“What can I do to help?”, Part 1

The cliff notes version of my story of conversion to Christ begins with learning that God is Healer.  I grew up being dragged to church – I wouldn’t say I was “raised in the church” – but I couldn’t fully enter into the worshipful life.  If faith is more “caught than taught” as the saying goes, I didn’t have a mitt.  I was aware enough about my own heart and the sorry state of the world to know that I needed help, but I did not perceive anyone around me offering it (which is not to say that no one was; I just failed to find enough safety to consider that possibility).  I somehow missed in all my years at the United Methodist Church I attended during my youth that God heals.  The moment I learned that God is Healer is one I remember vividly: I was 20 years old, in the mountains with the woman who is now my best friend and her husband.  I realized that healing was my only hope, and the only hope for the world, and began becoming Christian.  Healing, I believed (and still believe) is the only answer for the mess we’re in.

jesus-heals-blind-manThere are plenty of healing stories in Scripture.  Each gospel writer reminds us of Jesus’ compassionate balm.  He just seems to always know what to do, whether it’s mix up some mud with His spit and rub it on a blind man’s eyes or wait a few days before visiting a sick person so He can then bring them back to life.  So when Mark tells us in 10:51 that Jesus asks someone in what seems like clear need what He can do for them, I almost miss it.  I’m overwhelmed with grief at the thought of a blind beggar by the side of the road both that such suffering has been happening for so long and at my failure to do something about it.  I’m indignant that many told this man to be quiet when he began crying out for Jesus.  I’m happy that the text honors this human being enough to name him (even if it is, as some scholars suggest, “just out of tradition”): Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.  And I assume, if I don’t just breeze right by it, that Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” is merely a formality, akin to small talk between strangers.

But this is no “How d’you do?”  To start, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus is the first to take action.  “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cries; then again, even louder despite being hushed.  “Son of David.”  One who has authority.  Heir to the royal throne and, more importantly, the unconditional, everlasting promise of God.  King.  Divinely appointed ruler.  Son of David.  “Have mercy on me.”  A psalmic phrase, sometimes rendered “have pity on me,” directed towards God.  Perhaps a generic call for attention.  Definitely a plea for a response from Jesus, who he has evidently heard about.  “Royal one who stands to inherit the storehouse of God, incline your heart towards me!”  Bartimaeus, one of the lowliest of the low (blind and poor), initiates the interaction with Jesus.

So Jesus calls him over.  Now, this is rather rude of Jesus, no?  I mean, the poor guy’s blind, after all, why not go to him?  But what if Jesus is allowing Bartimaeus the dignity to take the lead.  Instead of seizing control, inflicting Himself onto Bartimaeus with His own ideas of how to be helpful, He pauses, acknowledge the other and opens some space for him.  “What do you want me to do for you?”

Isn’t it obvious?  Bartimaeus is blind.  And a beggar.  But this is not, as I used to think, Jesus playing dumb.  Nor is it Jesus mocking the needs of one in pain.  It may or may not be that Jesus doesn’t know (that depends on your definition of omnipotence) but the point is that Jesus is honoring the otherness of the other, recognizing that the other actually has a specific request compelling him to cry out in the first place.  I don’t want to anachronistically apply psychological terms to Jesus’ motivations, but one import for our time today (whether Jesus was intentional about this or not) is that there is power in asking for your needs, and honor in giving others the freedom to do so, too.  It is a difficult but beautiful part of being human.

Think about when this honoring does not happen.  Too often, our words of advice are hasty and blunt rather than soothing and alleviating.  Have you ever been the recipient of “help” you didn’t ask for?  When our devastating church situation presented at the end of 2012, several people in leadership acted in deeply hurtful ways that they framed as “being helpful,” and seemed to express an unwillingness to discuss the damage they did.  They did not ask what me or my husband needed, nor did they apologize upon learning that their actions hurt more than helped.  They assessed the situation involving us entirely apart from dialogue and relationship with us.  They decided what should be helpful, rather that asking what would be.

I remain convinced that these are good people who wanted to help.  Truly, they had no intention of making a really painful situation worse.  (If I thought these folks were malicious, I would not have attended church with them for over half a decade.)  And I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that there were sensitive, loving and helpful people caring for us and standing by us as we walked all this through.  But I wonder what it would change, what it would be like to give more air time to this funny little story at the end of Mark chapter 10.  The one where a poor, sightless man calls out for mercy, desperate enough to raise his voice when his friends attempt to silence him.  The one where Jesus makes space in His comings and goings for a person society would discard.  The one where Jesus, assuming nothing, and asks a blind beggar what He can do to help.

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"It's just semantics."

April 10, 2014