Face to face

Mark Horvath works with a camera. He once heard a story about a homeless man on LA’s Hollywood Blvd who thought he was invisible. A kid handed the man a pamphlet one day, and he was startled and amazed, saying, “You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”

“It isn’t hard to comprehend this man’s slow spiral into invisibility,” writes Horvath.

Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he didn’t exist … much like they do a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.

We don’t literally close our eyes; we just keep our noses down, eyes focussed on the sidewalk, quietly hoping that invisibility works both ways:  The homeless person blends into the background, and we who are passing by blend into the steady stream of faceless pedestrians. Horvath once was a homeless person himself.

I not only feel their pain, I truly know their pain. I lived their pain. … Seventeen years ago, I lived on Hollywood Blvd. But today, I find myself looking away, ignoring the faces, avoiding their eyes — and I’m ashamed when I realize I’m doing it. But I really can feel their pain, and it is almost unbearable, but it’s just under the surface of my professional exterior.

After years of using a video camera to tell the stories of homelessness and the organizations trying to help, Horvath began shooting short, unedited clips of homeless men and women telling their stories, and he posted them on his website. The purpose of the project, he writes, “is to make the invisible visible.”[2]

My friend John also works with a camera. He’s paddled his canoe down the Harpeth and the Cumberland all the way to the Ohio, and then on to the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans, taking great pictures along the way. But one of my favorite stories of his doesn’t come with a picture, which is wonderful, because you get to create your own as you listen.

He was in China, and one day he was visiting a town where he says begging had apparently been elevated to a performance art. He was walking down the main drag when he saw a man at a street corner; he was fascinated by him while at the same time trying to ignore him. The man had no legs and he was sitting in a small wooden cart; one of his arms looked twisted and paralyzed, and he used his other arm to push himself forward.

John tried to look past him, but the man wouldn’t let him. He actually spoke to John as he walked past, but John kept walking, pretending he couldn’t hear him. He thought he had escaped, but the man in the cart followed him, pushing himself forward with astonishing skill.

Now John walked a little faster, his eyes firmly locked on the end of the street, but the man didn’t stop his pursuit. John picked up the pace some more, but the man in the cart was determined and remarkably quick on his wheels.

They came to the end of the block and John crossed the street, certain that the man would give up the chase now, but no, he was relentless. Halfway down the second block, John stopped and turned around.

They looked at each other. Neither said a word. And then they just burst out laughing: deep, full-throated belly laughs that shook their bodies so hard that any awkwardness, guilt and anger simply vanished until nothing but joy remained. Then they went to get a cup of tea.

Photos can be powerful and eye-opening. Videos can be incredibly moving and enlightening. But nothing is more powerful than two human beings looking at each other face to face, seeing one another.

Seeing and not seeing, visibility and invisibility, are key themes of another story, the story of a journey. The journey begins in the towns of Galilee where Jesus proclaims the good news of God: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[3] He calls disciples, he heals, he teaches, and he feeds the people with parables and with bread.

The disciples watch, but they are slow to learn. “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” Jesus says to them, and you can hear the frustration in his voice.[4]

The journey continues; Jesus turns south, following the old road that leads to Jerusalem. In Bethsaida, people bring a blind man to him and beg him to touch him. Mark writes, “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes … and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”[5] The disciples have been watching, but they are slow to understand who Jesus is, and what discipleship is about, and we wonder why Jesus can’t just lay his hands on them until they see “everything clearly.”

Instead, he continues on the way to Jerusalem and they follow. And he continues to teach them about the power of faith and the demands of discipleship; he talks to them about serving one another and being attentive to little ones – but they consistently fail to see who he is and, consequently, what it means to follow him. They are blind, and for much of the journey they have been slipping and stumbling — and we can’t say we have done much better.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked James and John, and they responded, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”[6] Jesus speaks of servanthood and loving self-denial, but we dream of greatness, power and privilege.

Now the journey takes us to Jericho, down in the Jordan valley, last stop for travelers and pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. From here on, it’s uphill all the way. And there, sitting by the roadside, is Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, calling out to people passing by to have mercy and toss him a coin or two. It’s a great spot, especially before Passover when so many pilgrims come to Jerusalem for the holidays. This is really the best season of the year and one day can make up for weeks when most people simply ignore him. Most days, people come and go, too busy to pay attention to a disabled beggar; he sits there, and the world around him passes by. He is blind, but his ears are sharp; he can tell from thirty paces away if those are three or five coins jingling in a pilgrim’s purse.

Every day, he sits by the roadside just outside the city gate, clutching his cloak. By day, he spreads it out in his lap to catch the coins that people toss his way and by night that same cloak is his bed and blanket. The fisherman has a boat and nets, the farmer a plow, and the carpenter an ax – the beggar has his cloak. The rich man has a big house, closets full of clothes for all seasons, and a bed with a soft pillowtop mattress – the beggar has his cloak. The cloak is all he has – his coat, his livelihood, his house, his bed.

When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is in the crowd coming up the road, he starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd, including disciples who should know better, tell him to hush and be quiet: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he’s an important man on an important mission, and he mustn’t be distracted. Children and beggars need to remain quiet and invisible.

But Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Nobody has called him that, Son of David; it’s a royal title fraught with messianic expectations: clearly the blind man can see and name what no one else could, except for Peter who called Jesus Messiah, and he didn’t grasp what he was saying.

Jesus stops and says, “Call him here.” And this is the moment we must watch very closely: This blind man who has already shown that he sees more clearly than many of us who have eyes yet fail to see, this blind man, throwing off his cloak, jumps up and comes to Jesus. He throws off what little comfort and security he has, what little he owns — he leaves everything and comes to Jesus. And Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” — the same question he asked James and John.

“My teacher, let me see again.”

Bartimaeus doesn’t ask for a little house by the side of the road, or a new cloak with fewer holes – he doesn’t ask for the things that would make his old life a little more comfortable. He asks for a new life, and with his vision healed, he follows Jesus on the way.

We are disciples on a journey. We don’t hear well and our vision is blurry at best. Jesus asks, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”[7]

I find it hard to say anything at all anymore. No, I do not understand. I do not understand how a man walks into a Kroger and starts shooting people. I do not understand how a man puts bombs into envelopes and mails them to men and women he considers enemies. I do not understand how a man walks into a synagogue on shabbat and starts shooting people.

Very few things are making sense to me anymore. I try to take it all in and process it somehow, find some kind of frame of reference where the pieces fit together. But processing takes time: time to listen, to think, to walk, to pray, to talk, time to see patterns and ask questions. Yet the world keeps flooding in on me, washing over me, swamping my little boat – it’s just too much to take in, let alone process. It’s like every cell in my body just wants to scream, “Stop it!” Stop the shooting, stop the bombing, stop the silencing of the other, the ridiculing, the belittling, stop the twitter storms and the angry memes, stop the spinning, stop the lies and the carefully choreographed outrage, stop running in circles in echo chambers pretending they are the world. Stop it.

I’m a blind beggar, sitting by the side of the road, clutching my cloak, whispering, “Lord have mercy.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asks.

 

 

I want to see … you. I want to be with you on the way. Let me see the faces of the invisible ones. Let me see this broken world through your eyes. And let me be part of healing it.

[2] http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/about/

[3] Mk 1:14f

[4] Mk 8:18

[5] Mk 8:25

[6] Mk 10:36

[7] Mk 8:17f.

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