All of us who do not regularly experience hallucinations or delusions reside on what may be called a ‘cliff of sanity.’ Some of us, for reasons still unclear, are closer to the edge of the cliff than others.
~ Dr. Samuel T. Wilkinson, Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine
Mary Poppins (1964) is by far my favorite Disney movie, and one of my favorite scenes is the rooftop rendezvous of chimney sweeps when they sing “Step in Time.” Remember that? They’re racing around, jumping off and on chimneys, rolling and kicking and dancing up a storm.
At one point, the sweeps dance along the ledges of the buildings. They pretend to be balancing with some difficulty, holding their arms out and teetering like drunks, but then the music starts and they start leaping and twirling again in perfect coordination.
Yes, I know it was filmed on a Hollywood set, and, yes, I know they weren’t in any real danger. Nonetheless, their exuberant defiance of death strikes me as an apt image of the Christian life. The Gospel requires a kind of foolhardy abandon if we embrace it fully, and like the dancing chimney sweeps, we often enough come perilously close to the edge—right where Christ can do something with us. In other words, there’s got to be a bit of madness in every Christian.
Consider the Gerasene demoniac. He was a raving looney, running about, whacking himself with stones, busting up the chains that restrained him, and crying out night and day. The guy was plagued by so many devils that he called himself “Legion.”
And that’s me! That’s you, too, I’d imagine. We love Jesus, we’ve given our lives to Him, we struggle to pray and be virtuous and become saints. But we fail and fail and fail again. We, too, are harassed by numerous weaknesses, temptations, and faults, and, like Legion, we beat ourselves up about it, bemoaning our lot, and wailing to all who’ll listen. And why not? We’re schizo, affirming a Gospel that we can never live up to.
Then, Jesus comes, restores order, and tosses out the demons—and not just tossed out, but tossed into a bunch of pigs that run over their own cliff and drown. The next scene is telling, because when the gawkers observed the demoniac sitting at Jesus’ feet, “clothed and in his right mind” according to Luke, they were “seized with fear.” Fear? Of what? Of Jesus tossing out their demons too? In any case, they feared Him enough to “beg him to leave their district.”
Perhaps the crowd had their own madness in preferring to hold onto old ways and familiar devils, and maybe we do, too. M. Scott Peck alludes to this human tendency in The Road Less Traveled when he writes, “Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.” Many times, we avoid mental and spiritual health because it’s just easier to stay put. Why approach a precipice, with all its attendant unknowns, when it’s so much more convenient to keep ambling along well away from danger?
But He won’t leave us alone. He draws us to the edges of our lives and confronts our neuroses and petty sins—in ways that can seem downright cruel at times. Peck picks up on this idea in a section he calls “The Healthiness of Depression”:
As likely as not the patient will report, ‘I have no idea why I’m depressed’ or will ascribe the depression to irrelevant factors. Since patients are not yet consciously willing or ready to recognize that the ‘old self’ and ‘the way things used to be’ are outdated, they are not aware that their depression is signaling that major change is required for successful and evolutionary adaptation.
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?” we shout out with Legion. “I beg you, do not torment me!” Spiritual dryness and doubt, difficulties, disease, and disasters, even nervous breakdowns and mental illness—torments all. They’re not imposed by Jesus, but they are used by Him to get our attention and bring us to that place of vulnerability where we’re compelled to change.
He’s going to put us there teetering on the ledge whether we want it or not, so let’s race out to meet Him rather than shrinking away—to be acrobats after holiness rather than plodders, casting aside everything that holds us back. Nik Wallenda, the aerialist who recently walked across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope, has said, “I have never in my life walked with a harness. The weight of the tether makes it feel like I’m dragging an anchor behind me.”
Legion, the madman, cast off his chains and ran to Jesus to be healed. So should we, come what may.