Mark 8:22-25 (NRSV)
22 They came to Bethsaida. Some people[a] brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” 24 And the man[b] looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus[c] laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
When I was expecting my son Ned I read about the eyes of babies, and how they develop. The eyes of newborns focus at a distance of between 8 and 15 inches, which just happens to be the distance between the baby’s eyes and the face of their parent, who is holding, or nursing, or bottle-feeding, or simply looking adoringly at that beloved face. Babies learn to see and focus by looking at loving faces that are looking back at them.
1 Corinthians 13:12New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[a] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Psalm 36:1-2, 7-9
1 Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God
before their eyes.
2 For they flatter themselves in their own eyes
that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8 They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9 For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.
When I was expecting my son I read about the eyes of babies, and how they develop. The eyes of newborns focus at a distance of between 8 and 15 inches, which just happens to be the distance between the baby’s eyes and the face of their parent, who is holding, or nursing, or bottle-feeding, or simply looking adoringly at that beloved face. Babies learn to see and focus by looking at loving faces that are looking back at them.
Isn’t that a wonder.
How do we learn to focus our eyes on God?
For a long time—I think it’s safe to say, since before the gospels were written—the scriptures have used “eyes” and “seeing” as a metaphor for faith, and we can see that the writer of Mark’s gospel is doing just that. In this passage, friends of a blind man bring him to Jesus for his healing touch. Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes, and lays his hands upon them. But the first attempt does not work. Over the course of the next two chapters, Jesus tries to explain who he is to his friends and followers, over and over again. The first attempts do not work.
Seeing God clearly is like trying to read small print in a shadowy place. Or maybe, like trying to read anything, anywhere, after you hit the age of about 45. I can recall being in a restaurant with my children on Mother’s day about ten years ago, a period when I hadn’t quite adjusted to the fact that I needed reading glasses, all the time. I could not hold the menu far enough away to get a good look, and finally, gave it to my kids to hold for me. Whereupon, Joan burst into tears, sure I was in very, very bad trouble.
Faith is like that. We don’t always see clearly. We don’t always know when we need help seeing. We can’t always tell when we need to look at things from a new angle, or to put on new lenses with which to see.
But seeing isn’t only a metaphor. We also can deepen our faith—or make it shallower—by the things we see, or, more specifically, the things we allow ourselves to see.
I know we’ve all had the experience of walking down a street and being confronted with things that made us uncomfortable. We might be in a city where the problem of homelessness suddenly isn’t a vague issue we read about, but is suddenly very much in our face. And, the flip side of this phenomenon: people who live in that city, and walk that street every day may find that they have learned to not see those things, the homeless man with his toes poking through ancient sneakers. It’s just too hard to see it, and feel powerless to do anything really helpful about it.
When I was in seminary, I became overwhelmed with the homeless people who camped out near our doors… and, of course, it being a seminary, where people were learning theology and ministry, it felt especially terrible to have no good or useful response. I couldn’t give money to every person who asked for it. And I couldn’t stop seeing the real suffering right in front of my face.
I shared my frustration with some friends one day, and someone who was a year ahead of me nodded, and said, “Yes, of course, you can’t give money to everyone. Here’s what I do. I’ve picked one person. I stopped to talk to him, to find out his name. He knows my name. And when I see him, if I have anything I can give him, I do. Just this one person. It’s a drop in the bucket. But it’s the drop I can give.”
And I can tell you, it feels amazing to have someone see your suffering, and not look right through it.
There is a story about a woman who got caught up in a situation with a couple—they needed a surrogate to carry a baby for them, and she became pregnant, but the couple, who were really a kind of royalty, exploited her situation. At first they wanted to adopt her baby, but in the end, they had a child themselves, and didn’t feel much like they needed hers. They banished her, along with her child, a boy. She and the boy were alone, in the wilderness. And she was suicidal. She wanted to die. She couldn’t bring herself to care whether her boy lived. But twice, once in the middle of the story, and once again, near the end, she received a visit from a divine messenger, who told her that God had seen her suffering. And that message… the notion that God had seen, and knew what she was going through... that was what she needed, to be able to go on. She is the only person in scripture to give God a name. She is Hagar the Egyptian, and she called God: “El-Roi,” God-who-sees.
Sometimes knowing that our pain has been seen, is just the thing we need to be able to see God more clearly.
Maybe what we need to do, in order to focus our eyes on God, is to learn to focus them on one another… Not to judge, but to love.
And when we get the gist of that, then we will begin to understand… we will begin to see… just how it is that God sees us.
And then we will have that inkling of the baby’s experience, we who are told time and again by Jesus, to become like children. We will know what it is to be gazed at with perfect vision while we are held in the arms of those who love us best.