Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection Three -- Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief

The ninth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel features one of my favourite sayings in the whole of Holy Scripture. A man whose child is possessed by a self-destructive spirit has come to Jesus and asks him, if he is able, to cure his son. “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes,” to which the man responds in a cry, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

Lord I believe, help my unbelief. Were truer, more honest words ever spoken by any man or woman of any age? Each of us, especially in moments of crisis, earnestly longs to believe that God is not only present but also active in our lives. Yet, in the midst of crisis when it can seem that we are alone and lost, when world comes crashing down around us, when we feel most powerless, when we our lives tumbling out of control, how difficult it is to believe. At the same time, it is in those moments when all seems lost that we, in our exasperation, most frequently call upon God in a call of last resort to intervene and pull us out of the mire.

God is faithful. God is faithful when our faith is insufficient. God is faithful when we have lost the faith of those around us. God is faithful in a world that has forgotten that God even exists. Amidst all the ambiguity of our lives, even as we turn from God, God seeks us out and calls us by name asking, “Have ye faith?” To which we can often only respond, “Lord, I want to believe, I long to believe, I fear I cannot believe – help me to believe.” And God is faithful.

The very fact that we have this conversation with God is a recognition of both the presence and sovereignty of God and a sign of God’s faithfulness. Even as we fear that we do not believe in God, we find ourselves in a conversation with him. Even as we lament his abandonment we witness to his presence by calling his name. Even as we fear we have lost our faith, he makes his faith our own as we call upon the great “I am” in which our very existence is ever grounded.

I have often thought that the entrance to every church, a plaque should prominently be displayed with the words, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Such a plaque would surely be a sign to the world that the Christian walk is not one in which we travel under our own power but through the mercies of God. It would be a recognition that to be a Christian is to escape the travails of the world but to live in the midst of them, calling upon God to journey with us in all our faith and in all our doubt. After all, in our baptism we respond to the call to walk the Christian life with the words, “I will, with God’s help.” Is this not simply another way of stating what that man said so long ago when implored by Jesus to believe?

There is something about this story that is troubling, though. Mark describes the man’s son as “having a spirit.” In the language of the first century, it seems likely that the child was actually suffering some kind of mental illness. Jesus healed the child. However, I am deeply conscious that not every illness in this world is healed by a prayer of faith and that may make it seem like God is faithless, even when we are faithful. I walk with people every day who have great suffering in their families, be it mental, spiritual or physical illness. I am quite aware that there is no quick fix. I also believe strongly that wholeness may not be as much about cure as about living as faithfully, humanly, lovingly, courageously, in the situations in which we find ourselves. How much more poignant this saying then becomes. When the quick fix or cure does not come, then the prayer “help my unbelief” becomes much more real to us.

When the quick fix or cure eludes us, our sense of aloneness might grow. We can begin to feel that we have done something wrong, or worse, we can be accused by others of not doing something right. If only I were a better caregiver, parent, or friend; if only I were more faithful, prayed harder, or lived a purer life. These are all sentiments that can threaten to enslave us. They are also sentiments that can threaten to separate us from our each other. The most destructive thing about illness of any kind is not what it can do the human body but what it can do to our shared body, that is, the community. In the vulnerability of illness (and caregiving) anger, guilt, doubt, and regret can all be exposed, driving a wedge between those who love each other, separating us, leaving us feeling alone. But this is when we realize that we are not alone, this is when that cry of despair forms on our lips, formed not under our own power but by a loving God who knows the depths of our pain. These words are given shape on our lips, in faith, by a faithful God who responds in faith to our deepest angst.

Perhaps there will be no cure, but surely a “demon” is driven out, and that “demon” is hopelessness. In recognizing that we do not walk alone along a hard path we find hope. We begin to see the healing of wounds that have separated us as members of a family and community. We begin to understand that life is not without pain and suffering, but neither are we without a friend and counselor who takes our hand on this life’s journey, that great physician of our souls, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection Two -- "Who Are My Mother and My Brothers?"

For the introduction to the Gospel of Mark Challenge, click here.

In the latter part of the third chapter of The Gospel of Mark we learn that Jesus’ family is somewhat worried about what he has been up to. When he returns home (Mark 3:21), his family tries to restrain him because people were accusing him of being out of his mind. A Scribe had even come down from Jerusalem and accused Jesus of being possessed. In 3:31, with his mother and brothers (and possibly his sisters, depending on the manuscript evidence) standing outside, he shrugs off their concern for him. In fact, Jesus seems to shrug off his family of origin entirely and insists that those amongst him (his disciples, the ones who do the will of God) are actually his true family.

As a parent I am sympathetic to his poor mother. On the one hand, she must have seen what he was doing and been wonderfully proud and deeply moved, and yet, she certainly would have feared for both his safety and his reputation. But if trust is a theme emerging in this gospel, then members of his family were without trust. They are sharply contrasted to the fishermen who laid down their nets and left their former lives to follow him. Where Simon and Andrew, James and John, and all the others followed him (their continued misunderstanding of his mission notwithstanding), his family tried to restrain him and hold him back.

How easy it is to hold on to what we know best. How much simpler the world seems if the life never changes. We cannot keep our children from growing up any less than we can face the reality that each are growing older every day. Time does indeed flow like an “ever rolling stream.” I suppose we instinctively oppose change because it reminds us that we will inevitably have to let go of things. Whenever I officiate at the funeral of someone who is my parents’ age, I must face the reality that the day will come when I will need to say goodbye to them. Whenever I speak with friends and colleagues who have children who are leaving home (and facing both exciting and challenging times with their near-adult offspring) I must face the reality that my children will grow and leave me before I realize that their childhood has slipped away. I can understand his family’s reaction because change for one member of a family system means change for the rest.

However, healthy families systems are systems that can embrace change and live into the uncertainty and mystery of change. I think that this is what Jesus was getting at when he said to his disciples “You are my mother and brother and sisters.” They became his family because they were able to embrace change with all its ambiguity and uncertainty. They were able to take risks, make mistakes, and even get it wrong. They were able to do these things because they knew God was with them.

But lest we think that Jesus wrote off his birth family, consider this: Mary became an important figure in the Early Church, the mother of a new family, nascent Christianity, after the death of her son. Consider this: Jesus’ brother James became the leader of the Jerusalem Church and even suffered death by stoning for his faith. Consider this: According to Eusebius, the historian of the Early Church, his cousins became great leaders in the early church and witnesses to the faith.

Like the family of Jesus, it may be difficult for us to trust. Like them, we may wish to cling to a childhood image of Jesus that involves no risk to us, but neither does it challenge us to grow. But like them, we too may be transformed by God’s grace. Like them, we may cast off the fears that enslave us. Like them, we can change. Like them, we may become incorporated into a new, more inclusive family, in which we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and children of the living God. May we always seek to do his will.

Text copyright 2008, by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection One - "Follow Me"

When I issued the Gospel of Mark Challenge (click here for original post) and pledged to read and pray alongside each of you, I had no preconceived program for what form my reflections on the Mark’s Gospel would take. I planned simply to reflect on themes that occurred to me in my own reading and to speak to comments and questions offered by each of you.

There are certainly several themes and concepts that emerge in the first two chapters that would be fruitful to consider. There is, of course, the fact that St. Mark begins not with a birth narrative but with Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and immediately moves into his early ministry. Indeed, you may have noticed that the word “immediately” is a connecting word that Mark uses very frequently. Mark’s narrative moves along at a quick pace, in the present tense, and certainly has a sense of immediacy and urgency. The immediacy is also found on the lips of Jesus, “The kingdom of God has come near/is at hand; repent and believe in the good news!” The Kingdom is not something far from us, but very near, even “at hand.” Thus, in this sense of urgency and immediacy, St. Mark’s Gospel is not a narrative that is terribly interested in describing Jesus’ “back-story” but rather draws the reader/listener in the “eternal present” of Jesus’ ministry.

Then, of course, we come across the healings, exorcisms, and miracles. Much could be said about his these wonderful works. On the one hand each of these moments are signs of the breaking through of God’s kingdom, and yet Jesus’ is very reserved about sharing his identity as Messiah. Throughout the story, Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone who he is. How can this be if his deeds are to be signs of the Kingdom? Scholars call this problem of Jesus’ hidden identity, “The Messianic Secret.” As you read on you will note that there are many who recognize Jesus as Messiah but do not follow him (e.g. the demons that he casts out), while his own disciples often fail to recognize him. I have often thought that this Gospel might be appropriately subtitled “The Disciples – the Stupid Years.” Jesus works all these signs and yet even his followers do not seem to understand what he is about! Of course, the narrative holds a great literary irony, for we, the readers, are really the ones “in the know.” It baffles us to think that the disciples could be so dense, while demons and outsiders understand. The point is, of course, that we see through the lens of our faith and through the lens of the Resurrection, as surely as did the first readers/hearers of this Gospel. We know the story even before we read or hear it. Yet, there are times in our lives when even with all that we know, we fail to see the obvious. The point is surely this, that we do not always recognize the signs of God’s hand even when it should be most apparent to us.

This leads to my final reflection for today. A parishioner wrote to me about this passage and suggested that we live an age in which trust is very difficult. Our lawyers must double- and triple-check any transactions we make. We are suspicious of the motives of our fellow human beings. In these first to chapters of St. Mark we see Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, and the Sons of Zebedee. They lay down their nets, they leave their past lives, and follow him. No contracts. No lawyers looking over their new employment arrangements. “Follow me,” says our Lord, and they come. Later he calls Levi, a rather disreputable tax collector, and sat down to a meal with other tax collectors and sinners.

To answer that call, “Follow me,” involves risk. It involves leaving behind certain things that we might otherwise wish to cling to; it involves sitting down to dine with people we might otherwise not choose to dine with; it involves stepping out in faith, without the approval of others; and it involves trust. However, our trust is placed in the one who will never desert or abandon us, or leave us without hope. Our trust is a Lord who opens new doors as old ones close. Our trust is in the one who meets us in our hour of deepest need, or in our darkest night. Our trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ, who opens for us the way of life and continually proclaims the new day of God’s kingdom ever dawning upon us.