What do your want me to do for you?

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As both a courtroom advocate and civil mediator, I have learned through the years that there are few “declarative” statements more powerful than a tough honest question.

An entire trial can turn on the right question being asked of the right witness at the right time. Likewise, the most intransient “dug in“ positions of the most hostile opponents can be altered by a skilled mediator asking a probing question that has yet to be fully considered.

Blind Bart – Jesus asks him an “absurd” question of life-changing importance

It so happens that this past Sunday, many worshipers in many congregations worldwide heard one of the most important and insightful questions Jesus ever asked.   The appointed Gospel for this week was taken from the most earthy and direct of the four Gospels, Mark.  In its 10th chapter, the writer of Mark tells the story of Jesus leaving the ancient revered city of Jericho, where a few centuries earlier the city walls came a-tumbling down.  Jesus and the large crowd that followed him come upon a person who – before this episode – the world held in a little account, a “blind beggar” named Bartimaeus.

As the crowd comes closer, this sightless destitute begins shouting at Jesus, calling him by name and the messianic title “Son of David” and beseeching Jesus to “Have mercy on me!”  At first, the crowd tries to shut him up, but old “Blind Bart” yells all the more loudly, “SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!!!”  Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call him forward. Bartimaeus immediately, springs forward, casting aside his cloak and somehow makes his way to Jesus.

It is at that moment that Jesus asks him the question.  On one level it seems absurd, maybe even a little mocking or cruel.  In reality, it reveals layer upon layer of insight, probing the depths of not only human nature but into the nature and mystery of Jesus himself.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar.

This question would be a lot easier for me and my cynical trial lawyer self if I could keep it at arm’s length, a rhetorical question asked to a different person in different circumstances “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  But there is something nagging and gnawing, Some Thing beckoning within that will not let me escape the terrifying liberation of knowing that question is not just for Blind Bart.  It is for ME.   It is not only for me of course, but for anyone willing to listen and dare be so bold to answer. Regardless, I can’t answer it for anyone else, and no one else can answer it for me.

What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. For Bartimaeus, the answer was “I want to see again,” which I do not think for a minute he meant to be limited to the repairing of his optic nerves. What we do know is that Bart was in fact healed, probably had 20-20 vision (spiritual as well as physical) without benefit of Lasik surgery, and “followed Jesus along the way.” This blind beggar of little account became so important to the early believers that his story is included not only in Mark (10:46-52) but also later in Matthew (20:29-34) and Luke (18:35-43).

What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. I don’t have my answer yet.  Sometimes, I know my answer (at least in attitude, even if too fearful to express it otherwise) is to just leave me alone. 

That’s the one request Jesus seems to have no interest in granting.

To mourn thee, well beloved…

While thumbing through the hymnal, as I sit in the stark stillness of a Good Friday morning, words jump off the page…

Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

I’m a word-guy. I love words, and love to find that “right word” especially; that difference between “lightning” and “a lightning bug” as Twain put it. I make my living (such that it is right now) mostly through words, putting them together in such a way that might prove most persuasive and beneficial for my clients.  Good FridayYet, this day is just one of those days in which my words fail.  Words of others, though, often knock me down.

Sometimes on Good Friday, I try (because that’s just what I do) to put into words my feelings on this day, with its mixture of hopelessness and hopefulness, desperate and concurrent. Would that I might be able and willing to just let the moment be, to let Good Friday just happen, to just “sit with it” and let the bitter joy of Jesus’ crucifixion silently speak whatever it wishes to speak. But I can’t, or won’t.

In that way, I am like Peter I suppose, always seeming to interject words when they just aren’t necessary. “Lord, it’s good that we are here…” he eagerly “informs” Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4), or “Lord, you’ll never wash my feet,” he indignantly protests at the last supper, and then a breath later, “…Then Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:8-9).  I too want to capture this moment, to try to put into words what I fee sitting in a dark silent church with a dear friend for an hour vigil early this Good Friday morning.

But on Good Friday all I really can do — the best I can do — is indeed just sit in silence.  On occasion I feel moved to pick up the hymnal and amble through its pages glancing at the hymns of Jesus’ passion and let the poets do what they do best.

Without any music or voices to embellish or distract from them, the written whispered words of hymns seep into my soul…

168   O Sacred Head Sore Wounded

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

585   Morning Glory, Starlit Sky

Therefore He who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree
And the nails and crowns of thorns
Tell us of what God’s love must be.

Here is God, no monarch He,
Clothed in easy state to reign.
Here is God, with arms outstretched,
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

And of course, there’s that hymn that thoroughly overwhelms me every time, not only for John Ireland’s sweet and simple and perfectly aligned tune, but most especially for sheer beauty of Samuel Crossman’s heart-warming and heart-wrenching words…

458   My Song Is Love Unknown

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I,
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh, and die?

Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine!
This is my Friend,
in whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.

It would be disingenuous for me to say (life being what it is and all) that “all my days I could gladly spend” like I do on this Good Friday, in this “sweet praise.” But I will spend this one, at least, singing silently of “my Friend,” and with more than a few tears of grief and joy be thankful for this friend who on this day died for me.

Love Unknown

The Choir at King’s College Cambridge: My Song Is Love Unknown

…joining our voices with Angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven

It is a peculiar notion, utterly absurd yet irresistible and stunning.

At a recent Eucharist, my wandering mind suddenly latched onto the proposition proclaimed just about every Sunday, but rarely considered, at least by me — that I am worshipping with a veritable heavenly host:

Angels and Archangels

The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini

“Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name…”

Could it really be that our voices join with those of Seraphim and Cherabim, of some divine dimension of the Unseen? Contemplating such celestial choirs led me to some deeper thinking (always a dangerous prospect) about the different “voices” of God.

Throughout history, humankind has believed God speaks to us not only through holy scripture, but through fire and rain, the human touch, music and the arts, literature and liturgy. Only recently in this ongoing and unfolding love story has the Almighty revealed glimpses of Mystery and Glory and Divine Love through the use of vanity license plates.

True story…

Several years ago, I was driving around Charlotte one Saturday morning, seething over some minor spat with a family member, cursing myself and all my shortcomings. A car passed by, and I glanced at its license plate. It read, “URWATUR.”

I smiled, being reminded that indeed, for better or worse, “I am what I am.”  I thought back to a story told by Frederick Buechner, who wrote he was once rescued from utter despair (in the midst of his daughter’s near-fatal anorexia) when he happened to see the word “TRUST” on a license plate. It came precisely, he says, at a moment when he desperately needed to simply trust God’s Providence.

He later discovered the car’s owner to be a trust officer at a local bank, but as he asks, does that really matter?

More and more, I’ve come to accept that Buechner is right when he observes that how we respond to these “little” moments determines a great deal of how we live our lives. Do we write them off as some silly bit of happenstance? Or do we seize them, and grasp the memory of them, time and again, like driftwood in a stormy sea?

Most of us, I suspect, do a bit of both.

Again, I smiled and chuckled to myself as the car drove on.  I thought, “OK, Lord, yes, I promise.  I’ll lighten up a little.”  The very next car passed by. Its license plate shone back at me: “GRACE2U.”

Soon after that little encounter was Transfiguration Sunday, which always is the last Sunday after Epiphany, right before Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent.  I’m not saying my little encounter was quite the same as seeing Jesus in blinding white with Moses and Elijah up on a mountaintop. Nor can I speculate as to whether my reaction to being shown such mysterious Grace even comes close to that of Peter, James and John. All I know is that I, even as my most cynical “rational” lawyer-self, cannot dismiss such things out of hand.

Mountaintop visions. Angels and Archangels. Vanity license plates.

“Heaven only knows” what what I experienced that morning.  Was it another manifestation of “The Voice of God” just for me, or just two random drivers trying to get by my slow moving vehicle?  All I can say for sure is that those two license plates have stuck with me and that sometimes I just have to go with what I have, choosing to believe at least on my better days that it’s not just simply “what I got” but also blessfully what I’ve been given.