Sunday, October 28, 2012

On Being Texan, Reading Scripture, & Seeing Blindness

The Dudes: Jeff Bridges with Jeff Dowd
One of the highlights of my first two months at St Francis House - before I saw Jeff Dowd, the real life inspiration for the Big Lebowski, at the Rathskeller last week - came on my very first Sunday when, on the way out to dinner, Jimmy informed me that, for a Texan, I was pretty disappointing. No boots or spurs; no six-shooter or hat. No real accent, even, and Jimmy would know. “Now Rebekah,” he said. “She has an accent; there is an interesting Texan.” You can imagine my delight in sharing this compliment with Rebekah, because Rebekah is from North Carolina.

Fair warning: I’m about to let my Texan show. It won’t hurt. I think.

In Texas, sixth grade is the Texas History year. Children learn names like Davy Crockett, Stephen F. Austin, William B. Travis, and Sam Houston. Optimally, one’s class will make a pilgrimage to the capitol in Austin during this year; additionally, students will learn to disdain Colonel James Fannin (who could have aided at the Alamo, but did not) and to repeat the cry of San Jacinto: “Remember the Alamo!”

But even Texans know that Texas history does not start with the Alamo; or, better put, that the Alamo was a Spanish mission - a church - long before it was a fort under siege. The Alamo owed its being to the Spanish engagement with the Americas that began centuries before the famous battle; this ongoing engagement resulted in unspeakable hardships for the indigenous peoples, some graces, too, all of it driven by the three-fold, sometimes misguided (and helpfully alliterative) motivations of those first conquistadors; the three ‘Gs’ we learned in sixth grade: God, Gold, and Glory.

God: the missionary impulse of the early Spanish adventurers; Gold: the vast wealth of the land being conquered. Glory: the positions of honor that awaited those who were successful in risk-taking and wealth-discovery upon their return to the Old World.

God, Gold, and Glory sounded so noble in sixth grade. Now, looking back, it is hard not to name these motivating factors without some measure of cynicism for the unbridled exploitation and violence they were used to justify. So it was with some ambivalence this past Tuesday that I realized that if the last three weeks’ gospel lessons were ever made into a single film, God, Gold, and Glory would be the inevitable title, harkening back to the days of bad spaghetti westerns.

Three Sunday’s ago in Mark’s gospel we read of the rich young man whose wealth proves an insurmountable obstacle to his receiving the gift of God’s Kingdom. Gold. Two Sunday’s ago in Mark’s gospel,  James and John make a failed attempt to secure the top cabinet positions in Jesus’ new administration. Glory. This week in Mark’s gospel, we are given the healing of a blind man who longs to see God. God, gold, and glory.

Now, to be fair, the blind man doesn’t say straight out that he wants to see God, only that he wants to see again. However, in light of 1) the gospel’s recurring theme of the disciples’ blindness with respect to who Jesus is and 2) what the blind man does once he is healed - he follows Jesus to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be crucified - it is not too much, I think, to characterize this blind man’s longing as a longing to see God.

So we see the blind man and immediately realize that we have seen this before, the latest in a series of individuals coming to Jesus with a special request - three weeks in a row now. In case we miss the repetition and so also the connectedness of the stories, Jesus uses the same question to engage the blind man that he used with James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man is the third in a trilogy of encounters.

As you and I know, the first two encounters do not turn out well. The first two encounters do not turn out well because the ones who approach Jesus cannot see that they do not see. The rich man cannot see the possibility of a future apart from his wealth; James and John cannot see the possibility of a kingdom that takes Jesus to the cross. Each in his own way holds the Kingdom to the standard of a stunted imagination. But this time is different. This time the one coming to Jesus sees that he does not see. Unlike the others, he knows he is blind. And this one is able to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to follow the Savior whose glory is the cross.

We do not like to think of ourselves as blind. But in Mark’s gospel, seeing one’s blindness is the only sight that leads to life. To see that one cannot see makes possible the profession that invites the healing of God: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

There is a long-standing tradition in the Church: a desire among the saints, for what is called the beatific vision, the longing of the saints to see God. The beatific vision refers to the perfect knowledge of God enjoyed in heavenly realms. It is Paul reminding us that while now we see but dimly, then we will see face to face. And this is the longing of God’s holy ones, the knowledge that we don’t see, the prayer to see face to face, and with both of these the willingness to surrender every definition of the God we thought we knew before we knew Jesus.

Professor of mine in college asked us: “What if there was nothing in it for you? No streets of gold. No promise of wealth. No pearly gates. No power or position. No reunion with loved ones, even. Would you still be in?” he asked. He clarified: he wasn’t saying that there would be no reunion with loved ones - indeed, salvation as we find it offered in Scripture is the restoration of the whole Body of Christ, God’s holy People, all things reconciled to God - but, he added, and this is the heart of the beatific yearning: “What if the only thing promised you by God was...God?” Would God be enough?

Gold and earthly glory are unfortunate aspirations for those who follow the crucified King. But God as enough for us, God as enough for you - forever - this longing leans into the abundance and glory of the New Jerusalem, for this desire is God’s own.

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold:
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee. (1)


SFH. 10.28.12

(1) Attr. Thomas Aquinas, Hymn 314 in the Hymnal 1982.

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