26 March 2017

Sight Unseen

Fourth Sunday in Lent

“Look, with all your eyes, look.”  So wrote Jules Verne (1828-1905), the French adventure writer, in his novel Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar, written in 1876.  These words come at a moment when the main character is about to be blinded.

“Look, with all your eyes, look.” They could have been said by Jesus.  Or John. It’s what John’s Gospel wants from us.  Look.  Observe.  Perceive.  See, not the surface of things, but into the depths.  Allow your sight to sink deep into what stands before you.  John invites us to see with our eyes, yet with more than our eyes.  He summons us to observe what’s not obvious, to perceive what’s not immediately apparent.  Poets know how to do this.  Artists and novelists, too.  Sometimes philosophers, even theologians show us how to see, less with our eyes than with our hearts, the eyes of the heart, the eyes of the soul.  The great Renaissance writer Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) called us “…to see with the eyes of the soul, the soul of things.”[1]

John wants us to see Jesus.  Really see him.  And that’s not easy.  Seeing isn’t always believing.  Sometimes you can see and still be blind.  Sometimes being formerly blind is an advantage because one later perceives things in different ways.  John intentionally plays with metaphors of sight and blindness in this brilliant, somewhat comical story of the man born blind.

We don’t know much about the man.  He was a beggar.  He was probably a familiar sight near the pool of Siloam.  Jesus’ disciples noticed the man and start to engage in a theological discussion on the nature of sin and suffering—all at his expense, mind you!  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It’s a natural question.  We love to find fault, blame someone, blame God for suffering, for illness.  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  In order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day” (Jn. 9:3-4).[2]  Jesus wasn’t saying that God caused his blindness in order to reveal something through him.  He’s just blind.  Jaime Clark-Soles, in her wonderful book on John’s Gospel, tells Christians to, “Stop repeating stupid stuff about sin and suffering.”[3] Just stop.  The man was blind.  Asking who was to blame is a waste of time.  Instead, be attentive to what’s before you. Now.

Jesus didn’t ask the man if he wanted to be healed.  He just healed him.  He mixed saliva and some mud and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.  Then he said, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”  He was sent.  And he went.  And washed.  And when he came back he was able to see—and that’s when everyone started freaking out!

His neighbors didn’t recognize him because they identified him with his condition, with his disability.  His identity was wrapped up in his blindness. And because they only saw his disability, he became blind to them.  And so now they’re blind. They can’t see him.  “It can’t be him,” they say.  They only know him as the blind beggar and because this man can see, it can’t be him.  Some said, “It is he.”  But others said, “It must be someone who looks like him.”  “No, no, it’s me,” he says.  “I am the man!” But they still can’t see him.  “How?” they ask.  “The man called Jesus.”  “Where is he?”   “I do not know.” 

Then the religious authorities get involved because they’re furious.  Jesus had the nerve to heal on the Sabbath, of all days! The Pharisees, sticklers for the Jewish Law, were more concerned that Jesus dishonored the Sabbath than the healing of the formerly blind beggar.  They’re not celebrating his ability to see.  The Pharisees don’t like him healed, as his healing was a threat to their authority.  It’s an affront to the system.  So they say, “Well maybe he really wasn’t born blind.  Let’s talk to his parents.”  But his parents are of no help, because they’re afraid of the Pharisees.  “Ask him; he is of age,” the parents says.  “He will speak for himself.”  So the Pharisees go back to the blind man and ask, “How could Jesus, someone who violated the Sabbath, therefore a sinner, how could someone like him bring about healing?”  “One thing I do know,” the man answers, “that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn. 9:25). The formerly blind man tried to teach the Pharisees, which they didn’t like so much.  So they drove him out.

When Jesus heard that he had been driven out of the synagogue, he went to find him and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  “And who is he, sir?  Jesus said, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  And he said, “Lord, I believe, I trust in you.” And he began to worship Jesus.  “I came into this world for judgment,” Jesus said, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (Jn. 9:39).

Now we begin see that while this story is about a man who regains his sight, it’s also about something more.  It’s not only about a physical healing.  The physical is an entrée into the spiritual, because it’s spiritual blindness that Jesus is trying to heal.  Spiritual blindness cannot see the work and presence of the Spirit in the world.  This kind of blindness prevents us from seeing Jesus as the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14).  This kind of blindness cannot see the light of the world shining in our midst.  This kind of blindness is oblivious to God’s kingdom right before our eyes.

What causes this kind of blindness in us?  Are you, am I, are we spiritually blind?  We each have blind spots.  That’s for sure.  “Look, with all your eyes, look.”  That’s easier said than done.  It’s been said, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” First coined by the sixteenth century playwright, John Heywood (c.1497 – c.1580), the rest of the saying goes like this, “The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.”

Sometimes we can’t see what’s in front of us because we don’t expect to see it. This is called “inattentional blindness.” It’s not a physical defect or a disease; it’s a condition.  Psychologically, it’s caused by poor attention.[4]  For example, there several awareness tests, videos that demonstrate how this works, which you can find online.  Here’s one:  

There are two teams of four, one wearing white, the other black.  There are two basketballs.  The two teams start to move about on the court and you’re asked to count the number of times the team in white passes the ball to each member of their team.  After several seconds, they stop.  You’re asked for the answer.  The correct number is given.  Then you’re asked, did you see the man dressed as a bear doing a moonwalk across the screen?  What?  Huh?  Reverse the video and there you see him, a man in a bear suit doing a moonwalk (like Michael Jackson) across the screen and waving as he goes.[5]  Most people don’t see the bear because they’re not told to look for it, which is the point of the exercise.  By following the directions to focus on the number of passes, we miss everything else going on in front of our eyes. This is called “cognitive capture” or “cognitive tunneling.” 

When we focus too much upon what is before us, our view is narrowed, constricted. We see only what we think we’ll see or want to see, instead of what is really there.  When we look too hard and narrowly focus on what we think we need to look at, it’s easy to miss what’s before us.

But there’s another way to see.  In her sublime classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard dedicates an entire chapter to seeing.  (This remarkable, extraordinary book has had an enormous influence in my life.)  Dillard spent a year living along Tinker Creek, near Roanoke, VA, and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of what she discovered there, watching, observing, reflecting, exploring. If one way of seeing is gained through intense concentration, narrow focus, “cognitive capture” and “cognitive tunneling,” looking really hard, the other way of seeing Dillard says, “involves a letting go.  When I see this way,” she says, “I sway transfixed and emptied.”  It’s the difference between walking with and without a camera.  “When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter,” moving from frame to frame.  When I walk without a camera, my own shutter”—her eyes—“opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut.  When I see this way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.”[6] Letting go, relaxing the eye, allows her to see something new.

Dillard is fascinated with Marius von Senden’s book Space and Sight, written in 1932. When Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth.  Space and Sight tells the stories of what it was like for people to see for the first time, to experience light and color and spatial dimension.  There’s one account, from a young girl, which captivated Dillard.  “When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind” saw a tree.  And this is how she described it; she said, she saw “‘the tree with the lights in it.’”  The tree with the lights in it.  A tree ablaze.  What did she see?  Who knows? With no preconceived notions of what she expected to see, she saw a tree—yet more than a tree, a tree that dazzled her in the sunlight.

This story, this image becomes a symbol for Dillard’s own spiritual quest.  She wants to find the equivalent in her life, to let go in order to see something more than a tree, to see the “the tree with the lights in it.”  She writes, “It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing,” she says, “than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. Dillard says, “I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”[7] 

This!  I resonate so much with this experience.  Eyes that see more than they can tell.  Isn’t that what the light of the world gives to our eyes?

Jesus notices us sitting along the road, blind beggars that we are. He sees us.  And we are seen.  He opens our eyes.  He illumines our lives, allowing us to see ourselves, our neighbors, the world, even God in a whole new light.  With our new eyes, our “born again” eyes (Jn. 3:3), we come to see who he really is.  “I am the light of the world,” Jesus said.  “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). 

In and with and through his light our eyes—the eyes of our heart, the eyes of the soul—are able to see more than we can tell, more than we could ever imagine. 

Image:  Healing of the Man Born Blind (4th century), sarcophagus, Pio Cristiano Museum, Vatican.

[1] Cited in James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 201. I first came across the Ficino quote in Hillman, when I was in college, and it has stayed with me ever since.
[2] In the NRSV, John 9:3 is translated, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  However, the Greek text omits “he was born blind.”  I’m using Jaime Clark-Soles’ translation in Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 48ff.
[3]Clark-Soles, 48, 57.
[4] Siri Carpenter, “Sights Unseen,” Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association, April 2001 (Vol. 32, No. 4): 254. 
[6] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial, 2016), 36. Emphasis mine.
[7] Dillard, 29, 39.  Emphasis mine.  See also, Marius von Senden, Space and Sight: The Perception of Space and Time in the Congenitally Blind Before and After Operations (Free Press, 1932, 1960).

12 March 2017

Born Again and Again

Second Sunday in Lent

Ninety miles north of Catonsville Presbyterian Church, about twenty miles northeast of Lancaster, PA, is the town of Ephrata.  There’s a National Historic Landmark there known as The Ephrata Cloister.  This religious community was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), a German Pietist who emigrated from Germany, in 1720.  Pietism was a movement in German Protestantism that sought to reform the state supported Protestant churches.  Pietist groups, which gathered to read the Bible and to pray, were not sanctioned by the state churches.  Pietists were interested in personal piety, in personal spiritual growth and development.  Beissel had a religious experience, and not long after that he was forced to leave Germany, in 1715.  He made his way to Germantown, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) and then to Ephrata, where he became associated with the Anabaptist Brethren.  

The Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, PA
Beissel eventually organized a religious community for people who were interested in a spiritual life, living apart, cloistered away from the rest of society.  At its height, there were about 400 residents of the community.  They lived and worked and worshipped together.  They held all things in common.  There were celibate members and entire families living together.  If, today, you walk through the cloister graveyard, you will find on many gravestones three dates: the date of birth, the date of death, and in between the two—the date when that member was born again.

Born again.  Are you born again?  It’s a designation that’s probably foreign to most Presbyterians and Mainline Protestants, although some would describe themselves this way.  The phrase became popular in 1976 when President Jimmy Carter started talking about being born again.  I remember, back in the 1980s, being asked, “So, when were you born again?”  The question made me feel uncomfortable.  No one had ever asked that of me before.  I knew what he was getting at. He wanted to know about my conversion experience, when I confessed Christ as Lord and became a Christian.  He wanted the date and time. 

But, I grew up Presbyterian!  My family, on my mother’s side, has been Presbyterian since the sixteenth century in Scotland; on my father’s side, Hungarian Reformed from at least the early nineteenth century.  I was in church every Sunday as a boy.  I never once missed a day of church school—and I have the perfect attendance awards to prove it.  I was a deacon when I was high school, an elder when I was in college.  But no one, ever, told me that I needed to be born again.  

Horace Bushnell
Like many Presbyterians, I suspect, I was the product of the nineteenth century Sunday School movement, shaped (in part) by the teachings of the Protestant theologian Horace Bushnell (1802-1876).  Known as the “father of American religious liberalism,” Bushnell was suspicious of pietism and religious awakenings and revivals.  In his classic work, Christian Nurture (1847), Bushnell said that children raised in authentic Christian homes and churches simply, naturally grow up to be Christians. “[A] child grow[s] up never knowing when he wasn’t a Christian.”[1] According to Bushnell, there’s no need for a dramatic conversion experience or a radical decision of faith.

If you can relate to this, if this was your experience growing up in the church, if this is still your take on the faith, if you’re like Nicodemus—someone who grew up in a faith community, nurtured in the faith, never having known a time when he wasn’t a child of Abraham—then you can imagine how he felt when he heard Jesus say, “Very truly”—in other words, “Pay attention!  This is the way it is!”—“I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again” (Jn. 3:3).

This is, obviously, where the designation originates.  It’s the only place in the Bible that speaks about being born again.  John 3:3.  One verse.  That one verse has generated an entire sect of Christians who identify themselves as “born again,” as if it were a separate type of Christian.  Generally speaking, born again types are viewed with suspicion in American society.  I sometimes hear people say, “She’s one of those Born Again Christians.”  Or, “He’s, you know, one of those Born Agains”—meaning, fanatic, enthusiast, zealot.  Several years ago, comedian Dennis Miller was asked,  “Born again?  No, I’m not. Excuse me for getting it right the first time.”

The American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) had this to say about the Born Again.  He was raised in a Pentecostal church, but later left Christianity altogether, due, in part, to the hypocrisy of many American Christians and churches that operate more like country clubs.  In an “Open Letter to the Born Again,” from September 1979, Baldwin wrote, “The people who call themselves ‘born again’ today have simply become members of the richest, most exclusive private club in the world, a club that the man from Galilee could not possibly hope—or wish—to enter.”[2]

So, what do we do with John 3:3?  Skip over it?  Disregard it?  Some Bible translations, such as the NRSV, try to put distance between the text and these associations with conversion.  The NRSV reads, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  The Greek word here is anothen, which can mean born “again,” or born “from above,” or simply “reborn.” 

What is Jesus getting at here?  First, he wasn’t asking Nicodemus to change his religion.  He wasn’t asking him to leave Judaism to become a Christian.  The designation “Christian” didn’t exist in Jesus’ time.  However, Jesus was explicit that something had to be converted within Nicodemus; something had to change, come alive, be reborn within him.

Nicodemus shows up in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want anyone seeing him.  He’s a leader of the Jewish people, a man of deep faith.  He’s the religious expert.  He’s an institution man.  He represents the tradition.  He has power, authority.
He’s been tracking Jesus’ teaching and movement for some time.  He knows that God is up to something in him, but not sure what.  My guess is that he goes to Jesus at night because he’s curious.  He has a lot of questions and he wants answers.  At first, Nicodemus tries to butter him up, by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (Jn. 3:2). 

Jesus, knowing all of this, avoiding this, not really listening to his flattery, throws out this non sequitur, about being born again!  Nicodemus, thrown for a loop, confused, says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Do you see what’s happening here?  Nicodemus is being literal, concrete.  He has no imagination.  And because he remains there, because that’s where he often hangs out in his faith, he can’t see, can’t perceive, can’t hear, can’t discern what Jesus is trying to show him.  Nicodemus is stuck in his own limited, small, inherited frame of reference.  Jesus is trying to get him to think spiritually, or “heavenly” (Jn. 3:12).  Jesus invites Nicodemus to perceive through metaphor.  Jesus is trying to break open his reality through the use of symbolic language.  In this text and throughout John’s Gospel, we find Jesus trying to lift us to an altogether different paradigm.  So Jesus says, “Very truly”—This is the way it is!—“no one sees the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.  Don’t be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5-9). 

Jesus is trying to expand his horizon of meaning, to increase his awareness of the Spirit’s movement in his life.  Nicodemus, even more perplexed, says, “How can these things be?”  Then Jesus said, “You’re a religious leader of God’s people. You’re supposed to know this.  You’re supposed to know something of the way of God. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3:10).  That’s a good question.  Why doesn’t he understand “these things”? 

Why don’t we understand “these things”?  How does anyone understand “these things”?   Maybe, because we get stuck in ruts, religious ruts.  We get trapped by what we know (or think we know).  We have our opinions, our cherished beliefs, and hold on to them for dear life, despite how irrational they may be.  They serve us well (or think they do).  Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1771-1834), poet, critic, and philosopher, once referred to the “film of familiarity.”  The familiar can become a film over our eyes.  In “consequence of the film of familiarity,” he writes, “and selfish solicitude, we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”[3]

Perhaps Nicodemus forgot that the Spirit moves through the world, moves through our souls, in order to remove the “film” that prevents us from seeing, in order to birth something new in us, something not known to us naturally, according to the flesh.  “What is born of the flesh is flesh” (Jn. 3:6).  The Spirit, though, comes to bring life, God’s life, true life, rich, abundant, meaningful, life-giving life (Jn.10:10)!  And the Spirit brings light. John 3 begins with Nicodemus arriving in the middle of the night, but Jesus is the light who reveals God’s love, the one who shines in the darkness. As John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5).

Light.  The writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004) once said, in talking about the art of writing, “Information will never replace illumination.”[4]  Nicodemus goes looking for information.  Jesus is all about illumination.  His presence illumines.  “As Jesus speaks, the light of the world enters the darkness of Nicodemus’ ignorance.”[5]  In love, Jesus comes to illumine our awareness so that we come to see the kingdom of God in him—and then through him our perceptions of God, the world, and ourselves are transfigured and transformed.  This is the Spirit’s doing!  And when this happens in our lives—and every time that it happens—we are born again and again and again!  Illumination, enlightenment, revelation, the transfiguration and transformation of knowledge, perception, experience are all required—all the time, until the end of our time, until, beyond time, we are completely transformed by the light of Christ’s presence, no longer seeing in a mirror dimly, but knowing fully, even as we are being fully known by Christ (1 Cor. 13:12).

Illumination, not information.  There’s a huge difference between wanting to know about Jesus and knowing Jesus. There are a lot of people who know about Jesus.  Fewer actually know him.  Nicodemus arrives searching to know about him.  Jesus gives of himself; he presents himself to Nicodemus.  Jesus meets him where he is and begins to cultivate a deep relationship. 

Contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley (b. 1951), one of the brightest theological minds today, said, simply, “To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed.”[6] In the end, Nicodemus came to know something new about God.  He was known and so transformed.  That’s what love does.  Love sees us and then opens our eyes to see.  Citing again James Baldwin, Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you don’t see.”[7]  That’s what Jesus did for Nicodemus.  In love, Jesus opened his eyes.  And what Nicodemus discovered changed him.  The encounter gave him a new life.  The next time we see Nicodemus in John’s Gospel is at the tomb.  John tells us that Nicodemus bought about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, along with other spices.  Then he and Joseph of Arimathea, together, reverentially wrapped Jesus’ body (Jn. 19:38-40) and placed it in the tomb.

Maybe there’s a Nicodemus in each of us, especially those of us who say that we believe and trust in God. Like Nicodemus, people of faith need reminding that the Spirit is always moving through our lives and the world.  In order to see God’s kingdom, to see God’s work in the world, to see Jesus, to see how God works through pain and suffering and even death, to see the Son of Man lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness (Jn. 3:14-15) to realize there on a cross—there, of all placesthe love of God that comes not to condemn, but to save the world (Jn. 3:16-17), to see all of this requires the Spirit.  

Apart from the Spirit’s work you’re stuck with the literal.  You’re left with a man who died on a cross—which wasn’t all that unique in First Century Palestine. 

But to see on the cross the Word made flesh, to see love suffering in love, this requires the work of the Spirit.  It requires being reborn; perception illumined again and again, as the Spirit washes away the film of familiarity.  It requires new eyes, new hearts, new insights, all of which yields new life. It’s only then that we are born again—and again and again as the Spirit stirs us and moves us and allows us to see what God is doing in the world and for the world, as the Spirit invites us to share in all of it!

Today, I’m not reluctant to say that I’ve been born again.  I have to define what I mean by this, of course. I’m born again and being born again and again and again.  Technically speaking, if you think about it, everyone who has been baptized by water and the Spirit, everyone who confesses a belief or trust in Christ, everyone who affirms with the apostle Paul, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself” (2 Cor. 5:19), has been and is being born again, has been and is being born from above by the Spirit.  Why?  Because we, like Paul, have come to this realization and are bold to make this confession and seek to follow him to our dying days, because time and again and again the Spirit has led us to make this confession. We know this to be true.

Yes, the Spirit opens our eyes.  The Spirit opens our hearts.  The Spirit’s wind flows across our skin and animates our lives—and changes everything.  Not once, but again and again and . . . .

Image:  Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, 1899.

[1] Christian Nurture is still in print.  An online version may be found here.
[2] James Baldwin, “Open Letter to the Born Again,” The Nation (September 1979), 
[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographica Literaria (1817), chapter XIV.
[4] Susan Sontag, “The Conscience of Words,” At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007).  A summary of this essay maybe be found here.
[5] Allen Dwight Callahan, “John,” in True to our Native Land: An African American New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 189, cited in Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 29
[6] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
[7] James Baldwin, “The Black Scholar Interviews James Baldwin,” Conversations with James Baldwin (edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt), cited in Debby Irving, Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Elephant Room Press, 2014), v.