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Author: Gordon King

Using the Story of Legion in a Congregational Setting Part 2

Using the Story of Legion in a Congregational Setting Part 2

 

The Perspective of Legion.

It is clear that Legion has been rejected by his community. Once again we wonder about the story behind the story. We can say that, directly or indirectly, he was a victim of three centuries of violence and repression. It is even possible that he became a perpetrator of the violence inflicted on subjected people by the Roman Empire. Strong young men in the regions could be selected and trained for service in the Roman forces on the borders of the empire. Had he seen unspeakable acts? Had he committed violence against villages in the name of Rome? Is he suffering from something that today we might call post-traumatic stress disorder? A tutored imagination (Bruce Malina) allows us to consider these possibilities.

Legion roams day and night. His shouts and screams haunt the area. He cuts himself with stones. Jesus asks: What is your name? He responds: My name is Legion for we are many. The demons that reside in Legion sometimes speak for him. They have the power to dominate his voice and his actions. He is a divided and tortured soul.

Legion runs to Jesus and throws himself at his feet. This is a clear sign that he desires redemption, salvation, healing and dignity. The mystery is that Legion also fears redemption, salvation, healing, and dignity. He is divided and at war within himself. He shouts: “What do you want with me Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Do not torture me!”

Many of us instinctively understand this dual reaction. We long for God’s healing and transformation. At the same time we have established a certain comfort with destructive behaviour patterns and fear the unknown. The alcoholic goes back to the bottle. The drug addict goes back to the drugs. The workaholic goes back to the office. We long to break free from evil and addictive patterns. Yet we fear healing.

Jesus frees Legion from the evil spirits that torment him. The destructive nature of evil is evident in the way the pigs rush to the water and drown. Now Legion sits clothed and healed in the posture of a disciple. He wants to follow Jesus but this request is denied.

Healing is both an event (an encounter with Jesus) and a process. He must reintegrate into the community that feared him. Healing is always personal and social in nature. He is challenged to build a new life as a witness to God’s healing power. He will discover his vocation as the first Gentile evangelist and missionary.

The Perspective of God.

Jesus treats Legion, even in his most frightening moments, as a person created in the image of God. Jesus neither attempts to flee nor to restrain him with the help of his followers. We do not read too much into the text when we see behind the words and actions of Jesus the longing of God to heal and restore this troubled man. Jesus confronts head on the evil that distorts and destroys his life. The story helps us to see that in our worst moments we are loved and that God longs to heal our wounds.

Jesus gives Legion immediate and visual release from the demons that torment him. Yet his healing will not be complete without entering back into his community. He needs the restoration of human relationships to undo the impact of the evil spirits that have dominated his life.

For many of us healing is a process that begins when we throw ourselves before God requesting his mercy. Redemption and transformation require a supportive community to encourage and sustain us in the challenge of living out our new identity as children of the Father and disciples of Jesus.  Community is also essential as the place where we can explore the personal mission or vocation to which God calls us.

Finally, the Legion story enables us to consider that God’s care extends to the communities of the Decapolis. Jesus sends Legion back home as a witness to the possibility of transformation for people oppressed by evil, fear, and violence. We may use this story to reflect on our calling to be a presence and a witness in the communities to which we have been called to serve.

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Using the Story of Legion in a Congregational Setting Part 1

Using the Story of Legion in a Congregational Setting Part 1

I encouraged a thick reading of the encounter of Jesus with a man named Legion in earlier blogs. I do not intend to provide a summary here other than to repeat two observations. First, this passage is the most detailed healing story in the synoptic gospels. Second, the theme of exorcisms in the gospels reveal the vast “worldview” separation between our time and social locations of the first century Mediterranean world. Ideas of evil spirits may seem to many people as foreign as the notion of dwarfs and leprechauns.

We may choose to ignore the narrative of Legion because of its strangeness. However, I advocate that a deep reading of the story with a tutored imagination is a means to enter into some of the painful issues of our time. I will be preaching on Legion at our church in April. My plan is to work with the story of Legion in the following way.

Introduction:

Faith gives us an apprehension that the unseen is as important as what we see, handle, taste, and feel. We hear the waves at the seaside, work with soil in our gardens, and see the stars at night. We sense that behind the majesty of creation there is an unseen Creator who gives us life.

In a very different way, we see the painful wounds of the world. There are actions of violence and unspeakable cruelty. For many of us, there is an apprehension of unseen forces of evil that operate by presenting lies as truth, tempting us to trust in brute power over love and grace, and offering false illusions of security devoid of justice and mercy.

The apostle Paul wrote that the human struggle is not simply against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6.12). This saying helps us understand hidden dimensions of evil behind the murder of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the war in Syria, child soldiers in South Sudan, the sexual violence that has made the Democratic Republic of Congo the worst place to be born a woman, and the abuse and disappearance of indigenous women in Canada.

There are always human factors behind the violence and systemic injustices that leave people broken and wounded. But people of faith look behind what we can see (the statistics and the human actors) and recognize unseen forces of evil. We believe that the redemption of the world cannot be addressed simply by more education, increased investment in peacekeepers, and stirring up greater good will. We need God’s healing presence along with human efforts to build communities of justice and peace.

I propose that we look at the story of Legion from three perspectives.

  1. The perspective of the communities of the Decapolis.
  2. The perspective of the man named Legion.
  3. The perspective of God.

The perspective of the community.

The people of the Decapolis were traumatized by violence. The oral history passed down by families contained stories of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, Alexander Janneus and the Hasmonean Empire, the Nabateans from Arabia, and finally the Romans under Pompey’s troops. Roman rule was so complete that coins and inscriptions celebrated Pompey’s conquest as year 1 in local history. What had come before was of no account.

We enter the story when Jesus descends from a boat and sets his feet on the soil of the Decapolis region. We learn that the local people are afraid of Legion. I wonder if their fear prompted them to give him that name. A Roman legion was a legion was a frightening force of 5 to 6 thousand armed foot soldiers and additional troops on horseback.

Local people view Legion as a dangerous threat. They have attempt to control him with chains, fetters, and isolation in the tombs dug into the side of the mountain. These efforts to manage Legion are only temporarily successful. He breaks free and roams the mountains shouting uncontrollably.

Here is the strange thing. While most people fear Legion, there are also sympathizers in the community. We can surmise that certain individuals bring him food and have helped free him from the fetters and chains. Is there a family that still loves him as a son or a brother? Are there individuals that hope to exploit his uncontrollable strength? We wish we knew more of the story behind the story.

There is something further in the narrative that initially might strike us as perverse. After Jesus heals Legion, the local people find him restored, in his right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus in the posture of a student. Now they are afraid of Jesus. They ask him to leave the area. It seems that the people of the Decapolis were more comfortable with violence and evil that they could partially control than with Jesus who calmed the storm on the sea and the storms in a man’s heart.

The description of the people of the Decapolis forces us to ask ourselves if we really want peace, justice, mercy and God’s redemptive work in our communities.  Are we more content simply trying to manage the status quo? As a Canadian, the US debate about gun laws suggests that our American cousins have chosen the latter option.

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Using the Story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World 3

Using the Story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World 3

This blog post is the third in a series. The overall theme is the use of the Legion narrative in Mark 5 to reflect on the violence of the world. I have advocated a thick reading of the story that considers the nature of this troubled man, the reactions of the surrounding community, and the transforming power of Jesus.

The second post proposed that a deep reading needs to examine the socio-historical factors embedded in the story (which would have been known people around Jesus) and the hidden power of evil to subvert and destroy individuals and their communities. This current contribution seeks to address the topic of evil spirits and demonic possession for people of our time and context.

New Testament scholar John P. Meier (1993) wrote of the enormous distance between the social world of Jesus and modern western societies in their views of unclean spirits and exorcism. People of the first century Mediterranean world, Jews and Gentiles, were apprehensive about hostile attacks of demons resulting in accidents, illness, or bizarre behaviour patterns. Certain individuals claimed to have knowledge of techniques that could to be used to exorcise or cast out demons. Certain amulets or prayers could be used for protection.

There are some indications that the vast differences in worldview are not as pronounced as Meier proposed. An internet search on means of protection from evil spirits contains product information on crystals, herbs, rocks, white light, jewellery, and prayers. Products and techniques can be purchased by worried consumers. I lived in the modern city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. People still burned herbs on Friday night to keep away evil spirits that might harm them. Certain apprehensions stick with us even as we use cell phones and computers.

How do we deal with the gospel accounts of demonic oppression in our churches? A point of departure is to outline the two extreme positions between which we will probably want to find our place.

  1. Scientific Interpretation: The first century diagnosis of unclean spirit possession was simply an explanation for behaviour outside the norms of society. Unusual and anti-social actions were explained as the work of demons that had invaded the person. Today we would use terms drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders such as bi-polar, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
  2. Literal Interpretation: Satan directs the destructive work of a myriad of demons that serve him. We can attribute certain personality disorders and violent actions to the work of demons that operate in our world. The church should revive the role of exorcists.

I do not buy into either of these positions. According, I find myself in the mushy middle trying to defend my position on both sides. I have received help from two New Testament scholars.

Esther Miguel Percas is a Biblical specialist from Span. Her book published in 2009 has unfortunately never been translated into English. The author shows that spirit possession is a cultural phenomenon that is most prevalent among the poor in social contexts of violence and oppression. The victims are overcome by alien powers and no longer fulfill the social expectations attached to their positions in society. It is important to note two things; (1) the possessed are not held responsible for their actions and words, and, (2) there is no attempt to change their social circumstances. Their dysfunctions are attributed to demons. The remedy is exorcism.

Esther Miguel Percas opens the door for us to understand one of the impacts of prolonged oppression and violence. The Jewish and Christian literature dealing wiht evil spirits and exorcism is rooted in circumstances of conquest oppression under the Greeks, Hasmonean rulers, and Romans. Extreme repression has a general negative social impact on the weak and vulnerable that are subjected to threats, humiliation, and violence. In such circumstances, evil forces invade and take control of certain individuals. The communities of the Decapolis struggled to hold on to life in a situation of military occupation and the crushing weight of Roman taxation. The man called Legion seems to have been a special victim who had been overcome by evil that worked destructively in his life and relationships.

Walter Wink (1986) helped me to think through the way that evil works in our world. My scheme is somewhat different than his three-point outline. I propose that we experience evil or demonic power in four ways or categories.

  1. Category One: There are personal battles against evil that are won and lost by ordinary men and women. We succumb to pressures that compromise our morality and service to God. Ephesians 6 places our struggle in the context of cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. I embrace the understanding that sin is more than bad personal decisions. We play small roles in a larger battle.
  2. Category Two: Evil works at a collective level in communities and society. There is a destructive nature to governments, social institutions, and community networks even at the best of times. The collaboration of Canadian churches in running Indian Residential Schools in Canada is a prime example. In the USA, the unwillingness to come to terms with the legacy of slavery is a collective evil that divides a nation that desperately needs reconciliation. Evil is more than personal sin.
  3. Category Three: A small number of people are overcome and possessed by the power of evil. They are victims with a history. I take note that Jesus never blames the possessed for their condition. But their past personal history is related to their present enslavement by demonic powers.
  4. Category Four: There is a collective possession that Wink described as a kind of mass psychosis. The forces of evil seem to take over. Here I would mention the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Stalin’s Holodomor (forced starvation of up to 10 million Ukrainians), and perhaps the Syrian Conflict. People are not absolved of responsibly for moral choices or acting as bystanders. But there is a recognition of evil powers at work behind the human actors.

I think these four categories may help us use the Legion story in a congregational setting to consider and discuss the destructive violence of our time. I hope to offer some suggestions next week.

My next blog post will offer suggestions on how the Legion story might be used in the life of a congregation.

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Using the Story of Legion (Mark 5.1-20) to Reflect on the Violence of Our Times 2

Using the Story of Legion (Mark 5.1-20) to Reflect on the Violence of Our Times 2

We will observe in April the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide. Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN Forces in Rwanda, wrote a book entitled “Shake Hands with the Devil.” The devil, for Dallaire, was embodied in the person of General Theoneste Bagosora, one of the principal authors of the murder of an estiimated 800 thousand people in 100 days. Evil is incarnated in people.

People often do thin readings of accounts of mass violence. North Americans that visit Rwanda today are impressed with the beauty and warm relationships that they observe. Their analysis of genocide stories is generally flawed in one direction or another:

  1. There is a tendency among some people to attribute the violence to some form of demonic possession that temporarily descended on the country. This facile explanation overlooks decades of overt and coincealed structural violence suffered by the Tutsi minority. Furthermore, it falls to hold government leaders, like Bagosora, responsible for planning and facilitating the massive death agenda in communities.
  2. The second error is to attempt to explain the genocide simply through a rational academic consideration using tools of sociology, psychology, history, and political science. There were inexplicable forces of evil behind the cruelty and vicious violence

The violence of the man called Legion opens a narrative door for a deep discussion of the nature of the violence that destroys the lives of individuals and communities. Almost a decade before the Rwanda genocide, Walter Wink (1986) observed the naïve optimism of western societies that believed that education, laws, science, and government institutions could solve the problems violence and injustice. Scientific rationalism and the ideology of progress had, according to Wink, deprived us of a vocabulary that could help us to understand evil.

The story of Legion in Mark 5.1-20 invites us to pull back the curtain and enter into uncomfortable territory with mysterious forces at work behind the scenes. Here we come face to face with evil that is out of control and threatens the well-being of social networks and communities.

The man called Legion lived in an region known as the Decapolis (ten cities). The main urban centre was Gerasa. The Decapolis had been invaded by Alexander the Great and subjected to foreign domination. Decommissioned Greek soldiers had settled in the area. In the first century BC, Alexander Jannaeus, a Judean military leader, attacked and destroyed several cities in the region. Thirteen years later, in 63 BCE, Roman legions arrived, conquered, and placed the area under the control of Herod the Great.

It is certain that Legion was raised with traumatic stories of violence inflicted on communities of the Decapolis. We would like to ask the text if he had been a direct victim of the forces of repression. Perhaps poverty had led him join the Roman army as a local soldier. He may have actively participated in the intimidation and oppression of his own people. This might account for the fact he is isolated from the community that he so desperately needs.

The text does not answer our questions. We are left to stand with the disciples and to feel their fear. We look on a naked man who lives alone in the tombs, is sometimes restrained but never controlled, and inflicts injury on his body. Somewhere in this horrific isolation there must be family or former friends that bring him food.

Jesus asks him: What is your name? He responds: My name is Legion, for we are many. A Roman legion was a frightening force of 5 to 6 thousand armed men and 120 horsemen. We notice that from this point the dialogue is sometimes with Legion and at other times with the demonic presence that inhabits his body. This suggests a deep division and painful division in the heart of this man.

Most of us do not feel comfortable talking about unclean spirits or demons. They seem part of a world view that might include elves, dwarfs, and leprechauns. I wish to close with a few items for consideration:

  1. Most cultures, past and present, recognize that there are unseen forces at work in our world for good or for evil.
  2. The New Testament’s treatment of demons and exorcisms is limited to the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts. But these first century documents share a common understanding that unseen powers of evil were at work in the Roman Empire and in the lives of ordinary people. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6.12).
  3. The research of social scientists has shown us that spirit possession occurs most frequently in social locations of oppression and violence (Miguel Pericas, 2009). We might think of the possessed as special victims that have been overwhelmed by the presence of evil that surrounds them. Each person has a unique story of repression and the longing for liberation.

I realize that this blog has barely opened to the door to a thick analysis of the Legion story and stories of our world. I hope to continue next week. I hope you also do your own work.

 

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Using the story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World (Mark 5.1-20)

Using the story of Legion to Understand the Violence of the World (Mark 5.1-20)

The violence of the world generates death, destruction, terror, trauma, anger, and apprehension. This list of six impacts could be expanded. Organized violence leaves direct victims, mourners, and threatens the well-being of communities and nations.

Many of us believe in a gracious and loving God. We hold that God desires dignity and fulness of life for each person that bears his image. How do we explain the following violent events in our world and our reactions to them?

  • The murder of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School committed by a former student.
  • The 12 uninterrupted days of bombing of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.
  • The ongoing civil conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo including the use of child soldiers and rape as a weapon of war.
  • The massive build up of nuclear weapons in Russia, North Korea, and the USA encouraged by the leaders of those countries as a form of protection.
  • The continued abuse, disappearance, and murder of indigenous women in my own country of Canada.

There is a recent story that haunts me. I am still trying to unpack the meaning of an event that happened in South Carolina on the evening of 17 June 2015. A young Caucasian man entered an African American church and participated in a prayer meeting. He then pulled out a gun and killed nine people, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He later stated that he hoped to ignite a race war. It seems to me that this frightening narrative reveals deep lessons about the time in which we live. The meaning of the story cannot be confined to the United States. This is a human story with universal implications that is rooted in a particular location. The killings that happened that night were not an isolated and inexplicable event. There were layers of human evil all around the scene.

I am stunned that we have come to accept violence and the malicious use of force as a necessary evil or unredeemable feature of modern life. The usual response is either apathy or momentary outrage that is soon dissipated.

One of the duties of Christian leaders is to deeply read both the stories of our social world and the stories of the scriptures. I think that too often we offer congregants “thin readings” that include light observations and moralizing conclusions. Then we move on to other matters over which we have greater control.

I propose that the story of Legion in Mark 5.1-20 can be useful in the life of the church. The account demands a “thick” reading because it is the most detailed healing narrative in Mark’s Gospel. I agree with Ched Myers (2003) and Richard Horsley (2014) that the military vocabulary and imagery in the description must guide the interpretation. In this blog post, I want to draw attention to just one aspect of the narrative.

The people in the country of the Gerasenes try to manage and control the violent outbursts of the man called Legion. They confine him geographically to an area where tombs have been carved into the mountainside. He is kept away from their homes and places of work. They restrain him physically with chains and shackles. However, they are never fully successful. Legion can unexpectedly break through the bonds that hold him. His voice rings out in the night as he roams the mountainside where the tombs are located. They attempt to mitigate the threat of Legion, they monitor the situation, but they lack the power to bring healing to the troubled man and the community.

The people of the region appear when Legion sits at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. They were formerly afraid of his uncontrollable strength. Now they are provoked to fear by his transformation. They beg Jesus to leave their region. Was their request motivated by the economic loss of a herd of pigs? Or were they simply more comfortable with trying to control evil and violence within limits that they attempted to establish? These seem like modern considerations as we face the violence of our times. One wonders if we are afraid of God’s peace and the requirements of discipleship connected with healing individuals and communities.

I will write more about Legion in the coming days. This is the beginning of what I hope will be a deep reading of the passage.

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When Prayers for Healing do not Seem to Work: Part 1

When Prayers for Healing do not Seem to Work: Part 1

When Prayers for Healing Do Not Seem to Work: A Pauline Perspective

A few years ago we prayed fervently for a beloved colleague that was diagnosed with cancer. Her journey was long, painful, and accompanied by the prayers of her church and work colleagues. Eventually we gathered together at her funeral. Many of us felt sad and deflated that God had not answered our prayers for physical recovery.

Certain New Testament texts give the impression that God heals diseased and broken people based on a criteria involving the quality or the measure of the faith of those who turn to him.

  • In Mark 5 a woman is healed because of her faith while a synagogue leader with a dying daughter is encouraged to have faith.
  • In Mark 9 a father, pleading for his son, states that he has some faith but asks for help to overcome his unbelief.
  • In Mark 6 Jesus’ healing power is limited in Nazareth because of the lack of faith of people in his hometown.

Christians who pray for physical healing and see no positive results may be inclined to blame themselves for deficiencies of faith. Some may attempt to purge, refine, or expand their belief in God’s power to heal in order to reach the threshold required for a miracle.

The story of St. Paul’s struggle with a chronic illness provides a helpful correction to an exaggerated interpretation of the Biblical texts associated with the “name it and claim it” tendency current in some quarters.

St. Paul and the Thorn in the Flesh

God’s power to heal the sick was clearly evident through the apostolic witness of Paul. He makes reference to signs, wonders, and mighty works that accompanied the Christian proclamation (Rom. 15.18-19; 2 Cor. 12.12). It is important to notice that Paul is reticent about describing this aspect of his mission. No descriptions are provided. He prefers to draw attention to the message of the gospel with particular reference to the cross and resurrection. A reading of Romans 1-8 should convince any reader of Paul’s motivation to communicate the content of his message rather than to promote himself as a healer or wonder-worker.

When we turn to the letter called 2 Corinthians, we recognize the context of contested leadership. Paul was challenged by a group of detractors that he called the “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11.5). Taking advantage of Paul’s absence, these critics publicly dismissed him as deficient in speech, unimpressive in personal presence, lacking in “spiritual” experiences, and wanting in demonstrations of power. There is not space to canvas the full nature of Paul’s defence. In this blog I want to draw attention to 2 Corinthians 12.1-10.

Paul begins by speaking of a mystical experience of faith that he had fourteen years previously. He was conducted into the very presence of God around the time of his conversion. His desire not to use the visionary event for personal boasting or prestige is evident in the way he attributes this occurrence to an unidentified man. Paul then shifts the theme by stating that he deliberately chooses to speak of his weaknesses. The thorn in the flesh kept him grounded in humility and seemed to almost accompany the out-of-body experience and has been used to keep him grounded in humility.

There has been robust debate about the metaphorical expression “a thorn in my flesh.” The secondary description “a messenger of Satan” suggests that it was an obstacle and impediment to his missionary vocation. I agree with Ernest Best (1987) that the condition appears to have been chronic and episodic. Audrey Dawson (2008) is a New Testament specialist and a medical doctor. She proposes that Paul suffered from malaria, chronic brucellosis, or epilepsy. During relapses, he was weak and dependent on other people. In social settings that valued honor, Paul could be treated with contempt or scorn (Gal. 4.14).

The description of praying three times for healing and release probably means repeated prayer for a period. I appreciate how Best describes the answer from God. Paul was not told that it was noble to suffer. He was not told that he would discover a silver lining in the dark clouds. He was not told that he should learn to be content with his good days in order to deal with the bad. He was told that God’s grace would give him the resources to deal with the condition and its consequences. Through his illness, Paul would find that God’s power was perfected in weakness.

I agree with Dawson that people afflicted by a chronic illness are profoundly influenced by their pain and the reactions of others around them. The psycho-social impact of the thorn in the flesh has not received the kind of attention it merits. Paul may have developed skills as a writer of letters because the chronic illness restricted his movements at certain times. The misery and embarrassment drew him nearer to the suffering of Jesus (Phil. 3.10). In fact, Paul was convinced that his own sufferings, related to his calling and his health, were a way of completing the suffering of Christ for the church (Col. 1.24; 2 Cor. 4.10). Even though his body could be described as wasting away, he experienced a form of renewal that came from God (2 Cor. 4.16). The triumphant words of Romans 8 would be untested theory if not written by a man who had experienced hardships in his body and his vocation. One wonders if his understanding of the cross was made more profound through the years of living with an unpredictable chronic health condition.

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When prayers for healing do not seem to work: Part 2

When prayers for healing do not seem to work: Part 2

Did God Answer Paul’s Prayers for Healing?

I neither want to say that God did not answer Paul’s prayer nor that he answered “no.” Earlier I wrote about seven dimensions of health that are integral to well-being. I argued that the bio-medical dimension is often given exclusive attention with the result that other components are overlooked.

The seven dimensions are:

  1. Biomedical
  2. Mental health
  3. Supportive relationships
  4. Security of basic needs
  5. Intellectual (freedom of thought)
  6. Harmony with the created order
  7. Spiritual

These seven dimensions work together for personal health or well-being. We may experience healing in one dimension but remain wounded in others. I ask the question: Did God’s grace bring healing to Paul outside of the biomedical dimension?

I ponder if the combination of Paul’s conversion and the chronic illness were used to bringing healing to the apostle. I begin by drawing attention to the fact that, notwithstanding his illness, he was able to travel, evangelize, and work with Christian congregations in the Roman Empire. He was slowed down but not stopped. Those of us that live with chronic illnesses have experienced grace in our bodies although we are never free from the pain and limitations.

The warm references to friends and colleagues in Paul’s letters are evidence that the persecutor of the church had learned to build strong and supportive relationships with a wide variety of people. The arrogance and intolerance of the past were replaced by a genuine tenderness evident in his description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. The intellectual health of Paul is beyond question. Perhaps the enforced periods of “downtime” caused by illness and imprisonment gave Paul the intellectual freedom to enter more deeply into the profound nature of God’s salvation and the ministry of reconciliation.   The insecurity of his mission was more than matched by the security he found in God’s love. “Who shall separate us from the love of God?  … in all these things we are more than conquerors” (Rom. 8.31-39). Paul’s understanding of salvation extended beyond people to include the creation that will be liberated from its bondage (Rom. 8.18-22). We need to be reminded that by the first century deforestation and exploitation of land had decreased soil fertility in parts of the Mediterranean basin.

Finally, I propose that Paul’s chronic illness led him into deeper experiences of peace with God. Paul wrote about the love of God being poured into our hearts. These words occur in a paragraph that deals with suffering that produces perseverance, character, and hope (Rom. 5.1-5). Please be assured that I am not attempting to place all the weight of this passage on Paul’s health. I am simply stating that many of us who live with chronic illnesses can testify that God has worked through our relapses and discomfort to lead us to a place of deeper peace and trust.

As congregations, we should regularly pray for the healing of members of our community as journey with illness and disease. Paul’s example reminds us that our petitions to the great healer should not be confined to the biomedical dimension of health. The words of 2 Corinthians 12 invite us to consider that God comes to us in grace when our bodies fail. Like Paul, we may discover that his power is made complete in our weakness and dependency on him.

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The Theme of Faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 2

The Theme of Faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 2

Faith is an important theme in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus entered Galilee announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand. Listeners were encouraged to repent and believe the good news (1.14-15). I think this statement represents the starting point for faith. It is the conviction that the Creator God has entered the world in a new way through Jesus. The healing stories help us to understand God’s intention to bring wholeness to all areas of life. As we journey with Jesus, we also learn that the healing of the world requires suffering and death on the cross. Additionally, his followers are called to walk in the way of the cross.

Faith precedes healing in several passages (2.1-12; 5.21-43; 7.24-30; 9.14-29; 10.46-52). We can also say that faith is implicit, although not specifically mentioned, in other stories and summary passages. Think of the leper in Mark 1 who breaks the purity code and falls on his knees before Jesus. It is important to observe the extreme need of those who seek Jesus’s healing power and their intuition that he is their only hope. This is exemplified in the account of the woman with a vaginal flow of blood in Mark 5. She has spent all her savings on physicians that offered no help. She is convinced that she will be healed if only she touches his garment.  Jesus stops to listen to her story. He affectionately calls her his daughter. He tells her that her faith has saved her. Here we see that salvation is related to our wholeness in this life and beyond into eternity.

Two other passages merit comment. Jesus returns to his hometown in Mark 6. The villagers denigrate the local boy whose family still lives nearby. Jesus marvels at their unbelief and is unable to do mighty works apart from healing a few sick people. This story suggests that people’s faith gave Jesus a space in which to operate with God’s power. Conversely, the lack of faith placed limits on his mission of healing. I am reminded of a comment attributed to Phil Yancey: “God does not go where he is not wanted.”

In Mark 11, Jesus speaks about faith that can move mountains. This statement, on its own, might be interpreted to mean that miracles are possible provided that there is sufficient faith. The corollary is, of course, that the lack of miracles, including healings, indicates that the threshold of faith has not been achieved. We blame victims for being stuck in their need.

We need to be reminded that Jesus earnestly prayed that the cross would be removed from his vocation. In the garden of Gethsemane, he was strengthened to face death but faith did not give him a “pass.” In alignment with their master, faifIthful disciples will be betrayed by their closest loved ones, face persecutions, endure hardships, and be brought before hostile authorities. Faith does not get us what we might want. Faith brings us into communion with the Father to whom we belong even as we go through periods of suffering and brokenness.

I wish to make two final comments. God responds to people that desperately recognize their need for grace and healing. Too often our congregations have demanded an approved doctrinal statement for inclusion rather than the deep recognition that our lives are broken and wounded apart from God’s healing. Christians, in North America, are often middle class professionals at home in the world of ideas. There are people on the margins who will come to us demonstrating their faith by expressing an urgent need for God. Some of their actions will be as unwelcome as the digging through a roof to bring a friend to Jesus. Will we make room for these people in our fellowships? Will we start where God meets them in their needs and lead them into the deeper faith of being followers?

The story points to the role of friends and family that desire to see the healing and restoration of loved ones. The gospel narrative encourages us to pray faithfully for these people and to find compassionate ways to bring them to the God of grace and new beginnings.

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The theme of faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 1

The theme of faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 1

The story of the healing of the paralytic offers a rich opportunity to engage in narrative theology. In this piece, I explore the theme of faith. I have written it in two parts for ease of use by readers.

Part 1

The western tradition, to which I belong, values intellectual thought and concepts. Faith is often defined as the content of what one believes. Accordingly, there are basic doctrinal statements about God, Jesus, and the Spirit that are define the orthodox Christian faith. Select passages of scripture are used that support this way of approaching faith. A classic text comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “… if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom. 10.9).

The story of the healing of the paralytic requires us to consider faith from another perspective for two reasons. First, the faith that Jesus recognizes is attributed to the four friends of the paralytic. Second, the doctrinal content is vague and ambiguous. These men simply believe that Jesus has the power to heal. We do not meet them in the narrative as disciples that sit at the feet of Jesus.

I am intrigued by how human tragedy and urgent action interrupt a theological conversation. The description of the scribes (the official interpreters of Torah) seated inside the house implies that they have taken an official position. Their intent is to investigate and debate the prophet from Galilee whose teaching has popular authority. Jesus represents a threat to their honor and influence.

The sound of men digging through a thatched roof would have been disconcerting. The sight of a paralytic being precariously lowered on a stretcher must have been riveting. One can imagine how eyes moved between the men on the roof, the paralytic, and the anxious owner of the home.

The description of Jesus seeing the faith of the four men is important. One does not see intellectual beliefs or doctrines unless they are printed on a page. Jesus is a witness to the urgent and desperate actions of four men. They have faith that Jesus can help their paralyzed friend. They know that his announcement of the in breaking of God’s rule has been accompanied by healings and exorcisms. He has restored health, dignity, and freedom to broken and wounded people.

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The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

I want to reflect on the healing of the paralytic in the next few posts. One of the intriguing features of Mark’s narrative is the connection between the forgiveness of sin and the physical restoration of the man that was carried to Jesus by his friends. This passage represents the only time in Mark when Jesus explicitly tells someone that they are forgiven and released of their sins.

The pronouncement of forgiveness is controversial here because Jesus acts with the direct authority that belongs only to God. The scribes in the audience are outraged and harbour accusations of blasphemy. This crime would be punishable by death. In fact, Jesus is accused of blasphemy in the trial that leads to the crucifixion. It is also controversial because there have been no signs of repentance and no indication that sacrifices will be offered by the paralytic in the temple.

I want to make two points here for preachers, Bible study leaders, and lay theologians.

First, even in our modern secular society the burden of guilt can be a destructive force. Unresolved guilt impacts on spiritual, physical, and emotional health along with networks of relationships. The pronouncement of God’s forgiveness gives individuals the opportunity of a new beginning.  In the case of the paralytic, the experience of forgiveness is part of the healing process.

Second, forgiveness can be controversial. We are most comfortable in a world where people get what they deserve (ourselves being the exception). We are uneasy when the church pronounces the unmerited grace of God’s forgiveness to people that have harmed others through violence or deception.  Forgiveness without punishment can seem scandalous.

Perhaps the best route to understanding the controversial nature of forgiveness is through human stories that can serve as representations of the greater miracles of God’s grace.

  • Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964. The trial judge was Percy Yutar. Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He was released in 1990 and was elected president of South Africa in 1994. He invited Yutar to have lunch with him in the president’s office. Mandela stated that he was trying to model the reconciliation that his country needed. Yutar, after the luncheon, described Mandela as a saint. The lunch meeting was severely criticized by people associated with Mandela that wanted some measure of justice rather than forgiveness.
  • In Rwanda, a woman went to a prison to witness the baptism and offer forgiveness to a young man who had killed her husband (an Adventist pastor). She invited him, after his release, to come and live with her and her children so that he could study at an Adventist Secondary School. She was criticized by people that felt she had dishonored the memory of her husband and disrespected the fundamental standards of justice.
  • Malcolm Gladwell wrote that his faith was renewed by Wilma Derksen of Winnipeg. Derksen’s daughter was murdered in 1984. Wilma Derksen drew deeply on her faith and the Mennonite tradition of meeting violence with love. She forgave the man accused of her daughter’s death and was able to experience her own release and healing. Gladwell compared Wilma Derksen with other families that have lived with bitter wounds and the unresolved desire for justice.
  • Anthony Berry, a British MP, was killed in the Brighton Bomb blast of 1984. The man responsible was the IRA master bomb maker Patrick Magee. Jo Berry went to a church to pray when she learned of her father’s death. She realized that she was being called to work for understanding and peace. She made several trips to Northern Ireland and entered the alienation and resentment felt by Irish Catholics. Sixteen years later she met Patrick Magee. They went on to work together to promote peace, understanding, and reconciliation. Jo Berry received death threats and was accused of being a traitor to her nation and the memory of her father.
  • On 17 June 2015 Dylan Roof, a white supremacist, entered a Bible study in an African American church in Charlestown, South Carolina. He took out a gun and killed nine people in a racially motivated crime. The situation, which could have erupted in violent confrontations, was defused by family members that offered forgiveness in their pain. One woman spoke of her deceased sister: ” she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

We live in a broken and wounded world. The road of the cross requires us to be people that proclaim and demonstrate forgiveness for the healing of individuals and our communities.

 

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