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Friday, June 18, 2010

In His Right Mind

Luke 8:26-39

On Tuesday, my cell phone contract expires, and I have to renew. I’m going to take my Blackberry to the Verizon store, put it on the counter, and ask for the stupidest phone they have. I don’t want to multitask any more. I don’t want to read my email anywhere in the world, or send and receive text messages (at twenty cents per), or take pictures, or read the news, or see how badly the Orioles lost today with my phone. I want a stupid phone: one that makes and receives phone calls. What a concept.

The book The Multitasking Myth presents a NASA study of airline cockpit operations. The researchers found that the more tasks cockpit crews were asked to do simultaneously, the less well they could do any of them, and the higher the probability of a serious mistake or accident. Remember the recent flight that passed its destination and had to turn around and go back, because the crew was – according to them – discussing their work schedules and rotations? It turns out that study after study shows that human beings really don’t multitask very well at all – that people who routinely multitask end up being easily distracted and accomplish their tasks more slowly and less well than when they can concentrate on one task at a time. Kids, when you tell your parents that you can watch TV, listen to music, check facebook, twitter, and do your homework all at the same time --- sorry. You’re busted. And parents – when you insist you can watch TV, read the paper, and have a conversation with each other or with your children at the same time – you’re busted.

And yet, we live in a culture which insists on our multitasking. A thousand demons shriek in our heads, demanding our simultaneous and equal attention. What’s the result? First, our attention spans decrease to nothing. That’s why it’s harder and harder to listen to a fifteen minute sermon: we don’t do anything that long without a break. Second, we do everything less and less well. Some years ago I was visiting the instrument-maker’s shop in Colonial Williamsburg. I asked the guitar-maker what was different about the guitars he made and the guitars, like mine, from the Martin factory in Pennsylvania. “They make 200 guitars a day,” he answered. “It takes me a week to make one guitar.” I told that story later to a Martin guitar repairman. “That’s right,” the Martin man said. “At Martin, the guy who makes guitar necks only makes necks, and then he passes it on to the guy who makes bodies. But the guy who makes necks is the best guitar neck maker in the world, because that’s all he does.”

Third, the thousand competing voices make us crazy.

Jesus and the disciples cross the sea of Galilee to the eastern shore, to a non-Jewish region called variously in the gospels Gergesa or Gadara. They are confronted by a demon-possessed lunatic living, naked, in the graveyard. When Jesus asks his name – that is, the name of the demon possessing him – he answers “Legion.” A Roman legion was a unit of roughly 5,000 soldiers: for you veterans, a brigade. Maybe there were 5,000 demons, maybe there were fifty, but the point is the same. There were many, many voices screaming for attention in this poor man’s head and heart and life, and they had driven him crazy, had driven him out of the company of family and friends, and had torn the clothes off his body. He was toxic, and ended up living in the two most toxic places a Jew could be – in the midst of pigs, and in the midst of the rotting dead.

The great Baptist scholar, preacher, and agricultural reformer Clarence Jordan told the story of a call from the Americus, Georgia police one night shortly after the end of World War Two, asking for help with a young man they had picked up wandering the streets of the town naked. Every time they put clothes on him, the man tore them off, and kept tearing at his skin, wounding himself. When Jordan talked to him, he learned that the young man had grown up in church and went to Sunday School every week, where he heard preachers and teachers tell him to love his enemies and to forgive. Then along came the war. He was drafted, a rifle was put in his hands, and he had to kill others in combat. When he came home, the conflicting voices in his life – one telling him to love and to forgive, and the other telling him to obey and to kill – drove him so crazy he kept tearing the clothes off his body.

The competing voices drive us crazy, too. Love and forgive your enemies, but kill them. Seek first the Kingdom of God, but make lots of money and own lots of stuff. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless, but not at your own expense or inconvenience. Take up your cross and follow Jesus, but look out for number one. Go pick up trash on the riverbanks, but take lots of bottled water with you. Honor the sabbath, by letting strangers do the cooking, run the film projector, or play ball for you. Like the Gerasene demoniac and all multitaskers, we can’t pay attention, we do more and more less and less well, and it drives us out of our mind.

What does the demoniac do to come, at the end of the story, to his right mind? First, he falls down at Jesus’ feet. He stops multitasking. He stops everything, and falls down in front of Jesus. Annual Conference this week disturbed me. The denomination is in trouble – we have no clear direction, the numbers are going down – and this week we were presented with dozens of voices, from the Conference preacher (a friend of mine) to Bible Study leaders to heads of committees and agencies, giving us new strategies and plans for resurrection and all telling us to try harder. We have twelve keys to a successful church, five practices for fruitful ministry, and three simple rules. And none of it, it seems to me, is working. At the end of the Conference, Keith Boyette, pastor of Wilderness Church on our District, moved that in the coming year every church in the Virginia Conference enter into a season of fasting, of prayer, of waiting upon the Lord, and of repentance for our failure to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with our neighbors. I asked a friend of mine, with whom I had discussed this very thing, if he had put Keith up to this. No, he answered, this is the Holy Spirit.

If you want to get out of a hole, someone has said, the first thing to do is to stop digging. Don’t work harder: stop! If you want to exorcise the five thousand voices in your life all claiming top priority and driving you insane, the first thing to do is stop everything and fall down at Jesus’ feet. That’s what Sundays are supposed to be for – if we can squeeze it into our busy schedules, including our busy vacation schedules. Are you beginning to see where the problem is? Stop. Fall down at Jesus’ feet.

Second, we have to name the demons. The first rule of mental, spiritual, and physical health is that knowing the problem is the first step to a cure. Last summer when I fell in the back yard and my leg wouldn’t work any more, a doctor had to name the demon – a ruptured tendon – before I could be healed. What are the demons that claim your allegiance? Pride. Lust. Greed. Envy. Fear. Drugs. Insecurity. Shame. Guilt. Hate. Power. Depression. Mortality. Grief. There are five thousand and more to choose from. But Jesus cannot call out what we will not name. That is why daily self-examination, daily confession, daily repentance are not optional for believers. To name the demons – as Adam named the animals – is to claim power over them. To name the demons is to separate them from ourselves. We are not the demon: now the named demon can be cast out, without us being killed. We are not the demon.

It’s only when we stop running around the graveyard, trying to kill the demons ourselves, and fall down, helpless, before Jesus, that we can begin to recover the self that God created us to be. It’s only when we realize the difference between the demons that manipulate us and the selves that God created us to be that we can come to our right minds. Then, clothed in what Jesus gives us to wear, we can tell the whole world what Jesus has done.

Stop. Fall down at Jesus’ feet. Name the demons. Let Jesus dress you. And come to your right mind.

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