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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