Leaning in

The man with the unclean spirit is ordered by Jesus to “Be silent!”[1] After Jesus speaks to him, the unclean spirit obeys, and leaves the man. The man is thus transformed, healed, made whole in this dramatic Gospel encounter with Jesus.

We need to note, before going on, that Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Capernaum. He is at the beginning of his ministry. And what better place to start his preaching than on home turf, on familiar ground, in the rural community with people he likely knows, and who know him?

If you’ve ever lived in the country, or farther up the Ottawa Valley, you know that in small towns, people know each other. And when it comes to annual fairs, big events or musical shows, everyone attends. So, when in the lake side village, a home-boy comes to preach in the local synagogue, well, who wouldn’t show up? The synagogue is crammed full. Standing room only.

The point here is that the evil spirit resides and comes out within this rather homogenous community. The evil is not out there, somewhere – in Jerusalem the big city, or out there across the lake among the heathen Gentiles, or expressed within other groups with different belief systems and faiths. The evil is right there in the middle of the common, familiar, comforts of home.

The man with the evil spirit is a person like us. We know him. He is our neighbour. He, or she, is our friend, co-worker. She is the person who comes to church and sits beside us, Sunday after Sunday. The person with the evil spirit is not a stranger to us. That person is us. Each of us.

The Gospel of Mark – indeed the entire New Testament – is a primarily message to and for the church. Not to Islam. Not to Wicca. Not to some Voodoo occult. Not to the so-called Axis of Evil. The finger of judgement is pointed directly at us, at our sin, our evil, the brokenness within us.

When we deny. When we exclude. When we overstep our bounds. When we self-justify. And if you think you don’t have any of these and other problems – to quote what my Dad used to say and preach – you do have a problem!

It’s to this community, in awareness of the sin in our hearts, individually and collectively, that Jesus’ first words, spoken with authority, are: “Be silent!”

How do we change by being silent? I thought we were supposed to do something about our sin! Being silent sounds too much like being passive, lazy, self-indulgent and unproductive. How is it that we are changed when we are quiet?

The silence of which I speak, is first not the silence of denial. It is not a silence that happens when we remain quiet in the face of a great injustice. When a problem is not named, silence enables the problem to continue unattested. When there is something wrong, but no one dares to name the elephant in the room. This is not the silence of which I speak.

Neither is it the silence of combative conflict between people. When someone gives the other ‘the silent treatment’, silence serves as a weapon between people who need help to speak to one another about things that need saying in a safe way. This, too, is not the silence of which I speak.

Jesus is not scolding the man with the unclean spirit when he says, “Be silent!” He is not like the frustrated parent who has reached the boiling point with a disobedient child and just wants them to just shut up and go to their room.

When Jesus says, “Be silent!” he is inviting the disturbed and ill man to open his heart to being changed. Jesus first words are an invitation to be healed. And the first step in that direction is to put to rest, for the moment, the rampant flailing of a seemingly unstoppable ego.

This is a scary thing to do. How can we let go of our reactions, compulsions, need to be right? How can we be so vulnerable and leave ourselves wide open? How can we take this risk, let alone be healed by doing so?

One of my greatest fears as a child was to play on the round-a-bout. At the centre of the playground at kindergarten, stood the scary carousel-like structure. The round-a-bout used rotary motion, spinning around in a circle either clockwise or counter-clockwise. It was painted red.

A bunch of us kids would start by grabbing the four railings which fanned out from the centre like spokes on a wheel. We then started running, really fast, around and around pushing the carousel to dizzying speeds. And then at the moment when we couldn’t run any faster, we threw ourselves onto the spinning platform.

My instinct, at first, was to hang on for dear life at the edge of the round-a-bout as it spun ridiculously fast. It seemed to me the closer I could be to the edge, the more control I had over when I wanted to get off. Doing this, however, I didn’t step off when I wanted. I flew off when I couldn’t hold on any more. So much for control. When all I wanted when I played on the round-a-bout was an evacuation plan.

In order to best stay on the round-a-bout, and not fall off, I had to lean in towards the centre. I had to do the counter-intuitive thing. I had to grab hold of the centre wheel – the hub, the heart of this fearful reality. This way, not only did I last longer, I actually had some fun.

We overcome the evil within not by denying it. Not by turning away from it. Because denying and turning away already exposes another negative disposition. Actual repentance is served best by turning toward that which frightens us. Transformation is realized by moving to our fear not away from it.

And surprise, we are not alone there. We find our strength and our victory in turning toward and leaning into … a very loving, very much present Christ. Jesus is even there, yes.

Like a pine tree on the Canadian Shield rocky coast of Georgian Bay leans into the gale force winds to survive and thrive in that environment, so, too, we turn towards that which assails us in life. As you know, I love the White Pine – native to this part of the world. And one of my favourite Group of Seven pieces of art is A.J. Casson’s “White Pine”.

This painting, in particular, depicts the rugged, often inhospitable places where the white pine flourishes. Spreading its roots just beneath the surface of the ground, the white pine can find foothold in rocky, sandy earth. What is more, along waterlines, the pine will grow sometimes leaning, like the Tower of Pisa, into the gale force winds, not away from them. By doing so, even with its shallow root system, it will not fall. At least, not for a long time.

Naturally, we resist this counter-intuition. Many say that when they meditate, the first half of the period of meditation is hell. When the flood gates are opened. That is when all the thoughts, distractions, and emotions scream to the surface. That is when we fight our greatest battle in prayer. Not against the thoughts and feelings themselves, but against the experience of being still and silent. Because all that has been hidden and suppressed in the dark recesses of our lives finally can come to the surface and is exposed even burned in the Son-light.

It is too easy to give into the ego at this point, which wants to have control, which drives compulsively towards having more, making more, producing more, taking more, defending more. Un-relentless is the ego, driving impulses we struggle with in those first minutes of quiet, still, sitting and praying. It is too easy to give up on the experience and declare, “This is not for me.” And return to the hurly-burly of life in the fast lane.

Should we, however, lean into the internal fray – not suppressing the maelstrom of thoughts, not doing violence against our ego – when we just let the thoughts and feelings come at us and go through us, we will find the rock of our salvation who will hold us up even if we are leaning a bit.

Our lives thus become a prayer of healing when, before all else, we heed Jesus’ call: “Be silent!”, when we seek to quiet our busy thoughts. Saint Isaak of Syria wrote of a way of becoming silent and experiencing our hearts as the temple of the Holy Spirit[2], the holy still centre, and the hub of our lives:

“Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you,” he wrote, “and you will see the things that are in heaven – for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul.  Dive into yourself, into your soul, and there you will find the ladder by which to ascend”, and by which God descends into our lives.[3]

Just the turning, the leaning in, is everything on the journey to transformation. “Be still before the Lord,” the Psalmist sings.[4] “In quietness and in trust shall be your strength,” the Prophet advises.[5] “Be silent!” Jesus invites.

[1] Mark 1:21-28, NRSV

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:19

[3] cited in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds. “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.91.

[4] Psalm 37:7; 46

[5] Isaiah 30:15

A public journey

In the opening scenes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on the big screen, Bilbo Baggins is faced with a momentous choice: Will he respond to the wizard Gandalf’s invitation to join the company of dwarves on an adventure? Or, will he remain safe and sound in the Shire and the comforts of his burrow?

We meet Bilbo as someone who cherishes his home. And we sympathize. We see how much he values the simple and predictable routines that give him security and peace: his regular meal times, his books, and pleasant sits on his front patio smoking a pipe looking upon the passersby. This is when Gandalf first encounters Bilbo with the invitation to join him on an important mission. Nothing comes of it, and Gandalf leaves.

Leading a rather solitary life, Bilbo is disturbed out of his comfort zone one evening soon thereafter when a company of dwarves invades his home, his cupboards and his routines in a boisterous celebration. Initially unawares of the purpose of this offensive invasion of privacy, Bilbo resents the dwarves and all their carousing, indulgence, eating and singing.

Then Gandalf appears again to put to Bilbo their need for a ‘thief’ to join their troupe in an attempt to recover the treasures of the dwarves’ lost kingdom. To comply, Bilbo must sign a contract, promising no guarantee of success or safety on this journey.

Bilbo resists this offer, turning it down flatly.  Too much risk. No guarantees of success. Too much to lose. Early in the morning, Bilbo wakes from his ‘nightmare’ to an empty house. The party is over. The lively group has just left on their journey, without him. All has returned to peace and quiet.

We watch Bilbo as he pauses amidst his seeming peace. We can only guess at the churning of his mind over the experience and invitation of the previous evening. Then, without warning, he erupts with speed and diligence, gathering only a few belongings in a bag. And runs out the door.

What finally convinced Bilbo to join in on this unexpected journey? How did Bilbo embark on this journey that would transform him from a unassuming, small hobbit into the hero of the story? What tipped the scales?

Was it Gandalf’s gentle yet persistent invitations and promptings? Was it meeting people who were real, genuine, authentic, people who would be forming his community on this journey, friends that would stand by him through thick and thin? Did he realize that in all his comfort and isolation and privacy in the Shire, he was missing something essential in life?

The Gospel from Matthew (4:12-23) reads like a grand opening of the start of Jesus’ journey, his ministry. The reading makes a broad sweep across time and scriptures to land at the disciples feet with invitation, and locate Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Capernaum. And there, in the synagogue the crowds came to listen to Jesus’ announce the coming kingdom of God.

Last week, from the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first question to his disciples was: “What do you seek? What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) In the Psalm for today (27:4), we read that the Psalmist seeks the Lord in his temple. Indeed, the people come to a public place for worship, to encounter truth, find peace and hear the message of love from God.

If the image of the temple, or synagogue, or church means anything to us today, it is the public gathering place for worship. Our deepest desires are met, not in isolation, but in community. Our deepest longing are satisfied not in the privacy of our individual lives, but in the public realm. It’s a bit counter-intuitive for some personalities — like it was for Bilbo who thought that his life would be complete in the safety, security and solitude of his home and hearth.

But deep down, he must have realized that there was something missing in his self-serving program for life. That his true self, his true calling and his growth as a person lay not in being by himself, but with his friends, in community, together on the ‘unexpected’ adventure of life.

I think this is part of the reason how those first disciples of Jesus were able to drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus, immediately. They knew that following Jesus would enrich their lives in ways no other self-seeking, self-centred, individualistic approach to life could do. Growth in faith is not a private enterprise, but a public expression. Faith is done together, not apart. In this way, we are assured of the eternal support and love from God through all the difficulties of life. And we grow and mature.

In the Psalm, God’s protection and support also includes being placed high upon a rock (27:5) — a vulnerable place to be, where the whole world can see you. Being a Christian and following Jesus is not just about seeking comfort nor is it about keeping things the same. Following God assumes some personal risk, no guarantees, and losing things. But the growth and transformation come about by this journey with others may very well be what we need to get through the dark times.

I was moved reading the story of “a beloved, longtime church member who was wracked with worry about his son. Sunday after Sunday the man returned to the sanctuary. When the congregation sang its hymns, he stood without a hymnal. He listened to the familiar tunes, but he had lost his voice for singing. The congregation’s alleluias felt far off.

“One Sunday he rose during the time of congregational prayer. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the people in those pews. He thanked his fellow churchgoers for keeping the faith when he could not, for singing hymns when he could not, for seeing the goodness of God when his eyes were too cloudy to see it.

“To be sure, his concern for his son continued. But he had begun to recognize again the source of his strength. His words were his own, but they echoed an ancient faith: God is my light and my salvation. God is the stronghold of my life. I will sing to the Lord.” (Andrew Nagy-Benson, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, p.277)