Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Red-Nosed Humbug

I have in my possession a cellophane-wrapped, unopened DVD of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, [i] that 1964 classic, stop-motion animated television special which I had to wait for every year, scouring the newspaper TV schedule each Sunday after Thanksgiving, plotting my weekly watching agenda around it and the other iconic Christmas shows. There was no recording it, no VHS, no DVD, no DVR, no On-Demand. We all waited with bated holiday anticipation.

Now, though, I refuse to open my personal copy.

“Yeah, Dad, we know, we know. But can we just watch it anyway?” My kids’ response to the intro of my annual, “You know, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is …” tirade as the season was upon us.
“We know, we know,” accompanied by an appropriate eye-roll.

I suspect you know the story. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born with a nose that glows red and one foggy Christmas Eve Santa chooses him to lead the team pulling his sleigh, flying all around the world. Rudolph saves Christmas. Blah, blah, blah.

The TV special in 1964 was based on the chart-topping song recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. The song was written by Johnny Marks, brother-in-law to the original author of the poem, Robert L. May, who wrote it in 1939 at the height of the Great Depression as a children’s book advertisement gimmick for the Montgomery Ward store in Chicago.

Here’s my tirade.

Rudolph is born with what his community considers a defecta disabilityhis red nose making him different than everyone else. Out of fear or embarrassment or shame his parents decide to keep him hidden at home until it’s finally time for reindeer school when they fashion a mudball to cover up his nose.

Who does that? What kind of parents are these anyway?

Well into the 1930s the eugenics movement, a pseudo-scientific system of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of the human population was accepted in the United States and many places around the world. By 1939, when the original Rudolph poem was written, the Nazi regime in Germany had developed eugenics into a system of classifying people and euthanizing those who didn’t measure up to their arbitrary standards.

The first to be euthanized in Nazi Germany’s Aktion T4 [ii] program were those with mental and physical disabilitiesthe first genocide victims of the Holocaustdriven around Berlin in a darkened, sealed bus with the exhaust fumes piped back inside until their lives ended.

Should we be surprised that in 1939, or even in 1964, Rudolph’s parents keep him hidden? Either out of shame brought on by those around them or by fear that should he be found he’d be taken away? Keeping hidden those who are “different” was a common practice in the US until the dismantling of state institution systems in the 1980s leading to the independent living movement. We were, in fact, told by some professionals in 1988 when Lindsay was born that we might want to do exactly that, put her in an institution, go on with our lives, have another baby if we wanted. [iii]

In 2000, I took Lindsay’s younger sister, Lacey, to visit the recently opened US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. One exhibit explained the Nazi policy of removing children with disabilities from their families, another showed toys that had been taken from kids during those monstrous times.

I asked my 9-year-old, “Do you know what this means, Lacey?”

“Yes, they would take away Ted,” her favorite stuffed bear which never left her side.

“Well, yes, probably but they would also take Lindsay away from us.”

More than 20 years later she still remembers that moment as an emotionally crushing realization. (But I figure, hey, an extra year of therapy for my now adult children and they’ll be fine, right?!?!)

Rudolph tries his best to fit during his reindeer games flight attempt until the excitement of hearing the cute doe with the long eyelashes, Clarice, say she likes him causes his prosthetic nose to pop off. Nose uncovered, disability revealed, bullying begins.

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
 Join in any reindeer games.

“For crying out loud! Get away … get away from me!” his friend Fireball reacts.

Comet, the reindeer games coach enters the scene with his deep authoritative voice, “Now, now, now … what’s the matter?” but when he sees the glowing red nose he shrieks, “Aggghhh!”

“Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself,” the Jolly Old Elf himself scold’s Rudolph’s father, “What a pity. He had such a good takeoff too.” Donner’s head hangs low as Santa turns his back and walks away.

What a horrible story!

“Aww, dad, can’t we just watch it anyway?”

Unable to tolerate the taunting and name calling and rejection, Rudolph runs away and meets Hermey, an elf who wants to be a dentist rather than a toymaker, Hermey who “feels different” because of his life orientation, Hermey who is forced out of Santa’s workshop, shunned from the community, forced to flee rather than live a life as a closeted dentist pretending to be a toymaker.  

They runaway together and along the way connect with old Yukon Cornelius who is a bit quirky emotionally having spent his time solitarily prospecting for silver and gold. Confronted by the Abominable Snow Monster of the North, a misunderstood soul who has been forced to live alone in a cave due to his unacceptable behaviors, Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon flee for their lives.

They land on the “Island of Misfit Toys” where Santa and his elves have dumped all of the unwanted, “broken” toys that no children will love. Afterall, who wants a Charlie-in-the-Box or a spotted elephant, a train with square wheels or a water pistol that squirts jelly, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a boat that cannot stay afloat or an airplane that cannot fly? Who wants a pink fire truck? Forced exile to the island for losers.

Are you kidding me? Is there a worse story for us to teach our children?

Rejection and segregation and isolation abound in this story! Inclusion, tolerance, diversity, acceptance, anti-bullying, grace. Where are these qualities? They are absent.

Rudolph’s disability, Hermey’s life-orientation, Yukon’s mental health, Abominable’s antisocial behavior. All those toys sent to a concentration camp because no one could possibly love them. 
Rudolph, afraid that his glowing nose will endanger his friends by letting Abominable find them again, leaves the group. He discovers, though, that his parents and Clarice, the eye-lashed doe, have been searching for him and were now trapped in a cave by Abominable who then knocks Rudolph unconscious. The others catch up, Hermey lures Abominable out of the cave, Yukon knocks him out with his prospector’s hammer, and Hermey pulls out all of Abominable’s teeth.

Once everyone is back together at Santa’s workshop, Santa announces that Christmas will be called off this year because of the stormy weather. Rudolph’s nose glows.

“Rudolph, Rudolph, please can you tone it down a bit?! I mean that nose of yours,” he says with disgust which then suddenly becomes a revealed excitement, “That nose! … That beautiful, wonderful nose! … That’ll cut through the murkiest storm they can dig up!”

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
"Rudolph, with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

It’s not until the fat old guy with his red suit, bushy beard, and white privilege decides that this defective reindeer can be useful for his mission and suddenly he’s acceptable. Everyone cheers. Hooray!

Hermey can pull teeth, Yukon can live with them in peace, and even toothless Abominable has a purpose as he gently places the star atop the Christmas tree. The misfit toys make it into the sleigh for distribution.

They all live together happily ever after? Please! Only because Santa says so? I don’t think so!

“We know, we know, dad. Now can we watch it please?!”

I consider my unopened copy of this misguided children’s tale an act of resistance, a statement of defiance by a parent of a child with physical and intellectual disabilities who could very easily have fallen prey to the pseudo-ideals which society has historically used against the different among us. 

These attitudes are still manifest in some ways in our 21st Century and intolerance could easily reemerge from its covertness if we allow.

I invite you to not watch it this year. 

I no longer wait with bated holiday anticipation for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Call me a Red-Nosed Humbug if you will. I’ve been called worse.

[i] Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass Productions, 1964. Written by Romeo Muller, directed by Larry Roemer, narrated by Burl Ives. Based on the song, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks.

[ii] Aktion T4 (Action T4) was named for the street address of the German  Chancellery department at that address, Tiergartenstraße 4, in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten. 

[iii] Our closest facility, Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic was finally closed on December 9, 1987, just 4 months before Lindsay’s birth. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennhurst_State_School_and_Hospital

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Hand That Feeds

Lindsay bites. We all have defense mechanisms and Linds has worked her way through a few. There were times when if you got physically too close, you got kicked—understandable. Or times when a headbutt that would normally bring a visit to an ice hockey penalty box would abruptly end your encroachment as you grabbed your forehead and suppressed your commentary—“#$@#*&#  ... Oh, my goodness, that hurt!!!”

I took Lindsay on a child-sized roller coaster one summer evening at a beachside amusement pier. She loves this sort of thing, ups and downs, twists and sharp turns, her tongue sticking out to catch the wind whipping at her face. She gasps and giggles the whole time, at least until she gets tired of you holding her from behind. Considering all that she can’t do, during this period Lindsay had perfect hand-eye coordination and with her left hand she could perfectly catch the corner of my eyeglasses. This night she somehow reached behind herself mid-ride, swatted at me, clipped the corner of my glasses, and sent them sailing off into the night, over the fence, and out into the sandy beyond. “Noooo … Linds!”

Do you know how hard it is to find your glasses without wearing your glasses on your face? In the dark, in the sand, pushing her wheelchair, furious and frustrated but pretending all would be okay?

Mostly now, though, to defend her personal space she’ll just bite you. And I say “just” because usually it’s justified.

There was the time when at a family reunion, my eldest maternal cousin leaned in to give Lindsay a hug as she was getting ready to leave. Linds clamped down on the fleshy underbelly of her upper arm and bit so hard she drew blood. Since the human mouth truly is dirtier than a toilet seat, a quick trip to the ER for an antiseptic consult and a tetanus booster ended the day’s festivities.

Or the time when a dentist-with-a-death-wish insisted on prying open Lindsay’s mouth to inspect her teeth. Go figure, right? The long-handled metal tool with the round inspection mirror at the end should do the job. Linds bit down once that sucker was in her mouth and by the time he was able to wrench it free, the mirror was smashed. “Huh … never had that happen before,” he announced with a shrug as he looked at his broken Lindsay-ized dental tool. I was checking to make sure no glass shards were left behind in her gums.

And her adult visit to the neurosurgeon who had the audacity to want to reach behind her head to check on the ventricular shunt she’s had tucked under her skin since Day 3. Linds whipped her head to the right like a snapping turtle, jaws ready to fix this newest invasion. If not for the swift withdrawal of his hand, we would have been responsible for disabling the left hand of the chief of neurosurgery at one of the world’s premier hospitals! “Sorry,” I apologized, “I warned your med student but I forget to tell you.” “It’s okay,” he said but I think he was counting his fingers as he said it.

Lydia, Lindsay’s stepmother, with a bit of a smile brought to my attention what might have caused a proverbial “international incident.” During Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia, we parked ourselves outside the seminary where he was staying. We were convinced he would stop the car and hop out to meet Lindsay when he saw her wheelchair. Leaning in to pray for her, he would want to reach out and lay hands on her. But it could have had disastrous consequences! The headlines: “Il Papa Hospitalized and Critically Ill from Prayer Bite Infection.”

Ave Maria! Maybe it’s a good thing his motorcade kept going.

Lindsay stands about 4’3” which on me is about chest high. I can tell you in all honesty that a smack to the back of the head is the primal response to having an unwanted clamp of teeth on one’s nipple—a shocked look of regret and apology crosses both faces, one a look of “I can’t believe I just did that!” and the other “I can’t believe you just did that!” You can decide who had which look.

A few hickey-like bruises on my chest and arms over the years is really nothing to complain about. After all we each do have our defense mechanisms whether we realize it or not. I’m just really glad not everyone chooses biting otherwise we’d all be a bit bruised with teeth mark scars as we stumble through our days.

All-in-all, I can deal with the biting. I’ve just learned to avoid leaning in too close and know that if I do and get chomped, it’s my own fault. And I’ve developed a split-second reflexive move that works until it doesn’t and then I get bit anyway.

Life is short, as they say, so smile while you still have teeth.

© Copyright 2019
James F. McIntire
All rights reserved. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Are We Yet Alive?

"I'll be how old by then?"

As Lindsay neared her 21st birthday, a milestone which many medical professionals had told us was probably the upper limit of her age expectancy, it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure what it meant now that she had arrived. Quite frankly, I didn’t expect that she would live this long so as she neared the day I thought I’d check in with her pediatric neurologist.

“Doc, we haven’t talked about Lindsay’s life expectancy for a while. What do you think?”

“Well, she’s pretty healthy and I don’t see any reason why she won’t live to a typical age.”

“You mean a typical lifespan for someone with her condition, right?”

“No, I mean if the average American woman is expected to live to about 80 years old, maybe Lindsay’s would be 78.”

“I’ll be how old by then?!?” 

Life’s reality for parents of a child with disabilities is that the child that was once imagined is not the one that arrived. What arrives with this infant is sorrow and grief when it’s discovered that the child has physical or intellectual disabilities. There is grieving for the lost child.

“Will she know that she’s different?” I recall asking that when Lindsay was born and the full extent of her conditions and disabilities was being unveiled. Will she understand when other kids stare and point and laugh? Will I understand when a parent takes their young child aside and whispers, “It’s not polite to stare”? Will others call her names and tease her?

The words I heard were words of loss.

“She’ll never roll over in her crib,” they said. She passed that hurdle. “She’ll never walk,” they said. It took her 9 years, but she overcame that prediction. “She’ll never know you as her parents,” they said. Passed that one.

She’ll never ride a bike. True. She’ll never read or write. True. She’ll never learn to swim. True. She’ll never drive a car. She’ll never live on her own. She’ll never attend college. She’ll never get married. She’ll never have children. She’ll never cook a meal or read a book or laugh at a joke or know romance. She’ll never, she’ll never, she’ll never. All true.

And at every missed milestone, there is sorrow.

The professionals call it “nonfinite loss and grief,” repeated reminders of missed achievements compared to what parents hope and dream and anticipate for a typical child. These moments can destroy a parent’s imaginings of what their child and the world should be like so that the grief continues and is revisited at each perceived loss.

When an elderly parent dies, say, one can understand it as an anticipated and acceptable, if painful, life moment so that the grief at that loss will dissipate and life moves forward. Even in the loss that might come with a sudden trauma, there is usually a resolution and the grief in time subsides. But with nonfinite loss there is no reversal and the only coping for a parent comes through building emotional resilience.[i]

Lindsay spent her 31st birthday in the hospital. Holy Week began with Seizure Monday and ended with Resurrection Sunday.

Since Day 2, Lindsay has had a seizure disorder. There have been moments of seizure-ness in her lifetime, but mostly they are controlled by medicine. This year on Monday, April 15, while I was last-minute filing my federal tax return, a nasty, full-body seizure broke through after a mostly seizure-free decade. Tuesday morning arrived with lethargy and a non-functioning Lindsay so to the hospital we went. By Tuesday night the neurologists discovered that she was in status epilepticus, a continuous stream of seizures in her brain which were not showing physically. She lay in bed motionless and fragile. By Wednesday of this holiest week the seizures had, with the help of new medicine, mostly ceased according to the subdued EEG peaks and valleys. But Lindsay lay there still, functionless, asleep and unresponsive.

“Have you thought about,” I could see only the neurologist’s eyes because of the prophylactic infection mask, “advance directives. What you want to do in case she gets worse?”

Words of yet another nonfinite loss.

Of course, I had—for 31 years, I have. Hasn’t every parent at some point thought about it? What if my child is near death? What if all seems hopeless? I I told him my “I’ll be how old by then!?!?” story.

In this lingering potential loss a persistent question arose again: Who am I if not Lindsay’s dad?

Did I have an answer to the doctor’s question? Did I have a fully decided decision? No.

By Thursday I was asking the Psalmist’s question “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” [Psalm 13:2]. I was pleading like Job, "How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? … How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” [Job 8:2; 19:2] 

How long, O Lord?

The nights were tedious, the foldout chair-bed unwelcoming, the food tolerable, the care was world class.

On Friday—Good Friday when I am headed with many Jesus-followers to the cross and tomb—Lindsay was alive. Alert and sitting up, crossed legs like only Lindsay can do, tapping her chest with her “You better feed me!” sign. The tomb was full, but Lindsay was back. 

At this resurrection moment in Lindsay’s life I stood looking at her wildly sprawling hair glopped-up with the goo that attached her EEG leads, at the IV tube poked into her left gauze-wrapped arm, at the Band-Aid on the back of her right hand where repeated bloodwork was drawn, and at the hated, unflattering hospital gown. I let down the side rail, sat on her bed, and leaned in.

“Here we are again, Linds,” I thought back to the intimate moment I had with her the day she was born, “You and me, Linds. I’m here for you no matter what. We’re in this together. I love you.”

We are alive again ... still.

© Copyright 2019
James F. McIntire

All rights reserved. 

[i] Through Loss  Elizabeth J. BruceCynthia L. Schultz. ACER Press. Australian Council for Education Research, 2004 and Bruce, E. J., & Schultz, C. L. (2001) “Nonfinite loss and grief: A psychoeducational approach.” Baltimore, MD, US: Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Do You See What I Hear?

[Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” 

Breaking News ... "Nazarene Spits, Deaf Man Hears."

Jesus wasn't looking for tabloid headlines but there it was. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that he suggests that people not tell anyone what he has just done which had to be hard for the people that brought the man to be healed, but how incredibly difficult it must have been for the man himself. Suddenly this man could hear and his speech impairment was gone. How could he not tell anyone about it?  How could he possibly remain silent when he was finally able to speak clearly for the first time in his life?

There is a temptation to assume that this secrecy component of Mark's Gospel was some kind of marketing tool for Jesus—a psychological ploy that would force people to talk it up. Pan a film, people will line up for tickets. Ban a book, it becomes a best seller. Order them not to tell, they'll tell the world.

In fact, this existence of this story makes it clear that once Jesus told them not to spread the word, that's exactly what everyone did. Yet despite the temptation, I think there was more to it than publicity. Jesus feared that human nature would do exactly what the tabloids count on to sell their papers, he knew that his healing would cause a sensation and he was certain that people would read only the headlines without getting the whole story. Nothing could be worse than having the good news about God's reign ­reduced to head­lines.

Good news—the reign of God has come near. Sometimes with Jesus that was headline material:  "Demons Cast Out"; "Lepers Cleansed"; "Para­lyzed Man Walks" ("Paralyzed Man … Forgiven" doesn't quite do it, right? Not enough attraction in that to sell the story). There were many miracle healings and they were newsworthy. 

Most of the "God’s reign" stuff, the less than glamorous stuff, the ordinary and mundane stuff, was not front page materi­al. But this tabloid headline was hot off the Jerusalem Press wire service from the region of the Ten Cities (The Decapolis): "Nazarene Spits, Deaf Man Hears."  We don't usually pay attention to the details of the story—don't want to get confused by the facts, right? But by ignoring the details, we may have missed the message. 

In private, away from the crowd, Jesus physically touched a man and in a very tangible way brought God near. For this particu­lar individual, God’s reign coming near meant having a stranger's fingers poked in his ears, having the strang­er spit, and having that poking, spitting, stranger touch his tongue, none of which seems like a very pleasant sensory experi­ence. The kin-dom of God comes near this man and he was touched by it, figura­tively and quite literal­ly.

So carefully has this story been handed down through the ages that an Aramaic word echoes from our reading even today. Ephphatha. Jesus and his disci­ples probably spoke and taught in Greek, a universal lan­guage of trade, com­merce and academy but their lan­guage of origin was Hebrew or a dialect of it called Aramaic, which they would have used in synagogue and in other private matters. In only three places in Christian scripture does Jesus’ use of Aramaic words survive in the original tongue, and this is one.[1] My suspicion is that maintaining this word in Aramaic suggests that this is a very significant piece of memory for the earliest Jesus followers and it became a key piece of their early scripture.


It's not that the word has any sort of magical mystical value on its own because it’s use is more than just the specific, spoken word. What is critical to the story is the way that it is placed into context, the way in which it is gram­matically used, the way in which it rolls off the tongue. It was said with a different kind of empha­sis. It wasn't just spoken, it was "sighed.” [στενάζω / sten-ad'-zo / a sigh, to groan].

Sighed to heaven [οὐρανός / oo-ran-os' / the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it; the universe, the world], a groan from earth to the great expanse above, an emotional plea between child and parent. It is what John Bunyun had in mind when he penned that "the best prayers have often more groans than words." It is a prayer groaned for this particular person and a prayer groaned for all of humanity as well. Ephphatha— "be opened."  In groaning this prayer for us, Jesus has chal­lenged each of us in the name of his God.

Ephph­atha—"be opened."

It wasn't just any ordinary groan.  It wasn't like the groan of a husband that discovered that his wife has tickets to the ballet for Sunday afternoon when his favorite is to play in this year’s Super Bowl. No, it wasn't that kind of "Nooo! Ah, do I hafta?" groan. Perhaps it was more like the groaning prayer of Job as his life came crumbling down around him.  "Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said 'A man-child is conc­eiv­ed'. Let that night be darkness! ... Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?" [Job 3:3] Maybe like the imagined cry of Isaac at the sudden realization that his father, Abraham, was about to cut his throat at the altar and that he was to be the day's burnt offering. [Genesis 22] A plea for mercy and compassion, a groan from earth to heaven, from child to God. Or perhaps like the groan of the Psalmist, "O Lord, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?"  [Psalm 88]  Or forever the groan of Israel, from Pharaoh's Egypt to Hitler's Death Camps, "How long, O Lord, how long?".

But still, that's not quite it.

Maybe it’s like the guttural groan of a mom in a war-torn village who watches as her child is gunned down by soldiers or like the groan of an American dad who has just learned that his child was gunned down on the streets of his neighborhood. The groaning prayer of Jesus for us is deeper than we might possibly ever know yet he continues to cry out for us "with sighs too deep for words. [Romans 8:26]  

Despite all of that—the healing, the touching, the word, the groan—we still gravitate toward just the headline. "Naz­arene Spits, Deaf Man Hears.”   But that is not the point of this story.  What's important is that the prayer that Jesus groans is as much for us as it is for the man in the headline and it calls us to task. We are challenged by this groaning prayer from a first century Mediterranean peasant turned rabbi.

I picked up my telephone and dialed the office number listed for my colleague, Peter, and as it rang I mentally prepared to speak with his wife, Jean. During his adult years, Peter had been steadily losing his capacity for hearing so I expected to speak with his wife who would relay my message to him since he wouldn't be able to hear me over the phone. 

The phone rang; it connected but there was no voice on the other end. I heard a beeping tone and a series of pings and twangs and rasps. My first thought was that there was a fax machine connected to the line. I said "Hello," but there was no response.  “Hello?”  I hung up and tried again. The same thing happened, a series of pings and twangs. I said “Hello?” again; a silent pause and then the tones again.

And then it occurred to me. I had called a TDD line, a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD), a machine that allows you to see on a monitor the words spoken to you by the caller on the other end of the line. I hung up and called back on the other number listed as their home number. Jean answered the phone.

An awkward moment, and the more I thought about it, how frustrated I felt. I realized that I was the one with the disability, with the inability to communicate. A person who is deaf—someone whom society considers to be "disabled"—was quite willing and very able to communicate with me by telephone. I was the one unable to hear the message, I was the one unable—dis-abled—to do what was ordinary for someone else.

Jesus prayed for the man unable to hear—"be opened" and he was. Jesus prayed for me—"be opened"—and I wasn't.  I was very much closed off from one of God's children because of my own ignorance and inability to recognize different ways of communication. The reign of God had come near me—a miracle had occurred—a non-hearing friend could have "heard" what I said and he could have spoken back to me. In the dialing of a telephone, in an ordinary event, God had come near me but I didn't hear.

The man in the gospel story didn't hear the prayer either. Remember, he couldn't physically hear so when Jesus groaned his prayer Ephphatha, the man never heard it. All he knew was the outcome. He saw Jesus' lips move and he watched Jesus spit, with his own tongue he tasted the dirt on Jesus' fingers, he felt the healing man poke at his ears, he experienced God through a miracle of sensation, but he never heard it happen. The lips moved, no prayer was heard. Is it possible that we don't have to "hear" the prayer to experience God? Is it possible that God’s kin-dom coming near is the point of the challenge to "be opened"?

What that might mean for us is remarkable. It could mean that God’s reign comes near us in very mundane, physical, tangible ways as well. The reign of God coming near us might mean having to “be opened” to things like the sweat and blood and groaning that accompanies the coming of new life into the world. It might mean having to cradle in your arms a friend addicted to drugs and having the tears of that friend mingle with your tears as she screams in pain and fear. The challenging prayer “be opened” might mean being opened enough to march with your LGBTQ siblings and endure the spit cast in your direction from the crowds along the way. 

The kin-dom of God might just mean that your neighbors despise and ignore you because you are physically and intellectually different than they are. It might mean that to be healed you have to experience the spit and dirt and offensive touching that the man in the gospel story had to endure. The coming of God into your life does not mean that you have to hear the groaning prayer, ephphatha, but it does mean that you have to be touched by it and live it.

When I was in high school, the chorus would always perform at our annual winter concert.  There was one piece that was always saved until the end when chorus alumni were invited to come out of the audience and sing in the ensemble. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is the title of the song. "Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you hear what I hear?" followed by the next verse, "Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, do you see what I see?"

Every year, I would pray mischievously for someone to get confused and sing "Do you see what I hear?" or "Do you hear what I see?".  Even these many years later, strolling through the mall at Christmas, I wait to hear the next verse blaring over the speakers "Do you see what I hear?". 

That's what happened to me the day that I called my friend. "Do you see what I hear?"  No, Peter couldn't see what I was saying. "Do you hear what I see?" I could hear what he said but it made no sense, just pings and beeps. It would have helped if I had been able to see what he said, but I couldn't. I was not open to the coming of God into that moment.
Jesus challenged me at that very moment, Jesus groaned his prayer into my life. Ephphatha!  Did the prayer fail, did it fall on deaf ears? Did I fail to meet the challenge? At first glance, one might say yes. "The prayer failed and Jim didn't live up to the challenge." But on second thought, I have realized that my life was suddenly opened to a better way of communicating. I now know that I can call my friend Peter or anyone else using a TDD which connects us by use of a telephone operator who has the job of relaying messages between hearing persons and those using assistive devices.

"Do you see what I hear?" is the primary point of this gospel story and also the overarching theme of God's presence in this world. Jesus told the man to tell no one what had happened after he had been healed. That’s all well and good, but imagine him walking up to a neighbor saying clearly for the first time, "Do you see what I hear?  Can you see that I hear?!" He didn't have to explain how it happened, it just happened, and suddenly those with whom he came in contact experienced the kin-dom come near.

Jesus prayed for him "be opened." He was—his ears, yes; his tongue, yes; but most importantly, his life. People would treat him differently now, not simply because he could speak, but because he had suddenly been opened to the kin-dom of God which had been there all along. If God’s reign coming near us means that we will be touched in similar tangible ways, then we can each expect to be treated differently once we accept the challenge and respond to the prayer groaned on our behalf. Once opened, we can never be the same again because once opened, the kin-dom of God has come upon us and once that is real we will not be able to walk away keeping the secret. Others may see the headline, but we'll know the details of the story.

"Be opened" Jesus groans toward heaven.  "Be opened"—Ephphatha. If we are opened—our ears, eyes, tongue, our lives—then we can see the kin-dom of God and we can feel how close it really is, and we can hear how it speaks to us. We can, indeed, begin to recognize just how very near it is and finally we can begin to live it in very mundane and tangible ways.

Ephphatha, children of God, "be opened."

© Copyright 2019
James F. McIntire
All rights reserved. 

[1] The other two Aramaic phrases are in Mark 5:41 "[Jesus] took [Jairus' daughter] by the hand and said to her, 'Talitha cum,' which maena, 'Litttle girl, get up!'" and in Mark 15:34  as Jesus is on the cross "At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani' which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Here’s Mud in Yer Eye!


The sound of someone spitting is the pronunciation of the Greek word for that very same action [ἔπτυσεν / ptoo'-o / to spit] so it is the way the writer of John’s Gospel describes what Jesus does when encountering a man who had been blind [τυφλὸν / toof-los' / blind; mentally blind] from birth [γενετῆς / ghen-et-ay / birth, from birth].


Probably doesn’t fit the image most of us have had of Jesus, right? But when his disciples assume that this blindness was caused by somebody’s sin [ἥμαρτεν / ham-ar-tan'-o / to be without a share in; to miss the mark], that is exactly his reaction.


Jesus spits. Spits in the dirt. Maybe it comes across as a bit vulgar to our delicate sensibilities but it’s an important part of the sensuality of this story. This text is so earthy, so sensory that we can almost hear the sound ptooey!, feel the slimy clay mud [πηλὸν / pay-los' / potters clay; mud; wet clay] used to anoint [ἐπέχρισεν / ep-ee-khree'- / to spread on, anoint] this man’s eyes, feel the warm breath of Jesus as he pulls the man in close to speak words of healing, taste the sweat pouring from our own brows as our beliefs about sin and righteousness are called to task. It’s a sensory experience extraordinaire.

“Here’s mud in yer eye!” is an old saying originating probably in early 20th century America when farmers clinked glasses just before plow-time, wishing each other a good season since a plentiful crop would follow lots of rain and the mud it created. Or maybe as Frank Kelly Rich’s “On the Cuff & Under the Table: The Origin and History of Drinking Words and Phrases”—yes, it’s a real book—reads:
This toast may have been popular with the soldiers slogging through the muddy trenches of WWI, but it did not originate with them, as many believe. It was being bandied about in U.S. saloons as early as 1890 and was popular with the English fox hunting and race horse crowd before then. Most likely it’s a back-handed toast among jockeys, meaning “Here’s to you losing the race.” If you’ve ever been to a race track after a good rain, you’ll note that the leading horses throw up a lot a mud and the trailing jockeys tend to get splattered from head to toe. The phrase was all the more pertinent before the introduction of goggles to the sport.

“Here’s mud in yer eye!” says Jesus to the unsuspecting man who had been blind from birth, an encounter set in six scenes.

Scene 1.
As he walked along, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. (John 9:1-7)

Jesus spits in the dirt, mixes up some mud, places it on the man’s eyes … and the man is incredibly blessed because he can now see … and he lives happily ever after. Is that how the story goes?  Restored sight equals God’s blessing?  Healing equals full welcome into the “in” crowd?  That might be how we want to read the story but that’s not quite how it all went down.  

Jesus spits in the dirt, mixes up some mud, places it on the man’s eyes …  and the man’s life is turned upside down, inside out, flipped and twisted, and made much more difficult than it ever had been before. That’s how the story actually reads.  

Jesus is there for Scene 1—the spit and mud—and then while the man is off washing in the Pool, Jesus disappears and doesn’t return until the very last scene. In the meantime while Jesus is gone, here is the man’s “blessing.”

Scene 2.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” (John 9:8-12)

The healed man tries to go home again but he can’t. So radical is the change in him that his reappearance in his old neighborhood generates no joy, no celebration, no welcome home, only questions and doubts.  His neighbors don’t even recognize him now when before this he was well-known in the neighborhood. 

“That’s the guy who sits and begs, the guy who can’t see, poor guy.” 

“Let’s give him some food leftover from dinner last night.”

“Let’s give him a coin or two.”

And the mostly unspoken feelings: “Let’s do whatever we can to assuage the guilt we have inside us. Let’s engage him enough to say that we did and so we can suppress the ‘It could have been me’ thoughts that run through our minds.”  

He has been treated his whole life as most people with disabilities. Pitied, ignored, shunned, rejected. And now that suddenly the community has to “see” him, he has to insist that he is the same man, a plea  which gains mixed responses. He was no longer the guy who stumbled his way through the streets, the guy who touched the walls as his hesitantly walked to his begging place, the dependent, poor, dirty beggar—these were the identity markers that defined his place in the community. Now he walks upright, assured of place and direction, and now he has a potential for being independent. What he discovers, though, is that he has no place anymore.

“Who are you? And who is this person who told you you could be whole? Where is he?”

Jesus is nowhere to be found.

Scene 3.
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” (John 9:13-17)

The healed man is hauled before religious leaders who have their own identity markers in the community. They are interested in all reported miracles, especially if performed by unauthorized individuals and most especially if done in violation of some law. They protect the law, the law protects their role.

Such is the case here. The healing occurred on the sabbath so if this man is truly healed, it was done by someone with the power of God, but if the healing took place on the sabbath, then it was done by someone opposing God’s law and these well-placed authorities could not possibly allow someone to question their interpretation of God’s law. Protect the law at all costs.

“Are you sure you can see? Were you really blind? Who did it? Further investigation is needed.”

Like many of us wanting to defend the status quo, these religious leaders already knew what they wanted to hear—they wanted to hear that this healer healed on the Sabbath and that by doing so he broke the law. And that’s exactly where their investigation leads—surprise!

In the meantime, this man is dragged through the mud and his self, his integrity, his parents, his very existence are questioned and debated and disparaged in front of his neighbors and his synagogue. 

Jesus is nowhere to be found.

Scene 4.
The [religious leaders] did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself.” (John 9:18-21)

Again, like so many of us with disabilities, the man is not believed so the parents of the healed man are grilled by the religious leaders.

“Yes, he is our son.”

“Yes, he was born blind.”

“No, we do not know what happened.”

“No, we do not know who did it.”

“Of course we know it’s our son and that he was born blind, but we don’t know how this change has happened.”

Whatever joy they may have had in discovering that their son was now a sighted person was wiped out by fear of themselves being shunned from the community.

“Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 

They were on the verge of being expelled from the synagogue and being socially disgraced because of their connection to this ungodly, sabbath-violating, law-breaking act. But these parents didn’t ask for this. This “blessing” was too much for them to handle.

“Give us our son back. We liked our life just the way it was, thank you very much. This other way is way too difficult.” 

Jesus is nowhere to be found.

Scene 5.
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. (John 9:22-34)

The religious authorities, faced with irrefutable evidence that a healing happened know that they must now denounce the healer as a sinner. But the healed man argued back. How cheeky of him! 

“I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. ... Maybe you want to be his follower?”

This is not the pre-determined answers the authorities want to hear, not the expected conclusion of the investigation, not the statement that was supposed to be released to the public. That report was supposed to say, “Obviously it was Jesus who sinned and therefore this man he healed cannot be believed and is no longer to be a part of who we are.”  The official report was supposed to exonerate the officials, not raise more questions and stymie their plans for higher office.

So here is this guy.  A few days before he was ejected from the synagogue his life was as it always had been. And then God “blessed” him with:  
  • his old friends don’t recognize him
  • his neighbors disregard him
  • his parents are threatened
  • his parents reject him
  • he is no longer welcome at his old place of worship 
So that's a blessing?!

Jesus is nowhere to be found.

Scene 6.
Jesus heard that they had driven [the man] out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:35-41)

Jesus returns. Whew!

To this point, remember, the man has not seen Jesus. When they were last together, the man was blind and after he returned from the Pool at Siloam Jesus was gone. “Guess what,” says Jesus, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The man is now seen by the world around him and the world rejects him.

So that’s the deal? God’s blessings may very well bring judgment. God’s blessings may very well cause your life to be turned upside down. God’s blessings might just cause you to be ousted from those institutions which the world around you values. God’s blessings might just bring persecution and ridicule on you.

But guess what? God’s blessings are God’s blessings. If the world rejects them, guess who is in the wrong?   

From the very beginning of Scene 1, Jesus makes it clear that this man’s blindness has nothing to do with sin—not his nor his parents’ sin. Period. Jesus then says that the man is there so that “the works of God might be revealed.”

Does that mean that the man was born blind so that Jesus could come along, spit in the dirt, heal him, and in that we can experience God’s power? That makes for a pretty capricious god, doesn’t it? A god that would cause blindness just to prove that that god has the power to heal does not reflect the loving God of our faith.

Our insistence on long-held stereotypes about disabilities and their relationship to sin or bad decisions or evil living, unconscious or latent as those beliefs might be in our modern minds, still bring us to simplistic interpretations like this. A more enlightened reading is that God has created each one of us—not just the man in this story but all of us, in fact—so that God’s works can be revealed in and through our lives.

Remember, Jesus has no qualms about this man’s blindness. Jesus was walking through John’s Gospel, minding his own—and God’s—business when he came across this unnamed man.  His disciples assumed that because the man did not have his visual sense intact he or his parents must be sinners. “Ptooey!,” says Jesus to his once-again-confused disciples, “one’s disability has nothing to do with sin.”

There’s no pity in this encounter. Jesus’ response is not, “Oh, poor little blind man. Let me take away your affliction. Let me make you whole again.” Just as in all stories of people with disabilities in scripture, Jesus doesn’t even notice the man’s disability, his blindness—he simply sees the man—and note that the man doesn’t ask to have his blindness taken away—he’s fine with it. The encounter is quite simply about us experiencing God’s revealed awesomeness. If it takes bringing a man’s visual sense back to life, then that’s what Jesus is willing to do to get that message across.

This story is not about the man’s physical blindness. It’s not about his or his parents’ sin. It’s not about what Jesus could or couldn’t do. It’s not about determining where healing comes from. It’s not about categorization or segregation or exclusion of people based on ability. It’s not about Jesus making a point about all of us and our single-vision view of the world around us.

Or is it? Maybe it’s about all of those things. But primarily it is about what happens when we listen to God’s message and are truly blessed by God.  It changes us.

Cesar Chavez, who led among California migrant farm workers a non-violent movement built on a foundation of humility, speaking truth to power, and making sure the voice of the poor was heard, famously said “If the poor aren’t included, nothing will ever change.”

That’s what this Gospel lesson is about. In fact, that’s what the entirety of the Jesus message is about.  “If the poor aren’t included …” Or fill in whoever is marginalized and you have the message … if the children aren’t included … if the women aren’t included … if the men .., if the elderly … if the people who look different than me.

And as to this encounter between Jesus and the man born blind and the doubters … if those who can’t walk … those who can’t speak … if those who can’t see aren’t included … nothing will ever change. That’s what Jesus does here. Inclusion of everyone in this story—the disciples, the man born blind, his parents, the neighbors, the Pharisees, you and me.  If we’re paying attention, change happens and we just might learn or unlearn some things:
  • Our sins have no bearing on our abilities and our potentialities—we inherently know this but we need to keep reminding ourselves
  • Each of us sins when we distance ourselves from each other and from God, when we push ourselves away and refuse to touch and be touched
  • God works in and around all of us and God’s works are revealed in each and every life that has ever been created
  • Some of us are born blind and see clearly while others are born with vision but simply choose to not see
  • At times we treat each other so badly that some of us have to beg for food or money or shelter or health care or even simple compassion
  • Our parents don’t know everything about us; children know very little about their parents
  • At times we get so hung up on the rules that we have created that we fail to see the glory that God has created
  • It’s okay—healing, even—to play in the mud
    And if real change happens, once oppression ends you cannot return to bondage. If true change happens then the man-who-had-been-blind now restored to wholeness would never be excluded again. It doesn’t really matter—and it didn’t really matter to Jesus—if the man could physically see using his eyes or if that form of vision stayed with him after Jesus went on his way. What mattered was that Jesus has taken this man and has restored him to the community. A painful process when the community doesn’t want to admit it is wrong and has to change. But it happens. This man is restored, healed, reconciled, into a community that, we pray, has learned to change.

And obviously the mud in your eye—in our eyes—didn’t resolve the marginalization of those whom we reject.  But with the Jesus message as clear as mud in the eye, we continue to share that message as we live out God’s will in this world.

Ptooey! Here’s mud in yer eye!

© Copyright 2019
James F. McIntire
All rights reserved.