Stand Still

Mark 10:46-52

One of the things you can do to really bring stories from the Bible to life and get more meaning from them is to picture yourself in the story.  Read through it slowly and think about each of the characters, then ask yourself, “Who am I in this story?”  

So let’s go through this episode again, and as we do, think about who you might be if you were one of the characters in this narrative.  

Jesus and his disciples are on the way up to Jerusalem.   As they pass through Jericho, there’s a large crowd with them because by this time Jesus has become pretty well known, but also a lot of people are travelling to Jerusalem for the coming Passover.  As they’re leaving town—Jesus, the disciples, the crowd—they encounter Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting at the side of the road.  Very few of the minor characters in Mark’s gospel are named, so we have a clue that maybe we should pay a little more attention to Bartimaeus.  

Bartimaeus hears the crowd shuffling by and when he hears someone mention Jesus, he shouts out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd tries to silence him, but he persists and shouts out all the more loudly, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  

And this is when a fascinating little thing happens in the story.  It’s fascinating, but it’s small, so it’s easy to slide right past it.  It says in the text, “Jesus stood still.”  Jesus hears Bartimaeus over the hubbub of the crowd and he stops.  And stands still.  

Can you picture it?  Jesus is standing perfectly still, so the crowd stops.  They stand still, too.  Everybody stops to see why Jesus has stopped and is just standing there, right there in the middle of the road.  That—that moment when everything has come to a standstill—that is when Jesus says, “Call him over.”  So someone in the crowd calls out to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up! On your feet!  He’s calling you!”  

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, leaps to his feet and sprints over to Jesus.  So now they’re face to face, and Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”  “My teacher,” says Bartimaeus, “let me see again.”  The Jesus says to him, “Go.  Your faith has healed you.”  And just like that, Bartimaeus can see again.

But he doesn’t go.  At least he doesn’t go back to what he was doing before.  Instead, he follows Jesus on the way.

So if you put yourself in this story, who are you?

Maybe you’re a bystander.   You live in Jericho in a nice little house right there on the main road.  It’s a great place for people-watching.  Everyone who’s on the way to Jerusalem goes right by your door.  You see Jesus passing through, and you’re interested.  You’ve heard a lot about him.  You would certainly be willing to engage in a polite conversation with him if he suddenly wandered over to your porch and asked for a drink of water.  But he seems determined to keep moving, so that’s not going to happen.  Plus there are all those other people with him, so even if you felt moved to go over to him, how close could you get?  And what would you talk about anyway?  No, all things considered, it’s easier to just watch the Jesus parade from the safe distance of your front porch.  You don’t need to get in the middle of it.  Better not to get involved.  But wait a minute… he’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  What’s he doing?  O look!  He’s going to do something about that annoying beggar who’s always just sitting there across the road from your house, bothering people for spare change.  About time somebody did something about him.  You know, there ought to be a law to keep people like that from cluttering up nice neighborhoods like this.  

So is that who you are in this story?

If you’re not a bystander, maybe you’re one of the disciples.  You’ve been following Jesus for quite a while now, so long that sometimes you forget why you’re still with him, especially with some of the things he’s been saying lately—telling you he’s going to be rejected by the priests and authorities and then crucified… What the heck does all that mean, anyway?  He’s got to be talking figuratively, right?  You’d ask him to explain it again, but it’s so hard to get any time alone with him lately.  This crowd is around all the time and it just seems to keep growing.  He talks about getting to Jerusalem like it’s so urgent, but then he’ll stop to heal someone or share an observation about something or debate someone, and the next thing you know you’ve lost half an hour—or half a day.  Maybe after Jerusalem, after the Passover, things will get back to normal…not that your time with him has ever been anything like normal.  You can’t remember the last time you just had a day off to sit in the shade and think.  Every time you try to get away the crowd seems to find you and they bring along everyone who so has so much the sniffles to see if he can heal them.  It seems like you’re spending all your time and energy lately on crowd control.  And even when you’re on the move there are people on the road who want his attention—like that noisy blind beggar over there.   Aaaand, there it is.  He’s stopping.  Huh… he’s just standing there.  Okay, here we go, he’s calling the beggar over to him.  The way things have been going, that guy’s going to want to join the group and follow you.  Just what you need.  Another hanger-on.  Another mouth to feed.  Maybe after Jerusalem you can just chuck it all and head back to Galilee.  

So is that who you are in this story?  One of the disciples?

Maybe you’re part of the large crowd.  You’ve been trying to get closer to Jesus so you can hear what he’s saying, and there’s so much you want to ask him, but every time you think you see a way to squeeze in closer, someone jostles you aside and you’re back where you started.  It’s no fun just being part of the crowd, surrounded by all this noise.  Every time Jesus starts to say something the people right behind you start talking about some mundane thing or another and you can’t hear Jesus over their loud voices.  It seems like everybody just shouts, and the bigger the crowd gets, the louder they get.  Haven’t they ever heard of nice, quiet conversational voices?  Oh great.  Who’s shouting now?  Someone tell that beggar to shut up.  It’s hard enough already to hear what Jesus is saying.  Wait… what’s Jesus doing?  He’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  Everybody’s stopped.  Hey, this is your chance to get closer to him while everyone’s just standing there.  Oh no.  He’s calling the beggar over to him.  And isn’t that just your luck.  Well, it’s still a good hike to Jerusalem.  Maybe you’ll find a way to get close to him while you’re on the way.

So is that who you are in this story?  Someone who is travelling the same road in the same direction but not really getting close enough to Jesus to get the full picture of who he is and what he’s about and what he means for you?

Are you, maybe, Bartimaeus?  You sit passively by the side of the road as the rest of the world rolls along in front of you, waiting for any little bit of grace or kindness that someone might toss your way.  You would be proactive, making your own way forward, but there’s that one great affliction that stops you, that limits your opportunities and abilities.  And you’ve become so dependent.  If only you could see again.  Or hear again.  Or walk again.  Or think again.  Or laugh again.  Or feel again.  If only there was some light in your darkness, or music in your silence, or strength in your limbs, or clarity in your heart and mind.  You are so tired of being invisible on the sidelines, so tired of the miasma that your life has become.  You hear the crowd ambling by and out of your darkness you ask over and over again, “Anything for me?  Can you spare anything for me?”  And then someone mentions Jesus.  Jesus of Nazareth.  The teacher.  The healer.  The life changer.  You grasp at the straw.  You’re surprised at the force of your own voice as you cry out, “Jesus, Son of David!  Have mercy on me!”  Somebody tries to silence you.  They’re annoyed with you.  They tell you not to bother them—and not to bother the teacher with your need.  With your existence.  But suddenly all the noise stops.  There’s an unnerving silence.  The shuffling crowd is standing still, holding their breath.  Then someone says, “He’s calling you.”  You throw aside everything as you leap to your feet.  Finally, there’s hope for you.  Unseen hands guide you to him until you feel his presence right in front of you.  With you.  And then he asks you the oddest question:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  And part of you just wants to scream.  Can’t he see your affliction?  Can’t he see the great obstacle that’s keeping you from really entering into the fullness of life?  But then it dawns on you…Jesus is not presuming that dealing with your obvious affliction is the thing you most want most from him.  He is treating you like a whole person.  He is waiting for you to tell him what you want most.  And you realize that what you want most, what you need most, is to follow him, but you could do that so much more easily if first he heals you.  So you say let me see again.  Let me hear music again.  Let there be a spring in my step again.  Let my mind and heart be clear again.  Let me laugh again.  Let me feel again.  

So is this who you are in the story?  Are you the person in need at the side of the road?  There’s no shame in that.  Most of us have been that person at one time or another, waiting for our moment of healing.  Is that you?

Or are, perhaps, you’re Jesus?  Don’t dismiss that idea with false humility.  Don’t inflate it with ego, either.  Martin Luther said we are called to be “little Christs” to each other.  Saint Paul tells us that as followers of Jesus on the Way, Christ is in us and we are in Christ.  Jesus, himself, said that just as he was immersed in the life and love of the Father, so we are immersed in his life and love.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 17:20-23)

So you could be Jesus in the story.  You could be the one who brings compassion and healing and sight to someone crying out from the side of the road.

Is that who you are?

I think we have all been all of these—the bystander, the distracted disciple, the person going along with the crowd, the person in need.  But for a moment, let’s just stand still.  Let’s stand still so we can hear the voice calling out for mercy.  Let’s stand still so we can see the need that’s begging at the side of the road.   Then from this turning point on the Way, may God empower us to be “little Christs,” bringing attention, compassion, and healing to those who cry out from the side of the road.

In Jesus’ name.

Image © Julia Stakova, Bulgarian artist

Optics

Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? –Mark 8.18

I’m seeing things a little differently these days. Specifically, I had to get new glasses. It wasn’t something I planned on doing just yet. It hasn’t been even a full year since I got my last glasses and my prescription hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 10 months. Still, two doctors and a therapist strongly suggested that I would be better off looking at the world a different way.

Even though I’ve had progressive lenses for at least two decades it’s not a good idea for me to wear those lenses anymore. Don’t read too much into that metaphorically. Did you know that the eyes and the ears work together to help you maintain balance? The brain is constantly evaluating information from the vestibular (balance) organ in the inner ear against information from the eyes to keep the body balanced. The brain is also processing data from the feet and other parts of the body, too, but the eyes and ears do most of the work and if the vestibular-ocular reflex is out of whack your world starts to spin.

It seems, according to the two doctors and the balance therapist, that the seamless shift in focus that makes progressive lenses so desirable and efficient in so many ways was actually causing me a problem. Because I have Meniere’s Disease, those lineless lenses with their fluid shifts in focal lengths were probably contributing to more frequent bouts of dizziness and vertigo. Their field of focus at all focal lengths isn’t wide enough to give good clarity to peripheral vision and my formerly nimble but now aging neural processor can’t adapt the way it used to with things going in and out of focus. There’s a metaphor you can go to town with.

So I’m seeing things a little differently. I now have to use multiple pairs of glasses—distance and reading bifocals, computer and reading bifocals, distance only. Sunglasses, of course. It takes some getting used to, this business of switching out glasses depending on what I’m doing and where I’m looking, and like anything that takes some getting used to I have moments when it all seems excessively bothersome and I’m sorely tempted to go back to my one-lens-does-it-all spectacles. But even when I’m grousing about it I have to admit that I’ve already noticed an unexpected benefit. I’m actually seeing everything more clearly, at least when I’m wearing the right glasses at the right time. Feel free to play with that metaphor, too.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus in Luke 4 as he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind…” Recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was speaking of restoring the actual capacity for sight to those with physical visual impairment, of course, but I think he also was speaking in a broader metaphorical sense. After all, he frequently referred to the eyes and to sight as metaphors for perception and understanding.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see,” wrote John Heywood in 1546. We all have our blind spots. We all have areas of life where it would do us good to switch out lenses, to make sure we’re getting the whole picture, to make sure we are really seeing what is right in front of us and what is off to the side and what is coming in at an oblique angle–to make sure we’re focused on the right thing at the right time with the right lens. The problem is that we get so comfortable with our old lenses that we might not even notice that they’re distorting our vision of the world; it might not occur to us to take them off and try on something with a clearer view.

One very popular lens that we cling to as we get older is “The Way Things Used To Be” and its even more astigmatic variant “Back When Things Were Great.” The world we see now seems to have gone askew but we think it’s because the world has become twisted and it doesn’t occur to us that it might be the old lens that’s skewing our vision. Sure, things are different, things have changed, but is it really so bad as it looks or are we seeing it through a skewing lens? Ah, that old lens that’s so comfortable, that we’re so used to—that lens that we carefully ground for ourselves out of years halcyon memories. It’s a great lens.…the problem is that it never really was anything like accurate. Sure, Things Were Great “back then,” but only if you were one of the people included in the category of People For Whom Things Are Great. If you broaden your focus to the larger number of People Who Are Not You and then look at People For Whom Things Were Not So Great you’ll get a more realistic picture of how things were and how things are. But you’ll have to change lenses to do that.

There is a whole family of Idealized lenses. Some skew the world toward the positive and some toward the negative but they’re all distorted to some degree. Take, for instance, the “Everything Is Perfect” lens. How anyone manages to navigate the world with this lens is beyond me, but people do. They tend to stumble a lot over things the lens obscures, things which are not perfect but which they just won’t allow themselves to see. There’s the “Everything Will Be Perfect When” lens which, while it gives a more realistic view than its cousin, tends to keep one’s focus narrowed in on a few small things which need to get fixed in order to achieve either personal or collective utopia. For all its claimed farsightedness this lens can be dangerously myopic.

There is, of course, the polar opposite of the Idealized family of lenses, the Cynical family which not only distorts but darkens everything you see, and not in a good Ray Bans-on-a-Sunny-Day kind of way. These lenses make you see the world through a perpetual fog of gloom.

So what lenses are you wearing? How are you seeing the world? Jesus came to restore sight to the blind—to all of us who are blind in any way. Jesus came to change our lenses, to teach us to see the world and each other anew through the lens of God’s love, and then to become opticians of the heart so that we can bring the clarity of God’s love, God’s vision, to others.

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. –Matthew 13.16-17