read Mark 10. When you visit Rome, you can go to the Piazza di San Giovanni and make a pilgrimage up the 28 steps said to be the staircase Jesus ascended to Pontius Pilate’s palace. After you climb the Holy Stairs, you arrive at the Sancta Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies. Like certain places in your life, the Holy of Holies can only be reached on your knees.
I did this 28 step knee climb this summer. I was not alone. The steps were filled with pilgrims, all of us on our knees, all of us climbing to the same place. I had arrived with a to-do list. I was going to work through every worry in my heart, and hand it all to God, and arrive at the top step with every burden lifted, every worry assuaged, and every care released.
That wasn’t what happened.
As usual with the things of God, all control was taken from me. What I hadn’t counted on was the other pilgrims. There were about 60 people ahead of me, all moving up the same narrow steps on their knees at the same pace. There were people waiting behind me. No one spoke. No one looked at anyone else. But you can sense the people. You’re aware of them. You can’t lose yourself. The moment you slip your knee up a worn step, the person behind you does the same. There is a rhythm to the ascension. There is an unspoken pace. There is a unity. It was like a dance.
The presence of the other moving pilgrims meant I could not focus in on my planned prayers. To turn over to God something major takes time. It takes isolation. It takes silencing all other noise and being able, to use writer-speak for a moment, to “go there”. And so my to-do list disappeared, and in its place, only one phrase filled my head. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is the prayer of the tax collector in a story Jesus tells, and one that Jesus praises. My friend B.J. Weber once told me about using this prayer as a way to reach God, and so I tried it. I slipped up the next step. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The next step. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Twenty-eight steps. Twenty-eight times. Twenty-eight incantations that He is the Lord; that I want mercy; that I don’t deserve it because I am a sinner. Somewhere about half way up, you begin to weep. You’re not alone. You can sense other people crying, too. At the top, you slowly straighten your body out. You unfurl yourself. You knees hurt. Your back hurts. And you experience the supernatural peace that comes from accepting truth.
How much energy do we waste fighting the truth? How refreshing is it to accept the truth? We are not, like the two characters in the Broadway play “Venus in Fur”, based on a play within a play about the Marquis de Sade, handing over the reins to another human being. We are asking God for mercy. We are giving God control. And because God loves us, the very thing that we think makes us the weakest, ends up giving us the most strength.
In Mark 10, the story that strikes me most is that of blind Bartimaeus. I have already written at length about the events in the rest of the chapter. If you want to hear my thoughts on divorce and wealth (which, to be honest, was the post on which I have spent the most time), you can click on those words to go to Matthew 19. Today I want to talk about this blind shouting man.
What impresses and terrifies me is that Bartimaeus was not afraid to look ridiculous. He was a blind beggar, sitting beside the road. When he heard that Jesus was nearby, he began to shout, as I quietly did on those stairs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The people in the crowd yelled at him to be quiet. Mark tells us that the crowd’s reaction only made the beggar shout louder, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!'” When Jesus heard him, he stopped and said, “Tell him to come here.” The people tell Bartimaeus to “cheer up,” which suggests that when he was yelling for Jesus to have mercy on him, there was a weeping quality to his voice. Bartimaeus throws aside his coat – a telling detail about the intensity of his desire to see Jesus, because when you’re blind, if you throw aside your coat in a crowd, you’re unlikely to find it again. Jesus asks Bartimaeus the question God asks over and over in the Bible. It’s a question He asks each of us: “What do you want me to do for you?”
For Bartimaeus the answer is seemingly simple. He is blind. He has an immediate need. He wants Jesus to fill it. “I want to see,” Bartimaeus says. Instantly, Jesus tells him his faith has healed him. The blind beggar can see, and he follows Jesus on the way.
The story, like every story in the Bible is true, but it is also told for us. The way to find the peace and satisfaction we seek, is to throw aside our inhibitions and fear of looking ridiculous, and fear of the crowd’s reaction, and cast ourselves on the mercy of God. Those are not words you will ever read in, say, the New York Times. They are foreign words to modern ears. But so what? We don’t know everything. Only God does. And in going there, in going down into the depth of our desires and secret griefs, we find Jesus.
The only thing that holds us back is pretending we can see all by ourselves. The only thing that liberates us is casting aside our pretense and casting off our cloaks and crying out, in a loud voice if necessary, until God hears us.
The fascinating thing is that the very act of crying out to God already begins to change us. It’s not like God asks for our humility for His sake. He doesn’t ask us to call out to Him so that He can feel better about Himself. He doesn’t need our adulation. We need to give it.
So when we say, along with Bartimaeus, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” it brings us up short. Oh yes, we think, with surprise. That’s right. We are sinners. We had forgotten. We are much more likely to think like the rich young ruler, asking Jesus what we can do to be saved. We forget that we can do nothing. Jesus had to do it all on the cross. That’s what saves us – the perfect Son of God dying for our sins. That is what gives us sight. It enables us to follow Jesus on the way. And it enables us to look at our fellow pilgrims with love, and not judgment. If we are saved by grace alone, and not works, then who are we to judge anyone else? We can react with love when other people sin, just as Jesus did to the rich young ruler when he lies and says that he has obeyed every one of God’s commandments since his youth: “Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him.” v. 21.
God meets our lies with genuine love. Over time, He helps us see the truth. If we climb to Him on our knees; if we come to him like a child; He will melt our hard hearts. He will enable us to love the unlovable. He will give us hope where we had none. He will help us believe that He will restore the years the locusts have eaten. He will help us stand up – for what feels like the first time in our entire lives. He will meet our weakness with love. We don’t need to fly to Rome. The holy stairs are opening right in front of us at every moment. We can get there on our knees any time we are willing to admit what we really want – we want mercy.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 12, 2011