On a beautiful Sunday morning, in an old white stucco church with red doors and antique wood pews, a young couple baptized their first baby, a little boy. Dan and I, and our two small children were present. I was in seminary at the time and our parish priest was a semi-retired gentle old man who had moved to the area because his wife took a prestigious position as the head chaplain at a local retirement community. Although I was only beginning to learn about liturgy and the sacraments, I was surprised when the priest eliminated portions of the baptism service, specifically all references to sin as it pertained to the infant being baptized. Later when I asked the priest about this he said that the couple could not imagine their precious new born baby being sinful and they didn’t want the idea of evil to be associated with the baptism. I understood that, newborn babies being sweet, innocent, and a gift of joy and delight. Apparently, this has had a lasting impact on me because now when I offer baptismal preparation for families I encourage us to have a conversation about the ways that evil and sin manifest in our lives and the world around us. I want every person who stands at the font to have their own understanding of what they are renouncing as sinful and evil and what they are affirming as good and holy. To a person this is both the most significant conversation we have and the most challenging because sin and evil are difficult subject matters. But not talking about them nor gaining insight into what one thinks about them isn’t helpful, either. Sin is complex and nuanced, and pertains to the disparity of hurting relationships one has with one’s self, with other people, and even the impact of one’s life on the global community through acts that affect racism, economic conditions, or the environment. The confession we pray each Sunday speaks about sins known and unknown and our responsibility to become aware of who we are, what we do, and how one life impacts another. Growing one’s ability to speak about sin and recognize its role in the world is a process of deepening one’s spiritual life and growing a more mature faith.
In this season of Lent we have been focusing on the Lenten spiritual disciplines that support Christians in their faith formation, in recognizing God’s presence in one’s life by considering what sin is and how one can live a good and holy life. These spiritual disciplines are listed for us in the Ash Wednesday service: prayer, self-examination, repentance, fasting, and reading scripture. So far we’ve talked about prayer and some of the ways one can engage in prayerful activity from silent prayer, or reading, writing, or taking walks in nature, with the focus on making room for God to be present in one’s life.
We’ve talked about self-examination as a spiritual discipline that was developed by St. Ignatius in his spiritual exercises. Self-examination is a daily exercise of reviewing one’s life and making note of what has gone well that day, what one has found challenging, working to make amends and heal broken relationships, finding gratitude in some aspect of the day, and looking forward to tomorrow.
Fasting has a long history in religious traditions. Sometimes one fasts from a particular food or beverage. Perhaps one fasts from an activity, like staying off of Facebook for the season of Lent. Some choose to fast from busyness. Busyness is a real phenomenon in our society. By staying really busy one does not have time to focus on building relationships or mending challenging relationships, one is simply too busy to do this deeper work, too busy to even make a little time for God and the formation of a spiritual life. Fasting from busyness provides an opportunity to enhance the quality of one’s spiritual life.
Today we are reflecting on the spiritual discipline of repentance. Repentance literally means turning around. As a Christian discipline it is the act of turn toward God or returning to God when one has strayed. It builds on the idea that sin is, essentially, broken relationship in all its forms - broken with God, broken with self, and broken with others. Relationships are broken, for example, when one fails to nurture them, pulls away or distances one’s self from another, chooses to not work through challenges, diminishes one’s self or another, shames or blames self or another person, among other ways that relationships might be broken. Repentance is the act of recognizing one’s broken state in light of God’s desire for all people to live in healthy, mature relationships, loving God, self, and others, and working to make amends.
The Gospel reading this morning challenges the listener; what is really going on in this story? Some people in the story think that the man’s blindness is the result of sin. In the ancient world illness was thought to be the consequence of sin. Jesus refutes this idea, sin was not the cause of blindness. Notice that the blind man doesn’t ask Jesus for anything, and yet Jesus heals him. This is a story about what happens when one encounters the love of God. Encountering God’s love in human flesh causes a radical transformation, a change in one’s very being. Whether the act of encountering God’s love causes a literal physical healing or whether it causes a spiritual healing, the end result is similar, one is able to see in a new way.
The Christian disciplines that Ash Wednesday invites us to observe intend to open one’s eyes and help one see in a new way. Lent provides us with a season to focus on how one is living one’s life and growing in faith. Next Sunday members of the Spirituality Commission will offer an adult forum, a sampling of some spiritual practices including: walking the labyrinth, centering prayer, and chanting. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about each of them and then try one of them. The Commission will repeat this forum several times over the spring so you will have the opportunity to try more than one, or to keep working on the one you like.
Like the man born blind who encounters Jesus and has his eyes opened, such is the potential for any one who takes on the practice of developing one’s faith. With opened eyes one can better see the broken and the whole places in one’s life and in the world. Practicing the spiritual disciplines of our Christian faith holds the potential that one might develop the capacity and the maturity to navigate one’s life in fuller, deeper, more complex and meaningful ways, one that informs and develops insight and wisdom, compassion and grace, and the ability to love a little more like God loves. But the most compelling potential of practicing the Christian disciplines is the idea that one might be healed of that which blinds one to one’s self and to others, and then, with new sight, one is sent out into the world with eyes wide open, to follow Jesus, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit.
a reflection for Lent 4A: John 9:1-41