Every so often I am startled by how unaware I am of my surroundings. There have been times when I get behind the wheel of my car and wonder how I arrived at my destination safely. If you’ve experienced it (and I know many of you have), it’s unnerving. There’s a name for it – it’s called a dissociative state – a split in awareness between the normal conscious mind and other thought processes. It can range from mild to extreme, from normal to seriously disruptive. An example is when we carry out a normal motor task absent-mindedly – anything from knitting to pulling weeds to driving. We operate on “auto pilot” until something snaps us out of it – a phone call, a neighbor shouting hello, a red light. Dissociative states are very common when highly practiced motor skills are involved. People who work on assembly lines, for example, can let their minds wander and yet complete the task. Have you ever gotten “lost” in a book or a movie; or found yourself daydreaming? These are all normal, short-lived processes. We just “lose touch” with our immediate surroundings.
There are other explanations as to how we distance ourselves from what is around us that have nothing to do with “spacing out,” as we like to call it. Over our lifetime we cultivate practices that enable us to become unseeing people. The routines we create in our life involving school, work, chores, family responsibilities can cause us to develop tunnel-vision – a single-minded concentration on one thing while ignoring others. So we focus on the task at hand or what is going on in interior selves and lose sight of the world in all its richness. We stop being mindful of the colors and sounds of creation and the diversity around us. Our vision becomes clouded by the repetitiveness of our day.
The risk for each one of us is when we become comfortable in our blindness – when it becomes all we know – and like a cocoon – keeps us protected from the world around us. We withdraw and see little outside our chosen field of vision.
It’s not a great place to find ourselves if our desire is to live fully as God’s own. Just consider the story of the blind man.
Many in the walked passed the blind beggar over the years but apparently few truly saw him. It wasn’t because he wasn’t always there; they knew that he was blind from birth. But it was because those who passed him on their way stopped seeing him as a human being. Rushing off to their destinations, they became increasingly blind to his humanity. Perhaps there was once a time when the community did wonder about him; perhaps they occasionally glanced at him; but before long they developed tunnel-vision and simply stopped seeing him as nothing more than a nuisance.
The disciples saw him – but as a convenient person whose situation made for an interesting theological question to pose to Jesus. They wanted to know: whose fault was it that this beggar was born blind? They asked Jesus, was it is his fault or his parents? Their question comes from a long-held but mistaken assumption that misfortune and illness came into one’s life as a result of some sin. So their concern was not the well-being of this man; they saw him as nothing more than a teaching moment.
In demonstrating God’s power, Jesus healed the man and his sight returned. It was more than the community could handle and so they retreated to what they knew. It was far easier and less dangerous to cling to their own understanding of power and rules and boundaries over the truth before them. They simply refused to see what was right before their eyes.
We can understand this reaction because fear does that to all of us. When we are afraid, our own tunnel-vision keeps us from seeing a larger reality and from living a larger vision. We deny what is right before our eyes and retreat to our old ways of thinking. For the truth is, if we do choose to open our eyes, then we have to confront the blindness within us in all its manifestations. That’s daunting and it can feel overwhelming. Yet if we wish to see God and the richness of life and live with others fully then we must pay attention to what is going on within us. There’s no other way. True sight begins in the heart and not the eyes.
Each of us is the blind man in this story. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest and author, puts it this way: Our sight is not about the quality of our vision or even the condition of our eyes. It is not about the lack of light around us but rather the amount of darkness within us. How we see others, how we see the world, the way we see life is less about the objects and more about our hearts. Until our eyes are opened by Christ, our seeing is just a reflection of ourselves upon the world. These are words worth considering this Lent.
If we wish to see God and live life fully with others then we must look deeply at what is going on within us. And as soon as we begin to acknowledge and accept our own fears and beliefs that live within us, we can begin to understand how they have impaired and distorted our vision. Fear narrows our world view, closing our eyes like the mud Jesus’ places on the blind man’s eyes. And if we cling to our fear, we lose the opportunity for conversion in order to be the Light in a troubled and fractured world.
Let’s put it in the context of something going on in our world now: the past several months there has been a growing movement in our area to confront the cruel deportation of undocumented people from marginalized communities. It’s a fearful time for many of our brothers and sisters; they have reason to feel unsafe due to the harsh rhetoric coming from some of our elected leaders and the constant threats leveled at them. Undocumented people are under attack and are afraid to leave their homes. Latino churches are reporting low levels of attendance. Latino children are showing signs of anxiety disorders, afraid to go to school for fear their parents may not be home when they return. It’s a terrible time for many in our own neighborhoods. Families are being torn apart; many who have no record of criminality. We – the larger community – must not be blind to their suffering. Yet it seems too many of us are.
We’ve all heard these comments: “They are illegal. “ They broke the law.” “They deserve to be deported.” Our eyes are blinded by our fear. We hear a story of a crime committed by an undocumented person and we begin to see all people of color as threats. The restaurant workers we once greeted with a smile, we begin to ignore. We start making generalizations about the men and women who harvest our food, tend our gardens, and provide cleaning services to our homes and offices and whose children attend school with ours. We become suspicious of all who entered here from our southern border. We have stopped living in God’s world where all are valued and loved and welcomed. Instead, we begin to live in a dark world that we have created in our minds and not our hearts.
It needn’t be this way. We can choose to be people of the Light, with a vision to resist evil in all its forms including racism, sexism, homophobism, Islamophobia and those institutionalized structures that target the vulnerable.
Faithful people everywhere are finding ways to challenge the injustices. There is a resurgence of a Sacred Sanctuary movement throughout the nation. You may have also heard it called Radical Hospitality. To some extent, it is a public reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. It’s a pledge to stand with anyone under attack and to resist the evil that oppresses them. There are degrees of involvement in Radical Hospitality but may include providing safe space, food, transportation, moral and financial support to aid those being targeted as well as those left behind. It’s a movement modeled after the early Judeo-Christian concept of sanctuary, where persons fleeing persecution could find protection in religious houses. It is a movement also founded on the religious values of compassion and love for all people.
Of course some will find this too difficult, saying this is a political issue and should be addressed by the courts. They may not see it as their concern. But it is, of course, much greater than a political issue. It is a moral issue and people of faith are being called to be moral voices in the wilderness in which we now find ourselves.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs the community to live as children of light; to find out what pleases the Lord; and not to take part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather, to work to expose them. The church therefore is to act differently: to tell the truth, to push for justice, to uphold goodness regardless of the norms of the society at large. This is the challenge all of us face today. These are difficult conversations to have but they need to happen, here in church and in our homes. Our eyes must be opened to the immoral and broken systems in our society that demean the dignity and preciousness of every individual. We need to do our best and perhaps it still may not be enough, but we must try. For if truly we are to be people of the Light, then we must be willing to be changed for the sake of faith. We must be willing to see things as they are, and not as we wish them to be.
This is our work of Lent: to cast off our blindness, and to turn from our old ways of seeing ,that we may help be the Light of Christ that shines in our world today and in the days to come.