Witchelder

It did seem odd bringing a witch to a denominational meeting. Not as odd as having Jo serving as an Elder in our church, but still odd enough. Serving two small congregations, sometimes a witch is what is offered in terms of spiritual leadership. We go with the horses we’ve got. These are matters not fully anticipated in church polity courses. So off we went, she cheerful as usual, and I was relieved she was not wearing the outfit I saw her in last Halloween.

Last Halloween, a big day for witches, Jo flowed into my office to discuss an assignment I gave her in preparation for the Advent season. Jo’s a fine poet, and an accomplished public reader of poetry. She is tall, statuesque, sensual, and wears long, grey hair down her back. She is a riveting figure and uses her body as she recites verse from memory, inhabiting the poem, the words now alive in her flesh.

I’d like to see her on a broom.

She glided into the office, wearing a wispy black cape, very haute couture Wicca, carrying a sheaf of papers. Fifteen poems. We needed to select one for each Sunday of Advent and one more for Christmas Eve. I offered a small, silent, but earnest prayer: “Please Lord, no boil, boil, toil and trouble.”

May I read them to you?

I leaned back, shut my eyes and listened to Jo recite fifteen poems. Herbert. Lewis. Becheman. Chesterton. Wendell Berry. Auden. Levertov. It went on and on, a feast of verse perfectly articulated, Jo breathing life into each one. She had rehearsed them over and over until stirred smooth, a Christmas cantation. She went on, comparing each poem with the lectionary readings for each Sunday.

I think this one fits with these readings, what do you think?

We compared the texts with verse. We read parts over. We raked the scriptures. A cauldron of interpretation. We came up with five. Jo memorized the poems and delivered them at the beginning of each worship service, dropdead perfect.

Two months later, the nominating committee offered her name for Elder. I knew a phone call would be coming my way, and the next day Jo called. “Hey Thom, let me ask you, do witches often serve as Elders?” I imagined Jo serving holy communion in her best goto- meetin’ Halloween outfit. I imagined having to lift the coverings for the bread, to make sure that bread was not replaced with spleen of newt. I winced thinking of the greeting: the peace of Isis be with you.

I am going straight to hell for this one.

I cleared my throat: Jo, we serve Christ, who we believe to be Lord over all powers and dominions. How about that? And Elders serve the congregation as Christ. Can you do such a thing?

Imagine my relief when Jo told me she was a low-church witch. Imagine my relief when she told me of her concerns about the Council of Nicea, especially Constantine meddling in the formation of the Creed. Imagine my relief when she spoke about her aversion to patrimony and chauvinism, that the feminine had been amputated from Christianity. Imagine my relief when she spoke about the scriptures as living stories.

I do believe that Jesus rises above all these matters. We have used him for our own power and purposes. He seems above all that, and somehow, he lives. As much as I’m able, I will serve.

I consider the Witch of Endor. I consider Namaan, kneeling next to his emperor in prayer to lesser gods. I consider the Magi, seeking the Christ child with a little help from the occult. I think of other Elders who are Free Masons, with strange hats and handshakes. I think of Elders, ex-Marines, who greet their fellow Marines with “Semper Fi.” I think of Elders who pledge allegiance to the American flag. I think of Elders selling me Focus on the Family, and me wondering if there is a single family in the Bible I would voluntarily join. I think of my own syncretisms, like invisible barnacles on my heart and mind, and impossible to dislodge on my own. Heaven help us all.

Christ rises above all that. Somehow he lives. As much as I’m able, I will serve as Christ to the church. It is a long way from saying the sinner’s prayer in Whitehall, Michigan. It is a long way from goose-stepping through the world of evangelical Christianity. This wild world I have entered, inhabited, haunted by an equally wild God, untethered and on the loose–I so often grope to understand it, though I am learning to see God working in strange places and altogether stranger mediums.

Maybe poetry will save us in the end, matching it with the scriptures. Maybe words inhabiting us will pry the barnacles off, one at a time. Maybe poetry stirred from the human heart, folded in with the scriptures, the lyric of God–maybe there we shall find our fine and full distinction. And we will belong to God wholly; wholly bewitched by his grace and wisdom, even amid our toils and troubles.

Thom Fiet is pastor of the Reformed Dutch Church of Hyde Park in Hyde Park, New York and the Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, New York.