Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Casting Out Demons

When I'm in Greencastle, I attend Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, right on the DePauw campus. Much is familiar to me at Gobin from my St. Paul's UMC worship experience in Boulder: same hymnal, same basic order of worship, same liberal theology. Some is different: Gobin is an older church, with beautiful stained glass windows, unlike our plainer sanctuary in Boulder, and our choir and organist in Greencastle are drawn from DePauw's excellent School of Music, so the voices are more operatic than the Boulder choir, which has more of a "Broadway show tune" kind of sound. The new pastor at Gobin is a generation younger than my Boulder pastor; he begins and ends worship by playing on the guitar, which I love. And at home in Boulder, I'm a total church lady - chair of the church council, Sunday School teacher, frequent guest preacher; here, as a short-term visitor, I'm more or less a cheerful parasite.

At Gobin, the back of the bulletin contains questions for reflection, to reinforce the Sunday worship experience through the week. Last Sunday's Scripture reading was from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus casts out a demon. This is the kind of Bible story lots of Christians today struggle with understanding. After all, exorcisms are not currently our "thing" (although I know of one academic department that staged an exorcism upon the retirement of an especially disliked colleague!). Are these Biblical characters really possessed by demons, we ask ourselves, or just mentally ill? Or suffering from an epilectic fit? Is it stigmatizing of mental illness or epilepsy to read these stories in this way? How do we make sense of these Biblical passages? How can they guide our lives today?

Enter the reflection questions from last Sunday's service:

"What is the name of the demon, the spirit, the idolatry you carry? If you can think of this answer as many 'troubles,' try to find the root cause, a name to give to that which needs to be cast out. The question may take different forms throughout the week. You may also consider the same question with regard to your family and to this nation. What is the Holy One casting out today in your presence?"

Wow. Demons to be cast out in my life, my family, my nation, my world? Where do I even start?

Okay. Over the course of the last sixty years, I've suffered in one form or another from all seven deadly sins: anger, envy, pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, greed. Probably anger and envy have topped my "besetting sin" list. I tried to give up envy one year for Lent and failed by the second day. Over the decades, I've gotten better at all of these, I think. So what are my personal demons that need casting out today?

Worry (which is really another name for fear).
Complacency in the face of injustice in my community and world (particularly salient to me after DePauw's Day of Dialogue on campus racial issues last week).
Resentment at ways in which I'm called to serve others: why me? why now? can't somebody else do it?

Just as I decided that this week's number one demon-to-be-cast-out was the third one - a smouldering begrudging of the time and effort I devote to others - I was given a chance to help a sick friend. At first all I could think of was everything else I had planned for today. The book I need to write, revise, and submit to my publisher by the end of NEXT WEEK! The huge amount of reading I have to do for both classes (question to self: if it's too much reading for you to do, maybe it's too much for you to assign to your students?). The fascinating events I want to attend on campus. Why me?

Then I remembered. Oh. Demon. To be cast out. I called my friend and told her I was clearing my schedule for today, ready to help in any way. As so often happens, as things have turned out, I'm going to need to do a lot less than I thought I would. The tasks will be easy. The burden will be light. I'm going to exercise the privilege of helping out a loved one with a grateful rather than resentful heart. At least for today.

In the Bible, once demons are cast out, they are gone for good. In our lives, demon-casting seems to be a slow, uncertain, one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back affair. But it's helping me to think in these ancient terms: demon, begone! Get thee behind me, Satan!

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