When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.
A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
– Mark 9:14-29
I don’t know if all of you know this, but a long time ago, in another life, I used to work on an ambulance. It was a year after I graduated from college, and I wanted to do something for my country. So I trained for six months, and got certified as an Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT.
I took a job in Buffalo for a year, working in the slums. My partners and I used to switch off driving every other run. Everybody always wanted to be in the back taking care of the patients.
During that year, I saw things you never want to see. Heart attacks and strokes, of course. Gunshot wounds and stabbings. Victims of every kind of violence. Drug overdoses and DT’s. Car wrecks. Industrial accidents. I won’t say that I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen a lot.
I’ve done CPR many times. I delivered babies. One time we wrestled with a person who was suicidal who wanted to jump out through an upstairs window. Illnesses of all kinds. Men, women and children.
I had a lifetime of adrenaline that year. Made me a pretty calm person now. I always figure, if everyone’s heart’s still beating, if everybody’s still breathing, if no one’s bleeding all over the floor – we don’t need to rush. We’ve got time to deal with the situation, whatever it is.
And every patient we took in, I prayed for. For their illness, for their life situation, for their family, for their healing, I prayed quietly.
One of the reasons I’m a pastor now, is that year I spent on the ambulance. I’d get frustrated, because I would see people for, at most, 15 or 20 minutes, and then they’d be gone. I’d never see them again. I wanted the opportunity to spend time with people, to build relationships with them.
It’s important to deal quickly and competently with people in emergencies, and I was pretty good at it. But I wanted to spend more time with people, to hear their stories, to pray more openly with them, to have a chance at affecting the rest of their lives, and not just that brief few minutes.
One of the hardest type of patients for me to deal with, were people like the one in this morning’s Bible story. It’s hard to take care of little children. They’re hurt, they’re scared and they don’t understand.
And of the various kinds of illness we had to deal with, in some ways I think that seizures are among the most difficult. I don’t know if any of you have ever had to deal with this first hand.
It’s easy to understand why people in earlier days thought that people who were having seizures were possessed – it can feel so out of control, and if they’re unconscious, it feels like their whole personality is lost.
I got kicked once, by one of my first patients who was having a major seizure. I had nosebleeds for two weeks. My partner, who had a lot more experience, told me next time, if we were trying to protect a patient from hurting themselves, not to try and grab their feet.
Leg muscles are really strong, and a patient can easily pull a foot free and kick you. So if you have to try to restrain someone, my partner said it’s better to hold them down across their thighs, and use your whole body to hold them. Things you learn.
Anyway, Jesus shows up this day in the story, and there’s a big crowd gathered, and people are shouting at each other. The whole family’s shouting at the disciples. The disciples are shouting back. The bystanders are shouting their advice. The religious know-it-alls are shouting at everybody.
Pretty typical scene, actually.
Jesus asks, “What’s going on?” He probably knew, but a lot of the time people need to tell their story.
Man in the crowd says, “I brought you my son. He’s got a spirit. When it seizes him, he can’t speak, he throws himself to the ground, he foams at the mouth, he gnashes his teeth, he goes rigid as a board.”
Back then people blamed evil spirits for this condition. Today, we’d think first about a fever, or epilepsy. But even now, it’s terrifying to witness.
They brought Jesus over, and wouldn’t you know, it happened again, right there in front of him. Jesus appears to have stayed calm – not easy to do. Jesus asked some questions, and they gave him some more information.
Then comes the heart of the story. The father says, “Your disciples couldn’t fix my son. If you’re able to do anything, please help us!”
That moment of complete and utter helplessness is one of the worst feelings there is. If you’ve ever been there, with a family member or someone you love, you all know exactly what I’m talking about. I have spent hundreds of hours with families, hanging around in the surgical waiting room, trying to ease their minds with prayer and small talk.
But today’s story is about that horrible time when the family has tried everything. There are no more treatments, no more doctors, no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. Many of you all have been there, and I’ve been there, too.
And the father in desperation says to Jesus, “If you can, please help us!” This story is about despair.
And Jesus’ answer is where the whole picture begins to change. Jesus says, “If I can!
If I can! Everything is possible to one who believes!”
I think that needs a little explanation.
The first part is easy. Jesus is asking, “If I can? If I can? What do you mean, if I can?” Jesus is throwing the guy’s words right back at him.
A lot of people who pray are like the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could. Any of you all read that one? Remember how the little engine kept saying, “I think I can! I think I can!” as he struggled to get up the hill.
A lot of people pray like that. They squint their eyes tight and clench their fists and pray, “I do believe! I do believe!”
Prayer isn’t thinking that I can. It’s trusting in your heart that God can. There’s a big difference. One is optimism. The other is trust and faith. It’s saying, “Lord, I place my trust in you, right now. I trust that you can, and I trust that you love me. Please help!”
But the other really important part of this morning’s story is when the father says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe – help my unbelief!”
This is one of the most important stories in the whole gospel, and it’s because of that one exclamation.
We think that being a Christian means having perfect faith. We think it means that we’re always 100% sure, 100% confident, 100% the model Christian – whatever that is. Most people I know don’t fit that description. Most people struggle with doubts a lot of the time.
“I believe – help my unbelief!” That is the reality of being a Christian, a great deal of the time. We do believe. We believe in God. We believe in Jesus Christ. We believe at some level in God’s power. But we all struggle – with doubts, with fears, with disappointing experiences.
Most people I know, if you give them time to be honest, would say that they believe part of the time, and they don’t believe, or they struggle to believe, part of the time.
One of my favorite writers, Ann LaMott, has a friend who claims to belong to a church that always makes me laugh. He calls it the “Church of 80% Sincerity”. He says that most of the time he’s a Christian and a believer, but part of the time he just doesn’t feel he qualifies. Ann LaMott says she thinks most of us could join that church.
She says that 80% is about as good as most of us are going to get. 80% sincere in our belief. 80% compassionate. The rest of the time, she says, we’re just ourselves, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for being the people we are. (Ann Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, p. 105-112)
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the story of Jesus healing a blind man by the road side. And I said that it wasn’t just a story about an event that happened a long time ago. I said that all of us are the blind man in the story.
In the same way, ine today’s story, every one of us could be the parent who was standing there helpless.
“I believe – help my unbelief!” That is every one of us at some time or another. And the problem isn’t that we’re not perfect. God knows how much faith we have, or don’t have. And God loves us anyway. Jesus once said that all it takes to move a mountain was a mustard seed-sized faith.
What matters is that we’re honest, when we pray. What matters is that we pray the best we can, even when we’re confused and hurt and desperate and don’t know what the right thing is to say.
What matters is that we ask God not just to help us with our problem, but to help us with our faith. “I believe – help my unbelief!”
A lot of the time, when I pray, I say things like, “Lord, help me to understand the way you do. Help me to see things with your eyes. Help me to feel this with your heart. Help me to remember all the good things, Lord, that you have done in the past. Help me to trust a little bit more in your love and mercy.”
“Help me to pray in your name, Lord. Help me to relax and feel confident that whatever happens, you won’t abandon me. Help me to believe in you, Lord, and not expect that bad things are going to happen. Help me to put my faith in you, even now, and for always. Amen.”
That’s what it means to ask God to help with our unbelief. The problem is almost never just the situation. Almost every problem is a faith problem. Everything we go through is an opportunity to grow in faith. Every day brings dozens of opportunities to pray.
We can pray for big things, and we can pray for little things. Jesus said that the little things are practice for the big ones. The more we pray, the more God can work with us.
It’s not wrong to say, “If you can. . .” But it’s better to say, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”