Thursday, June 17, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 20, 2010:

First Reading: Isaiah 65:1-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a

Psalm: Psalm 22:18-27 (Psalm 22:19-28 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 42--43

Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-29

Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

I must have read this Gospel lesson over a dozen times through the years, but this time, the depiction of the demons leaps out at me. These demons who drive the man to distraction--he lives naked by the tombs, he is so distracted. These demons who disturb the neighbors who try to contain the man and his demons by chaining him and guarding him. I recognize these demons!

Now, let me stress that I read the demons as metaphorical. I've met people who believe in literal demon possession, and some of them make a compelling case. But in the end, I agree with those who say that ancient people couldn't explain mental illnesses any other way. I've also met plenty of mentally ill people who would make me believe in demon possession, if I didn't have a medical explanation.

I don't want to spend much time writing about true mental illness, but instead about the demons who possess us all. Who among us hasn't spent an anxious night worrying about things we couldn't control (finances, our loved ones, our health)? Perhaps we fall into a sinister pattern of sleepless nights being haunted by the world's worries. Most of us have probably gone through periods where we come perilously close to wrecking our relationships with our loved ones because of our obsessive worries about them.

If only my inner demons could be driven out into a swine herd, or whatever the modern equivalent would be (the neighbor's pack of unruly dogs?). If only I could be free from those wretches that wake me at night and won't let me sleep for fear of all that could go wrong.

Only recently have I stumbled upon a solution. When I can't sleep at night, I pray. I can't do anything to solve most of the world's ills, but I know a power that can. When I wake up at night and start worrying, I try to remember to turn to prayer. Lately I've been praying for all the sea creatures (and land creatures!) who will be affected by this oil spill. I pray for the leaders of the world. I pray for everyone I know who has been going through rough times. I pray for church leaders, both local and national. I pray for everyone at work, especially those people who seem to be unraveling. Eventually my mind quiets, and I drift off to sleep.

I'm also struck in this story by the formerly demon-possessed man who begs to be allowed to travel with Jesus. Jesus sends him home. It's a powerful story for people like me. I often feel that if I was a better Christian, I'd be doing more to give up my worldly goods and live amongst the poor. If I was a really good Christian, I'd be off somewhere in Africa, alleviating suffering in some way.

Some of us are called to do that. But most of us are called to stay put, to declare the goodness of God right where we live.

I have non-believer friends who scoff at the idea of monks and nuns who live a cloistered life of praying for the world. I used to be one of those scoffers. I used to say, "Do something useful. Go out and rehab houses or feed the hungry or distribute medicine." Don't get me wrong. I still think those social justice and charity activities are essential. But I also think that prayer is just as essential.

I pray to quiet my own demons and the ones that torment the world. I pray because it helps--it helps me, at least, even if it helps no one else.

My skeptic friends want me to explain, but of course, I can't. I like what Marcus Borg says: "I myself have no clue what the explanatory mechanism is, and I am content not to. And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something words, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith, page 197).

Christians have thousands of years of thought and practice in dealing with the demons that torment us. For some, it's prayer. For others, it might be working with the poor and the destitute. We might meditate to still our minds. We might need a healing service or a laying on of hands. We also shouldn't discount the powers of modern medicine, which offers us a powerful arsenal in our attempts to manage our minds.

God needs us to allow our demons to be sent into swine. God has creative work and play for us to do, and we don't have time for the hissing of demons to distract us.

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