Saturday, February 14, 2015

Our Artist and our Eater

Over the past few months, someone in our family has become quite the prolific creator. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, He replies "An artist and an eater."  Every where we turn, this boy is busy making--railroads, pictures, and all kinds of "inventions."  The pictures have led to making his first series of books. I soon realized that the books that he was creating were based on books that we have read at home.

When I asked him how he knew whether he was a boy or a girl, he said, "Because I like boy things!" Not a nature theorist, but a nurture theorist.

Josiah has begun to indulge in many self-portraits. So much so that he has posted a picture of himself next to his sister's bed and tied one to our bed. I'm sure Freud would have a heyday with that.
So, on the rare occasions when he doesn't slip between us in bed, he is still with us in portrait.

Finally, the young man has made his first family portrait. I'm sure you can clearly identify each one of us.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jesus the Great Witchdoctor

Quite some time ago, I engaged in discussions with people about witchdoctors and evil spirits on quite a regular basis. 
And mind you, the folks whom I talked had a variety of experiences with "evil spirits" and the powers and principalities that Jesus contends with, so plainly, in the opening chapters of Mark's gospel.
It wasn't uncommon for someone to mention to me that "so and so" was possessed or that a certain person in the village was an mchawi--that is the Swahili word for witchdoctor.  
I usually took  a variety of these comments on with an openness and also with a skepticism that would have been normal for any Westerner who had been raised in a culture where nobody really talked about evil powers or witches, except with regard to teenagers having Weeji boards and little kids dressing up in black and carrying broomsticks on Halloween.
However, one day, after living in my village for almost two years, I received an invitation for tea at the home of an old woman whom I didn't really know.

Invitations to peoples' homes were quite constant, some of whom would just ask me to come in for tea even if I was just walking past their compound. 
Other visits, of course, were the beginning of great friendships that were cemented with the ritual of the tea drinking, the peanut eating, and the sharing of conversation on a mat under a banana tree.   
But when I casually mentioned my invitation to a dear friend of mine, my Tanzanian neighbor, he paused and said, "You know many people say she is a witch and others say she poisoned her husband's tea and he died." 
My knee-jerk reaction was to think that rumors often had a life of their own in small villages. 
Maybe I should be the person to break such barriers.
But after thinking it through for some time, I decided that I did not need to be the village guinea pig.
I decided to decline the invitation, ever so politely, from a very old woman I didn't really know.

The Jesus of Mark's gospel was never invited to tea from an old woman, rumored to be a witch.
But, the Jesus of Mark's gospel is wrapped up in the stark contrast between good and evil from the moment this Gospel story gets going.
Remember that Mark's gospel does not begin with an infancy narrative.
Instead, we are introduced to a man who is baptized and is told that He is God's beloved, the One in whom God is well pleased.
And just as soon as we picture this beautiful, albeit formidable scene, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit--yes, by the Spirit, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. 
In Mark's very spare prose and sparse character development, the first 15 verses of his opening chapter set up this incredible dichotomy between good and evil.
 It is almost as if Jesus the Christ appears on earth to contend with the most compelling theological issue there is: the nature of good and evil.

Interestingly enough, the New Testament writers, like my friends and colleagues in Tanzania, assumed that evil powers exist. 
We can see this in the story from last week when Jesus called out to the man with the demons. 
The writer of Mark's gospel does not pyschologize or trivialize or justify the existence of the demon.
Instead, we see Jesus rebuke the evil spirit and it "comes out of him."
Clearly, the work of Jesus  is the focus.
The focus is not on the demonic powers, but rather on Jesus' victory over such powers.
The story introduces us to a savior, who in a very short time is fighting his way against evil and evil powers, all the way to the cross--the embodiment of evil in its fullness.

Now most of us wouldn't describe the healing of Simon's mother-in-law as a fight against demonic power--she had a fever after all.
But the story of her healing resonates with the story of the healing of the man with the demon.
Both stories hold to a very simple sketch of the situation.
Both stories lack complex conversations, details of the scenes, or the thoughts or feelings of the people involved.
In this healing story, Jesus says nothing, he doesn't even pray, nor does he command anyone or anything.
Rather, we are told in one brief sentence that Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and the fever leaves her. 
Once again, Jesus' healing is a sign of his great authority.
We see very quickly that the word is getting out ,for by nightfall, the whole city was gathered around the door. 
Mark tells us that "he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons."
Once again, Jesus is the embodiment of God  as he begins to demonstrate the power of God over godless powers.
And while the thrust of these two stories, one layered over the other, is the authority and power of God through Jesus, many of us who hear these stories can't help but wonder about the question of healing. 
After all, in both stories people who were once ill become well.

And, we can't help but wonder what role God plays in our own health be it physical, spiritual, or mental. 
In our own prayers at Redeemer and every other Episcopal Church you might visit, we pray for the sick every week.
We don't just do this for rote reasons.
We believe, as Mark's gospel attests, that God wants to restore all of creation to its original goodness. 
That creation, of course, includes people. 
Theologian , Karl Barth, has written that all miracle stories point to God's loving care for us.
When Jesus heals, he enacts the heart and mind of God.
Jesus frees and liberates those who suffer, which serves as a paradigm for the wider work of salvation. 

But, we all know that not everyone in the Gospel stories is healed.
Remember the scene where the crowds are gathering at the door once they have heard of the healing of Simon's mother-in-law?
Surely, Jesus did not get to heal every person who came to him at that crowded door. 
Nor will every one of us be healed from all of our illnesses on the timeline that we would hope for. 
Some of us may, many of us will not, but neither outcome is an indicator of God's care for us.
Mark's gospel assures us of two things; it assures us that God is directly concerned about the restoration of that which is evil to be made good, even in the bodies, hearts, and minds of his people.
But, we will also see that as this Gospel charges ahead, Jesus has a mission as a suffering servant. 
And as the suffering servant, Jesus enters fully into our pain and suffering, stepping alongside us and with us, as we offer that suffering to him in prayer.

Some Tanzanian theologians have coined Jesus as the great witchdoctor--that is the one who heals all, who has power over all evil Spirits, and who has the final say when it comes to the power of goodness over evil. 
In contrast, a Western theologian writes, "Most modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order.  The Bible tells us that God did not originally make the world to have disease, hunger and death in it...Jesus' miracles are not a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we want is coming..." 
Whether you believe Jesus is the great witchdoctor or our great high priest, he is working to bring all things into their fullness.
In sickness and in health, Jesus is working, with great power and authority.

And even the demons knew him.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Have you taught him the word "despair?"

Last night, Elias was thumbing through a book called "Putting on the Brakes" and his eyes started to well up with tears.  He pointed to a list of adjectives and said, "I feel like these." I stared at the list and he pointed to "Misunderstood" and "Confused" and "Overwhelmed" and "Forgetful"  As he ticked off each adjective he began to get increasingly agitated and said "Why do I have to have these problems?"  He then told me that people still tell him to get his fingers out of his mouth--even though he can't control it.  He said to me, "I can't go one hour without having my teeth-picking tic and I spend so much time hiding how I feel."  I sat there and listened. Adelaide and Josiah were playing on the couch and Adelaide piped up, "Who doesn't listen?"  Elias walked out of the room and I followed him into the kitchen.

There he turned away from me and said, "What is the meaning of life?  I mean, why do I have these difficulties?" He shrugged and went to grab his book bag and then quietly muttered "Maybe I should call the national suicide prevention hotline."  I had never heard the word suicide muttered  out of his mouth before. I didn't even know he knew that word.  I quietly started to cry and he looked at me and said, "Mom, it's just dark humor you know."  I reached out for him and we held each other and we cried.

I knew I needed something to redirect him at this point and to get the other two kids to bed. Luckily, a package had arrived in the mail with much-awaited Pokemon cards and we opened said package and he was distracted and then buoyed enough that I was able to sneak upstairs and put the other two down. When I came downstairs, I found him crouched in the corner chuckling over his Calvin and Hobbes book. Internally, I breathed a big sigh of relief as he read some of the funnier lines to me. I took him up to bed and sang "Jesus, tender" and hoped he would not get all existential on me again. He didn't and fell right asleep.

Two days later, I was talking the incident over with a trusted friend.  You see, I had felt like Eli had been doing so well and making such progress.  He has gone for almost two months without a single meltdown. And, we just decided to take a break from seeing his therapist because he seems to have made some peace with his tics and other issues. So, this incident felt like a blow. But, my friend said he saw something different. He saw that Elias was now finding ways to express his frustration and his feelings and his fear in appropriate ways. And, he had found a person who could listen and stay with him during this pain. He said I was holding him at just the right distance--not too far by getting concerned or dismissing his feelings, but not too close by being overwhelmed or undone.  And then he asked me, "Does Elias know the word "despair'?" I paused. "I don't know." Maybe you should teach him what despair means and put it on that list in case he needs to use it sometime when he describes his feelings.  All of us have felt despair.  And, all of us will feel despair. But, I'm not sure I have the courage to teach the word to him for fear he might need to use it.