We all know the story. Brave Paul gets thrown in prison—again—and after hours of prayer and singing an earthquake flings the prison doors open. Being a responsible sort of person, Paul doesn’t run away. He sticks around and ushers an astonished guard into the Christian household.
It’s a lovely story, a story about the power of God who unbinds us and sets us free.
There’s only one problem, one small rub.
After all, she’s the reason Paul went to prison in the first place. This young girl, a slave, has a spirit of divination. She can tell the future, see into people’s souls. This is not a gift that is natural, some evil spirit has come upon her. She is doubly bound—both by this evil spirit and because she is a slave. She does not use her divination skills of her own volition. She is paraded around by men who profit from her condition.
We read her story, expecting good news. After all, we have seen Jesus heal so many people: blind men, lepers, the possessed. He sees them in all their personhood and restores them to themselves. But Paul isn’t Jesus. He is a Christian, not Christ. Paul is on a mission and this girl is bugging him. She is following him around chanting about how he is a slave to God. For days she repeats this line over and over again and finally Paul has had it. He flings around and commands the demon to leave her. And the demon does.
Paul never interacts with her again. While she is healed in one sense, this healing has made her worthless to her owners and their discontent is what lands Paul in jail.
We never hear what becomes of the girl. We don’t know if her owners find other work for her to do, whether they discard her, whether she finds her freedom. She is healed, but she is not free. Her circumstances constrict her.
While it may seem that we, with all of our status and wealth and democracy, are the epitome of what it means to be free, in my experience most people are bound by something. I have a friend who is normally very energetic and positive, but every once in awhile his shoulders would slump, and he would walk around with an extremely grim expression on his mouth. Eventually I began to put together a pattern. His slump always came a day or so before his mother came for a visit.
Mothers are complicated. On this mother’s day, we celebrate the gift of motherhood and the loving sacrifices so many mothers make. But it is also important to remember that not all mothers have the gift of selfless love. Many mothers are manipulative, unkind, withholding—all behaviors that can really bind a child. And some women, who would be delightful, giving mothers are unable to be mothers for a variety of reasons. Mother’s Day is wonderful, but it can remind us of the ways we are bound.
And of course this isn’t just about mothers. Men and women both struggle with being truly free. Mothers and fathers who are unable or choose not to love are often bound up in their own family history or mental illness. Cycles of dysfunction can go on and on.
And like the slave girl with the spirit of divination, these are circumstances we cannot change. Our parents are our parents. No matter how much we plead, we cannot change them. But, like the slave girl, we can be healed.
I like to think that after Paul so carelessly healed the slave girl, she had an experience of the holy. I like to think that the Holy Spirit made up for Paul’s lack of interpersonal skills and gave the girl some insight into how loved she is.
I hope that even if she remained a slave, she experienced the internal freedom of belonging to God.
Whatever binds us—whether it is issues stemming from our childhood, or being stuck in a lousy job, or being financially strapped, or being overwhelmed by the commitments of family life—we have choices to make.
We can dull the pain that these constraints give us by drinking, watching tv, shopping, working out, eating. Brene Brown calls this being a “taking the edge off-aholic”. But these are just temporary pleasures, giving a lift to our endorphins and helping us get through another long evening.
The alternative is painful. The alternative is to face what binds us, to acknowledge our feelings, to lean in to the pain rather than trying to dull it. The alternative is to turn to God and ask for God’s healing. God’s healing, of course, is love. We can be suspicious of God’s love, especially if we had parents who were not able to show us love in a healthy way. We can think of God’s love as conditional, as based on our behavior.
We can think of God’s love like Paul’s healing of the slave girl—an afterthought, carelessly administered out of obligation or even irritation.
But that’s not what Jesus showed us, was it? Jesus loved all sorts of people. People that were respectable and people who weren’t. Men, women, old people, young people. Jesus felt enormous compassion for human beings. He feels enormous compassion for you.
Dallas Willard, author of the wonderful The Divine Conspiracy died this week. His whole life mission was to get people to get deeper and deeper with God. He writes,
We must understand that God does not ‘love’ us without liking us – through gritted teeth – as ‘Christian’ love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core – which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word ‘love’.
This healing love can come from a direct experience with God, but it can also come through God’s church. We belong to each other. We are each other’s family. We are each other’s mothers and brothers, sisters and fathers. My mother, who was a very loving mother, died of atrial fibrillation suddenly twelve years ago. While no one can replace her, since then I have received so much mother love from small group leaders, priests, friends, parish administrators, my sister, my father, my husband, my in-laws. The church stepped in, and loved me. God loved me, through the church. As Jesus says in our reading from the Gospel of John today:
Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
This is one of those sloppy sentences in the Gospel of John you have to read three or four times before you get, but maybe sloppy sentences are the best way to describe the love of God and the love of the Church.
The church is more like Paul than Jesus. We don’t have it all together. We love really well some days and some days we act out all our pain and frustration on one another. Love is messy and complicated. Love involves forgiveness and repentance more often than we’d like to admit. But Jesus gives us this gift and this charge: to love one another.
And this is my prayer for you—that whatever binds you, you might experience the radical, encompassing love of our God, who created you, redeems you, and loves you more than the very best of mothers. May you be given the gift, even if only for a moment, of knowing in your soul how deeply you are loved.