Last weekend, while at home for my brother’s wedding, I watched a lot more football and baseball than I normally do. I also watched a bit more daytime TV, more Good Morning America and Rachel Ray, than usual. I was mesmerized by what I was seeing: During football and baseball, about every third commercial was an advertisement for one of two fantasy sports websites: FanDuel and DraftKings. They were particularly intense: Both promised big prize money, both left the impression that playing fantasy sports could change your life, or at least you would have a lot of fun you weren’t otherwise having. After I had seen the commercial 50 times, I was wondering if I shouldn’t go ahead and sign up, since if I used the promo word “punter” FanDuel would match my $200 with $200 of its own.
Good Morning America was an experience of whiplash: First there was generous coverage of the plight of an NBA athlete, Lamar Odom, who not only has the misfortune of being related by marriage to the Kardashian family, but also suffers from serious addictions that left him drug-addled, injured and unconscious in the kind of establishment that is only legal in Nevada. Following immediately on that story was “news” of a new, FDA approved injectable chemical that acts like a sponge inside your face, lifting aging skin and helping users appear to be more youthful. It turns out that wrinkles aren’t the problem so much as facial drooping.
Then NFL football commentator and talk show host Michael Strahan appeared not only on his show Live with Kelly Ripa, but immediately after on Rachel Ray, selling his new book, Wake Up Happy, in which he shares his own tips to happiness. He also has a new clothing line that can help you look happier, too, no matter how you feel.
These examples are all parodies of our society’s vision of the “good life,” notable more for the vulgarity of the portrayal than for their basic accuracy. We can find the good life in the excitement of the game, or in the rush of a get-rich-quick scheme, the pleasure of experiencing how what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas (though not always), or in looking younger than you are, or in the celebrity status that draws the eyes of millions to your life’s drama, with focus on every titillating detail, or brings fans eager to lap up your reflections on your success.
These are all examples from a certain pop culture range—and perhaps those are not the particular distractions that tempt us—but I think we could look at any kind of media and find ample expressions of these same visions of life, whether in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or in Forbes or Sheridan Road magazine, or even driving up and down Sheridan Road, or on the screen of any of our mobile devices, where our heart’s desire may only be a click away. What they have in common is reliance on appearance, on illusion and fantasy, with little substance to provide a vision for the kind of life that God wants for human beings.
Which brings us to today’s gospel story, a parable about a person with impaired vision, and how he comes to see clearly again. It may be tempting to imagine that this story is not really about us, because Bartimaeus is described as blind, though any of us that wear glasses or contacts would probably be considered “blind” in the ancient world. But this gospel story is at least in part about impaired spiritual vision, coming after Jesus’ disciples have over and over again failed to understand who Jesus is, and what his mission entails, and the place his mission must end. It’s the outsiders, such as Bartimaeus, who get it.
I see in these contemporary examples similar parables, images of how our cultural blinders bend the divine light of reality and prevent us from seeing things as they are, or, worse, propose visions of the good life that are in fact terribly destructive to us when taken to extremes. These contemporary example have got me wondering how my own vision gets distorted, and what it would take to get it corrected so that I can see again? What would it take for any of us to see more clearly the life God has envisioned for us? What might we ask Jesus to remove from our field of vision so that we could see clearly the life God proposes for us?
I can say for myself that I was grateful to have as a contrast to all that my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding, where I was surrounded by many couples, including my parents, who by grace and faith had chosen the vision of commitment and fidelity in the practice of Christian marriage. I was inspired by my brother and sister-in-law’s courage as they made their promises to each other, and as we who had gathered with them made our promises too. Their wedding reminded me of the importance of community of practice in keeping my vision clear, when there are so many other lenses out there that might seek to impair my sight with an alternate view.
That got me thinking of this community and our own practices of seeing clearly: of gathering here Sunday by Sunday to examine ourselves by the light of scripture, and by the divine vision of the world proposed in this eucharistic meal.
I see in this assembly examples of people who seek to live that vision, and notice in myself the desire to cultivate relationships with people who are for me examples of clarity. Perhaps we cultivate those relationships in the practice of gathering on Tuesday nights with “modern men of faith,” or at a Saturday morning Bible study, or by taking time out each week to knit a prayer shawl, or read and discuss a book online.
Or maybe we find that clarity in service together, by welcoming our Family Promise guests this week, while also asking clarifying questions about why our society tolerates conditions that leave families without safe housing. Maybe such practices leads us to a Wilmette Village Board meeting about affordable housing in our community, or a press conference about gun violence, or a demonstration about peace or economic justice.
“Your faith has made you well,” Jesus says to Bartimaeus. It strikes me that all these practices are indeed practices of the faith that makes us whole and well, that help us keep our vision clear, and that like Bartimaeus we have this role in our healing: to commit ourselves over and over to the practices that help us to recognize the distortions around us, and to have clarity about what God is calling us to. I wonder if, at our best, that’s what Christian churches, and our church, might be for the world around us: a community always asking Jesus to help us “see again,” practicing the faith that heals, always seeking clarity as we follow the way of Christ.