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.”

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 2: The Boy

Part 2. The Boy (and possession by reactivity)

20 And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. (Mk 9:20, NRSV)

Herein we ostensibly encounter for the first time the titular spirit of this conversation. Convulsing its host, the spirit seems to take control of the boy, overwhelming him. Earlier in the story, the father described much the same kind of activity, adding to it that the spirit kept the boy mute:

“he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…” (9:17-18)

There are a variety of ways modern Christians respond to passages of Scripture about demons and demon-possession. While some argue for the literal truth of such passages, insisting that evil spirits are real and pose a threat, others argue for more scientifically-nuanced readings of such passages, suggesting we de-mythologize the Biblical authors’ attributions of a variety of conditions to “demon-possession” that we would categorize differently today. Like most biblical scholarship, people range a wide spectrum between the fundamentalist extremes of conservative literalism and liberal progressivism.

I would humbly suggest that, however you read and interpret demons and demon-possession in the Bible, I can attest to this truth: many people wrestle with demons today. There are those who attest to the presence and influence of evil external to themselves; and others who eschew the anthropomorphism of powers of darkness but attest to the lure of evil within. And a variety of maladies, illness, or addictions that we might be able to name are often metaphorically referred to as demons that someone struggles with.

In discussing such passages with me growing up, my father tried to explain away such stories of demon-possession maladies as epilepsy or other diseases we now know the cure to. At the same time, the specter of his own mother’s alcoholism was the proverbial “demon in a bottle” that haunted him his life; he never fully shed the sway that it had held over him growing up.

Years later, a church member I deeply respect shared her own experience of a demonic presence. One night she had woken to the sight of glowing eyes and an oppressiveness that surrounded her; one that retreated from her as she began to pray.

Whatever they may be or we may call them, I find that there are demons in our world, lives, and hearts that threaten us. There are those sources of fear, anxiety, and even violence that seem beyond our control. One need only watch the news to be anxious that destruction threatens us from without. Yet as I read the passage of late, a particular manifestation of this frenetic spirit makes itself known to me.

I find beyond the original source, the perspective with which we read it, or the intent of this tale of the demon-possessed boy, there is in the story of possession a grain of truth that speaks to me. We are told that the boy has been possessed by something since his childhood, and that it often contributes to him losing control. That lack of control threatens his very life.

We are all beset by something from childhood that can lead us to lose control, and even threatens the health of our self. By nature and nurture, as we grow we learn how to respond to the world around us; and we generally all learn an unhealthy response, one wherein we lost control, which without consulting another text I’ll refer to as “emotional reactivity.”

Even if I’m mis-using the term or the science, you can recognize emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever returned home, only to feel yourself being treated like, and perhaps even responding, as when you were a child, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever found yourself lashing out at your child in a way that goes against what you desire in your better nature(1) but seem to neglect in the acute moment of misbehavior, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever thought “I sound like my mother/father,” you know emotional reactivity. We learn how to react to situations, often in unbidden ways.

More often than I care to admit, I am not the parent I desire to be. I do not consistently respond with the patience, care, and levity that I know would benefit myself and my children. Instead, I respond with the same kind of reactivity I grew up with. I lash out in anger and frustration, by word or deed. It is not for nothing that we can often hear said of an emotionally reactive parent that he or she has “lost control.”

Where an addict might see the frenetic spirit of the boy in one light, as a struggling parent I suddenly see in myself the possibility of the same frenetic spirit, capable of convulsing me into losing control…


(1) Is it coincidental that just as we refer to the evils we struggle against as demons, since Abraham Lincoln we have heard our best selves referred to as our “better angels.”

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 1: The Crowd

Part 1: The Crowd (and our anxiety for “right” answers)

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. (Mark 9:14, NRSV)

I can’t speculate on what it was like for Jesus himself, but Peter, James, and John have just had an eye-opening, transformative experience. Having stepped off alone with Jesus, they have borne witness to the glory of God – the divine nature – that always permeates Jesus but that they often are unable to perceive. Coming down from this literal “mountain top” experience to the rest of the group of disciples, they find a large crowd and hear arguing going on.

Because these thoughts evolve from a conversation God invited me in to, I have to take a moment and share about my personal feelings toward crowds.

Are you ready?

I don’t like crowds. As an introvert, I generally feel uneasy and anxious when presented with a crowd (unless that crowd is at a Star Wars convention, in which case it’s one of the greatest on earth!). I like my space, both physically and emotionally, and crowds tend to… crowd in on that space. I have been known, during church Christmas parties, to eschew the larger gathering of adults engaging in conversation and hors d’oeuvres and instead hang out with the children playing Nintendo games.

So as we read of Jesus and the disciples coming back from a spiritually formative moment to encounter a crowd, I began to feel some unease.

And then we learn that within the crowd, scribes (or “legal experts,” religious leaders well acquainted with both Scripture and tradition) have been arguing with the disciples. This isn’t in and of itself surprising, as such religious experts routinely argue with Jesus throughout the gospels. Here they likely came to continue that trend of conversation but, finding Jesus off “on retreat,” they contented themselves by arguing with his disciples instead.

We learn the nature of the argument after Jesus asks what it was about, and “someone” from the crowd (we later learn it to be the father) shares that he brought his son to be healed by Jesus and, finding him sequestered away with his inner circle, sought the help of the disciples. Knowing that healing is involved in the argument – not to mention an example of failure to do so – we can anticipate/speculate what the arguments might have been, since this moment is reminiscent of others where legal experts challenged Jesus:

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people[a] came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-11, NRSV)

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:22, 28-30, NRSV)

(On a related note, earlier in Mark 3:5, Jesus looks around at the legal experts “with anger” because of their attitude, something I comment on in a recent sermon, “Mark’s Action Hero.”)

So often the Pharisees, scribes, legal experts, and other religious leaders of his day are taken aback by Jesus and his action. “Only God can forgive sins!” they cry out in shock and horror when Jesus declares forgiveness. They remain silent when asked if one should do good or evil on the Sabbath. They plot against Jesus, to the point of seeking his death!

Why? I think we are readily too quick to give the Pharisees a bad rap, seeing them as a one-dimensional foil to the activity of God in Jesus. But what seems to really be going on is that their commitment to the law, and to doing what is right, acts to blind them from the new activity of God in Jesus. They are so deeply committed to their understanding of the Scriptures and God’s promise of a Messiah, that they are anxious and unsure about Jesus because Jesus’ activity does not connect with their perspective of who the Messiah is or will do. They are anxious because this rabbi from Nazareth that is being lifted as the potential Messiah does not meet their expectations of the Messiah…

And the crowd, gathered around these bickering religious experts and Jesus’ seeming second-tier disciples, must be feeling anxious, too. After all, they are now faced with two very differing ideas about God, about how to live in a way that honors God, about what God desires. Which of the perspectives is right? (In another story, we are told that when Jesus encounters a crowd he “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” [Mk. 6:34]. To me, this image of a crowd suggest a group that is clueless, afraid, uncared for, and/or unprotected, as I imagine abandoned sheep might look.)

And so, as Jesus and the three disciples descend from the mountain to real life below, they encounter this crowd abuzz with anxious people…

When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. (Mark 9:15, NRSV)

There are times as a parent when I suddenly find my two children (and sometimes their friends) descending on me all at once. They’ve had some kind of disagreement, and when they cannot work it out, they rush to me to solve it for them; to fix it. (If I’m honest, I sometimes have experienced the same thing in church ministry, too!)

In the same way, when those in the crowd cannot work out this dispute between the disciples and legal experts, they rush to Jesus to solve it. They triangulate Jesus in to the conflict between the other two, expecting that he will determine a winner and a loser.

In fact, Jesus’ eventual response almost sounds like that of an exasperated parent or teacher…

He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (Mark 9:19, NRSV)

How often do we turn to some external source, some reputed expert, to provide us the “right answer” to a dilemma we face? It seems to be a trend that if one finds a relationship distressing, a family dysfunctional, or an organization challenging, then one looks to another to step in and fix it. Marriage counselors sometimes face members of a couple expecting the counselor to fix the argument (or their spouse!), and when a quick solution isn’t presented but instead the real work of mending a relationship is posed, the couple quits.

I wonder if we have become overly anxious for the “right” answer for situations.(1) Edwin Friedman’s excellent, if perhaps obtuse, book on leadership comes to mind. In “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friendman shares how we have come to think we can find the right data or solution to some acute problem, rather than working more deeply at the underlying causes of our anxiety and turmoil that lead to acute problems.

I believe that “the crowd” today, presented with even more differencing perspectives than the two shared in this story, still acts out of its anxious nature. Perplexed by an ever expanding diversity of options and perspectives, the crowd turns looking for the right answer to fix it; and so perhaps do we, individually. We might feel that the right job, or the right spouse, or the right leader will provide the answer, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

I had this experience in one appointment. About a year or so in to a challenging church position, a prominent leader of the church came to me to share that he was leaving the church. He shared that the congregation, and he himself, had been struggling before I got there, but he stuck it out because he expected the new pastor would come in and “fix it.” He used those exact words with me! Suffice it to say, I had not provided the fix he was desiring, and he left for greener pastures. It was a sad, but enlightening, moment.

And so here we are, shifting from my initial thoughts about my personal unease with a crowd to what seems to be a deeper anxiety within the crowd that day, and then the story focuses in a little more closely…


(1) Just an aside: I respect and appreciate how Rev. Gina Campbell, when giving presentations, asks the question of whether something is “comfortable” to her listeners, rather than “does that sound right?”