Saturday, February 5, 2011

Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. And He asked the scribes, "What are you discussing with them?" Then one of the crowd answered and said, "Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not." He answered him and said, "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me." Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us." Jesus said to him, "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: "Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!" Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, "He is dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" So He said to them, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting."

- Mark 9:14-29

In yesterday's reading, we read about Jesus' Transfiguration. He took John, James and Peter, his closest apostles, up to a mountaintop. There they saw Him transfigured, His clothes "shining, exceedingly white, like snow." Moses and Elijah appeared with Him, talking with Him. The apostles had no idea what to do or say, astonished and afraid. A cloud overshadowed Jesus, and the Father's voice spoke: "This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!" Suddenly, it was over. When they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them to tell no one until after His resurrection. The messianic secret must still be kept. See And He was transfigured before them.

And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. And He asked the scribes, "What are you discussing with them?" In the meantime, far from that mountaintop where Jesus has just been revealed as Messiah in Transfiguration to His three closest disciples, we see the disputes that go on. This is the work of the kingdom through the disciples, who are still learning what this work involves, and the difficulties of ministry. My study bible points out, "The Lord is loyal to His own. Jesus does not ask the disciples what they are discussing with the scribes; it is the scribes who must answer." The people in this scene clearly respond to Jesus' presence.

Then one of the crowd answered and said, "Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not." The disciples are presented with a problem in their ministry: this boy and his father need help, and this is seen in the context of spiritual - not medical - help. But they are unable to help the boy.

He answered him and said, "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me." Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us." While we see the symptoms described as the medical condition of epilepsy, it seems to me there are clues in this manuscript that point to a spiritual ailment. The father says that "often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him." This affliction, the "mute spirit," is seen as a destructive and malevolent force, and the helpless father can do nothing to stop it. So, he has come to Jesus' disciples for help. Obviously, the scribes - representing the temple leadership - can also do nothing to help. My study bible has a note that reads, "Faithless generation is said of all, including the father of the child and the disciples." It adds, "The man's comment, but if you can do anything, is prompted by the disciples' inability to cast out the demon. What Christ's disciples can or cannot do reflects on the Lord Himself."

Jesus said to him, "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" In some sense, the man's cry reflects all of us, all of our conflict, the cry of our condition - including that of the disciples. We live in a world that tests our faith, with hearts that are capable of receiving and understanding the things of the spirit. "I believe; help my unbelief" is the cry of humanity to God. God's word to us is here, and the Gospels indisputably present this to us: "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes." We are in a constant state of this suspended conflict presented in these two verses. My study bible says that all things are possible because of God's power released through faith - and faith is what Jesus seeks to elicit from the child's father. It adds, "The presence of doubt does not imply the absence of faith. Christ honors whatever faith we have and will increase faith when we sincerely desire Him."

When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: "Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!" Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, "He is dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. Clearly, in the spiritual context of the Gospel, this powerful affliction is the result of something truly harmful - causing pain as well as "binding" this man's hearing and speech. It's like a torturer who is deliberately tormenting the afflicted man. And when the spirit leaves, "he became as one dead" - a severely harsh affliction, leaving the man, like a tortured prisoner, as one who is dead. But Jesus' touch lifts the man up, restoring him to his rightful place, upright. On spiritual terms, this affliction is a great metaphor for the powerful forces that diminish us, that take away our will to live, our capacity to speak and to hear, leave us as one who is dead, that cause us great pain in our lives. Afflictions such as this come in many metaphorical forms, and this is a story about faith in the face of oppression and adversity we may feel helpless to alleviate in those whom we love. It is such an overpowering condition that clearly the victim is in no state to help himself. We need, in this case, a much greater and powerful "strong man" to help us under such oppression and affliction.

And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" So He said to them, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting." My study bible says that "prayer and fasting are essential expressions of the life of faith. The inclusion of and fasting in the text is quite appropriate, though a number of ancient manuscripts lack it." What we have here, then, is a case of dedicated faith, concerted and constant, and unremitting effort to continue in that faith. This is what Jesus describes for the disciples: a faith in which we persist and practice with focus and dedication, and in which we are not deterred by seeming failure.

While most read this passage and assume an affliction of epilepsy, attributed to spiritual causes, I cannot help but see it as a true metaphor of the things that ail us in life. We may suffer under oppressive conditions, things and people that we cannot control, that are beyond our capacity to change. I can think of a myriad of situations and circumstances this would describe for many people. We may ourselves be afflicted by chronic and painful disease under which we suffer, or perhaps a terrible depression, or family circumstances which are a cause of endless pain. Whatever it is, there are circumstances that cause us pain and are seemingly beyond our control. In the Twelve Step programs, the first step is the recognition of our powerlessness to control affliction. And from there, the Steps turn us to a Higher Power to which we give over our problem, to help us to manage it. This is a story of faith in that Higher Power, and of our inability to control - and our apparent failures. "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" is the cry we feel midst that type of situation, which may be chronic and ongoing, even a burden since childhood, as in this story. Yet the "strong man" who has come to establish His kingdom, to overthrow the oppressor, is the One we repeatedly must turn to. And how does this happen but through repeated, concerted effort? It is we who are to turn our efforts to prayer, and to the methods that help us to improve "our conscious contact with God" if I may quote Step Eleven of a Twelve Step program. Prayer and fasting are tools of communion, of "conscious contact." They are the efforts we make to deepen our faith - the conscious effort we make and tools we use in the struggle for faith, for a deeper union with God. And this is our struggle; we live in a world in which we are vulnerable. Our choice is to find that faith, and to persist in our efforts and pursue it with every tool that we have on hand, with all that is available to us. In this sense, Jesus assures us that "if you believe, all things are possible to him who believes." "All things are possible" does not mean that our wish is God's command. It means that faith - trust - will show us a way through it, and God's power will be lent to us so that we find our way forward and out of the affliction, whatever it is that binds us spiritually, makes us deaf and mute and seeks to destroy who we are. This story is couched amid the understanding that Jesus Himself will suffer with us, for a purpose, and so will His followers. But the story of faith is one of triumph, of overcoming. "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" becomes, in this sense, our own cry of overcoming and perseverance in our lives, and a call for the help we need.