Seeing with understanding

We often call him the blind man, or the man born blind, because, well, what’s so remarkable about a name like “the man who can see,”? That could designate just about anyone, couldn’t it? And still, we persist in naming this man as “the blind man” or “the man born blind” even though we are talking about a man, who can now see. We don’t want to leave him alone because he can see now – there’s something special about him, we don’t want to forget about the miracle that Jesus worked in him, and so we give him a name to remind us of how he was once blind but now can see.

I struggle a little bit with the magnitude of this event. I learned more about sight in psychology class than I ever did in biology, because seeing has to do with the brain as much as it does the eyes. Babies can’t focus their eyes for a while after birth, because it takes that time for the brain to develop, and to process the information that the eyes are sending to it. We do have stories of adults who have been gifted with sight when they’ve been born blind, and who haven’t been able to cope with the process, and begging to be made blind again, so that they can live within a world that makes sense to them. Similarly, there’s been a video going around the Internet, and even if you don’t watch videos online, it’s also been on the news. There’s a woman who was given the gift of hearing through the work of doctors, and this video shows those first few moments when she hears. She bursts into tears. Like seeing, hearing has to do with a physical response from sensors: the inner ear, and connections in the brain to bring about meaning. So it’s always with wonder that I hear this story, knowing that this man’s brain, as well as his eyes needed to be made well so that this man could see with any sense of understanding rather than chaos.

Seeing with understanding doesn’t happen all at once, as this story tells us.

Jesus uses mud – the same creative stuff that the book of Genesis tells us God used to generate human beings, and spreads it over the man’s eyes. What was its purpose? Did it regenerate nerve endings? How it works is a mystery. Jesus disappears after telling the man to go to the pool of the Sent One, the pool of Siloam to go wash out the mud. He doesn’t wait around to see if the healing took place. He doesn’t escort the man to the pool. He just disappears. The man washes out the mud, and his eyes are opened, but then comes the daunting task of reconciling what he knew before, with the information he’s getting now. We don’t hear much about this process. In fact it seems like he takes it fairly well, but what a task it might have been. Imagine trying to reconcile what you know to be a bird – through sound and description, and maybe touch, to the actual sight of a bird. Or a leaf on a tree – I know when some folks get glasses for the first time as a child, they describe the wonder they experience at looking at trees and seeing leaves clearly, when what they saw before were blobs. For this man, just imagine how he’s supposed to get home, having never seen the world in front of him, although I’d put odds on the fact that if he closed his eyes, he’d be able to get there a whole lot easier. With this gift of sight, two worlds collide and we only get a hint of it in the story: when the crowd asks “where is he” this one who gave you sight? And he answers “I don’t know.” And then again later when Jesus hunts him down and talks again with him, and this man does not know him by sight, but then comes the understanding, as he realizes THIS is the one who gave him sight.

It must have taken him a while to see with understanding, to understand what it was he was seeing. Here’s where I wonder if we get ourselves into a little bit of trouble. So often we pray for healing, when I wonder if what we really want is restoration. We pray for healing and expect things to go back to normal, whatever normal might be. If this story illustrates anything for me, it’s that healing isn’t about normal or the ordinary. Healing is extraordinary. Healing generates something new, and it requires no little work in reconciling what was with what is. As our own blindnesses are healed, as we learn to see with understanding, the world how we once knew it, collides with the world that we now see before us. It’s no small feat to see with understanding. It’s even more work helping others to understand what has changed.

We see that too in this story. The Pharisees don’t see with understanding, as we hear them asking at the end, “are we also blind?” While they weren’t completely blind, their sight was limited. They were stuck in the boxes of tradition and power – understandably, as tradition and power exercise a strong hold over so many of us, and institutions do not change traditions, or give up power quickly. Tradition dictated that this man who was given sight, was born blind because someone sinned. We hear this from the mouths of both the disciples and the Pharisees. While we never hear the reaction of the disciples, we do hear the reaction of the Pharisees – they are not willing to let go of the tradition they have. Nor are they willing to let anyone outside of themselves wield any power. In this case tradition and power go hand in hand, and so anything that might imply that something from God can happen from outside of them, was difficult. They were so stuck in this that they asked the man given sight twice about what happened, and his parents once – three times they asked, and then, still being unwilling to acknowledge that such a thing could happen, they cast the man out, effectively cutting him off from his faith and family.

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression in saying that tradition is wrong or bad – because it can continue to be incredibly life giving. Power also, can be helpful – we talk about empowering people to do something. Power can work for the good. Tradition and power, like anything, is problematic when it holds us back from experiencing Creator, Christ and Spirit at work.

In a reflection on the TRC, Maggie McLoed, the United Church’s Executive Minister of the Aboriginal Ministries Circle said that we need to learn how to work on creating space for everyone to take part, we need to learn that to make room for others by being willing and able to step back. While she was talking about making room for folks to take part in the healing and reconciliation process particular to the legacy of residential schools, I think this can be applied to our story here.

Whether we’re speaking of systemic healing, like the residential school legacy, personal healing, or maybe not even healing at all, but an acknowledgement that from this moment forward things will never be the same, we need to learn when and how to let go of our own power, to let go of our want to control, and to get out of our own way, so that we can let God into the situation, and allow something new to happen.

We talk about this story as something that happened a long time ago – or maybe even might have happened, as it really does seem a bit incredulous. Still, I’m reminded that Creator, Christ and Spirit are still at work in the world. They continuing to open our eyes so that we can see more clearly, so that we can see with understanding. They continue to use the creative stuff of our world to create new pathways and help us to reconcile our former ways of knowing with a new reality. May we be open to these new ways of being. May we find healing and reconciliation. May God work in, among, and through us. May it be so.


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