By Zac Koons
One of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to meet is a man named John Hull, a professor of religious education at Birmingham University in the UK. We talked theology and shared “Balti”— a distinct Birmingham twist on Indian food. John was one of those people who managed to be both immeasurably brilliant and exceedingly generous.
John was about 70 when I met him, and he was also blind. He wasn’t born that way. He went blind in his mid-forties. And he wrote a memoir about it called Touching the Rock. The book catalogues John’s short reflections on the nature of blindness—how he coped, how it changed him, and how it affected the chemistry of his relationships.
As I reread the book recently, I was reminded of John’s gentle genius, and saddened that I never got to spend any more time with him—he died four years ago. Rereading the book around Pentecost, I found something that never occurred to me when I’d read it before: an analogy between John’s experience of blindness and the disciples’ experience at Pentecost.
The analogy is this: The most obvious consequence of going blind in middle age is that one has to relearn how to get around. When one can no longer see with one’s eyes, one must learn to “see” in other ways—with one’s hands, ears, or nose, through a cane or a companion. Like John’s crisis of blindness required relearning, so the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit represent a kind of crisis that likewise required some relearning from the disciples.
After the Ascension, the disciples must learn to see God differently. Till now, God has been present with them in the flesh and bones of Jesus of Nazareth, someone who walked, cooked, sweat, and swam with the disciples, and who, after the Ascension, is gone. It’s not that God is simply absent, but that God is now present in a different manner, a Spirit-manner, a pretty-much-invisible manner.
So the question for the disciples at Pentecost is really the same question for us today: How do we see God in a world where we can no longer see Jesus?
It is well known that when someone loses one sense, their others often compensate. For example, someone who loses her sight, may find her senses of hearing and smell strengthened. In his book John describes a variety of experiences like this, but none are more beautiful than when he shares of memory of opening his front door and being met by a rainstorm:
Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates [a] continuity of acoustic experience… I feel as if the world, which [typically] is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me. I feel that the rain is gracious, that it has granted a gift to me, the gift of the world.
— (John M. Hull, Touching the Rock, 29–31).
How do we see God in a world where we can no longer see Jesus? Perhaps it depends on the development of some kind of spiritual—or, dare I say, Pentecostal—senses. In a way, this is what the Book of Acts is about. The early Christians are developing their spiritual senses, figuring out how to interact with God, how to see him, now that God is present with them in a new way. In Acts, there’s a lot of Bible reading, preaching, praying, and evangelism, along with quite a lot of baptism and sharing food.
Remind you of any place in particular? They describe church. Church is where the rain falls, where our Pentecostal senses are developed so that when we go back out into the world, we can’t help but see God. We hear the Word of God read to us Scripture. Listening week after week we learn the register of God’s voice so we can recognize when he’s speaking in creation, laboratory, concert, or lecture. We repeat a pattern of prayer, confession, and peace, and so receive a model not just of reconciling relationships inside church, but outside it as well. In church we share a regular meal of peculiar shape and power, of upside-down economics and diverse abundance, so we might learn the kinds of dinner tables at which God likes to hang out—or might eventually even affect the shape of the meals around our own dinner tables.
The Church, at its best, brings out the contours of God’s presence in the world. The Christian life is training in perceiving not some otherworldly reality, but the world as it truly is, knit together by Jesus, and bathed in the Holy Spirit. Go to church enough, and you may find that when you exit the red doors week after week, you’ll regularly find it to be raining outside too.
It must be said: encountering the Holy Spirit is surely not dependent on our developing spiritual senses. The Spirit can do and act as God pleases, and is free to surprise any of us at any time, much like a blind man might be surprised by a stone on the sidewalk or the shoulder of a bypassing stranger. But in my experience not many are lucky enough to receive our own individual burning bush or Damascus Road experience. For many of us, we must come into this building and sit in the rain.
Even so, this is not foolproof or automatic. There are seasons when going to church doesn’t seem to help, when no matter what we do, no matter how desperate we are, God’s presence feels elusive. This reminds me of one more story from John.
Sighted people tend to assume the blind would prefer to walk around in an open field, because there’s less of a chance of running into things. In reality the opposite is the case. An open field is a blind person’s worst nightmare: it’s too easy to get turned around and end up lost. Open spaces left John susceptible to panic attacks. Suddenly he would be overwhelmed by the suspicion that he had miscalculated somewhere along the way, and was lost in some endless and confusing passage from which he couldn’t find his way back. He feared that he was actually just walking in some vast nothingness, like a coal-truck in a mineshaft heading deep into the darkness of a mountain, no longer able to tell from which direction he came.
John fought off these panic attacks by sitting still, trying to control his breathing, and holding one small, familiar object, turning it over in his hands, as if to say, “This is real. I know this is real.” Then the world around him could be built back piece by piece starting from there.
In the closing passage of the book John talks about making a visit to Iona Abbey, a pilgrimage site in Scotland. To learn to navigate its labyrinthine corridors without the intervention of kind-hearted strangers, John would explore by night. One night, quite by accident, he discovered the great cavernous Abbey itself.
John was afraid in this vast open space, but, over the course of several nights, he explored the nave, accumulating landmarks, memorizing angles and steps, and points of reference. Eventually, he came upon what felt like a giant, waist-high rock. It was too long for him to reach the other side, so he climbed on top of it, and used his body to measure its length.
It was the altar.
He doesn’t say it, but he doesn’t have to. His whole book has been preparing you for this moment. “This is real. I know this is real.”
It is at the altar, in the meal Jesus gave us, in his body and blood, that we receive what is real, so that the rest of the world can be built back, piece by piece..
John Hull’s memoir was also made into a movie, available on Netflix.