And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Mark 9:26-29
I can still remember the first church dispute I officially mediated. I had been involved in literally hundreds of mediations as an attorney/mediator, many involving issues worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Then there was this conflict in a tiny church involving a dozen or so people and I thought to myself, “How hard can this be?” I remember whispering a short prayer or two on my way to the church, thinking this would be a simple matter to iron out…three, maybe four hours, tops. Two days later, the church split, the pastor left, and I had almost certainly done more damage than good. It was by far the most humbling experience of my life.
The lesson there had nothing to do with mediation skills. It had everything to do with prayer, and the only meaningful source of power for anything at all having to do with Christ’s church. Unfortunately, I did not learn the lesson then. There have been many more occasions in my own church since then where my own “expertise” or efficiencies have gotten in the way of what God was doing. I have come to see this problem as a part of the human condition…or at least MY human condition.
It was certainly the lesson for the disciples in Mark 9. A very short time before that failure at the foot of the mountain, Jesus had empowered them to cast out demons and to heal and had sent them out in pairs to do just that. After months of “classroom” training, that was the beginning of their “behind the wheel” training. They succeeded. So, a short time later, while Jesus, Peter, James and John were at the top of the mountain, the disciples at the foot of the mountain embraced yet another opportunity to do what all of them had already successfully done dozens of times before. However, relying on their own experience in casting out demons, they failed.
Note Jesus’ explanation (in v. 29) of why they failed: this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer. And now note that, never in Jesus’ dealing with this demon-possessed boy do the gospel writers (Mark 9, Matthew 17) say Jesus stopped to pray over the boy. Jesus’ lesson here was NOT about prayer at the time of the work. His lesson here was about having a regular and ongoing prayer life that is actually growing your faith daily. This is not a lesson about how to perform an exorcism, and it is not a lesson about showing up to your church’s prayer meetings. This is a lesson about a daily, regular rhythm of sitting in the presence of God and being changed by that process.
Many of us have been in leadership positions of the church for a long time. We have a wealth of experience and have developed some competencies and efficiencies in church work. And Jesus’ point in this story is that all of that experience and competence taken together will not advance His kingdom an inch without the kind of “spiritual gravitas” that only comes from time spent in the presence of the Almighty God.
I wonder how often we are inclined to ask God to show up through the church’s next big event, but “hedge our bets” a little by relying on our own skills to at least make sure it’s not a flop? As we get better and better at our jobs, I wonder how inclined we are to rely more and more on our own strengths and less and less on Him? I wonder to what extent our forsaking of heart-wrenching, soul-nurturing gathered prayer in the church has diluted our transforming power in our communities?
These are some troubling questions, right? They do seem to highlight a problem. The good news is, the solution is not that complicated.