Archive for ghosts

Fellowship Follow-up

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by timtrue

Sewanee fall

Back on August 8th I announced via this blog that I would be enjoying a fellowship-in-residence for almost two weeks in Sewanee, Tennessee, care of the University of the South’s School of Theology, my alma mater.

It wasn’t to be what one might consider a typical fellowship awarded from a seminary, to research and otherwise work on some translation of a desert father or some such.  Don’t get me wrong.  This type of fellowship has its place.

Mine was an unusual proposal: to study Sewanee ghostlore and work on a piece of fiction set in and around Sewanee.

You see, Sewanee ghostlore was something that always intrigued me during my three years as a resident there.  But I never had the time to get into it.  I was studying to become a master of divinity, after all, which meant (with five kids in tow) I also had to be a master of time management.

But this fellowship should give me some time, I reasoned.  Twelve days, to be exact, to focus on the shadowy side of Sewanee.

The timing helped too: Halloween was smack dab in the middle of the fellowship.

So I wrote my proposal (some time ago) and followed up and begged and followed up some more and pleaded and followed up some more and wheedled and whined and followed up some more and, lo and behold, they awarded it to me.

So I went.

And it was everything I’d hoped for.

Even more.

It gave me nearly two weeks to wander the campus, interview long-time residents, attend special lectures, hike the perimeter trail, enjoy meals with friends and family (two of my kids attend college there), watch some scary movies, and write, write, write.

I came home with 20,000 words of a first draft and an outline–should tap out at about 60,000 words–and hopefully enough momentum to continue the discipline in order to have a first draft by spring.

We’ll see.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, a story from my time on “the mountain.”

It was October 30, nearly midnight.  I was attending a telling of Sewanee ghost stories in an old building on campus, the library archives building.

One of the librarians who was well-versed in Sewanee ghostlore started out.

We learned about the Perambulating Professor, an apparition who will join folks walking after dusk on Tennessee Ave., sometimes with his dog.

We heard accounts of the McCrady woman.  McCrady is a dorm.  Apparently several people–students and staff alike–have encountered her, always in a purple dress with long brown hair, wandering the halls.

And we discovered that there is an unpredictable poltergeist in another dorm, Tuckaway, who slams doors and opens windows and has even locked a student in his room for several hours–despite substantial efforts to unlock and even unhinge the door!

Then she told us about the very building in which we were seated, about twenty-five of us.  Sometimes the stairs would creak as if someone were walking up them even though no one was around.

By now it was well after midnight and, okay, I’ll admit it, we were a little spooked.

The librarian asked us if we knew of any stories.

A few personal experiences were shared, thus intensifying the spookiness some, sure.

People seemed restless.

And quiet.

But I didn’t want the night to end.

Not yet, anyway.

I mean, I had to walk back across campus, after all.  DARK parts of campus.  Let’s keep it going, I thought, just a little while longer.

So, being a priest and a graduate of the university’s seminary I asked,

“Does anyone know anything about the chaplain blessing a building?”

And, “Oh my gosh!” a girl two seats to my right exclaimed.

“It was during orientation this year.”

And this girl, who’d not said a word all night, began to relate her experience with big, big eyes and lots of body language.

“One day when I came into my room, I saw something dark.  At first I thought it was a person, so I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing in my room?’  But it just vanished.  So I thought it was just my imagination.  But then my roommate experienced it too!”

And she went on, telling her story, animating it with big freshman eyes–full of adventure and wonder–arms and hands waving and flailing, to get her point across; and–just when she was in the height of the suspensefullest part–she took a breath–to reload–and just as she took a breath–we all heard it–a low, loud growling sound came from underfoot!

She never finished her story.

Instead, like a clap of thunder, the whole room collectively screamed and slammed their hands down on the big table we were all sitting around, to push themselves up, grabbed their backpacks and purses and began sprinting pell-mell for the doors!

It was mayhem!

And I threw my head backwards and laughed out loud until I saw stars.  This was definitely worth the price of admission!

And just then–just as the mayhem was mounting to its fullest measure–the librarian stood up and waved her arms and shouted, “Stop!  It’s just the plumbing!  It makes that noise all the time!”

Just the plumbing?

Huh.

Well, yes, the mayhem ceased.

But within five minutes we’d all dismissed ourselves and were on our respective ways–students to their dorms and me to my room in the Inn, across dark parts of campus.

I must say, though, that I was laughing too hard all the way to my room to be spooked.

Anyway, the fellowship was wonderful!  I’ll keep you posted as the book progresses.

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Fellowship

Posted in Books, Education, Rationale with tags , , , , , , on August 8, 2015 by timtrue

Sewanee fall

Elated to be returning to my alma mater for two weeks this fall!

If you know me half-well, you might wonder if I’m headed to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee to see my two daughters who are presently students there.

Or you might be wondering if I’m returning to spend more time playing Sewanee’s 54-bell carillon, a one-of-a-kind instrument I performed on from time to time during my tenure as a graduate student; the tower in which it is housed stands tall in the photo above.

Or you might be wondering if I’ve got some pressing business with the School of Theology–to attend the Daily Office in COTA (Chapel Of The Apostles) or to sit in on some especially riveting lecture or other or to press a former professor or three on some vexing theological question.

Or maybe I want to spend time with my good friends in the classics department.

Or maybe I’ll be stopping by some of the area congregations in which I served as an organist, deacon, or preacher.

Or maybe I just miss the burgers at Shenanigans.

Truth be told, that’s all part of it, sure.  No doubt I will be trying to see as many people and enjoy as many meals as I can with them, especially the two favorite people mentioned in the first paragraph–not to mention visiting the tavern a time or two too with the older one since she’s turning twenty-one tomorrow.

But none of this is actually why I’m going.  Not technically anyway.  Unless, arguably, it all is.

The truth is I’ve been awarded a fellowship to research and otherwise work on a book.

The book’s subject matter is quintessential Sewanee history–albeit with a splash of lore.  Or, on second thought, it’s quintessential Sewanee lore with a splash of history.  Ghost lore, to be specific; which is indeed a significant part of Sewanee’s history (as is angel lore).

So you know, my fellowship proposal stemmed from a desire that went unfulfilled all my while as a student.  For, as a student (who also happened to be a father struggling to make ends meet–and thus all the carillon performing, Latin teaching, and organ accompanying), I never had adequate time to explore all the ghost lore that captivated my imagination while in the old town (by American standards).  It simply would have been too difficult to write all those theology and church history papers with ghost stories on my mind.  So, while a student, I set the captivation aside, calling it too distracting or whatever, trying to ignore it and hoping it would go away.

But it didn’t.

So now, I’d like to return to Sewanee, I said on my fellowship application, to explore this ghost lore in a focused way.  I want to eat meals and drink pints in the tavern with those who have a story to tell–with those who have lived and breathed long enough in the community to have heard a tale or two enough times to have most of the details worked out.  I want to climb the stairs in the bell tower again to the carillon cabin–a bell tower with a tale or two of its own–and maybe even play a piece.  I might even want to explore one of the graveyards or any other haunt with anyone willing to explore with me–might want to go on a bona fide ghost hunt or two!

And so, yes, technically, I’m returning to Sewanee for none of the reasons listed above.  But, on the other hand, it’s kind of for all the reasons above–and many more.

So if you are a Sewaneean with a ghost story to tell and will be around Oct. 26-Nov. 6, please let me know when and where we can meet for a conversation.

And–oh yeah–Halloween, conveniently, falls right in the middle of my time there.  I’m hoping to share some of my findings in Hamilton Hall during my stay.  Who knows, maybe it will be on Halloween itself–right before a midnight graveyard ghost hunt?

Making Peace with Ghosts

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2015 by timtrue

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Do you believe in ghosts?  What about zombies?

Donny was my next door neighbor.  He was my hero; my role model.

I have an older brother, Andy, about a year and a half older than I—just this side of a year and a half, actually: fifteen months and sixteen days.

Andy wasn’t my role model.  Not so much anyway.  He was my older brother; and you know how that goes.

But Donny!  He was the one I looked up to!

My family had moved to Camarillo in January of 1972.  I was almost four; Andy was five.  And I can still remember that first day, pulling in with a moving truck, into the driveway that would be mine for the next twelve and a half years—the driveway; and the old ranch house; and the seventy or eighty avocado trees that came along with it!  Here was my boyhood home.

Donny lived next door.  He was two months older than Andy; and, to a boy of three, that made Donny so much wiser—and just plain better, any way you looked at it!

So, in time, Donny learned to come on over any time of the day and peek in the back door, the sliding glass door; and if Andy or I was there, he’d just let himself in.

We’d do the same, too, Andy or I, at Donny’s house.  We didn’t know any different.  This was life.

Happy doesn’t even begin to describe the emotion I felt, then, when—finally!—the day came: Donny was invited to spend the night.

Ah, my first sleepover!  Donny was my hero; my role model.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Now, Andy and I shared a built-in bunk bed.  He got the top bunk—he was older, remember.  And I got the bottom.  (I’m still sore about this, by the way.)  But tonight it was to pay off!  For beneath my bunk laid a trundle bed; and tonight it would be rolled out and occupied by Donny, my hero, my role model.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Also, we had this foreboding, creaky, and frankly spooky spiral staircase—made of cold, hard wrought iron—leading from a rather dark corner of the kitchen down, down, down into the basement.  The steps on this staircase were open at the back; meaning there was a perfect space underneath, to hide in and reach my hands through and scare the heebie-jeebies out of anyone who happened to be descending.

Mom never liked this staircase much.  But we boys did.  Most of the time!

And then I already mentioned the avocado orchard, right?

So: there was a squatter who lived in the orchard.  Like most squatters, he remained elusive, hidden away in corners where we wouldn’t happen upon him easily.  But he wasn’t what you might call a typical squatter; for he wasn’t exactly human.

Some time ago he’d been in a terrible accident: a pedestrian crossing the street, if I remember correctly, when a Mack Truck plowed into him, catapulting him onto the ice-plant some forty feet away.

Witnesses saw it.  The truck driver screeched to a halt.  A small crowd ran over to help the tall man, the seven-foot man.  One person checked his pulse; another called 911; someone else performed CPR.  But, alas, he lay crumpled and lifeless in a heap.  It was too late.  The seven-foot man was dead.

Well, you know how it is.  When something like this happens and everyone realizes it’s too late to do anything about it, things kind of slow down a bit.  The commotion settles.

The cops showed up and started taking witnesses’ reports.  The ambulance wasn’t yet on the scene.  And somehow or other everyone’s attention was diverted: no one was looking any longer at the seven-foot man.

When the ambulance finally did arrive and the people remembered the poor crumpled soul on the ice-plant, they turned and—oh, gasp!—he wasn’t there.  “So, where’s the victim?” the medics asked; to which everyone, including the cops, just shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads.  He’d upped and vanished!

Except he hadn’t really vanished, I knew!  Because he was living in my avocado orchard!

If you can call it living!

Because I also knew that in the accident his body and spirit had been separated from one another; and for whatever reason they couldn’t be joined back together.  And now both were haunting my home and avocado orchard: both the disembodied spirit of the seven-foot man—his ghost; and his spiritless body—his zombie!

The seven-foot man was a double whammy!

And, late at night, after everyone lay in bed asleep, I knew that both zombie and ghost would sneak into that gaping maw, that space beneath the creaky spiral staircase, in order to try to reunite.

Donny knew it too.  So did Andy.  But we’d learned to live with it.

So then, after a long day of boyhood adventures, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of Mac ’n’ Cheese, donned our pajamas, and brushed our teeth.  Now it was time to climb in bed.

We boys had crossed the line a time or two that day, sure, daring each other to tempt fate.  We’d hunted for the seven-foot man, provoked each other to poke around in all the scariest corners of the orchard—the junk pile, the woodpile, the corner sectioned off by barbed wire—attempting to outdo each other in eight and nine year-old feats of manliness.

But, after all, the seven-foot man was just an invention of our own creativity, wasn’t he?  There really wasn’t some ghost-zombie man who would sneak into the basement after dark desperately seeking peace in the afterlife, was there?  Surely no!

Still, what if there were?

This question haunted me.  I mean, we’d just spent our day tormenting him, angering him . . .

Oh, well, it didn’t matter.  What did I care?  Donny, my hero, my role model, was at my side.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

That’s when I heard the noise next to me.  Maybe a sniffle?

Oh, sure, Donny probably just had allergies or a little sleep apnea or something.

But then—it wasn’t just sniffing anymore—now I was hearing snuffles!  And now some throat-clearing!  And now, positively, sobbing!

“Donny,” I called out, “are you okay?”

A pause; then, “I wanna call my dad,” he replied (sniff, sniff).

Which he did.  And within five minutes he was packed up and heading home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man—and our fears—without him.

But he was my hero; my role model!

Whatever the case—whether you believe in ghosts or not (that’s not the point!)—today’s Gospel teaches us something about belief.

Jesus appears amongst the disciples and they are “startled and terrified.”  The disciples think they’re seeing a ghost.  They’re frightened.  Doubts arise in their hearts.

Then Jesus persuades them.  “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says; “touch me.”  And they do.  And their beliefs begin to change.  They are filled with joy; but there is still disbelief and wonder.

Finally, Jesus takes some food and eats it; and he teaches the disciples, opening their minds so that they understand the scriptures.  Now, no longer are they disbelieving.  No longer are they skeptical.  Their faith is now certain.

This Gospel story shows us three characteristics of belief:

a. Complete Disbelief—Jesus appears and they think he’s a ghost;

b. Skeptical Wonderment—their disbelief is mixed with joy;

c. Certain Faith—they hear the scriptures and understand.

I’m not saying that these characteristics of belief are progressive stages: that you have to go through one to get to another; that everyone needs to go through a time of complete disbelief and then a time of skepticism before he or she can truly believe.

Instead, you might find yourself in a state of sure and certain belief today—you can’t remember a time when your faith was stronger—; and yet tomorrow you experience a complete crisis of faith.  Belief is complicated.

Also, I’m not saying that these characteristics are comprehensive: that they cover the whole spectrum of belief possibilities.  Belief is not so simple as to mark it out in three easy steps.

But I think we can all relate.  We’ve all been here, right?

Have you ever thought something like, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my child’s tuition this year”; or, “I don’t know how my marriage is going to last”; or, “I’m not even sure I believe in Jesus anymore”?

These belief characteristics don’t just happen on the individual level either.  For example, a question might have been on this congregation’s mind in recent years: “How is St. Paul’s possibly going to regroup after so many have left the congregation?”

And yet God has managed; somehow, we have regrouped.

But belief is like that.  It’s complicated.  It can be unstable.  It’s insecure.

So, Donny called his dad and went home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man on our own. We were completely and totally freaked out by this prospect.

And not five minutes after we’d climbed back into bed, still spooked, now listening intently into the darkness, it happened: over in a dark corner on the other side of the house the spiral staircase let out a loud and telltale creak.

Well, Andy lost it.  He let out a scream to shatter a brandy snifter.  Which triggered a similar scream from me!  And together, like two coyotes under a full moon, we howled and wailed and cried until our real hero, our real role model, Dad, came into the room.

“Boys!” he shouted—mainly to get our attention.  Then, “boys!” he said, much more calmly; “I don’t know what went down with you and Donny today.  But I don’t have to.  I’m here.  I love you.  And if you need anything, just come get me.”

Peace, he’d said; be still.

Isn’t today’s word from God the same for us?  You might be in a sure and certain place today.  And if so, great!  Enjoy it!  You won’t always be in such a desired place.

Some of you, however, perhaps more of you, are not in such a certain and sure place.  You might be experiencing some joy and wonderment; but also some disbelief.  You might even find yourselves skeptical.

Others of you, probably a few, don’t believe at all right now.  You look around at the world and wonder how a god could even exist.

The truth is, we go back and forth between these places.  It’s a natural part of faith.  But we find it unsettling, unstable, insecure.  And, like that guy in the story who meets Jesus, in the very same breath we say, “Lord, I believe!  Help me in my unbelief!”

Peace!  Be still!  Jesus came and stood among his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”  Peace—not stability, not security, but peace—be with you.