Kathryn Tucker Windham died a while back (Southern for sometime in the last year, but I don't remember the exact date). First, she was an Alabamian, one of the many voices from that state (my home state) that took the common Southern past-time of story telling (or tale tellin') and lifted it to a true art form. Her best-known stories involved ghosts. Jeffery was her own personal ghost. She also kept the coffin in which she was buried in a shed in her back yard. What seems eccentric in other parts of the country are simply charming quirks in the deep South. An impact of the heat and humidity and fried chicken, perhaps.
Or perhaps what seems quirky to some is simply unabashed honesty. After all, ghost stories aren't original to the South. Or to the North or any direction in the United States. They appear in all countries in folklore and campfire tales and even the Bible. Ghosts, their stories or even the idea that they might exist, scare us, especially when it's after midnight and the dog suddenly stands up from a dead sleep and growls at nothing. My grandmother spoke of ghosts as annoying family members with a penchant for flipping lights on and off. Sure, the thought that I could suddenly see a shimmery figure of a person who is there one second and gone the next is disconcerting (okay, terrifying).
But maybe something else that unnerves us about ghosts is the idea that the spaces we live in or work in had a life before us. Within the walls where we live and work, life went forward in its mundane elegance. There are names on memorials of stained glass of stories of loss in wars that we did not experience first-hand. There are carvings on the backs of pews from a young boy who used his grandfather's pen knife during boring sermons that just look like nicks and scratches to our eyes. There are stories, many stories, that we don't know when we arrive about a space, its windows and floors and furniture and its very life, that we can hear. Or fearfully ignore.
I speak mainly here of churches, because clergy have a particularly bad habit of thinking that between Jesus and themselves, nothing memorable happened in the history of the church. That wherever we are wasn't really as wonderful or as amazing as it is with the advent of our presence. What a downer to realize it's not. That whatever ideas we bring, whatever sermons we preach or decorating ideas we have, we are simply another part of the story.
One of the key gifts the Bible gives us is that of story - that long before King Solomon, Deborah the judge had good sense in Israel. Long before Mary sang the Magnificat, Hannah sang her song magnifying the Lord. Long before we had the newest idea about church growth, God stood over us, hands on hips, and uttered the line from Job: "Where were YOU when I created the heavens and the earth?"
Yes, we in the church can let the ghosts of our parishes haunt us. We can let the ghosts of the past be the thing we talk about ("remember when...") or the whispy veil that limits our vision of the future and what part of the story we can write. We can let the walls and furniture stand as the only story of our faith community, letting the stories of our past be the only thing that matters. Not much of a life-giving experience to go to church in a museum.
But not very life-giving, either, to go to church in a place without ghosts, where the stories and spirits of the life before has been eradicated by ignoring their voices. Ghosts, as Ms. Windham might opine, give land and buildings and homes a life beyond just the wood and windows and doors. Whether they are factual or not doesn't matter; their stories matter. Southern ghost stories are often meandering tales of men, women, and children looking out from their present and reaching into our world to remind us that the world existed before we arrived. People dreamed and loved and cried in spaces that had life. Our presence doesn't do anything but simply add another chapter to an unending story.
And what a wonderful, rich gift that is - to be important enough to add our chapters to the story.