You’ll Never Walk Alone

ImageIt’s no wonder things went the way they did.  After all, William was born in a tavern that his parents owned and lived above.  At age 17, after a girlfriend died of complications from surgery, William entered a deep depression that would continue to rear its ugly head throughout his life.  To make matters worse, William suffered from anxiety which made him socially awkward and made it difficult for him to have a good time with others.  He went to college at Norwich University, but his depression and panic attacks led him to quit during his second semester.  He returned to school the next year, but was suspended after a hazing incident in which no one would take responsibility, so the entire class was suspended.  

William ended up being called in to the Vermont National Guard in 1916 and and then into WWI two years later.  During his training, he and the other military guys would often get invited to parties which scared William to death.  He soon found, however, that the alcohol served at the parties helped him relax and have a good time.  As long as he stayed drunk, he could enjoy himself around others without having to worry about his anxiety.  It helped to quiet the demons of his depression, too, but he would come away from each spat feeling more down than he was before, so he would turn back to the bottle.  Eventually his drinking got so out of hand that he could barely function.  He attended law school after the war, but was unable to graduate because he was too drunk to go get his diploma.  So, he became a stock speculator and traveled around evaluating companies for investors.  His wife thought the travel would do him good and help him keep his mind off of drinking, but the business deals just made more excuses to drink and eventually William’s reputation was ruined because he couldn’t function and he became known as an unreliable drunk.   

Eventually William hit rock bottom.  It was revealed that the alcohol was severely damaging the Wernicke section of his brain and that he would soon either die or be locked up due to insanity.  He had tried numerous times to quit drinking using everything from LSD to special counseling, but could not seem to kick the addiction.  As he lie there one day hung over and wishing that he could die, he remembered that his grandfather had been an alcoholic, but quit abruptly one day after a spiritual experience on a mountain.  His grandfather never drank again after that.  William cried out to God and yelled “Why can’t you do that for me!?  I’ll do anything!  If there is a God, let Him show Himself!”  He would recall later, that at that moment he felt a “hot flash.”  He said there was a bright light so magnificent that he could feel the warmth and for the first time since he could remember, he felt a great serenity overcome him.  William never drank again.  He went on to start a support group that held as one of its core tenets that folks needed a higher power to help them overcome their demons and survive their addiction.  He would come up with 12 steps and encouraging anonymity, would introduce himself at meetings by saying, “Hi.  I’m Bill W. and I’m an alcoholic.” 

Even after Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous along with Dr. Bob, regained sobriety and kept it, he never stopped saying he was an alcoholic.  Bill wasn’t cured.  He was healed.  It’s so easy to think of the two as being synonymous, but I’m quite convinced that they aren’t.  To be cured, one is once and for all relieved of the affliction that oppresses them so that it will never return.  To be healed is to have strength, from within or from without, and the mental clarity to not be tormented by that which afflicts you.  Bill wasn’t cured.  He could have easily taken another drink and even tried to when he was on his death bed dying of cancer many years later, but the nurses wouldn’t give it to him.  Bill overcame his demons, however, with help from God, a group of supporters, and himself and in this he became healed. 

I’m hard pressed to see many, if any, places where Jesus cured someone.  I can find many places, however, where the gospels say that Jesus healed someone.  We don’t really know why Jesus was there that day.  He just got in the boat and told his disciples, “Come on, let’s go to the other side.”  So when they come ashore in Gerasene in Luke 8:26-39, there is a man who is struggling with demons.  We’re tempted to think of Linda Blair spitting pea soup or Anthony Hopkins in The Rite, but I’m not so sure that that’s what this story was all about.  This passage says that the man was naked and lived in the tombs  on the outskirts of town where he was chained up and carried on a raucous.  He would frequently break his chains and wander about and apparently this was the case when he encountered Jesus on the shore of the lake.  The man ran up to Jesus and fell to his knees and yelled, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  He ran up and said “Jesus!  I’m tormented by demons and I want to be free!”  Right?  Wrong. 

This man was tormented no doubt, but he was also comfortable.  It was what he knew.  He must have been scared to death to be healed  because then he would have to face a new life – the great unknown – and how was he supposed to do that?  He didn’t even know if he could so he begged Jesus to let him remain afflicted so that he didn’t have to face change.  He yelled to Jesus and said “I beg you, do not torment me!”  Torment!?  The man recognized the Healer and said, in effect, “Please!  Just leave me as I am because this is all I know!”  So then Jesus asks his name and the man said Legion. 

Legion.  This is akin to the man saying, “I am oppression itself.”  Legion was the Roman oppressors with their legions of men keeping the law.  Legion was the name of any illness or affliction that ever dragged a human being down into the abyss and made them feel despair.  This man represented everything that was, ever had been, and ever would be wrong with any human being.  But the interesting thing is, the towns people represented everything that was ever wrong with society.  Did they rejoice when the man was healed and embrace him as a whole person?  No!  They were scared!  They weren’t afraid of the demons that had been cast out, but they were afraid of wholeness and being well.  What would they do if things were actually made right?  For all these years they had been pointing their finger at this man in the tombs and saying how wrong and sick that this man was.  All this time they had been talking themselves into thinking that they were ok because they had somebody to compare themselves to who they convinced themselves was much worse than themselves.  Perhaps the healing wasn’t merely about creating wholeness as much as helping people see that they were sick in the first place. 

Well, maybe I’m being too hard on the townspeople.  After all, Jesus did chase off their pigs and kill them, so if Jesus stayed around too long he was going to chase off all of their food supply.  Wrong!  Jews didn’t eat pork.  It was considered unclean.  The pigs were food for the Roman oppressors.  It was the pigs that fed the oppression and kept it rampant and Jesus in effect said, “If you don’t feed the affliction, it has no choice but to die off.”  Jesus recognized what was wrong with the individual, he recognized what was wrong with society, and he said, “I don’t care how bad you are or how low you think you’ve dropped, you can always be healed.” 

All along there had been the pretext that the man was demon possessed and scary and all of the people were afraid of him.  Perhaps that was partially true, but now the story is different and the man is afraid of the people.  The man was afraid of himself.  What was he going to do now?  He didn’t remember what it was like being well.  What does a whole person even do?  So he did what anybody would have done and said, “Jesus, take me with you!  I finally feel whole again and I don’t want to lose this peace and serenity that I’ve found.  Don’t leave me here alone!”  Jesus looked him in the eye and said, “You will never walk alone.  God will always be with you as will these people.  These people are just as scared as you are right now because they don’t know how to be well either.  So I need you to stay with them and tell them what God has done for you and eventually their eyes will be opened, too, so that you can become friends and become support for one another. 

It is so easy for us to become dejected and to give up.  It’s so simple for us to just throw in the towel or not even try in the first place because we know we can never be cured of our affliction.  But this isn’t living.  We have to have hope.  We have to grab hope with both hands and pull it in close never letting it go because know that although we will likely never be cured, we can be healed.  Guilt?  We can’t go back and undo what we have done or erase the event that makes us feel this guilt – even if we weren’t responsible for it.  But we can overcome the oppression that comes with it and let God take it off of our shoulders.  Addiction?  Yes, it’s an illness.  Once an addict, always an addict.  But that doesn’t mean you have to be active.  With help from God and friends and your own will power you can claim sobriety as yours.  Depression?  Mental illness?  True, you cannot cure these things, but you can reduce the power that they have over you and the weight that bears down on your shoulders.  Troubled relationship?  We can’t snap our fingers and make the other person do what we want them to, but we can take control of our own mindset and reenter from a new perspective asking God to give us the eyes to see and the strength to persevere. 

The same way that Jesus told the Gerasene that he needed to stay where he was at and attest to what God had done for him we have to realize that we cannot outrun our demons.  They are ours and nobody else’s.  But, it doesn’t mean we have to keep suffering.  With the support of friends and the kind of strength that only God can give, we can all be free of the effects.  We, too, can hold our heads high, claim control over our lives, and take heart that we are a healed and whole people who will never walk alone.

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