In September 2012 and again in February 2013 I, along with a United Methodist clergy friend, were teaching a short course, two different groups of participants each year, in theology, doctrine, and practice with local pastors of the United Methodists Church in Nakuru, Kenya. For me, it was four weeks of some of the very best ministry I have ever completed. It fed my soul. I learned so much from the men and women in these two courses.
One of the unforgettable experiences in a class discussion (there were several of these experiences) where we were reviewing the United Methodist Church Book of Worship (each participant received a copy) was when we were discussing the order of worship for All Saints Sunday. Most of the participants spoke excellent English, and we did have a translator as neither of us speak Swahili. Most of the course participants had an eighth grade level education as that is the completion of free public education. We had a lot to teach in a short amount of time that had to be taught at an eighth grade level. A question from one of the pastors while I was reviewing the ways All Saints Sunday was practiced in the U.S. was,”During this worship service, are people conversing with the spirits of the dead?” Whoah…hold up…what? Of course, I quickly dismissed this and replied, “No. That is not the intention, practice, purpose, or teaching that takes place in an All Saints Sunday service.” Class participants were eager to explain that in Kenya cultural practice and in some churches people do believe that you can communicate with the spirit of the dead. That it is not supported or taught in the United Methodist congregations, however, it was a practice that still occurred so they were somewhat concerned about exactly what this service was about.
When I saw this book title, it took me right back to that class session in Nakuru, Kenya and the question that I think I too quickly dismissed. Yet, I know full well that within the “institution of the church” I would be labeled a heretic, for certain, if I did teach, preach, and practice communicating with the spirit of dead people. I also am fully aware of the numerous people who have carefully and cautiously in one-on-one private and confidential pastoral care conversations trusted me with experiences they have had of seeing, hearing, and knowing that a dead loved one was near them and always with them. Never did I “correct” them or tell them that it was impossible for what they experienced to be what they said they experienced. In fact, I believed each and everyone of the compelling and real experiences they each shared with me. After all, I too, have had my own experiences of being with, hearing, and knowing that my dead mother, father, and former ex-husband have been present with me at times since their death.
Bob Doto gives some very specific ways that the spirit world can be accessed for good and necessary faith maturity and growth. He writes, “…the Holy Spirit is not the only spirit mentioned in the Bible. A plurality of spirits can be found around every corner in the New Testament. The epistles, written by some of the earliest members of the forming Christ community, made explicit statements about both ‘testing the spirits’ (plural), as well as how to best manage situations when more than one person was being possessed by spirits (again, plural). Jesus repeatedly removes impure spirits (plural) from people, while Paul states that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the ability to distinguish between spirits (again, plural).” Doto also states that “…divine intervention [belief in intercession from the unseen world] tends to take a back seat in capitalist societies.” My experience with my Kenyan brother and sister ministers in the two courses we taught certainly confirmed that I trusted more in my own abilities and resources far much more than they did–of course their resources were far from my economic lifestyle in the U.S. where I received a salary for my ministry work and most of them received very little if any compensation for their ministry work. They trusted the Divine One to provide for them much more than I trusted.
Again, Doto writes, “The biblical world was rife with spirit. The stuff was everywhere. Spirits began their lives inside humans, fawn, and fauna, but when their hosts passed away or dried up, they found new places to hide. They spread out, seeping into every available nook and cranny. In an effort to establish some sense of sanity, idols, cemeteries, and shrines were set up as domiciles for these wayfaring entities. The hope was that they’d behave and stay put. But, this was rarely the case. Spirts would regularly escape, and latch on to unwitting people. Those who could handle the stowaways would go on to become inspired prophets and poets. Others would simply go mad.” Hmmmm…when you read the Bible you are confounded by this truth.
Two thousand years ago to be considered a spiritual person, the author writes, as that description was then understood, meant that you were in direct communication with the Spirit of God. It would have meant that this Spirit had come into your midst, and that you were displaying the very visible effects of that Spirit’s presence. Further, Doto, also writes that when Paul describes someone as spiritual (pneumatikos in Greek), he is referring to people whose life and thought are characterized by Holy Spirit. To Paul, to be a spiritual person meant you were in direct communion with the Holy Spirit, as promised by Jesus, the Risen Christ, as gifted by God.
As Doto clearly believes, “Perhaps, as is so often the case, we need to look back in order to move forward.” I can say that after reading Bob Doto’s book, I am better able to hold to a realization that when we say there is a cloud of witnesses around us who have gone before us to eternity, I can more comfortably live with the real experiences I and others have had with the spirits who make up that cloud of witnesses. Reading this book will give you much to reflect upon.