Walking in the Dark: A reflection on John 9.1-41

As I’ve been chatting with friends, family, and colleagues this week, a theme that’s stood out has been that doing new things is hard. Of course we all know this. But we’re in unprecedented circumstances, and that means we’re all doing new things every day. For some it’s learning how to work from home. For some it’s learning how to work from home with their spouse and children underfoot. For some it’s learning how to be alone. For some it’s learning how to cook. For some it’s how to livestream church services. (For me it’s learning how to manage having my work life take over all of life.)

But for all of us, it’s learning how to deal with an incredible amount — an unprecedented amount — of uncertainty.

And it’s interesting to see how people have responded to this since, as a species, we don’t deal well with uncertainty and love our illusions of control. And whether it’s hoarding toilet paper, profiteering off of cleaning products, or latching on to expert opinions and statistical models to try to know when this is going to be over, people have definitely attempted to control this situation. But it is of course just an illusion. A houseful of toilet paper is not going to protect your family from a respiratory illness. Price gouging leaves you a social pariah and keeps badly needed supplies out of the very hands you may very well depend on for your life. And, the fact is, even the best educated guesses about the course of this pandemic are just that: guesses. No one knows. Life could be pretty much back to normalish in a month or two. Or, this could be our new normal for years. We’re all walking in the dark right now, and while some of us have had to learn to walk in the dark before, others are doing this for the first time. No wonder we’re all on edge.

In a strange way, many of the characters in today’s Gospel reading were in a similar position, dealing with something new they didn’t understand and the uncertainty that that brings. It’s a very different situation, obviously. But if there is one thing the coming of a healing messiah and the emergence of a truly global pandemic have in common it’s that both represent a fundamental challenge to the systems, structures, and ideologies that make up society. The characters in the story, like us, are in uncharted territory.

The gist of the story is this: Jesus sees a man who had been blind from birth and heals him. His disciples are surprised and the religious authorities are angry. The man’s parents are sheepish, fearing retribution, and the man himself believes in Jesus gratefully.

Why the range of responses? Isn’t this act of healing unquestionably a good thing?

The story tells us that there was a common assumption — common enough to be shared by both Jesus’ diverse group of disciples and the religious authorities — that congenital illness and disability were signs of divine judgment. It’s telling that the question on everyone’s lips was “Whose sin caused his blindness?” No one questioned whether sin had anything to do with it at all. They are all like Job’s friends, who turned themselves inside out trying to find a reason why he deserved to suffer as he did. By healing the man born blind, Jesus was undoing their understanding of God’s justice, of cause-and-effect, and thereby introducing a whole lot of uncertainty into their world. And so they lashed out, at the man, at Jesus, and at anyone who supported either of them.

Once again, I find myself amused by how the Pharisees and other religious authorities are presented in the Gospels. They aren’t evil masterminds that we can ignore because we aren’t like them. They are, more often than not, human in their villainy. It’s the kind of ‘wickedness’ we all fall into when we aren’t at our best. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to deal with uncertainty well, to take a deep breath and allow ourselves to feel afraid, to accept not knowing where things are going, to struggle at doing life in new ways, and simply allow things to be uncertain and strange. The religious authorities in today’s Gospel failed that test of vulnerability and courage. The question before us in our present moment is if we will do the same, or if we’ll rise to this challenge.

As it happens, while I was writing this this morning, a new post from social scientist and vulnerability champion Brene Brown popped up in my Instagram feed that speaks to this exact point. It says:

“This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability. We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often little in between because when we are uncertain and afraid our default is self-protection.

We don’t have to be scary when we’re scared. Let’s choose awkward, brave, and kind.

And let’s choose each other.”

And to this I have to say ‘Amen.’

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