Sunday, March 02, 2008

Spiritual Formation 6: Seeing and Believing

Lent 4
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9

Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.
Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.

Lest you think that conversion is always the same, look how different this story is from last week. With the woman at the well, Jesus was very present, you can imagine her looking him over and as she does it he looks into her eyes. But the blind man never sees Jesus till the end.

Jesus spends most of the story out of sight off stage, and the poor guy’s conversations are with everybody else and the coming-to-life of his new self is against opposition, and he ends up on the street corner having to wonder if it was worth it. Who ever said that the coming-to-life of the new self was going to be all peaches and cream? No wonder people tend to stay with the miserable old nature that they know.

Of course this story is about both sight and insight. The poor guy is seeing things for the first time, and he’s having immediately to see beneath the surfaces in ways he never had to. He’s got to stand on his own two feet now, now he’s got to look out for himself, and he’s got to start making judgments now and sizing people up. It’s one thing to see, it’s another to read what you see. He can see people now, but he’s got look inside them too!

In the story from 1 Samuel, God tells the prophet to look not on appearances but on the heart. I can just hear Samuel say, "I know that, I’m a prophet!" I love the down-to-earth and almost comic interaction between God and Samuel, like God is right there next to Samuel, standing invisibly at his shoulder.

(Well, the gift and burden of prophecy is to hear the words of God we are deaf to but that are all around us anyway, to see what we in our blindness thought was invisible but is right here anyway. The community of Jesus is meant to be prophetic, we are to see and hear what the world finds hard to believe, and to be witnesses of that.)

This story is comic in that after it tells us to look on the heart and not appearances it also tells us how handsome David was. I wonder is the Bible playin’. I can tell you that if you read the rest of First and Second Samuel, you’ll see that the Bible is critical of David, showing his underside, always suggesting the self-regard beneath his heroic generosity, but at the same time the Bible always loves him. Like how you might feel about FDR. What a stinker. How we loved him. Like how God must feel about each one of you.

Look, we have to make judgments about each other. We’re primates, after all, like chimpanzees and baboons, and unlike orangutans we are primates of a social sort, so we always have to be judging each other and explaining ourselves to each other. And do we not spend an awful lot of time explaining ourselves to each other? And don’t we expend a lot of energy calculating our behavior in advance of the judgments of each other?

But if this is natural and organic then why do we find it problem? I think it’s because among th primates our species is especially spiritual, and we live by ethics, not by ordinary nature. We are the animals that distinguish between the "is" and the "ought." We are the animals that have to see behind the surfaces, because we are so spiritual.

In our spiritual conversations, we need to listen behind the words. When we face each other in our small groups, we need to look beyond appearances into each other’s hearts. That is the speciality of religion, to put what seems apparent into parentheses, and to judge each other and the world not by what is now but by what we hope for, and what we believe will be.

That sets up a problem. To do this can be to go too quick to deeper judgement, and to not credit what the other person is telling you. We think we know better. Especially if someone is suffering, because of our religious practices we think we know better. The Pharisees were doing their religious job by judging the guy that Jesus healed, they were getting past the appearances. How could they believe him when they knew better, that the Messiah would scrupulously keep the law of the Sabbath. But what they needed to do was believe him. At face value.

So there is another dialectic here. Like I’ve said in prior weeks, spiritual formation means you have to keep in balance two things which might seem opposite. Here too. In spiritual conversation you have to listen behind the surfaces, but at the same time, you have to believe what the other person is telling you about herself, himself.

Yes, you will have your own take on what the person says, you question that person’s interpretation, you naturally use your judgement as a social primate, but you also have to believe what the person tells you. You have to say, "I believe you." In our small groups there’ll have to be a lot of this: "I believe you."

We have been conditioned by psychotherapy to think that healing happens when you finally tell the truth about yourself. Not so. Healing starts to happen when somebody else believes you, no matter how troubling or subversive or impossible. Not someone you are paying to believe you, but someone whose life is not made any easier by the truth of what you are saying. When that kind of person believes you, well, then the healing can begin. When my believing you costs me.

You might have figured out that I prefer to see myself as a conservative. Some of you are aware that at one time I was conservative on the matter of homosexuality in the church. I used to follow the debates about what caused homosexuality, whether it came from childhood sexual abuse or whether it was the fault of one the other of the parents, which, of course, is exactly that response of the disciples to the blind man when they said, "Who sinned that he is blind." Jesus has no time for this. For Jesus it’s always: How shall I to respond to you now?

I had to be converted. Not by my speaking or confessing, but by my listening and believing. In my third parish, a man in our congregation came out to me. He was the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. He told me he had always loved God. But he had hated himself because he loved other men. He kept repenting and begging God to change him and heal him. He told me that at last he came to know that God loved him as gay, and he accepted that. Would I?

When he told me this I felt convicted. Should I believe him? What about my own theological categories, that I should interpret his experience better than he himself? I felt what the blind man’s parents felt, for if I believed him I could be in trouble with my denomination. (And it is true that I lost the confidence of my closest Reformed Church colleagues at the time, except for my wife, who was ahead of me.)

I decided to believe him. I decided to believe him what he told me about himself, and that he knew his own heart, and that he knew his own experience, and so that instead of my trying to change him, maybe I had better change myself. And I am grateful to him since, especially since I have come to experience the generous love of many gay and lesbian believers.

It could be some other example. A truly spiritual conversation can further your conversion, just in your listening and believing will be another step in your spiritual formation. For isn’t it to love your neighbor as yourself? And doesn’t God listen to you and believe you? Because God loves you.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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