The Mission III: Restoring Sight to the Blind

ZEN AND THE ART OF PHOTOVOLTAIC RETINAL PROSTHESISWe live in an amazing age. Little more than a century ago, medical maladies that were permanent, and many times deadly afflictions, abounded across the human landscape. Things that we take for granted like polio, measles, rubella, and typhoid fever, were all deadly and took thousands of lives each year. Now, children receive vaccinations for these illnesses and never have to be concerned with the probability of contracting these viruses. Medical science has advanced so much so that organs and some organ systems can be transplanted while prosthetics are available that respond in nearly identical ways to the original limb. One such medical breakthrough is the photovoltaic retinal prosthesis.The what?Yeah, that’s a mouthful but it’s basically a replacement part for eyes that no longer see. The intent is to work on the electronic restoration of sight to patients suffering from degenerative retinal diseases such as Retinitis Pigmentosa and Age-Related Macular Degeneration. Daniel Palanker of Stanford University explains it this way:

The data stream from a video camera is processed by a pocket PC, and the resulting images are displayed on a head-mounted microdisplay, similar to video goggles. From the microdisplay, the images are projected onto retina using pulsed (1-10 ms) near-infrared (~900 nm) light. These light pulses are photovoltaically converted into bi-phasic pulses of electric current flowing between the active and return electrode in each pixel, which stimulates the nearby inner retinal neurons and thereby introduces visual information into the retinal neural network.

In other words, a camera mounted to a pair of glasses sends electrical impulses to the cornea of your eye, which acts like a television screen. Think of it as the same sort of technology that a news crew at a television station uses to broadcast a live feed from a remote location except that you don’t need a TV because your eye is the TV. Palanker writes about this on the Stanford website as “restoring sight to the blind.”BLIND OF EYE VERSUS BLIND OF HEARTBlindness in the Old and New Testaments came in two varieties: a physical malady and spiritual condition. The words used, iv’vere in Hebrew and tuphlos in Greek, are referring to someone who has either been born without sight or has chosen not to see. In Isaiah, the idea of blindness is more of an intentional expression of stupidity (understanding that ignorance is a matter of being uneducated and stupidity is a matter of choosing not to know); such as,

“Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men. – Isaiah 59:9-10”

In the New Testament, specifically the gospels, we find the dual use of the word prevalent with the context being the deciding factor in which meaning is accurate. For instance, in Luke 7:21 where Jesus is healing people of a physical malady and then again in John 9 where both a physical and spiritual issue are addressed. John 9 is especially useful for understanding the concept of blindness, as the story of the blind man healed unfolds to reveal both aspects of blindness in the New Testament. In John 9 we have a man blind from his birth that is restored to sight by Jesus. As the chapter ends, Jesus speaks to the man he has healed, who incidentally, sees Jesus for the first time. The man formerly blind, now thrown out of the synagogue for acknowledging the miracle and proclaiming Jesus to someone the Pharisees should put their trust in, places his faith in his new healer and becomes a disciple. Following this, Jesus has an exchange with the Pharisees,

Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Jesus has turned the physical malady healed in the blind man into a metaphor for the spiritual condition that remains unhealed and unheeded in the Pharisees. Craig Keener puts it this way, “…the religious authorities, who are sure they are not spiritually blind, are the blindest of all.” The blindness that Jesus came to heal was not only the blindness of those whose lives were impaired not only in the physical sense but also in the social and religious sense but also to bring spiritual sight and understanding to the mind of those who live in darkness. BEING RESTORED TO SIGHTThe brilliant English philosopher George Harrison wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Being blind in spirit is a lot like this. You can be anywhere you choose to be, see the world any way you want to if you are walking in blindness. For those who choose spiritual blindness, they are refusing openness to the Holy Spirit in favor of self-governance and denying the first rule of discipleship – as disciples we are led by Jesus not our own understanding. Finally, I mentioned the glasses in the beginning of the sermon and then later in the week, I saw a news story that I think speaks to the emotionally powerful change that it is to see clearly for the first time:

Kathy Beitz has been legally blind since she was 11 years old, but she got to see her newborn on the day he was born by wearing special glasses.

In a YouTube video that is quickly going viral, she gasps and says, “Oh my god!” as she holds baby Aksel in her hospital bed for the first time.

“Look at his long toes,” she says. “I think he looks like us.” Beitz, 29, who lives about two hours away from Toronto, told ABC News she suffers from a kind of macular degeneration called Stargardt. Though she is not completely blind, she has a blind spot in the center of her vision, she said. She looked at her baby through specialty glasses called eSight Eyewear.

The glasses cost $15,000 and are not covered by insurance, but Beitz received them thanks to eSight’s fundraising program, said Taylor West, eSight’s outreach director. He said the glasses, which are registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, work by capturing real-time video and enhancing it for the legally blind to see. About 140 people have eSight glasses in North America, West said.

According to the YouTube video that Beitz’s sister posted this week, it was the first time Beitz ever saw a baby.

“For the first baby that I get to actually look at being my own is very overwhelming,” she told the camera.

Beitz told ABC News that baby Aksel is now 6 weeks old and doing great. She got the glasses on the day of her cesarean section. She said they make it much easier for her to care for the infant, go to the grocery store and complete other tasks that would otherwise be difficult.

Imagine the amazing feeling of being able to see for the first time. Imagine having your eyes open to a world you only sensed through darkness and by intuition and feeling. Imagine finally opening your eyes to the most wonderful thing they could ever behold. Now, imagine truly opening your eyes to Jesus in spirit and in truth.

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