Once blind now seeing

The story of the healing of the man blind from birth (John 9:1-41) in the Gospel Reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent resonates with me in a very personal way.

 

Over the past four weeks I had cataracts surgery in both my eyes. Since then everyone I have met – those who have been familiar with my situation, that is – have been affectionately asking: “How are your eyes?” or “how is your vision?”. And I have responded, “Wonderful, thank you!” I can see that everyone is happy for me and my healing.

 

It is not the same for the man in the Gospel story. He is vilified, ridiculed, dismissed and even rebuffed: “It did not happen!” he is told. “You are not healed. You were born blind, you will always be blind”.

 

However, the man refused to be labeled. He knew what happened – he was healed, and he would not allow anyone to take that away. He was going to be who he was, not who others told him or wanted him to be. He affirmed – as we all ought to – the words of the hymn Amazing Grace: “I was once blind but now I see”.

 

That lesson came to me too in my post-surgery experience. When I went for a check-up after the surgery the nurse noticed a pair of glasses in my hand as I sat down for a vision test. “You are not still wearing those, are you?” she remarked almost in disbelief. “Oh, no!” I replied, “only for reading” The truth is that I have been so accustomed to wearing glasses that even after the surgery I still subconsciously think I need them. I have to remind myself constantly that I am healed, I don’t need the glasses. “I was once blind but now I see”.

 

The text also poses some questions that need answers: First, why did Jesus spit on the ground to make mud with which to heal the man? Did he need the mud for the healing? After all there are numerous situations when he simply spoke the word or did not even have to see the sick as in the case of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13).

 

There are several suggestions for this. First of all Jesus did not need an agent for healing. In the culture of his contemporaries, however, there was a belief that saliva had curing properties. While Jesus’ healing is not dependent on any agent, he was affirming to the blind man that the healing process was actually happening.

 

Secondly, and connected to this point, is the fact that this happened in Bethsaida. In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus laments the unbelief of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. In two other healing instances in that region, Jesus used physical agents besides his word. In Mark 7:33 he put his fingers into the ears of a deaf and mute man “then he spit and touched the man’s tongue”. Then in Mark 8:23-25 Jesus healed another in two stages. First he spit on the man’s eyes, then he put his hands on his eyes.

 

He used these agents to inspire faith in those he healed in the area of the Decapolis, the region of the ten Greek towns.

 

There is still another suggestion that Jesus used mud, or soil, or dust to demonstrate that healing, like creation (Genesis 2:7) proceeds from him.

 

Whether in this healing or any of the others in the Gospels, we learn that Jesus did not adhere to any specific formula. He used different methodologies as he chose. He is not bound by any one method.ImageImageImage

Jesus is the foundation in a frantic world

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Jacob’s Well in biblical Shechem (near present day Nablus) is the setting for the Gospel Reading for the Third Sunday in Lent (John 4:5-42). Actually John identifies the location as Sychar where Jacob, in Genesis 33:19, bought a piece of land when he arrived in Canaan from Paddan-aram. Jacob dug a well there and, before he died, gave that plot of land to his favorite son, Joseph (Genesis 48:22).

Actually these events took place in the region still known as Samaria today – Shomron in Hebrew – which sits between Judea (or Yehuda in Hebrew) in the south and Galilee in the north. Samaria today is part of the West Bank or the occupied territories, and its inhabitants are predominantly Arabs or Palestinians. As in the time of Jesus, travel between Judea and Galilee takes a route along the JordanValley to avoid going through Samaria.

You can still see Jacob’s Well today in ancient Shechem – I have been there several times. It is the only well in the area, and quite deep actually, and in the control of a Greek Orthodox church. And yes, you can draw water from the well using a bucket.

While at the site, the Samaritan woman’s words to Jesus will sound quite fresh:: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep”.

This geography and history leads us to the eternal message in the readings for this Sunday. The First Reading from Exodus 17:1-7 is also about this basic human need, one of the essentials for life – water. During their sojourn in the desert, the Israelites, faced with this essential need forgot the great act of liberation from bondage and turned against Moses (and God).”Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” they clamored.

Indeed in Numbers 21:5 they even complained “… there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (the manna) and in Numbers 11:4-6 they craved other food saying, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up; and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at”. Essentially they found it easier to cherish the  memories of the “goodies of slavery” as they faced their current hardships.

Life does present some challenges, and changes – including liberation – come with emotional, mental and physical pains. People in recovery are familiar with this reality when they struggle with the discipline of a new life in opposition to the familiarity of addiction and dependency.

The Samaritan woman in the Gospel Reading, like her ancestors (by the way, Samaritans descended from a mixed remnant of the Northern Kingdom) had the same physical needs we all share. She needed water, as we do, and may be she was at the well in search of other needs – that we are not told. She had had men in her life who undoubtedly provided for her.

What Jesus is offering is that foundation upon which everything in life finds security and satisfaction. Indeed, in the Epistle Reading from Romans 5:1-11, Paul points out that in Jesus there is peace of mind and joy. There is perseverance and hope. These are  life-savers in the hectic frenzy of everyday living. Water can be compared to a good life. We all seek it.  The basis and the foundation for the good life is Jesus Christ.

Excerpt from my forthcoming book

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SAME FAMILY, SAME FAITH, IMAGINED DIVISIONS

Like most of my generation, I did not choose my faith but grew in it. In Nduoni, the village on the slopes of Kilimanjaro where I grew up, one was either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. Actually, most of the villages were not even mixed; they were one or the other. While my parents were Lutheran, my aunts and cousins were Roman Catholic. My parents, especially my mother, played a major role in my faith.

Our church was about two miles from home and on Sundays we – kids – walked to Sunday school early. Halfway on the way home we met our parents on their way for their Sunday worship.

Children, and adults alike, called one another and waited for each other, going from house to house.. By the time we got to church we had called on everyone from our church who was on the same route. Nobody walked to or from church alone.

Christian celebrations like Baptism and Confirmation were similarly communal affairs. The confirmands or the children baptized went to one another’s home accompanied by their parents and godparents for prayers and celebration.

The Roman Catholic Church was almost three miles away and some from the village went to mass every day at six in the morning. That was an early hour in the village. I still remember meeting the same individuals every morning as they returned home from mass and I on my way to school.

Then there was the church bell, everyday – except Sundays – at 12 noon. At the first strike, everything came to a halt. Those weeding their gardens and the shopkeeper in his store, any bus or truck, all came to a standstill. The people came together in convenient groups and a leader emerged from each group and led the rest in reciting the Hail Mary. Everything seemed to be well synchronized, functioning like clockwork.

We were one family but divided by faith. My parents and uncles were Lutheran; my aunts and cousins were Catholic. It is fair to say that we held those differences dearly. Many did not know much about their denomination, in terms of doctrines, theology or history. A Catholic simply knew that he or she was not a Lutheran and a Lutheran knew he or she was not Catholic. We knew ourselves by who we were not rather than who we were.

I still remember my pastor’s Reformation Day sermons – from as early as I can recall. Year after year, his sermons called on the Catholic nuns to “come out of the convents and get married”. The most fervent argument I heard from my Catholic debaters was that Martin Luther left the Catholic church because he wanted to get married.

Ironically – for my childhood pastor at least – our Lutheran diocese would eventually open a convent and establish a community of nuns even though we referred to them as “Sisters”.

Occasionally a youngster switched allegiance from one’s faith of birth to the other and thereby became a news item in the village. The church that lost a youngster through this cross-over treated it as sabotage by the receiving church. This suspicion spilled over to family and community sensibilities.

I still remember those Sunday services almost dominated entirely by reactions to a defection. The sermon and the prayers were all directed at what was labeled vain adventure. Ultimately these cross-overs and defections turned out to be no more than rebellion by the youngsters against their parents and families. Sooner or later they were reversed and played out again and reversed.

It is obvious that, for everyone in that village and all the Wachagga of Kilimanjaro, one’s faith was ingrained in the family and the community. I was a Lutheran because my parents raised me that way. My cousins were Catholic because their parents raised them Catholic. Those claims were repeated for everyone on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of Cape Town once remarked that a person born in Saudi Arabia will most likely belong to Islam the same way one born in Italy would be a Catholic or one born in a Scandinavian country being a Lutheran.

Of course I have made my choices and decisions as I grew up – I am no longer Lutheran. Similarly, others of the same background have made decisions, to be confirmed in their childhood faith or another of their choice. The foundation that makes those decisions possible is the parents’ inculcation of principles of faith in their children.

By the time of my first visit to Jerusalem I was very ecumenical in outlook. It was a personal ecumenism though, and consisted of friendships with Catholic clerics, not officially sanctioned by our respective church bodies nor involving ecclesiastic practice. Jerusalem was not – and is not – by the way, ecumenical, but that is later.

When I discovered Fr. Deodatus from Uganda at the Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem (I have changed his name to respect his confidentiality) we immediately clicked and bonded. He became a good friend over the years, especially the years in Jerusalem. There was, on the one hand, a sense of freedom and secrecy with my clergy friends from the other side and on the other hand a sense of legalism on my side.

(to be continued)

Seeing people like trees, walking: Mark 8:24

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After what seemed like a lifetime, finally I had cataract surgery in my left eye this last Thursday. I am looking forward to the next couple of weeks when my right eye will also undergo the same procedure. I had waited for a long time for this surgery from the time I was informed I had cataracts in both eyes.

During this long time of waiting I was often frustrated because I could not recognize people twenty or so yards away. Sometimes, walking down the street, I would hear someone call my name, and unless I recognized the person’s voice – which often was not the case – I could not know who the person was. Indeed, if there was just a small group of people, all I could see was figures, silhouettes of people but I would not be able to identify them. Like the blind man in this story, I was seeing people, like trees walking.

Almost immediately after the surgery, I could even see colors on my computer screen, no longer simply black. I had gotten so used to my impaired eyesight I felt like it was just normal. For a long time I had not known that better world of vision.

Now, like the blind man in this story who was touched by Jesus, I can see everything clearly. I can hardly contain my elation. I have been telling this story over and over because I know the difference between then and now. I can even advise anyone who has been putting off having the procedure done to go ahead and do it now. You will like what you see.

But there is a higher dimension to this story. Jesus’ touch does restore not only visual but spiritual sight as well. After he has touched us, we can say, now we see clearly. Now we will be able to discern and to have insight, as well as foresight. We are not seeing things as mere images or shadows anymore.

Not only that, we have confidence in the healing power of Jesus. We can testify, even to those who are skeptical or dismissive. Think of that man born blind and healed by Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapter 9. People discounted his testimony, even labeling him and hurling insults at him, but he refused to be defined by others, because he knew, he had no doubts about what Jesus had done to him.

Being able to see clearly, after Jesus’ touch, is the most joyous experience of this life.

The transfiguration in preparation for carrying the cross

ImageImageImageIsrael is a land of spectacular geographical sites. Places like Makhtesh Ramon, the Dead Sea, Mount Carmel or the Judaen Desert are awe-inspiring. The view of the Jezreel Valley from the church on the Mount of the Transfiguration is one such breathtaking site of spiritual and visual splendor. The first time there, I simply wanted to bask in that serene atmosphere, meditate forever, or simply just be there and forget the world.

I could feel the tranquility and serenity that Peter, James and John experienced when Jesus took them up there, as Matthew 17:1-9 records in the Gospel Reading for the Last Sunday after Epiphany. Indeed, Matthew’s story replicates, in many ways, the First Reading in Exodus 24:12-18.

In the First Reading, Moses and Joshua went up Mount Sinai. The glory of the Lord – Shechinah – covered the mountain for six days and “Moses entered the cloud,…and was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights”. The purpose of Moses’ ascent to the mountain was to receive guidance and instructions for God’s people.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus was transfigured “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Then Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain and were conversing with Jesus.

Even if the Transfiguration is not a reworking of the Exodus story, there is something symbolic in the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Six days earlier, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, to which they responded, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets”.

In the Transfiguration story therefore, Jesus is seen as representing every aspect of Moses’ ministry and all the prophets. In his own words, Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Similarly, in his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Jesus is the telos; the means to the fulfillment.

So, what do we learn from this Sunday’s lessons? In the Collect, we pray that “beholding by faith the light of Jesus’ transfiguration, we may be strengthened to bear our cross…” The cross is not borne on the mountaintop, in splendor. In other words, we are not called to the mountaintop to build booths and establish residences. We are called to the mountaintop to be equipped, strengthened and energized.

Then we must go down to serve, to witness, to equip and energize – in short – to carry our cross. In most cases, this means getting dirty, in contrast to the glitz of the mountaintop.

When we come together to worship and for Holy Communion, we are equipped, strengthened and energized. We taste the glory of the mountaintop and our fellowship with Christ. After that, we are dismissed into the world to serve and to carry our cross.