A couple weeks back, a lady leaned in and started speaking to me in hushed tones. The sudden lower volume meant she was about to drop something heavy.
“I hate to say it, but I’m just burnt out on church. My husband and I have tried four or five over the last year, and they’re all….” she searched for words that would be both true and sensitive to my full time gig as a pastor.
“Awful?” I offered.
She smiled. “Awful.”
Of course they’re not all awful. Not even close. But enough are that you know immediately what she means.
There’s a story in the Bible about Jesus walking up on an argument that some religious men and his own students were having. Jesus asked what the argument was about, but neither side got a chance to answer. Another man from the crowd spoke up.
"Rabbi, I brought my boy so that you all could make him well. He’s got some spirit in him that makes it so he cannot speak. The spirit takes hold of him, throws him to the ground where he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes as rigid as stone. I asked your followers to cast the spirit out, but they couldn’t."
Jesus got a little miffed. He apparently expected that healing the kid was within his apprentices’ current level of training. After palming his own face, Jesus called them a faithless generation and said he was beginning to tire of teaching them the same things over and over. The religious leaders and the followers were surely silent. A moment ago their winning arguments were their faith’s litmus test. They were likely humiliated to discover in front of a crowd they were applying the wrong test.
“How long has this been going on?” Jesus was asking questions, because inquiry is how all healing begins.
“Since he was a young boy," the father said. "Sometimes the spirit even throws him into our fire pit, or into the river, trying to kill him.” Jesus listened as the man continued. “If you can do something, please, Rabbi, have compassion and do something.”
“If?” Jesus said with a grin. “Everything’s possible for those who haven't predetermined everything's impossible.”
Here’s where a most interesting phrase erupts from the poor guy’s mouth. Recall that the reason the man was standing there is because he’d caught wind that this Nazarene, a Rabbi with a reputation for healing people, was coming into town. The man had enough faith—or enough of one of faith’s frequent predecessors, desperation—to come out to the edge of town to solicit Jesus and his followers for a miracle. Now the Rabbi was telling him that if he had faith, his boy would be fine.
The man shouted, perhaps loud enough to even surprise himself. “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Sometimes you shout this. Sometimes you lean in and whisper it.
An important take on this verse is that you and I are invited to identify with this man’s honesty. Belief and Unbelief, seeming either to be dancing together or at one another’s throats, depending on how comfortable you've gotten with knowing the two live inside you, are what it means to be a sincere human. The man's words are an affirmation to me, made more encouraging in that Jesus will not, for the rest of this passage in Mark chapter nine, correct or confront the man’s duality.
But there’s another important take. And that’s that the man came to the followers for help and got a damned argument, which would shake anyone’s confidence. Jesus was frustrated with the disciples because he apparently thought they should have been able to help. But instead, they’d gotten into a debate. “Why couldn’t we heal the boy?” the disciples would ask later that night. And Jesus answered, “…that kind of spirit can only be driven out with prayer.” This may be a trade secret being shared, Healer to apprentices. But on the other hand, Jesus may have been calling out those early “Christians” for misappropriation of words. “O Faithless generation, have you considered praying with those mouths instead of carrying on these asinine debates no one benefits from?”
“I do believe...” shouted the man whose unbelief may have been newly formed in the moments after his plea for compassion had been answered with doctrinal disputes. “...Yet my experience with your boys has rattled me quite a bit, and you’re gonna have to help me with that.”
Aren’t more and more of us saying the same thing? That while we might agree that we feel drawn to the Spirit of Christ, we feel turned off—and away—by those who do all the talking. Doesn't that Gandhi quote about Christ and christians ring more and more true? Don’t more and more of us feel like far too often there’s a fruitless, divisive, narrow-minded, hard-hearted, exclusionary, power struggle in God's name happening right where the kids suffer on the ground? It’s not like we don’t believe anything. It’s that being a “believer” has less appeal to those of us who were hoping to discover what Love might actually do. We believe. But dear God, step in and help us with unbelief because unbelief feels more and more reasonable as we seek to disassociate from your spokespeople.
I’ll spare you the statistics and the percentages of people who don’t go to church anymore despite not considering themselves faithless. You can find all those numbers online. Beware, as though I need to tell you, all the grossest debates happen there now. I just wanted to affirm you, like I hope I did the lady who whispered what is not a secret, and remind you that eons of religious squabbling that apparently never resolve are entirely distinct from the Rabbi who listened and healed and included. I say this not to evangelize in the traditional sense, or to attempt to keep you from switching teams. I offer it to you as a religious leader who finds himself too often tricked into arguing at the expense of real Love. I offer it to you, as I did to that lady, as one hoping to offer something useful to the human experience in the name of the One waking us all...
For the love of Christ and for the kids on the ground, don’t get embroiled in what will finally be silenced. Find a few others, believe and pray with them best you can, and together, allow Love to actually do great things in and through your life.