April 26, 2006

Crying Among the Tombs

1512 page24 capHEN MY WIFE’S GRANDMA Pinkham died, she left Edie an antique loveseat and sofa. It was a hundred years old, very dark wood, beautifully constructed Victorian furniture. But our home is decorated in country furnishings: lots of pine, light colors, Dorothy Ruffle curtains. The dark, ornate furniture just didn’t fit in our world.
Occasionally, the Bible gives us a story like this. It’s constructed well. It has the ring of integrity and truth about it. But it doesn’t seem to fit into our way of thinking today.
Here’s one of those stories. As you read it, consider how you think it fits into the living room of your faith. It’s found in the fifth chapter of Mark.
As Jesus and His disciples entered the country of the Gerasenes one day, they were met by an irrational, deeply disturbed man who lived among the tombs. “Night and day among the tombs,” the Scripture says, “he would cry out.”
“What is your name?” Jesus asked.
The man gave a chilling reply: “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
According to the story, the man was possessed by many demons who lived inside him. Jesus exorcised the demons, who then entered a herd of swine nearby. The man was restored to his right mind by this act, and Jesus went His way again.
Now, how does that story fit into the way you view the world today?
A Chilling Worldview
The story reflects a worldview that is clear but chilling. There are invisible forces that enter and leave our lives under certain conditions. The Gospel of Mark describes these forces as demons. They are allies of Satan--little errand boys of evil--whom Jesus confronted repeatedly throughout his ministry.
Although it’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus believed in the existence of demonic possession, their presence and activity seem more remote and less clearly defined today than in the time of Jesus.
1512 page24Like Grandma Pinkham’s antique furniture, these ideas about demons don’t fit comfortably into our scientific view of the world in the twenty-first century. Consequently, we’re tempted to discard the story as irrelevant and immaterial because it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with life as we know it in our times.
But does that mean that we in our modern age are free from those same racking inner forces that twist and turn inside us and send us, in our own way, crying among the tombs? Does it mean that we have no need today of One who can quiet those cries, One who gives us order and serenity in life?
Of course not! Most of you reading this article would line up with me to testify that we still feel those forces within--pulling, pushing, twisting, tempting, scolding, betraying, and challenging us. We’re the keeper of this house, to be sure, but our rooms are crowded. Whether or not we call these forces “demons,” we feel their presence every day of our lives.
Pulling and Pushing Within
The rooms inside our lives are crowded with all the “ancestors” we carry around with us.
Each of us lives at the confluence of so many genetic and historical streams, each of them flowing into us, serving up the raw material out of which we fashion our lives. Statisticians say each of us today can trace our ancestry back to 1,024 grandparents--or back to the decade that saw the Mayflower cross the ocean from Europe to America.
These ancient relatives still reside within us through genetics, culture, history, and tradition. They may not vote in every “election,” but they’re present, sitting quietly in the little corners of our lives, ready to reach out at unexpected times to tap our consciousness and enter the debate--sometimes to send us crying in despair among the tombs.
You’re moved by some impulse of generosity, for example, to give a $100 as a special offering. But just as you start to write the check, here comes a clucking of the tongue from great-great-great-grandfather Ebenezer, who lived tightly in the mid-1700s. So you reduce your gift to $10.
You find yourself making progress in getting rid of some stubborn racial prejudice. But right in the middle of a good conversation with a person of color, great-great-grandfather Rhett, who owned slaves in Mississippi, stirs within, and the conversation is scuttled.
You feel yourself in control of some of those wild urges that come, but then emerges that old fellow who stands out most in the family genealogy--the great-great-great-grandfather in Virginia who had four wives in rapid succession--intermingled with an assortment of illicit relationships. He troubles the water, whistles the wrong tune, and there are cries among the tombs.
They’re all inside us, pushing and pulling and elbowing one another aside for room, and we feel them there.
Homegrown Demons
But the rooms inside our souls are crowded with more than ancestors. We can’t blame all this disorder on them. We’ve planted and nurtured much of it ourselves. We may not describe as demons (and we probably shouldn’t) these forces inside that prevent our best and produce our worst, but they are there all the same.
Paul didn’t call these forces demons either. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he said, “for what I do is not what I want to do. . . . I perceive that there is within me a different law fighting against the law my reason approves and making me prisoner” (see Rom. 7:15-23).
Even in our best moments, when all our best instincts sit warming themselves around the fire at the center of our soul, we know that out there, just beyond the edge of darkness, the shiny-eyed creatures sit waiting for the fire to go out, waiting for an unguarded moment. Then, down inside, we cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.
What do you choose to call these inner forces that erupt to send us crying among the tombs? We may not have warrant to call them demons in the classic sense--after all, demoniacs were not walking around everywhere in Jesus’ time either. But the point I make is that there is a force that invades our lives.
Paul, finally, just called it sin, “another law within my members” (see verse 23).
Whatever we choose to call it today, there is disorder and pandemonium inside us.
That word “pandemonium”--do you know where it comes from? The term pan means “all,” and demonium means “demons.” When all the “demons” are loosened within, it’s pandemonium, and we know it well, though we may call the demons by other names.
In his play The Dark Hours, Don Marquis describes Judas as “a city full of spirits, and they riot in the streets.”
This is our human predicament. A riot in the streets within, a civil war going on. We can’t function when the battle grows too bitter. Then we and those about us suffer, and we’re sent once again crying out among the tombs.
When Jesus Comes Among the Tombs
I love that moment just before the symphony orchestra begins its performance. The musicians come on stage, take their seats, and pick up their instruments. A riot of sound explodes in the concert hall as each musician warms up and gets in tune. Here a plaintive violin, there a somber cello, yonder the moody bass. A flute, a mournful oboe, an arrogant trumpet--little pieces of sound, no order at all.
But then the conductor comes on stage, steps to the podium, raises that baton, and brings it down. Suddenly, mysteriously, all those discordant, clashing sounds blend into the majesty of music.
This is what happens when Christ comes to us among the tombs of life. He moves like a magnet through our lives, bringing all the disparate parts together into order and meaning. He blends them, uses them, harmonizes them.
The prophet Isaiah dreamed of a time to come when the lion and the lamb would lie down together. That’s what Jesus brings each of us: the lion and the lamb inside us lying down in peace.
By letting us know that God created us and loves us as His own children, Christ makes it possible for us to make that inner journey of faith. We don’t need to deny who and what we are. We don’t need to fear old Ebenezer or Rhett. We need, as we trust in God’s love for us, simply to turn them over to the ordering Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Just as in that ancient story, Jesus comes to us today in our misery among the tombs of life. He brings an end to that civil war within. He brings order to all those competing forces.
Then, instead of crying among the tombs of human existence, our lives are filled with music and song and harmony.
Jeris E. Bragan lives in Antioch, Tennessee.