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Change, Healing, and Leaving the Comfort Zone
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 19, 2016
1 Kings 19:1-18 Luke 8:26-39 Psalm 42
This morning’s readings are all about change. They tell us that change is not easy. They tell us further that change may be unwelcome. But they tell us, too, that the right change brings us closer to God.
The stories tell us something about the nature of sin, evil, and dysfunction, also. I list three levels of personality problems because I believe them all to be related. They are like a telescope with three sections, each section more inward and more close to the eye. In the case of sin, evil, and dysfunction, the three levels are related to the deepest part of the soul, the inner part of the soul, and the psychological mind. We change from the outward psychological mind first, and the process deepens through the inner soul as we confront evil, and finally touches the deepest part of our soul when we deal with sin. In my talk this morning, I will follow the same progression. I will begin with psychological dysfunction and progress into a discussion of sin. All along the way I will talk about change and healing.
The story of the demon possessed man gives us much to ponder. First, the man is living away from community. He is almost a dead man, unable to communicate with other humans and living among the tombs. He is either bound in shackles, or he breaks his chains and rushes headlong into the wilds. Both of these conditions are what sin and dysfunction are like. When we are under sin’s influence it is as if we are bound in chains. We are driven by lusts and unholy passions sometimes even against our own will. We can call these drives compulsions. For compulsions force us to do things that seem to be out of our power. On a natural level, the level that is closest to this world, we think of addictions. Drug addictions drive a person to imbibe alcohol or to shoot up or to ingest chemicals and the addict almost doesn’t have a choice so powerful can addictions be. Addictions can drive people to steal to get money for their drugs. Cleary, people in the grips of drug addictions have difficulty maintaining human contacts and relationships. When they are under the influence of drugs, they are not capable of intimacy. And stealing from other people is obviously anti-social behavior. Addicts are chained by the power of their drug. And the consequences of addiction drive them away from society, like the demon-possessed man. They are driven away from human community into the psychological wilds of lonely drug-induced insanity. This can leave to homelessness, broken families, jail, and even death.
But this is almost a physical problem—although there are spiritual and psychological aspects to addiction, also. A little deeper into the soul we can think of dysfunctional character traits and behaviors. Many people grow up in dysfunctional homes. Maybe their parents are alcoholics or abusers of drugs. Maybe their parents are abusive or harsh. In dysfunctional homes, children develop defense-mechanisms. They develop behaviors that allow them to cope with the dysfunction of their home life. I grew up in a home in which my father was harsh, domineering, and verbally abusive. Like many fathers of his day, he didn’t know how to show love. Men of his generation were not taught by society to be nurturers. My father was not very nurturing. One of my defense mechanisms was to argue back at my father. I learned to think quick and come up with excuses. I also met his anger with anger of my own. I yelled back at him when he yelled at me. This was one of the coping mechanisms I developed in my childhood.
Being argumentative and prone to anger and debate are not very social characteristics. If I were pushed a little further in this direction, I likely would have turned to criminal behaviors. With the poorly adapted social skills I learned at a young age, I was a lonely teen and young man. I was driven into psychological wilds. I was imprisoned in psychological chains. I needed the healing that we see in our Luke story. I needed for the demons who were possessing my soul to be exorcized. This is only one example of the kinds of dysfunctional behavior patterns a person can learn in unhealthy upbringings. There are many different kinds of mindsets, emotional conditions, and behaviors people learn to survive in childhood. We develop these unhealthy coping mechanisms unconsciously. We grow up with them and we don’t even see how they are holding us back. That is why Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
I’m happy to say that with help from AA and from God, I have been delivered from much of this particular behavior. I’m also happy to say that later in life, the friction between my father and me was softened. Dad mellowed in his old age, and I became less confrontational. In his old age, my father and I became friendly. I’m now glad that circumstances threw us together late in his life, and that we had a chance to mend the difficulties between us when I was growing up.
On a spiritual level, sin functions much like addiction or dysfunctional behaviors. In a deeper way, sin isolates us from society, from community, from love—love for and with our neighbors, and love from and to God. Pride, for instance, keeps us from neighborly love and turns us away from God. I say turns us away from God because pride makes us not want God. It does not turn God from us, it turns us from God. God never turns away from us. God never removes Himself from our souls. God is always with us, for us, and loving us. I have heard that the letters in ego, e-g-o, mean edging God out. That is what pride does. If we think that we are all that matters; if we think that we are the greatest; then God can’t be the greatest. If we are the center of our own lives, then God can’t be the center of our lives. If we think that we do everything by our own power, then we can’t turn anything over to a higher power. If we are the center of our own lives, we care nothing for others. We only care about what we can get from other people. We only care about other people if they serve us and our wants. Clearly, a person in the grips of pride is living in a spiritual wilderness. A person consumed with pride is living among the tombs, and can be considered spiritually dead.
God wants to deliver us from all these conditions. Jesus healed the demon possessed man without even being asked to. This is the spiritual meaning of the first day of creation. It says that “The Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep.” In delivering us from sin, evil, or dysfunction, God moves first. Some religions say that there is nothing we can do for ourselves. They teach that God does it all. There is something to that doctrine. But this church teaches that we need to cooperate with God. God acts, but we need to react. In my own alcohol addiction, I had to take the first step and put down alcohol. But the spiritual program of AA reformed my spirit. God worked on me through the spirituality of the AA program. But I had to go to meetings. And I had to listen. God is all powerful. God is constantly in the process of saving us. But we need to cooperate with God. We need to react to the God-power acting in our soul, moving over the faces of the deep.
But change is uncomfortable. We may not welcome spiritual health at first. We are accustomed to our compulsions, our defensive behavior patterns, our sins. Even though they may separate us from our fellows and from God, we are comfortable with our character defects. To grow psychologically and spiritually, we need to leave our unhealthy comfort zone. Do you remember what the reaction of the villagers was when they saw the demon-possessed man healed and in his right mind? They were terrified. They asked Jesus to leave. They knew what they were dealing with when the demon-possessed man was out of his mind. But how would they integrate him now that he was healed and healthy? What kind of power was Jesus who could make the insane sane, the sick well? When we are sick psychologically or spiritually, we can flee from help when it is offered. We can also turn from healthy ways and sink back into the comfort of our maladapted patterns of living. Change isn’t easy. Change isn’t always welcome.
In our story from 1 Kings, God tells Elijah to anoint a new king over Israel. Evil King Ahab is done. Idols and false gods are thrown down. The one true God rules in Israel. 7,000 Israelites survive. Notice the number seven in the survivors who have not worshipped Baal. Seven is a holy number. It symbolizes regeneration, or new life with God in our heart. The seventh day of creation is the Sabbath and God rests. When our hearts are purified through God activity and our cooperation, we find rest from the restlessness of sin. When the false gods have been driven from our hearts and souls, God finds a place in us and we know peace and serenity. Then, like the man healed by Jesus, we will proclaim God’s power, love, and healing. We will proclaim it in our now loving life. And we will proclaim it person to person, when people see our good works and praise God.
Lord, we pray that you give us the power and the inclination to change. Shine your divine light on our souls, and illuminate the areas in which we need to change, the areas in which we need to behave differently, the areas in which we need to think differently. We are comfortable with our lives, Lord, whether we are living well or ill. We are used to things the way they are, whether or not there may be a better way. You have told us that we must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Create in us, Lord, we pray, a new heaven and a new earth. Make us new beings in your own Holy Image and Likeness.
And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. And may warring factions find their way to peace.
Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.