Anything You Can Do

Friday, August 9, 2013 — Week of Proper 13, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 978)

Psalms 88 (morning) // 91, 92 (evening)

2 Samuel 12:1-14

Acts 19:21-41

Mark 9:14-29

A few years ago, I read a news story about the impact of a therapy dog on a boy with a range of developmental struggles. The boy had severe fetal alcohol syndrome and a history of social and emotional neglect before he was adopted. His new parents worked with him for years, but he still was aggressive, woke up terrified in the middle of the night, and could not speak for himself. Finally, the family tried a therapy dog.

The dog didn’t “cure” the boy, but its presence in the boy’s life was remarkable. The dog soothed him, helped him sleep through the night, and relaxed him long enough to articulate some of his own basic needs and preferences, such as what he would like for lunch. Therapists said that the dog removed a major source of the boy’s anxiety: his constant awareness of social disapproval. Even though the parents loved their son, their faces couldn’t help but register concern and disapproval at the boy’s socially inappropriate behaviors. Unlike the human beings in his life, the dog’s face could only reflect love, acceptance, and eagerness to be with his owner.

I thought of this boy and his dog when I read today’s gospel. In our gospel reading, a man has a son who “has a spirit” that causes him to become speechless and to have seizures that throw him to the ground, make his whole body rigid, and leave him grinding his teeth and foaming at the mouth. The spirit also makes this son self-destructive, throwing him into water and fire “to destroy him.” We don’t know how old he is, but he has had this spirit from childhood.

The father has reached the limit of what he can do for his son. He tried to get the disciples to cast out the spirit, but they weren’t able. The father gets into an argument with these disciples, and Jesus asks what’s going on. The father explains the situation and asks Jesus himself to help, “if you are able to do anything.” Jesus might seem a little offended when he scoffs, “If you are able!” Jesus tells the father that all things are possible for one who believes. The father responds by declaring, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Then Jesus does through prayer what no one else could do: cast out the spirit from the man’s son.

The parents in the news story and in the gospel have reached the limit of what they can do for their children. They have to turn instead to a source of unconditional love and power that they do not have within themselves, and that they haven’t found in some of the world’s healing experts. Unfortunately, not all experiences of healing are as dramatic and complete as the story in today’s gospel. But if nothing else is working, we have little to lose by imitating the father in today’s gospel: asking for compassion, asking for help, and acknowledging the limits of our own belief.

When I read this morning’s gospel, I also thought of many other parents I know who are at their limits. I thought of an acquaintance whose son is autistic and non-verbal. When his son is clearly upset but can’t express why, the father wants nothing more than to take whatever is troubling his son and to bear it himself. I thought of some friends whose young son is lively and joyful, but who has two medical conditions, including a form of epilepsy. They can do nothing about these conditions but “wait and see.” And I thought about the famous pastor Rick Warren, who recently preached his first sermon after his son’s suicide. Pastor Warren said that his family had worked with excellent therapists and had the prayers of many people strong in their faith, and yet they couldn’t drive away this young man’s depression.

When we reach our limits and turn to another source of love and power, we start by recognizing what we can and can’t do, and what we have a hard time believing. And then we ask for what the father in today’s gospel asks for: “anything.” When we pray for anything, perhaps we can open ourselves to some unexpected form of compassion, help, and sustenance for our faith. Anything could be on its way to us today.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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