I woke up one morning this past summer and had a little trouble focusing my eyes, even after I got my trusty glasses on. It was like intermittent blurriness, and for a few moments I had to keep blinking, closing one eye, then the other, until it finally cleared up. It just happened that I was going to my eye doctor that day because I wanted to get sunglasses for my walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, and so of course I mentioned the incident to the opthalmologist. He checked my eyes with all the latest equipment they use, and said that everything was fine. “Sometimes,” he said, “older eyes need a little time to get ready for the day when you wake up. It’s like an old car—you’ve got to let it warm up before you drive.” I didn’t like being compared to anything old, especially a car, and I like my car and my eyes to be ready to go as soon as I turn on the ignition. But these eyes have seen a lot, and they have been good to me, and I hope to see a lot more with them, so I try to take care of them.
My mother and my father both suffered from macular degeneration, small strokes in back of the eye that prevent blood and its life-giving oxygen to feed the cells of the retina. Without that nourishment, the center of your retina dies, and you are left with mostly peripheral eyesight. Most of what you do see are vague shapes of darkness and light, like shadows against a wall. For my mother, it meant loss of one of her most beloved activities—reading. For my father, it prevented him from watching TV and fixing and building things around the house. At times it was difficult to watch their lives and their spirits diminish dramatically as they gradually lost their sight.
For me, loss of sight would be more challenging than if it happened with any of the other senses. I could deal with loss of smell, taste, touch…and being deaf would be tough, but being blind? I’m sure I’d be yelling at God a lot. To not be able to see the faces of the people I love, the awesomeness of towering mountains, rolling seas, fiery fall foliage, the world transformed with a blanket of snow, movies(!), the afternoon light gently spilling upon the windowsill, dogs and their wet noses, the blue blue sky, mighty New York skyscrapers, the spontaneous smile of a child, a spider’s magnificent web, Christmas lights…wow, it would be hard. So having a moment one morning where I was having trouble focusing, well, it was definitely a little scary.
And even though I got a good bill of health from the eye doctor, when I was on that month-long walk in Spain, I wondered if my focus isn’t always so clear. I think I do miss things that I should have been able to see. Maybe it is old eyes that are the problem. Almost every day in the kingdom of my life I fail to see things that are all around me, most especially the unpleasant things.
There’s the story of Lazarus, sitting with open sores and open hands in the gutter. Jesus tells us how the rich man passed him every day and never noticed him, until of course when he dies. Then he finally sees Lazarus… in heaven, while he suffers in the hell of his own making.
Children with young eyes never miss seeing Lazarus in the gutter, and they never let us ignore them as we often do. When I walk through a day with a child, she sees for me what I miss. “Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk, Uncle Jimmy? He must be cold.” The hearts of children love more easily, and they break more mightily as well, and they teach us more purely the lesson that Jesus meant for us to learn in this lovely story of Lazarus. Unlike the rich man, maybe Jesus wants us really see the world as it really is before it is too late: trade out our old, tired, fear-filled eyes and heart for something younger, more revealing.
I was going through some papers and found a letter from a former student. He had visited Guatemala, and in the letter he was describing the poverty of the country: how little money people have, how so many live in shanty houses with no running water and no heat, how meager is the food they have to eat and how hungry they are. And he recounted an incident that had just happened there.
Five children—all of them about 6 or 7 years old---were looking for some food. And outside of the city where they lived there was an enormous garbage dump. They didn’t have any sophisticated landfill system, nothing like here where they cover over the garbage with layers of dirt and contain it with all sorts of techniques. No, in this dump in Guatemala it was just raw garbage--piled higher and higher with no management at all, producing a stink far worse than we’ve ever experienced. And the five little children went to the dump one day--not to play or fool around. They went to the dump like a lot of other people did, to find something to eat, because they were hungry. And as they were scavenging around for foodin the dump, a huge part of the mountain of garbage suddenly gave way, and it came crashing down---filthy, stinking, rotting refuse of human living---it came crashing down right on the little children, and it buried them all, tons of garbage covering all five of them. It was horrible. It took quite a while to get help for them. And the worst part about it was this: when the authorities were able to dig down to where the children were, they found out that the garbage itself didn’t kill them from its impact on them. They were buried alive, and they had lived for a while, in the darkness of the stinking garbage that covered them.
Although I had read this letter and its story a number of times in the past, it had me choked up all over again when I re-read it.
These garbage dumps, they’re all over the world. I experienced one myself in the middle of Manila when I was on a service trip with some students about 8 years ago. It was impossiblefor these old eyes to ignore what was before me, and they wept at what they saw. It was the worst poverty I had ever seen: cardboard and tin shacks, raw toilet sewage running down the dirt paths outside the houses, skeletons of starving dogs walking around, children in filthy, torn clothing, obviously hungry.
But Lazarus is not just in Guatemala or Manila or Zimbabwe or Aleppo. He sits at the front of our own gates in Detroit, on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, in Biloxi, Mississippi, upstate New York, in the Mott Haven neighborhood in the Bronx, on the sidewalks of Manhattan, or right here in Stapleton. And our tired eyes often have trouble seeing him from the high seats of our SUV’s, even if we almost trip over his body on the sidewalk.
And most of us can’t see how our blindness contributes to his existence all over the world. You’ve heard the statistics. We live in a nation that has 5% of the world’s population, but we consume 25% of the world’s resources. Because we are almost brainwashed into believing that we need more and more, we fail to see how our desires keep our brothers and sisters in faraway lands living on pennies a day. It’s great to be able to buy new skinny jeans at Macy’s or H & M on sale, but the bargain comes to us on the back of a woman in El Salvador who earns 56 cents an hour and barely has enough money to feed her children at home.
We have good intentions, for sure, and there are many who devote themselves to helping the lives of their brothers and sisters who suffer like Lazarus. There are wonderful non-profit organizations like ‘One’ which was created by Bono from U2, which tries to help more than seven million people who live in extreme poverty around the world. Or like Results, which works to end childhood starvation and tries to find permanent solutions for every cast off Lazarus here in our nation and in the world.
But many of us still have trouble seeing.
It’s not about our eyes, of course, it is about our hearts, which sometimes lose their focus with age or hard learning. It is our hearts that Jesus wants to touch. It is our hearts that Jesus wants to convert before it is too late. We need to look up from amidst our own wealth, look up and around like little children, we need to focus on Lazarus, lest God’s justice send us forever and ever into the darkness of the night of our own making.
I want to share one final story.
A few years ago as I was sitting on a bench in a park on the west side of Manhattan, I came across a small drama and a wonderful revelation. Several young boys were playing together nearby. I didn’t pay much attention to them at first, but I began to take interest when an apparent dispute arose. One of the boys was clearly the alpha, taking charge of the group, issuing the rules of play and directing the team’s activity. I didn’t see what happened to provoke him, but he very bluntly and directly expelled one of the kids from the game. I watched the kid stand to the side, looking very alone and small. At first I couldn’t tell how he was taking it, until he turned his face away from the field and in my direction, and then I could see the tears silently streaming down his cheeks. I wanted to go over to him and say something, but I was either too timid or too worried about how that would look, and so I just sat there and tried to look away. He’ll get over it, I thought. It’s just what happens to kids.
But then I heard a voice, coming from a bench some feet away. “Come here, son”. I could see he was an older man, white hair, neatly dressed. The boy hesitated a moment, wiping his eyes. “Here, just for a second, please”, the man called out again. The boy walked over to him slowly, and stopped right in front of him. I made a point of watching this meeting in case the guy was a nut or something worse. I couldn’t hear what the man was saying to him, but the boy listened intently, and nodded a few times. Then I saw the man reach out with his elderly hand to pat the boy’s head. The boy said something to the man, and then turned and walked back to where the other boys were playing. He stood there for a few more minutes, and when the game appeared to end, two of the boys went over and joined him. I guessed that they felt badly about how their friend was ejected from the game. In a few minutes they all left together, taking their cries and shouts with them, leaving the park to the sound of birds, and the distant din of the city. I was about to get up and leave, when I saw the elderly man get up off his bench. He stood for a moment, and grabbed something out of the inner pocket of his jacket. He unfurled it, and I saw that it was one of those collapsible poles. I watched the old man negotiate the sidewalk, feeling the ground just ahead of his steps with the pole. Slowly, he wandered away from me, and from the park. I stayed a few more minutes, reflecting on how a blind man had somehow ‘seen’ the sadness of a little boy in the park, and how he had done what he could to remind him that he was loved.
And I had no doubt in my mind that when the time came for him to be called home by God, he would be one of the lucky ones to be carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. I will make darkness into light before them And rugged places into plains.