Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Ghosts and Ghouls


I don't believe in poltergeists.   

Years ago, I was asked by the local Church of Scotland minister in our town to help investigate a case of poltergeist infestation at the residence of a family in a difficult corner of our small town in southern Scotland.  Plates and small objects were apparently flying around the house.  Mum was struggling to complete each day’s work, in a job she desperately required, with her morale in her boots and was becoming increasingly downhearted.  Granny was terrified.  The smaller children were scared and crying.   

I was asked about the poltergeist because the minister of the Kirk had been told by the Church of Scotland head office down in George Street that:


"the Anglicans do that sort of thing - call the local Scottish Episcopal priest".  


Like I said, I don't believe in Poltergeists.  


On the other hand, I couldn’t let it drop.  I did feel a bit like the King of Israel who'd just been handed a note from the King of Syria saying:


the person who hands you this note is Naaman - my favourite general who is sick with leprosy please cure him and send him home quickly. 


Unlike King Joram of Israel, I didn't wail and rend my garments and immediately suspect an imminent Presbyterian invasion of Scottish Episcopal Church property on the pretext of noncooperation and a failure to accede to an impossible demand.  On the other hand, it wouldn't do to just rebuff the request which was made by a colleague in good faith.


And it had been a quiet week.  This was certainly the most interesting request which had come across my desk.  I got in touch with the diocesan office down on Grosvenor Crescent in Edinburgh and said 


"The Presbyterians think we can cure ghosts and ghouls.  We need to look interested.  What do you want me to do"?


I was told that one of the other diocesan clergy, the Rector of a fairly swank parish of the Diocese of Edinburgh, had once been the designated officer of an English diocese consulting on spiritual warfare and deliverance.  


"No kidding!  That’s a job?  You can do that"?  I asked.   


This had really made my day.  There was a Royal Jubilee upcoming in a week and the church hall was already strung with bunting.  I was due to judge the hats which members of the Mothers’ Union were all busily preparing for the party.  My treasurer and I often rubbed each other the wrong way and there was a meeting scheduled with the church wardens to chart a course for "getting along better".  And then this comes to me.  Over the telephone.  Unbidden:  wherein I would no doubt be expected to start shooting negative spiritual entities in a cave with impressive weaponry in the name of the Lord Jesus.  I'd seen the movie.  I had the fedora.    I was told to consult with this priest, which I did, and the two of us, along with the initiating Church of Scotland minister, went over to the small terraced house with its crumbling pavement.


Before we went, the expert gave me some basic theory.  This is what he told me:  


Contrary to common belief poltergeists do not afflict houses, they afflict families.  When the family moves, so does the poltergeist.  Poltergeists are not personal entities - they are not the spirits of now-dead persons.  They represent the dis-ease within a family - primarily sublimated anger - oftentimes the sublimated anger of young people in a family and this sublimated anger, allegedly, can manifest itself locally and kinetically in the movement, travel and destruction of things in the house - porcelain plates are every poltergeist’s favourite throwable items.  The mounting dis-ease is like a building electrical charge which suddenly and dramatically translates itself into a bolt of lightning equalizing the charge between a cloud bank and the ground.  


But - said my credulous interlocuteur - it can be chased away by an exercise of the church's authority to bind and loose on earth and it is subject to the power of prayer in Jesus’ name.


My Episcopalian colleague began with a solemn blessing at the door of the house.  We then went through various rooms of the house.  He whispered in my ear 


“Does this room not seem colder than the rest?”


Which it did but, then again, not all council house walls are equally insulated.


Mom was there.  Granny was in the front room beside the convection heater.  The children were somewhere nearby.  As we were coming up from the basement there was a scream from Granny and across the hall and bumping into the wall flew a plastic children's toy which now lay inert at the bottom of a radiator.  My colleague gathered the entire family in the front room and prayed a very good prayer in which the calming of rough seas, the protection of God's people and the beating down of Satan at the last day figured prominently.  


I was still mulling over the sublimated anger of young people in my head.  

The children of this family were living without a father, with an unhappy mother and a grandmother on the cusp of dementia.  I tried to imagine what it would feel like - the sense of sameness, futility, stasis.  If I were living there, I thought to myself, I would certainly make sure that nothing stayed the same.  I would yearn for something new.  

When we were finished, I noticed a little twinkle in the eye of the eldest of the children.  A lad of 13 or 14.  Our small town south of Edinburgh was a relatively old-fashioned place.  The boys of this age, when I walked through the Precinct would put the hand holding the cigarette behind their backs.  If they were heading up on to the estate with a bottle of cider and a girl they would pick up their pace if I came out the door of the Rectory so as not to be seen by “the minister”.  I frequently had their rapt attention at assemblies - they liked a good story and the visit of the local minister to the school was a change from the head teacher harping on.  This boy had been heartened by the solemn prayer of my colleague - the expert on spiritual warfare - so he would surely be open to a little meaningful local counsel as well.


Subject to the church's authority to bind and to loose.  I liked that.  

At the right moment when tea was being made in the kitchen and the attention of my two colleagues was directed elsewhere, I leaned over and tapped the boy gently on the lapel of his jacket and said 

"Listen to me, you wee shite, I know it's you throwing these things over your shoulder when you're sure nobody is watching.  I can't imagine life is overly happy for you right now but you have no place scaring your little sisters and your grandmother.  It's not the manly thing to do.  If you every do this again - if I ever hear about these things happening again in your house - I am going to let everyone know that it's you and I suspect your life may become very miserable for a while.


My colleague with the interest and expertise in spiritual warfare treats this occasion as a moment of great success since the poltergeist phenomena ceased forthwith.  My Church of Scotland colleague had it definitively reinforced that, when the dark forces gather to afflict the people of God in the Church of Scotland, there is always an Episcopalian lurking in the background with his light saber ready to leap into the fray. 


It was win win.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

A homily for candidates and electors in any selection process

Luke 9:7-9
Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead,  by some that Eli′jah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

So it begins.  A weekend of seeing each other in the flesh and of hearing the clicking mineral sounds of minds being made up and the churning liquid sounds of minds being changed. 

Deborah Kerr, Julie Andrews and others might have said or, rather, sung:

“Getting to know you.  Getting to know all about you”

which might suggest that, somewhere out there, is a reservoir of facts - information, additional items and increments - which further answers to pointed questions will provide.  Under this logic, the more our delegates and parish members pump the candidates for answers to their questions, and their views on the issues delegates feel are important, the more they’ll know them.  Is that how it works?

Surely, though, there’s a difference between

“knowing that….” or
“knowing how…”

and the type of knowing we claim when we say that we “know” a person.

There could be a problem with the English language which doesn’t differentiate between

Savoir and ConnaƮtre or
Wissen and Kennen

the way other languages do.  To the English language you might need to specify the nuance that coming to know a person has a dialectical element to it.

Our anticipation
must meet with
its contradiction

so that
a new thing emerges

which is not directly the fruit of what we first believed.

I was visiting friends in Albuquerque New Mexico years ago.  I was alone in the apartment one morning  Their phone rang and, and as a guest, I let it ring.  It switched to the answering machine and what I heard next on the speaker was a political robo-call of some sort relating to the State elections which were taking place at the time.

Candidate A was rubbishing his opponent, candidate B

who, it appears, wanted to raise taxes (and was happy to let terrorists teach kindergarten) but who, most importantly, had “flip flopped” on Proposition 6 (whatever that was).  I remember thinking, at the time, that changing one’s mind was clearly considered to be a sign of weakness in a candidate for a State election. 

Why should that be? 

Perhaps candidate B had gotten the interns doing a little research and now knew more about it.  Perhaps Candidate B was tough enough to stand up to her own constituency association and her donors because, after researching the matter thoroughly, she had come to the opinion that Proposition 6 was an utter dog and needed to be opposed. 

Let’s hear it for flip floppers! 

Let’s hear it for men and women who are not so tied to first impressions, or the search for a candidate whose opinions are completely congruent with their own, that they cease to be open to sensing the candidate with whom they could build a healthy and life-giving relationship.

Facts and additional increments of information might not do that.  Reserve may not be helpful.  Expressions of personality in question-and-answer sessions, in informal conversations over coffee might well fit the bill better.

We could quite realistically, as candidates, as electors and as non-voting persons involved in the transition process in our Convocation, pray earnestly for a hearty process of loss and gain this weekend.  We should be happy with a dynamic process this weekend in which our delegates and visitors arrive at the Town Hall meetings in Paris, Munich and Rome, with their minds made up and end up needing to admit, either sheepishly or with immense pride, that they have changed their minds.

I was pleased to see today's eucharistic lectionary reading from Luke's Gospel at the beginning of a series of town hall meetings.  Herod is eager to meet Jesus and to compare his person with his reputation.  With friendlier intentions, but no less curiosity, our delegates are eager to meet you.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Come away my beloved!

The Fifteenth Sunday
after Pentecost
Proper 17 – Year B
Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved! 
Look, he comes, leaping upon 
the mountains, bounding over 
the hills…..
My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, 
and come away;”

You’ve seen the movie.  You read the novel.  The woman debarks from the airplane, dragging her defective cabin baggage through the endless expanse of an airport on her way to domestic arrivals.  As she’s passing Gate A5 she notices the man sitting in the waiting lounge with his laptop open.  He’s a little older now but he’s still the same man she knew in another life.  His gaze shifts to the left and for an instant they lock eyes.  In a trice the lost years tumble back into being, the music of another decade, the landscape of other places, the smell of cologne, the scraps of long-forgotten words spoken between people.  Their respiration and heart rates increase.  He forgets he has a laptop open in front of him.  She forgets her suitcase is broken.  And then……

Nah.  You’ll need to wait for a future instalment of the Weekly Bob to find out how it comes out in the wash.  But if I told you, wearing my clerical collar and looking at you over the top of my specs, that what I’m working on here is an allegory of God and Israel or Christ and his Church you’d express incredulity or even disappointment. 

This is all a piece about human affections, please Father.  It’s got a pronounced sexual element to it as well, don’t you think?  We know you well enough to know you weren’t raised in a glass beaker jar.

No, you’re right, I wasn’t.  I don’t, however, think that the Song of Solomon is some early version of Nine Loves Has Nurse Susan which made its way into the Hebrew Scriptures and thence into the Christian Bible by accident or oversight.  The Rabbis made sense of it as telling the story of God and humanity.  Rabbi Akiva, in the first century of our era, is on record criticizing those who sing these verses in taverns.   The Song of Solomon forms the heart of the mystical writings of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila.  A good love story?  A religious allegory?  One or t’other?  Both/and?

The imprecations of Rabbi Akiva fell on deaf ears.  In the first century tavern, between choruses of “Arise My Love, and Come Away” revellers also told stories of cunning and importunity:  

I knew a man who walked through a field and spied a hidden treasure.  Quick as a flash he sold everything and bought it. 

What about that old widow who couldn’t get a judgement in court?  Sure, she showed up on a Friday night and banged on the judge’s door with a rock until the poor man came down in his housecoat and slippers and rewrote the judgement for her on his doorstep just to be rid of the old bat.

What do you think, says Jesus, telling the sort of story of longing and outrage one might hear in a tavern.  

The Kingdom is like a man who…. 
It is like a woman who…..

You could tell the story of God's approach to humanity with recourse to well-worn religious ideas and high principles.  When you boil it down, though, the rabbis, Jesus himself as well as the later Christian mystics preferred to take human longing, desire and hunger as their launchpad.  These stories of longing are infinitely more comprehensible.  They reveal what we have at hand and what we are missing.

I desire to see his face.  
I want to be held in his arms.  
I want to find the treasure.  
I am aggrieved and want the crushing sense of injustice within me to depart.  

It is a rawness which I know as hunger, as fatigue with chronic poverty, as a desire to be reconciled to my circumstances, as desire for my beloved.  

I can feel it.  It’s right here.  
It causes not only my mind but even my flesh to stir.  

One glimpse of the object of my desire resets life’s clock to zero. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A funeral homily

Isaiah 25:6-9

When I was eleven or twelve years old my father took me back to his home town in the province of Saskatchewan for his school reunion –for the reunion, in fact, of maybe a decade’s worth of graduates from the very small school in the very small town.  On the average, only three or four young people graduated during any one year and, so, ten year’s graduates amounted to a community of only thirty or so individuals.  Many of the graduates arrived with their children.  There, with the townspeople in one place, were many generations – multiple decades of joy and grief, or ease and hardship gathered into one place.  The small town was in a mood to celebrate.  The old parish priest was brought from his nursing home in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees.  The older men who once had played baseball for the town’s team in the past were pitted against the current softball team.  My dad pitched, as I remember.  The women of the community cooked and baked.  Tables were set out and blankets laid out upon the field of mown barley where the festivities were to take place.  It was a unique and special gathering which crossed the boundaries of time and generations.
In our reading this afternoon Isaiah the prophet has a vision.  In this vision there is a hillside and upon that hillside are laid tables covered with the richest of fare.  Savoury meats and good wine, bread and olives.  We know it to be a vision because upon this hillside are gathered generations which, in the ordinary way of counting, could not possible be gathered together – the living and the dead, those of past ages and those of the present day.   This is what God shows Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
  a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
  And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
 Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.

We are subject to time in its ebb and flow.  It brings us in and it takes us out.  

Why are we here?  We gather today at the funeral service of someone we have known and loved – someone we have cared for.  We do so for several reasons:  We express, first of all, our grief at the loss of somebody important and significant.  Their place cannot be taken by another.  It is a time to weep and remember.  We gather, secondly to show our support for close family members – to support them in the significance of their loss which is much more than ours.  But we gather, as well, because we too are mortal men and women and will, one day, be “gathered around” by our family and friends as they come to see us off.  

Every person’s funeral is a reminder and a prompt. Remember that funeral sermons are for the living and not for those who have died.  They might well inspire hope as we recognize all that we cannot control, like the length or our days or the shape which fortune will take for us in the end.  All of us place ourselves in the hands of the One who leads us beyond what we control.  Time is in his hands.  He loves the creatures he has made.  A funeral may, however, also remind us that we are the living who will go from this place and that much remains in our own hands and within our own power:  the conversation, the phone call or the letter which would patch a rift between people who have fallen out.  What remains in our control is also the very old vow we made to live life to its fullest and to risk ourselves by engaging meaningfully with the world we live in. 

You might leave this chapel with a sense of discomfort - discomfort about how far along the road you are and what remains for you to do and to be.  I’m sorry about that but maybe there is something you have not done, have not said, have not ventured and have not been.  That discomfort might only tangentially have anything to do with the full and eventful life of the friend, the mother and the grandmother whose memory we honour this day.   It has much to do with you.  That discomfort could prove to be your best friend.   Were it to lead to action there would be no better testament to the life of an elderly woman, well-lived, that her friends and family were spurred to action upon reflecting on what the passing of an earthly life might mean to them.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

She only touched the hem of his garment......

The Sixth Sunday 
after Pentecost
Year B - Proper 8
Mark 5:21-43

A small story, wedged into the midst of the larger narrative of Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter, tells the tale of some nameless woman - ill and at her wit’s end - who pushes through the crowd to touch the edge of Jesus’ robe with the certainty that this is all that will be required of her.  She will never be asked to come to the lectern and testify, nor will she be give a box of church envelopes or asked to join the ACW.   Just this and nothing more.

George Frederick Root wrote a hymn about her in the late 19th century which appeared in the Sankey Hymnal in 1897.  It’s one of the hymns of my youth which I still sing in the car when I’m stopped at a red light.

She only touched the hem of His garment
  As to His side she stole,
Amid the crowd that gathered around Him;
  And straightway she was whole. 

    Oh, touch the hem of His garment!
      And thou, too, shalt be free!
    His saving power this very hour
        Shall give new life to thee!

The earliest version of Root’s hymn had different words –  more rugged and arguably more self-assured.   The first line was:

In faith, she touched the hem of his garment

And the chorus went like this:

I’ve touched the hem of His garment,
And now I, too, am free;
His healing pow’r this very hour
Gives life and health to me

Good news for her, then, that saintly lady.   Well done, her.  Good news for whoever sings the song.  Good for them.  Great faith meets with great results.  That's what it says on the package.  We are ordinary people, though.  We in the back pews review the faces of great men and women of faith portrayed in their stained-glass windows and are left cold by the story of yet another spiritual athlete – very much unlike ourselves – who receives his or her due for that tremendous leap of faith which always eludes us.  The saints do things we cannot do.  They’re saints. 

Ira Sankey clearly agreed.    His collection of hymns and sacred songs  - Sacred Songs and Solos:  1200 Hymns - contains a large persuasive offering to that crowd of people hunkered down in the last two pews of the meeting hall.  They have not yet put their hands up.  They have not signed their cards.  They have not yet walked up to the front of the church for prayers or initiated the conversation which would see them home.  They have, in fact, been coddling the impossibility of the task and rolling it around in their minds.  

That somebody else might have done great things will not help.  
That somebody else is claiming the victory will be no great boon to them. 

Sankey is collecting his tunes for the man, the woman, the boy or the girl in the pew who would discern within themselves what first preliminary step they might take.  Thank you, George Root, for a wonderful hymn but it needs a tweak or two.  The modified version, which appears ten years later, accomplishes two things:  

First of all it returns the hymn to the story itself in the Gospels.  The woman takes a very small step (she only touched the hem of his garment…) - a step conditioned as much by desperation as anything she might have conceived of as faith.  It is Jesus, in fact, who, turning in the crowd, sees her there and declares that this small step is, in fact, faith.  It is faith in its seed as a preliminary act and proves, as saving faith, to be faith in its flower.  It is sufficient.  

For those of you reading this blog post this afternoon, the question remains open.  I pose it in the spirit of St Mark the Evangelist and in the spirit of George Frederick Root, the composer of hymns, and of Ira Sankey, the curator of that great opus of 19th century hymnody (some of which remains entirely singable in the 21st):    What small act remains to you - born as much of desperation as of faith - which would constitute your small step of faith, and make what has seemed impossible to you both real and present?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The earth produces of itself.....

The 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6
Mark 4:26-34

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
This is the thing we might find hard to believe when our back is to the wall.  

Surely the watched pot boils a bit faster, does it not?  We ask the question a half-dozen times to make sure it’s been understood because, after all, there is no shortage of idiots in the world.  We hover over our children as if each inch of their forward progress were dependent upon our total concentration.  With little to worry about we would worry nonetheless.  True, though we might meet people who should fret more than they do.  But not you who are reading this.  No, not you.  And not me, either.  Likely not.  We could do with letting the words of this parable flood over us.

Take note please:  In this short saying of Jesus, found only in Mark's Gospel, we are not being asked to trust in the ability of the seed to sprout itself and to grow up big and tall.  We are being asked to trust in the ground to produce a harvest.  I think this makes a difference. 

The mystery of the Kingdom of God is that God's Kingdom is within us, around us and among us

and that it works.
Jesus goes to enormous lengths, in the guise of innumerable parables and analogies, to tell us that God’s Kingdom is taking shape around us. 

It is here, it is there. 

It is the treasure hidden in the field, the valuable pearl nestled amongst lesser gems, the yeast in the dough and the smallest seed planted in the garden.  See how the country people and the villagers flood to the hillside to hear the Kingdom spoken of.  Look at the lame man carrying his pallet away on his very own pegs in triumph.  See the harlot, the Quisling and the outcast restored to community because the words of peace and invitation have been spoken.

It doesn’t depend on you.  So relax.  The Kingdom is not your handiwork.  You are not its chief engineer.  
But relax and watch.  What remains at play is not the reality of the Kingdom but your own very self as a participant.  Will you have the eyes intent on seeing the whole thing play out?  And the ears to hear about it? 
Do you want to be a part of the process?

Monday, May 21, 2018

Nicodemus the Car Thief

Trinity Sunday
Year B
John 3:1-17

You see a car advertised. 

It appears to be the very one you want.  The right size, the right model.  Mileage looks good.   The right price.  You fire off an email or leave a voicemail – AND you get a message back within the hour.  Yes, you can see the car but no, you can’t drop by to see it.   I will come to you.  Tonight.

What gives?  Why the wait?  Why night-time?   You're right to be suspicious.   A darkened street corner in some public space, really?  You rightly wonder that maybe this person is trying to sell you something which doesn’t belong to him.

You know what belongs to you – your moveable and immoveable goods.  You’d call these your property.  You might have a list of these things stapled to your insurance policy. 

Secondly there are those things which you don’t own but which are nonetheless “your baby” – processes at work which you got rolling, an article you’ve written, an idea, a recipe, a piece of music, even, which you created that you consider yours.  

Lastly there are those things which you’ve been given to care for and to manage – the family fortune, the company secrets, the charter of the Association you belong to.  Whether any of these things belongs to you or not, you still have some sense of ownership over them.

In the third chapter of John's Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee pays a late-night visit to Jesus.  He’d know better than to say that he was an owner of Israel’s religious tradition.  But there’s no question that he comes to Jesus this night as a gatekeeper of Israel’s religion - one of its chief stewards – one of its guarantors - one of its border guards, if you like.  Israel’s religion is his baby.  As a religious expert and arbiter Nicodemus could be said to “get” the whole concept of God and to be one of the “go to” people for questions of law-keeping and belonging.  

Tonight Nicodemus believes he’s in a position to sell something.  He comes to Jesus expressing a genuine interest.  The night-time meeting, on the other hand, suggests a guarded caution about what Jesus is doing.  We think you’re one of us, he tells Jesus.  God must clearly be on your side given what’s happening around you in your ministry. 

One of us – one of us. 

Nicodemus presumes to stand in Jesus’ presence as somebody who believes he can include or exclude this itinerant rabbi from the mainstream. He’s offering Jesus a franchise.  And this is where Jesus stops him in his tracks. 

You see this is the deal with God – God gives to whom he wants.   He chooses unlikely partners, he gives to people who don’t deserve it, he decides to start somewhere and points his finger at Abraham wandering with his family at some crossroads on a middle eastern trade route and he says – this one - I think I’ll start here with this one – with this random - and Abraham gets what he needs because he says “Okay – start with me then”  

It’s on your curriculum, all of this, Nicodemus – I’m not telling you something you don’t know.  God gives freely and wants the world to have what he wants to give and here you are telling me that you can cut me in on your deal?  That you can let me have a bit of what you have? 

Ask yourself what anybody’s “property” consists of, at the end of the day.  Your name may be on the title deed but you’re only one of a series of people who has lived at 246 Elm Road across the span of a century.  You’re here and then you’re not.  And notwithstanding intellectual property laws, can anybody really be the proprietor of an idea?  Our conceptions of ownership don’t survive a steady gaze.  Not when we are just dust in the wind.

God crosses the centuries.  Nicodemus must know that.  The spirit of God moves here and there.  God speaks to whom he wishes.  Our drawing of circles around ourselves and our communities, our dividing up of religious resources and our “proprietary” attitude towards the story of God prevents us from being willing participants in the process ourselves and hold others back from being included.   No, Nicodemus, you don't get God - you may not draw a circle around him.  He's not your possession or something which you claim in the name of your tribe or the nation or your collection of right thinking friends.  We are not proprietors of God's Spirit although, on a good day, we might end up being followers of that same Spirit.

We don’t “get God”.  If anything, God gets us.