We Want to Believe in Ghosts

ghost_stairsBy Joe LaGuardia

In a rare one-season return, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) are back to their old shananigans in The X Files.  The show presents audiences with mysteries old (the cigarette man is back) and new (technology has caught up with the times), all while affirming the show’s foundational mantra that the truth is out there.

X Files, with episodes entirely fictional but largely based on conspiracy theories, makes us want to believe– not necessarily the truth about monsters, but in that which is unseen, namely ghosts.

Ghosts have…er…haunted us for as long as humanity could write.  Every era has its own version of ghosts, whether fictional — Hamlet’s father in the opening Shakespearean play Hamlet comes to mind — to supposed fact, like those many spirits that haunt Georgia’s historic cities from Savannah to St. Simon’s Island.  As of 2013, more people believe in ghosts–roughly 45%–than regularly attend church.

A ghost or two even makes an appearance in the Bible: In 1 Samuel 28, an anxious and dispirited (pun intended) King Saul breaks his own laws by seeking a necromancer–the “witch of Endor”–in order to seek Samuel’s ghost for advice.

Calling Samuel from the dead, the witch raises the prophet from the below the earth and provides an omen to the king: “The Lord has turned from you and…has torn the kingdom from your hand” (v. 16, 17).

This story, as a part of scripture and taken literally for years, presents a conundrum for Christians who tell their children that ghosts are not real and that eternal life is something that results only from believing in Christ (Jesus was born 1,000 years after Saul’s reign).

As a pastor, I have to keep an open mind.  When someone tells me of a personal experience that includes the Holy Spirit–say a suspicion or a inkling–I admit that the Bible (Jesus, in fact) tells us very clearly that the Spirit “blows where it pleases” and empowers God’s people to be on mission.

Yet, there are many times when I ask questions of people who wonder whether they’ve seen or heard ghosts: If an experience has nothing to do with God’s mission or godly motives, I wonder if the person is correct in their interpretation of something they experienced, saw, or heard.  I still don’t know what to do about Saul’s run-in with Samuel’s ghost.

Science is close to unlocking the neurology and psychology that explains ghost sightings and the effects of apparitions.  Researchers in Switzerland, for instance, devised a lab experiment creating the effects of ghost phenomena.  Subjects claim to have sensed none other than a “ghost” as a result of the experiment.

Other scientists have concluded that people’s experiences are due to mechanical or biological factors, such as infrasound or sleep deprivation.

Unfortunately, science has yet to explain many other things, like miracles, religious and spiritual experiences, and, in our community, the power and presence of the “Holy Ghost.”  Exorcisms are still a norm in countries where science is not as prevalent.

It stands to reason that if science cannot unlock these secrets, people still have grounds to believe in other mysteries as well.

When my children were young, I told them ghost stories so they can learn how to discern fact from fiction and objectify their fears.  “Ghosts” are everywhere!  Flip-Flop-Flappy Jack is an old pirate who lives in our backyard and haunts us when he’s in the mood for pizza, and ghosts in our church sanctuary always provide a good scare every now and then.

My children know full well, however, that these apparitions are but fictitious “games” that help us get in touch with our deepest fears.  The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is someone very real–and they’ve learned to tell the difference between the two.  No matter how much fun they have, my kids, like the rest of us, will always want to believe.

Ghosts will always haunt us with questions about their existence in this world and in the next, so if you want to play it safe: Believe in the Holy Ghost, and be suspicious of all others.

Ghosts in the sanctuary, ghouls in the fellowship hall

When I was trying to think of something patriotic to write about for the Fourth of July week, I couldn’t think of anything specific.

Sure, I considered writing about the separation of church and state–a Baptist thing to do if there ever was one–but I thought (being a good southern yankee and all) why rock the boat?

Instead, what kept haunting me (no pun intended) was all of the ghost stories I’ve heard (and told) related to the founding of our nation.  Go to any historic town in our nation–from Savannah to Salem–and you can take a ghost tour and hear about some pilgrim ghost child running amuck in the local watering holes.  (If you’re ever available, you can make an appointment to hike up Stone Mountain with me and I’ll tell you a good ghost story on the way up.)

Ghouls and goblins keep coming to mind because I have a thing for ghosts, always have.  No wonder, then, that whenever youth stay at the church for a lock-in or some special nightly event I remind them of the ghosts that live at Trinity Baptist.

The youth know them well by now: ghosts unlock impossible-to-reach windows, make noises that go bump in the night, and snatch video games or TV cables from the game room.

One time, when I was walking through the church at night with my daughter, she asked whether the ghosts are real.  I told her that the ghosts at Trinity are no more real than the ghosts in Savannah and, like any good story, my ghost stories are mostly pretend but have some element of truth to them.

I explained to her that the only ghosts in our church–and churches all across America–are the remnants of relationships, situations, crises, and legacies that have affected the life of the church over the years.

Your church is no exception; each church has its own baggage, its own ghosts, so to speak.

Truth is that, although such ghosts don’t steal video games, many of them appear as old hurts and conflicts that end up rearing their ugly heads now and then.  These bitter disputes leave a residue–ghosts–that awaken from a deep slumber whenever contention or anxiety erupt in a business meeting or fellowship function or dispute between churchgoers.

Relationships are strained after all of these years, and reconciliation is hard to come by.  Yet, forgiveness and unity are needed in a community that depends on some sense of Christian camaraderie.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul, a commensurate ghostbuster, pointed to lingering ghosts–or sources of division–in the community that caused disruptions to the Gospel.  “Enemies of the cross,” he called them, whose “minds are on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18, 19).

They were not necessarily specters from horror movies, but people who left behind a wake of hardship and destruction, discord and toxic rhetoric.

To combat such haunts, Paul encouraged his audience to “be of the same mind” and to “hold fast to what we have attained” (Phil. 3:15).  He does this by pointing to his own ability to forget “what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13).

Whenever ghosts erupt in church life, they can be extinguished by seeking reconciliation, healing wounds of old, and committing to a common ministry vision that looks forward to what God has in store for the community.  There is an intentional shift from dwelling on the past to facing a hopeful future.

In fact, a forward-looking mission is one that brings out the best in people rather than recalling the worst elements that lead to paralysis.

Over the years, I have heard about churches that erupted in conflict.  Pastor resign; people flee the pews.  Never once have I ever heard of a conflict that just erupts out of nowhere, over night; rather, conflict is the consequence of long-lost haunts that hurt and fan the flames of discord at the most vulnerable of times.

“But our citizenship,” wrote Paul, “is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” not the ghost of a church’s past, present, or future (Phil. 3:20).  Believe it…or not.

Halloween can help a child’s faith development

I’m probably one of only a handful of Baptist ministers that you’ll ever meet who actually considers Halloween a favorite holiday.  Every year, I look forward to reliving the wonderfully rich memories of my childhood by invoking all of the imaginary and fantastic surrealism that comes with the season: trick or treating, decorating the house with cobwebs, carving pumpkins, and watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

One of the other reasons why I love Halloween is that it plays right into my big, bodacious imagination.  I love fantasy and fiction, and there’s nothing better than Halloween that brings out the best literary archetypes of old: vampires (Bram Stoker), ghosts (Shakespeare), wizards (Wizard of Oz), and creepy animals (Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and The Black Cat).  This also brings out the best in my spooky story-telling, which is a favorite activity I do with the children in the neighborhood on Halloween night.

Aside from Halloween night, my children and I participate in story-telling, make-believe, and dress-up in our household all year long.  These activities build my children’s sense of creativity and take them into various pretend universes.  I am blessed when they are generous enough to invite me to play along!

Self-expression through role-playing is critical in a child’s faith development.  According to James Fowler, a definitive scholar on faith development, make-believe “provides powerful symbolizations for children’s inner terrors and for the hidden fantasies … that bring them secret feelings of guilt.  [Fantasies] also provide the child with tangible models of courage and virtue and with conviction-awakening stories showing that goodness and resourcefulness triumph over evil and sloth.”

In other words, storytelling allows children to objectify their inner fears and struggles and see them as a healthy part of life—fear when held in perspective keeps us safe; exploring the mysteries of a dark, dark room can lead to candy-corn blessings.

Unfortunately a majority of children in America are sitting in front of TVs and computers without parents monitoring content.  This can feed them sensational programming void of a moral anchor.

James Fowler gives this warning: “The desirability of children’s exposure to death, poverty, treachery and maliciousness in the context of fairy tales and Bible stories, when told to them by trusted adults with whom their feelings can be tested and shared is one thing.  It does not…sanction children’s exposure to the super-realistic violence, materialism and sexploitation of prime-time television programming.”

My family’s way of doing Halloween ultimately helps my children translate the metaphors, signs, and symbols of stories into tangible life lessons.  This also helps them in their faith as they navigate and learn about the symbols of Christianity.  Just consider the many symbols we use at church: Christ is the “Lamb” of God; we take communion by drinking and eating elements representative of body and blood; we hang crosses– ancient tools of persecution and execution—in our sanctuaries.   Each one of these symbols has the power to teach important lessons of our faith.

Inevitably, then, fairy tales, dress-up, and yes, Halloween, can help children garner the necessary resources to discern fact from fiction, make-believe from truth, and fairy tale from the faithfully true Word of God.  That is a part of the power of stories.