The Spotting Discipline 10/28/18 (Proper 25B, Reformation Sunday)

TEXT: MARK 10:46-52
OCTOBER 28, 2018


This is the second time Jesus heals a blind man in the Gospel of Mark. The first time, back in chapter 8, a crowd of people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. Mark writes:

Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

Today we get the story of Bartimaeus, a second blind man who receives his sight from Jesus. Now, although this second healing seems to go more smoothly than the first, I don’t think Mark gives it to us because he wants us to know that Jesus has mastered this particular miracle. There are some important things to be learned from Bartimaeus’ story, many of which become clear when we hold the two stories side by side.

First of all, there’s a question about poverty. We don’t know much about either man, but we do know that the first man is brought to Jesus by a group of people. He may or may not be poor, but he apparently isn’t destitute – he has a safety net of people who are looking out for him, taking care of him. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is begging by the side of the road. We might suppose that he doesn’t have that kind of safety net; there is no one making sure he’s fed, let alone brought to the mysterious healer for a miracle.

Second, there’s a question about relationship. The first man is clearly in relationship with the crowd; they are caring for him and advocating for his needs. Bartimaeus is in an adversarial relationship with the crowd, who try to keep him away from Jesus.

Next, there’s a question about agency. The first man is brought to Jesus by a group; he is led by the hand; he never asks for healing for himself. He is completely passive. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is anything but passive. He shouts out and demands attention. When the crowd tells him to be quiet, he shouts all the louder, demanding mercy.

Jesus, hearing him, stands still. Then he says, “Call him here.” Fickle as usual, the people in the crowd change their tone: “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

So throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus springs up and comes to Jesus.

This is such a vivid scene. But of all of the images – the road, the crowd, the city in the distance, the dust, the bustle and activity – this is the one that struck me this week: the image of Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak and springing to his feet.

Picturing this blind man jumping to his feet with such vigor got me thinking about blindness and sight and balance and dizziness. How can a blind person spring up from a sitting position on the ground, apparently without holding onto anything, and immediately rush towards someone else without losing their balance or getting dizzy? I tried closing my eyes and doing it. I felt very unsteady, slight waves of vertigo making the floor seem to tip underneath my feet. I definitely had to stand still for a minute before I could begin to walk, and the whole thing was very unnerving.

One of the workout programs I do includes a strengthening and balance-promoting move called “flamingo.” Finding your balance on your right foot, you lift your left leg up, bent at the knee, like a flamingo. Slowly, you tip forward from the waist, extending your left leg back straight until your leg and torso are parallel to the ground. All of your weight is being held by your right leg. Then you slowly raise yourself up again.

I am not graceful when I do it.

I fall a lot.

Not all the way to the ground, but I get off-balance and have to put my foot down to regain my stability.

It’s very humbling.

But there’s a trick to it. It’s the same trick that dancers use: spotting.

Spotting involves staring at a fixed point while the body is turning to prevent dizziness and maintain balance. The dancer finds a focal point and stares at it for as long as possible, keeping the head level and facing that point while the body turns. At the last possible second, the dancer whips her head around to catch up with her body, returning her gaze immediately to the focal point. This gives her body’s visual and vestibular systems a way to know where her body is in space.

The discipline of spotting is to find that one steady, immovable spot and keep your eyes fixed on it no matter what.

When I practice spotting, fixing my eyes on a point on the floor a few feet in front of me, I fall less often when doing “the flamingo.” I still fall, to be sure – I’m not perfect (yet!) – but not nearly as often.

So I’ve been thinking about “spotting” this week, in two senses of the word. Spot: to catch sight of something; to see something. Spot: to keep one’s eyes focused on a fixed point in order to maintain stability and balance.

Bartimaeus may have been blind, but he was spotting Jesus more clearly than anyone else – in both senses of the word. Twice he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He knows who Jesus is – the Son of David, the Messiah. And he knows what Jesus is about – mercy. Healing. Restoration.

The crowd and the disciples don’t see Jesus nearly as clearly as blind Bartimaeus. They refuse to see the truth that Jesus has put before them three times since he healed the first blind man: that the Messiah must undergo suffering and death. They deny it, they murmur about it, they refuse to understand or believe it. It’s too hard to look at Jesus and his cross, so they look elsewhere.

As Pastor Sarah Hinlicky Wilson says, “The rich young man wanted eternal life, James and John wanted glory, but this guy, blind and parked on the roadside, wants only mercy.” [1]

But Bartimaeus doesn’t “spot” Jesus only in the sense of seeing him clearly. He also “spots” him the way a dancer does when she keeps her gaze fixed on a point in the back of the dance studio. Having “spotted” Jesus – that is, having seen Jesus for who he really is – Bartimaeus continues to practice spotting Jesus. Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “go on his way,” but Bartimaeus keeps his eyes on Jesus and follows him on the way. Having had his eyes opened, literally and figuratively, now Bartimaeus insists on keeping Jesus in his sight, making him the center of his life.

We, along with the disciples, are trying to get to know Jesus. At the same time, we, along with the disciples and the rich man and all the other people who populate the gospels, can be afraid of what following Jesus might actually mean.

And so we look at him, and then we look away. We look, we look away.

And our lives get out of balance, we falter and stumble, we lose our way.

I’ve decided that my own spiritual discipline needs to be to practice spotting.

I need to fix my eyes on Jesus as much and as often and as thoroughly as I can so that a week like this one – with a deadly shooting of two Black people outside a Kroeger in Kentucky, and a deadly shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and pipe bombs mailed to critics of Donald Trump all around the country – a week that can leave me feeling sick and dizzy – won’t knock me completely off my feet.

I can only survive a week like this one if I look away from those things for a while and look at Jesus until I can stand up straight again. I have to spot Jesus – I have to see him clearly, as Bartimaeus did, and I have to keep my eyes on him as the world spins around me.

Almost 15 years ago I took a class in iconography. The teacher was an Egyptian Orthodox artist, trained in the religious practice of writing icons. There were no books, no syllabus, no papers. Instead, there were paintbrushes and small wooden boards and desk lamps and tiny pots of mineral-based paint. We met every week for a few hours, and he taught us how to prepare the board and draw the outlines and mix the paint. He taught us about color and layering and the movement from dark to light. He taught us how to hold the brushes and slide them over the board, how to be patient as the layers dried over days rather than hours. He taught us to slow down. Most of all, he taught us how to pray: how to steady our hands and quiet our minds by breathing slowly and deeply; how to gaze at the image as it emerged; how to use the time to speak quietly to God and to listen for God’s breath within us.

My teacher taught us that icons are more than art. They are meant to be connectors, bridges between us and the divine. They aren’t to be taken literally, by which I mean to say they don’t claim to depict Jesus or Mary or the saints exactly how they looked. They’re highly stylized, in fact – in part to keep us from mistaking them for the “real thing.” They aren’t meant to be worshiped – rather, they invite us into worship; they are a window we look through in order to see God.

Although I have a number of icon reproductions – including one I painted that year – I don’t often pray with them. But lately, as I’ve struggled to keep my balance amidst the turmoil and tumult of these days, I have begun to wonder if gazing at an icon might help me spot God more clearly. After all, the purpose of an icon is to help us pray.

W. H. Auden once said, “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention…that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying.”

In his book Praying with Icons, Jim Forest writes:

In an era of de-mystification, in which everything can be knowingly explained in such a way that it becomes as flat and dull as old wallpaper, prayer can seem an absurd activity, something for the simple-minded. We stand before God reciting lines from an ancient play, not sure we believe what we are saying or even that the God whom we address exists, or that the saints we invoke are anything more than faded memories. Even for those blessed by strong belief, coming before God in prayer can overwhelm them with a sense of their own ridiculousness. Prayer is an act of simplicity in a complex world, yet in attempting to pray we may discover how far from simplicity we are. (p. 29)

St. Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Reflecting on these words, Forest writes:

At its deepest level, prayer has to do with the longing to be in union with God, to live in the reality of God. There is an underlying loneliness experienced by every human being that can only briefly be displaced by activities, no matter how engaging, or by relationships with people, no matter how much they love each other, no matter how enduring their love, no matter how much they have in common…Prayer is a word we have for all that we do in our efforts to be in touch with God, or our ways of exploring God, coming to know through actual experience who God is. (p. 31)

While an icon is a very specific form of religious art with a very particular history and tradition, we can also discover our own icons in the world around us. Taking some liberties with the word, I would suggest that an icon can be any object that you gaze at or hold onto that directs your heart and mind God-wards. As long as it opens our hearts to God, as long as it helps us begin to see Jesus as clearly as Bartimaeus did, then it is a worthy icon.

Consider these words of Thomas Merton to his fellow monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani just a few years before his death:

Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything, in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that He is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. It’s simply impossible. [2]

So perhaps, in these unsettled and unsettling times, we begin this way. Along with St. Augustine, we recognize that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. And then we gaze at the icon that offers itself to us – a painting, a flower, a rock, a cross, a piece of pottery or cloth – and ask it to open a window to God. And then we ask Jesus to be our still point, our anchor. When he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” we answer as honestly as ever we can. And we keep our eyes on him for as long as we can.

Yes, eventually our eyes will grow tired and we will drop away and wander off the path; we will drift and get dizzy and life will get out of balance. That’s the nature of being human.

But Jesus is still there, standing still, picking our voice out of the chaos of the crowd, waiting for us to turn our eyes to him again as we pray with Bartimaeus, “let me see again.”

And so we continue to practice spotting Jesus again. And again. And again.


[1] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Commentary on Mark 10:46-52,” 28 October 2018,

[2] as quoted in Forest, p. 45.

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