Category Archives: UMC

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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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

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?”

Frenetic Spirit (Intro)

Frenetic Spirit (Introduction)

People around me are anxious. While national newscasts spark concern, debate, and ire, I’ve sat with parents whose children cried themselves to sleep for (irrational) fear of deportation. As medical tests suggest the promise of clarity for treatment, I’ve commiserated with people uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. Amid deepening divisions within my theological tribe, there is angst and anxiety about whether we can truly remain United, Methodist, or even a Church. And if I’m honest, even as I volunteer in our local school, I know some degree of anxiety from time to time about whether my children are getting the best education they might. Fears and uncertainty seem to be widespread, and I am certain you could add your own to this brief list.

So, today I am inviting you in to an ongoing conversation. As I organize and put these thoughts to paper (or keyboard, anyway!), I do so with an awareness that what I have to share is not some authoritative theological treatise, nor a life-changing book on spirituality. Instead, as I give myself time to muse in a generic text editor, I’m sharing with you reflections on a conversation that I believe God has begun with me and, I’m fairly certain, is keen for me to get back to.

As a bit of background, this particular conversation began during a recent Bible Study I led at my local church, Trinity Heights U.M.C. As part of an ongoing devotional reading and study of the New Testament, each week we begin with a shortened version of Lectio Divina. Latin for “divine reading,” Lectio Divina is a prayer form that integrates reading of Scripture with meditation, reflection, and conversation with God. On the night in question, as we slowly read and pondered the following passage three times, God began this conversation that I hope to share with you in five subsequent parts (too long for a sermon; too short for a book).

The likely-familiar story in question takes place in the Gospel of Mark immediately following the “transfiguration” experience of Jesus and three disciples (I’ve briefly touched on this here). It’s the story of a demon-possessed boy and his father, who have come to Jesus for healing. In years’ past, I’ve often been struck by v. 24 – “I believe; help my unbelief!”, which I’ll share a bit about in part 3. This time, however, as we read through the pericope, I encountered a new focus I hadn’t really read before.

Below is the passage in question. I invite you to perhaps read it slowly and repeatedly on your own, and see what inspiration it/God speaks to you before moving on to my ramblings that follow:

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”

17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; 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; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

19 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.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

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,[a] “I believe; help my unbelief!”

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?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

[a]Mark 9:24 Other ancient authorities add ‘with tears’
(Mark 9:14-29, scripture and notation, NRSV, c. 1989)

As a new conversation emerged from this recent reading of this text, I find that it draws me/us first through four different, difficult movements of conversation before bringing me/us to a word of hope and good news…