A friend sent me an email this morning with the photo of a curlew. This bird has “developed a long beak to dig out food, just as we theologians must do to find truth for God’s people.” He told me he’d be preaching today “where Jesus is in our society today, in places where many of his servants are reluctant to go.” And he offered a prayer for me: “I hope your own long beak finds truth for your people today.”
Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:17-31) takes place after the transfiguration on the mountain. Jesus and three disciples come down from the mountain only to find a scene of chaos and recriminations. The disciples who had stayed behind were not able to heal the boy with the “dumb and deaf spirit” – and there’s plenty of blame going around. I see here a parallel with Exodus 32. When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he found a chaotic scene of idol worship – the golden calf. Here Jesus comes down from the mountain and finds a scene of doubt and blame.
The real subjects of the miracle story are not the boy and his father, but the disciples! In the previous chapter, Peter wanted to hear nothing about Jesus going to his death, and Jesus struck back by calling him Satan! Coming down from the mountain in this chapter, they still don’t understand. And after the miracle, Jesus tells them again that he would be killed – but their ears and minds are still closed. The boy might have a “deaf and dumb” spirit; but the apostles are deaf and dumb to what Jesus is telling them. The father’s cry, “Help my unbelief” should also be the cry of the disciples.
The spirit that possesses this boy is a metaphor for the forces and powers that control our minds and hearts “since childhood”. So, prayer and fasting are needed to overcome our inability to see that change and transformation are possible. Prayer requires self-knowledge, and self-knowledge can only come through fasting from all the illusions and attachments that paralyze us. Honesty is required at every step. There’s good psychology here.
You can actually see the origins of the 12-step program right here. in this miracle story. You can only begin the healing process by accepting your powerlessness, and so you cry out with the father, Help my unbelief!
Prayer and fasting – without them the search for healing becomes an endless cycle of frustration and anger, just as we see in today’s miracle. You become cynical, resigned to failure, thus deepening your paralysis and the harm in your life.
What is that you feel powerless about? You can’t lose those 30 pounds. You’re like the father and the apostles. You can’t stop smoking. You’re like the father and the apostles. You don’t think you’ll ever amount to anything. You’re like the father and the apostles. You don’t think you can ever be the husband or the wife your spouse deserves. You’re like the father and the apostles. You don’t think you will ever have strong faith. You’re like the father and the apostles. You don’t think you can ever forgive your brother. You’re like the father and the apostles. And on it goes.
A few days ago, Father Tom Hopko, one of my professors at seminary, fell asleep in the Lord. In honor of his memory, I share with you some bits of wisdom that he put together some time ago.
- Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
- Do acts of mercy in secret.
- Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
- Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
- Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
- Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
- Be faithful in little things.
- Face reality.
- Be grateful.
- Be cheerful.
- Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
- Never bring attention to yourself.
- Listen when people talk to you.
- Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
- Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
- Be defined and bound by God, not people.
- Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
- Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves.
- Be merciful with yourself and others.
- When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
Prayer and fasting. Prayer to bring you hope; fasting to clear out the old, harmful, paralyzing ways. Prayer and fasting to fill your life with positive thoughts and actions like the ones from Fr. Hopko. May his memory be eternal. (The full text from which the above bits are taken can be read here.)