Possessed!

February 1, 2015

Psalm 111 p.833; Mark 1:21-28

Possession. A scary word that conjures up images from “The Exorcist” or “The Omen” or the latest equivalent. It’s an idea that continues to haunt people. Hardly a year goes by without at least one movie and sometimes several in the theatres that feature someone or something possessed. The idea frightens us, but do we really believe in it?
People in the first century firmly believed in evil spirits and their ability to take over a human being. Jesus himself certainly seems to have done so. He was known not just as a teacher, but as a healer, which in those days included exorcism. We know that much of what was once considered the work of evil spirits can be understood to be symptoms of various physical diseases or mental illnesses. But there are places in the world today where Christians still practice exorcism – especially in cultures where the world is seen as a “spirited” place – where everything has a spirit of some kind and sometimes those spirits can become twisted and evil.
Even the most recent United Church worship book, “Celebrate God’s Presence” includes a simple ritual for exorcism – and I’ve talked to clergy who’ve been called upon to use it. They’ve used it in situations where people felt haunted or were seeing mysterious beings, or where there seemed to be a dangerous or malignant feeling in a particular place. In placing that situation before God, people experienced a cleansing and a lifting of what had troubled them.
It won’t surprise you to know that I’m a skeptic about such things. I know enough people who have had such experiences to try to keep a somewhat open mind, but I believe much of what is understood to be possession or the presence of spirits, even today, is really the effect of trauma or trials that have stressed mind and body. Do I believe there is healing in the name of Jesus for those things? Absolutely! I don’t believe it’s a magical act, ie. simply pronounce the name of Jesus and wave a cross around and all will be well. But there is something in the authority with which Jesus speaks to brokenness and pain – there is something in the strength of his conviction that God is at work in that very place – that brings healing in its wake.
A few weeks back a colleague posted an article about clergy anger and how to deal with it. If there was ever a ‘spirit’ that bedevilled humanity, it’s anger! It might surprise you that clergy get angry. Somehow anger is supposed to be one of those emotions good Christians aren’t supposed to feel. The truth is, even Jesus got angry – and not just once – many times. He got angry at injustice and abuse, he got angry at hypocrisy, he got angry at the way people treat other people sometimes. And you know, that’s often what gets clergy people the most angry, too – seeing abuse and oppression in the world around us, and sometimes, right in our congregations. Some clergy themselves are the victims of abusive behaviour.
There’s an odd phenomenon in the church that people will sometimes take out their worst behaviour on clergy, because they figure clergy can’t “hit back”. We won’t retaliate, so we’re a safe target for other people’s inappropriate behaviour and unresolved issues. This not only makes clergy justifiably angry, but also guilty because we think we’re not supposed to get angry. It also severely damages clergy self-esteem. I’m not saying this because I’m experiencing it here; I’m talking about it because clergy, like many others, can carry around a lot of anger, and if we don’t know how to deal with it, it can destroy our ministry and our mental health. At the event I was at this weekend one of the presenters said that 70% of clergy in the U.S. are on some form of medication for depression and anxiety. I suspect it’s not so different here. I expect a lot of that comes from experiencing abusive behaviour and feeling like they can’t do anything about it. The same thing can happen to anyone who is troubled by the wounds of abuse and doesn’t know what to do with their perfectly justified anger.
So what do we do? And what does this have to do with today’s reading? Well, what we do is what so many people did during Jesus’ lifetime. We turn to Jesus to heal our hurts and our anger. We turn to Jesus to still the angry voices barking at us from inside our own minds and hearts. We turn to Jesus to heal the resentments and pain that live inside of us. It is only in the resources of the spiritual life that we will find the healing we need.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look to other sources of healing – if we need medication, we can take it; if therapy helps, go for it!; if exercise and good eating and adequate sleep help turn the problem around, make sure you try for those things. There are lots of ways to help heal the consequences of unresolved anger in our inner being – but how will we resolve the anger itself? How do we keep anger and other negative emotions from possessing us and controlling our actions? THAT is where we turn to the life of the Spirit.
Thomas Bandy had this to say about the blessing of turning to Jesus. He calls it “The Spiritual Life”. He’s writing for pastors, but I think it applies to all of us! When we turn toward Jesus – when we spend time with Jesus through prayer and worship, music and silence, stillness and service – the anger and the damaged self-esteem become less powerful, and we experience healing of our hearts and minds.
First, the Spiritual Life encourages emotional detachment. The more the Christian turns attention away from the world and toward God alone, the more the Christian lets go of emotional entanglements that strangle his or her life.
Do you remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoons that included the little Martian invader? A favorite joke in the cartoon was to first project a huge, imposing shadow of the horrible Martian with his military helmet and space gun … and then pan backwards to reveal that the actual Martian was just a little pipsqueak with a popgun. That is what Spiritual Life does for the Christian. Compared to God, and in the light of God’s grace, the shadow that has been cast over the clergy’s [the person’s] soul is reduced, shrunk down to size, and put in perspective.
Second, being confronted by Jesus is to be confronted by God’s love for you. Our sense of self comes, not from what others think of us, but from how God views us. “Accepted by God, [we] can accept [ourselves].
The African-American people know this very well. It was the knowledge of who they were in God’s eyes that allowed them to confront and throw off the chronic loss of self-esteem through slavery. Many of us as Christians still need to hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us with divine authority. Many of us still need to hear, “You are healed. You are whole. You are loved.”
The voices in our heads can really get to us. I don’t mean the kind of voices we hallucinate; I mean all the messages we hear from our parents or our communities or the negative things we say to ourselves. They can control our actions, turn us into self-destructive paths, ruin our relationships, and make our work and our calling a burden rather than a joy. They’re not demons or evil spirits, but they have that same power over us. They try to drown out the voice of Jesus: the voice of love, the voice of hope. They try to tell us that their reality is our reality, that what they say is the ultimate truth. Jesus’ voice challenges them with a different truth: that their time is done, that their reign is over, and that it is God who will reign in our hearts and minds from now on.
As Bandy hastens to point out, “The Spiritual Life is not a magic pill that will remove [clergy] anger after a short treatment. It is not even a psychotherapy that restores health in a prescribed regimen. …the harm of victimization will [can] take a lifetime to overcome. Once robbed, self-esteem is difficult to rebuild. The Spiritual Life is a lifetime commitment. But gradually, yes, the chronic anger will lessen and self-esteem will be restored. [Instead of being possessed by negative thoughts and images, we can be possessed by Love. No exorcisms needed! We] can again become healthy, happy, hopeful instruments of God’s realm. I think that’s very good news, indeed!

Parts in TIMES NEW ROMAN type are from Tom G. Bandy, September 15, 2013, in Ministry Matters, “Clergy Anger and the Urgency of a True Spiritual Life” http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/4253/clergy-anger-the-urgency-of-a-true-spiritual-life

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