Monday, 2 March 2015

Crosswalk VI -- Our trouble with seeing

One of the commonly performed miracles recorded for us in the Gospels was the restoring of sight, moving from blindness to sight. Perhaps the reason for this particular emphasis is the fact that people in their natural fallen stage are spiritually blind. Like literal blindness, seeing nothing, spiritual blindness hinders us to see God anywhere. In fact, the spiritual journey of discipleship perhaps can best be understood as moving from God seeing nowhere, to a place where we expect to see him, to seeing God everywhere. Something we had not taken into account, had not seen explained everything in a different way. When we begin to see more fully many thing will change. When we see differently, we interpret differently, we react differently, intend differently, and finally live differently.

An Eye for an Eye will leave the world Blind. -Ghandi
One of the most unsettling passage for Christians is certainly found in John 9; normally described;

 "A Man Born Blind Receives Sight"

But I think that to be a rather unfortunate headline. Because it helps us to overlook the otherwise obvious question; to which group of people do we belong? Is it the one that is pushing its agenda and therefore not asking the right question; to which group do I belong? After all, the story is about several groups of people and their various level and forms of blindness; first the blind man, than the very religious people [disciples as well as Pharisees], the neighbours and finally the parents of the man.

As much as John 9 is about a physical blind man receiving sight, the wonder that had been done to him on the surface, on a deeper level it is about spiritual blindness, it is about the spiritual darkness he comes out of while other remain. And therefor the story is about us who address Jesus as; "Lord, Lord." David Benner to our dislike points out, even though we may desire to be more discerning,
"egocentricity and self-control are fundamental dynamics of the human condition. We know we are suppose to surrender to God's will [and work] and may genuinely want to, but most of us continue to face the almost irresistible tendency to assert our own will [and work]. We overhear Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane --"Not my will but thine be done"-- but have trouble making it our own." 

Asking the wrong question because of a wrong foundation

What should have been a day of celebration for the community, after all, one among them was restored, was healed, deteriorated into a day of accusation, controversy, fear, and expulsion. Unfortunately, what prevented his parents, friends, neighbours, religious leaders and disciples from recognizing and responding to God's loving nature among them is not all that different what prevents us from recognizing God's work for us today.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  Being seen by Jesus opens up all kinds of possibilities.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
What an interesting theological and philosophical questions the disciples raise, worthy of much debate and many books, yet a question totally out of touch with the situation and the suffering of the man. The disciples who should have been seeing spiritually more clearly were the once who were most blind and out in touch with Jesus' heart for this man. "...who sinned, this man or his parents"? is certainly not a very compassionate and caring question, it does not show concern for the well-being of this man. Rather, he becomes an object lesson for their intellectual curiosity that allows them to remain passive in light of suffering. They place their questions between this man and them, between his situation and their calling as Christ followers. Instead of going to the man, seeing this as an occasion to care for this man they want to pass on blame; "Rabbi,who sinned, this man or his parents?" Rabbi, teacher!

The disciples, for all their closeness to Jesus, had not arrived to see Jesus for who he truly was and did not understand his mission. They, like all the people around them were caught in a kind of blindness that was more hindering than the debilitating blindness of this man. It was holding them back because, unlike the blind man, they did not recognized their spiritual blindness. It was a "structural blindness" brought about through a belief system they grow up in. Their thinking and therefor the question who sinned, this man or his parents, was shaped by what would be called today outdated and religious superstitions. And this man made structure framed the situation so narrowly that God had almost no space in it, but the space of judgement. This was the accepted system of cause and effect and the limit of a generally shared way of thinking (cf. Job). This systemic way of thinking had eventually produced a sub-floor of sort over the foundation, leading to wrong assumptions and questions, who sinned, this man or his parents?
And this is the way the man saw himself, his blindness was caused by either his sin, a sin he would not able to name, or a sin done by his parents. Can we see the effect that must have had on his self-image, his relationship to his parents? But then the lights went on, and he saw God and he knew that God saw him in his suffering and brokenness. Healing of relationships could happen because God was in the picture. He was set free from the external world around him but also from his internal world of his own making.

A better question, in fact a question that almost always is better; What does God want to do in this situation, and how can I get involved, in light of the brokenness and impossibility of the human condition but also God's goodness? But in order to ask that question we need a deep belief in the goodness of God apart form the circumstances and even our negative experiences with "the church." Many of us got hurt in life and have become "self-made people," we relay on ourselves as long as possible. Truth be told, we don't really want to trust other people with our fears, doubts, limitations, failures but ourselves. This attitude is present in the blaming and deflective question; "who sinned?"

How can we give ourselves to someone we are not sure will be good to us? What made David a man after God's own heart was not his murderous past, sex addiction and tendencies to idolatry, but that he ultimately trusted God's judgement and His goodness.

God's word is not sugarcoating the reality of failure and yet growth of the disciples. Yes, there is evil in the world, but do not be theoretical about it. Yes, there is sin in the world with all the tragic consequences, but what good comes from the blame game? Yes there is a complex web of cause-and-effect in the human experiences, but that does not excuse us from loving.

And so we don't need beside a deep believe in the goodness of God that love is our ultimate destiny, and to love our ultimate calling -- love for God, love for self, love for others [including our enemies] and love for creation. I think there is no other true measure of authenticity for us as disciples of Christ than love. 

That we are to love God and others is the one thing we can be sure is the will of God in all circumstances and for all people. And we see that, rather than simply seeing the suffering, Jesus goes to the man and takes direct and immediate action no matter what the personal consequences.

Great Wall of China by zeushadesposeidon
Great Wall of China by zeushadeposeidon
The structural blindness of the disciples that lead to inaction and the wrong question, in spite of their closeness to Jesus, is sobering because it demonstrates that even those who are on a spiritual journey for some time can still miss the point, -- especially if they are living and breathing the same belief system and cultural influences together.

The next group are the well-minded neighbors who for some reason had difficulties to see the now seeing man as their neighbour. The neighbours, like we all are, were afflicted with cognitive filters. These filters help us to categorize and to make sense of what we see, of reality. The problem is that these filters have been developed over many years of interacting with life in the same way. And because these filters are something we are not fully aware of they prevent us from seeing anything new or of entering any new data into our consciousness without being filtered, viewed with a level of suspicion. Just like William Barclay in his commentary on the New Testament, we talk ourselves out of new possibilities by questioning whether that ever happened.

"We only see what we are ready to see, expect to see, and even desire to see. We are even more stuck when we are with others who share the same paradigm" (Ruth H. Barton). There is the danger that we too like the people in this story are colluding and protect the comfortable status quo and to avoid to confront what is beyond the accepted knowledge and experience. In fact, the very religious and powerful group of the Pharisees were most guilty of eventually dismissing the work of God altogether. Any deviation from the status quo, any challenges, any doubts, any question, any non-conformity to the established paradigm of cause and effect, of judgement was answered with expulsion. The power to drive someone out, to dismiss, to denigrate and undermine what a person,particularly a new person, brings, in one way or the other is a power leaders have. The Pharisees had surrounded themselves with those who are blind in the same way they were. They were so caught up in the power of groupthink that they couldn't see things differently. Here, anyone who challenge what was already thought would be put out of the synagogue, and so the fear of no longer belonging, "keeping peace," kept even the parents quite. They too were not to be part of the prophetic witness.

This is how paradigms, system of thoughts (structural blindness, groupthink), rigidly held categories of black and white, and unquestioning loyalty to tradition function. On the one hand, they give as a sense of security and belonging to something bigger than ourselves, they make sense of our lives so that we can function within that sphere. But on the other hand, they have the power to filter out the unexplainable, the new, the unwanted new thought. In John 9 they filtered out God himself!

Therefore, a better heading would be "a man on his costly journey to seeing who Jesus truly is."

9:11 Jesus a man
9:17 Jesus is called a prophet
9:33 Jesus is called a man from God
9:38 Jesus is called Kupios, Lord and is being worshiped.

The healed man was on his own spiritual journey. While everyone around him was asking all the wrong questions, arguing and trying to trip the other person up, while holding tied to the party line, the healed man was on a journey of increased insight and understanding into who Jesus actually is.

But this came at a high price. Although he can see now, he no longer has a belonging. It would have been easier to fit in a group, after all he could see now, than it is to fit in with the truth. When we encounter God in ways that do not fit the accepted paradigm, we might find ourselves at the outside. That look like bad news, and is certainly not easy, but it there that Jesus looks for him and finds him.

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”...“If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

The punch line! In what light do we want to be seen and see ourselves in; for only those who admit their blindness see!? Those who are convinced that they know already everything that can be known, that they see everything that can be seen, and stubbornly refuse to learn will remain stand still. This event shows that understanding has a humble beginning. It starts with an admission, with the admission that we are not all that good at seeing something new. It begins with remembering that we are capable of being short-sighted (cf. 2 Pet 1:8f), and we are ourselves are an obstacle we need to overcome. Humility begins when we acknowledge the fact that we lack the wisdom we need and that without divine intervention, without Jesus actually looking for us, finding us outside a soul-numbing clamor of a "religious" community we will know not enough.

Jesus' words reveal simple beauty, God's goodness and generosity. Yet this simplicity also lays bare evil without numbers, anxiety or presumption, inferiority or superiority, manipulation or withholding, miserliness or indulgence. Jesus words should make us stop, inform our interior world of self-thought and see ourselves in the gaze of God. His words invite us to further thoughts and observation. Simple, in fifty words or less, Jesus captures truth and lies, human hope and its misery, true hope and false hope in whatever configuration or combination possible. He judges every illusory way, every pretender of truth, every claim of wisdom that eventually chokes out the very life it claims to love. Yet all the personal application, details need to be discovered and be named by us. That is what it means to pick up our cross daily and to follow the Truth.

Jesus' words does nor ignore, erase or normalizes our human condition but speaks them back to us for us to hear. With hearing, seeing and accepting in humility begins growth, when we begin to get in touch with our blindness and are willing to cry out from a place of brokenness our eyes are opened.
It takes humility, a great willingness to have a healthy openness to ask questions, spiritual insight, self-awareness and a helping hand to see Jesus for who he is otherwise we end up with nothing more than the god of our own small minds.

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