When I bought eyeglasses for the first time, I suddenly and dramatically discovered the clarity I had been missing. But I also had to be careful walking down stairs as I had a hard time judging depth. I got headaches from the intensity of my newfound vision. I had to adjust to a new way of seeing.
Recently, I invited Albert Rizzi to co-present a shared sermon with me. He had unexpectedly lost his sight in 2006 at the age of 41. In 2009, he launched a non-profit company advocating that all blind persons are entitled to acceptance and freedom from discrimination. He works to develop accessible computer accounting software to help reduce the national 60% unemployment rate among the blind.
Rizzi’s blindness became a national news story in 2013 when he and his guide dog, Dox (short for doxology), were ejected from an airplane because he could not get Dox to crawl under the seat for takeoff. They had been on the tarmac for one hour and 45 minutes and the dog had become restless. In protest of Albert and Dox’s eviction, the 45 other passengers joined Rizzi and Dox in departing the plane and the flight was cancelled.
Rizzi claims his ability to see actually became more focused after blindness. During our shared sermon, I mentioned how Jesus encountered a blind man sitting by the roadside, begging and shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The Bible says those around the man, “sternly ordered him to be quiet.” That means they told him to shut up! Rizzi stated, “I have often felt abandoned on the roadside just like the blind man. I felt unseen, untouchable and outcast. Since losing my eyesight I have been denied service; access to software programs and mobile apps; and was denied my job back as a principal and kindergarten teacher. I was unable to shop for food and, at times, even worship like everyone else.
“Many people,” Rizzi stated, “still turn an intentional ‘blind eye’ to the needs of blind persons along the side of the road. Are you more like the people shouting at the blind man to shut up? Are you more like Jesus, accepting and loving ~ or are you blind to his teachings of acceptance and inclusion? If we truly see and believe in the vision that Christ has for all of us ~ then how can we allow people who see, walk, speak or live differently to be shut out, told to shut up, and not fully welcomed at His table?”
Rizzi has come to believe that his blindness was actually a gift from God, although a gift he had never wanted. “The mysteries of faith” he said, “ are just that: mysteries. And they are not always so obvious that we can see them with our eyes open. Sometimes we need to close our eyes to see deeply and with intention.”
“It seems to me,” I replied to Rizzi, “that Jesus tried to show many things to people and they refused to see. We are just like them. Our vision, prejudices and ego can contort what we see into what we wish to see. We believe the mirage because it is more palatable. You could draw a straight line connecting intentional blindness in the Bible to intentional blindness of people who refuse to see such things as the symptoms of serious physical illness; a problem with gambling away the rent money; or the person who refuses to see that they are no longer able to take care of themselves. Some things are too painful to look at. What are some of the realities about blindness” I asked, “that we, the sighted, refuse to see and what have you learned from them?”
Rizzi quoted Helen Keller, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” Rizzi continued, “There are several million severely visually impaired people living in the United States and those numbers will increase dramatically with aging baby boomers. We cannot be blind to the teachings of inclusion and acceptance. I choose to believe in hope. Thanks to my faith and the faith my parents had in me to rise above this supposed tragedy ~ I believe that through Christ all things are possible. My vision is of a world of endless possibilities. I have a blind faith that goodness, justice and mercy shall prevail. We all have crosses to bear, but what defines us is how we carry them and whether we embrace them as part of a larger plan that none of us can yet fully appreciate. Although I am not able to see in the traditional sense, my faith will not allow me to give up on my vision. I am an educator, and am now challenged to live by example, much as Jesus did. We are all meant for greater things, and I am not tempted by distractions that would change my focus on the journey that lies ahead, a journey I make under the guidance, not of my eyes, but of God.
“I launched my nonprofit to promote acceptance and respect for people who are blind and print disabled. I am working to make sure that my peers do not lose focus or access to the physical or spiritual path before them. I am answering my calling to help remove the blinders and barriers that bar millions from so many blessings enjoyed by others. I am inviting people to look at people with different ability, as opposed to disability. Providing access to the right tools promotes ability and restores infinite possibilities. I have accepted my blindness as a gift, as a new way of seeing,” Rizzi said, “Please do not look at me with pity or condemnation. I see with my heart, my soul and other senses that are there for all of us to use. Jesus helped me to see, just like the blind beggar on the road.”
At the end of the shared sermon, it was my turn to quote Helen Keller, the most famous blind person of all time who said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” It takes a lot of courage, wisdom, and faith to face difficulty as has Albert Rizzi. The prayer written by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr begins: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
May God grant us the serenity to see and accept life without denial or indifference; the courage to see the ways we can change things for the better; the wisdom to see more clearly and act decisively; and may God grant us the humility to ask each other, and the Spirit of the living God, for help and mercy. May God grant sight to our souls; and when our sight is restored, may God grant us the gratitude to shout unto the hills,
“I once was lost,
but now am found,
was blind but now I see.”
Dwight Lee Wolter is pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. Albert Rizzi can be reached at myblindspot.org
This writing is also available in Patheos Magazine that published it on October 30, 2015. Here is the link