Suddenly sometimes, even the most cheerful and upbeat of us can find ourselves facing discouragement and even despair. Things can turn on a dime. Life can be going well, even, and we can feel that there is nothing really to be anxious or fearful about. And then suddenly we tap into the discouraged sense we all hold within us. Even in the best of circumstances, a sense of discouraging despair can rise up. And then there are those times when the events in life overwhelm us with discouragement, those times when the demons keep piling on, and there appears to be no escape.
Despair is the story of Elijah this morning. These past few Sundays, we have been reading from the collection of stories about this primitive prophet. All of these stories involve the ancient conflict between the god of the desert, YHWH, and the god of agricultural fertility, BAAL. Elijah is the prophet for the desert YHWH. At this point of the story, Elijah has led a group that has killed the prophets of BAAL, in retaliation for their violence against the forces of YHWH. The cycle of violence in the ancient Middle East is present here. And one round of retaliation brings another round of retaliation by the queen and those who support BAAL.
The forces of YWHW are now crushed and forced into exile. Elijah flees to Mt Horeb and the wilderness to hide out and take stock of things. Of course the story is told from the point of view of the god of Elijah. But one senses that somehow Elijah had become over zealous in this increasingly violent conflict with the prophets of BAAL. Did he escalate the ongoing violence between the two parties to the point that he and his supporters will be crushed? Now he must flee for his life.
In his flight, despair wells up in his heart. He starts to feel suicidal. He wants God to end it. And under the rare shade of a desert tree and in the cave on a hillside, he wants to let go of his life.
Is there any way for Elijah to be healed from this cycle of violence in which he has become an all too willing accomplice, using his faith to justify his bloody deed? Is there any way for him to be freed from the violence that plagues him and the despair such violence always breeds in the hearts of both perpetrators and victims as the violence escalates in spirals of revenge? Or is he to despair to the point of death?
Regardless of the cause of the despair we feel, whether we are an ancient prophet or contemporary Christian, whether life is going fairly well or life is a mess, we would do well to look at the trail of clues the story provides regarding the mending of the despairing soul in primitive thought. For in these ancient details of the story we see how to make it back to hope, one step at a time. And no matter how deep our despair, how profound the violence which marks our life, no matter how contemporary we think we are, we are all still primitive in many ways and need this catechesis of inner healing for the violent spirit emptied of all it thought was important. We need to learn the steps to walk back into the light of hope.
First notice how the exile is also a time away in which there is space for reflection in the desert and in the cave. If we are going to get back to hope we always need such times away to figure things out, to reflect, and to quietly listen to the voices in us that have been drowned by all the noise.
Notice how much attention is paid to Elijah’s eating and resting. Nutrition and good sleep are important not only in our physical recoveries, but also in the recovery of hope. At funerals we need to lunch together, and we need to rest after the exhaustion of facing death.
Notice that solitude is important. We need time alone to face our demons and ourselves if we are going to rebuild hope. And then the dreaming starts again. We start to imagine a different future. And we hear voices: some from our past, some from our future, some from God, calling us on, getting us in gear, getting us going again. Until we have that inner the inner spiritual conversation with the sacred and we begin to make new sense of things. There are storms to face, as Elijah faces his storm, but in the end, the voice of God is found in the silence, the stillness that follows. In the verses that follow these verses, Elijah begins to hear in the visions and voices his direction for a future. The details of the story tell us how God guides us in the healing of the broken heart, in the miracle of emergent hope, as we struggle, all of us at times, with the demons of despair.
The hope of healing when gripped by the demons of despair: this is the theme of the third passage this morning, the story in Luke. For here Jesus encounters a man possessed by many demons. He is overwhelmed and needs to be restrained. Healing one gripped by the demons of despair is the theme of this story.
For us, these stories of the demon possessed, speak to mental illness. Donald Capps, a psychiatrist who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary sees Jesus in these encounters as a village psychiatrist, bringing healing as people face the demons that overwhelm them. (Donald Capps, Jesus the Village Psychiatrist, Westminster, John Knox Press, 2008) For although the restraints today employed may involve the use of drugs rather than chains, we all sense in these demon stories, the raging forces that compel the mentally ill to do strange things, as if possessed.
So the story brings to mind the healing of the mentally ill that needs to take place in our own village. Many suffer mental illness. For many, hope is hard. How easy it is for us to reject those who are strange with the thoughts and labels we use. How important it is to care for and work with those in need of the compassion of Jesus as they face their demons, knowing that there is a healing connection between the spiritual and the physical, and that loving relationships bring healing in these situations.
In this story the sense of being possessed by forces or things is very real. And that is how life feels sometimes. We are overwhelmed by that which surrounds us, unable to be ourselves as we try again and again to cope. We feel possessed.
And the possession is complicated. It’s never just one demon. We often do not face just one problem, but several together. The demons are legion. There is a complexification in the problematic. Oh, if we could only focus on one thing. But no, the demons are legion. Everything is compounded.
But the healing begins with a spiritual dialog between Jesus and the demons. This reminds us of the importance of the healing dialog, of the psychiatric conversation, the long term therapy, the spiritual direction that is needed to navigate the difficult waters as we find our way back into hope.
And as healing is accomplished, we should also note the outcome of the healing. Of course there is a deep sense of relief. But sometimes our healing is not met with great amazement and joy. The people around us may not understand. In Luke, the healing miracles are usually met with faith and amazing joy. But in this instance, there is not amazing faith, rather fear, suspicion between the people and Jesus as a result of this healing. The healing, the hope, the renewal is great. But life has changed, things are tense here, and Jesus decides to make a rather hasty retreat. Sometimes there are unintended consequences or opposite outcomes when things get better. And often the first steps in any recovery seem to only make things worse.
But a long time ago, a primitive prophet faced his own violent heart, his own despair, his own suicidal tendencies and found his way back to hope. But a long time ago a healing Jesus moved someone who was overwhelmed with the demons of mental illness, and hope was restored.
And even now, people are moving away from the restraints of despair, meditating, praying, and listening their way into a new vision of the possible for these complex demon infested times. For as Paul says in Galatians, God, through Jesus, cares for us still.