couldn't just confidently move forward. I took tiny steps trying to imagine where we were going but soon my sense of direction was lost. I had to trust in him. But . . . it didn't feel very comfortable."
Most of us have experienced a time being in our homes at night when the electricity has gone out. Wandering through our familiar dwelling looking for candles it is amazing how all of a sudden the hallways and rooms through which we are traveling seem a bit unfamiliar; our open eyes are severely limited by the darkness around us.
A friend of mine woke up one morning unable to see out of one eye. Her vision was fuzzy. It got worse. She went to an eye doctor and had many tests to determine what could be the problem. All the tests came back negative. Life continued to get blurry and even her other eye was slightly affected. "They think it might be a brain tumor" this mother of two told me in a terrified voice. It was a brain tumor. She had an operation to remove it and the good news is that her sight has been totally restored. A week after the surgery she told me that her priorities in life had radically changed because of this difficult journey she had experienced. "I see again," she said," and I'm so thankful. But, I'm most thankful because I feel like I see in a whole new way now. Everything has a new crispness about it; I delight in everything life brings me because I just feel so blessed to be here. God is very good."
When I was young there was a simple prayer I often said. It went like this: "God is great, God is good; now we thank him for our food." Saying this prayer as a young child I had no idea how much basic theology was contained in it. God is great, God is good, we give God thanks.
As a child it was quite reasonable for me to believe that prayer without question. Life seemed great and good. I was more than willing to give all credit to this God person and say my thanks. As I grew older I learned that all was not great and good in life; my view of the world changed quite radically. And yet, my childhood view of God did not change along with it. I still viewed God as the "in-charge person" and disillusionment crept into my faith. If God was in charge of the world then I sure was not impressed with God's management skills.
As I got older I recognized God's promise to us was one of presence not one of being a puppet-master bending the world's destinies on attached strings. Humans had free will; evil existed; God was not responsible for everything that happened. I knew this intellectually, but emotionally I still carried remnants of my childhood God who was invincible and could do anything he wanted. When bad things happened to good people, I wondered, what did that mean about God?
In 1990 a friend I had known since high school called to tell me that her husband had suffered a severe seizure and was in the hospital in a coma. This friend was 9 months pregnant and soon to deliver her 2nd child. I spent most of the next week and a half by her side, much of that time at the hospital. Her husband had major brain damage and many of his systems were failing; he would die soon. I had known her husband since high school as well. This was one of the major crises of faith in my life. As I came and went from the hospital in a daze I was only conscious of a repeating cry within me, "Why?" "Why?" I felt miles away from any life that believed in goodness and hope; I felt miles away from God.
Then, one evening I came out of the hospital to the rooftop parking lot. As I went to my car I looked up towards the west and saw a remarkable sunset that stopped me in my tracks. I stood there gazing wordlessly at this visible miracle of beauty and in that seeing something changed inside of me. I knew with a certainty that I would find life beautiful again; a sense of faith beyond any rational explanation told me that there were still things of good in the world. Life hadn't changed in that moment; but the way I was seeing it had.
These stories speak to us about what it is to have our sight partially or totally blinded. Whether by physical conditions or emotional trauma we are deeply affected when we cannot see in the way in which we are accustomed. It is confusing and disorienting. It challenges our sense of trust. It can narrow our world so that our vision only takes in what is hard and tragic. Even with our eyes open, we can experience darkness around us.
Those are the times where we experience some doubts about God's involvement in our lives. If God is good, why is this happening? If God is powerful, how can this be? Our desire to have a simplistic world where God is both good and in control of everything, is challenged by the reality of the suffering we see around us.
Bartimaeus was long familiar with darkness; his blind eyes had given him a beggar's life along the roadside. It was what he knew; there seemed to be no way out of such a life. He was used to being disregarded by those who passed him by or, on the really bad days, insulted, perhaps hit with a rock thrown by a petulant child. But, even though he had lost his eyesight, Bartimaeus could still hear. And he had been hearing stories of this man who healed; this man who accomplished miracles. In the hearing of these stories something happened inside of Bartimaeus. He began to have hope again; hope that another kind of life was possible. Even though many would have said such a lowly beggar was undeserving, Bartimaeus had heard this healer often befriended outcasts.
The days went by and Bartimaeus heard that this man Jesus was coming towards Jericho, not far from where he was. Each day the hope inside him grew bigger, the longing more intense. Without words to express it, Bartimaeus knew that some power within him was awakening and though not understanding it totally, he trusted it for it had a sense of new life that yearned for expression. For the first time in years, Bartimaeus had a renewed sense of faith in future possibilities. He shared this with a friend. His friend scoffed: "Oh come now, what makes you think you are special. Why would this Jesus, the healer, pay any attention to you?" Bartimaeus's spirit was somewhat dampened for he too had doubts that he was anywhere near being worthy enough to be noticed. But, the hope within him would not rest quietly.
The day came when Jesus and his disciples were passing by on the road where Bartimaeus was sitting. As they got closer, Bartimaeus felt the yearning within him grow bold and he shouted out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" "Oh, be quiet you beggar, " said someone nearby. "Shh, said another." But Bartimaeus had his attention focused only on one person, Jesus. A person he could not see, but whose presence he felt in a way that was different from any other experience he had had; it was a presence about which he immediately felt a sense of love and trust. He sent his voice out in search of that presence, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Jesus stood still and said to the others, "Call him here." And Bartimaeus's friend standing next to him said, "Bartimaeus, take heart; get up, he is calling you." The words were barely out of his mouth before Bartimaeus had sprung up and thrown off his cloak and with the help of people nearby was making his way to Jesus.
"My teacher, let me see again," the blind man said to Jesus, his whole being embedded in those words. Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Now the people that witnessed this stood around afterwards exclaiming how God was good, how Jesus was a wonderful miracle worker and healer. But, they were partially blind in their own way. For what Jesus had said to Bartimaeus was "your faith has made you well." Not the Father has made you well, not I have made you well, but your faith has made you well. It was the response of Bartimaeus to this encounter that brought healing.
There are other clues for us in this story about how to regain our sight and also signs of God's goodness.
Bartimeaus was bold enough to declare his need. He recognized that his years as a blind beggar had become the totality of his world; he could not see beyond it. As he realized the deep hole in which he dwelled he cried out: "Have mercy, Jesus, have mercy." His focus was on Jesus, not on what others thought. He knew that the transformation he wanted needed a miracle. He believed that Jesus was able to work miracles. He had faith that things beyond his understanding were possible. He ignored those around him who thought him not worthy or who scoffed at his belief that he might see again. He accepted the help of those around him who helped him move towards Jesus. When Bartimeaus regained his sight he did not turn around to go back from where he came; he followed Jesus. His life had a new focus; he had a new way of being.
The goodness of God was present in Bartimeaus; present in the very nature within him that recognized his sense of desperation with his world. God was present in Bartimeaus' deep longing for a different kind of life. The Spirit of God moved through the flicker of hope in Bartimeaus building its flame to burn brightly and be transformative. The power of being made in the image of God rejected Bartimeaus' concern that he was not worthy. God's power for new life is the good news. That power can be dampened, restrained, restricted or ignored by human conditions, but it never dies. That power allows us to see life differently, to act anew in ways we could not previously even imagine.
Our cry today could very well be, "Teacher, let us see again." Let us have our faith strong within us. Let us open up to your powerful love that transforms all human action. Let us have something to believe in that truly gives us sustenance. Have mercy on our blindness. Help us take heart and get up to answer your call. May our faith make us well. Such a cry calls out the need for relationship with God; not because God is in charge, but because of the life-giving power that comes with a commitment to such a relationship.
In hearing the psalm this morning a person could see it as reinforcing that sense of God being in charge: "I sought the LORD and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble." But listen carefully, God answered and the psalmist was delivered from his fears. God heard the cries and the psalmist was saved. It is in the listening and the hearing, the communication and interaction of the relationship that salvation happens. It is in the recognition of a deep connection to a Beloved that the pain of all else is diminished. Delivered from our fears and saved from our troubles does not mean we do not experience pain and suffering. But, it means that they do not hold entire focus over us and our lives; we are more than that with which we suffer, we are made in the image of God and we are loved by One who will never abandon us. That is what we are asked to understand as God's goodness. That is what we are asked to see.
When we say God is very good we are making a bold statement. We are declaring that even in the midst of a world full of suffering and tragedy, God is good. We are claiming that no matter what happens in our lives, there is this Goodness rooting for us, loving us and caring about what happens to us. The Christian faith contradicts that notion that life does not care one way or the other whether we sink or swim in it.
Frederick Buechner says: Heaven knows terrible things happen to people in this world. The good die young, and the wicked prosper, and in any one town, anywhere, there is grief enough to freeze the blood. But from deep within whatever the hidden spring is that life wells up from, there wells up into our lives, even at their darkest and maybe especially then, a power to heal, to breathe new life into us. And in this regard, I think, every person is a mystic because everybody at one time or another experiences in the thick of their joy or their pain the power out of the depths of their life to bless them. I do not believe that it matters greatly what name you call this power - the Spirit of God is only one of its names - but what I think does matter, vastly, is that we open ourselves to receive it; that we address it and let ourselves be addressed by it; that we move in the direction that it seeks to move us, the direction of fuller communion with itself and with one another."
Let us pray:
Good and Compassionate God, may we open our eyes to the new possibilities available for our lives and our world through a relationship with you. Help us to boldly remove our blinders and to trust in your guidance as we travel unknown paths. Strengthen our faith that we may believe that goodness is alive even in a world of turmoil and trouble. May we be proactive in bringing that goodness to fuller life as disciples of your love. Amen.