Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Conversations with demons

Last Sunday I came to church unaware that a man had opened fire the night before in a nightclub in Orlando.  But when one of our members offered a prayer at the 10 o’clock service, I gathered from what he said that there had been yet another mass shooting in America.  On the way home to change my clothes for the parish picnic that afternoon, I tuned in National Public Radio, which was airing a press conference, and a special agent of the FBI was speaking about what was known and still unknown about the perpetrator, and the victims, and the crime scene.  But over the days that have followed, as more details have come out, the picture they draw of the killer, Omar Mateen, of his personality and history, and possible motivations, has become more confused and contradictory, not less.
So while people have come together all around the world to grieve the victims and show solidarity with the survivors, and demand that something be done to prevent such things from happening again, it is still unclear why he did what he did, or what might have prevented him from doing it.  Some have portrayed Omar Mateen as an agent of Islamist terror groups, and it appears that he declared, on more than one occasion, his own allegiance to one such group or another.  But he was all over the map in terms of which organization he claimed to belong to, and the FBI has no evidence to connect him with any of them.   As his ex-wife and past associates go public with their stories, Mateen seems more like an overgrown version of the deranged children who attacked Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary than like a calculating political operative.  His choice of targets seems more reflective of his hatred of other ethnic minority groups or his violent homophobia, both of which he was known to harbor, than any religious ideology hostile to the U.S. Government.
The result of this all this strange and contradictory information has been to leave me feeling confused.   But maybe, along grief and outrage, confusion is an appropriate response.  If only Omar Mateen had remained simply confused—about his own national identity, and his sexuality, about the politics of war in the Middle East, and the politics of race in America—if only he’d remained confused, 49 people whose lives he brutally cut short would be celebrating Father’s Day today.  But he couldn’t bear to stay there anymore.  The demons of his anger and hate and despair finally eclipsed what remained of his natural humanity, and he became certain.  He became certain of what he had to do, and if there is one thing that lends itself to evil it is when anger, and hate, and despair acquire certainty. 
In the welter of maddening emotions and confusing desires, amid the muddled identities, the babble of angry voices and conflicting claims to the truth that fill this mixed-up, crazy world, one certainty pierces through the noise with a bell-like clarity.  One path offers simplicity and promises to tie up all the loose ends into a tidy little knot.  One solution entices us to give up on the long, slow work of healing what is damaged and reconciling what is estranged, to give up on the vigil of patient suffering that watches in hope of transforming grace.  It is the certain knowledge that if we are helpless to deal with life then we can always deal death. 
We don’t know, and may never know, what tormented Omar Mateen, what agonies he endured in his own deranged mind—we only know that, when he was unable any longer to bear the contradictions of his own existence, he chose to cancel them out with an outburst of pure nihilism.   He chose the path of those who make an idol of their own nothingness, and force others to worship at its shrine.   Having lost his own real life, he turned instead to his madness, and gave it a hideous reality by destroying the lives of others.
But right there Omar fell victim to a lie, one of the oldest lies there is.  Because hate and violence do not create meaning where there was none.  Whatever language we dress them up in—the language of religion or politics, of personal heroism, of grim necessity or the just demand for retribution—acts of violence corrode the meaning of that language until at last it has none.  The clarity and resolution such acts seek to bring about is false and temporary.  In the long run they only add to the helplessness and confusion of the world.   That is why it is so disturbing to see public figures and religious leaders in our country trying to rationalize what Omar Mateen has done.  They might rationalize it negatively, as an act characteristic of all Muslims, or all immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.  Or they might rationalize it positively, as a divine sentence of judgement on the LGBTQ community.  But either way, these bids to certify the meaning of the meaningless only mimic the madness of the killer. 
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke Jesus meets a man who, like Omar Mateen, has lost contact with reality.  The collective forces of meaninglessness have so colonized this man’s mind that it is as if he is already a corpse.  He goes around naked and lives in the tombs.   But Jesus is not frightened of this man; he understands that he is still a human being and it is not too late for him to be saved.   And Jesus also knows that in order to save him, he needs to differentiate the true human person from the spirit of violence, madness, and death with whom he has become identified.   This spirit tries to keep up the lie, pleading “I beg you Jesus, Son of the Most High God, do not torment me," as if the oppressor were the victim; as if the man himself fears the pain of being set free.  But the spirit does not deceive Jesus, and he asks it “What is your name?”  “Legion,” is the reply, which is not the name of a human being, but of a collective entity.  Literally, it is the name of a unit of 5 to 6,000 soldiers, the embodiment of the murderous certainty of the Roman Imperial state.
Now it is clear who Jesus is really talking to, and the language of the story stops referring to “the man” and turns to speaking of “the demons.”  But what I think is most extraordinary about this moment is that the conversation continues.  Jesus, who has the power to cast the demons out at any time in any way he chooses, listens to them first.  He lets the demons speak, and they reveal to him what it is they are really afraid of—which is that they will return to the abyss of non-existence.  And, of course, their fears are well-founded.  Jesus allows the demons to go out into the pigs, knowing that there is no abiding place for them in this world outside of the human imagination.  It is too bad for the pigs that they must be the tools of the demons’ self-destruction, but what remains behind is the man, once again clothed, and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus. 
The answer that Jesus gives to the madness of the world is a path that leads away from hatred and violence.  It begins where it ends, with the truth that every human being is a child of the one that Jesus called “Father.”    It steers clear of simple and seductive certainties about other people, even those as frightening as the madman in the tombs or Omar Mateen.  If we rely instead on faith in the loving-kindness of God, we can learn to differentiate between the demons of collective hate and self-destruction and the human beings they have taken control of.  We can discern the living persons who still, in their essential nature, bear the image of God.  Perhaps, with love, those persons can be freed, and called back from the realm of death. 
I’m not saying that this is easy to do.  It means giving up our naiveté about evil; becoming far wiser than we are now about what it really is, and how it really works to destroy from within human lives and entire societies.  But as Christians we carry a unique and extraordinary promise to the world—that if we have the courage to dialogue with demons, to ask them their name, to listen with clear-eyed detachment to their lies, we will find that the Son of God has mastery over them.  We will see their downfall with our own eyes, as they return to the nothingness out of which they came.  And into the place where there was torment, insanity, and death, by the grace of God, there will come healing and peace.

Loving every body

Along with some other members of St. John’s I spent last week up at the Bishop’s Ranch, near Healdsburg, at an educational program of our diocese called the College for Congregational Development.  The purpose of the vestry in sending us there was to move our parish closer to one of our strategic goals, which is to strengthen the capacity of all of our leaders, to help our various ministries, groups and committees, and the whole parish organization, to work together more effectively so that we can become more and more of what God is calling us to be. 
The week was the beginning of a two-year program, which commits the participants to a substantial reading list of books, a second residential intensive a year from now, and projects to design and carry out, complete with written reports, and a final exam.  We followed an intensive schedule of reading, presentations, small group learning labs, and project planning that began with Morning Prayer at 7:30 a.m. and ended with compline at 9 o’clock at night.  We worked on facilitation and group process skills and conceptual models of organizational structures, and of change, conflict, and even spiritual transformation within congregations.  We even learned models for human mental functions and how they operate differently according to personality type.  We had completed in advance a personality assessment tool that is widely used in universities and in corporate America, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and on Tuesday we received the results, which identified us with one of 16 different personality types, and told us how we prefer to interact with others, and what are our areas of strength, in what perceive, and how we make decisions and deal with conflict.
There’s a whole theory of mental functioning, that lies behind this system, and it was while one of the workshop trainers was trying to explain some of that to us, that one of my clergy colleagues in the diocese asked a question that had also been nagging at me.  In the course of her presentation, the trainer had said that these were the modes of “normal” mental functioning, and the types of “normal” personality, and so on.  So when it came time for questions, this priest, who happens to be a woman, pointed this out and asked “but what if you’re not normal?”   The trainer gave a sort of an answer and then quickly moved on, but the question is not a frivolous one.  It points to something essentially important about human beings, and also about the church.  
Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to borrow ideas and approaches from the business world and the social sciences to help us do the work of the church more effectively.  It is okay to talk about forces and dynamics, about data and feedback, about structures and systems and normal functioning.   But the Christian understanding of human beings is that our mental functioning, and our church organizations, are grounded in bodies.  And bodies can get out whack in all kinds of ways: from congenital conditions to senile dementia, from brain tumors and head injuries to autism and schizophrenia, from post-traumatic stress to clinical depression to alcoholism, things happen to our bodies that affect our minds, and even change our personalities. 
In the business world, if a person has a body that does not function as the organization needs it to, because he or she cannot effectively count beans, or produce widgets, or what have you, the manager will “let” that person “go” or never invite him or her to work there in the first place.  But as Christians we don’t have that option.  Not if we are sincere about following Jesus.  Because the gospels tell us stories, again and again, about people whose bodies, or minds and behavior, were not normal in the eyes of their neighbors.  These people came to Jesus looking for help and he welcomed them.  He told them that their faith in him had made them well, and sent them away in peace. 
Today’s story from the Gospel of Luke reminds us that this brought Jesus into conflict with his religious contemporaries.  When Simon the Pharisee decides that Jesus must not really be a prophet, it is not because he disagrees with him about theological ideas, or ethical principles.  Simon has second thoughts about Jesus because he lets a woman touch him.  It wasn’t normal for Jesus, a devout Jewish man, to let a woman who was not his wife or a close female relative touch his body, let alone to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.  What makes it worse is that this woman is notorious for her sins, presumably sins of a sexual nature, which made her body a doubly potent source of contamination.  But instead of pushing her away, refusing to admit her into his company, Jesus accepts her lavishly inappropriate gestures of repentance and gratitude and love.  He repays her with words of respect and forgiveness, the forgiveness that makes her body touchable again.
Now Jesus didn’t always just heal people and then send them away.  Sometimes he called them to be a part of his mission.  In his classic text, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following:
“A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for itself.  They are disembodied entities.  They are heard, learned, and apprehended, and that is all.  But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him.  That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following, and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality.”
We are used to thinking of the calling of disciples as a manly sort of business.  Peter and Andrew and James and John are by the Sea of Galilee mending their nets, when Jesus walks by and says “Come, follow me,” and they unhesitatingly drop everything and go after him.  They go to be leaders, apostles of the kingdom and fishers of men.  But today’s passage in Luke reminds us that sometimes the calling of a disciple is not recruitment for a brave and noble mission.  Sometimes it begins as a desperate plea for relief from torment.  Mary Magdalene must have been seriously deranged, for Jesus to have cast out seven demons from her.  Still, in its own way, coming out of the shadows of disgrace and untouchability to seek healing and restoration to community is just as heroic, takes just as much courage, and faith, as that other kind of following.  
And Luke wants us to see, with Bonhoeffer that, from the beginning, our fellowship with the Incarnate Son of God has been embodied in a visible reality, a community.  In the Episcopal Church, the core of our identity is continuity with the first community of those that Jesus of Nazareth called to follow him.  Every time we add a new member to the church in baptism, the priest or bishop asks “will you continue in the apostles’ fellowship?” and the congregation says, “I will with God’s help.”  After the rite is complete, the congregation greets the newly baptized, saying “we receive you into the household of God.”  Like any other household this visible reality requires managing.  It needs leadership.  But sometimes leadership looks less like having great ideas and telling others what to do and more like noticing what other people need, what are the broken pieces that need mending and the loose ends that need tying.  According to Luke it was the women, who followed because they had been sick and became well, who first exercised this leadership in the church.  We can’t forget that it was they who obtained the spices needed to prepare a body for burial, they whose sorrow and need for a final, physical demonstration of love led them to Jesus’ tomb. 
And if this it is a household its members are a family.  But a new kind of family, one united not by of genetic inheritance or even by their natural love for each other, but by the grace of God.  Just as we don’t get to choose who we will have as our parents, or our brothers or sisters, we don’t get to choose the people whom the incarnate Son of God Christ calls into fellowship with us.  We don’t get to set criteria of eligibility, or send away the family members who don’t meet our standard of past history, education, or experience.  And there is no right kind of body, no “normal” height or weight or sex or color of the skin, but one body, crucified and raised in glory, into which all are called by the grace and mercy of God.  

Raising the widow's son

Maybe it was because I knew that later this morning I would be preaching in Spanish at the 12 o’clock service here at St. Paul’s, but reading these stories again about widows who lost their only sons, I remembered a woman I met in Guatemala, in the summer of 2009.  I was on my way to Xela, also known as Quetzaltenango, the largest city in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, to study at a Spanish language school, and I stopped over at the popular tourist destination of Lake Atitlán.  I crossed the lake to Santiago, the largest and most traditional of the towns around the shores of that lake, where I would spend the night.  The next morning I left the guesthouse and found that the streets around the central square were lined with venders who’d come in from the countryside, and I went shopping for a souvenir to bring home to my wife.  And that was how I came upon a woman sitting on the ground on a blanket, on which she had spread the things she had for sale.  They included some baskets of tomatoes and other summer vegetables, but also huipiles, the traditional blouses of the indigenous women of southern Mexico and Guatemala. 
She had made them from cloth woven in the violet and lavender striped pattern that is distinctive of that region, and there was one in particular that caught my eye.  It was lavishly embroidered with roses around the collar, and down both the front and back were embroidered birds.  The colorful markings and different beaks of various species were detailed precisely, like illustrations from a birdwatcher’s field guide, and I recognized several whose range extends north.  And I looked over this amazing garment with admiration and smiled at her and complimented her work, but I was sure it would cost more than the maximum I’d decided to allow myself to spend, and moved on down the street.  But, while I saw some other nice things here and there, including some other beautiful huipiles, I kept thinking about that one with the birds, and eventually I went back to look at it again.  The woman named me a price, and while it was more than fair, it was, as I’d feared it would be, more than I could afford.  So I made a counter-offer and we haggled a bit until she finally agreed. 
It was an amount that we both knew was far too low for an object of such singular beauty.  As I handed her the money, and folded my prize away in my backpack I felt glad at having been able to get what I’d really wanted, but I also guilty at having pressed the advantage of my abundant choices over her lack of them.  And the look on her face when I named my answering price has never left me; it spoke of her desperation to make a sale and, at the same time, of the pain of parting with something she’d made with so much love and labor for so little money.  But the thing that really affected me about that pain, even more than having a part in causing it, was that I could see that it was only a ripple across the face of a sorrow that was unfathomably deep.  Grief and loss streamed out toward me from her eyes, and had overflowed from them so much, and for so long, that they had carved deep furrows in her cheeks.
Of course I never heard that woman’s story.  I never learned of the afflictions that filled her life with so much pain that no one with a heart of flesh could fail to see it.  But I do know that Santiago de Atitlán was home to a base of the Guatemalan Army during the height of that country’s dirty war of the 1980s.  From there the soldiers carried out a genocidal campaign of terror in the Mayan villages of the surrounding countryside.  This culminated in a notorious massacre in the streets of Santiago itself in December 1990, when the army opened fire on a peaceful protest for human rights.  So I have always wondered whom that woman might have lost to that violence, or if not to the violence, then to the grinding poverty the violence was meant to hold in place—a father? A husband? A son, or daughter, or more than one?  Maybe all of the above.
And the pain of parting with a beautiful handcrafted object at a price far too cheap is nothing compared to the pain of losing a child.  My wife and I have only one, a beautiful, talented daughter who just completed the sixth grade on Friday.  As all of you who are parents know, your children are your life’s most important creation.  They are the works of priceless value into which you pour countless hours of costly, painstaking, often thankless toil.  But as we parents also know, we have to give them away to the world.  We hope it will be slowly, and by degrees, and the payment we receive will be the rich one of seeing them happy, and doing good work, surrounded by a loving family of their own, maturing into the fullness of their powers as our own begin to falter in the advent of old age.   But we have to live with the knowledge that the world may buy them from us cheaply, sometimes as if their lives were worth next to nothing at all.
It is in response to such a loss that Elijah cried out to God, on behalf of the widow with whom he had been staying, demanding to know if the Lord would really deprive of her of her only son.  He prayed that God would let the child’s life come into him again, and the Lord answered, and the boy lived.  The Gospel story from Luke is very similar, of course, but there are some differences that are worth noting.  The first is that Elijah prays in secret, in the privacy of his own upper room, while Jesus’ is travelling at the head of a large crowd when he meets another crowd, the funeral procession following the body out to the burial, and it is there, in public, at the city gates, that he raises the widow’s son of Nain.  And while Elijah acts on behalf of someone he knows well, in repayment for her kindness, Jesus meets the widow of Nain as a stranger on the road.  He is moved to act on her behalf by nothing more than compassion for the suffering of another human being.
These stories tell us that the heart of the message of the great prophets is God’s desire that his people should have a full share in of life.  That is why there is no difference between the prophets demand for religious faithfulness and their outcry out against violence and poverty and social injustice—because depriving the creatures of God of the full flourishing of their lives is a blasphemous offense to their creator.  For the prophets, this message has to be more than simply empty words—it must be demonstrated and made effective through actions.  And what more powerful demonstration could anyone make of God’s desire to give us the fullness of life than raising the dead?  Jesus takes that prophetic action out into public, and does it for a stranger, to show how far the life-giving compassion of God extends.  It is but a short journey from there to his own death and resurrection, the eternal and universal sign that nothing in heaven or earth can deprive us of the love of God.
It is our faith in Christ’s resurrection that gives us the authority to try our own demonstrations of God’s life-giving compassion.  We may not be able to raise the dead, but there are actions we can take to show people who have lost what is most beautiful and precious that death does not have the last word.   There are things we can do to show those who are trapped in the darkness of powerlessness and despair that they can still rise.  When it actually works it’s a miracle, so needless to say we don’t even dare attempt it without asking for God’s help.  But one of the things that has consistently impressed me about what I’ve been able to observe over the years of this church of St. Paul in Healdsburg, and now I’m speaking as the Dean of the Russian River Deanery, is how, despite many false steps and wrong turns, you are a congregation that keeps trying.   You keep trying to do the things that say to your neighbors that miracles are possible, and God can even raise the dead. 

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.