The Facebook Effect & The Court Prophets of Old (Testament)

I don’t usually post sermon manuscripts/transcripts, but since our audio recording isn’t currently working I prepped this one and thus share it here for anyone with the grace to read the whole thing!
Prior to this sermon, we watched the following BBC video on Vimeo: “The Social Media Echo Chamber”

1 – The Facebook Effect: Social Media “Echo Chambers”

Let me begin with a caveat: as a later part of Generation X, I am a digital migrant, not a digital native. I remember thinking, when I came to NAU in the Fall of 1993 and was assigned an email address, “no one is going to use email!” (You could argue I was right, as now no one does use it but texts everything!) Similarly, I was slow to join Facebook or Social Media. In fact, it was my Worship Design Team that first goaded me on to the platform. They routinely shared that “the Bishop is on Facebook;” they finally got me to join when they declared, “you wife is on Facebook!”

Anyway, I turn to Facebook and social media as modern technologices that have accelerated a tendency of human behavior has existed for some time. In fact, it may be a natural tendancy for us, hard wired into our human condition. I’m referring to our choice to self-select
• groups we belong to,
• people we discuss things with, and
• the type of media we consume.
And, more specifically, we generally self-select such to correspond with our existing perspectives.

While this emerged last year in more and more discussions, it is not a new thing. In some minimal research this week, I discovered articles from the 1990s about such “echo chambers” related to media consumption, at that time focusing on talk radio shows. But the advent and explosive growth of social media have perhaps made these tendencies more observable and relevant.

According to tech blog Ars Technica, the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States) recently undertook a study of the Facebook activity of 376 million(!) English-speaking users:

The authors found that Facebook users typically interact with a small number of news outlets. Users tend to confine their activity to a limited set of pages. These behaviors allow news consumption on Facebook to be dominated by selective exposure, meaning that people are most often exposed to news sources that reinforce their existing opinions. Though social media critics have been making this claim for a while, the authors’ quantification of this behavior adds strong empirical evidence to the argument.
“The Social Media ‘Echo Chamber’ is Real”; via Ars Technica

A Wikipedia article about echo chambers points out that “people trust evidence supplied by their own social group, more than they do the news media,” and goes on to share that,

“Another emerging term for this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism.”

I found that term, tribalism, intriguing because of conversations I’ve had with Brooke Isingoma. Some of you know Brooke; she was formerly a member here at Trinity Heights and after completing PHD studies in Africa she is now pasturing in Paige while she finishes her dissertation on African Christianity.

Brooke and I have talked some about tribalism. A key negative characteristic she identifies about tribalism, one that is radically different from our cultural experience, is the expectation and pressure toward conformity. Whether it be chosen freely or forced on members of the tribe, they are expected to conform to social behaviors, expectations, and norms. The way Brooke describes this emphasis, it is a radically different experience from our American norm of individualism, where we tend to emphasize the importance of the individual over that of the community.

Social Media Echo Chambers, and our tendency to self-select groups or media that reinforce our perspectives, present a problem to us. They limit our worldview and perspective. They may even prevent us from being challenged to hear the divine voice speaking to us!

I believe part of the solution to these echo chambers occurs somewhere between the over-emphasis on individualism of our culture and the conformity expected within others. But before I get to a potential solution, I want to share a few Biblical examples of the echo chamber. Then I’ll share some Biblical insight we can turn to in choosing how to respond.

2 – The Court Prophets of Old (Testament)

1 Kings 12 tells a story about King Rehoboam, son of Solomon and grandson of David. As Rehoboam is coming to power, the people send for exiled Jeroboam to be a spokesperson to him. They share with Rehoboam:

“Your father made our workload very hard for us…”

Let me pause for a moment of context. When Samuel, considered the last of the judges and first of the prophets, is approached by the people demanding a king, he prophesizes to them all of the bad things the king may do, including their oppression. Still, the people insist they want a king, so that they can “be like the other nations around us.” It is in King Solomon’s reign that Samuel’s prophecy comes to fruition; as Solomon does all of the things Samuel had warned the people about. As a result, they felt oppressed by their own king, and were frustrated. Back to the story of the people coming to Rehoboam:

“Your father made our workload very hard for us.” If you will lessen the demands your father made of us and lighten the heavy workload he demanded from us, then we will serve you.” He answered them, “Come back in three days.” So the people left.

King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon when he was alive. “What do you advise?” Rehoboam asked. “How should I respond to these people?”

“If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today,” they replied, “then they will be your servants forever.”

But Rehoboam ignored the advice the elders gave him and instead sought the counsel of the young advisors who had grown up with him and now served him. “What do you advise?” he asked them. “How should we respond to these people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the workload your father demanded of us’?”

The young people who had grown up with him said to him, “This people said to you, ‘Your father made our workload heavy; lighten it for us!’ Now this is what you should say to them: ‘My baby finger is thicker than my father’s entire waist! So if my father made your workload heavy, I’ll make it even heavier! If my father disciplined you with whips, I’ll do it with scorpions!’”

Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam on the third day, just as the king had specified when he said, “Come back to me in three days.” The king then answered the people harshly. He ignored the elders’ advice and instead followed the young people’s advice. He said, “My father made your workload heavy, but I’ll make it even heavier! My father disciplined you with whips, but I’ll do it with scorpions!”
(1 Kings 12, selections, CEB)

I want to point out that “the young people who had grown up with him” and offer him advice offer it from a perspective similar to his own. They have only known the reign of King Solomon; they do not remember the kingdom as it existed during David’s tenure. They probably even know similar experiences as children of the elite. And so they fan Rehoboam’s ego, encourage his natural inclination to being “better” than his predecessor. And, as a result, the kingdom of Israel, united in no small part because of David’s efforts, splits into two kingdoms; neither of which are to have a great history from that point forward.

There is a similar story in 1 Kings 22, where Israel’s King Ahab has surrounded himself with 400 court prophets who seem to share his perspective.  Judah’s King Jehosaphat comes to visit, and they discuss a region (Ramoth-gilea) that had been within Israel’s borders but had been taken over by another country:

So Israel’s king gathered about four hundred prophets, and he asked them, “Should I go to war with Ramoth-gilead or not?” “Attack!” the prophets answered. “The Lord will hand it over to the king.”

But Jehoshaphat said, “Isn’t there any other prophet of the Lord whom we could ask?” “There is one other man who could ask the Lord for us,” Israel’s king told Jehoshaphat, “but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, only bad. His name is Micaiah, Imlah’s son.”

Note that King Ahab already critiques Micaiah because he isn’t a “yes man” like the other court prophets. Jehosphat convinces Ahab to send for Micaiah:

Meanwhile, the messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Listen, the prophets all agree that the king will succeed. You should say the same thing they say and prophesy success.”

But Micaiah answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, I will say only what the Lord tells me to say.”

When Micaiah arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, should we go to war with Ramoth-gilead or not?”

“Attack and win!” Micaiah answered. “The Lord will hand it over to the king!”

But the king said, “How many times must I demand that you tell me the truth when you speak in the name of the Lord?”

Then Micaiah replied, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd! And then the Lord said: They have no master. Let them return safely to their own homes.”

Then Israel’s king said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you? He never prophesies anything good about me, only bad.”
(1 Kings 22, selections, CEB)

Guess who Ahab listens to? Yes, the 400 court prophets, instead of Micaiah. As a result, Ahab goes in to battle at Ramoth-Gilead, but he takes a precaution to dress not as a king but as a common soldier. Even so, while the enemy seems to focus its energies on Jehosaphat, dressed as king, a stray arrow strikes and kills Ahab, leaving the people of Israel without a leader.

Jeremiah 28 gives another example, where the Jeremiah squares off with the court prophet Hananaiah, who is sharing with the king and officials they should not fear the Babylonian exile because it will only last for a few years.
There’s a well-known verse elsewhere in Jeremiah that touches on these echo chambers, where kings and officials only listened to the prophets that spoke positively. In Jeremiah 8, he shares God’s critique of such:

…prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
(Jeremiah 8:20b-11, NIV)

3 – Responding to Modern Echo Chambers

I find some biblical guidance in how to respond from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I have portions of this letter at the start of my journal precisely beause of the wsdom here shown.

First, we are invited to “live worthy of the calling”

Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.
(Eph. 4:1, CEB)

There are a variety of aspects to our calling in Christ. But the one that first came to mind has to do with how we will be identified, and called, as God’s people. In Matthew 5, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares:

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.
(Matthew 5:9, NIV)

As followers of the Prince of Peace, we are called to be peacemakers. We are told we will be called and known as children of God when we seek to build and live in peace.

Paul continues this same thought, when he encourages us to “live in unity”

Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. (Eph. 4:2-6, CEB)

Paul emphasizes that we are called to live in unity, not uniformity. I think this is the healthy middle ground between individualism and conformity. In seeking unity, we recognize and value our individuality while also emphasizing and valuing community, and our part within it. Remember, Paul routinely refers to our connections in community in terms of a “body,” where all parts are connected and important.
Further, I read in Paul an encouragement to us to “speak, and listen, in love”

In Christ, called to grow up, to speak the truth to one another, in love: we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part. (Eph. 4:14-16, CEB)
Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. (Eph. 4:25, CEB)

Not only are we encouraged, as we seek to grow up in Christ, to speak the truth in love, but Paul goes on to share how we do so:

Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. (Eph, 4:29-32)

Rule 3 of our family’s six rules is related to this, “use kind words in a kind voice.” We are reminded that our language is powerful, and Paul encourages us to speak truthfully, but also to avoid foul words; to avoid speaking evil and only that which helps build others up. To put aside negative things like bitterness, anger, slander, and choose to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving.

I believe that this applies not only to speaking but also to listening (in love). Not only is this a relevant application of both Ephesians and other Scripture, but it is also a strategy recommended by others who are studying and writing about filter bubbles. A solution to overcome filter bubbles is to listen to others, particularly those with different perspectives than our own.

The book of James addresses this well, too, in 1:19:

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters:
everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.
(James 1:19, CEB)

Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. Those are wise words, but it seems to me that in too much of modern discourse we flip that on its head and choose to pursue the opposite: quick to anger, quick to speak, slow to listen… If we could choose to follow James’ exhortation, perhaps we’d have more civil dialogue and be able to expand our perspectives.

I want to share a recent experience that illustrates both the good and ugly of speaking and listening.

A couple summers ago, I attended a special summer course at Asbury Theological School in Kentucky. Going to Asbury was a step outside of my usual comfort zone; I’m generally centrist, and going to an enclave known for evangelical conservatism was a bit of an uncomfortable shift for me. But I went because I knew one of the two professors leading the course on Wesleyan theology (something that interests me).

I feel blessed to claim Dr. Phil Meadows as a colleague and friend (I won’t speak as to whether he might claim me as such). I’ve known Phil since he was my professor of Wesleyan Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Phil and I do not agree on all things – in fact, if we were to take a tally of theological, ideological, and social perspectives, we probably hold varied perspectives on many.

But we both do agree on the foundational importance of Scripture, and take the Bible very seriously. We both believe in the high value of our Wesleyan heritage and theology, and believe there is insight in our heritage to lead us in our contemporary settings. Yet we may come to different conclusions from these common starting points.

That said, Phil remains to me an inspiration in relation to evangelism and ministry. Today he splits his time between the INSPIRE Movement in England and Asbury. So I went to this class knowing that though we might have some disagreements, overall there was much that I find in common with Phil and how he seeks to follow Jesus Christ in the company of John Wesley. And Phil didn’t disappoint me; his lectures and classes were well thought and well presented.

However, that wasn’t my experience with his colleague. The other professor also had good content and ideas, some of which I am still intrigued by and exploring; but his approach was salted with negatives. Whether from anger or self-righteousness, his speech was peppered that week with derogatory, denigrating comments for those with other opinions, including leaders, liberals, and any Methodist in the Western Jurisdiction. Even if this professor had good content, it was colored, to me, because of the way in which he presented it.

We’re called and exhorted, as followers of Christ, to speak and listen in love. To be quick to listen, slow to speak, and (dare I say) slow-er to anger. I believe that if we can find ways to listen, to invite others to share their perspective in similar loving ways, we can broaden our understanding of one another, of our world, and even of God. (We all seem but in a mirror, dimly, after all.)

In closing, I believe an early portion of Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata speaks well both to living in unity and to listening and speaking in love:

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

(And thank you for listening to me.)

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It’s to easy to say “hate has no place”

I think it is too easy to say “hate has no place” in our lives.

Be we Christian or not.

As I pondered how to respond to events in Charlottesville this week, I actually began to wonder: is there any role for hate in our lives?

Perhaps; against the SYSTEMS that perpetuate injustice, division, discrimination, racism, sexism, or any other -ism. We can hate systems that lead to and perpetuate evil. My religious tradition includes an exhortation to “hate what is evil,” even while instructing me to love others with sincerity (Rom. 12:9).

But I stand firm there is no place for hatred toward other people. Period.

Because, and here’s the thing: evil is insidious, and it escalates easily.

When challenged about divorce, and/or during his Sermon on the Mount when he challenges long established law, Jesus made clear that some Old Testament / Hebraic Torah law was specifically because we are hard hearted as people, and evil escalates. “Eye for an eye” was needed to hinder our otherwise bent toward extracting greater revenge when someone wronged us, eg “you took my eye, I will kill you.”

But non-escalation isn’t enough for Jesus. He teaches us to go further, to truly find the angels of our better natures and love. To love not just those who love us, but to love our enemy; to do good to those who would harm us.

Evil escalates. No one just suddenly decides to hate.

Evil escalates. Self-righteousness in our own goodness leads to pride. Pride leads us to think we are better than others – particularly “those people” who aren’t as good, or as holy, or as… “whatever”… as us. Such pride leads to division, discrimination, bigotry, hate…

Evil escalates, and can rise from something as simple and insidious as our bent to normalization.

We all tend to normalize our experience, and assume others’ experiences and resulting behaviors should be similar. When, in reality, we don’t know others’ situations, and their behavior – even that which we might judge – might have been normalized for them. (As the old saying goes, “be kinder than necessary, everyone is fighting some battle.”)

We normalize our experience, and then judge others whose experiences may have been – in fact, likely have been – very different.

Then, we respond out of our perspectives, and our responses differ. I may look at a particularly rowdy bunch of kids as “disrespectful” and question my commitment to sharing God’s love with them; and because evil escalates, someone else may look at the same bunch of kids and judge them needing correction, or punishment; and because evil escalates, someone else may look at the same group and judge them as wanting… and because evil escalates, someone else may look at them, from whatever has been “normalized” for them, and hate…

To truly follow Jesus’ command to love, and to avoid allowing evil to escalate to hate in our lives, we have to bring our differences to bear to help one another. We have to share our stories, risking vulnerability, to share our perspectives.

More importantly, we have to listen to others’ perspectives and experiences, to what is “normal” for them; whether that is our experience or not. We have to walk humbly enough to know that our own story is not the only story. We have to love mercy enough to extend to it others who we may want to judge wanting in some way. We have to act justly toward all.

At times I have to be jarred out of my provincial myopic perspective of life. I have to encounter others who challenge me, who rub me a little raw, who help me to see the world a little bit differently. If I want to know peace, and help my community and world know peace, I must be willing to love. As Frederick Buchner so well put about Jesus’ thought about peace (shalom): “For Jesus, pease seems not to be the absence of conflict, but the presence of love.”

If we want to be peacemakers – if we want to be those called “children of God” who follow after the example of Jesus – we have to be bold and courageous enough to love; to love even when others hate; to stand up for justice even when the situation seems foreign to us; to extend mercy to those who seem so radically different than us. If we want to be peacemakers, we have to love God and love others, and hate those systems which devalue or divide or destroy.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke walk into this coffee shop…

Now that we’ve used it twice, I doubt we’ll be returning to this script any time in the near future, so I thought I’d share the Easter Sunday worship script I wrote with the youth of Trinity Heights U.M.C. We first wrote and presented this in 2015, and again this year…

Enjoy!

A Script For Easter

Sitting With Sparrows (1998)

(This is an old one – a story reflection on communion. But I don’t have it posted anywhere here, so thought I’d share!)


He believes the sparrows know him by name, he has spent every morning with them for so long. He sits at the corner table, just far enough under the canopy to be clear of rain but open enough to be in the warming rays of the morning sun. Each day he arrives five minutes before the coffee shop opens its doors, and sits quietly with a book du jour, while the sparrows flock around him as soon as he sits. The shop’s serving staff has become so accustomed to him that they bring a hot cafe mocha and muffin to him just as the doors are unlocked. Silently drinking his coffee he splits the muffin in half, then patiently breaks off pieces to feed the swarming, fighting birds.

It was a spring morning, free of the chill that often settled in the desert air. The sun was shining brightly and warmly through a cloudless sky as the man walked up and took his seat. Closing his eyes for a moment, smiling at the constancy of the old man, William turned from the counter and began mixing the man’s regular cup of coffee. William selected a fresh muffin from the day’s assortment and placed it on a small plate he carried with the coffee to the door. Jenna smiled at him, unlocking and opening the door that he might step into the sun himself.

The old man was reading as William walked up, but looked up from his book smiling. Upon seeing William the man tilted his head, his smile fading, and he lowered the book to the table as William placed the muffin and coffee before him.

“Good morning, sir,” William said with his customary lopsided grin, beginning to turn to return to the counter.

“Just a moment please, son,” the man responded. William looked back at him. “Do you have a few minutes, son?”

William’s mouth and eyebrows undoubtably showed his surprise for a moment, for in the year and a half the man had been sitting at the table every morning he had rarely spoken much to any of the staff. His first visit he had come into the shop, waited in line, and demurely asked for the cafe mocha “and a nice muffin, please.” Midway through his third week of visiting the shop the staff members had begun to take a secret joy in preparing his coffee and selecting a muffin for him just as he arrived. The man always smiled and thanked whoever served him, paying an even six dollars each time, leaving his server a seventy-five cent tip and a feeling of joyful consistency. “Just a few words with an older man?”

“Certainly,” William said, pulling a chair from the table and settling into it. The sparrows chirped as they hung from the wall or sat atop the roof looking down. Beginning to unrwap his muffin, the man looked at William.
“My name is William, sir.”

The man stopped and offered William his hand. “Charles O’Rourke. Nice to meet you, William.” William shok the offered hand, smiling.

“I don’t think any of us have ever known your name,” William commented, then felt a pang in his stomach that this was a stupid thing to say.

“Perhaps none of the current staff, but Joseph and I spoke a few times,” the man said as he returned to unwrapping and splitting his muffin. Joseph had worked at the shop for two months the past winter; he had been very quiet around the staff and customers, and William knew little about him save that he had an affinity for reading poetry during his breaks. “Your eyes seem troubled today, William.”

“Pardon me?”

“Forgive an old man’s candor, but I find politeness has limits. Did the two of you fight, or is it something else? I am, of course, referring to the pretty blonde who often kisses you as she sometimes gets her morning coffee.”

“Her name is Kristin,” William told Charles. “We…” His mind was spinning at the man’s perceptiveness, and his recent discussion with Kris; he couldn’t put anything into words. She had told him the night before she was in love with someone else. She had tried to allay his breaking heart with words of comfort, to no avail. He could not remember much of what she had said after telling him she loved another, except that she could not see him for awhile. She had met him at a nearby restaraunt and he had left her there, teary eyed over a peach iced tea. “We broke up last night,” he told the man, wondering as he did so why he did so, hearing a finality in his voice he hadn’t known would be there.

“Ah,” was all Charles said in response. William watched as he broke a piece of muffin and held it out to a waiting sparrow. The bird paused, cocking its head to eye William and then, deciding he must be safe, hopped up to the offered morsel. Taking it from Charles’s fingers he winged off to the roof while the man used his free hand to sip his coffee.

Jenna pocked her head out the door. “Excuse me,” she said politely, though there was surprise lurking behind her cordiality, “William, we’ll need your help in a few moments.”

“Certainly, young miss. I won’t detain him much longer,” Charles said, looking up and smiling at Jenna. She smiled back and ducked inside. Charles took a bit from his half muffin, breaking a piece off the other. William thought of the questions that would lay in wait inside the shop.

“My wife used to bake half a dozen large muffins every Sunday and Wednesday,” Charles said as he slipped a morsel to another expectant sparrow. “We would split one while they were still warm, sitting in our kitchen by the picture window. Each with a cup of coffee. We would split another each morning. On Saturday she would crumble the five remaining muffins, and place them in the feeder outside the window. For many happy years we spent our mornings together this way; sharing a muffin and coffee, talking and sitting with one another, watching the birds come to feed off the same bread.”

A plane passed by on approach in the sky, and the man looked up as it flew overhead. William noticed a dampness in Charles’s eyes; the mist that often accompanies memories. He could hear the gentle hum of life beginning in the coffee house; knew the need they had for him inside, but he remained sitting, listening.

“These were always moments of great happiness between us,” the man said, “despite what might have happened the day before or what might be ahead.

“She took sick two years ago. We tried to share a muffin every morning in the hospital, but it was not the same.” The man paused, sipping his coffee and feeding a chirping bird. “There was still happiness and peace in that time together, but there was also an air of unease in the unfamiliar surrounding that we never overcame. When she finally passed away, it was late one morning, and our muffin lay untouched by her bed.

“I’ve felt her presence since then, young man; every morning.” Charles took a bite from his muffin, looking at William. “I feel her with me every morning I sit here, and the joy and peace we had remains. They help me through the day.” He smiled, looking William squarely in the eye. “Bad times are real, but joy and peace, they are more real.”

The door opened and Jenna was there. “Looks like they need you inside, William,” Charles told him. “You have a good day, young man, and find joy where you can.”

William stood, smiling at the old man. “Thank you, Mr. O’Rourke. You have a pleasant day, too.” Charles tilted his head to look up at him. “I will. Thank you.”

William turned, going inside the busy coffee shop. Later, after Charles had left the table behind, William watched the remaining plate carefully. When the crowd of sparrows had finished the last crumbs of muffin, William retrieved the plate and cup; then went on smiling and serving the various souls that came to him that day.

-1998, rvb

Her Majesty’s Constable (pt. 1 [of 4?])

H.M. Constable

’Tis a dang’rous act, this tale I propose.
Much that would amaze, magick and wondrous
hast been forgotten, ‘ere these days we live
for the fear such wonders wouldst also give.

-William Shakespeare, “Love’s Labors Won”

1. The Forest

It was almost dusk, the sun setting low, when the first villagers saw the man with the long blue coat journeying the road toward their town. He travelled by foot, but slowly, a child walking wearily alongside him. The child carried little but a stick and a small bag slung around his shoulder, while the man with the coat had a larger bag over his shoulder and a second down by one side. They walked the King’s Road, its once great path was now aged and worn as it had seen the passing of time but few travelers in the decades since an almost forgotten king had extended his reign to this northern land, far from the kingdom’s center. The villagers were still loyal, of course, and once or twice a year someone would travel by their way to give them news from elsewhere in the kingdom; and rarer, still, the visit of a tax collector to receive some meager payment from the village’s mayor on behalf of its humble townsfolk. All visitors to the village would return home, southward, remembering little of note of their visit and remarking of it even less.

Yet the site of any visitor was a novelty, so as the man and child walked the road past the first few outlying homes, children peered through windows and adults stood at doors watching their progress. The man in the long blue coat, its large lapels standing up just over his ears, would occasionally turn his head to nod and smile at the villagers as he and the boy walked past. His brown eyes were wide, with wonder or laughter one couldn’t tell, but his countenance was that of a man of mirth and peace. The boy tended to keep his head down, his eyes on the road, or his feet, or the stick that he would occasionally swing around before him. Though none could see them, his green eyes appeared as though they burned with light from within, and a small shock of bright red hair hung beneath the simple cap he wore.

As they walked past the two market stalls that butted the road and marked the beginning of the village proper, a large raptor, perhaps a hawk, dived inward to the village from the forest beyond, swooping low over their heads before disappearing in an arc behind one of the larger houses toward the center of town. The man and boy walked on, toward the fountain at town center, which by long custom was where visitors would gather to seek hospitality for a night or more.

In those days, showing hospitality to others was a critical way of life. Man, woman, or child never knew when circumstances in their life might lead them to have to take a trek to some distant village or town within the kingdom, and at such times one would depend on the hospitality shown by others. So it was customary, when a visitor gathered at a town’s center, which was usually marked by a well or fountain, that some members of the village would offer a night’s lodging and meal.

By the time they had reached the town’s fountain, several villagers were there to greet them. The mayor of the town, who enthusiastically and bombastically welcomed them to the Village of Farhaven, graciously invited them to join he and his wife for dinner that evening. A villager inquired if the two would give he and his wife the honor of staying at their home, pointing to a small house near one of the market stalls. He shared that they currently had the luxury of an empty room in which the man and his squire could be very comfortable in.

The man in the blue coat bristled at the term. “While I am grateful for your hospitality and will gladly accept,” he said, his speech a bit more refined than that of the villagers,” “this is my son, not a squire. He is a freeman just as I. Perhaps free-er, in some ways,” he mused, rustling the cap on the boy’s head. The boy, who had until then kept his eyes on his feet, looked up then, smiling at his father. The villagers around saw the intensity of his green eyes, and many of the women marveled at how incredibly handsome he was, even at such a young age.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” the villager replied, “no disrespect was meant, I assure you. We will be glad to have you, after you’ve supped with the mayor.”

“Nonsense, Demetrius, you shall join us, too,” the mayor, a man named Baum, declared, “and your wife, of course. I would show you the same hospitality you show these visitors to our fine village. Please, come by in an hour, and we shall be ready to receive all of you! For now, perhaps good Demetrius would show you to where you can safely store your belongings.”

“I’m Demetrius, and my wife Glinda is over there by the doorway,” he said, pointing toward the home where a young woman stood watching them. “Please, you are welcome to join us for the night.”

“Thank you,” the man in the blue coat said, hoisting his packs once again. “We are deeply grateful to you for your hospitality. The trip has been long, and if it is not an imposition we hope to stay and rest in your village for a few days before resuming our journey.”

As they continued walking toward the house, Demetrius inquired, “It is rare for people to come this far north, lest they bring us news or come to collect taxes. Are you here for such a purpose?”

The man in the blue coat laughed, a deep chortle that sounded like mirth wrapped in a blanket of baritone. “No, no, dear sir,” he replied, “nothing of the sort. No, my son and I are…” He paused for a few moments, long enough that Demetrius stopped to look at the man, worried what the answer might be. But the man continued, as though he had just sought he correct word, “…collectors on behalf of the Queen, but we bring no news nor do we seek taxes. But we travel, seeking out the stories and curiosities of our kingdom to share with her majesty.” As he took another step, his coat lapels shifted enough that Demetrius spied an ornamental pin tucked on his inner jacket. it was a shield, with an arrow with some letters.

“I pardon, sir, but I spy your badge; if you are not a tax collector, what sort of official do you be?” Demetrius asked.

The man stopped, just short of a small vegetable garden afront Demetrius’ cabin, Glinda smiling and looking on, unaware of the conversation. The man turned to face Demetrius, and the boy stepped back, a quick glance to his father and then to the doorway where Glinda stood puzzled.

“My good host, Demetrius, I suppose I should properly introduced myself.” His left hand, free from carrying a bag, gripped the side lapel of his long blue coat and pulled it open, to reveal the badge pin he wore on his inner jacket. The badge was indeed a shield, with an arrow, it’s shaft running at an angle from bottom left to top right; the point just poking out over the edge of the shield. To the left of the arrow were the initials H.M. and to the right and below, C. “I am Her Majesty’s Constable,” the man in the blue coat continued, “and for reasons of security, I often travel under many names. You may me Smith,” he finished.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Constable Smith,” Demetrius replied, and then to the boy, “and young Master Smith. You are welcome, too.” The boy looked up at Demetrius, who marveled at the boy’s green eyes and smile. Smith and his son walked into the house, greeting Glinda and marveling at some ancient clockwork on the fireplace mantle that she had inherited from her father. Made of copper, there was a clock face standing on top of the shape of a great tree stump, with doors where its roots spread down to the base. Glinda shared how when the clock struck the hour, the doors opened and a beautiful eagle slid forward and flapped its wings once per hour as the clock chimed. Indeed, the clockwork began to turn and chime just as she shared this, and an eagle of gold emerged from the bronze doors, flapping its wings six times as the hours struck.

“We’ve been invited to dinner at the mayor’s,” Demetrius shared with Glinda, “in about an hour’s time. Would you show our guests, Her Majesty’s Constable and Master Smith, to their room for the night. I will go draw a bucket of water for us so we can all freshen up.”

About half an hour after being shown to their room and leaving their bags upon the four post bed that lay against one wall, the man was sitting on a small chair a the front of the house, watching his boy wander the garden, wondering at the stalks of asparagus and the blooms on chives. As the boy played happily, a middle-aged man came walking up the dark path to the house. Constable Smith saw that he, too, wore an ornamental pin on his lapel, and as he came closer saw that he bore the insignia of local officers of law within the realm.

“Good evening, sheriff,” Constable said as the man walked up toward him. Again lifting his left lapel, he showed his pin to the sheriff and said, “I am Her Majesty’s Constable, Smith. I am not here on any official business, we are just traveling through, collecting the stories of our queen’s great kingdom to share with her.”

The sheriff smiled, and leaned against the house, facing Smith. “Good, good. Well met, friend,” he said. “I’ve heard of Her Majesty’s Constables, of course, but have never met one. Do you not usually guard her majesty’s person?”

“Yes, generally that is our duty,” Constable Smith replied. “But due to our loss, my son and I have been granted leave by her queen to travel. She asked only that we return, as I have said, with stories from her realm, that she might better know the far lands she has risen to reign.”

“Then we are well met,” the sheriff said. “I am Sheriff Slater, and I have been our lawman here for almost twenty years.”

“That is a good and lengthy time to be an officer of law!” Constable Smith declared.

“Yes, well, the people of our little provence have all generally lived well and in peace. Until recently, unfortunately.”

“Oh,” Smith replied, true concern in his voice. “What has happened?”

The sheriff glanced at Smith’s son, playing in the garden as the last light of day brought a purplish hue to the eastern horizon. He glanced at the horizon, his eyes tracing over the trees of the nearby forest, before he replied. His voice grew quiet, almost a whisper, as he spoke to Constable Smith, “I would just warn you,” he said, “to be careful if out at night. We had a mysterious death in the woods last week, and some of the village are still a bit uneasy. A young man, brash by nature in town, was found dead among the trees. We think he might have been hunting, as he had his bow and quiver. we found several arrows had been loosed, but they were a distance away, embedded in tree branches or the ground at an odd angle. There was no sign of deer or any other game, but the poor man had been cruelly eviscerated by something, Or someone.”

“That sounds dreadful,” Constable Smith replied.

“Yes, it was,” the sheriff replied, “and his father has been agitated since, vowing he would find and punish those responsible.”

“Well met, Sheriff Slater,” a familiar voice ringed out, “though I wonder if perhaps you should be here, when there clearly is a dangerous foe somewhere in our community you should be seeking.” It was the mayor, walking through the garden toward the house. Demetrius and Glinda appeared in the doorway, then, and called “Young Master Smith, Constable Smith, it is just about time.”

“Yes,” the major continued, “and I thought I would come and walk you to our humble home. We are glad to have you four for dinner, but I am afraid, my dear Sherrif, we did not set an extra place for you.”

“That’s quite alright, sir,” Sheriff Slater continued, “as I should go patrol the village’s entryways before retiring for the night. Good night, all,” he called as he walked off.

“A good man, no doubt,” the mayor declared as he turned and invited his four dinner guests to follow him, “if perhaps a bit unsuited to the task of investigation. Alas, we’ve no one else at the moment, so I must rest my hopes on him to discern what happened to my poor son…”

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 4: Death and Failure

4. Death and Failure

Before we get to Part 5, where the hope is (and, unfortunately, the portion I may not get to for a while), there are two other ways that this frenetic spirit seems to manifest in this story:

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:25-28, NRSV)

So much happens so quickly here. Jesus exorcises the demon, but since the disciples had failed in the same task, and because the father has likely seen others make the same attempt, the terrible convulsion that follows may not have seemed any different than past experiences. But then the boy seems “like a corpse,” and they believe him dead. One of our greatest anxieties pokes his head into the story. (I say one of because I once heard Jerry Seinfeld reference a study that indicated people were more afraid of public speaking than death, suggesting that if at a funeral we’d rather be the one in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy.)

The specter of death seems to drive so much of our behavior. I’ve read we often spend more in medical care in the last months of a person’s life than in their entire life to that point. Poet Dylan Thomas wrote, as his father lay dying, “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In Act 3 of Hamlet, Shakespeare gives its titular character the following lines, reflecting on the fear of death:

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

While some people strong in faith have, perhaps, faced death well(1), our own mortality seems a universal anxiety that we struggle with from time to time…

And so, too, is the specter of failure. We idolize success, and often look down upon failure. So, when the disciples ask Jesus about why he could cast out this spirit and they could not, they are struggling with their own failure.

It’s important to note that earlier in the Gospel of Mark the disciples were not only given authority and power to act out demons (Mark 3:13-15; 6:7), but they actually have some success!

13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:13, NRSV)

But now they are faced with the question; why, when something worked before, did it not work now? Why did they fail?

Sadly, I think too many of our churches seem to be asking the same question in some form or other these days…

We are so afraid of failure that sometimes it immobilizes us from trying. At least in the disciples’ defense, they made some attempt at casting out this demon, unsuccessful though they may have been. What have we left undone, untried, or un-risked because we feared failure?


(1) There’s an article at Seedbed about how members of my “tribe” once faced death with perhaps more contentment and dignity than we do today.

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 3: The Father

3. The Father

21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out [with tears], “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24)

Mark 9:24 has long been a favorite verse of mine, giving words to a confession of faith I feel deep within: “I believe; help my unbelief!” There’s a sense of desire for faith but struggle with doubt in the father’s exclamation the reflects my own.

Years ago, between high school and college, I worked as an intern at a local church, partnered with the church’s youth pastor. I spent the summer accompanying him in visits, in helping to plan youth ministry events, as a shadow to a well-respected man of faith. One day late in the summer, I summoned the courage to ask him, “do you ever have any doubts?” He paused and responded (as best I can remember it), “I asked the same thing of a mentor of mine once, and he said the same thing I’ll tell you: every day.”

As a student I excelled in science and math, the “hard” sciences which relied on observable fact. I struggled with elements of Christian faith, particularly my limited understanding of God as Creator.(1) I had trouble reconciling faith with science, and had my share of doubts. I was grateful to learn, then and now, a truth that Tillich and Frederick Buechner shared in different ways: doubt is not the antithesis of faith, but rather is a part of an active faith. Doubt suggests I hold faith as important enough to ask questions of, to wrestle and struggle with.

There are times, though, I experience a bit of existential anxiety around faith and doubt. I’m anxious I don’t have good faith, or strong faith. If I really did have stronger faith, wouldn’t it make things easier? And wouldn’t I be able to hear and understand God more clearly? More directly?(2) So if the father’s declaration is an expression of such an existential anxiety, a struggle of thinking one’s faith too small(3), then both then as a teen and now as an adult I can resonate with the father.

As a parent, though, I resonate with another level of anxiety present in the father’s exchange with Jesus. There is a frantic energy that underlies his decision to seek out Jesus, to ask the disciples for their help in Jesus’ absence, and that colors his conversation with Jesus now. If you’re a parent I know you’ve felt the same kind of frantic energy; and, even if you aren’t a parent, you may have, as well. I know I have.

Years ago, when our son was around two, we had stopped at the outlets near Anthem, Arizona. There was/is a playground there, and while I had to go back to the car for one reason or another long since forgotten, Lynn took him there to play. As I was walking back, I heard the sudden surprised cry of an adult, followed by our son’s cry. As a parent, you know your own child’s cry. It just resonates with you. I’d found that I could preach successfully through other children’s outbursts or tears (which I don’t think were caused by me), but if Will started to howl from the nursery it would trip me up. So hearing his wail, I rushed back to the playground.

When I got there, Will was howling in his mother’s arms, Lynn was definitely frazzled, and there was another man helping them both. I found out what had happened: Lynn had gone up the twisty slide with Will, to encourage him to slide down. She watched as he started down the slide, picking up speed, but when the slide turned, he didn’t. He flew out off the slide, arced, and landed on the ground, head first. Thank God they had an incredibly spongy playground ground! We walked with him for an hour, watching his reactions, making sure he didn’t have a concussion or other injury to his neck. He may have had a headache, but overall he was fine.

But as I was running, as I was hearing the story, and as Lynn and I were waiting and walking with him, there was a rush of energy inside me. Chemicals like adrenaline, sure; but there is often a frantic energy that we feel when a child is hurt or threatened. Hearing your own child cry brings it out of you, pulls up a depth of fear and concern you might not have known you possessed.

Now, remember the boy’s father’s experience. The boy has been afflicted with this demon since he was a child, and the father has watched it threaten his life for some time, repeatedly bearing witness to his son’s potential destruction. We can thus easily entertain the idea, and speculate into the story, that this father has done everything possible that he could do to help his son over the years. He’s likely gone to the usual religious experts, exorcists, and healers, but been disappointed by their failure. Hearing about the one they call Jesus, he brought his boy to be healed, only to hear that Jesus was out of pocket at the moment. He asked Jesus’ disciples to help, but they apparently failed, too.

And so when Jesus comes down the mountain to encounter this father, he’s likely at his wits’ end. he’s tried all he can, and no one has been able to help. After explaining the situation to Jesus, his exasperation seeps into his own request, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Help my son, help me, we’re both drowning here. This thing is eating us alive.

I can so readily and deeply resonate with this father’s experience. I can imagine the anxiety he has felt; the desperation in his heart and mind; his fear for his son; his frustration that he cannot relieve his boy’s pain, nor find any one else who can. When your child hurts, it hurts you. The father’s cry, “I believe; help my disbelief” is the deepest, rawest, most honest cry of his heart.

In so many ways, as a follower of Christ, it is, at times, the cry of my own heart, too. “I believe; help my disbelief.” I believe in a creating, loving, awesome God of infinite grace. But in the midst of world problems or family breakdowns, its hard to hold that faith. Our experiences of the pain and darkness of our world seem to run counter to, seem to threaten the integrity of, the very faith we profess. Lord, I believe; help my disbelief at such times!


(1) While I don’t profess to fully understand the nature of our divine Creator, I’ve come a long way. I don’t read the creation story of Genesis as intended to be scientific fact, but for the deeper truth of God as one who creates peacefully, bringing order to chaos. I have read some ways in which the biblical narrative alludes to modern quantum theory, though! Check out Daniel Wolpert’s “The Collapse of the Three Story Universe” for an introduction.

(2) If you’ve never heard it, Chris Rice has a fantastic song along this theme, “Smell The Color Nine.”

(3) John Wesley interprets the father’s expression this way in his Notes on verse. He interprets the father’s cry, “Although my faith be so small that it might rather be termed unbelief, yet help me.”