Casting Out the Demons of Life!

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.

PostScript:
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?

By geoffstevenson

A Compassionate Response…

In his ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ Stephen Covey relates the following story that occurred one Sunday morning on a subway in New York (pp30-31):

People were sitting quietly, reading newspapers, lost in thought, or resting with their eyes closed. At the next station, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to Covey and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing – and yet the man next to Covey did nothing. It was difficult not to feel irritated. How could this man be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all? It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. Finally, with as much patience and restraint as he could muster, Covey turned to the man and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.” Covey was stunned.

“Can you image how I felt at that moment?” he asks. His understanding shifted. He relates, “Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. My heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.” “Your wife just died? I’m so sorry. Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.

When a group of us heard this story recently, we were very moved and challenged by it. I think that we realised that it is easy to look at people and make many assumptions based on what we see. How often have you been surprised when your personal assumptions and thoughts have been turned upside down when the truth of a person is revealed? Sometimes we are challenged to look beyond the respectability of a person and see a truth that is disturbing. Sometimes we are challenged to look beyond the negative assumptions or picture before us and see a human being who is hurting or struggling.

When we considered the story above it was in the context of exploring the compassionate path of Jesus. Jesus looked deeply into people’s hearts and lives and saw in them a human being with all their strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and failures. Jesus responded to people as they were in their inner being. He was patient and considered and listened deeply to their story and then responded with deep compassion and grace. Jesus was quick to offer forgiveness and acceptance and slow to judge and condemn.

This week’s Gospel story is one such story. It comes from Luke 7:36-8:3. It is a story of Jesus being a guest at the home of Simon, a religious leader, for a meal. As was common in the day, the meal involved other public figures and was in an open courtyard where other local people might gather to watch on and listen.

At this meal a woman of ill-repute (called a ‘sinner’) sat behind Jesus as he reclined before the table – a raised structure not far off the ground (The guests sat on cushions with their feet behind them and facing the table). The woman had a bottle of expensive perfume and kissed his feet and anointed them with this perfume. Her tears washed his feet in an expression of deep yearning and heart-felt sorrow.

Simon was mortified by this act of public intimacy that was taboo. She was obviously a prostitute and conducting herself in this manner in public was beyond comprehension. In his thinking he challenged Jesus, labelling both he and the woman as beyond redemption.

Jesus noticed his expression and turned the challenge back onto Simon indicating that the woman’s heart was one that was hurting with the weight of everything that she had done that had brought shame upon her. She carried the weight of being despised and excluded by other people. She was rejected by everyone except the hypocritical clients that continued to receive her services. She was clearly far from God’s grace and she was condemned without further thought or hope.

Simon and the others wrote her off and rejected her. Jesus, however, allowed her expression of love and hope even though it brought condemnation upon him. He saw beneath the exterior – the clothes, the hair and the inappropriate actions to a heart that was filled with sorrow and pain. This was a woman whose life had, for whatever reasons, descended into a place of degradation and despair. There was no real way out for her because the law and those who controlled the law condemned her without recourse.

Jesus proclaimed that she was forgiven! He heart was true before God and God forgave her! Jesus freed her from the bonds of societal imprisonment and welcomed her into the community of life and hope, of grace and love. This compassion opened the door to new life and opportunity for the woman.

I remember some of the young people we have worked over many years. Some I have instantly judged negatively and believed them to be difficult and anti-social troublemakers. THEN, I have heard something of their story. The bravado and loud behaviour fades and I see a vulnerable hurting little boy who is so afraid because of the rejection and pain he experiences in so much of his life. Any behaviour that can gain him some attention and acceptance even if he gets into trouble, is better than suffering alone.

These stories challenge me to be patient with people and look more deeply into the heart and being of each person; to look beyond what I see or experience at first glimpse or encounter. Inside each person is a being uniquely created in the image of God. There are many reasons they do, say and think as they do – just as it is with me. I ought not judge but seek to understand. I ought not fear that which is different or even disturbing but respond out of compassion and grace.

By geoffstevenson

Breathing Life into Death…

This week’s news has been filled with the terrible story of a young man, Simon Cramp, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was attacked by some men in the early hours of Sunday morning and struck his head as he fell. He lay in a coma in St Vincent’s Hospital and was not expected to live.

It was hard to comprehend the emotions, the disbelief, the confusion… of his family who received the early morning call that no-one wants to receive. They sat in a hospital room with him preparing to say goodbye to their beloved son but also with some deep hope that ‘a miracle’ might occur.

Having spent time with people in such awful situations, I cannot describe to complexity of emotions – fear, anguish, confusion and despair – that is felt. They walk around in fog of numbness not knowing what to do, what to expect, how to act. They feel utterly helpless and powerless to change anything or make a difference. They listen to doctors and make decisions that are beyond them to comprehend. They put their faith in the medical system but want something more and turn to the God of their culture or faith. People speak of prayers and they find some support and strength in the chaplains who attend to them.

As a community watching on to this event over this last week we also feel their helplessness. We feel anger, sadness, and distress at the unprovoked, unnecessary attack on an innocent man. We wonder what is going on. What lies behind the violence? Why such violence? Perhaps it is alcohol or drug induced but that doesn’t explain the violence. We watch and hope. We dare to pray, wondering what God might be able to do here. We offer prayers that are not much more than an expression of our compassion and deep hopes for an unknown young man on the verge of death.

With the family, we watch on, waiting, waiting, waiting… All too often this waiting has resulted in the feared conclusion, the death of the person. Our hopes, our prayers, go unrewarded and we see the pain of the family before we put it behind us, trying to forget and afraid to ask our questions. Sometimes, however, the prayers and hopes find their longed for goal – the person opens eyes and sits up. The family laughs and so do we. They cry for joy and we find ourselves welling with the emotion that such a hope-filled story brings. Right is restored and life renewed!

This is what happened this week. Simon Cramp, much against expectations, opened his eyes. He spoke; he sat up and yesterday was talking with doctors, family, friends and media. Before us in living colour Simon smiled, laughed and spoke briefly about his experience. The family who had lost their son had his life restored. Life rose out of death, like the mythical Phoenix, expressing and symbolising the hopes and joys we yearn for in so many areas of our lives.

It is a wonderful story that I attempted to avoid earlier in the week because I didn’t have enough emotional energy to get involved in it. As the week moved on and there were signs of hope I felt more connected. I didn’t really need more bad news, news of death and violence and despair. What I wanted was life and hope, joy and possibility. Don’t we all??

Now that the lovely, joyful story has been lived and told, what will happen to it? Now that Simon has recovered to the point he may leave hospital in the next week, does the story simply fade away? I wonder what impact the ‘dying and rising’ of Simon will have on his own life and expectations? I wonder what impact it will have upon his family and friends. I wonder whether there will be any impact in the wider society who has followed this story. Is Simon’s wonderful raising from the brink of death something more than his life? Is there something deeper to reflect on, something more profound to contemplate, something transformative? I wonder whether the experience of pain and horror so many of us felt, before we discovered joyous hope, can be translated into life in a deeper sense; a communal sense? Can we begin to understand ourselves as connected to one another, a community of human beings who share this city, this nation, and this world? Can we begin to understand how the ripples of violence and loss in people’s lives spread out to impact everyone? Can we begin to imagine what was happening in the offender’s mind and being that led him to assault an innocent bystander? What hatred or other evil so fills his being and why? What has led this man to this point and is there something along the way that might have turned him in another direction?

The other question that I ask is where is God in this story? I cannot point to anything in particular where God is specifically to be identified. Some might want to say God healed the man but of course that is fraught – what of those of whom we have prayed but they have not lived? To ascribe everything to medicine is also a stretch to far as they were not confident or in control of Simon’s condition. They did what they could and waited (perhaps they prayed as well?). God is mysteriously involved in all of life provoking all of us to hope and live out of hope, even when confronted by death. Into situations of defeat, God breathes new possibilities but they can be hard to embrace and believe when we feel grief.

This week a couple of ancient stories (1 Kings 17:8-24 and Luke 7:11-17) tell of God breathing life into situations of death. Whilst both have healings of people dead or near death, it is the hope these stories convey into a family or community of struggle that is the important part. Jesus speaks life into death when the son of a widow is dead. Her hopelessness is transformed and her community believes in something more, something hopeful and something to celebrate together. In the other reading the ancient prophet of Jewish faith, Elijah, delivers hope and life into a family of struggle. He heals a sick, dying son of a widow and provides enduring food through a famine as they live together and share life.

So where is God in all of this? Is God a magical miracle worker who fixes some things and not others but is largely removed form life? I experience God in these stories as the breath that breathes life into people and situations. God is the word of hope that transforms people and communities. God is the joyous laughter that bubbles around us and in us! God is in and around us, the source of life and hope!

Sing a New Song!

I came across this recently:

In 1825 the British government set up Norfolk Island as a place of terror meant to deter crime.  Robert Hughes wrote about it in The Fatal Shore.  In 1840 the penal reformer Alexander Maconochie  was appointed superintendent of the penal settlement and set about changing the running of the place.  He believed “cruelty debases both victim and the society inflicting it.”  He brought in books and introduced music to the prisoners.  He did away with the gallows and the whips.  Two churches were built.  Each prisoner was given a garden plot and classes were taught in vegetable and fruit growing.  The whole atmosphere on the island changed and very few of the prisoners released during Maconochie’s time ever re-offended.  His term only lasted four years but when he was replaced, the cruelty returned and resulted in the mutiny of prisoners and the return to hangings as punishment.  The British government did not seem to learn anything from his time as superintendent and his more humane way of treating people.  I mention this story because it seems the Australian government has still not learned.  Its “No Advantage” immigration policy and the way it runs Manus Island as a deterrence lesson for anyone considering coming to Australia is different only in degree from what the British did in the 1800’s.  (http://aaanz.mennonite.net/Mailing)

SBS reporter Mark Davis went to Manus Island believing he had permission from the Australian Government and it was only the PNG Government that stood in his way. An interview with PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neil, indicated that he was free to travel anywhere on the island and there was no block. He made several attempts to enter the facility and tell the story. His car was bugged, film destroyed, and phone calls to the Minister ignored. Interviews with the guards tell of a very difficult and desperate place. There are suicides and self-harm – and no processing of asylum seekers, not one!

What is the Processing Centre for? The locals call it the Australian prison and want the asylum seekers to be released and allowed to live lives that are free on the island until they are processed. They would allow them to work and interact and would welcome them into their communities but the Australian Government won’t allow it and they hide behind deception!

We need to sing a new song because this one is pretty horrific and inhumane!

Over the last weekend the indigenous AFL footballer and Sydney Swans star, Adam Goodes, was racially abused by a young supporter who called him, more expressively, an ‘ape’. Goodes called it to the attention of officials and the young girl was dealt with – Goodes hoped through education and understanding. Collingwood (the team she supported) came out in support of Goodes through President and media figure, Eddie Maguire. A few days later, in a separate incident, Maguire suggested that Goodes should be used to advertise the upcoming stage show, King Kong. For this overtly racist comment, Maguire has been called to account. These terrible accounts show how close to the surface racism exists in Australian society. It obviously works in various directions and is not exclusively Anglo-Australians who are racist. It’s just that as those who wield most of the power in the society we can have greater impact through racist policies, media reporting and cultural expectation. Those who are different, whom we don’t understand, who have different culture, language or custom are demonised and categorised.

We need to sing a new song because this one is creating unrest, pain and conflict!

Violence and hatred are all too common in news stories as people engage in local or international conflicts. As a nation we legitimate violence as a solution through our overt support and participation in warfare that isn’t required, justified or a meaningful response to world problems. When we engage in warfare as the only means of resolving problems we confirm that violence is an efficient and effective way of dealing with problems.

Violent language, actions and policies dehumanise us and we all descend into a place that is less dignified and less humane. Resolution of problems diminishes and they escalate beyond our capacity to deal with them. Afghanistan and Iraq are examples. No-one really knows what to do with either country. The Coalition of the Willing simply want to get out and leave the problems behind despite the disastrous mess we have caused.

We need to sing a new song because this one has run its course! It isn’t working!

In the recent budget the Australian Government marginally increased foreign aid but again pushed back our commitment to lift it to 0.5% Gross National Income (GNI). This second delay means that ~$4.8 billion will be removed from overseas aid over the period 2012-16 – a very significant loss for the world’s poorest people! Equally problematic is that ~ $375 million will be spent on processing asylum seekers, making the Australian Government the 3rd highest recipient of its own foreign aid!!!

There were some positives in that foreign aid has risen to a higher level as a percentage of GNI (0.37%) even though it is about half our commitment to reach  0.7% GNI by 2020.

When things become tight, economically and the purse strings are tightened, everybody is asked to bear the pain and take part of the hit. Unfortunately, whilst the upper end of society can well afford such tightening of belts, along with middle income earners. The lower end struggles and the very bottom has nothing left to pull in! Many in our world struggle to live – they die from poor sanitation and dirty water, poor health care and lack of basic medicines, poor diet and lack of adequate shelter… These people cannot pull back on anything and need more, not less money to enable them to live!

We need to sing a new song because this one is not compassionate.

The call, this week, is for us to sing a new song (Psalm 96), to hear the call of God to be people of peace, grace, love and hope and to share this with each other and those beyond. It is an invitation to live abundantly in the community of God’s gracious love and peace. Together, let’s sing a new song of love and justice