The Dirty Work of Healing

[audio] He had been sleeping on the front porch. Here at the church. That’s not all that surprising; since I’ve been here at OPC, I probably encounter one person a year who spends the night under that roof. Usually, it happens when I get to church unusually early on a Sunday morning, surprising them – and me – with my arrival. I often greet them, ask what we might be able to do to help them – some food, a Breeze pass, maybe a bus ticket – and they are soon gone, never to return.

But this guy was different. The first time I saw him, I was so startled that I entered the church by another door. I assumed that he, too, would simply spend one night and then move along. But then, a couple of times I saw him riding down Lanier Drive on his bike as I came into the parking lot. On Ash Wednesday, I came back to the church after the service over at Brookhaven Christian. It was about 8:00 at night, and I could see the silhouette of the bicycle and the sleeping figure against the street lights.

I called up Brian, one of our members who is active at the Druid Hills Night Shelter, and we came back to the church to talk to this man to see what we might be able to do. He was polite, with a very gentle demeanor. He listened as Brian mentioned the Night Shelter and several other services, taking out a pad of paper and a pen to write them down.

He had worked steadily in manual labor since arriving in Atlanta more than 15 years ago. Recently, not only had work slowed down, but he was dealing with debilitating arthritis in his knees. The increasing medical bills and the decreasing employment finally caught up with each other, and he was forced onto the street. The two bills he could still manage to pay were his cellphone, in case of work, and a storage locker. We exchanged phone numbers, prayed, and parted ways.

On Friday, I called him to see how things were going. He had been down to the Night Shelter the day before. They don’t take walk-ins, but rely on referral agencies. He took the name and address of one, but it wouldn’t be open until the next Monday. After a few phone calls, I arranged a hotel room for him in Chamblee for a week, and promised to check in on Monday. And it was then that I began my education – rather, my steep learning curve – on resources for the homeless in the city of Atlanta.

He and I both began calling the referring agency the Night Shelter told him about, leaving messages. After not hearing back, I called our friend Bill at the Night Shelter, who mentioned two other agencies that sent referrals. One was Central Presbyterian. Caitlin, our former student intern, is working there now, and she was able to give me the name and direct number of two folks there. I called them and left a message. The first told me that the procedure was to line up around 7 am in front of Central; people were handled on a first-come, first-serve basis when they opened at 9. The second informed me that they only referred people when the Night Shelter told them that they could.

Time was ticking away; the week at the hotel was about up. The Night Shelter had space for him, but we couldn’t get anyone to make a referral. After a few more phone calls, I received word that the Night Shelter would let Central know that they could make a referral. That was good enough for me.

At 6:30 the next morning, I picked him up in front of the hotel, and we drove down to Central Presbyterian, right across the street from the State Capitol. It was cold, and for some odd reason, bundled up sitting on the cold stone wall with my new compatriot, I couldn’t help but be reminded of camping out for U2 tickets in high school with my best friend Eric down at the Omni.

We were fifth in line. And when the doors opened, the woman whose name had been given to me was the first person I saw. I introduced myself and my companion, and she assured me things would move along. After going through the intake process, he was given a letter of introduction and referral to the Night Shelter. By that afternoon, he had checked out of the hotel and moved into Druid Hills.

Why in the world would I tell you that story? There is plenty to be learned, of course, and I hope you take some of that with you. It’s a story of some good that we were able to do as a church, helping this man get off the street and, hopefully, back on a firm foundation. I was able to help move resources by virtue of the connections that I have both by virtue of being connected to Oglethorpe Presbyterian and because I am a member of this Presbytery. And, at the same time, I became aware of what a bureaucratic nightmare the whole process is, even for the most motivated of people. He didn’t have the personal or professional connections that I did; no one gave him names of people that he could call, just organizations. Simply because I have access to the internet and can use the word “pastor” in front of my name, doors were opened; information was shared; and resources eventually came together – and even then, only after three or four days of concerted work. Left to his own devices, he didn’t have a prayer.

That’s all well and good, I supposed. But what in the world does that story have to do with Jesus and the blind man? In that story, too, there are several layers at work. It begins as a conversation on the nature of sin: was the man’s blindness evidence of his sinfulness, or his parents? That’s where it starts, anyway, with this flawed first century understanding of physical ailment. It can’t just happen – there must be someone to blame, right?

For Jesus, though, the only purpose this man’s lack of sight could possibly serve would be to point to the miraculous healing work of God. Jesus spits in the ground, putting mud in the man’s eyes – most likely, a reference to Genesis and God’s molding of humanity out of the clay of the earth. And once the man was able to see, no one seems to celebrate. Instead, he becomes and object lesson for the whole community. His neighbors are convinced it is someone else. The Pharisees are outraged that this whole thing has violated the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Then doubt re-enters: they all refuse to believe that he was healed until his parents ascertain that yes, indeed, this is their son, and that yes, indeed, he was blind. Suddenly, he is testifying to Jesus’ power, horrifying the Pharisees, who force him out because he is a sinner – back to the original assumption about disease and sin.

Then at the very end, there is the dramatic flip. Jesus pronounces that those who are blind are the ones without sin; but those who can see with their eyes are the ones who are really blind to the realities of sin and grace around them.

What could these two stories possibly have to do with one another?

At first glance, perhaps it is the connection of a man who is outside of the “norm” beginning the long process of healing: from blindness to sight, from homelessness to steady employment and housing. And in both cases, it is a process: the blind man isn’t instantly healed. He has to go wash, then debate neighbors and religious leaders. His parents are sucked into the controversy, until he finally becomes an outspoken witness to Jesus’ power. Our friend, on the other hand, didn’t just wait for someone to get him off the street. And the story isn’t over. Some of his situation is better. He has a warm place to sleep. He has been able to get affordable medication to help with the arthritis. And his employment situation has improved. But…he’s looking to get new skills so that he isn’t relying on his physical strength for work. And in the meantime, he has to get used to sleeping in a room with a couple dozen other guys. It’s a start, but there’s a ways to go.

But that’s about where the stories part ways. Because if we stick with that parallel, pretty soon the pastor in one story becomes Jesus in the other; and I hope you know me well enough to know how uncomfortable that idea makes me. And I’m sure I know you all well enough to know that we are not a community of Pharisees, ready to call into question the whole enterprise of healing, how resources of time and money were used, what day these activities were carried out, itching to boot sinners out of our presence.

And yet, how many of us would be willing to believe that homelessness just happens? Surely there is someone to blame. Forty percent of the homeless population have substance abuse issues. Twenty-five percent have a mental illness. And fifteen percent are part of both groups. That’s half for whom illness or addiction is tied up in their state. And that also means that fully half have neither – including our friend from the story.

And yet, even for those who do, is their homelessness therefore the result of some kind of moral failing? Or to put it in the framework of the Biblical story, does ailment follow only where sin is present? So many of us have faced issues of addiction and mental illness in our own families, and those experiences color our own understanding of these issues. When folks are abstractions, we are more likely to generalize about them than when we know them personally. I know that’s true for me, anyway. The crowd in the story from John couldn’t celebrate the blind man’s healing. They were more disturbed by the fact that the order of the world they knew had been upset – blind people are blind because of some kind of historic fault. And healing, when it happens, has its time and place – not the Sabbath, for God’s sake.

And that brings me to the hard truth about this story from John’s gospel. Because when I read it, I am painfully aware that I have more in common with the Pharisee, the religious authority figure, the one thought to be the moral standard bearer of the community, than anyone else. That may not be why I went into ministry as a profession; but it has certainly become part of the job description.

And that’s the thing that I have to come face to face with: I am blind. I fail to see. When I talk to this guy sleeping on the porch, I’m ready for a moral failing: the smell of alcohol, a broken home, a felony conviction, bad hygiene. What I’m not prepared to face is plain old bad luck: medical bills, loss of employment, too few connections with those who could make a difference right now.

And that’s the irony: in my blindness comes the good news that my eyes can be opened. I can get a glimpse, as scales fall away, of one person’s life. And that life can open me up to a curiosity about the world and the way I think it works and the way it actually functions. And when I begin to see, when I begin the long process of healing, then I can recognize that this Jesus has been standing in front of me all along. But as long as I insist that I have all the sight I need, I truly remain blind.

What about you? Where is it that you have been blind? Where is that glimpse, that first vision, that long, dirty, muddy process of healing? Do you know that Jesus is right here, with you, through it all?