Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘demons’

Love Builds Up

Mark 1:21-39

Let’s talk demons, afflictions, identity and love.

Cool with you?

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Okay, first, a story about Jesus of Nazareth. He’s making his way to Capernaum–perhaps the most important and well-connected community in the region of Galilee. There was a temple there, and Jesus was about to darken its door. Mark’s Gospel is the speed Gospel, going right to the point. Jesus has already been baptized by John, has experienced temptation in the wilderness, and then he formed new community by calling fishermen. Now, after all that in just a few verses, Jesus moves on to engage the religious authorities of the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum. On the Sabbath, Jesus started to teach within the temple walls. The “they” in this case probably refers to the people in general—those who were present to receive a teaching. But they didn’t expect this action-oriented teaching they were about to get.

For something strange then happened. Something out of the Exorcist maybe? A man, in the synagogue, cried out. He was unclean, with a spirit inside him. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

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For sure, the people had to be a little freaked out.

But oh, it wasn’t over. Be silent, and come out of him! Jesus spoke with authority. And then, the unclean spirit left the man after much convulsing and crying out. Okay, yes, Mark tells us, the people were freaked out and amazed by this. What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. People all of a sudden didn’t care that Jesus was from Nazareth or some so-called sh&thole country.

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Just then, the people didn’t care about Jesus’ place of origin. Go figure. They liked what they heard and saw. They saw him doing something good and forgot about their prejudice. Hmmm…..

Let’s get this out of the way. Demon possession? It’s something reserved for horror movies or superstition, right? It’s the scary story my conservative youth group leader use to tell us as teenagers about some kid she claimed was possessed by the devil and then cured by the prayers said by church leaders. Yes, that really happened. It was a religious anecdote meant to scare us into the fear of God and steer us away from the many, many things that tempt teenagers and well—everyone. Is that what we’re talking about here?

No, this is not a story about fear or scaring people into certain moral choices.

This is about healing.

Pure and simple. Healing. You see, in Jesus’ time and in ours, there were and are many people afflicted by disease, illness, mental anguish, depression, and loneliness. There are many suffering from addictions, OCD, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, chemical imbalance, genetic tendency, etc., etc. What Jesus healed [and the disciples, too] was affliction—and not something out of a Hollywood movie. People were possessed by unclean spirits that did not allow them to live their lives. Sometimes those unclean spirits were physical ailments; sometimes mental afflictions; sometimes, lifestyle habits; other times, vicious family cycles; sometimes injustice, oppression, or discrimination. But the demons were real. And today, they are still real.

Because people [and governments] still deny a person’s full humanity. They tell them that they are lesser, unworthy, or unnatural. There are lots of reasons why, they say—based on a person’s gender identity or expression; who they love; the color of their skin; what language they speak; what religion they practice; where they grew up or how much money they have. This denial of a person’s true self causes terrible anxiety and depression in people whose beauty deserves to be seen and recognized.

Those who demonize others don’t bless, they curse. They ban people from hospitality and refuge. They use religions and politics to hide behind their prejudice and hate. They tear down instead of building up. There are even those in today’s society who quote Bible passages and even mention Jesus in their hateful rhetoric against certain people and then are conveniently silent when people are unjustly treated.

But Jesus and those who followed him told a different story. Healing was accessible to all—even if they were poor, marginalized, unclean, or forgotten. Jesus recognized that poverty, sickness, injustice, and the denial of someone’s humanity were systemic problems. Even he could not solve this in a blink of an eye or a healing touch. But he could heal one person in her own context, listening to her story, and offering whatever kind of healing touch she needed. It’s like Paul said in his letter to the church in Corinth, you can gain all the knowledge you want, and that’s great, but it is love that builds something. Love builds something.

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Why do we need to create accepting, affirming, raw-messy-beautiful communities? Because it’s needed. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. And sadly, far too many religions and governments deny some people’s full humanity. So community is needed—a community that loves and heals together. See, we can claim to know this or that about Jesus or God or whatever, but that knowledge takes us only so far. Eventually, we are tasked with acting out of love. Because there will always be people standing outside our gates, or entering in, who need healing of some kind. We can shower them with knowledge and prayers but that’s not enough and sometimes it’s not relevant. But love is always relevant. Love builds up. It is the one thing in this mess of a world that makes any sense.

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Being Bound, Being Free

Luke 8:26-39

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Okay, this might start off a little strange. We’re going to talk about a very important theme for all of us as individuals, and extremely important for the health of humanity. But to do so, we’ll look at an incredibly weird and confusing story. Are you ready? Let’s give it a go…

Demons. Really?

I’m no expert on demons, evil spirits, or whatever you wish to call them. I like Hellboy a lot, but he’s kind of an anti-demon + anti-hero, wouldn’t you say?

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In fact, I should probably go to my friend and amazing author, Lucas Mangum. Flesh and Fire just might help set some context as to how demons are presented in literature [both religious on secular].

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Maybe Lucas will even chime in! Lucas, are you down there in the comments?

Anyway, this Luke Gospel story is about a bunch of demons. Jesus steps onto gentile territory and he is met immediately by a demon-possessed man. He is called a man of the city, like the woman of the city with the alabaster jar whose tears washed Jesus’ feet in the previous Luke story.

He is an outcast.

He doesn’t have a home, he doesn’t even have clothes. The people of his community even tied him up in shackles. They bound him to try to control him. Jesus, however, approaches him and commands the oppressive spirits to leave the man. Jesus sees him as a human being. But the man is tensed up and yells at Jesus to leave him alone. When Jesus asks him his name, he is able to get out: Legion.

This name makes sense, because a legion of demons was oppressing him. Apparently, the demons are reasonably smart and have thought things through; they have considered their options. The abyss? Not such a great place for demons to have a summer home. The abyss, in ancient Judaism, was a place where evil spirits were tormented. So yeah…no. So the demons beg Jesus to let them escape into some nearby pigs that were minding their own business. Jesus agrees and the demons enter the pigs and the poor animals rush down the steep bank of the lake and drown.

I grew up in Iowa and while I did not live on a farm, the farms were all around me. And so were the pigs. So what’s up with that, Luke? Really? Poor pigs…

Obviously, this is not good news for the guys who work with the pigs. Can you imagine? They were eye witnesses. There they are, minding their own business, when their pigs start going crazy like lemmings and run down the lake’s bank to their death. I imagine that they were ticked off. Which is great for the story, because their anger moves them to run off and tell a bunch of people. Meanwhile, the once-bound and oppressed man is now sitting at the feet of Jesus [just like the lady with the alabaster jar], and now he has clothes on and his sane. But the people of the town don’t celebrate; instead, they are afraid and tell Jesus to get the Galilee out of town. The newly healed man, demon-free man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay in his town and tell everyone what happened.

I’ll get right to it. I’m not one who believes in demons or evil spirits—at least not the kind with horns and not the ones who make people’s heads turn in complete circles or spit out green fluid. I like reading about them in stories and comics, because I do think they point us to the real thing. That “real thing” is evil, or the personification of evil, and the way that evil can bind and oppress a person, a family, a community, etc. We have no clue as to what really afflicted this guy Gentile territory. Was it his past? Did he suffer abuse of some kind? Was it a chemical imbalance, addiction, what was it? I think Luke doesn’t say for a reason. The point is that he was afflicted by a myriad of things, so take your pick; put yourself in his shoes; put other people you know in his shoes. The first thing that stands out to me is that any kind of afflicted person is still a human being—even if people tie that person up, declare the person untouchable and even inhuman.

Still a human being.

The other thing that I notice is that not only was this man untouchable and marginalized, but the evil spirits themselves ended up in pigs, another untouchable, unclean living thing, at least for the Jews of that time. Remember, Jesus was in Gentile territory. Poor pigs.

And yet, in light of the recent horrific and tragic events in Orlando, Florida [and the sad, ignorant and hateful responses to it by politicians and others], I am going in this direction: you see, we seem to be able to talk about people who have drug or food or gambling addictions; it’s commonplace to talk about people who are bound by an abusive past. But how often do we admit to how many people are bound by prejudice? How many people have evil in their thoughts and worldviews, so much so, that they are willing to hurt others who are different than they are, using hateful words, bullying them, or even resorting to violence? It’s happening too often. And we rarely talk about it. Many of us have family members or friends who are clearly prejudiced against certain people. Gay? Lesbian? Transgender? Non-binary? Black, Asian, Latin American, African, Eastern European, Arab, Spanish-speaker, Atheist, Arabic speaker, Muslim?

They are afflicted, they are bound by their prejudice.

Some of it is a result of social conditioning. Maybe they were raised to hate a certain group of people. Perhaps they went along with their peers in school just to fit in. Or maybe at work it was just easier to put down the person who was different. Whatever the case, prejudice is evil. It is affliction. It binds people.

I, as many other people, I am tired of prayers for families of victims of hate crimes. I’m tired and angry. I’m not saying that prayers don’t matter. I AM saying that prayers are not enough and that sometimes we hide behind them. It’s easier to say we’re praying for the families and victims in Orlando; it’s a lot harder to actually do something about the prejudice and hatred in our own communities, families, schools, and churches. We live in a world in which is easy to spread hatred via social media with one click and a thousand shares. But it’s equally easy to do the opposite—to combat hatred and to cooperate, love, and embrace pluralism of all kinds. Churches pray, but what do churches do? I’m tired of all kinds of prejudice, including subtle prejudice and all the excuses that we continue to make as to why we won’t stand up and say enough is enough! Why we won’t be more courageous in our communities and risk upsetting relationships with friends, classmates, work colleagues, church friends, and even family. Our inaction binds us. Evil happens and we stand silent.

Jesus healed this seemingly untouchable, non-human. But then the newly-restored man was then told to tell the scared and prejudiced people of his town what God had done. What God had done. My take is that whether you believe in this god or not,there is a universal theme here. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human. People will make categories and draw border lines and spread hateful rhetoric to keep us separated. They do that because they gain something from it [usually money and power]. But we can’t make excuses anymore. It’s time to admit to the prejudice that binds us as individuals and communities. The moment is NOW to stand up against your family members, friends, or co-workers who spread hate to others. Unfold your hands, open your eyes, and actually do something. Spread humanity. Spread cooperation. Spread love and acceptance.

Teaser for next week: Luke 9:51-62: Is it difficult sometimes for you to move on from your past? How can we stop looking back so much and move forward?

 

Side note: to all my friends and family and colleagues who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, or Non-Binary—I love you and I’m angry, too. I pledge to do my best to stand up against hatred and prejudice. My prayers will be my actions. And the same goes for all my Muslim friends and colleagues. Love you, too. I stand with you.

Putting Down the Popcorn to Find Identity

Luke 8:26-39

Summer is indeed movie blockbuster time. Action and superhero flicks with tons of explosions, CGI effects, 3D, and IMAX galore. Comedy buddy flicks to make your sides hurt; romantic films to make you cry and remember; dramas with great characters. And, there are also horror movies. Of course, for those who like to be scared, horror movies are the great escape. Sometimes, though, sometimes it can be hard to come up with a new plot—a story that hasn’t already been rehashed a thousand times. Another zombie outbreak because of a contagion that infects the population and causes hysteria? Uh, I think I’ve seen that movie enough. A sci-fi horror story about aliens that come to NYC and Washington DC to destroy and take over? Um, yeah. Been there, done that. A scorned or hurt family member who becomes a ghost and haunts anyone who comes near the house? Right. Sounds familiar.

There seems to be, however, one genre of horror flick that doesn’t go out of style. Since the movie the Exorcist there have been a lot of movies made about demon possession and the getting rid of that demon via an exorcism. There are remakes, reboots, etc., etc. Exorcisms and demon possessions even appear in comedies! In the movie This is the End which is still in theaters, one the characters [played by Jonah Hill] is possessed by a demon, strapped to a bed with chains, and his friends try to talk that demon out of him, with hilarious results. Yes, even demon possession can be funny, apparently! Most people don’t know this, but the legion of movies, TV shows, and books about exorcism and demons are loosely based on a story in the New Testament Gospels.

Meet the guy with no name: legion.

Why do many of us like horror movies or stories about demons? We like to see someone possessed supernaturally on the big screen–the standard exorcism scene with all the drama and suspense the director can muster—because it is a movie and it is fantasy. The movie eventually ends. We walk out of the dark theater, throw away our popcorn bag and soda cup, and head for the nearest exit. Back to real life. Movies are an escape. Someone possessed by a demon? It’s just a movie. It’s not real. In the same way, many people become quite obsessed with the rumor stories in different religious circles and in the Catholic church, about a priest or a religious leader who has exorcised a demon. A report comes out with few details [leaving room for imagination]. It cannot ever be proven that it actually happened. And sometimes the story comes out and then disappears just as quickly. So our imaginations start working overtime to fill in the details.

It is only natural for us to do this. We prefer for this type of thing to stay in the theaters or in our imaginations. That is why the story of the man with a legion of demons is better kept as a fantasy involving pigs and an exorcism, complete with glowing eyes, a floating body, and a deep, dark voice that echoes when he opens his mouth. Believe it or not, this is less scary to us. Because if we really look at this story on our level, ask some difficult questions, all of a sudden this becomes a documentary, a case study, a real-life experience. And that is personal.

And sadly, there will be no popcorn.

But the Gospels, in my opinion, are just as interesting as any blockbuster movie. And one thing the Gospel stories do that sets them apart is that even after the story ends, the drama keeps on going.

Why?

Because if we really read the stories, engage them, and apply them to our own lives—the story goes on in us.

There is meaning. There is understanding. There is healing.

greenmileThe Green Mile, like Luke’s Gospel, tells a healing story. It is an award-winning movie based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. The story follows Death Row guards at a penitentiary in the 1930’s. The guards discover that one of the prisoners, a convicted murderer named John Coffey, has a special gift. John Coffey, played by the late actor Michael Clarke Duncan, stands 8 feet tall. His hands are huge. He is an imposing figure—even frightening. But yet, he is a compassionate healer. First, it is a beloved pet mouse of one of the inmates that he brings back to life. Then, he cures an ongoing ailment of Paul Edgecomb, one of the guards, played by Tom Hanks. But as wonderful as these acts are, each time after John Coffey heals, he starts to choke. He grabs his throat, and then, a swarm of flies rush out of his mouth. And the great-big-man crumples to the floor—exhausted.

Perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is the one we are about to see. Tom Hanks’ character Paul convinces the Warden of the penitentiary, Hal Moores, to allow John Coffey to enter his home. The Warden’s wife, Melinda, is dying of an incurable brain tumor.

What is striking about that scene and the Green Mile is that John Coffey heals various people in the way they need to be healed. Each case is different. But also, what grabs my attention is how each healing includes an ugliness that must leave [in the form of a swarm of flies]. Each affliction of each person was keeping them from being their full selves. The demons in them were limitations—physical, mental, or spiritual. The setting for the Green Mile is important to note also, for these men were on their way to the electric chair. According to society, they were finished. They had no names, but were merely numbers. They were locked away and kept far off from the rest of the world.

So was the man Jesus met in Luke’s story. The setting is a locale known as Gerasenes. It was a Gentile region. In Luke’s Gospel, this is really the only time that Jesus visits a gentile region. The man he encountered is called a man of the city, just like the woman of the city Jesus encountered earlier in Simon’s house. This man was an outcast, an untouchable; he was locked up, but the bars were in his head; his anguish kept him far off from the rest of the world. The man was nameless, faceless, forgotten, pushed to the side. He had been dehumanized. The people of his town even tried to tie him up and put him in shackles.

What chance did he have for healing?

But the moment he encountered Jesus, something happened. He tried to resist, but it was a moot point. Jesus had already asked the demons to leave him alone. And yes—an important detail we must notice—Luke says that Jesus called the demons out of the human being. He was no longer faceless, dehumanized, left for dead.

He had his humanity again.

Even so, the man is identified as Legion. In the original Greek language, the man literally said We are legion. He still couldn’t even speak for himself to say his own name. All he knew was limitation–the shackles that bound him. His demons were still negotiating with Jesus. They weren’t ready to leave this man alone. So they asked Jesus to be cast out into the pigs rather than into the abyss. Jesus agreed. Then, a transformation. The man with no name, no home, no clothes, unclean and afflicted—was clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Now at this point in the story, you might assume that the people of the town were celebrating, jumping up and down, and saying “Wow! That is awesome!”

But Luke tells us more than once that instead, they were afraid.

Why? Well, think about it. The man was unclean. He hung out in the tombs with dead things. No one should talk with him and certainly, they should never touch him. Secondly, whatever afflicted him was cast out into pigs. Pigs were also unclean. It was a head-scratcher. How could this Jesus deal with such unclean things? How could what was so impure become so clean? The experience blew their minds. It didn’t fit into their religious categories and rules. And the fantasy world had become reality. A real healing.

Have you finished your popcorn yet?

It is a truly fantastic story, but like I said before, it shouldn’t remain in our fantasy worlds. This story speaks to our real lives and our experiences. We have real afflictions in this life. Some of us have mental anguish that is so real and awful that it controls thoughts and seems to bind us completely. Things like anxiety and depression are real things, not fantasy. Some of us suffer from spiritual afflictions that are the result of religious baggage we’ve carried with us from childhood. Someone used religion to make us feel guilty, or to physically or mentally abuse us. We too can feel nameless, faceless, without a home and shut off from the community. What is our name? Instead of our given names, we often identify ourselves with our afflictions.

I am depression.

I am alcoholism and drug addiction.

I am anxiety.

I am bulimia.

I am mood disorder.

I am OCD.

I am materialism.

I am racism.

I am homophobia.

I am legion.

But in fact, Jesus tells us that these afflictions are not our names, nor our identities. We are called children of God, human beings with the capacity to participate in the good work of the Spirit of God, in spite of our afflictions. We are actually invited to encounter the healing Christ for real.

This is not fantasy.

We are truly invited to be healed.

But it won’t be pretty or a nice, a well-edited two hour movie. We won’t be able to just experience it and go home. The healing can happen for everyone, but when it does, the affliction will have to leave somehow. We will have to look in the mirror and recognize it. Once we do that, we will have to shed the old clothes of affliction to make room for new clothes of mercy and acceptance. We will have the opportunity to find a community that calls us by name. And we will be open to learning and sharing out of gratefulness.

Friends, we all have afflictions. But they do not define us.

Jesus will meet us where are we are—no matter how ugly the place might seem. And we will be loved, and forgiven, and healed, and then called out into the world to pay it forward.

After all, there are a lot of other afflicted people out there who could use our mercy and healing, don’t you think? Amen.

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