Good heavens, Thursday already -- how did that happen? This week we're looking at a question that has already had some discussion in our Facebook format -- how do we view, and how do we respond to, mediums, psychics, spiritualists, and "all that lot"? (What about the minor manifestations of such a worldview -- horoscopes, fortune-tellers, an so on?) And what do we base our responses upon, when we need to share them? How is that to be done, best? We have two very meaty responses to this whole area of uncertainty -- feel free to add your own!
Here's our question:
As both a bereaved mother and a pastor, I have a LOT of conversations with parents who have lost children, as well as with people who have experienced other losses.
Recently, one of my friends shared with a group of bereaved moms some information she had about a person who claims to be some sort of medium, someone who communicates with the dead. I Googled him and learned that he is famous in his field and offers his services for $1200 an hour. (Another RevGal suggested to me that we could make a mint in this line of work)
I can see why parents are drawn to him. The communiques he claims to have received from their children say exactly the kinds of things we would all like to believe, and have the potential to be of great comfort to people who have been consigned to a lifetime without those most precious to them. In addition, many people who have lost loved ones find that they have great spiritual needs. If they have no spiritual community to start with, they are open to just about anything that promises hope. And many who do have spiritual homes find them to be inadequate to the realities of loss, so they, too, are grasping for lifelines.
I am guessing that this is not the last time I will encounter this sort of thing. I was surprised by how strongly I felt in response, to the effect that something evil was afoot. I was also surprised to discover, in the FB discussion, that in some cultures communication through mediums would be viewed as a perfectly legitimate response to loss.
Of course, I did not want to hurt a friend who has already been so very hurt by the loss of her child, and I could not even put my finger on the source of my dismay anyway. I would really like to be more knowledgeable, and better able to offer alternatives to what I believe are false promises of venues of communication.
Our first response picks up on the cultural context of such practices --
It is not for nuthin' that most clergy--especially women--are NF's on the Myers-Briggs. We tend to intuit things rather than take in our knowledge through our senses. Pay attention to those feelings. If it feels evil it most likely is. I understand your desire not to upset others. ... And I think that is wise. But I think that those alerts you are feeling are probably worth respecting.
I knew a psychic in the area of my last parish. He had tried to go through our denominational process towards ordination but the commission refused him because he was a psychic. On the other hand, he does not charge for his psychic work and has been very helpful to the police in our area. He started a church of his own and ... is well-respected in the communities there. I do not know how he knows what he knows but he sees it as a gift from God. And while I do not understand his gift, he never gave me that feeling of "beware" that you obviously have. He was a good colleague.
I always hold such issues with a grain of salt. But when large fees are involved, my first instinct is that this is a scam. It might be worthwhile to check with law enforcement to see if there are any previous problems with this "medium."
I don't mind horoscopes or other "parlor" games as they used to be called. But when we allow such auguries to command us, or interfere with trusting God over the care of a loved one, then I would recommend against it. This would always be on a case-by-case situation; it would also depend upon the culture in which I was working. Different cultures address the spirit world differently from most Christians (e.g. First Nation peoples, Latinos, and especially Caribbean peoples). Respecting those customs without prejudice may help in the ministry you are doing.
Not having children, I can't even imagine what that loss is like. But I think that we fool ourselves when we think that we can control God or the Spirit to salve that grief, and that is basically what such methods are doing. Prayer calls us to be changed--not just "get what we want." Often the grief that we experience with the loss of a deeply love one can tempt us to think that we can manipulate God or even those who have gone before us. What I would recommend is asking God what God would have you learn that might help. I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT A CHILD DIES SO THAT THE PARENT CAN LEARN; please be clear on that! But when something happens, I believe it is a call from God for us to examine our trust and love of the Holy One.
Know that I am with you and the parents you work with and among in prayer. And thank you for sharing this.
Muthah+ (blogging at Stone of Witness)
And here's our second take on the problem:
C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors. The journel he kept after is wife's death is perhaps one of the clearest descriptions of grief that I have ever read. One of the many powerful images he uses is that "the death of a beloved is like an amputation." In response to his well-meaning friends, he writes,
Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he's had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he'll get back his strength an be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has "got over it." But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, an perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again. -- C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.
In the face of such despair, it is not surprising that a grieving parent would search for something to ease the pain. However, I share your discomfort at the idea of hiring a psychic. Rather than continuing to do very difficult grief work, the medium provides a way for the bereaved to try and reconstruct a relationship broken by death. If you think that this man is running a scam, then this is the very saddest of tricks, playing on the emotions of a grieving parent. If you believe that this man can really do what he claims, I still don't think it is a healthy way to work through the grief process.
Of course, if you care about your friend and your relationship at all, abruptly telling them they're in denial and being hoodwinked is probably a lousy idea. One could come up with a variety of theological or scriptural references to argue against horoscopes and mediums and tea-leaf readings, but to use those arguments in the face of a mother's grief seems insensitive at best.
To me, the compassionate and pastoral task you have set before us requires asking why someone would take this route? What do they hope to achieve? Will this medium really be able to provide them with what they need? Or is there a better way to deal with the loss of their loved one?
I guess I wouldn't spend too much time trying to tear down the reputation of the psychic. It could backfire in so many ways. Instead, can you come at the situation with your best tools and hopefully your friend will choose to work through the grief process rather than trying to evade it.
RevHRod, blogging at You don't have to listen. I just like to talk
And now -- what has YOUR experience been? Have you a way to respond to the truth-claims of psychics and mediums? What are your resources? We'd love to hear.
As always, your own questions and puzzlements are warmly appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.