Clarity of Sight

Mark’s Gospel is my favorite of the four Gospels. I love Mark because it’s stripped down and brief, but also because in its brevity it hides a lot.  In some ways it’s like a sixteen-chapter riddle, begging to be figured out.

We find that especially in the middle section of Mark, between verses 8:22 and 10:52.  During that middle section, on three different occasions Jesus tries to explain to the Twelve Disciples what his life, and ministry, and coming death are all about.  This section is framed by the healing of two blind men.  In the first case, at the beginning of the section, the blind man’s initial healing is only partial.  He can see a little bit, but everything is still fuzzy.  In the second healing, at the end of this section, the second blind man, Blind Bartimaeus, recognizes who Jesus is even before Bartimaeus is healed.  In other words, his sight is crystal clear even before his eyes start working.

They Look Like Trees Walking - Lectionary Reflections for February ...

“I see people, but they look like trees walking.”

That’s all a metaphor for how our own understanding as latter day followers of Jesus is fuzzy and slow in coming.  We talk a lot about Jesus and throw his name casually around, acting like we see and understand what discipleship is all about, but often our sight is dim.

Right in the middle of Mark’s central section, after Jesus has already explained his coming Passion twice, the disciples have their famous argument about who among them will be the greatest.  After so much time with Jesus, they still think that it’s all about such worldly things as, well, things, and status, and the inside track.  And despite Jesus’ repeated attempts to explain that love and grace are the only things that matter, it won’t be until the Passion comes that that the disciples’ sight begins to clear.

The reading about the disciples’ argument came up in the Daily Office on Monday, and it occurred to me that we are living today in the central section of Mark in real life just as in the lectionary.  We’ve known Jesus for a long time, but now, in these days, as we face uncertainties unlike any experienced in generations, we are coming to understand with speedy clarity what Jesus’ Gospel really means.  The fuzziness is just about gone.

Jesus Heals Blind Bartimeus (Mark 10:46-52) - Analysis

We now see  with clarity how vulnerable we are and how in need we are of one another.  We see how those who are giving of themselves as servants—our healthcare workers, first responders, compassionate neighbors, and others who care for those in need—are the most worthy of our esteem.  We see that love and grace are the only real things, and how with them we already have everything of value.

Most of all, we see with clarity that the transformation of our hearts and souls comes from following the person of Jesus who lived his life, and gave his life, for all of these things.  This new sight is a gift.

We are near the end of Lent, and we will soon once again walk the way of the Passion. Except that in many ways it seems like we’ve already been walking the way of the Passion this entire Lenten season.

When we reach the other side of this season, however long it may last—when we get beyond the coronavirus and the central section of Mark in our lives—I pray that we will retain our clarity of sight.  I pray that we will, like Blind Bartimaeus, see grace wherever it is and share love whenever we can.  I think we will.  I think this experience is changing us, redeeming us, so that like Blind Bartimaeus, when we see Jesus on the road we will call out to him and follow.

Is this the end of the world?

The scene in Ezekiel is like something from the bleakest Cormac McCarthy novel.  Or maybe from the film A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which the worst dream one can imagine comes to life.  Ezekiel, who is the odd prophet who is also a priest, today finds himself confronted by a mystical vision of a valley stretching forth in all directions.  Lying on the valley floor are scattered innumerable human bones of some people who have met their destruction.  There is no flesh or sinew left on these bones.  There is no remnant of life to work with.  The bones are bleached and dry.  They are as dead as a thing can be.

Ezekiel's Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones - YouTube

With a rising sense of foreboding, Ezekiel knows whose bones he sees.  They are his own and the bones of all his countrymen.  And Ezekiel knows that this vision is not a prophecy of something yet to come, but rather the visionary confirmation that the life he and all the people of Israel have lived is, even now, over.   See, Ezekiel is experiencing is neither story nor movie.  It is unfortunately very real.  The prophet came of age in Judah in an almost golden era during the reign of King Josiah.  His country felt good about its place in the world, and that sense of well-being filtered down to each of its people.  Judah had its problems to be sure, but generally things were good, or at least passable, for most people.

And then in with what must have seemed like whiplash speed, everything fell apart.  In the prime of Ezekiel’s life, the king was killed in battle, and the sons who succeeded him were vacillating and weak.  Quickly, the Babylonian Empire moved in, conquered Judah, and disrupting everything.  The economy imploded.  The people were swept apart in a program of exile that separated family from family and virtually everyone from the life they’d known.  What had seemed like bedrock under everyone’s feet suddenly turned to quicksand.

And so, from exile, Ezekiel’s vision from God is exactly accurate.  Ezekiel’s vision shows him dried and scattered bones.  Ezekiel’s reality is much the same thing.  His world has ended.

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A few days ago, my daughter Eliza came to me and said a couple of her friends’ parents were talking about signs of the apocalypse and how what we are currently experiencing might just be the beginning of the end.  She asked me what I thought of that.  I told Eliza that in the fourteenth century, as the Black Plague swept over Europe, killing one third of Europe’s population and grinding the economy to a halt, many people thought the apocalypse had arrived.  I shared that when the Great Fire of London destroyed most of that city in 1666, many thought it was a sign that the world was ending.  I told Eliza that with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and with the outbreak of the Second World War, many claimed that history was near its end.  And I related to her how, in my own recent memory, apocalyptic predictions surrounding September 11, 2001 came from many quarters.

The Great Fire of London - On This Day

Many thought the Great Fire of London was a sign that the world was ending.

In each of these cases and in dozens of others, just as in Ezekiel’s own case, the world seemed to be ending.  In fact, practically every generation experiences some upending event of such magnitude that it is virtually impossible to imagine life on the other side.

Surely, the coronavirus crisis is the most upending event in my lifetime.  I was born during the Vietnam War.  I was a young father on 9/11.  I was building a career when the Great Recession hit.  None of those had the potential impact of what we’re enduring now, either communally or individually.  It is deeply worrisome.  If, in the middle of the night, you have a vision of a valley of dried and bleached bones, you come by it honestly.  It feels really dicey out there.

But lest we forget, Ezekiel’s vision is not a Cormac McCarthy novel, and it’s not a horror movie.  It starts with a bleak scene, but that is only the beginning.  As Ezekiel looks upon the bones in horror, knowing that they are his own and those of his community, God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  And Ezekiel replies in despairing truth, “Only you know that, God.”

And then God breathes, as God does, and with a rattling noise the bones move together; and where there was no sinew, there is sinew; and where there was no muscle, there is muscle; and where there was no breath, there is breath; and the whole valley springs to life.

God says to Ezekiel, “You and your people say to me, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’…[but] I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”

And so it happens.  God redeems them.  God brings them back to life.  The disaster of Ezekiel’s life is not the final word.  His people will live, and flourish, and fall again into disaster, and live, and flourish again.

The reason each generation, then and now, believes the world is ending is because, ironically, God’s redemption is so complete.  After the Black Plague, the economy boomed and workers gained rights they’d never before had in history.[i]  After the Great Fire of London, London was rebuilt and became the modern world city we know today.  After the Second World War, the United States became a land of unprecedented plenty.  God’s redemption is so great that it gives us short memories.  God restores us so completely that we quickly forget the world-threatening challenges of the past and so come to believe that the immediate challenge must be the dawn of the apocalypse.

But friends, though our memory is short, God’s memory is long, and there are no bones so bleached and broken that God cannot knit bone upon bone and breathe new life.  That’s what God does!  It is what God will do.  It is the promise on which we stake our faith and our lives.

Ezekiel receives this vision, and he believes it, but the new life built on the wreckage of the old does not happen overnight.  There will still be many days of difficulty before his people are strong and whole again.  And so, Ezekiel lives on.  He looks out for his compatriots.  He speaks the truth to them.  He supports them.  He lives realistically in the present, but he keeps his eyes peering ahead in hope, knowing that what God has shown him is true.

There is a modern, contemporary term for how Ezekiel responds.  It is also instructive for how we should live in these days.  It is called the “Stockdale Paradox,”[ii] coined by author Jim Collins in his book Good to Great and named for Navy flier James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for more than seven years in Vietnam.  Stockdale made it through his nightmare, and after he came home he rose to’ the rank of Vice-Admiral and became president of the Naval War College.  The posture of heart and mind that saw him through—the paradox—was that he 1.) retained faith that he would prevail in the end, regardless of the mammoth challenges, 2.) while at the same time confronting, and not pretending away, the hard reality of the present.  For us, another name for the Stockdale Paradox is Christian hope.

The challenges of today, and tomorrow, and next week, and next month are real.  They are serious.  They are not minor, and they surely are not pretend.  But the world is not ending.  Or better yet, if this world ends as we have known it, then God will breathe life into a new world.  God will strengthen us to stand and walk and thrive, individually and as a community, and we will again flourish.  That is the vision.  That is the hope.  That is God’s promise, and God’s promises are true.  Blessings to you this day.

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[i] https://msh.councilforeconed.org/documents/978-1-56183-758-8-activity-lesson-15.pdf

[ii] https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/stockdale-paradox-confronting-reality-vital-success?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1

In the days of the coronavirus

On Friday night, Jill and I were supposed to go with good friends to see a theatrical production of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce at the George Theatre.  Many know that The Great Divorce is one of my favorite books.  I would go so far as to argue that it is one of the ten most important books about faith written in the past hundred years.  I was so looking forward to the show and the company.  And hours before curtain, we decided not to go.

For those who haven’t read The Great Divorce, it is C.S. Lewis’ fable of heaven and hell.  But in Lewis’ hell there are no demons with pitchforks, no hellfire and brimstone, no shrieks and cackles of punishment and pain.  Lewis’ hell is a sprawling city in a state of perpetually misty dusk, where a dull pallor pervades everything.  Lewis’ hell is characterized more than anything else by social distance.  The inhabitants of hell incessantly quarrel, and as a result they move apart from one another.  They build houses on the farthest outskirts of the town, and whenever a neighbor moves nearby, conflict erupts, and the first person moves farther away still.  Lewis’ hell is a place in which social distance is the defining characteristic, a wilderness in which isolation and loneliness are finally the only things.

Image result for hell in "The Great Divorce"

Lewis’ hell is a sprawling city in a state of perpetually misty dusk, where a dull pallor pervades everything.

My good friend, the Rev. Morgan Allen, who was supposed to be with us this weekend for our Lenten series, reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ depiction of hell when he called to let me know that the coronavirus outbreak would prevent him from traveling from Boston to be here (and just as I was anguishing over whether or not to attend The Great Divorce at the George Theatre).  Lewis’ hell is a compelling image that, at first glance, seems to describe our present reality: the social distancing that is keeping us from traveling to see loved ones for spring break; upending our plans to recreate with friends; indeed, preventing us from gathering in person as the Body of Christ in the one place more than any other that should be sanctuary for us in time of need.

At first glance, the coronavirus seems, with whiplash speed, to have cast us into a kind of hell.

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As we strategized how best to respond to the emerging coronavirus crisis this past week, Canon Art Callaham said to me, “At least during Hurricane Harvey we could see the rain.”  I take his point.  Hurricane Harvey was awful, but at least we knew what we were up against.  At least we could see the challenge, the enemy, the pounding rain that seemed to menace us with obvious intention.  With this virus, the enemy is unseen and sometimes seemingly unreal, and like horror movies in which the threat is always hidden in the shadows, it is all the more unsettling for that fact.

And so, we respond with courage and faith as best we can, and we hope we are doing the good and right thing.  I believe we are.  We are a week behind Western Europe, where as of yesterday afternoon Italy had recorded 21,000 cases of the coronavirus and more than 1,400 deaths.  Confirmed cases of the virus in France have doubled in the past seventy-two hours.[i]  Public health officials, and, importantly, officials from the Texas Medical Center have convincingly argued that if we are to mitigate similar rates of infection in the United States we must practice social distancing, and with immediate discipline.

While the individual effects of the coronavirus are mild for most people, for those who are older and for those with otherwise compromised immune systems, the coronavirus can be debilitating.  The public health goal is, as we are increasingly hearing, to “flatten the curve,” so that the rate of infection stays below the capacity of our hospitals and healthcare workers to respond.  By observing social distancing, we each participate in the effort.  As I mentioned in my letter to the Cathedral parish last Friday, in Matthew 25, Jesus teaches us that whenever we care for the sick, we actually tend to Jesus himself. In the case of a public health crisis, social distancing to prevent the spread of infection is caring for the sick just as surely as if we were sitting at the bedside of someone with the coronavirus.  Which is why Jill and I decided at the last minute not to attend The Great Divorce at the George Theatre.

That brings us back to the depiction of hell in The Great Divorce.  There, hell is characterized by the social distance between people.  But the distance itself is not what makes it hell.  What makes it hell is what creates the distance.  In Lewis’ story, men and women move farther and farther apart because they are only and entirely self-concerned.  They are self-centered; they are aggrieved; they hold grudges; and so they seek the solace of their own isolation in order to live an existence that has no concern or regard for anyone else.

In other words, their social distance is the exact opposite of ours.  Why are we maintaining social distance in these days?  Why are we canceling school, canceling trips, canceling the theatre?  Why, in God’s name, are we not here, physically together?

We are doing these things not because we are concerned with self.  We are doing them not because we begrudge one another.

We are doing all of these things because we care for one another.  We are doing them for the benefit of those who are most vulnerable.  We are creating social distance between us because we love one another enough to do so.

And so, even as we learn the discipline to do these things, the grace of Jesus is taking what would otherwise be hell and redeeming it into an expression of the kingdom of God.  In fact, God has prepared us for just such a time as this.  As we have sometimes lamented the increasingly virtual nature of our digital world, we can now rejoice in the many ways that connect us. Even as I speak of grace, hundreds of Cathedral parishioners, Episcopalians throughout the Diocese of Texas, and others from who knows where participating in our worship service from home.  They are being the Body of Christ, physically apart but spiritually and potently together in faith.  Sunday school will meet online, where our kids will still see and hear the stories of the bible.  In these days, we are reminding ourselves that our phones are for more than trolling the internet.  We are calling one another and hearing, maybe for the first time in a long time, voices we love on the other end of the line.  We are praying—for one another, for those who are ill, for our healthcare workers—and our prayers are felt by them and received by the God who is love.

Image result for hands reaching to each other

We are creating social distance between us because we love one another enough to do so.

This is, indeed, a wilderness time like the wilderness through which the ancient Israelites travel in Exodus today.  Bishop Doyle reminded us in his web devotional this weekend of the tradition that the rock of living water was actually carried with the Israelites as they traveled.  In other words, they were never left parched in the desert.  God’s water—the living water of the living Christ—was with them wherever they might find themselves.

And so it is with us.  Coronavirus is here, and in the coming days we must maintain social distance.  But we are never alone.  The living water of God is with us in these days as in all days, and in a deep communion of Spirit we are with one another.  Our God redeems all things, and God is surely at work even now.  And in God’s good time we will be back here in this holy place, proclaiming God in the midst of the city.  May God bless us, this city, and all of God’s children.

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[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/14/world/coronavirus-live-updates.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage