Some time ago I was working with some young adults. We were working through a variety of issues that were causing them some deep concern and holding them back in a variety of ways. The conversations took place in a group and sometimes one to one. One of the people in the group came to me to talk. I was quite aware of several issues and concerns in his life. There was nothing that required professional counselling but he needed another person to listen to his story, to take him seriously and to accept who he was, as he was.
As I think back I’m aware that there were some things about him that could irritate other people after a while – habits, nervous responses, and other small attributes that come from someone lacking self-confidence and assurance. As we talked I heard the story of someone who experienced some rejection and the sense of being put down, as not being as acceptable as others. Some of these experiences built upon other experiences and became bigger than the reality behind them. It reached the point where this young man felt some deep inner despair, confusion and alienation. He reached a point where he interpreted other people’s responses negatively and as rejection of who he was.
As we talked, a picture emerged of a young man who felt very alone despite being surrounded by people who were friends and family. He found himself doing things that were detrimental to his own well-being – emotional self-harm. He also gave every sign of crying out for help but in ways that gave off wrong messages and often turned people away – the self-harm and crying out worked against each other. I had this image of a young man who felt trapped, bound up, lost, alone and crying out for help with no-one seemingly hearing his cries or not knowing what to do if they did.
It was a vicious circle as the young man seemed to work against the kindness others sought to express and they felt he was rejecting them. As we talked a Bible story about Jesus came to mind. It was the story in this week’s Gospel reading – Luke 8:26-39 (albeit the version in Mark’s Gospel). Essentially the story is about Jesus crossing the lake into Gentile (pagan) territory and encountering a man who was sometimes chained up and sometimes running loose in the graveyard. He was out of his mind and harmed himself. He scared people off but cried out day and night. In the story he is described as having many demons.
Jesus confronted the man and his demons and ‘drove them out of the man’ (it’s the story where they go into a herd of swine that runs down the hill and drowns). The man begs Jesus not to torment him and doesn’t want him to come near – and yet he does want what Jesus offers. In the end the man comes to his right mind and is released from the bondage into a new freedom. That’s the point for Luke who wants to help us understand that Jesus represents God’s way of freedom and life for all.
As I spoke with the young man I asked him to read part of the story. At first he didn’t get it –‘So what? He said.’ I asked him to tell me what the man was experiencing and he listed the elements of loneliness, crying out, being trapped or bound, living amongst the dead, excluded, self-harm… As he read the light went on and he slowed down, feeling each word as touching his own life. As the tears filled his eyes we talked about what was happening in the story, of how Jesus reached out and touched the man and expressed God’s love, acceptance, forgiveness and life.
In the story everything happens simultaneously but in life processes are slower and more complex. Healing doesn’t usually come in a flash but as an unfolding process of opening ourselves to God’s grace and trusting others. Sometimes the ability to trust anyone at depth and to believe in love and acceptance is the most enormous and fear-filled step, depending on the pain and wounds that fills a person’s life. The story speaks of fear: Fear filled the responses of everyone who encountered Jesus and this man. The fear was about change, about trust and what God’s love might actually mean – fear of the unknown and fear of being free!
We talked about the story over a few weeks. I can’t tell you what happened in the young man but gradually he changed. He shared this story in our group as he learned to trust the others. They felt his pain and shared some of it with him. There was prayer and openness to God and in some mysterious way a journey into new life with new peace began.
The demons this young man experienced were real – not the unearthly spirits we sometimes imagine. His demons were the demons of life that filled his body mind and spirit – addictions, hurts, grief, rejection, guilt/shame and a range of others things that manifest themselves in human life.
The first steps (as AA discovered long ago) is to recognise our own vulnerability and inability to heal ourselves; to believe that it is only in a power greater than ourselves that we can find help and healing; we need to trust in God’s grace and power to open us to healing. The other lesson of AA is that we need a supportive community who will accept and love us as we are able to receive; one in which we are gradually able to build trust and to rely upon.
The other story this week is from 1 Kings 19:1-15. It is a story of Elijah who has just encountered the enormous power of God displayed. Following this, Elijah is pursued by powerful people and is tired and displaying characteristics of confusion, uncertainty, fear and perhaps shame? He is alone and looking for answers. The Spirit of God tells him to stand on the mountain and God will speak to him. There is a great wind, a powerful earthquake and a great fire. Elijah looks into these displays of power for the voice of God but it isn’t there. Then there is a deep silence and the gentle voice of God speaks to Elijah with words that are peaceful, calming and guiding.
We often look for God in powerful displays and want to claim victorious moments as expressions of God but often God is more powerfully and profoundly revealed in gentleness, silence and quiet spaces. God is there when we surrender our vulnerability and pain, when we begin to trust and open ourselves, even minutely, to the power of love – that of God and people in community. This love gradually seeps into us with liberation, healing, new life and hope.
The backdrop to Luke’s story was of a region filled with the demons of Roman military brutality. There was lingering memory and pain, suffering and oppression. The political import of this story was to point towards the Kingdom of God as way of healing, peace and life. The story of swine running into the water and drowning conjures images of the Hebrew people crossing the Red Sea and the Egyptians (oppressors) drowning. The political point to this story is that God, alone, leads people and nations into freedom and God’s ways are liberating. This stands in contrast to the powers of Rome, in Jesus’ day, and the powers of the dominant cultures around us today.
This story raises questions about how we are treating people by locking them away in detention centres out of fear. These processes are only adding to the demons refugees already manifest. Locking people away doesn’t remove the demons, the pain and wounds, but compounds them in ways that are debilitating and result in alienation, more serious self harm and despair.
The story also questions how we deal with criminality – our current system has been seriously questioned this week in the light of violent criminals re-offending. Do we seek to heal or only punish and what might we need to do differently? If we wish to rehabilitate a person, as well as deny them some freedoms to ‘pay’ for their crimes, is our current system able to do that? where does the communal element fit in? Is there opportunity to confront personal demons, a hard and painful experience for many? What might we do in a creative way to restore people to their right mind?