Mark 9: 14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
A man had a job interview, in which his interviewers asked him, “Tell us about how you have handled failure and frustration.” To which the man replied, “Failure? Frustration? I don’t know the meaning of those words. I just think hard, work hard, stay at it, and that way, I just make sure I don’t ever fail.”
He soon found out what failure and frustration are: he did not get the job. If I were one of the interviewers, I would not have hired him either, for I would have thought either a) he’s lying; b) he’s absolutely clueless; or c) he has always played it safe, he never risked anything, and never took on any task that required him to really stretch his capacities, meet his limits, or ask for help.
I mention that story because dealing with life’s inevitable failures and frustrations is the first of four lessons that Jesus’ disciples are getting in this one very difficult day recorded in Mark chapter 9. The other three are coming to terms with: 2) the seeming absence or silence of God; 3) the presence and power of evil; and 4) prayer, which we need in order to deal with lessons one, two and three.
As for the first lesson, coming to terms with frustration and failure, this is a universal, human thing. It starts when babies cry because they have no other way to say, “I’m hungry,” or “I’m wet.” Then you see it in the check-out stand of the grocery store as a two-year old tantrums because Mom or Dad won’t let him have the candy that’s just right at his eye-level.
When those disciples found themselves stymied, absolutely unable to liberate that young man from demonic bondage, that was a cue, but not to keep trying the same thing over and over, only harder. That will drive one crazy, or violent, or both. Whenever our frustration approaches that point, its a cue, telling us to stop, to stand back, reflect, and ask some pretty important questions, like “Is this even the right thing to be doing? Is this the right way to do it? What don’t I know, or what don’t I have that I need, and who else has it, who can help me? Or can I get along without what I want right now? So what if I fail at doing this by myself, and need help? Most failures are not fatal. They can even be enlightening. They can have the purifying effects of humbling us, of giving us compassion and understanding for all the rest of us who also struggle and have to settle for Plan B, C or D in our lives. That’s why the poet, Robert Bly, said that if we have not failed big-time at something by the age of 30, we might not amount to much.
So let the child of God come to terms with the realities of failure and frustration with grace and trust. Because God has enlisted us in a mission, his mission to recreate a fallen world. This mission is bigger than any one of us, it will take more than our own efforts or our own life times, and we most likely will not see how much we have contributed or participated in God’s work on earth before we’re done with our part. Not until we stand on the other side of eternity.
Until that day,the second thing that all of Jesus’ disciples must learn to deal with is what sometimes seems like the absence or silence of God. That’s what the nine disciples experienced, while they were struggling to liberate that demonized boy, and failing.
For those of us who believe that Jesus is the power, the presence and the person of God in the form of a human life, then you can almost say that God was off on a nearby mountaintop with three other disciples, Peter, James and John, while the nine needed him most. While the nine were beating their heads against a wall, trying and failing to liberate a demonized boy, Jesus and the other three were having a grand old time on a nearby mountaintop, experiencing the Transfiguration, when they saw the glory of God glowing through Jesus, and Moses and Elijah talking with him. God seemed to be nowhere near this valley of human desperation until later, when Jesus came down from the mountaintop of transfiguration. He came down from this sneak preview of heaven to find that all hell had broken loose in his physical absence.
Now if we believe certain biblical things about the nature of God, then its silly to say that God was not there in that valley of frustration with the nine very frustrated disciples, as well as on that mountaintop with the three. But to the nine, it felt that way, as though God had left a sign on the door saying, “Out until further notice.” If we are honest with ourselves, I think we would admit that sometimes our own Christian lives feel that way too, as though God had moved and left no forwarding address. Intellectually we might say, “That’s poppycock,” but emotionally, that’s another story.
And not just ourselves. That phrase, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” when God seems absent and the soul is dry was coined by a Catholic saint, John of the Cross. Mother Teresa’s diary records long periods of time when she was attending to her prayers and her labors with an exemplary faithfulness, and yet it often felt to her like God was absent, distant and uncaring.
We see it in biblical characters. Some of the Psalms and the prophets express the feeling of God’s absence. And Jesus himself, on the cross of Calvary, prayed and quoted Psalm 22: 1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
His Father God did not forsake him. But that’s how it felt. Yes, sometimes the feeling of God’s absence or distance is due to our own sin and disobedience. It often is true, (as God said through the prophet Isaiah, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; yoursins have hidden his face from you…” (Is. 59:2). In long stretches of spiritual dullness and dryness, we should indeed look within and see if there is some sin, some idol, some attitude that has come between us and God. If so, it does not mean that God has left us, but that we are leaving God. Time to turn around and come home.
But it doesn’t pay to fool ourselves and make up sins and guilt when there is none, either. And God has bigger tasks and greater things in mind for us than just keeping us bubbly and buoyant. God is more interested in our maturity than in our moods. C.S. Lewis captured this in his novel, The Screwtape Letters, in which Lewis imagines the correspondence between a senior demon in hell’s top management, Screwtape, and his nephew and junior tempter, Wormwood, who is just learning how to tempt and destroy people, one person in particular. This junior tempter’s case load has just become Christian, much to Wormwood’s dismay. But one day, Wormwood writes to his uncle Screwtape that things are turning around. The sense of heavenly peace and joy that his Christian was feeling in faith’s initial stages was wearing off, life was starting to feel dull and heavy, and the Christian was feeling more of God’s seeming absence than his presence. “I just about have him where I want him; victory is around the corner,” Wormwood boasted.
To which his senior manager replied, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
When Jesus said to his first disciples, “Come, follow me,” he was not inviting them to an outing in an amusement park. He was enlisting us in mortal combat. After his resurrection, they would have to carry on this combat without him being physically, visually present. So must we. The saints of God, then, must be able to keep their heads and their wits about themselves whenever it looks and feels like the battle is going the wrong way, as it sometimes appears to be. We too must learn to work and fight through the ebb and flow of our feelings. As St. Ignatius of Loyola put it, “We are to seek the the God of consolations, rather than the consolations of God.”
If the saint must come to terms with frustration and failure, and the seeming absence or silence of God during periods of his or her life, he or she must also come to terms with: Three) the very real presence and power of evil. Such as the evil which had laid hold of the young man in today’s Gospel text. If his problem had only been that he was deaf and mute and that he occasionally went rigid, fell down and foamed at the mouth, I don’t see anything demonic about that. We should just take him to the hospital and get him on proper medications. Frankly, I don’t run across a lot that I would call definitely demonic. So I’m not trying to panic us this morning into seeing demons behind every door.
But in today’s Gospel story, the fact that this young man is ending up in fire and in water, in sustained, repeated, deliberate acts of self-destruction, is suspicious. The dead give-away are the screams when he is released from evil’s grip. There we see evil as something real, active and purposeful, and not just the absence or weakness of goodness.
Which is a problem, a stretch for modern Western people, the heirs of the Enlightenment. From the 17th Century on we Westerners have been fond of thinking that if we can’t put something in a test tube, it doesn’t exist. As for evil, well, with just a little bit more education, a little more sensitivity training, less dogmatism and more science, better structure to society, more regulations or less regulations, more weapons or less weapons, we can lick these problem of war, ethnic cleansing, poverty, injustice and exploitation.
Now I’m all for education, sensitivity, science and social justice. But we’re whistling in the dark if we don’t think that we’re up against a stubborn but subtle adversary who can use even our best tools and intentions against us. We’re naïve if we think that, with good intentions and better techniques alone we can defeat evil.
I’m taking my cue here from Karl Marlantes, who wrote the novel, Matterhorn, and the book, What Its Like to Go To War, both about his experience as a Marine in Vietnam. He tells about an experience, long after the war, when he had been home some years, and had finally started to heal and resolve the trauma, the terror and the guilt of war that had stayed buried within him. After he began to allow the grace and pardon of God into his life, he had a powerful experience, spiritually, emotionally and physically. But not one he would wish on anyone. He was visited by a dark, cold, hostile presence that radiated condemnation toward him, and which was trying to suck all the hope and peace out of him, like a spiritual cold front. Being Catholic, he grabbed onto a crucifix and prayed until it went away. Then he called his spiritual director to ask, “What was that?” The answer: Evil does not let go of its prey readily, nor easily. Not without a fight.
And that’s why I think that deliverance and exorcism were such important parts of Jesus’ ministry. Not because, as some would say, he and his fellow First Century Jews were such ignoramuses that they tried to cast out demons where we who know better would take someone to a psychiatrist and get them on medication. I’m glad we have psychiatrists and medications today. But I think there was so much deliverance and exorcism going on in Jesus’ ministry because, when heaven showed up in Jesus, all hell broke loose. The evil one was not going to take the invasion of his turf lying down. Which scares me too. But our fear is nothing compared to the panic ringing through the halls of hell, which manifested itself in all sorts of panicked, self-destructive behaviors among hell’s hostages.
Though dealing with this kind of power encounter is not a common part of my daily life, I know something about it. I count about four or five times in which I too have felt a force, a presence that was paralyzing, chilling, demoralizing, condemning, in which the world suddenly seemed cock-eyed and skewed, like when you’re looking through broken glass, when all life and hope are draining out and dread and guilt come rushing in. That happened once in Africa, once in a chapel near my alma mater, when I felt someone’s off-kilter presence before I saw him, and his behavior made me beat a hasty retreat. And while that might sound rare or ridiculous, the most obvious and common human experience of such devilish danger, dread and hostile craziness is war.
Which presents a big challenge to our sense of personal “designer spirituality” today, in which we pick and choose bits and pieces of different religions and practices according to our taste, like fashion accessories, so that all our other projects and purposes in life go better with a dash of spirituality. But today’s Gospel text reminds us that the spiritual realm can be just as difficult, deceptive and dangerous as is the material, natural world sometimes. Don’t go into spirituality without a proven guide: the Healer and Deliverer in today’s Gospel story.
Most of the time, however, our struggles with evil are more subtle than what we read about today. The evil one does not like to show his hand; he won’t waste heavy artillery when a few darts will do. He won’t draw attention to himself with the spiritual equivalent of a poison gas barrage when a little spiritual chloroform will do. So we must also come to terms with the slight and subtle temptations and suggestions that appeal to the fear, the greed or the laziness in us. We are not tempted to pray to the devil when its enough to tempt us not to pray. Why tempt us to shout and scream big bad curse words at people, when just a little gossip, or guilt manipulation will do the same amount of damage? Why tempt us to murder, when some subtle character assassination, or other back-stabbing, can stop the work of God in its tracks? Why tempt us to adultery, when online pornography can hurt a marriage just as badly? The disciple of Jesus must come to terms with the reality of evil in these more common, but subtle forms, too.
For which we’ll need prayer, the fourth thing that Jesus is teaching his disciples about in today’s passage. Both for our defense against evil, and for pressing the attack against evil.
When one of our daughters was five years old, Becky was home late from work, and I had not had time to make dinner. So we asked each other, “Want to eat out?–Sure—Where?”
All of a sudden, our daughter was gone, out of sight. I went to look for her and found her around a corner saying, “Dear God, please make them take us to McDonalds.” And even though we did go to McDonald’s (how could I resist?), that kind of magical faith in prayer did not last long, not for her, hopefully not for any of us. If we too have experienced frustration, distraction and disappointment with prayer, then I would say, “Good for you; you’re on the cusp of a spiritual breakthrough.”
If prayer has seemed fruitless and pointless to us, could it be because our prayers have aimed too low, and its time to aim higher? Jesus taught us to pray for things that have not yet come to pass, such as the prayer we say every Sunday, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He also prayed for unity among his disciples, and that one obviously has a way to go.
And still he wants us to pray. As for the spirit that afflicted that young boy, he said, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” And yet, when he came down from that mountaintop, Jesus did not find his disciples praying. He found them arguing with the scribes and the teachers of the law. No wonder he was frustrated. No wonder he sighed and said, “How long shall I put up with you?” The church arguing, debating and trying the same thing over and over again, only harder and harder, when they should have been praying; we’ve seen that movie before, and a few times since.
Prayer is effective, I find. But its not magical. The point of prayer is not what we get, but Who gives it. Here are two witnesses to prayer that I find most resonate with my experience of prayer. From Mother Teresa comes these words: “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is big enough to contain the gift of God himself.”
And from an American preacher of the 1930’s, Harry Emerson Fosdick: “This then is the rationale for importunity in prayer, not that it is needed to coax God but that it is needed alike to express, and by expressing to deepen our eager readiness for the good that we seek. Some things God cannot give to a man until the man has prepared and proved his spirit by persistent prayer. Such praying cleans the house, cleanses the windows, hangs the curtains, sets the table, opens the door, until God says, ‘Lo! The house is ready! Now the guest may come in!” (from The Meaning of Prayer)
Both of these devotional writers are saying that prayer changes things, not by changing God and God’s mind, but by first changing us, to make us ready and able to receive the answer that we seek. And to bring us to where we are seeking from God what God wants to give, to do by God’s grace, what God wants to do in the world. Then we’ll find, as Jesussaid, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Everything, that is, that God wants to do in the world. And through those who believe not just in anything or everything, but in God and what God has promised to do.
And if you’re wondering how to pray and what to pray for, I’m with you. In Jesus’ school of prayer, I often feel like I’ve been sent back to second grade. Again. But we could do much worse than to start with the words of the father of the demonized boy: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” That, I believe, is where we really are at much of the time: divided between belief and unbelief, hoping against hope. And while this prayer confesses to some unbelief—no surprise to God—it expresses enough belief for God to embrace and to work with.
For we’ll need God’s help dealing with 1) life’s inevitable frustrations and failures; 2) coming to terms with what often feels like the absence or silence of God; 3) the reality of evil and the evil one. But don’t let fear stop us. When we’re up against such things is precisely when God wants to show us that “Everything is possible for one who believes.” For that to happen we’ll need 4) prayer. However much faith we have is enough for God to work with.