I grew up as the youngest in our family, which meant that I was also the smallest and often the slowest. On car trips and family outings, when my mother and my brother spotted interesting things out of the window, I usually missed them, because I was too small to see out or over things, and too slow to pick up on what I was supposed to be looking for.
So when it came to missing smells that they talked about, I assumed for years that it was just the same problem going on. Until one year we took a family vacation in a little town in Scotland which had a pulp mill for processing pine trees right in the middle of it. It was in the Scottish highlands, in a little valley surrounded by steep hills and mountains, and every time we came through the mountain pass into the valley, the rest of the family would cry out about the pervasive smell of the wood mill in the air. I can only suppose it smelled of Scottish pine. But by the end of the week, I had had enough. I asked them,
“Okay, what is supposed to happen when you smell? How does it work? Why do I keep missing it? What is smell anyway?”
My mother turned around in her seat. “Don’t you have a sense of smell?” she asked.
“I don’t know. What would it feel like if I did?”
I was about eight years old. I had managed to get by for eight years, faking it or ignoring it, pretending and playing along while secretly wondering what it was that I was not getting. I did not have a sense of smell.
To this day, I have next to no idea what it would feel like to smell something. I think that I would know it if it happened; that if my sense of smell was suddenly restored, I would recognize it as such, but I don’t really know, because I have no experience of such a sensation.
To be honest, it’s not too big of a deal. It has occasional safety risks; I was told that I should probably go for electricity rather than gas for home heating and cooking fuel because I would never smell a gas leak; and that was almost an issue once; but for the most part, it’s really not a big deal. In fact, people seem to be divided on whether I am lucky to miss out on all of the bad smells that life wafts by us, or unlucky to miss the good ones. Either way, the truth is that I simply don’t know what I’m missing.
I heard a woman on the radio this past week talking about what it was like to grow up without a sense of sight. She had no idea what it meant to see colours, but she had worked out associations in her mind, so that blue felt like the sea and the sky, and brown tasted like chocolate. She made sense of the way that other people experienced and described the world, but really, she had no real way of knowing what it was to see colour, what colour was, what it was to see.
I can hardly imagine anyone telling her that she might be lucky to miss out on seeing the things that the rest of us would rather close our eyes against, but who knows. Who knows. Someone, perhaps, who has seen too many things that they would rather forget, someone might tell her just that, out of their own fear and pain.
But anyway, this story is about Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, which actually is just what his name means: so good, they named him twice. We don’t know how long Bartimaeus has been blind, but it is long enough that he is defined, at least in the minds of the townspeople, by his blindness: he is Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. So Bartimaeus is asking for that experience that he knows is out there, that he knows about from the people around him, but which he knows, too, is beyond his imagination. He is asking for something beyond his dreams, beyond his scope, his reach. He is asking for something which he doesn’t even know how to expect.
But he is asking. And he knows that Jesus can deliver.
We only have this one little story about Bartimaeus, and yet already we know as much about him as we do about most of the other disciples: we know his name, his parentage, where he lived, his means of making a living, what he wore, and exactly how, when and why he decided to follow Jesus.
How do we know so much about such a small character in such a large story? Because he wouldn’t shut up, when people told him to. Because he was pushy and persistent. Because he was determined that he knew that Jesus could change his life beyond his wildest imaginings, and he was determined that that would happen. Because he had faith.
Bartimaeus had sufficient faith to ask for something even though he could have no concept of what it would mean to receive it. He had sufficient faith to get beyond the fear of what a suddenly unemployed blind beggar might do, might encounter, how he would live if his disability, which had become his livelihood, was taken away. After all, this had defined him for so long: people knew him as Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind beggar. What would the townspeople think of his sudden conversion into a sighted person? Would they accuse him of having conned his way into their sympathy and pocket books all this time? Would they accept him into sighted society, teach him to name the colours that he could now discern, show him the sights?
Bartimaeus was not only asking for sight. He was not only asking for sensory experience beyond his imagination. He was asking to have his entire life turned upside down, transformed and translated into something he could not yet see, something risky and really wonderful.
I think that Bartimaeus was very brave. And if we believe Jesus’ words, which I would like to think we can, it was faith which bred in him that courage to ask for healing, no matter what it might mean, for transformation that he couldn’t anticipate, for a new life that he couldn’t imagine.
I am hardly one to preach about this, I know. Someone asked me last week about my call to an ordained ministry, and I told you all that I had been talking about it since I was fourteen. I knew God’s call on my life; I knew it for thirty years before I finally knelt before a congregation of my family and friends and fellow Christians and townspeople and asked for the Holy Spirit to make that transformation, and when I did, I was still afraid. In many ways, I borrowed the faith of other people, the people around me praying, the people around me who told me, “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.” But if they had told me to be quiet, when they did tell me to be quiet thirty years earlier, I listened to them and let them drown out the call of God.
I wonder what is in each of our hearts today that needs healing, that cries out for transformation. What is it that we hold back from asking Jesus to change in us, because we are afraid of how it might turn out, what it might demand of us, what the neighbours might think? Where in our relationships, our work, our vocations, our families, our neighbourhoods do we know that there is something more than what we can see or even imagine, that God can do with us, through us, if we only had the courage and faith to ask for it? What is it in ourselves that we deny even needs healing, hiding it out of pride, afraid to ask for help, for healing, faking it like I did until I was eight and realized that I didn’t know what it was to smell something. What is it that we can support in one another, encouraging one another, “Take heart, he is calling you”?
Our challenge today is to hear that call and to respond, like Bartimaeus, with faith instead of fear – the most used instruction in the Bible to those who encounter the call of God is, “Do not be afraid.” Our challenge is to be ready to take a risk, to take a chance on God, who is, after all, the safest bet there is. Our challenge is to recognize the calls of those around us, and to encourage them, not to rebuke them. Our challenge is to take a chance, even when we can’t quite see what the outcome will be. Our challenge is to let our imaginations run riot, because they cannot even come close to what God can do, how God can transform our lives, our fear into faith, our blindness into sight.
‘“Take heart, get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up, and came to Jesus … Immediately, he regained his sight, and he followed Jesus on the way.’
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A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing, by Rosalind C Hughes, is available from Upper Room Books.https://bookstore.upperroom.org/Products/1921/a-family-like-mine.aspx