The Things We Carry: A Spiritual Reflection on Life With Ghosts

Hosue

Life with Ghosts

Last night Emily and I started to watch “One Punk Under God,” a documentary about Jay Bakker. Jay is the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. I’ve been interested in finding out more on Jay as we had a friend who worked with Jay’s ministry, Revolution, for the past couple years. This reminded me of how the things we carry, emotionally and physically, shape us and tell something about who we are.

It’s easy to see, through the eyes of the documentary, that Jay carries a lot. Part of the premise of the show is to point out the difficulty he’s had in finding an identity as both, Jim and Tammy’s son and apart from them. In the first two episodes we learn that he rebelled (largely because of the scandal that surrounded his father and mother) and that this rebellion brought him back to ministry with new insights. And that in some way he displays hope in both bringing people to Christ, while redeeming his family name.

This made me reflect on both the negative and positive aspects of the things we carry from our family, friends, churches, communities, schools, etc and how they often motivate the choices we make in life.

The Things They Carried

While I was at Malone working on my Bachelor’s in theology I took a class on Vietnam literature (with one of my favorite professors!). There was one book in that class that really had an effect on me called, “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien. I love this book partly because of how engaging the stories were, and partly because of the reflections it caused.

The book is a bunch of short stories about a group of American soliders in Vietnam, and the “Things They Carried.” O’Brien uses the title as a device for describing various aspects of his main characters, often times in very moving ways. Here are a few excerpts:

“What they carried varied by mission.”

“On ambush, or other night missions, they carried peculiar little odds and ends. Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence. Dave Jensen carried night-sight vitamins high in carotene. Lee Strunk carried his slingshot; ammo, he claimed, would never be a problem. Rat Kiley carried brandy and M&M’s candy. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried the star light scope, which weighed 6.3 pounds with its aluminum carrying case. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s panty hose wrapped around his neck as a comforter. They all carried ghosts (9-10).”

We all carry ghosts.
While it may be easy to see how our public figures, or figures lodged in a vibrant and gritty story about fear, love and war, carry baggage with them in their most vulnerable moments, often it is much harder to spot those unseen, sometimes dead, things the rest of us lug around.

The Things You and I Carry

What I like about O’Brien’s account is that it takes a look at both the physical, as well as the emotional, things we carry. If you were to stop me on the road, you could pick through my bag, pockets, coat, flip through the songs on my MP3 player, etc and learn a lot about me. What if I was to be described by the physical objects I carry around with me? Would I like being described that way? What would it tell you about me? The things I value, the things I want to be valued for?

Often the much harder question is, “What are the ghosts, and the emotional baggage we carry?”

“They carried shameful memories.”

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing –these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight (21).”

We too bear tangible weight from emotional baggage.

While we try to cover up our inner-selves by those outer physical things we carry, it’s often the emotional stuff that helps to explain who we our more clearly. No doubt the physical things we carry, our clothes, shoes, bags, computers, make-up, hair-do’s, and all the trinkets work to shape us in a very specific ways; I wear these clothes so I can be “all right” to a certain group, I carry these trinkets to remind me of something better, I like certain brands because of how it makes me look to others, I listen to this kind of music so people will like me.

But the memories, the ghosts, and all that baggage make more sense of the things that have shaped our innermost parts.

We cut straight to the heart of this when we reflect on the inner burdens we carry. Specifically, some of the things I carry are: my continually concern to try and be accepted by others, the divorce of my parents when I was one, my stepfather’s suicide a few years back, my many insecurities about who I really am, my competitive nature with myself, and this list could go on. The point is that we carry things not easily recognizable, or recognizable only to a few people, and it’s these things that often really explain who we are and what makes us tick.

Bricks From Our Past

Stackofbricks

About four years ago when I was still a youth pastor we did an activity with the youth one evening. We talked about similar topics, the burdens we carry – some burdens have been put on us by other people, abuse, hatred, neglect, unforgiveness, etc. We talked about that stuff, what does it mean to have people put burdens on you, without you having any choice in the matter?

We also talked about how we put burdens on ourselves. The kinds of sins we commit, the kinds of choices we make, how we feel about ourselves. Then there is the fact that we are guilty of hurting others, and these things weigh us down as well.

After discussing all this we each took some time to reflect on the meaning of all this in light of God’s love and grace. When we were all ready we each took a brick from the back of the room (they were moved down to the basement for the activity), and carried it up to the front where we had set up a cross. While it was a simple activity, it helped to put something tangible in our hands and set that weight down in front of the cross.

Conclusion: Letting Go Is Re-Orientation

We talk a lot about “letting go” but it’s hard to do, and sometimes impossible. I am not so sure we ever really let go of some things, or that we can ever get rid of certain memories.

Memories can’t be erased, especially not the really hard ones.

In the Gospels we Christ helping those people he comes in contact with to deal with their problems by re-situating them in a new role within his kingdom. You are no longer defined by the things the world puts on you, you are defined by being a part of God’s kingdom. Jesus helps carry burdens, he shares in the pain and brokenness we experience and redefines our orientation to those things that once oppressed us.

The community of Christ is the only place where these burdens get properly cared for because we are not only willing to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, but in doing so we help remind those in need of their new role within the kingdom of God. We are the ones who are responsible to continue to bear others burdens. Living in community with other Christians needs to take on this communal aspect. Together we pick up those bricks and carry them to the foot of the cross.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” Galatians 6:2-3

It is true for Jay Bakker and O’Brien’s life-like characters that we carry these ghosts with us and struggle to realize our true selves in light of them, and it is true for us.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.??? Matthew 11:29-30

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

7 thoughts on “The Things We Carry: A Spiritual Reflection on Life With Ghosts”

  1. Great post. I had a very interesting experience this weekend that reminded me how much we carry with us and how careful we have to be about how our past shapes our legacy.

    Also – I like the headers. Good mod.

  2. As a vietnam vet and now a Quaker who has read Tim o’briens book, your post really gives me pause. I guess that mostly I don’t see the ghosts unless I stand still and look, for the most part that is the way it should be. A person is who they are because of the Ghosts.
    You can chase them away but then thats who you become.

    Ohh well-Lifes great
    Peace

  3. @Chris – you never know when these things sneak up on you, It’s a thought I’ve returned to a lot, but wasn’t ready for it while we were watching that show.

    I am glad you like the mod! 😉

    @gmc – thanks for the comment, you’re right it’s only when we stop to reflect that we can pick these things up. Wow, a Vet and a Quaker, I would love to hear some of your story (you should email me if you have any interest in sharing it).

  4. That is so funny that you just began watching it. I recently started DVRing it for Rachel and I to watch. I am strangely attracted to the show. I definitely agree with your thoughts and have spent sometime reflecting on my own ghosts. Especially those that involve my faith. Also, it is great to see Matt B. on there every now and then.

  5. Nice post.
    I don’t know what it is exactly but it just feels simple, clear and honest. Elegant and full of thought. Nicely written.

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