Just after seeing Jesus transfigured, the disciples run into a little trouble. A man with a boy possessed by a demon approaches them to cast out the demon. The disciples try, gathering a big crowd along the way, but they fail. Jesus comes running to help, and the boy’s father describes what has been happening: “he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak…. It seizes him. It dashes him down” (Mark 9:17-18). The spirit throws the boy into fire or into water, trying to kill him. Jesus listens to the father, and then casts out the demon.
Later, the disciples ask him why they had such trouble casting this one out. They had gotten it right before, but this particular demon was too much for them. He responds, “This kind can come out only through prayer” (v.29).
Sophisticated modern people like us don’t talk much about demons, but they are still around. The demons have names: racial oppression, greed, segregation, mass incarceration, and on and on. These and others are demons whose spirits have seized us. They dash down our children. I think of some of the beautiful faces I know, children like Tony and Malik and Shayna and Brianna, children who are dashed down by the society they are born into before they even know their names. Before they can talk they are rendered unable to speak. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, they are sent to segregated, under-funded schools where their voices are slowly silenced by a system designed with someone else’s success in mind. They are subject to humiliating stop-and-frisk tactics that will eventually land them in jail. They are thrown into the fire of the prison system at rates no other Western country even approaches. They suffer the indignities of poverty as much as ever in a society of unprecedented plenty.
We have all been seized by these demons. They are dashing us down, none of us more harshly than our black and brown babies who still cry out to be set free. We are all drowning in the sorrow – the demons have a hold of us and we cannot find one to cast them out.
I live with the beautiful people of Enderly Park, Charlotte, NC. They are strong, resourceful people. Their story is one of overcoming. At every turn, God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm have reached down their way. But in Enderly Park, we live in a place where beautiful children like Malik and Brianna are dashed down – where our schools are thoroughly resegregated; where there is never an economic recovery, only an extended recession; where the war on drugs has become the war on the poor. The outcomes of nearly every system in our society are predictable by race. In Enderly Park, the outcome is that my neighbors are dashed down, dragged through fire, and have nearly drowned.
I know that those demons must be resisted. I know that many have come before me who have resisted them, who have loosened their grip on our land. And, I know that some demons only come out through prayer. Yet for the tears that I have cried, the sleep that I have lost, the energy needed for the constant battle of fighting those demons, here is what I always wind up resisting: prayer. I am always subsumed by the need to do something more. To fight stronger, to work longer, to try harder. But some of these demons only come out by prayer.
The lesson that I cannot win some battles is a hard one to learn. It means facing my limitations, acknowledging my frailty. It means recognizing that in the end, any work I have done is a gift of grace. Any results that show up from my work – if any ever do – are only a gift. As Wendell Berry says, “the field is tilled/ and left to grace. That we may reap/ great work is done while we’re asleep.”
Every day at noon, I have an alarm that reminds me to pause with the rest of my community to pray. We pray to become instruments of God’s peace, to become inebriated by the blood of Christ, and to be made into the answers to our prayers. Every time that alarm goes off, I resist the alarm instead of the demons. They have their grip on me too tightly. I struggle to break free.
And yet, if the demons are only cast out by prayer, then I am free. Free to pause from the struggle. Free to let myself be clothed with prayer. Free to sing the songs of Zion in this foreign land. My work – my vocation – is to be praying with my mouth, with my ears, and with my feet. And to remember that the battle is not mine – Jesus comes running to help.