Peter Bankson: Entering Mystery Through Darkness

SEEKERS CHURCH
A Christian Community
In the Tradition of the Church of the Saviour

Entering Mystery Through Darkness
March 17, 1996
Peter Bankson

INTRODUCTION

Whenever I preach, the process of clarifying what I want to say brings into focus some idea where one or more of the scripture lessons for the week intersects with some part of my own story, and something in our story — of the Seekers Church or the world in which we live. The intersection of God’s story, my story and our story helps keep me from wandering too far from the path we are on as a community of faith.

This time the path took an unexpected and painful turn, from a reflection on personal healing to the contemplation of how God is at work in the world — today. It has been an experience of our worship theme for this season: Entering Mystery Through Darkness.

First, I want to offer an image from each of these stories:

  • From God’s story, Jesus heals a beggar who was blind from birth;
  • From my story, a visit to the orphanage in Duc Pho and the beach at Sa Huynh in central Vietnam; and
  • From our story, the kindergarten massacre this past week in Dunblane, Scotland.

Then I want to offer a few reflections on the idea that suffering creates the opportunity to reveal God’s works in the world, even though it leads us into darkness. I hope to draw these lessons about entering the mystery to find God’s work in our time, from the place where these stories intersect:

  1. Suffering provides an opportunity to reveal the work of God.
  2. Once we are in the presence of suffering, we need to focus on healing, rather than on blame.
  3. God works in mysterious ways, and we CAN enter that mystery through darkness.
  4. When I’m in the dark, I need to slow down and take one step at a time.
  5. I shouldn’t expect any healing to solve all my problems.
  6. Even when the disciples ask the wrong questions, Jesus heals.

GOD’S STORY: Why was This Man Born Blind?

Let me turn first to God’s story. This week the Gospel reading from John 9 offers us a challenging image of suffering, and healing, and the turbulence of change:

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who had been 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.” After Jesus’ healing intervention, the blind beggar could see.

The story continues:

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.”

Then, there is a long argument among the people of the city over whether this healing was real, and if it was, whether it could be accepted by the church and the society.

The Gospel says that this beggar was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him! Is that why bad things happen to good people? How does all the suffering in the world today give us opportunities to reveal God’s works through those who suffer? How does the presence of suffering in our lives become the opportunity to reveal the working of God in our time? What ARE the works of God, the healing, or the opportunity for a new life for the healed, or the changes that are required in the rest of the community when one among them is healed, or all of the above and more?

This story sets an interesting context for one image from my return to Vietnam.

MY STORY: Experiencing Vietnam as an Opportunity for God’s Healing.

Since Marjory and I returned from Vietnam about six weeks ago, the experience of that journey has begun to open my eyes in ways I did not expect. When I returned to Duc Pho District in the central, coastal province of Quang Ngai, where I spent a year as a young soldier, I had the feeling of being part of the crowd around the beggar as they tried to come to terms with the fact that he could see for the first time in his life.

During our time in Quang Ngai, we spent two days in Duc Pho district. Our hosts, Dr. A and Mr. Tam, two long-time members of the Communist Party who had put together the schedule for our visit, had included two day trips, to visit the vocational school and the district hospital.

We had hoped to be able to stay there overnight, but it was not possible. When we asked about staying in Duc Pho, or in the small hotel in the seaside village of Sa Huynh, they assured us that there was no adequate lodging in this district town of 20,000 people. The hotel, they said, was not suitable for foreign guests.

Mr. Tam, is a native of Duc Pho and the rector of the Province Teachers’ College, escorted us to the vocational school, which is directed by one of his former students. Dr. A, is chief of the Province Health Service, and supervises the hospital and the health clinics in Duc Pho. Both of them are senior, state-level officials who received their graduate training in China or Eastern Europe. They’ve been around. I had to believe they understood the current situation better that most.

What they did not say is that if we were to stay in Duc Pho overnight, they would be required to get permission in advance from the local Communist Party officials, and probably stay with us themselves throughout the visit. You see, Duc Pho is in the heart of that part of Vietnam which has always harbored a rebellious spirit among the people. We were only semi-official guests, traveling on tourist visas, and the local officials could not be certain of our motives. As we learned later, the Vietnamese people and the older members of the Party are eager for more contact with Americans, but the younger Party cadre remember when the Americans took control before, and, well …it just would not be possible to stay overnight.

Our first meeting was at the Duc Pho vocational school. We saw students learning how to work as seamstresses, and heard about their courses to train electricians, embroiderers and automobile operators. Courses at the vocational school are in high demand, since they prepare students for immediate employment. The academic high school across town is still modeled very closely on the traditional model that prepares students for the university and eventual positions of leadership. Most students in Duc Pho have little hope of going on to the university. They come to the vocational school for job training, even though they must pay a tuition for the classes.

The Vietnamese have a very strong work ethic. Everywhere people were busy, building, sewing, selling, teaching. The pay is very low, but everyone works, any many professionals supplement their “official” income with evening jobs or private business ventures that pay many times more than their salaries.

During our discussion with the director of the vocational school, I described a Catholic orphanage I had helped establish in 1966, with funds from a church in Rockville, Maryland. I went to Duc Pho with pictures of the orphanage from 30 years ago. I wanted to see it again, and if possible, to see if we could meet any of the children who lived there in 1966. Before we went to Duc Pho Mr. Tam had encouraged me to take the pictures to Duc Pho and ask for help in locating anyone in the picture who was still living in town. I thought the chances were remote, but hoped the process would be interesting. I was right, but not in the way I expected.

I showed the old picture of the children to the staff of the vocational school and asked if there might be any way to inquire about any of the children. Immediately there was a sense of tension in the room. The assistant director said, “The picture is so small, it would be impossible to identify anyone who is in it.” The director changed the topic of conversation. And a man who was sitting quietly near the door got up and left the meeting. Later, someone told us, apologetically, that the orphanage had been “moved” to another facility, and the buildings had been enlarged to serve as the offices of the local People’s Committee. At that point, I abandoned any hope of going onto the grounds of the “orphanage,” but still hoped to get a good picture of it — just to see how the buildings had fared after 30 years of war and reconstruction.

After the meeting we were invited to an informal luncheon with the staff. One of them rode his bicycle in front of the car for about half a mile to a home on a narrow dirt road that felt very familiar. As I got out of the car I recognized where I was. The orphanage was just a block away, on the other side of an open field. I wanted to walk around the block and take a picture from the street before we sat down for the meal, and started down the street.

Mr. Tam was clearly agitated, and called me back. He said he was concerned that I might get lost walking around the block. Even though he is a leader at the province level it was clear that he could not let me deviate from the approved visit plan, so I let go of that hope as well. Lunch was delicious. Clearly our visit was an excuse for an excellent meal. Everyone who had been at the meeting was there, including the representative of the local People’s Committee who had left the meeting in such a hurry when I brought out the pictures of the orphanage.

Mr. Tam seemed apologetic on our way out of town. He suggested that we take pictures through the car window, and had the driver go past the orphanage slowly enough to give us a chance for one good picture. Clearly he was frustrated, but the lesson I learned was that in Duc Pho the local People’s Committee is in control — in very tight control.

From what I could see through the window of the moving car, Duc Pho has prospered since the war. The fields were carpeted with the spring crop of rice. There were many new buildings along the main street, with shops on the first floor and apartments above. Bananas hung from the trees. The children were animated and the streets were clean. I wish we could have walked those streets past the orphanage and the house I lived in, and the little Protestant church, but we could not. Although everyone we met was eager to talk, we were only allowed to meet with government officials. Students who tried to practice their English with us were told they must stop immediately. Clearly, for some residents of Duc Pho our visit was a threat. I felt no sense of hostility toward me as a person, but the pain was there, at some level in the culture.

After lunch, instead of remaining in Duc Pho for the traditional two hour siesta, we drove 20 kilometers south to the beach at Sa Huynh. In 1966 I spent two days in Sa Huynh. The image of the village and its lovely beach has become for me an icon of traditional, idyllic, subsistence living. Sa Huynh has a small deep water port with an active fishing fleet at one end of a 10 kilometer curve of white sand fronting on the South China Sea, anchored on the north and south by rugged, rocky headlands. Sa Huynh is to the east coast of Florida as Colorado is to Kansas.

It is as rich in natural resources as it is beautiful. The fishing is still excellent. Small reef netters come in every day loaded with fish, squid and the largest shrimp I have ever seen. As we drove past the village, I could see thatched roofs under coconut palms, and a few two story buildings near the harbor.

We did not go to the village as I had hoped. Mr. Tam took us instead to the small hotel south of town, located in the middle of the long curve of beach. While Mr. Tam, his driver and our interpreter stayed in the shade of the palms lining the beach, Marjory and I took off our shoes and walked on the beach. It was wonderful to feel the pearl-green surf and see that the place really is as beautiful as I had remembered. After letting the sea wash our feet for a couple of hours, we were ready to head back. By then, I’d given up my hopes to set foot in my old quarters, which I had learned is now an office of the Ministry of Education, but I still thought it might be possible to get a good picture of it, and drive by the church. We might even have time to visit Mr. Tam’s family home.

But it was not to be. Our host, who had been busy on his cellular phone for most of the time we had been on the beach, urged us to go to the hotel and eat again: “The hotel is famous for their grilled Sa Huynh shrimp. We must not leave without trying them,” he said with an apologetic smile. By then it was after 3:00 PM and the kitchen had run out of shrimp, probably during lunch for the French tourists who were staying at the hotel. So we stayed for grilled squid and beer instead, and the sun sank into the mountains on the Laotian Border 50 miles to the west. As you might guess, by the time we drove back through Duc Pho it was dark. There was no thought of driving anywhere off the main road.

We found out later that night that the local People’s Committee had become very concerned about us. They had heard from their representative at the vocational school as soon as I shared those pictures of the orphanage. They could not understand why we were there, and as understanding withers, control blossoms. We had been able to return to the place where I spent a year in the war, but the only parts of it we’d been allowed to touch were the sea, and the sand, and the food. It was frustrating, but it had to be enough. In the context of our Gospel lesson, I am led to wonder who was the blind beggar that day in Duc Pho, the people of a village ravaged by war a generation ago, or our hosts, or me? And, if this was a healing experience, what work of God might have been revealed? I can’t see well enough yet to say.

Let me shift to the third image, one that is still very raw, the tragic massacre in Dunblane, Scotland.

OUR STORY: Why did a man kill 16 kids in cold blood in Scotland last week?

In the two years I spent in the war in Vietnam, I never saw a room full of dead and wounded children. Yes, there were atrocities in that war, but none of them were any worse than the suffering that began in the Dunblane Primary School last Wednesday morning, when a man shot 28 kindergarten children and their teacher, leaving 16 children and the teacher dead.

Perhaps you have been given some wisdom about this tragedy. I have not. I am sure we will hear some theories about why it happened, some explanations of what pushed Thomas Hamilton to the point he could do what he did. As I read the story on Friday, I was reminded of the massacre of hundreds of children and elders in the hamlet of My Lai in the spring of 1968 by American soldiers. Marjory and I went to My Lai on the Sunday morning we spent in Quang Ngai. The land has healed there, but not the memories. For the Vietnamese government, the memory of My Lai is a modern icon of their oppression at the hands of outsiders. The people we met with, who were there when it happened nearly three decades ago, have healed, but they bear the scars of that tragedy and all the others it stands for.

In Dunblane the soul of a town is bleeding, the spirit of a people is in shock. And we may not have felt the suffering. We are, after all, as distant from that event in Scotland as many of us were from the tragedy of Vietnam — far enough away to turn aside, far enough away to whistle in the dark.

“Rabbi, who sinned, these children, or their parents, that they died so young?” And what does Jesus answer? Do we hear Jesus answering, “Neither the children nor their parents sinned; they died so that God’s works might be revealed in them.” Can that be true?

OBSERVATIONS

In the lead article in the current issue of Sojourners magazine, Elizabeth McAlister says: “Because authentic existence is a pilgrimage, faithfulness must be supple or it collapses into betrayal.” I like the sound of that, even though I haven’t figured out completely what it means to me.

GOD’S STORY

When Jesus gave sight to the blind beggar, the whole town had to adjust to the healing. It wasn’t easy. For those who opposed Jesus, this was an opportunity to argue against his ministry on legal grounds: “Even a healing is wrong if it is not done in accordance with the law of the land.” For others, like the parents of the beggar, it was a mystery — wonderful, but beyond their comprehension. For the beggar himself, it opened up a whole new life, filled with new opportunities — and new responsibilities — for growth. When the story begins, only the beggar and Jesus were anticipating the healing that was to come.

Most Americans don’t seem to think of suffering as an opportunity for God’s work. More often, suffering is viewed by the callous as something to be avoided, and by the compassionate as something to be fixed with whatever resources are at hand.

I’m in there somewhere. To the extent that I have paid any attention to this bit of the Good News, I must admit, the story of the person born blind has always seemed like divine intervention to cure illness or infirmity. I find it easy to think of “God’s work” as a wonderful experience between Christ and the afflicted. It is much harder for me to see the suffering of others as an opportunity for my own healing.

I think it is easier to understand how, when we are called by God to address the painful reality of “human nature,” we have an opportunity to bear witness to and be the vehicle for God’s love for all creation. But so often we’re in the dark about what to do next. One of the things we try to emphasize in the our mission groups is the understanding that it is OK to move slowly when the group is trying to find its way. When you’re in the dark, one step at a time is fast enough.

MY STORY

Last month Marjory came back from a trip to Chicago with a gift for me, a copy of Robert Bly’s newest book of poems. Many of us have had some relationship with Bly’s work before. I remember, years ago, sitting waay up in the cheap seats at a Bly event at Lisner Auditorium with several men from Seekers. It was a gathering of “warriors,” looking for better ways to understand what it meant to be men in that time and place.

As I read this new book of verse, I was reminded of a Bly poem that described the war in Vietnam. “Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is an angry poem, a muddy mix of images that, frankly, I never saw while I was a soldier in that war. Here is part of Bly’s terrible image of war, a view from the inside:

This is what its like for a rich country to make war.
This is what its like to bomb huts
(afterwards described as “structures”).
This is what its like to kill marginal farmers
(afterwards described as “Communists”).
This is what its like to set the altimeter needle going mad;
diving, the green earth swinging, cheeks hanging back, red pins blossoming
ahead of us, 20-millimeter cannon fire, leveling off, rice fields shooting by like
telephone poles, smoke rising, hut roofs loom up huge as landing fields, slugs
going in, half the huts on fire, small figures running, palm trees burning,
shooting past, up again…blue sky…cloud mountains…
This is what its like to have a gross national product.
This is what its like to send firebombs down
from air conditioned cockpits.
This is what its like to fire into a reed hut
with an automatic weapon.
(Bly, Teeth Mother Naked At Last, III)

When I first read this, years after I returned from Vietnam, I was strongly moved by the pain and the anger in that image. Not so much caught up in it or swept along by it — more pushed by it. I am beginning to see that the anger I hear in this poem is calling to some anger within me that has never found its way past my Boy Scout smile and the commitment to do a good turn every day.

At the end of the Gospel lesson for this week, Jesus says to those who challenged his healing and the teaching that came from it, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” I’m beginning to get the picture.

Vietnam is an incredibly beautiful land, rich in agriculture and natural resources. The Vietnamese people have been a distinct cultural entity for 2,200 years. In that time the Vietnamese people have been invaded 11 times by China and once by Cambodia. They have been occupied successively by the Chinese, the Mongols, the French, the Japanese, and they would add, the Americans. Each time they have forced the foreign powers out through a combination of cunning and persistence. Since 200 BC the Vietnamese people have been left alone in peace for less than 800 years, only 16 of those in this century.

Their story has been a constant struggle for control of the land and the riches it can produce. Those who came from abroad to control the people and take the produce have always left, and the Vietnamese have rebuilt their society, again and again. Their history helps me understand their cultural pride and tenacity — and puts into perspective the suspicions we experienced in January.

As I’ve been reflecting on that day in Duc Pho and Sa Huynh, it seems clear that after 30 years, the suffering of the war that sent me there is overgrown, but many of the reasons for war remain in that country, rooted like jungle wines in the deep soil of 2,000 years of subjugation.

“Rabbi, who sinned, these people, or their ancestors, that they suffered through that war?”

Does Jesus answer, “Neither; they suffered through that war so that God’s works might be revealed in them?”

OUR STORY

As I turn to the tragedy in Dunblane, I must struggle to stay open to the experience. It is a long way away from here. I am busy with work that feels important for other children who are still alive. And there is this experience in Vietnam that is calling me to reflection and integration. It feels like I am on the edge of some important learning for myself. Do I have time and energy to care about another tragedy in a foreign land?

Frankly, this sermon would have been much easier if I had looked the other way, and let the images from Vietnam be enough. But when I reread the piece from “Teeth Mother Naked at Last” I could not escape the sense that the description of a close air support mission in Vietnam from the pilot’s perspective must be very much like the last living experience of Thomas Hamilton.

If I am going to struggle with the possibility that the suffering from a war three decades ago might be an opportunity for the works of God to be revealed, then I can not ignore the massacre in Dunblane.

CONCLUSIONS

I believe that this creation is of God, that good IS greater than evil, and that we are called to be part of God’s work in our time. For me, the challenge is how to make that real, today, in whatever I am about — on the way home from church — at my desk this afternoon planning next week’s work — watching the ten o’clock news.

I am learning that I shouldn’t expect healing to be painless or problem-free. Think about the blind man in the Gospel lesson. Once he could see, and the people in his home town knew he could see, his career as a beggar was over. He had a new life with fresh opportunities, but he needed some quick retraining for a new occupation.

I wonder, as we look at the way the community reacted when Jesus healed him, what is the work of God in our time? I wonder, as the light begins to dawn again over the South China Sea off the coast at Sa Huynh, what is the work of God in our time? I wonder, as the people of Dunblane bury their dead children and grieve the hole in the soul of their close-knit community, what is the work of God in our time?

  1. Does suffering provide an opportunity to reveal the work of God?
  2. When we are in the presence of suffering, can we focus on healing, rather than on blame?
  3. Since God works in mysterious ways, can we enter that mystery through the darkness of suffering?
  4. Can I slow down when I recognize that I’m in the dark, and take things take one step at a time?
  5. Do I have the faith to keep going, even when some healing doesn’t solve all my problems?
  6. Will Jesus heal, even when we ask the wrong questions?

I believe we are called to say “Yes” to all of this, even when the details remain a mystery and we must live by faith. As Elizabeth McAlister said: “Because authentic existence is a pilgrimage, faithfulness must be supple or it collapses into betrayal.”

After he healed the blind beggar, Jesus said to some of his critics, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” I’m beginning to see in ways I’ve never seen before. Feels like it’s time to walk into the dark, and take things one step at a time for a while.

HELLO! Is anyone else there?

Amen.

 


Vietnam: Two Millennia of War and Occupation
DATE EVENT DURATION
208 BC Chinese general establishes Au Lac 100 years
100 BC China: Han Dynasty annexes Nam Viet 1,000 years
40 Hai Ba Trung rebellion challenges China 2 years
42 China reestablishes control 206
248 Lady Trieu uprising defeated by China 1 year
249 China reestablishes control 689 years
938 Ngo Quyen defeats Chinese fleet: sovereign Vietnam 5 years
944 Internal struggle for control 23 years
967 Dinh Bo Linh unites Dai Viet: Chinese recognition 108 years
1075 War with China 2 years
1077 Peace restored in Dai Viet 180 years
1257 Genghis Kahn invades: REPELLED (Bach Dong River #1) 1 year
1258 Dai Viet restores sovereignty 36 years
1282 Kublai Khan invades from China: DEFEATED 1 year
1283 Dai Viet restores sovereignty 1 year
1284 Kublai Kahn returns: DEFEATED (Bach Dong River #2) 4 years
1288 Peace treaty with Peking 118 years
1406 Ming Dynasty invades 12 years
1418 Le Loi declares Vietnamese independence 9 years
1427 China invades: DEFEATED 1 year
1428 Le Loi restores Vietnamese independence 260 years
1497 Internal civil war against Chams; southern expansion 273 years
1615 First Catholic missionaries arrive from Portugal **
1771 Peasant revolt (Tay Son uprising) 15 years
1786 Le Dynasty restored 2 years
1788 Chinese invasion: DEFEATED 1 year
1789 Vietnamese independence restored: French begin military assistance 4 years
1793 Civil war between Nguyens 9 years
1802 Emperor Gia Long proclaims Nguyen Dynasty 35 years
1847 French retaliate against Vietnamese suppression of French Catholic missionaries **
1859 French and Spanish occupy Da Nang 1 year
1860 French evacuate Da Nang (Guerrillas, Typhus and Cholera)
1867 French protectorate includes all of southern Vietnam, Cambodia
1873 Northern Vietnam skirmishes with French forces
1883 All Vietnam under French control: undeclared war with China
1885 Treaty of Tientsin: China recognizes French control over Vietnam
1929 Three Communist Parties formed in Vietnam: United by Ho Chi Minh
1941 World War II: Japanese occupation
1945 Bao Dai abdicates to Ho Chi Minh, who proposes independence, but French refuse
1954 Geneva accords divide Vietnam
1955 President Eisenhower begins US military presence in Vietnam with advisors
1963 US military operations begin in Vietnam
1965 American military units begin operations in Vietnam
1968 Tet Offensive kills 13,000 in Hue; My Lai massacre kills 500
1973 US troops leave Vietnam
1975 War ends: reunification begins 1 year
1976 Border skirmishes with Cambodia
1979 Vietnam invades Cambodia: China invades Vietnam
1980 Hostilities end in Vietnam 16 years
1996

SUMMARY:

2,200 years of history
777 years of peace without occupation (13 in this century)
1,323 years of war & occupation
11 invasions by China (including 3 by the Mongols), all repelled eventually
1 invasion by Cambodia
1 invasion of Cambodia
Occupation by the Chinese, Mongols, French, Japanese, and some would say the US
Nearly constant civil war

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