When Dianne asked me if I would preach, I thought, “sure, it’s been a while. I can do this”.
In those moments I think about the things that have been going through my thoughts lately and are driving my choices for myself and for my family and community. In those moments I find it easy to imagine what I might say.
And then I read the lectionary texts for the day. My mind swims with confusion and rage at some of what I find there and questions of “why we are reading this in the first place?” And in that moment, I lose myself in more questions of what I should be doing about the lectionary itself, or the church’s relationship to the lectionary, or our relationship to other Christian churches, and should I or we be doing more to call out the bad theology and toxic uses of scripture in the broader world. And I wonder why we don’t, and I think of the unwillingness to clearly break with other Christians and say, “these are stories.” They are important stories told by faithful people of other generations about what their thoughts and feelings about god were, but they are stories told by people, not the word of god.
Can you imagine our bishop saying that from a pulpit? Me neither.
Today we have Jesus casting out demons. For most of us it’s hard to relate to without some mental gymnastics.
When I was a child, my family was involved in the Charismatic movement: both my parents, our parish priest, and I don’t know how many others (I was 7). I remember we would gather in the basement of the church. I assume we met there because it made us feel more like a secret persecuted chosen few. An ichthus was scratched into the cement on the doorstep. I remember that being “slain in the spirit” and speaking in tongues were part of the proceedings. I didn’t go regularly, but I remember wanting in on the action and Bill, our minister, allowed me to come to the rail one time and laid his hands on me the way he did with the adults who were “slain”. I certainly felt overwhelmed and fell down and had an experience that moved me greatly. I saw it as a sign of god moving in me—expectation is powerful in shaping experience.
At that time, I would have had no problem with the concept of demons and I suspect my mother is still on board with the idea. The whole Charismatic community was really keen on and believed fervently in casting out demons and faith healing. Those of you older than I and with a long association with the Anglican church in Ontario may recall that that story ended badly and with an unnecessary death. Fortunately, my family’s relationship with the movement ended long before that dreadful situation when my parents split in 1972.
In the 90s, I was a young member of the Diocesan Doctrine and Worship Committee. It was brought to our attention–I think by a bishop looking for a solution–that some parishes and groups in the diocese were engaging in exorcisms. As a committee, mostly of clerics, we were universally horrified, but did we recommend directly calling it out and forbidding it? No, we were too cowardly to pick a fight with the part of the church which was engaging in this activity. We developed guidelines and liturgy for performing exorcisms. To our credit, those guidelines started with a stern requirement that proper mental health supports be engaged before any such thing was even considered, but we lacked the courage to simply say this idea was an unhelpful superstition from another age. We feared “breaking faith” with parts of the church.
It is easy to imagine many mental illnesses being seen as demonic possession. Indeed, when in the throes of schizophrenia or even a bad depressive episode, I am confident that it can even feel like that. However, stories like that in our gospel today hold at least two dangerous messages:
- That you can be directly saved from even something as terrible as demonic possession
- That god will do it if an appointed representative of god wants it to happen
The first can be used to avoid dealing with problems and offering hopes and prayers that god will do something. Not to mention the basic dualism of well/unwell.
The second has been repeatedly weaponized to empower those in authority in the church.
Can we be saved from our demons?
I suspect we could all name a few dogging our heels.
Depression, anxiety, impatience, and anger are a few that I drag around with me. I certainly don’t believe that anyone can simply save me from mine. There is a lot of work involved in wrestling those demons and hopefully some measure of peace can be gained, but we are not simply “well” people temporarily afflicted by some outside force that can be banished. We are struggling with parts of ourselves. Often we can be aided by others: counsellors, friends, even medication, but we are ultimately on the hook to manage the situation. We’ll return here in a little bit.
In the 80s I attended church regularly, was part of the youth group, was involved as a server, and would happily get into theological discussions based on my limited knowledge of scripture and theology at the time. My family was both Christian (mostly my mom) and intellectual (mostly my dad) and we would hash almost anything over. At church I was not infrequently encouraged to consider ministry as a career.
Even with all that direct engagement, I can honestly say that church and Christianity had little effect on my life (beyond all the cultural norms and baggage of course). It certainly didn’t really affect the way I thought about the world or myself. It seemed to be a formal and systematized way of addressing a being who loved us, would listen to us and might help us in unclear ways. Not to mention a list of arbitrary things that were supposed to be believed, in spite of their even more incredible nature.
Scouting, which I had been a member of from the time I was seven had much more of an effect on who I was and am. Scouting still really saw itself as a service organization in those days and I really absorbed that. My main engagement with the world was through the lens of Scouting. The church seemed to have little to say to the world. I didn’t think that in any negative way at the time, it just never occurred to me that the church was relevant outside its own walls. To be fair, it did make space available for Scouting and other relevant things, but I couldn’t tell you what any of my childhood churches did other than gather for worship and have bazaars. The idea that there was a god who could and would do awesome stuff was appealing, but that wasn’t something I saw happening.
In 1987, I went away to university and out of habit and family ties, went to church with my grandparents in Lakefield. Through an assortment of circumstances, I came into contact with a bunch of keen young Anglicans who played folk/rock music in a band and who believed that the central Gospel message was one of justice, and acting to bring it about. It blew my mind.
I recall standing in the church, singing Let Justice Roll and having what can only be called a conversion experience as I envisaged a number of wheels spinning all at different times and speeds and then, for a moment, all turning together for a few rotations. I had an immense feeling of relief that the world could be put right and, in fact, was right in that moment.
That experience set the stage for a major re-engagement with the church that continues to this day. In that moment, and for many years afterwards, I definitely believed in a god, who hurt and hungered for justice in the world.
I can’t personally sustain that belief any longer, but I still hurt and hunger for justice in the world. I am with Karen Armstrong and Dianne, that Reality is the call and all that we can perceive of god, if there is one. I can no longer believe in a personified god who is bigger than us. To be able to do that I would have to believe too many impossible or unpalatable things about that being.
I know this place and all of you well enough to know that there are many nuanced views of what god is or means and what kind of presence she/they/he/it has in the world.
The god of the Bible, on full display in the Gospel reading this morning, is a personified, interventionist god. Depending on the biblical story, you can attach other attributes, often quite appealing, but the personified and interventionist parts permeate every story.
What kind of god do I believe in? I’m not sure, but I’ve stopped looking in the Bible for guidance.
As we read the first chapter of Sam Harris’ book Waking Up a few weeks back I read a section in the middle where he talks about the differences between Western and Eastern approaches and traditions of spirituality:
“…the Abrahamic religions are incorrigibly dualistic and faith-based: In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God’s love and grace provide some relief—but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbours doubt about His supremacy.”
“…Eastern tradition presents a very different picture of reality. And its highest teachings…—explicitly transcend duality.”
“Of course, it is true that specific Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics have had experiences similar to those that motivate Buddhisim…, but these insights are not exemplary of their faith. Given their proper weight, these experiences produce heterodoxies for which Jews, Christians and Muslims have been regularly exiled or killed.”
“Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-1327) often sounded very much like a Buddhist: ‘The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge.’ But he also sounded like a man bound to be excommunicated by his church—as he was. Had Eckhart lived a little longer, it seems certain that he would have been dragged into the street and burned alive for these expansive ideas.”
It has been some time since I read Eckhart, because the lectionary certainly doesn’t present him or any of the other Christian mystics. But I know this place has a soft spot for the mystics, maybe because we have had so many in our midst, sharing wisdom, poetry, music, dance, and doing the dishes.
The reading I picked is a translation of Eckhart by renowned heretic and theologian Matthew Fox. Fox was very important to me in those days of the 90s when I was filled with renewed fire for the possibilities of Christianity. I think I read Original Blessing five times. It definitely helped put my feet on the road I still walk, though like Armstrong, Fox and Spong, I have left behind the idea of a deity.
Eckhart’s reference to “Is-ness” immediately transported me back to Dianne’s sermon of a few weeks back. And it also spoke strongly to one of the things I struggle most with: my own is-ness. Who am I. I can name a bunch of things, but they feel just like a bunch of labels that describe things I do. This is one trouble I have with so-called identity politics: there are a number of things that are part of who I am, but ultimately I am not simply those things. I guess that’s why I have come to like the word, “queer.” It feels like it doesn’t say much specific except you shouldn’t make too many assumptions about me. I like that. However, even that doesn’t help me that much.
And what about those demons I am dragging around? Are they part of my is-ness? Can they be separated from me or do I have to reconcile with and manage them as part of who I am? I have struggled with this problem my whole life–part of the human condition I expect. I have no recollection of finding guidance on this matter in any Christian context. The duality of body and soul, sin and repentance dominates.
I remember becoming somewhat aware of this lack of guidance when I was attending the Centre for Christian Studies in the mid-90s. It was a pretty radical institution as Christian ministry training schools go. We did a lot of stuff. We studied theology and worship and group theory. We talked a lot about politics and the gospel imperative, and justice.
I remember feeling a little worn out by all the work I was doing in Youth Ministry and justice and various other Christian-related things. I remember thinking “I need to stop running from place to place.” I made a decision to stop running for the bus and racing to keep a schedule. I managed it for a while. I started conversations about play in our Core group. It was interesting, but ultimately led nowhere in terms of personal growth.
Many other students at the Centre were in therapy of some kind or another, and while I’m sure at least some of the counsellors involved were Christian, and we talked about people’s therapy a fair bit, it is interesting that those conversations had no real intersection with the theological and ministerial training that we were doing. They were both deemed important, especially for future ministers, but it seemed Christianity had nothing much to offer in terms of help for personal development.
It has become increasingly clear to me over the years that that is simply true. I still think the justice themes of the bible are important and valuable, but I honestly can’t think of scriptures that seriously address the human mind, much less offer useful tools for supporting and healing who we are. That’s what I need. I don’t personally need another exhortation to do justice. I need some help learning how to be at home with myself. How to love myself. I don’t think I’m the only one.
I can’t help but think of Tooker Gomberg when I am feeling frustrated or depressed or thinking of metaphorical demons. Tooker was an amazing guy. I don’t really know his faith background, if any, but he was a powerful activist. He seemed relentlessly optimistic and made quite a bit of positive change here and in Edmonton. In the end, depression took him from us. It’s easy to imagine that he had some genetic or chemical problem that was badly addressed by our mental health system. It could well be true, but in all his do-ing he clearly wasn’t getting what he needed.
In all my do-ing, how can I learn to be? Because in do-ing is endless failure. We can succeed over and over again and yet, we will still fail too. And we know all too well that when we get into these battles over justice issues that the struggle is long and even some wins feels like failures because they are inadequate to the problem. How can we live with that? How do I find peace in my own skull? I wish I knew, but I really believe that to get there, I need to come to terms with and value my own is-ness. An is-ness that doesn’t require actions. An is-ness that does not depend on being granted it by an outside force. But an is-ness that is legitimate unto itself.
Eckhart offers some clues in his text today. I was especially captivated by the full-on pantheism of the first line—a sense that he (and we) are one with god. Not “god in everything,” but “god is everything.” That’s a step further than even the Irish monk Pelagius, who was shouted down by Augustine over Augustine’s obsession with Original Sin in the 4th century.
In my own search for personal peace however, I was even more caught by “Isness is so noble. No creature is so tiny that it lacks isness.” The idea that just by existing I am accomplishing something is a wonderful starting point. Not even that my existence glorifies god, or proves something. Simply that isness is valuable in and of itself. For a driven do-er like myself, that is a tremendous relief. It doesn’t answer all my challenges in seeking personal mental discipline to support my own isness and happiness, but it at least opens the door.
I have had a few experiences that confirm the rightness for me of what I am speaking of.
As a child, like most children, I simply was. I did not dwell much on the future or what I should be doing. I did what I did. Not in a terrible, destructive way, but in an honest, simple way.
Another is that moment way back in 1987 singing Let Justice Roll with those new friends. That sense of being aligned with myself and with the world.
Sometimes when playing music I lose myself in the moment. I am not do-ing something anymore, just inhabiting the place of being and connection. Creating and be-ing in each individual moment.
Sometimes in sexual passion I become blissfully lost and stop thinking. I like that.
Co-incidentally, I had an email late last night from an old friend who now lives in Australia. He was responding to my cancer diagnosis. Among his own thoughts and experiences, he offered this quote:
“We need to hesitate to name our experience too quickly, thereby imposing meaning on it and losing a chance to learn from it. It is best when we can focus on our level of being and be ready to stay there without words until the experience itself gives rise to the words”.Greg Johanson and Ron Kurtz in: Grace Unfolding. Psychotherapy in the Spirit of the Tao-te ching.
It was a nice affirmation of where my mind has already been going and a reminder that there is a deep tradition in Buddhism and Taoism that is very concerned with being.
I’d like to finish with a piece by Ian, one of our own dear mystics. The movement from difficult memory to being fully present in simple and lusty ways right now, speaks strongly to me and what I am seeking, longing to be.
- Meister Eckhart on Isness
- Gospel of Mark 1:21-28
- Waking Up, Sam Harris, 2014
- Tooker Gomberg
- Foundation of Being, Dianne’s Sermon – Jan 17, 2021
- Matthew Fox, especially Original Blessing
- Let Justice Roll by Bob Carty
- Ian Sowton, A Song
- I tripped over the remains of the Charismatic movement again when I was at Lakefield in 1987. Moore Smith was an honorary assistant at St. John’s Lakefield.
- Ursula K. LeGuin’s writing, but especially A Wizard of Earthsea and all subsequent Earthsea novels. LeGuin is a great thinker about the human condition even though her settings are all either futuristic or fantastical. The Earthsea books have been a great source of theological and philosophical thought for me on doing and not doing.