February 11, 2018

The Gift of Being Wrong

Passage: John 9:1-17, 35-41
Service Type:

Bible Text: John 9:1-17, 35-41 | Preacher: Stephanie Haskins | Once, when I was living in Boston, I bought a plane ticket to Cleveland to attend a conference.  I printed off a copy of my ticket information and kept it at my desk.  And I duly noted the dates of the conference in my paper calendar.  As the day of my departure arrived, I packed a small suitcase, dragged it down the hill to the subway, made the hour trip to the airport, and arrived in what I thought was plenty of time for my flight.  I waited in line to check in and then handed my ID to the woman behind the counter.  And then I waited.  And waited.  While she tapped, tapped, tapped on her keyboard.  You know that feeling you get sometimes, when you know something isn’t quite right?  I had that feeling.  I began to sweat a little, thinking my flight was delayed.  Finally, the woman looked up from her computer and gazed at me with a look I’ve rarely seen from airline employees.  It was pity.  “I’m sorry,” she said, as she returned my ticket, “You’re here one day early.  Your flight to Cleveland leaves tomorrow.”  So I wheeled my suitcase back to the subway, climbed up the hill again, and tried to figure out what went wrong.  Did I have the incorrect dates for my conference?  I checked the email again.  Nope.  Did I book the flight for the wrong day?  No.  Had I written down the incorrect dates on my calendar?  No.  Those were right.  I went back to my desk, puzzling and puzzling, and as soon as I sat down I knew what had happened.  It turns out I had lost track of what day of the week it was!  I was so sure—so confident—that it was Thursday.  When the truth was, it was Wednesday.
Being wrong can be so humiliating.
There’s a writer named Kathryn Schulz who calls herself a professional “wrongologist.”  Clearly, that’s a title she made up, but it’s a pretty accurate description of what she studies.  She studies how—and why—people are wrong.  As she says, it’s a field of study with very little competition.  She says that we know on a theoretical level that human beings are fallible.  That we are prone to mistakes and errors of judgment.  But on an individual level, we almost never believe that we’re wrong.  That’s because, to begin with, realizing that we’re wrong can be uncomfortable, to say the least.  You can bet I felt like a fool as I left the airport, only to come back the next day.  But it’s also the way we’re brought up.  We learn as kids that being wrong might indicate we’re stupid or lazy.  We’re only given credit for the answers we get right on a test.  And so we build up this aversion to getting things wrong, even though “to err is human.”  And if we can barely handle our own wrongness, we can barely handle someone else’s.  She found that if someone disagrees with us, we’re likely to believe they’re either ignorant, stupid, or even evil.  Yikes.  Kathryn Schulz believes, based on her research, that our aversion to being wrong is the source of many of our practical and social problems.  And she’d like to do something about that.  Quite simply: she’d like us to get used to being wrong.[1]  
Now, there are many ways to enter this story from the gospel of John.  You can go in by way of the blind man, and follow his incredible journey from beggar to disciple.  You can go by way of his parents, who shy away from answering too many questions about their son’s healing, so they can avoid the rejection of their community.  You can go in by way of Jesus, the disciples, the crowd.  But this week I want to enter this story as a Pharisee, because they are so afraid of being wrong.  And I don’t know about you, but I identify with their fear.
The healing of the blind man takes up relatively little ink in this story, as you might notice.  Jesus doesn’t even ask the man he sees on the side of the road whether he wants to be healed.  He just heals him: bends over, scoops up some mud, and places it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to find the pool of Siloam.  That’s it.  It’s not more complicated than that.  The man, who has been blind from birth, is suddenly able to see.  Just like that: he’s living in a different reality.  This long story is not about the miracle itself.  Again, in this gospel, miracles are signs that point to things outside themselves.  The miracle is about more than just the healing.  This story is about how people react to the blind man’s healing.  And it’s not what you would expect.  If Disney was making a movie of this story, as soon as the man is healed, his parents would embrace him, tears streaming down their faces.  But that’s not what happens, is it?  As soon as the blind man receives his sight and looks for the first time at the light of day, everyone around him is thrown into darkness and confusion.
Why?  Why aren’t they celebrating?  Could it be because they’re afraid of being wrong?
But we’re looking at this story from the perspective of the Pharisees, so I want to stick with them.  I think there are three places in this story where they go wrong.  The first place is general.  You can see it in the debate the disciples amongst themselves as they notice the blind man sitting by the side of the road.  In those days, people believed that misfortune, including blindness from birth, must have been the result of some kind of sin.  This belief hasn’t gone away, but it was common then.  This kind of wrong is in the background, but it’s there.  The second place the Pharisees go wrong is when they try to get to the bottom of this healing.  They insist on asking the man not once, but twice, how he was healed.  And when he tells them, they don’t believe him.  They debate with themselves on whether it should have happened on the sabbath, and what that means about Jesus.  Is he from God, or is he the worst sinner of all?  And finally, the third place the Pharisees go wrong is when they drive the man away and then refuse to see that they did anything wrong at all.  They ask Jesus—knowing full well what he thinks of them—“Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Of course, it’s a rhetorical question.
Can you see what I see?  Can you see that the Pharisees might be terrified of being wrong?  That they would rather drive out a beggar than have their world turned upside down?  Or perhaps they just want to avoid what we all want to avoid.  The pain of being wrong.
This past week the Jackson County Prevention Coalition hosted a seminar on stereotypes in the Belva Duncan Room.  I wasn’t able to stay for the whole session, but I understand from people who did that it was helpful.  The purpose of the seminar wasn’t simply to identify common stereotypes; it was to address them, to interrupt them in conversation.  If a stereotype is in progress, say, for example, someone is making a derogatory comment about small dog-owners, a simple way to signal your discomfort with the stereotype is to say the word “ouch.”  As in, “Ouch.  I’m not sure that all small dog-owners are fussy.”  “Ouch” is fairly gentle, it’s empathetic, it buys you time to figure out what to say next, and it gets the point across.  A line has been crossed.  It’s a way of saying: “I think you’re wrong about this, because what you just said hurts.”
The uncomfortable truth is that we’re wrong a lot of the time.  We get facts wrong.  At least, I do.  But the kind of wrong I think God is more concerned with is the wrong in relationships. We see this in the story from John.  The Pharisees get a lot of things wrong, and that has consequences for more than just them, right?  And in a similar way, when we get things wrong and we can’t admit it to ourselves, we do harm to ourselves.  When we get things wrong and we can’t admit it to others, we do harm to our relationships.  It’s why I believe in this phrase: “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”  I was wrong, and I’m sorry.  You can teach this to kids.  They get it.  You can use it with kids.  They’ll appreciate it.  Now, let me be clear.  I’m not advocating apologizing unnecessarily, especially if there’s nothing to be sorry for.  Women are often taught to apologize unnecessarily.  But when the occasion calls for it, and if Kathryn Schulz is correct—that we’re wrong more often than we’d like to believe— when the occasion calls for it, it can be a gift to admit wrong.  That gift can restore relationships, it can repair trust, it can set us up for more truthful lives and more humble spirits.
As much as we hate being wrong, there’s also a part of us that loves it.  I mean, think about it.  What is a surprise, anyway, but an event that turns out contrary to our expectations?  We love plot twists and eleventh-hour revelations and surprise parties.  Sometimes we love being wrong.  It’s clear to me that instead of being threatened and feeling wrong and wronged, the Pharisees could have responded differently.  A man born blind, for goodness’ sakes, stood in front of them, testifying to a miracle.  What would have happened if they saw a gift in being wrong?  What if they saw what should have been plain: that before them they had living proof not of their mistakes, but of God’s goodness and God’s amazing grace?
[1] This information comes from her amazing TED talk, which you can access here: https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong?language=en#t-1041403.  Retrieved on 2/9/18.

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