Have you ever thought of your church as haunted?

file0001364048351Fall is here. Watching the trees turn from a uniform green to all varieties of gold, yellow, brown and red is a spectacular experience. One can almost be blinded by the fiery brilliance. Such a site gives new meaning to the burning bush—not just one, but a world of burning bushes.

During this brilliant season are Halloween and All Saints Eve. According to many stories, the vale between worlds is thinner; the harvest moon is steady and stable as the clouds hold it.

Halloween, children are excited in this costumed season of magic masks, ghosts, goblins, superheroes/heroines, pumpkins, night sea journeys and haunted houses; child-like stories are told to intensify the imagination’s excitement of the night.

All Saints, a time to remember, a time to honor all Saints, both known and unknown; All Saints is a time of collective memory, as many as the sands of the sea–the memory of who was, who is and who we want to be.

This October haunting is the word that ignites my imagination — Its meaning, its intended description. Haunted, is there such a thing? Was there an experience those early earth walkers saw that evoked such an image? Is the word “haunted” and “haunting” still relevant for us, and what kind of experience is it describing?

Think of those Biblical stories such as in the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), “My name is Legion, for we are many,” and casting the spirit into swine as they run into the sea; the harrowing “night sea journey” in which Jesus silenced a storm as if it were a demon (Mark 4:39) and many other biblical narratives that are as eerie, spooky and evoke imagination as much as any creative Halloween story told.

Somewhat tongue and cheek, I have heard clergy say, “My church seems haunted.” Interesting image! Some congregations might fit such a description. It is as if something is living in them they cannot put to rest that roams and stirs apart from their choosing. Like a Dickens novel, it walks about and rattles its chains at night, raising the anxiety, unwilling to sleep — nor let us. Regardless of what the people do, this unknown presence seems to be loud, invisible and unable to find a home or a place to sleep. Instead of haunted, we use more sophisticated language such as unresolved issues or some untold trauma that lives on, wanting and needing to be brought to light so as to rest or get unstuck.

Haunted is a word that denotes a presence that is not quite a presence. It is a visitation by the as yet unspeakable. It is also emblematic of the longing for incarnation, of an unbearable substrate of wanting; not finding a home in this world or in the next; something that walks the halls of our houses or the corridors of our hearts and minds looking for that which will help to lay its own self to rest.

What haunts our congregations and us is something seeking its own consummation. Maybe a bad departure of a previous minister, misconduct of the pastor or a leader; some unresolved hurt from the past; unacknowledged injustice or historical harm; deep trust broken; a traumatic event or other experiences that have not been put to rest, processed or found their place. As individuals and congregations, sometimes we have a hunger to put it to rest, but we might not know how–how to create a container or space to hold it, to engage it, to converse about it in a generative, healing way or to consummate it.

If we feel continually haunted over time, individually or as a community, we become ghost-like ourselves and roam with intent while not quite knowing the object of our intention. Looking into the mirror, our face begins to look like our life. We walk not quite existing in the world we visit. Like the ghosts we describe through that strange, beautiful word haunt/haunting:  this part of our congregations and us wants to go home or rest, but we sometimes cannot find a place to rest, to belong, to call home. The exorcism of an unknown spirit is consistent the world over: an invitation to return home; for it and for us to find our way back, to cease our restless ways and to quit disturbing others’ minds and walking their halls at night. It is a call to attention, to not be ignored, to be named, honored and given its place. Then, hopefully, there will be no more chains rattling, no more roaming the halls at midnight, no more unnecessary anxiety stirred.

Our congregations and we cease to be haunted when we cease to be afraid of our past; our present and our possible future, our horizon, or those we wronged, those we did not help or those who we think might wrong us. We forgive ourselves and our congregations forgive themselves by changing the pattern, and we change the pattern by forgiving others and ourselves. Our fear is the measure of our absence.

Our communities and we cease to be afraid when we pay attention, give away what was never ours in the first place and begin to be present to our own lives just as we find them, even in the midst of the unknown, even when we do not know the way. We take the next most necessary step. This is mission and ministry. When we make a friend of the unknown, what previously haunted us becomes an invisible ally to our future horizon. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

We banish the misalignment when we align with what we are called to be and do. And I believe we are all “called to live life. Our mere being says we are invited.” Or, in Albert Camus’ language, “to live to the point of tears.”

We become visible and real when we give our gift and stop waiting for the gift to be given to us, individually and collectively, waking into our lives again, as if for the first time, as if half remembering something that this day will ask us to speak, make real, honor and live.

To be human
is to become visible,
while carrying
what is hidden
and unknown
as a gift to others.

To be human,
is to be,
while living what
is within us
trying to incarnate.

correctly understood,
amounts to God’s incarnation.[1]
This is the opposite of being haunted,
of being ghost-like,
of being homeless,
of not having a place to belong.

Our place of belonging
is who we are
by the grace of God.

As we accept
who we are,
as we find our voice,
as we open our hearts,
as we become vulnerable,
we become
visible and human,
a gift to others and ourselves—
which is incarnation.


[1] A comment by C. G. Jung.

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