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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Believing is seeing (3) - Turning can take a while

Even light isn't all that fast...some of the starlight we
see left home before human beings existed.
Once I was describing to a priest friend of mine the changes in my life that precipitated my significant (about 70 lbs or so) weight loss about four years ago. As those of you who know me will recall, in 2004 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and following the surgery for that, I lost about twenty pounds, and gained it all back. I was on statins for cholesterol and Lisinopryl for blood pressure, and my poor doctor was at her wits' end. She told me, in her direct but endearing way, that there was nothing medically she could do to "fix" my numbers any more. If I wanted to get healthy, I had to change my life. Walking and meds weren't cutting it.

Something about her demeanor, and certainly my own self-awareness of responsibility to my family and a new appreciation for my mortality gained from the cancer encounter, moved me to change my habits, and I put myself in her care. I kept a record of every calorie that went into my mouth, and for about nine months my goal was an intake of 1600 calories a day, generally about what I prefer to eat between breakfast and lunch. I intensified my walking, using the treadmill in bad weather, and began jogging as I got lighter and healthier. I read about food, changed the way I thought about it, the way I cooked, and how I ate. This began around Lent, and by Christmas, I had lost over seventy pounds. The following Ash Wednesday, Terry and I decided to give up meat for Lent. We never went back to it.

My friend patiently heard me out about all this. He had not seen me since before the weight loss, and was maybe even a little alarmed about it. My story put him at ease about my health, but when he told it back to me, he told it in conversion language. He said that I had experienced a kind of conversion, a "salvation" (from the Latin salus, which means "health"), based on my own experience and the testimony of another (my doctor), had been mentored by her through the process, and come out a changed person, with a changed life. My values, vision, and outlook were different. I stopped some risky, self-destructive behavior. I had not thought of that before, but I had heard enough conversion stories in my life to recognize one even when the character was, amazingly, me. I see food differently now, not in just the Homer Simpson/hedonist way. No one, least of all me, thought that I would ever be a vegetarian. My love (in this case, for life, for my family, friends, and work) made me change well-established, lifelong behaviors. Love changes everything.

So in thinking about John's citation of the blind man's banishment from the synagogue, I remembered that the whole passage might have been written as a kind of generalized myth after the so-called expulsion of the Jewish Christians from the synagogue in 85 CE or so. The dating of John near the end of the 1st century CE, and this is one of the interior textual reasons for so dating it. This man becomes a touching place for all those Christians who had seen the "light" and are expelled by those leaders concerned for Jewish orthodoxy (which they had every reason and right to be!), and therefore who remain "blind" to the Light of the World, Christ. This got me thinking about, as I was saying in an earlier post, how belief (love) changes the way we see everything. My own story is a perfect example. Here are some others.


First, there is the popular history of the song "Amazing Grace," by John Newton, captain of a slaving ship. During his life at sea he was converted to Christianity by reading Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ. The distance between his faith and his trade became clearer and clearer to him, and eventually he gave up the sea to become a minister, and author of many hymns, including "Amazing Grace." There is more on the story of John Newton here and here, and I mentioned a different slant on the tale a week or so ago, here. But whichever version of the story we choose to believe demonstrates that though conversion may begin in a dramatic way, as it unfolds in real life it is a process. There may be a catalytic event: a storm, a diagnosis, a disrupted relationship, but the ship of life moves slowly in the ocean of time, at least from the perspective of the present. 

There is another healing of a blind man in the gospel of Mark in which it takes several attempts for Jesus to restore the man's sight, "I see people moving, but they look like trees walking around (Mk. 8:24)." The blind man in John's gospel himself comes to faith in stages, and when Jesus finally says "I am" the "son of man", the man bows and worships. So we don't always see entirely clearly from the get-go. 


Oskar Schindler,
Friend of Israel
Then I thought of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi collaborator and ultimately savior of 1300 or so Jews who worked one of his munition factories. Schindler was raised a Catholic, but in his early life he was hard-drinking and a womanizer. Says the Jewish Virtual Library: 
At first he seemed like every other usurping German industrialist, driven by profit and unmoved by the means of his profiteering. But somewhere along the line, something changed. He succeeded in his quest for riches, but by the end of the war he had spent everything he made on keeping 1,300 Jewish men and women alive. “He negotiated the salvation of his 1,300 Jews by operating right at the heart of the system using all the tools of the devil—bribery, black marketeering and lies,” said Thomas Kenneally (author of the book that became the movie.) 
Schindler saved the 1300 Jews at tremendous personal risk and at the expense of most of his (ill-gotten) fortune. But what I could not forget from the movie was the scene of him walking among the remnant of his Jews after the camp was liberated, weeping, sobbing uncontrollably, for in spite of their gratitude and his tremendous effort, all he could say was, "I have this (a watch). I could have saved more." The full impact of the horror of what these people had gone through, and his part in it, was in the light now. The clarity of that vision threw the rest of his life into focus, and in the moment of their gratitude and love his vision was changed yet again. 

In Schindler's List we see again a kind of gradual conversion, but in dramatic steps, and leading along a divinely appointed path. As the 23rd Psalm says, appointed for Sunday's liturgy in Year A for the scrutinies: "You guide me along the right path, you are true to your name. Though I should walk in the valley of darkness...you are there with your crook and your staff." 

Somehow, it's comforting to realize that many conversions, many comings-to-sight, aren't instantaneous changes in people, but build slowly over periods of years. This is consistent with the way things work in the universe, in fact, a change in a being taking only a few years is virtually instantaneous! Still, one can detect an urgency about it in the gospel message: "the reign of God is at hand," we heard on the First Sunday of Lent, "repent and believe the good news." I think maybe the thing is the turning: the journey may be long, but it's in a different, companioned, light-drenched direction.

(Other posts on Lent 3-4-5 Year A and the Scrutinies here.)