As might be expected for someone who spends a lot of time listening to and performing music and who loves history, I tend to think a lot about music and its context. The early 1980’s, for example, were a time of post-disco sappy romantic ballads and dark, paranoid music. One thinks of the ballads of Chicago and Foreigner  on the one hand and songs like Frida’s post-ABBA breakup song  “I Know There’s Something Going On” or Michael Sambello’s “Maniac.” It should therefore come as little surprise that I should end up being someone who is profoundly influenced by both sides of that picture as someone who is both full of deep romantic longing as well as dark, gloomy pessimism and cynicism about relationships and deep mistrust for other people. It does not make for an enjoyable combination of influences or approaches to life and relationships. Be that as it may, my own intimate experience with deep ambivalence allows me to appreciate that same tendency in others.
I first became familiar with the music of David Gray  from his fantastic White Ladder album, filled with songs I have played over and over again like “Babylon,” “Please Forgive Me,” and the melancholy “This Year’s Love.” The music happened to become popular at that transition point between high school and college for me, and, as this kind of music does, it reflects the enduring tensions inside of me. Listening to my favorite songs is like reliving the experiences of one’s life and remembering that the reason why a song resonates is because it connects with something that is already there. “This Year’s Love,” which was used as a theme song for a rather dark romantic comedy, is an example of this, as the song expresses David Gray’s dissatisfaction with loneliness and a worldly wise cynicism that exists in tension with the loveliness and sincerity of his longing expressed in the music and lyrics. The music video, by showing rainclouds over the heads of various people (including the singer) only makes it more beautiful and sad. Beautiful and sad is something I can relate to. Even the happiest music I tend to listen to has that undercurrent of sadness that belies the cheeriness of the music. I am sure there are many other people who can relate to this tension between a desire for happiness and a certain struggle with the faith that such happiness is possible .
It is little wonder, then, that I should find this tension so appealing in my own Bible studies. James reminds us, for example, in James 1:5-8: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” What is it exactly that James is trying to get across here? What is it that we are supposed to have faith in? Are we supposed to have faith that God can give wisdom to those who ask it? Are we supposed to trust that He wants to give wisdom to us? The Bible commonly speaks of God as a loving father whose care about His children includes giving blessings somewhat indiscriminately even to those who rebel against him, and whose love includes discipline. In the Gospels Jesus Christ comments on the nature of the Father by comparing Him to our earthly parents, pointing out that as our flawed and imperfect earthly fathers gave us good things, that our perfect heavenly Father could hardly have less love and concern for us. We do not have to believe in God to be given gifts–for God sends rain to both the just and the unjust. Nor is a belief in the existence of God sufficient, for the demons believe in God’s existence and tremble, having no faith in His goodness and mercy towards them, as James says elsewhere. Rather, in order to recognize wisdom we must have the faith that God wants us to be wise, and we must trust that He wants what is best for us, even when it appears otherwise. It will come as little surprise that this sort of faith does not come naturally or easily, nor particularly well. It is far too easy for me to see myself in the position of an energetic small child strapped in a car seat fussing and fretting about the endless journey to a destination wondering when and if we are ever going to get there. Perhaps it is that ability to see the impatient and fussy child within me is what makes me so gracious and mercy with the fussy and impatient children around me. My own suffering is the gate to empathy and understanding, and it is only my intense consciousness of my own suffering that allows me to be gentle with the suffering souls that surround me in this dark world in which we live.
For me, among the most touching stories of healing in the gospels is that of a young child afflicted particularly strongly with a demonic possession. We read of this story in Mark 9:14-29. I would like to look at it in three parts. The first part is in Mark 9:14-18: “And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?” Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”” Here we have the setup of the scene. While Jesus Christ was away from his disciples, they had attempted to cast out a demon from a child and failed and then managed to get themselves in a dispute with some scribes. In the face of open knowledge of the suffering and torment of the world around, the disciples are quarreling and arguing with the corrupt religious leaders of this world. This is a situation that could easily happen today. It takes little imagination to see this happening in our day and age.
The second part of the story consists of the healing itself, in Mark 9:19-27: “He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.” There is a lot going here that Mark very briefly glides over in his action-packed narrative. First, Jesus Christ laments the faithlessness of that generation and every generation of humanity. Who was without sufficient faith? Everyone. We see later on that the father struggles with belief in Jesus Christ, and we see that it was the lack of faith of the people at the time that they cared more about scoring points in debate than doing something about the brokenness of their time. Not much has changed in that regard either. Here we have a young person that from childhood, through no fault of his own, apparently, has been tormented by a demon that seeks to destroy him, and no one has faith that life can be better until Jesus Christ almost commands that belief from the father of the suffering child. Yet even here there is no shortage of compassion–clearly Jesus Christ had compassion on the child, freeing him from his torment, clearly the father had compassion on his son in bringing him to be healed, and even the disciples themselves had compassion in that they wanted to heal the child. Even in a faithless and perverse generation like that of Jesus’ time or our own, people want to do what is right and want to fix the problems that bedevil us, for all the good those wishes accomplish.
The third part of this story is a comparatively brief coda in Mark 9:28-29: “And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”” Here we see the disciples in a particularly reflective mood. After having been publicly embarrassed by not being able to cast out the demon from the suffering child, they very properly asked why they were unable to cast it out. That is the right question–the call to prayer and fasting is a reminder that there are different levels of demons, and that the confidence that they had in casting out lower level demons was a bit misplaced in that there were more dangerous and tenacious and determined demons that they had not seen yet. It takes a being of great sickness and darkness to desire to torment children. To be sure, many of us may hurt children without evil intent. Perhaps we are in a hurry or impatient ourselves and we wound children through our inattention and lack of proper care and concern. This is easy enough to see, and one sees it all the time. But to deliberately torment a child, to seek the destruction of life, to silence it and fill one’s life with suffering is an entirely darker matter than that. One would be right to see in such a course of action the presence of deep evil that requires immense and heroic efforts and the very power of God to deal with, and is not something to be taken lightly. We should little wonder that the disciples, seeing as they did not yet have the Holy Spirit with them, did not have the power to deal with that sort of evil, but yet Jesus Christ was able to deal with it. At least we can take comfort in that.
What ought we to gain from studying such scriptures or examining the context of our own lives? Both tell us the same story, that we are part of stories larger than ourselves, and that we live in faithless and perverse generations that struggle in the face of contradictory pulls between the longings of their hearts and the darkness of the abyss. If we should struggle with these contrary pulls ourselves, it is little wonder, as some of us have, like the little child in the story in Mark, been marked out by darkness for suffering and torment. In such a situation as that, if we are to receive lasting help at all, it must come from above. Our institutions and authorities are clearly in over their head–they cannot save themselves, much less those they are responsible for. If we are to be saved we must be saved by God through Jesus Christ. There is no salvation on offering on any other terms–no one else can be trusted to be able to do even the good that they wish to accomplish.
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