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I wonder what questions come up for you when you hear this story?
When it comes to this one about the man living in the tombs, full of demons, we are often looking for how it is true. Do demons really exist? Was the man really possessed? Is this all just a misunderstanding by people of an ancient time who didn’t understand mental illness?
There is absolutely a place for us to reflect on this story as a man with a mental illness like depression or schizophrenia, for how the community treats him, how we treat people with mental illness. We also don’t want to find ourselves in the place where someone could interpret what we’re saying or thinking that mental illness is really just demonic possession, or that someone needs more prayer or an exorcism for diagnosable illness. But some people understand their own mental illness as a force that overcomes them. It’s complicated.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spirit, benevolent or malevolent.
Jesus, in the Gospel of John, talks about evil as a thief that comes to steal and kill and destroy. I believe in that kind of evil and that kind of evil text individuals and communities and society.
I wonder if something broke in this man. I wonder if he experienced a loss of a wife or child or a physical capability or a part of his body or the ability to work or some of his mind. I wonder if the community that one came to him for the profession he had, the task he could do, no longer reached out because they didn’t need him. I wonder if they didn’t want to see the darkness and grief of someone who lost their family. Maybe for a while they said, “reach out if you need anything.” While he knew he should, he just couldn’t. Maybe all of the “shoulds” went through his mind every day. “You should get up.” “You should go for a walk.” “You should eat something.” “You should be in the sunshine.” “You should take a shower.”
Maybe they were the voices from his past. “You could do so much better.” “We knew you weren’t going to amount to anything.” “You’re a little too sensitive.” “Why can’t you just move on.” “Why can’t you let it go.” “It’s been a month, a year, a decade, you should be past this by now.”
And what was once a break, a wound may have left a scar, with “should” and with every “just do this,” the wound tore a little deeper, broke another piece, left him bleeding. And maybe that does leave one vulnerable to other evils. Not respecting or loving himself, his being, and his body as sacred. Of self-medicating to feel nothing and self-harming to feel anything. so there was nothing left to do but to completely exclude him from the community because now you have no place in it.
I don’t know if demons are real but the voices that tell you who you’re supposed to be? They absolutely are real and they are legion.
It’s the voices of busyness and capitalism. The ones who if you’re working are telling you you are not doing enough you have to produce more commit more invest more, you’re falling behind, that your value is in what you produce. It’s beauty and fitness voices who will tell you what the perfect and healthy body looks like and the ones that don’t. The voices of the -isms and the -ogonies(?). The ones that affect us as individuals and as collectives. The ones that for centuries have told us that the default and perfected human being. And homophobia and transphobia tell people they are, in fact, less than human, they do not deserve love, companionship, community.
All of these voices, these evils, will push you aside and away if you can’t keep up and will judge you if you take it too far. Any one of these voices might say you are not enough, you will never be enough, you are broken beyond repair, your life is not valuable.
Jesus asked the man, the demons inside the man, or them, what their name was. Legion is a Roman military unit of thousands. Just a quick pause: this is just one of multiple military and political references in this story, it is as political as it is spiritual. The man and Legion, the voices were so entwined that there was no distinction. They were one, they were many, so overwhelming the man couldn’t tell his voice from everyone else’s, he didn’t know himself from them.
But healing, liberation, freedom, can only come when you can give something a name. When you know what it is and you know it’s parameters. You maybe can treat cancer if you just do it generally and vaguely but it is so much better when you know what it is, name it, know its genetics. And with often with mental health, if you want to be well you have to make that step to know what is wrong, to name the feelings or trauma or pain, and take that first step, that choice but you have to know what it is to know what the next steps are. Most 12-step programs start with recognizing your relationship to addition. To be free of racism and sexism homophobia, to not use words that are offensive, or jokes that are cruel, or just the subtle things we do when we don’t know is by naming it and learning about it and which is when liberation begins. .
Jesus stepped off the boat, asked this man’s name, and set him free. Because the voices, the demons suddenly realized that they are not in charge of how this world works, and never were. Jesus has power over the evil that comes in to steal and kill and destroy, that Jesus brings life and life abundant. He brought it that day to the man, until there was nothing the man could do except sit in the quiet of his mind with the one who set him free.
I wonder if there were a hundred things that were said in between the lines we are given. I wonder if the man heard Jesus say “Your heartbreak is real come and sit and cry and I will cry with you, then tell me the story of the people you love.” I wonder if the man heard Jesus say “Yes, your life is different and you can’t do the same things you used to do. You are still worthy.” I wonder if the man heard Jesus say “You are not your past or the things you did to survive.” I wonder if the man heard Jesus say “You are enough exactly as you are.”
I wonder if Legion heard Jesus say to them “You are not how the world works. You don’t get to define who anyone is.” I wonder if Legion heard Jesus say “You no longer have any power here.”
And it’s hard. Because the recording in our head that tells us who we are or who we’re supposed to be or how we have screwed up and how will probably do it again has played for so long it sounds like our own voice. But Jesus comes, steps out of the boat, asks us to name our hurts, our pains, our brokenness. And reminds us that the evils that keep us bound, isolated, wounded, that try to define who we are, they aren’t in charge of the world. That they don’t get to define who we are. Instead of Jesus steps off the boat and tells us that we are enough that we are beloved that we are worthy that we are beautifully and wonderfully made. That we were made for abundance and made in wholeness. Jesus steps off the boat and tells us, “I am sorry about your hurts and your pain and those times you felt unloved and the wounds and the brokenness. Tell me about them. Tell me about the scars. Tell me about the people you love and miss.”
Jesus stepped off the boat and all of these demons and voices knew that something had shifted and changed and they fled. Jesus shows up and the evil flees, it quakes, it is terrified when Jesus shows up in love and compassion and liberation.
Close your eyes if you want, take a deep breath. We all have some voice in our heads, it doesn’t make us unwell or possessed. It means there’s some narrative we have been given that helps us understand our lives and our place in the world and often it is not kind, and we think that voice is ours. But if you listen carefully: the syntax is just a little off, maybe the accent is a little weird, maybe the voice is pitched a little too high or a little too low. It isn’t you. And it isn’t the voice of the One who made this world, knows how it functions, is how it functions, who stepped off the boat, and liberates those who are lost those who are pushed aside who are bound or dismissed who are so confused.
Imagine if as you go through the day and the voice that tells you that you are not enough, that you are not doing enough, that you will fail, you are a failure, and you’ll never do any better. That you are 10 years behind where you should be, that you should lose 5, 10, 50 pounds; and instead of co-signing on it, instead of believing it, instead of repeating that story over and over again we say, “Not today Satan. I know who I am, and you will not define me to that right now. In this moment I choose to be in the presence of the one who sets me free and calls me beloved.”
And it’ll take time. Some of those things are deeply rooted and it will take time to starve them out, for the roots to dry up, and the for them to die. But it’ll get easier over time, I think, I hope.
But the more we live into our belovedness, the more we live into the wholeness and abundance of who we are and who we were made to be against what the world thinks we should be and its very specific and confined little boxes, the more the forces the evil the legions they will quake. They will grow uncomfortable. There was a time when they would have pushed us outside of society now they might just call us weird. As we grow and live into our belovedness, into our wholeness, and do our abundance what we already are, we carry that into the world into every interaction and to every community that has been weighed down by the expectations of the voices by the evil by the legions trying to make them less. We step off the boat into the communities and speak hope and love and belovedness reminding each and every one they are already enough already whole that their wounds will heal that their stories are worthy of being told and heard. And the legions will quake, and bonds will be broken, and healing will begin.
It is my hope that we can all learn to be rooted in our belovedness as individuals and as a community that we can go into the world offering good news of hope and belovedness and community to others.
You may have noticed in our opening and closing announcements over the last handful of years images of texts text written under the title Black Liturgies (@BlackLiturgies). Cole Arthur Riley has been writing reflections and prayers and quotes for the last handful of years as a black woman in a religion and a tradition that tends to center whiteness. All of her Instagram posts, her reflections, and her new book include breath prayers; on the inhale, you say one thing and on the exhale something else. it is a prayer, it is a reminder, it is a mantra.
Inhale: We don’t have to prove our humanity. Exhale: to those committed to brutality.
Inhale: “The soul that is within me, Exhale: no man can degrade.” Frederick Douglass
These are a couple of examples. Take a breath. Let it out. What will you say to remind yourself of your belovedness and the voices and the legion try to tell you you are something else? What are the words you can give others as a gift when they have forgotten who they are?