February 21, 2011 Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time Mass and Reflections; I Believe, Help My Unbelief

Mass readings for today are here

My reflections are quite long today . 
Because I will not be able to blog during the first few weeks of Lent, maybe I'm making up for it now....

This is a most beautiful First Reading today..
Book of Sirach 1: 1-10

All wisdom comes from the LORD
and with him it remains forever, and is before all time
The sand of the seashore, the drops of rain,
the days of eternity: who can number these?


Heaven’s height, earth’s breadth,
the depths of the abyss: who can explore these?

Before all things else wisdom was created;
and prudent understanding, from eternity.

The word of God on high is the fountain of wisdom
and her ways are everlasting.
To whom has wisdom’s root been revealed?
Who knows her subtleties?

To whom has the discipline of wisdom been revealed?
And who has understood the multiplicity of her ways ?

There is but one, wise and truly awe-inspiring,
seated upon his throne:
There is but one, Most High
all-powerful creator-king and truly awe-inspiring one,
seated upon his throne and he is the God of dominion.

It is the LORD; he created her through the Holy Spirit,
has seen her and taken note of her.

He has poured her forth upon all his works,
upon every living thing according to his bounty;
he has lavished her upon his friends.

 Gospel Mark 9 : 14-29
As Jesus came down from the mountain with Peter, James, John
and approached the other disciples,
they saw a large crowd around them and scribes arguing with them.

Immediately on seeing him,
the whole crowd was utterly amazed.
They ran up to him and greeted him. 

He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”

Someone from the crowd answered him,
“Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit.
Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down;
he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid.

I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.”

He said to them in reply,
“O faithless generation, how long will I be with you?
How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.” 

They brought the boy to him.
And when he saw him,
the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions.

As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around
and foam at the mouth.
Then he questioned his father,
“How long has this been happening to him?”
He replied, “Since childhood.
It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him.

But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Jesus said to him,
“‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.”

Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”

Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering,
rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it,
“Mute and deaf spirit, I command you:
come out of him and never enter him again!”

Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out.
He became like a corpse, which caused many to say, “He is dead!”

But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up.

When he entered the house, his disciples asked him in private,
“Why could we not drive the spirit out?”

He said to them, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

Lyrics to True Things :
I’m not the clothes I’m wearing
I’m not a photograph
I’m not the car I drive

I’m not the money I make

I’m not the things I lack
I’m not the songs that I write

I am … who I am

I am who I am

There are true things inside of me

I have been afraid to see
I believe, help my unbelief
Would you say again what you said to me
I am loved and I am free
I believe, help my unbelief

I’m not the house I live in

I’m not the man I love
I’m not the mistakes that I carry

I’m not the food that I don’t eat

I’m not what I’m above
I’m not my scars and my history

There are true things inside of me

I have been afraid to see
I believe, help my unbelief
Would you say again what you said to me
I am loved and I am free
I believe, help my unbelief

To your love I’m waking up

In your love I’m waking up

I’m not the clothes I’m wearing
I’m not a photograph
I’m not the car I drive

I’m not the money I make

I’m not the things I lack
I’m not the songs that I write

I am … who I am

I am who I am

There are true things inside of me

I have been afraid to see
I believe, help my unbelief
Would you say again what you said to me
I am loved and I am free
I believe, help my unbelief

I’m not the house I live in

I’m not the man I love
I’m not the mistakes that I carry

I’m not the food that I don’t eat

I’m not what I’m above
I’m not my scars and my history

There are true things inside of me

I have been afraid to see
I believe, help my unbelief
Would you say again what you said to me
I am loved and I am free
I believe, help my unbelief

To your love I’m waking up

In your love I’m waking up

 Whenever I read this parable  I really feel sorry for both the disciples and Jesus. Having just come down the mountain from being thoroughly soaked in the divine rays of the transfiguration the disciples wander off on their own and are confronted with a boy who needs healing and of course the ever present hostile wily scribes are hovering in the background ready to pounce. 
So what happens ? : the disciples flunk it. They can't do the healing part ! 
Jesus meets up with them and I can't help wondering that he might have been thinking whether he should have bothered with the transfiguration at all.

Richard Rohr says : "The opposite of faith isn't doubt. It's anxiety.", and expands this definition of faith in everday terms:

" Faith is rare because no-one wants to live between first and second base.
Faith is the in-between space where you're not sure you'll make it to second base.
You've let go of one thing and haven't yet latched onto another. Most of us choose the security of first base."
 Flannery O'Connor wrote " you arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness .
Don't expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty." 

I ask myself if my faith in God  is a little beam of flashlight, spasmodic and with a limited range or a floodlight that illuminates my whole life and all my encounters.

Early Christians recognised that faith was "a surrender to God in all things, at all times and in all places."

Click here for a fine piece in praise of doubt 

These days we would recognise the ‘demon’ as epilepsy.  
What intrigues me about this parable is that it is shot through with questions, questions that have to be articulated and engaged with before the boy is healed.

The questions that emerge in this story are deep ones:

The first is the question of why disciples failed at their  efforts to heal and our own inadequacy to heal others :
It’s a question implied by the crowds at the story’s beginning , and addressed to Jesus by the disciples at the end. 

It is Jesus who points out that prayer is the only way that our powerlessness and failure can be redressed.  The type of prayer that comes from a deep place is one of complete inadequacy, honesty and surrender to God. 
If I am to share my faith at all it can only be from a deep questioning of my own adequacy for the task and a complete abandonment of myself to the sole power of God.

The disciples maybe are feeling so high from the immediate afterglow of the transfiguration that they think they can exercise the power of God through their own willpower as if it was merely a mechanical extension of their own swollen ego.


The second question asked by Jesus himself : “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How must longer must I put up with you?” 

This is a strong response. It is spoken to the crowd  and would just as easily be said to us today.
We have come to accept as normal the secularity and cynicism of our society. Most of us practice our faith around people we work, play and live with who have no faith in God, have lost it  because they are disillusioned with it , reject it , actively ridicule it and even many who have faith feel no need of community, confession, prayer or anything else that the churches offer. 

It has become the norm for western pluralist societies. We want to talk about faith, and invite people to faith, in a faithless age. 
Does it matter that we believe in God, as long as we live good honest lives ? - that's the question secularists throw at religion. I am spiritual but not religious is a common statement these days and one that has spawned many responses on the web.

The church faces a huge task particularly with a generation that sees much of what institutional religion offers as irrelevant to their spirituality.

We have to grieve the faithlessness of ourselves as a church just as much as those outside of it. 
We question the values of secular culture but need to question ourselves as a church.  

We ask how will people find faith vitalising when they’re chasing success in the workplace, or are greedy for the products of the marketplace but also need to ask how people can find faith vitalising when they see the bickering divisions and hostility within the churches and when it drags behind the freedoms that secular culture has allowed.

Being faithful to God implies being faithful to each other.  If we are going to speak of faith, and point to it as being the bedrock of our lives  we need to question how we have failed in the prophetic tradition that transmits the message of God right to the heart of the way the people around us live. 
The gospel is radically counter-cultural but it is dumbed down and diluted because we find it too hard to live it, too afraid to dismantle and start again.

Then comes the third question, the question of human suffering.

Confronted with this boy convulsing and foaming at the mouth, Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been going on?”  Did it really matter? Was Jesus’ action dependent on knowing this?

In fact 3/4 of epilepsy cases have no known cause but heredity can play a part so on a simple level Jesus was really doing nothing more than being a sensitive and perceptive doctor taking a thorough clinical history here !

Maybe there was also some deep psychological/spiritual trauma or hysteria as the end of the story reveals.

Perhaps Jesus was inviting more ... as is so often the case the presenting symptoms are not the only thing that needs listening to....

There was a story to be heard; Jesus gave space to allow the history of injury and sickness and failed healings  to be told . Jesus knew that there were years of powerless wounded experience that went to the heart of not just the boy’s experience but also the pain , anger and isolation of his father and his family. 
Jesus did not want to heal until he had plumbed the depth of the question, and suffering is always a question! 

When the suffering is that of your child and you have no answer to it, then it is an anguished questioning that  questions the very nature and goodness of God himself. The father’s story ends with the haunting plea and implied rebuke: “… if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Talking about answers is pointless and insulting, until we can hear and hold the anger and desperation and hopelessness that always attends the question of suffering.
Do I believe that Jesus can answer this kind of deep existential question? 
Yes I do!

I do because I have known so many people including myself who have found that answer through experience, born of burning questions of heartbreaking loss, pain and debility. 

Then there is the fourth question: the questioning of faith itself. 

Jesus questions the father’s faith:  “If you are able! – all things can be done for the one who believes.” 
What follows is the harrowing and the heroic expression of that anguished parent, “I believe, help my unbelief!” 

So often Christians want to share life’s answers as if faith is our sure possession, something calm and assured and without problems. It’s there in the way we talk. It’s there in our bright smiles and anodyne platitudes. 

The surface can look so assured, the prayers so smooth and polished.  But spend much time with the people of any church and you find that we are very much like that poor anguished parent and that  our faith is as much an expression of genuine longing as anything else.

We are struggling not just with our own suffering or that of our children or our parents,  but struggling with faith itself.
Things we used to believe now seem irrelevant, what used to be oases of refreshment are now barren deserts of dryness and sterility.

Questions and doubts arise. We do believe, most definitely and assuredly, but there is also unbelief. There are unanswered prayers and questions within ourselves, and some of these questions run to the heart of our faith.
 When atheists say,  “I don’t believe in God”  my answer is  “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in – I may not believe in him either!” 

The question of suffering, intellectual objections, life issues that confuse us and make it hard to believe, have to be honoured as our own questions and doubts. I don't think you  can ever get a person to believe simply by talking about faith. It can't be gained by human achievement.
Flannery O' Connor referred to "help my unbelief"as the foundation prayer of faith.

In a letter to a friend who was thinking of rejecting the church and was proud of doing so, she warned  : " Some people when they lose their faith in Christ, substitute a swollen faith in themselves."

Flannery knew that faith was not a matter of human competence nor could it be summoned up by an an act of will. 
We can be bold enough to ask for it but it has to be received as a gift and yet paradoxically it can also never be claimed as a finished product.

She wrote : " Faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever , it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will. "

Faith comes to us as pure grace from "the One who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist , most assuredly including faith where no faith exists.

John Keats negative capability comes to mind.

Some people use this parable to argue these points below :
What sort of God cannot cure a physical ailment simply because people in the crowd are skeptical? Why should a child have to continue to suffer from epilepsy so long as his father is doubtful? 
Scenes like this provide justification for modern-day faith healers who claim that failures on their part can be attributed directly to a lack of faith in the part of those who want to be healed, thus placing upon them the burden that their disabilities and illnesses are entirely their fault. 
This is a gross and cruel distortion of God's actions and a presumptious usurping of the mind of God.

I don't know the mind of God but when I go back to that first reading it is telling me that I never will.


Unanswered Prayers
It is true that Jesus said "the reason we don't have what we want is because we don't pray for it and when we do pray we have not prayed properly, you have prayed for something to indulge your own desires." but the problem of unanswered prayers for healing someone who is seriously sick is still a tough one for me to understand.

I don't have the answers but all I can say is that a thousand difficulties do not make me doubt the wisdom of God.  

Unanswered Prayers of Jesus

The author Philip Yancey's says :

We know that Jesus the Son of God, had at least three prayers He sent to His Father.  Each time the prayer was answered by a  "No" hidden in the silence of God’s answers.

Choosing Disciples

 “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God.  And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles;”

Jesus spent all night before making this big decision in prayer asking for God’s guidance and wisdom in making a decision. 

Yet, what did Jesus get ?

Peter: Turned denied Jesus three times at the moment he needed someone to defend Him.  Jesus even called Simon Peter “Satan” at one point.
Judas: Turned Jesus in for thirty pieces of silver
Thomas: Doubted Jesus’ Resurrection
On the night he was betrayed, his disciples fell asleep and did not warn him of the approaching guards
 Nevertheless  the apostles grew into men who defended Jesus to the death.  
 All but one died as martyrs.

Dying On The Cross 

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."

The night he was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is in so much anguish as he prays that he sweats blood.  

This is a medical condition called Haematidrosis, where severe stress or anxiety can cause blood vessels surrounding sweat glands to burst.  

Jesus prays : "Abba, Father . Everything is possible for You. Take this cup away from me."  He doesn’t want to die.  He realizes though that his prayer, his want above all else, must be in God’s will.  If it is not God’s will, it won’t be done. "But let it be as You, not I would have it."

Despite the fact that His faith was unwavering, God’s answer came in the resounding silence of “No."

Image by Peter Howson from here

Christian Unity

“I pray not only for these , but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. 
Father may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. 

With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will recognise that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me."

So if Jesus, the man who defines our faith, heard God answer "No." there is a salutary lesson for us all.   
Should we expect immediate answers?  
Should we expect yes if we pray hard enough or have enough faith?
No and No.  
God gives us answers, but they aren’t always what we desire.

Finally, Ron Rolheiser gives us his response to unanswered prayers here.

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