Help My Unbelief

Mark 9:14-29

Imagine that you are driving along a country road about sunset: the leaves of the poplars which edge the road burn with sun while the pine forest behind them settles into the shadowy sleep of dusk, and ahead of you cutting its way through the glow, a car meanders along the road.  One minute it wanders into the left lane, and then awakening to its error, it rebounds to the right, wheel catching on the gravelly shoulder.  Naturally, you worry that the driver is drunk, and you fall back to put some safe distance between you and the erratic car.  Your foresight is fortunate, for without warning, the driver ahead of you slams on his brakes and careens off the road to stop at a skewed angle in the dust.  The door of the car jerks open and the driver jumps out.  Standing still as a soldier, he peers into the mist of a nearby swamp and slowly raises a pair of binoculars to his eyes.  You have not been following a drunk driver at all; you’ve been following a birdwatcher, intoxicated by the world around him.

In 2008, a newspaper in Australia reported the death of a birdwatcher in the outback.  His car had gotten stuck in the rough terrain and he had run out of water, a disaster in that arid region.  Australian birders speculated that the man had been looking for the Black Grasswren, a small bird that can be found only in that region.  The Australian police told the paper, “The man was an ornithologist and photographer and obviously on the trip of a lifetime.  Unfortunately it went horribly wrong.  The conditions up there are extremely harsh and I don’t think people from urban centres can appreciate just how dangerous it can be.”

Fellow birders had a slightly different reaction, however.

“I hope he got his grasswren,” one said, and the others agreed in silent respect knowing the lengths to which we will go for the things we love.[1]

We are distracted by our love. The naturalist is oblivious to passing cars, road signs, and hazardous conditions when absorbed in the sight of his or her beloved creation.  A mother in a room of children hears the voice of her child above the patter of the rest.  A man in love barely attends to the conversation of his colleague at a party when his beloved enters to stand on the other side of the room.  His eye, his ear, and his heart are focused on this bright spot in a room of shadows.  We have all experienced this distraction when love enters.   A new love may fill our every waking thought and guide our day as we seek to increase and hold that love.  The love of an abiding relationship worn smooth with familiarity can sneak up on us and surprise us once again with its strength.

If we are unsettled by the joy of love, what happens to us when we are confronted by the anguish of the object of our love?  When the mother in that room of children hears her child’s voice turn to a wail, she leaps to her feet every nerve ending jangling with the cry.   That cry lays hold of her attention.  It  pierces her heart.  The cry of her loved child penetrates to the very core of her being, because, in reality, the child is part of her being.  Love melds us with the objects of our love.  Their pain and suffering sends waves of pain cascading through our own hearts.  Our compassion doesn’t come from our head; it wells up from our gut.  It clouds our sight, and not only distracts us but absorbs us as our whole spirit is now focused on the plight of the one we love.

In the story from Mark, we see the anguish of a man consumed by the suffering of the son he loves.  Jesus has gone up the mountain with his special students, Peter, James, and John, leaving behind the lesser nine who probably feel a little left out.  They wonder if Jesus thinks less of them; they wonder if Jesus thinks of them at all.  When the man brings his epileptic son to the nine left behind, they decide that this is an opportunity to prove their worthiness to Jesus and so they work to cast out the demon that is destroying the boy’s life.

And they fail miserably.

Jesus, when he returns to discover the hapless nine surrounded by an arguing crowd and is informed of their failure, chastises the disciples with his disappointment: “You faithless generation.  How much longer must I put up with you?”

The swelled self-importance that passes for love.  The disciples claimed to be working for the boy’s healing but they were really working only for themselves.  They imagined the status they would gain in their Master’s eyes, and the respect of the crowd, as they showed their power over the demons that possessed the boy.  They were the televangelists who hawk healing over the airwaves in order to plump up their own bank accounts.  They were the swaggering politicians who take up a cause only because they love to see their face on the news.  They were the people who volunteer for every committee in their town and workplace so that they can brag about their busy schedule.  They were even the church folk who mine the sufferings of others for the gossip that will make them feel important and “in the know.”  How often ego masquerades as love; how often our compassion for others arises simply from a hunger to feed the needs of our own self-importance.

Yet there was another in that crowd whose love was genuine, whose being was welded to the being of the boy and who shook with the boy’s convulsions and burned at the boy’s pain.  It was his father.  Surely a love that flows from the depth of the heart is strong enough to conquer all things.

Jesus said to the father, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

And the man cried out with the torment of our universal human soul:  “I believe, help my unbelief!”

Maybe the disciples love was not deep enough and there only to strut their own importance but the father’s love was too deep.

Sometimes, too often it seems, the sheer depth of our passion can cause us to loose sense of our surroundings, to hurt when we intended to heal; to mess up when we intended only to help; to lose our heads in the aching of our hearts for the one we love.

We believe; help our fumbling clumsy inept hearts.

Many years ago, I was talking with a member of the community who had moved here from the city and has sense moved back to the city, finding that rural life didn’t appeal to his wife as much as it did to him.  He, however, loved the fields and forests of Alfred and often went hiking through the woods delighting in the beauty of the world around him.  One day, he told me, he found a fawn nestled down in the middle of a meadow.

“It was all alone, obviously abandoned so I carried the poor little thing home with me.  My children and I tried to get it to eat for three days, and it took a little from a baby bottle but every day it got weaker and weaker.  We finally called a wildlife rehabilitator who took the fawn home with her.  We just found out, however, that the fawn didn’t make it.  It was too weak for her to save and it died last night.”

Because the man’s grief at the fawn’s death was so profound, I didn’t tell him what I thinking:  the fawn had most likely not been abandoned at all.  Mother deer will often look for a quiet secluded spot to leave their tiny offspring during the early morning hours while they graze nearby and if he had left the fawn alone, the mother would have returned as soon as he left, checking to make sure her baby was unharmed and giving it the nourishment he needed.  The man in his love, wanted desperately to carry the fawn to freedom and to salvation, but instead his clumsy efforts destroyed it.

We, your people Lord, are such a bumbling people.  Our love is genuine but our efforts so inept.  We try to bring comfort but cause pain instead.  We try to express our care for others but flounder on our words.  We think to protect those we love and discover that we have ended up suffocating them instead.  Words we meant to speak as advice blare forth like stinging criticism.  We give others “space” when they are longing for the security of closeness.  We give our children everything they want discovering later what they wanted most was structure, or we love our children with strict discipline only to find they needed our trust.

We believe, Lord; help our unbelief.  Help our clumsiness, help our short-sightedness, help our stupidity, help our laughable efforts, help our stumbling love.  It is not our love that is wanting; it is our ability to apply that love in a way that will heal another.

Love does not guarantee success.  If love was all that was needed, then the father of the possessed boy could have chased a legion of evil spirits out of his son, but Jesus says there is more.

“This kind can come out only through prayer.”  I cannot believe that this is that platitude we hear so readily on the lips of Christians that if we only pray hard enough our suffering loved ones will be healed.  That father, like the parent of any child with such a horrendous chronic disease, must have prayed his heart out over the years.  His sweet boy would turn into a beast, foam at the mouth, throw himself into the fire, dash his head on the floor.  Who cannot see the father weeping on his knees: “Lord, stop my son’s pain!”  His love for his son was staggering, and his prayer — his prayer shook the heavens with its fury for he not only keened the injustice of the world, he also wept the bitterness of his helplessness.  He, the father, could not save his own son.

And so he cried his guilt: ‘Help my unbelief! Lord, I love him so much but I can’t seem to make it better for him. Sometimes I even make things worse.  I don’t know what to do anymore, and I feel like a failure but I can’t give up: he’s my son. I love him and now all I can do is put him in your hands.’

This was the prayer which finally drove the demons away. Jesus took the boy by the hand and lifted him up.

There is a power in the world that is greater than human love.  God’s power can’t always save those we care about from tragedy or hurt, but God can save us from all of those things that threaten to kill our spirits, that threaten to undo us, unravel us, and unmake us.  These are the demons the Bible talks about:  it is our belief that if we just do the right thing, if we just love hard enough, we can “fix” everything.  We can fix our spouse; we can protect our children.  If we pray hard enough, we can cure cancer.  If only we love hard enough and well enough, we can by the sheer power of that love, make everyone’s life better.  And the harder we try to fix everyone’s life, the more we are possessed by the demons of hopelessness, inadequacy, despair, and anger.  Our relationships are strained and instead of making anything better, we just make everything worse.  The demons have their fingers on our hearts.

When the father admitted both the depth of his love and the inadequacy of his efforts, he stepped out of the struggle to “fix” his son’s life.  And this is what he prayed:

“My love, as deep as it is, is clumsy, Lord, but your love is always gracious.  My best efforts have failed me, and I am ragged with my guilt and inadequacy, and so I look to your mercy to forgive me.  Take my bungling compassion and weave it together into a compassion so fine that it can change hearts and free lives and break through the wall of isolation that has separated me from my son.”

The father prayed a prayer declaring his deep love for his son, and confessing in the same breath his need for the deeper love of God.  The man realized that his love alone was not enough.

And Jesus smiled and said, “This is the prayer that heals.  The demons are gone.  Be at peace with one another and be whole.”