On a Theology of Presence: A Sight for Sore Eyes
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It was a chilly and cloudy Friday, and I had a few more stops to make. My list of other people to see and places to be, felt too ambitious. But I decided to squeeze in this pastoral visit.
Entering the memory care unit, my stomach growled. I’d forgotten it was lunch time and as I hurriedly took off my coat, I was ushered over to Kathleen’s table by a caregiver.
Three sweet faces looked up at me as I greeted each one and took a seat next to my friend and her white haired table mates. They didn’t seem to mind that a friendly stranger had joined them.
Somehow my timing was perfect because a moment later steaming cup of mushroom soup was served. The gifts continued. It was clear that while memory loss was gaining ground in various ways, each woman still had her own style of communicating with one another and with me. Eye contact was continuous. Facial expressions, still curious and kind.
I received smiles from the retired professor across from me
She wanted to tell me something I could tell. Her blue eyes widened as she studied me –and my orange puffy jacket. She stared.
“I like….” she said, pointing at me and my jacket. “I like….that.”
“Thank you” I smiled through sips of my soup.
We all settled in to a companionable silence. One person hummed, another arranged her silverware and looked at her sandwich, and Kathleen looked over at me with an earnest gaze, chatting away though I didn’t understand a word.
“Yes, it is delicious isn’t it?” I commented.
The great-grandmother to my left had her sense of humor intact. She overheard a helper at another table ask loudly, “How’s your walker?” and then, staring right at me, she responded with a sly grin,
“Mine’s feeling fine today, how’s yours doing?”
We shared a conspiratorial laugh and my shoulders relaxed. In fact, I breathed a sigh of relief and wonder that I should be so lucky to be led to this table feast.
I was full of gratitude for this unexpected circle of grace.
Writes the 2nd century theologian, St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
In our gospel passage from Luke, a man calls for help, Jesus asks a life-saving question and everyone within eyeshot and earshot is changed. Blind and begging for help, whatever this person’s deep needs and hungers were, he rose up at the sound of Jesus’ voice. The shushing, insensitive crowd couldn’t keep him down. Despite obstacles, the man exerts power, demanding to be heard by the Son of David from Nazareth.
Above the impatient crowd, Jesus stops. He hears someone:
Jesus, have mercy on me? And then again,
Jesus, have mercy on me?
Mercy. How many in our broken world are calling for this…I recall how Thomas Merton once wrote: “God is mercy in mercy in mercy.”
Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (as chronicled in Luke’s gospel account) has already reminded us about the core of his ministry: the power of healing presence for the poor and the poor in spirit alike.
Animated by the prophecy of Isaiah whom Jesus often quotes in the gospels, we’re reminded that loving means to help the poor, free the captive, open the eyes of the blind, help the oppressed go free…” (Lk 4.18)
Sometimes the invitation is to start with ourselves.
As the text tells us, this neighbor can already see what the impatient crowd cannot. Their own blindness is on view. The presence of Jesus, the Son of David, seems apparent only to the blind man.
The healing itself comes to one and to all who seek mercy and open their eyes…This marginalized person’s cry and conversation with Jesus becomes another opportunity for restoration as Jesus asks him, “What is it you’d like me to do for you?” (18.41)
Not only is there a restoration of sight in whatever way, but there’s a restoration of dignity, of purpose and even, of community.
What is the healing here you might ask? We learn from the text, the newly healed person, now a disciple, following in the footsteps of Jesus. ”And when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God.” (v. 43)
Present day filmmaker, Travis Reed explains:
“We bless the hard work that brings one from lost to foundness, and from many to oneness. Through it all, we have come to believe that there is a greater Love that we belong to; and while so much of that Love is mysterious to us, we believe it to be enlivening us at this very moment, with every inspirited breath we take.”
And speaking of gospel truth, if you haven’t seen the new movie about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks, rent it tonight! Maybe we’ll do a screening here sometime soon.
For me, watching it was “going to church”, a visual liturgy of how we are meant to relate to one another with dignity “Mr Rogers” style –which sounds awfully similar to the life and the ministry of Jesus.
For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is a glimpse into the heart of Mr. Rogers and what made him a healing presence for children of ALL ages in our contemporary world. Many of us who are sitting here have probably grown up watching him- including myself!
In the movie, there’s an unforgettable restaurant scene when Fred Rogers is deep in conversation with a reporter he has befriended. (The best things in life happen while we’re eating with one another. Jesus knew this. Mr. Rogers did too.)
As they are sitting there, Mr Rogers asks the man “to take a moment and think of all of the people who loved you into being. “
A moment goes by… “I can’t do that, ” he replies
“Let them come to you.” Fred says.
So, in this next moment, let me ask you…
On this Valentine’s weekend, who are the people who have loved you and keep loving you into being?
Presence is meant to be shared, but it’s always about seeing. Taking the blinders off and seeing the person for who they are — a human being fully alive.
At my lunch table in the memory care unit, our meal was nearly over, sandwiches were cleared away and cherry pie was served- with whipped cream. Some of us ate the pie and others seemed disinterested. You might guess what category I was in!
Soon enough, it was time for me to leave. Fatigue had settled onto faces but not before one of my lunch friends belted out her own goodbye to me loud and clear as a bell, “You’re a sight for sore eyes!”
Mine filled with tears as I took my leave from that holy table and back to my car. Utterly changed. Seeing differently now.
Isn’t that all that is needed to change the world around? Jesus, have mercy on us all! Amen.
 Travis Reed, founder of Work of the People (www.workofthe people.com).