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Thursday, June 20, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 19:1-15a AND Psalm 42:1-11 AND Psalm 43:1-5 OR Isaiah 65:1-9 AND Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

So---last week we faced the dark side and this week we have demons.  Enough, already!

Actually I grew up with demons.  My mother was what today would be called bipolar; in those days, she was considered manic-depressive.  She was probably more depressive (with one attempted suicide) than manic, although I certainly saw manic bursts that included screaming and yelling and throwing things about the room.  In biblical times, she would have been described as “demon-possessed.”  The home of my childhood and adolescent years was full of demons.

My mother was eventually sent to a state mental institution where she was treated for several years, including electroshock therapy, now known as electroconvulsive therapy.  Whether because of that therapy or others, my mother was released to live a more or less “normal” existence.  She became what I describe (borrowing a term from Henry Nouwen) as a “wounded healer,” devoting significant portions of her life to being a quiet presence of healing and strength and comfort to the needy, the ill, and children.

Mental illness remains a difficult phenomenon to understand and treat.  There are medications that help, but the shadows are often still there.  There is no magic shot that inoculates one for life.  Even those of us who seem relatively “healthy” battle demons, many on a daily basis.

Nor are the demons of life solely internal.  We battle demons in the world of politics and economics and education---in all the arenas where power and greed become distorted and abused.

This week’s lectionary readings take us into the world of depression and demons.  Elijah cries out to God in the midst of his mental anguish.  At least we can’t diagnose him as having paranoia.  It isn’t paranoia when someone really is out to get you.  Jezebel came after Elijah more than once, intent on bringing his life to an end.  (I Kings 19:1-2)  Elijah fled into the wilderness where he sat down under a broom tree and had a pity party.  “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”  (vss. 3-4)  Is there a hint that he feels he is failing to live up to the standards of his ancestors or feels some responsibility for their shortcomings, factors in some instances of mental illness?  “I am no better than my ancestors,” he says at the end of verse four.

Twice an angel gives Elijah food and drink, giving him enough strength to live through a test of forty days and forty nights.  (Vss. 5-8---So many biblical events involved 40 days or 40 years that it cannot be a coincidence.  It seems to be a number signifying a time of waiting leading to new beginnings---or maybe it just means “a long time.”)  It is an early instance of a treatment that didn’t work.  After all that time, Elijah repeats his earlier complaint:  “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  (vs. 10)  Sometimes mental illness is marked by a feeling that no one understands or cares.  Elijah is still depressed, struggling with demons within and without.

Time to try a new therapy.  Elijah is sent out to the mountain where the Lord will pass by.  He experiences a great wind and an earthquake, and fire.  (vss. 11-12)  There’s a lot going on.  One would think there was a sign in here somewhere.  It ends though “in sheer silence,” or as some of us learned it from the King James Version, “a still small voice.”  (vs. 12)  Are there suggestions here for overcoming depression?  Go to a quiet place and try to see the Lord?  Don’t be distracted by the noisy temptations of the world, in which there is no cure?  Be quiet and listen?  All good advice in some situations, but they don’t work here.

I have been part of many experiences of meditating in silence, some over several days.  I’m an advocate of such experiences, but also realize that they can have negative impact as well as positive.  I was impressed with an article by Sara Maitland in a recent issue of The Christian Century: “The Perils of Silence.”  My guess is that most people skip over the last part of this Elijah story, assuming that some answer comes out of “the sheer silence.”  It doesn’t.  Elijah is still crying, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  (vs. 14)  Sometimes you just have to live through the depression.  I wonder sometimes about those who are confined to mental hospitals and subjected to intrusive therapies.  Do they finally just get tired of it to the point that “getting better” seems like the only way out?  Or, do some just heal themselves over time?  For Elijah, and perhaps some others, the answer is to face one’s demons and get right back into the thick of things.  The Lord tells Elijah, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.”  (vs. 15)   Although it’s not part of this week’s reading, we might also note that the Lord promises Elijah that there will be 7000 who will remain faithful with him.  We are rarely alone even when it seems to feel that way.

The Psalm readings include much lamentation.  Lament, crying out to and pleading with God, are not uncommon in scripture.  “My tears have been my food day and night . . . Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me . . . I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?  Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”  (Psalm 42:3, 5, 9)  “For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?  Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”  (Psalm 43:2)   “But you, O Lord, do not be far away!  O my help, come quickly to my aid!  Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!”  (Psalm 22:19-20)  These Psalms are not without moments of hope and faith and promise, but what I get from them is an assurance that it’s okay to cry out to, argue with, and accuse God.  God is big enough to take it.  Whatever we are feeling, it is okay to open our most inner demons and expose them to God.  This is not permission to wallow.  It is easy to become consumed with and by our demons, but a little screaming and yelling at times may help.

If it is God speaking in Isaiah 65, which most scholars assume, it is huge.  It would not be the first time we’ve heard God crying out in anguish, but to be reminded of that can sometimes be a great comfort when we ourselves are anguished.  Even if it is a prophet or school of prophets writing in Isaiah’s name, it is a catalog of the things that can get us down.  We want to help but no one wants to receive our help.  (Isaiah 65:1)  Those we love rebel against us. (vs. 2)  People think they are better than we are, too good for us.  (vs. 5)  Although there is an element of mercy, it is no surprise that God lashes out.  (vss. 6-9)   It is what we are often tempted to do.  The final word, though, is that there will be descendants and life goes on.  (vs. 9)

Today’s reading from Galatians speaks words of equality and inclusion, reminding us that Paul’s primary agenda is the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s love.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28)

Today’s theme gives us another perspective on Paul’s struggle with law and grace, faith and works, in letters like this one to the Galatians.  Some mental illness includes a heightened sense of right and wrong, an attempt to live up to standards which are unattainable.  With Paul, the mentally ill feel guilty and “convicted.”  They find it impossible to be as good as they think they should be.  That’s all laws can do, Paul says.  We need more than law if we are to live a full life.  Paul calls it faith or grace.  I like “grace.”  It is a reminder that we are all surrounded by far more love than we can imagine, maybe more than we deserve.  As Christians, we believe such loved is rooted in and revealed by Christ.

The Gospel lesson gives us the only actual demon story among this week’s readings.  Jesus arrives “at the country of the Gerasenes.”  (Luke 8:26)  He encounters a demon-possessed (mentally ill?) man living in a cemetery, presumably because he’s been ostracized and driven from the community by the good upright people there.  (vs. 27)  Shades of Elijah in his loneliness.  The man also exists out there among the pigs, considered unclean by strict Jews.  Jesus enters into conversation with the demon, discovering when he asks the demon’s name (“Legion”) that there are many demons. (vss. 28-30)  What are the demons we struggle with in our inward conversations or our outward encounters in society?  The possibilities are many (legion).

Reflect on the many dimensions of mental illness and demons as you observe and experience life.  In the meantime, I leave you with these words from the exposition of the Gospel lesson by Walter Russell Bowie, John Knox, George Arthur Buttrick, and Paul Scherer in The Interpreter’s Bible:

“Modern psychology has only given new names to ancient demons.  With such terms as paranoia, schizophrenia, etc., we diagnose scientifically certain human ills which the Gospels describe mythically.  The ancient terms are certainly less accurate . . . Still, there is much to be said also for the old terms.  Besides being more graphic and vivid, they correspond more closely with felt realities.  The deeply disturbed or divided person is likely to feel himself possessed---possessed by a power or by powers . . . who have somehow got into him and gained control over him . . . The word demons calls attention not only to the alien and malign character of the disturbing influence, but also to the basically religious character of our ‘inner conflicts.’ . . . We are all involved in some measure of inner division and hostility.”

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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