On Doing Exorcisms (or, What Theology Is)

Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an exorcism? I was doing an internship with a group called The Night Ministry, which among things, takes a bus around to Chicago neighborhoods with high homeless populations and offers basic medical care, HIV testing, cookies, coffee, and condoms to whoever needs them. And there were always a couple of pastors and other volunteers who were there to talk to whoever wanted to talk. It was by far the most fun I’ve ever had. I was two years out of an M.Div. and a year into a theology Ph.D., thinking I’d left ministry behind, only to find myself being introduced to a bunch of homeless men and women as “Pastor Kyle.” Sometimes we arrive where we’re going by fish.

Anyway, on my first night there, I was walking along, introducing myself to people who had lined up for a dinner that some church group had brought, stopping to talk for a minute to pretty much anyone who returned my gaze. Eventually, I came to a man who skipped right through all the pleasantries to ask me if I would pray for him.

“Of course,” I said. “Anything in particular you’d like me to pray for?”

“Yeah. I want you to cast the devil out of me!”

Well, this was new and different. You see, being a mainline Protestant with an M.Div., I lived in a world in which people struggled to flourish in the face of physical and mental illnesses, and systems of social, economic, and racial oppression. There’s certainly something demonic about it all, but the devil? They didn’t teach me this in pastoral care! I wasn’t even sure if I believed in a particular thing that could be called “the devil.” But this guy wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

So after asking the man his name,  I started saying a prayer that I thought was a good compromise. I prayed about human flourishing, and that this man’s flourishing might be enabled. Went on in good seminarian fashion for a minute or two, when the guy looked up and stopped me.

“But, Pastor, the devil!” His tone was desperate.

“Alright. Fine.” I said. “Lord God, we know that the thief comes to kill and steal and destroy, but you sent you Son so that this man might have life, and have it in the fullest. Therefore, God, drive far from him everything that torments him, be it of the world, the flesh, or the devil. In the name of Jesus Christ, it is defeated. Its power is broken. Deliver this man from it, and let it never oppress him again.”

I went on like that for a bit longer. Would have made a Pentecostal proud. When I’d said the amen, the man looked up with a huge smile on his face. Prayer availeth much, I decided, whether from a righteous man, or a wretched sinner who can be bothered to invoke the power that Jesus gave to his disciples when they call on his name. When I told my supervisor about the exchange, he remarked that it was the most theologically nuanced exorcism he’d ever heard of. Whatever else I encounter in my life, that will always be one of the high points of my pastoral vocation. But it was also one of my finer moments as a theologian.

I once had an ordination committee in my old denomination tell me they were hearing a lot about theology from me, and they didn’t really see how it related to being a pastor. In processing that traumatic episode, I think back to this one. Because about the only way it makes sense to me to say that theology isn’t an integral part of ministry is if you don’t know what theology is. I kind of wish I’d told them this story, about how that man and I both prayed together and did theology together. Oh well. God’s will be done, and I’m in a much better place now with respect to my church relationships. But just in case anyone from that committee ever reads this post, this is what theology means to me.

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Accidental Theft?

This blog’s tagline seemed to roll off my fingertips. But the more I think about it, I begin to feel like I might have stolen it from somewhere. Perhaps from Ben Dueholm? Anyway, I like it, so I’m keeping it. But if anyone knows of someone else who said it first, let me know and I’ll add an attribution.

Update: Ben doesn’t think I stole it from him. I’m running with it.

A Charge to Keep I Have

When we are led by anxiety, rather than by faith and love, we end up acting out of unsound doctrine and organizing the life of the church in unfaithful ways. I am afraid that this is what is going on in a denomination that I no longer belong to, but is still very near to my heart. My recent defection from the United Methodist Church had nothing to do with any of the proposals being debated at the General Conference in Tampa, at least not concretely (story for another day). But even though I don’t have an immediate stake in it anymore, I’ve been checking in on the news leading up to and coming out of gc2012, and I don’t like a lot of what I’m seeing.

For those who don’t follow these things, the Conference is debating whether to implement a package of proposals that rather drastically restructure the denomination’s boards and agencies, concentrate more power in the hands of the bishops, and perhaps most controversially, eliminate guaranteed appointment (Methodist clergy are appointed by a bishop rather than hired by a congregation. Under the present system, every minister in good standing must receive an appointment. The new proposal would give bishops the authority not to appoint whomever they deem ineffective). In general, it moves the church to a more results-based approach, and implements various “church metrics” to do something like an ecclesial version of No Child Left Behind. Churches that aren’t performing are to be closed.

The advocates of this plan are right that something has to be done. Due to demographic and financial trends, the denomination cannot support its current structure. But as is too often the case, these demographic and financial anxieties have led to some subtle theological shifts that are largely unnoticed, and are downright unsound and unscriptural. Consider this statement from Bishop Willimon:

We have hundreds of congregations, thousands, without any discernable mission other than the care and comfort of their members.

At first, any right-thinking, missionally-oriented Christian is scandalized. These churches are inward focused! They’re only serving themselves! They’re a resource drain! Obviously, these under-performing assets should be liquidated and the capital reinvested elsewhere. Tack on the phrase “make disciples,” and you have an easy sell. Drop the deadweight!

Except that these churches aren’t deadweight.

The life of the church is being talked about as though it were some sort of achievement or reward. But it is no such thing. It is a free gift. Those deadweight congregations “without any discernable [sic] mission other than the care and comfort of their members” are as much a part of the church as the most missional, change-oriented, post-whatever bishops, and both are part of it by the same unmerited grace.

I have been part of small congregations with static or declining membership. I was even the pastor of one for a year in college. Some of these churches are truly dysfunctional, and one could make the case that closing them would be a mercy killing. But most of them are just doing their best to love the Lord, and those whom the Lord loves. They’re a bunch of wretched sinners like the rest of us, so the results are mixed. Some of them will turn themselves around, some won’t. Some are too far away from population centers to grow again, and will probably close once enough of their members die or move away. They will grieve what is lost, and trust in God to keep doing a new thing, just like God always has. In the meantime, they worship and try to serve like they always have.

These churches are not a distraction from the Gospel. Their lives, and the lives of all assemblies of Christians, are the Gospel. “By this they will all know that you are my disciples: whenever you have love for one another” (John 13:35). They are a bunch of mortal congregations made up of mortal Christians like the rest of us. They try to love another and care for one another in Jesus name while life lasts, just like we all do. They love in the face death, with the hope of resurrection on the last day. May such grace be given to us all. So frankly, when you say they are deadweight or under-performing assets, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

This does not and should not settle the question of the distribution of church resources, the structure of church boards, or guaranteed appointment. But if the theology is wrong, the rest will be wrong too. Whatever the United Methodist Church, or any church, decides to do with its resources needs to come from a place of faith, hope, and love. Not to mention unceasing prayer. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18a).

In faith, let us seek how best to love. Let us not be led by anxiety to violate the greatest of the commandments.

Blessings and Bah Humbug!

Hello, world. I’m Kyle. I have a blog. I previously blogged off and on at Wesley’s Parochial Newsletter, but having for various reasons joined the Episcopal Church, I felt like I should probably retire the more Methodist-themed blog. I live and die a Wesleyan, just not in the United Methodist Church.

I’m an aspiring priest (though not officially an aspirant), a theologian (dissertation in progress), and yes, a bit of a curmudgeon. Welcome to my blog!

Making it look nicer is on my list of things to do. You know, next time I get stuck on something in that dissertation.