Here's today's Ordinary Time devotion, (edited very slightly to get rid of some little stuff that's always bugged me about this piece.)
Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Jeff was already in a wheelchair when we crossed the lines of friendship to become lovers, but at the time I hardly noticed. What I did notice was his indomitable intellect, patience, beautiful eyes, depth, candor, artistic talent, remarkably deep speaking voice, air of complete trustworthiness, spiritual curiosity, unexpectedly vigorous laugh, the surprising sweetness of the sound he made when sneezing, and the kissing. I’d done quite a lot of kissing before, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t really get the point of it until I bent near Jeff to pick something up and he put his hand on the back of my head and kissed me for the first time.
I don’t know what usually happens to people when they marry into a disability, but I can tell you what happened to me. At first, I was all about fixing everything. I knew intellectually, of course, that there is no fixing muscular dystrophy, a muscular and neurological disorder that causes muscles to weaken slowly over time. By the time Jeff was three, his family noticed that he harder time getting up from a fall than the other kids. By the time he was 18, he was using a wheelchair to get around most of the time. By the time I first knew him, six or seven years later, he was in an electric wheelchair for good.
So I didn’t really believe I could fix him in the one one-day-he’ll-walk-again-by-God sense. Not really, anyway. I did, however, think of him as a project that needed doing. I come from pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of people, the kind of people who call you up and ask what you are doing, not what you are feeling. My people believe in hard work, and in efficiency. They are not as joyless as this makes them sound but they like action, and they rely on it. Also, I knew from countless girlhood re-readings of Heidi and A Secret Garden that all Jeff needed was more spunkiness, and more time outdoors and maybe less time brooding and before you knew it, his life would be better.
After it became clear that there was no fixing what was wrong with Jeff – namely, that he was always going to move more slowly than anyone I will ever know – I got really really sad.
We were newly engaged on my first really sad day. We sat on a ferry in Jeff’s van, cars parked in neat rows all around us and no way for Jeff to lower the ramp of his van and roll his wheelchair out. I really wanted us to go out to the deck together (that fresh air, you know). I wanted to get out of the van with him, but he couldn’t get out and no amount of spunkiness was going to fix that. I cried that whole ferry ride, and the whole rest of what was supposed to be a romantic getaway day.
I was sad for awhile. Then I got mad. I stomped around our tiny apartment, in my head a list of escalating “can’ts” that only increased my fury. Can’t pick up a phone book. Can’t pump his own gas. Can’t get too tired or he’ll get sick. Can’t get too sick or he’ll die.
I seethed on the way to our one appointment with the therapist whose office was only accessible by a locked back door, which was half-blocked with boxes and broken chairs. I fumed in church as the others blithely sang When the Saints Go Marching In, a former favorite hymn that now seemed to be mockery. I ground my teeth in my seminary classes as we studied Bible passages like this one as if they were just some kind of academic exercise. Jeff was disabled, but I was the one who needed healing.
It was hard to let go of the myth that even with all my hard work and all my adorable spunk, I still was not going to be able to fix Jeff. Gradually it occurred to me that Jesus, who understood bodily suffering, might be able to help. In desperation, I prayed to him to release me from my unproductive grief and rage. It didn’t happen overnight, but so slowly that I barely noticed how it happened, some days I found that I was not trying so hard to fix Jeff.
Like so many clichés that are based in reality, the less hard I try to fix him, the easier everything becomes. On those days, and there are more and more of them now, I see in the rhythms of our life together more of what is possible than what is impossible. I find reserves of patience I never knew existed. We laugh a lot more. And in my conversations with God I find I’m expressing less anger about the “can’ts” and more delight in the “cans.” Can take pictures of flowers that make me want to reach out and pick them. Can support me with his whole being, both emotionally and financially. Can beget the most remarkable child either of us have ever known.
Living with Jeff every day, I know how difficult it is for him to do many small things that the rest of us take for granted – pulling on his socks, taking a plate out of the cupboard, visiting the neighbor’s house. I love him as fiercely as I did in that moment we first kissed and I will help him when I can. But I cannot in a real fundamental way make him into anything different. It makes me less sad and less mad when I remember that if any transformation needs to happen, that’s between Jeff and God, not between Jeff and me.
This is a story about grace. And so, incredibly, is the story of Bartimaeus, although I have always misunderstood this passage until now. It wasn’t what Bartimaeus DID that changed his life. It wasn’t pushing his way through the crowd, approaching Jesus, or even asking for his eyesight that healed him. It was his faith, Jesus says, that made him well. There are many ways to describe faith, I suppose, but here’s the way I know. Faith is simply opening our eyes to grace. Faith is listening for the voice that is already speaking, that asks each of us, every day, every minute, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Whatever our level of ability or disability, it is the human condition to grieve and rage against those things we cannot change. Those are the times that Jesus appears to us, looks in our eyes, loves us and, reminds us as gently as possible that we are not as in charge as we think we are. Jesus asks, “What do you want ME to do for YOU?”
When that happens, accept the invitation to be healed and to follow him on the way.
Dear Friend, You see me, know me, heal me. I fall into your grace with joy and follow your way with gratitude. Amen.