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HEALING THE WOUNDS by Rev. Chris Glaser
January 14, 2011
Kirkridge – Pennsylvania
Text: Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39


“Awakening the Spirit, Healing the Wounds: The Redemptive Gay Experience.” I am grateful that Terry suggested this theme for our weekend. Like many of our topics over the years, it affords latitude for each of us to talk about things close to our hearts while setting boundaries that allow our different perspectives to gel together. And I don’t mean simply “us” as speakers, but “us” as men gathered here on the mountaintop reflecting on our own experience in small groups and over meals, during our parties and in the margins of any retreat experience.

I love the subtitle that got left off our use of the title in some instances, including the schedule I prepared: “The Redemptive Gay Experience.” Many if not most of us remember when the majority in the church and in our culture and perhaps even we ourselves believed that it was WE who needed redemption—from our sexuality, from our selves. Now we are growing to realize that in fact “the gay experience” itself is proving redemptive for our spirituality, for our churches, for our culture, and for ourselves.

If we weren’t gay, how boring we might have been! How little we would know what it means to be marginalized and excluded and underprivileged! How much sense of humor and constructive sarcasm and mocking of gender roles would have been lost to the world! How much insight and wisdom and critical thinking would have failed to shape our churches and our society!

We brought sexuality into our spirituality, prompting sacred dialogues about the whole of human sexuality and the embodied nature of spirituality. We brought our sexual identities into the workplace, prompting political debate over equality and human rights, the need for justice and just plain decency. Who would have thought the military would beat much of the church to the punch to fully include gay people! And who might think that it would be states and provinces, municipalities and courts who would lead the way toward recognizing the sacred dimensions of our marriages? Who would think that it would be the business world who would be the first to recognize our economic power, as well as the human resources to be gained by offering talented and hard-working gay employees domestic partner benefits? And, alongside the women’s movement, we are helping to free so many men and women and transgender people from rigid gender expectations.

“Awakening the Spirit, Healing the Wounds.” At first I thought I’d talk about “awakening the spirit,” followed by  “healing the wounds.” But then I thought that “healing the wounds” should be the first order of business. And THEN I realized that “awakening the spirit, healing the wounds” can’t really be separated. They both come at the same time, an integral link, an indivisible nexus between the healing of our souls and the awakening of our spirits.

The healings Jesus manifested and the healings Jesus sought were all about awakening the spirit and healing wounds. As I rehearse a few of these healings, I urge you to think metaphorically and spiritually as well as physically. The blind man rejoicing that he now has vision. The bleeding woman whose faith heals her open wound. The deaf mute finally given a voice and an ability to listen. The ten healed lepers who run happily back to their families, and the one who turns to give thanks to Jesus. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law recovered from a fever who immediately serves a meal to Jesus and his disciples. These healings demonstrate the link between physical healing and spiritual awakening, between body and spirit.

These are examples of the success of Jesus’ healing. But, oh, how he would have loved to heal the scribes and Pharisees of their self-righteousness, how he would have loved to invite them to dine along with outcasts, how he would have loved the priest and Levite to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, how he would have loved the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give to the poor. These are examples of failure—not so much Jesus’ failure as human failure to be moved by his example of absolute, unconditional, and sacrificial love.

Both Jesus’ successful healings and those blocked by human pride suggest the communal nature of our needed healing and awakening. Healing is not just an individual or personal thing. Healing is effected for the sake of the community. The man whose vision has been restored is no longer excluded from the temple. The bleeding woman is no longer considered unclean and untouchable. The deaf mute now can engage in dialogue with his neighbors. The lepers can now leave their exile on the outskirts of town to return to their families and neighborhoods and house of worship. The fevered woman can now entertain—a healing of special significance, I should think, to gay men!

And the healings not effected were all about community as well. The self-righteous religious leaders could have dined with Jesus and the religious outcasts. The priest and lay religious leader would have come to the aid of the wounded man along the side of the road sooner than the Samaritan could have reached him, or those hearing the parable would have recognized the goodness of the Samaritan, whom their racism and religious intolerance had taught them to despise. The poor would have been uplifted by the rich young ruler’s resources, and he would have been freed from his many responsibilities to follow Jesus and become a disciple.

I am going to read a story from Luke about the Gerasene demoniac. Some of you will know that I wrote about this and the scapegoat mechanism in my book, Coming Out as Sacrament. Others of you will remember when James Allison spoke about it on the mountain a few years back as a narrative about scapegoating. The story suggests to me the communal nature of wounds and wounding. If I have learned nothing else from my past five years’ experience as an interim minister leading three congregations in their transitions between settled pastors, it is this communal nature of wounds and wounding.

An interim or transitional pastor is brought into a congregation to allow it to “catch its breath” before choosing a new pastor. But often an interim pastor also helps a congregation heal enough to welcome a new long term pastor. The church may have been grieved or even wounded by the departure of its former pastor. Or the church itself is so dysfunctional it cannot sort out its mission or decide its future or change enough to welcome new people. A church often scapegoats its pastor—whether former or interim—and tries to bully him or her into submission so they can continue their bad behavior. The trick of the interim pastor is not to get tangled in the webs congregations weave to keep things together. This is possible if the interim pastor is dispassionate and doesn’t care too much. Unfortunately, as much as I try to embrace a Buddhist stance of detachment, I often care too much, and that can get me into trouble. Especially when you see such great possibilities for a given congregation, kind of like Jesus’ Passion for his own people of faith. Sometimes you just want to shake them by their dysfunctions to awaken their spirit, or God’s Spirit within them. Terry’s talk about a dream of his in his presentation prompted me to share with him the dreams I had—nightmares, really—in the several months following my last interim assignment. In all of them, I am being bullied; and in one of them, a staff member literally pressed me against a wall so that I could not move! My own little post-traumatic stress…!

I know that some of you have had similar experiences of dysfunction with congregations or organizations. Many of us have had these experiences in our families or at work. We may get caught in the sticky woof and weave of dysfunctional systems, like a bug in a spider’s web. How many of us have wanted to have a normal time with family over the holidays only to experience a wounding comment or incident or omission? How many stay away from families of origin for this very reason? Or the church in which we were raised?

Listen for the Spirit in these words from Luke. As they warn before a TV program, this story contains violence, strong language, and nudity:

            [READING of Luke 8:26-39, The Gerasene Demoniac]

Let me rehearse the story from Luke that we just heard. I don’t know about you, but my mind sometimes glazes over when I listen to scripture read aloud. Jesus ventures into the country of the Gerasenes and runs into a man filled with demons who lives naked among the tombs and, in Mark’s version of the story, perpetually howls and bruises himself with stones. Occasionally the Gerasenes try to restrain him with chains and shackles.  He shouts at Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” He says this because Jesus has commanded the demon to come out of him. Jesus asks the demon its name, just as any exorcist of the time would have done, because it was believed that having the name gave one power over the demon. “Legion,” the demon replies, which conjures up, according to one commentary, “the warlike mob, the hostile troops, the occupying army, the Roman invader, and perhaps even those who crucified Christ.” 1 So Jesus is dealing with a mob of demons who beg him not to send them into the abyss or, in Mark’s version, not to send them out of the community.

Jesus’ Jewish followers who transmitted this story orally probably told the next part with a wink and a smile because pigs were considered unclean and inedible by the Hebrews. The demons asked to be sent into a herd of 2000 pigs on a nearby hillside, so Jesus did so, and the herd was so disturbed that they rushed down a steep bank—in other words, off a cliff—and into a lake where they drowned. The swineherds ran into the city to tell what happened, and the people of Gerasa came out to see for themselves. When they saw the demoniac clothed and in his right mind, they were afraid, and asked Jesus to leave. The man who has been relieved of his demons asks to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him home to Gerasa to be a perpetual reminder to the Gerasenes of what God can do.

Now, the people of Jesus’ time assigned behavior or ailments they did not understand to demons inhabiting the individual. And any of us who have witnessed a friend in the throes of severe suffering, chronic pain, addiction, alcoholism, or severe mental or physical illness can understand how these things may so transform a person as to seem possessed. And we also know, as it was with the man with a demon called Legion, that the beginning of healing is to name the demon. Our modern tendency is sometimes to stop there, to name the disorder or dysfunction and use it as an excuse for bad behavior or an occasion for getting on Dr. Phil. That’s how society becomes enablers. Years ago I watched a talk show about a man who had dozens of personalities, and his therapist defended his desire to protect them all. When I shared this with a friend who is a psychotherapist, he was astounded, “So the man is going to fully develop all those personalities? That isn’t possible.”  As Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

Jesus sees that for this man, having dozens of demons is not working for him. However, the man’s affliction was working for the Gerasenes, according to cultural anthropologist Rene Girard in his work on the scapegoat mechanism—the tendency of human societies to find a scapegoat for their own violence. Girard writes, “Possession is not an individual phenomenon…[it] is always contagious; those who are [so affected] are likely to communicate their desire to you, or in other words, drag you along their same path…”  Thus, Girard says, it’s useful to have a cyclical scapegoat such as this man that they periodically restrain so they don’t have to face their own demons. In exiling himself, and stoning himself, to quote Girard, the man is self-inflicting the “punishment[s] that Middle Eastern societies inflict on criminals whom they consider completely defiled and irredeemable.” 2 But the turnaround in the story is when, instead of a mob of Gerasenes forcing the demoniac over a cliff—another ancient form of execution of undesirables—the man’s healing, the man’s transformation causes a parallel mob of pigs bearing a mob of demons to jump off a cliff to certain destruction below.

So when his people come and see him clothed and in his right mind, they are terrified because they have lost their scapegoat and now must name and confront their own demons. They ask Jesus to leave because in all of our Gospel stories, Jesus and demons cannot coexist. Jesus always casts demons out, restoring people to themselves, clothed and in their right minds. If the people of the village don’t ask Jesus to leave, he may ask the same question of their demons that he asked the demoniac, “What is your name?”

During national church gatherings, before legislatures, and at the polls, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have served as scapegoats. Rather than talk about the very real ills that plague us, people look for something outside themselves to blame. Rather than heal a wounded theology that is not inclusive of people or of embodiment, they wound gay people. Instead of awakening a church that has lost its spirit of Pentecost and its ability thus to speak in the languages of strangers, strangers are attacked and repelled.  Instead of recognizing that families are wounded by poverty, economics, geographic mobility, internal abuse, and lack of access to education and health care, gay people have been blamed for weakening family values. Instead of admitting divorce is something straight married couples do all by themselves, same-gender marriage is called an assault on “traditional” marriage.

Rather than notice that gay people have been sounding alarms and establishing care and prevention facilities around HIV and AIDS for three decades, bringing healing to straight and gay alike, some still fault us for its devastation. Rather than ‘fessing up to the statistics that proportionately far more straight people sexually wound children, and usually within their own families, many still mistakenly associate homosexuality with pedophilia. Instead of taking responsibility for so many heterosexuals abandoning or failing to care for their children, they resist the healing that lesbian or gay foster and adoptive parents can bring. Instead of legislators admitting to their own abuses of and indiscretions within marriage, they refuse to give us equal opportunity to wed.

Thus we find ourselves trapped in dysfunctional systems. Most of us do not ghettoize ourselves, like the Gerasene demoniac who lives among the tombs. Most of us do not stone ourselves, literally wounding ourselves with stones like the Gerasene demoniac. Most of us do not howl out loud, like he did. But inside ourselves, we may feel the isolation of the Gerasene demoniac. We may beat ourselves up for not being like everyone else or not being as “good” as everyone else. We may howl inwardly whenever we hear one more stupid thing coming from a pulpit, or a legislator, or the media. And with the children of Israel in Jesus day, we may spiritually shout, “How long, O Lord!?”

And even those of us far enough along that we are not as plagued by scapegoating as others, we might remember that our children are being bullied, and we need to join the campaign that tells them “It gets better.” We also have to make it better for them. We have to name the demons that keep us down, those inside the church, inside our nation, and inside our selves. And those of us who are his followers have to practice the presence of Jesus, in whose proximity demons cannot coexist.

In confronting our own demons, whether personally or collectively, we need Jesus. Jesus helps us discern, name, disarm, and address our demons. The Greek word for devil in the New Testament is “diabolos,” which means “divider” or “adversary.” Christ casts out divisiveness but not diversity, even of points of view.  Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 3:23-29, affirms, “…For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. [REPEAT] There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Clothe ourselves in Christ, for all of us are one in Christ Jesus, Paul advises. Clothed, and in our right minds, like the Gerasene demoniac in Jesus’ presence.

Like the healed demoniac whose spirit has been awakened, we may be tempted to leave our churches and communities or ignore our governments. But like him, I believe we are called by Jesus to go back to our churches and communities and government to challenge their scapegoating, their bullying, and their refusal to face their own demons. But we must keep ourselves from being stuck in their webs of dysfunction by attending to our prayer life, being in the presence of Jesus who reminds us we are God’s beloved children.

Thanks to Jesus, we will feel clothed and in our right minds. This is one of the reasons we escape to Kirkridge every year. Here, through these men, through their stories, through our community on this mountain, Jesus touches us, teaches us, and holds us as beloved disciples. Thanks be to God!                       

1 Jean Starobinksi, quoted in The Scapegoat by Rene Girard, p 173.

2 Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p 172.

Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.

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