October 24: Amazing Grace

Readings from the Scriptures (MSG)  Mark 10:46-5

46-48 They spent some time in Jericho. As Jesus was leaving town, trailed by his disciples and a parade of people, a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, was sitting alongside the road. When he heard that Jesus the Nazarene was passing by, he began to cry out, “Son of David, Jesus! Mercy, have mercy on me!” Many tried to hush him up, but he yelled all the louder, “Son of David! Mercy, have mercy on me!”  49-50 Jesus stopped in his tracks. “Call him over.”  They called him. “It’s your lucky day! Get up! He’s calling you to come!” Throwing off his coat, he was on his feet at once and came to Jesus. 51 Jesus said, “What can I do for you?” The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” 52 “On your way,” said Jesus. “Your faith has saved and healed you.”  In that very instant he recovered his sight and followed Jesus down the road.

Because I’m wondering, in that first verse, which words did were you more drawn to?  Maybe you let tradition or habit decide – or the choral scholars – for some there’s comfort in familiarity as you sang, that saved a wretch like me.  But that word wretch is just so heavy.  Maybe you were deliberate, thinking the words that saved and strengthened me, were much more positive, more uplifting.  If we took serious our words, what would it reveal about ourselves?

Amazing Grace

I know some of you were singing that opening hymn (Amazing Grace)…we so want to sing those well-known hymns…and for those that resisted temptation, I hope you at least pondered the lyrics.  

Over the last 19 months, we’ve witnessed the biggest worldwide plummet in mental health.   We joke about covid-19 (that is the 19lbs you put on stress eating) but even those who have been relatively untouched by mental health struggles have seen themselves with symptoms of depression and despair.  They’ve caught themselves in a cycle of negative thinking.  Internal forces and external ones have made this year so very difficult.  Maybe you’ve even heard that declaration of wretch come out of your own mouth while standing in front of a bathroom mirror.

There is a story they tell of two dogs.
Both, at separate times, walk into the same room.
One comes out wagging his tail while the other comes out growling.
A woman watching this goes into the room to see
what could possibly make one dog so happy
and the other so mad.
To her surprise
she find a room filled with mirrors.
the happy dog found
a thousand happy dogs looking back at him
while the angry dog
saw only angry dogs growling back at him.

What you see in the world around you
is a reflection of who you are.

It’s no wonder why what we’ve seen in the world is a reflection of the depression and despair we’ve all been feeling.  It takes deliberate action to change what we see, to sing those words that saved and strengthened me, when wretch might more easily roll off our tongues. 

This is not to say that those suffering depression can just choose to see something different.  Like the last year and a half, identifying symptoms is sometimes easier than making changes to the root causes of suffering.  Anger too is an appropriate response to the repeated and systemic injustice that many face everyday.  Growling at the world is sometimes necessary.   But if we always despair, always growl, and honestly, if we’re always too happy (embodying some toxic positivity that seeks to pretend the world is always only perfect then we may end up missing something important.  Sometimes we just need help breaking whatever cycle of unhealthiness we find ourselves in.    

Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, was generations deep in despair.  He sat on the roadside unable see, unable to see a way forward for his life.  The world had turned a blind eye to him.  Many tried to hush him up.  He growled away at a world that believed him to be a nuisance.  While blind, he could see what others thought of him in the way he was treated.  While long before any modern understanding of mental health, one can assume he suffered greatly if his insistent-calling-out is any indication.  More than sight, he just needed to be seen.  He needed to know that his suffering was legitimate.  He needed to not be ignored by one more person.  So when he hears a commotion starting…a parade gathering…the whispers in the crowd speaking of Jesus of Nazareth…he gets excited.  Here’s someone new that may not just pass him by.  In Jesus, maybe Bartimaeus will be seen for who he is – not just the condition that he is afflicted by – not just for his inability to participate in his society, but as someone innately worthy.  Worthy of love. 

There is a story they tell of Jesus of Nazareth,
who walked in the world seeing both happy and mad,
yet no matter what he saw,
he reflected back unconditional love, mercy upon mercy,
acceptance for you and I and the blessed mess in which we find ourselves.
Jesus’ only aim was to see in the world around him,
a reflection of who he was.

If we sing wretch do we see the world as full of wretches?  Does that make it easier to look down on not only ourselves, but others too?  Do we end up glossing over or ignoring someone else’s pain because of our own?  Sometimes we just need help breaking whatever cycle of unhealthiness we find ourselves in.  And we join in the cry of Bartimaeus:  “Son of David, Jesus! Mercy, have mercy on us!”

Have mercy on all of us when our depression and our despair prevents us from seeing goodness.  Have mercy on us when we play down our suffering because it’s not as bad as someone else’s.  Have mercy on all of us when we misunderstand God, believing that faith somehow ignores or minimizes pain.  For not even Jesus assumes what he can do to help…Not even Jesus knows what would help Bartimaeus.  Instead, Jesus said, “What can I do for you?” 

I can imagine the tears that would have come.  For the first time, in a long time, someone asks what they can do to help, without judgement, without guilt, without wondering what Bartimaeus’ parents did to curse him with blindness.    

Hearing those words, how would you react?  We’re so used to being disappointed by others, but what would you say to the power of the universe as it asked you, what can I do for you?  I’m not sure I would know where to start.  There’s the prayers that I carry day to day, week to week.  There’s prayers I’ve said over and over with little to no (perceived) change.  There’s the self-serving prayers that I say when I buy a lottery ticket.  But if you had that one chance to have your deepest desires met, if Jesus stood before you, asking, what can I do for you, what would your response be?

It’s our faith (in Jesus, in God to hear our prayers, in the Spirit’s way to hold it altogether) that collectively gives us the courage to cry out.  We believe there’s hope beyond the cycle of hurt in which we find ourselves.  Our faith saves us even when our lives do not change. 

Our faith tells the story of divine possibility meeting the fragility of humanity, in order to bring about completeness and wholeness.  God’s exodus is only possible through human beings.  The divine redemptive act of resurrection is born in the tomb of death and despair.  The limitless love of our Creator is held in tension with the pain and suffering of creation.  It’s together that we find our way forward.  God doesn’t minimize pain – or hold it in comparison with someone else’s, saying that your suffering is nothing in comparison with others.   Human beings may participate in the Oppression Olympics seeking to undermine one person’s suffering over another’s – but if we’ve learned anything from these last 19 months, we’re all crying out from the roadside.  We’re all suffering in one way or another.  We’re just all calling out for different reasons.  And I pray, we never stop. 

For when we stop, we stop believing that new life is possible.  For when we stop, we cease trusting that Jesus hears us.  We believe that we ourselves can fix our own problems.  And when we do, we fall deeper into the cycles of depression and despair.  It’s our faith (in Jesus, in doctors, in others) that saves us.  It’s our faith that heals us.  For it is through our shared faith, that we look to the world around us to see a reflection of who Jesus was, and is for us today.  And together we cry out: “Son of David, Jesus! Mercy, have mercy on us!” 

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