Linda Blair does not make an appearance
I don’t know if what I am about to write will be funny. In my mind it should be funny. On the other hand, I want you to know that I take this very seriously. The thing that is funny is that I found myself in the middle of a situation where I did not belong. Before you read any further, please know that I do not make fun of other people’s faith practices. Okay, I probably have and probably will again (Hey, Baptists!) but I hope that isn’t what will be experienced here. Let me just tell you the story and see what happens . . .
I pastor a very small congregation of white folks who have more building than they need. This is the case for the majority of our white congregations in the United States, I would guess. We all have more building than we need. Thankfully, this congregation saw an opportunity to share space with a small (but larger than us) Black congregation about the same time they invited me to be their pastor. This partner congregation is pentecostal in nature. We are not. Does the phrase “frozen chosen” ring any bells?
Several weeks ago, I showed up for church, entered through the fellowship hall and went to the ladies restroom. The light wouldn’t come on. The bulb needed to be changed. I was going to pee my pants if I tried to find a bulb and change it so I went to the men’s restroom. There are labels on each of the doors, but the rooms are small and only one person can enter at a time, so the labels are pretty silly when you think about it. The sink was full of water. When I tried to push the drain handle down to release the water, it wouldn’t work. So, after I made sure my pants stayed dry, I opened the door (if I didn’t there was no space) and got under the sink to try to fix it. I couldn’t and I didn’t.
While in the floor of the “men’s restroom,” the pastor of the other congregation comes by and says, “Hey Pastor,” but it wasn’t his usual effervescent way. I assumed he was acting a little strange because I was in the floor of the men’s restroom trying to fix a sink right before worship began. I spoke, exchanged pleasantries, and got out of the way thinking maybe he also needed that room.
When I took all my things into the sanctuary to set up for our worship service, I realized that the pastor, his wife, and a couple of other people remained in the sanctuary. There was also a woman laying in the floor in the aisle.
I knew that if she was hurt or sick they would have already called for help. By their calm nature, I assumed she was having “a Holy Ghost Moment” and just because the white church-folk were coming in didn’t mean the Holy Ghost was done.
I sat down in a pew several feet away and started reading through my sermon. There was Christian music playing over the speakers, more quietly than is the norm but still loud enough. I should have turned around and walked out when I saw what was going on. But, I had business to take care of!
As I sat there trying to study my sermon for the day, I felt more and more stupid.
“They are going to think I’m judging them. They are going to think I’m rushing them. They are going to think I’m a Karen!”
Pastor’s wife is walking up and down the aisle, praying. Sometimes she is speaking in tongues — which means using a spiritual language that I did not understand.
Nevertheless, I knew that what was happening was powerful and meaningful for the people in the room. I truly felt like a voyeur sitting there. And so, I put my sermon down, got up out of the pew, and joined them.
Yep, that’s right.
I joined them. I just inserted myself right in there.
Here was my thinking on that. I thought, “I either have to leave this room or join them in prayer.” Of course, I was praying where I sat, but I worried that my presence was disturbing in some way. If I got up and left, after sitting there for a few minutes, well, that felt wrong too. So, I walked over to where the woman was lying, sat down in the floor next her, PUT MY HAND ON HER LEG, and started praying.
These are the moments I wish I could better describe what happens in my brain. Everything that had happened and everything that happened from then on was intuition and instinct. I still don’t know if anything I did was okay. I haven’t asked anyone. They certainly haven’t spoken with me about it. I did what felt right and I am still certain of that, that it FELT right. I am still surprised that it happened.
In my mind, I had joined a circle of folks who were praying for a woman who had been physically and emotionally moved by worship. Soon after sitting down next to her, I realized that the woman was crying. She would call out, “Jesus, Jesus.”
The pastor would say,
“That’s right. Use his name. Say his name.”
Then she rolled over on her stomach. She started coughing. The pastor was patting her back, I was rubbing her leg, the pastor’s wife was pacing and speaking in tongues.
Then she started puking. Not a lot. Not like pea soup from little Linda Blair. I didn’t examine it, but it seemed mostly like snot. She started coughing up snot and there was a flurry of activity as the folks around her got tissues and a trash can and Lysol.
The pastor patted her back harder.
“Get it out, now! That’s right, get it out. In the name of Jesus, leave this body!”
I guess that was when it became clear to me that this was not just another “Holy Ghost Moment.” I had been part of those kinds of moments before. This was different. These folks were exorcising a demon!
And, I was caught up. I was caught up in it. I had chills. I started crying. I found myself singing out loud.
“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me . . .
She is calling out, “Jesus! Jesus!”
The pastor is beating on her back.
She is coughing and spitting up.
Pastor’s wife is leaning in, volume raised as she continues to speak in tongues.
. . . yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me,
for the Bible tells me so.”
Pastor says, “Use your spiritual language.”
The woman on the floor speaks in tongues.
“I love you, Lord. And, I lift my voice
to worship you, O, my soul, rejoice . . .”
It is well past 11:00. I think I have seen some of my church folk look in the door. I know them well enough to know they have gathered in the fellowship hall and are waiting patiently, but wondering what this is all about.
Pastor says, “Let’s get her walking now.”
Another man helps him and they lift her from the floor and walk her up and down the aisle. I nod to the pastor as my cue that I’m taking my leave. Tears are in my eyes.
I gather my sermon — which will not be preached today — and walk to the fellowship hall. The young pianist is standing. Everyone else is sitting. He asks, “What the hell is going on?”
What the hell, indeed.
We sit at the tables and I explain as best I can what I’ve just experienced. We worship. We talk. We pray for the woman, the pastor, and the congregation.
When we are done, the small group and the woman remain in the sanctuary. I’ve left my bag in there, so I’ve got to interupt AGAIN to gather my things. When I walk into the sanctuary, the woman is now sitting in a folding chair facing the Communion table. Christian music is still playing over the speakers.
The pastor’s wife is standing near the back of the sanctuary and motions to me to come to her. I do. She asks,
“Have you ever seen a demon that just WILL NOT leave a body?”
“Are you kidding me?! I’ve never seen ANYTHING like this before.”
She looked a little alarmed. I laughed. She smiled without laughing and said, “You need to get out of here then!”
She wasn’t rude in any way and I understood immediately what she meant. I wasn’t prepared for what I had stepped into. She wanted to protect me. I hugged her neck, grabbed my stuff, and went to auditions for a show I’m stage managing.
As I write this, it is occurring to me how ridiculous it is that I haven’t spoken with her or her husband about any of it. I am probably afraid that they will tell me what a terrible thing I did by inserting myself into that situation. They are probably afraid that I will judge them and their style of worship. They are fully aware that I am one of the frozen chosen.
I saw someone the Monday after this happened and told her a brief version. We talked about it all intellectually, wondering about what “demons” they believe possessed the woman. Today, I saw her and she said, “Whatever happened with that demon-possessed woman?” I had to say that I don’t know.
It isn’t funny at all, is it?
I have a friend who experienced a year’s worth of pentecostal moments in Taiwan. She said that the congregation likely wouldn’t call it an exorcism. It was clear to her that it was much like things she had seen when a congregation worked to release evil spirits from individuals. She knew things about the situation before I told her. For example, she asked, “Was she covered by a sheet or something?” She was, covered by a white towel. It is part of the tradition which likely began as an issue of privacy for people in dresses, but now is used for everyone.
There are all kinds of ways I intellectualize what I saw. I know that there are thousands of people who have been hurt and abused by the Church. I’m praying that this woman felt better after this, better for the long-term and free, absolutely free. If I hadn’t been there in person, I wouldn’t believe that she could be. I would assume that it was all emotion and manipulation. I would assume that she had mental health issues or, more likely, that she made lifestyle choices that the church found wrong and made sure she knew it.
But I was there. I should not have been there. I unknowingly participated in an exorcism that I was not invited to attend. It baffles me that it happened. And, yet, I felt free during it. I did not make any assumptions in the moment about what was happening, what I should or should not say, or how I looked to anyone else. I was simply present. I did my best to listen. I felt the presence of the Christ in that small circle. I trusted that everyone in the room wanted what was best for the woman in the floor.
“Jesus loves us this we know,
for the Bible tells us so.”
This is my spiritual language.