Fighting Demons

In the past few weeks, we’ve been kind’a in a party bubble in our church. We celebrated a baptism, three confirmations and the blessing of a lovely renovated hall with Bishop Chris. That’s quite the list of events, events that brought us much life and joy. And that’s good, that’s all really good. We need happy times – they help us store up energy and courage for the tough times.

So did you store up enough goodness and joy? Ready for today? Because today’s Scriptures bring tough times and tough situations. It doesn’t seem fair to be served these stories right when our spirits are light and when summer is at our doorstep. But we all know, shit happens when we least expect it. Take a deep breath, and let’s dive in, and see what the Holy Book has to say.

Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-15) is on the run – on the run from Ahab who wants to kill him, and on the run from God who wants him to keep needling Ahab with the truth. Elijah’s spirit is running out of steam, running out of courage. He’d rather die in a forgotten corner in the wilderness: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.

Talk about discouragement and feeling like an utter failure! We know the feeling; we try to do the right thing, but life throws too many curves that we can’t handle. We think we understand what God is asking of us, but our efforts don’t seem to find much favour in the world. We want to love like Jesus, serve like Jesus and forgive like Jesus, but crisis upon crisis sabotages our best efforts, depleting our hope and energy, our courage and motivation. And so exhaustion has us fall into a deep sleep …

And what does God do … when he finds us asleep into that forgotten wilderness corner of our own lives? Come on, … get up and eat … eat some love bread and drink some soul-care … Walk in the beauty of God’s creation, feel the wind and the sun (or the rain!), laugh at a good joke, create a work of art, read a good book, have coffee with a friend, sit on the beach and watch the waves, share a family meal, write a gratitude list, lay down in a field and look up at the night sky, pray for someone else, dig in the garden, hold a baby … God’s first concern is … to … nourish and strengthen us, just as Elijah experienced … God knows our need to just stop … take a deep breath … Amazing really … how replenishing … simple love-food can be for our spirit…

But what if such love-food, instead of recharging our battery, is devoured instead by … demons??? That is what we hear about in the encounter between Jesus and the demon-possessed man in the Gerasene country (Luke 8:26-39). Here is a dramatic show-down between the One who is God’s love-food for all and the greatest enemies of God, the demons who absolutely despise everything good and beautiful and holy.

Now in our sophisticated day and age, we might think it kind’a freaky to talk of demons and demon-possession. Maybe we think of it as an ancient and out-dated concept. But not so fast …

When we speak of trauma, of PTSD, of the need for deep healing, when we speak of addictions, of dysfunctional behaviours, of obsessions and destructive habits; when we speak of mental illness, paranoia, and all the negative forces preventing us from becoming who God intends us to be, aren’t we in fact naming the demons of our time? We are just as surrounded by – yes, possessed by – as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered.

There are eary similarities between the demon-possessed man Jesus encounters and the demons that possess us. The person in the Gospel was totally cut off from family and society. He didn’t live with people, but “in the tombs,” probably in caves that were used as burying places. He was also “driven by the demons into the wild.” In other words, he was a living corpse, separated from normal people and normal living. The man was naked, and so overcome by violent impulses that he could not be restrained even with chains and leg-shackles. Furthermore, the demons were harming him. In Mark’s version he was “bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:1-20). Finally, and most sadly, he was so totally possessed that even though the demons recognized Jesus as “Son of the Most High God,” the man could not free himself …

Recently I read about Victoria Morrison, a young woman from Windsor, ON, who fell prey to sexual exploitation in Winnipeg. Her case is now in court, and her 30-year old captor pleaded guilty to human trafficking, forcible confinement and obstructing justice. The man who captured her sounds “possessed:” among other things, he burned Victoria with a hot iron, shocked her with an electrical wire and locked her in a freezer. He also blindfolded her and tied her hands with bed sheets, then strung her up to the ceiling with a cord. This man’s demons not only ruled him, but deliberately set out to dominate and destroy another human being.

Other types of demons primarily rule and destroy the persons whose spirits they invade, such as the man in today’s Gospel. As we just marked National Indigenous Peoples Day in our country, my thoughts turned to the demons that have set up dominion in many Indigenous communities. The extensive historical research, the Truth & Reconciliation Report, the national inquiries such as the most recent one into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are revealing the ugly face and death-dealing effects of these demons. The inter-generational trauma of colonization, which has inflicted cultural, social and spiritual devastation, has lead to the demons of self-destruction, personally and collectively.

Those demons have names, just like the demons in today’s Gospel: Jesus asked, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered. Indeed, the demons in the Indigenous community have names too: addictions and abuse, violence and death-dealing life-choices, mental illness, despair and depression, suicide and a never-ending cycle of sabotaging, dysfunctional behaviours.

The demons in the Gospel knew who Jesus was. Jesus’ energy of love and grace and mercy pierced them and there was no hiding: it scared the livin’ daylights out of them! Why? Because demons know that when love-grace-mercy appear on the scene, their days are numbered. Casting out demons with the love-food and liberating power of Jesus is now our call, our task, but how? The flow of God’s love-grace-mercy is not as strong in us as in Jesus: our sinful streaks block that flow quite effectively, unfortunately. Yet Christ still calls us on the healing path of love and mercy. Jesus calls us to the hard road of reconciliation, as the way to cast out the demons of all oppression and broken relations. Here are some words from Rev. Ginny Doctor, the Indigenous ministries coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. She published these words recently under the title: Where are all our flowers going?

Where do we go from here? How do we talk about a problem so large – a demon so strong – that it needs a thousand pages and its own acronym? MMIWG have been with us for a long time; it goes way back to first contact with settlers. And it’s here with us now. Every day on Facebook, I see postings on missing Indigenous women and girls. Each one breaks my heart, and I wonder, “Where are all our flowers going?” They are gone to death and human trafficking. How to cast out these demons of destruction?

What needs to change to protect our women and girls? For one thing, we need to cast out the demons by making a good life for them in our communities —a task that is social, economic and environmental. Maybe then, they won’t have to travel bad roads looking for something better. We must tend to the gardens in which our flowers grow, increasing self-worth in each person, and provide economic stability in our communities.

The other way is spiritual. We need to see the beauty and value in these women and girls, in their very being. This is about honouring our women and girls by reconnecting with traditional values: respect, humility, wisdom, truth, honesty, courage and most important, love.

Ginny makes an important point here: the most effective way to cast out the demons of personal and collective destruction lies in finding the beauty in one another, in honouring the image of God in one another, in fostering God’s worldview with respect, humility, truth, wisdom, honesty, courage and most important, with love and grace and mercy. And I would add to this, cast out one another’s demons by sharing and carrying one another’s pain in the same way Jesus took on the pain of our sins on the cross.

After being back home in Windsor for 10 months, Victoria has relied heavily on WE Fight to ease her back into society. The organization helps survivors of human trafficking get back on their feet with income assistance, clothing and food as well as mental-health supports.
WE Fight brings the healing power of Jesus to those possessed by the demons of human trafficking: when love-grace-mercy truly enter the person’s heart, the demons days’ are numbered, and get chased out of our spirits. Victoria Morrison asked the court not to impose a publication ban that would protect her identity. She wants the public, and those who may be suffering or have endured similar experiences, to put a human face to this horrific story. “I want people to see how normal I am. I also want people to know even if you go through something this terrible, you can get out of it,” Morrison said.

People came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind…
Luke reports that the townspeople freaked out at the man’s healing, and that they became afraid. I wonder how we react when our demon-possessed sisters and brothers, whoever they are, find Christ’s healing and peace and joy. Jealous, because we need that same healing touch and have trouble tapping into God? Judgmental, because s/he doesn’t really deserve this? Afraid and nervous, because I don’t know how to relate to you now? Skeptical, because I don’t trust the healing to be for real? Indifferent, because I’m so exhausted from fighting my own demons?

Or … relieved, eager to share in your healing? Or grateful, ready to dance with you in joy? Or encouraged, because God is real indeed and can heal me too? Or inspired, for Jesus wills all people to be set free? Yes, in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:23-29)

Exhausted and weary of fighting the demons, we (and many others) commiserate with Elijah – just kill me now, God. But God reaches out, gently and patiently, with love-food and soul-drink, through ordinary folks, ordinary events and ordinary things. Listen to Ginny’s words at the end of her article: My niece just sent me pictures of the flowers she has grown; they are beautiful, but not as beautiful as the two daughters and son she is raising. There is beauty all around us and in each one of us. Look for it, cherish it and safeguard it— before you have to ask, “Where have all the flowers gone?”

We claim the healing power of Jesus to cast out our demons – we look for it, claim it, love it, cherish it, safeguard it. That’s more than enough reason to continue our church party into the summer and into our lives, here and beyond. AMEN

Homily preached on June 23, 2019. While the Roman Catholic community celebrated Corpus Christi on this day, we confronted the demons in Luke 8: 26-39. The other Scriptures were 1 Kings 19:1—15 (exhausted Elijah), Psalm 42, and Galatians 3:23-29.

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Can We Do Better?

Be the person who breaks the cycle.
If you were judged, choose understanding.
If you were rejected, choose acceptance.
If you were shamed, choose compassion.
Be the person you needed when you were hurting,
not the person who hurt you.
Vow to be better than what broke you—
to heal instead of becoming bitter
so you can act from your heart, not your pain.
~ Lori Deschene

I began writing this reflection in Holy Week, a time of intense spiritual scrutiny as we accompanied Jesus in his final days. The above words from Lori Deschene echo poignantly Jesus’ summons to live into another way, to relate to one another in another way than the adversarial model of the world with winners and losers. “One of you will betray me,” Jesus predicted at the Last Supper (John 13:21—33). Only one betrayed Jesus? Yes, Judas did, but so did Peter, and all his other friends who ran for cover, more concerned about saving their own skin than reaching out to their Lord in his time of need. I’m afraid that all of us betray Jesus, all the time and in all places. I see it most painfully among well-meaning Christians, especially when we disagree on moral matters.

Anglicans in particular have a special duty to take Jesus’ summons seriously as we stake our unique contribution to Gospel discipleship on the quality of our relationships, our bonds of affection. Paul Avis articulates this well in his book The Vocation of Anglicanism: “Anglicanism seeks to hold together (often otherwise polarizing) truth together in theology and practice in order that it may hold people together. (It does this by claiming) to be catholic and reformed, episcopal and synodical, universal and local, biblical and reasonable, traditional and open to fresh insight.” (pg. 182)

In a month’s time we Canadian Anglicans are heading into a most challenging General Synod (GS2019) with the motion to change the definition of marriage up for a second reading and subsequent vote. For those cherishing a traditional understanding of marriage, Jesus’ summons to relate differently is betrayed when regarding supporters of same-sex marriage as apostates and heretics, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Supporters of same-sex marriage betray the same summons of our Lord when regarding opponents as enemies and homophobes, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Both sides dismiss the good faith in the other. Both dismiss the primacy of conscience in the other. Both relate from a place of judgment and fear, anger and pain instead of trust, acceptance and compassion. Then, in an uncanny look in the mirror, both become eerily alike in their worst behaviours.

Acceptance in Christ runs deeper and is qualitatively distinct from approval and agreement. Jesus brought a new way of belonging and relating to God and, by extension, to one another. That new way challenges us all to love radically in faithfulness to our God. This becomes particularly important in matters of deep disagreement. In his book A Letter to My Congregation, Ken Wilson writes:

The demands of acceptance require us to maintain a relationship of honour and respect with those with whom we may ardently disagree. We accept the fact that our convictions (…) differ, and those with whom we differ hold their convictions, as we do, unto the Lord. Inasmuch as this is not easy for us, we commit ourselves to bearing it as part of the disciple’s cross. We don’t agree to disagree by diminishing the importance of the question (…) We recognize that human beings, made in God’s image, must strive for integrity and unity. Violating one’s conscience, even when it is mistaken, can do harm to that integrity. (…) We must respect the measure of faith a person has received without attempting to persuade them to act against it. (…) We practice this form of acceptance by recognizing that each of us stands or falls, lives or dies, unto the Lord, trusting that the Lord is able to make even us wretched sinners stand. We ruthlessly practise the discipline of seeing those with whom we disagree in the best possible light, trusting God to judge their motives, intentions and heart better than we can. (pg. 114/115)

The question of same-sex marriage is a salient one in all Christian denominations. Even Roman Catholics are not off the hook, despite what Rome says. Not only is the conversation among thoughtful Catholics going on “under the table,” so to speak, but Roman Catholic gay and lesbian people are steadily migrating to more welcoming churches, most notably the United Church and Anglican ones. As the discussion on the subject in a recent ARC Canada meeting pointed out, we are very much in this painful conversation together. A unique illustration of this togetherness is the fact that ARC Canada was invited to contribute a submission to the Anglican Church of Canada’s Marriage Commission on the ecumenical implications of a changed definition of marriage between the two churches. This was likely a first; inviting an ecumenical partner to weigh in on an internal ecclesial discernment and decision-making process on a controversial subject is still rather unprecedented.

If our difficult conversations are truly Spirit-led, modelling a way not of this world, as Jesus summons us, all of us need to practice restraint, suspend suspicion and labeling, and refrain from holding others in contempt. Trusting one another, presuming good faith, embracing instead of excluding – all this might feel like too heavy a cross to bear for proponents of both sides of the question before us. It will feel like dying to ourselves. It will involve relinquishing the need to be right, resisting the temptation to use our pain as a weapon of mass relational destruction.

My heart goes out to those who feel caught in the ecclesial cross-fire on marriage. I share respect and compassion rather than judgment and scorn to all. What if it might be too soon in the cultural, religious and anthropological process of appropriating the Christian implications of same-sex attraction to come to definitive conclusions? Those whose lives are directly affected, who live in this in-between, liminal, space need a robust spirit of ruthless honesty and healthy humility, a healed inner constitution and a mature engagement drenched in faithful patience for the masses to catch up, esp. in our churches.

Can we vow to be better than what breaks us? Do we take seriously Paul’s words: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26) Can we muster the courage to appreciate that the Holy Spirit can draw us together in a powerful unity, despite very diverse perspectives and convictions? Only then do we offer a valid alternative to a world mired in polarization and controversy.

Pope Francis has said that, long before dogma and doctrine, truth is a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity. This is my heart’s desire as we move into GS2019. Please pray for us all.

“We must love them both:
those whose opinions we share
and those whose opinions we reject,
for both have laboured in search for truth,

and both have helped us in finding it.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

A shorter version of this reflection was published on page 6 of the June 2019 issue in the monthly newspaper The Saskatchewan Anglican.