When I was 18 years old, I witnessed an exorcism.
Well, sort of. I wasn’t present for the exorcism itself, but I was around for nearly everything leading up to it. I was at my bible camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I’d graduated high school a couple of weeks prior and was in the midst of wrestling with what God was calling me to do. I was going to speak to the whole camp on Thursday night about God’s calling in my life. But I never got that chance.
During the open mic on Thursday night, where students could come up and request prayer for their various struggles and tribulations in their lives, this kid from a small town in South Dakota walked slowly and quietly up to the mic. He said something that didn’t make any sense, and it seemed like he was seriously struggling. The kid had been acting weird all week, asking questions about the occult and witches, and generally making everyone give him the side-eye.
Our camp speaker noticed that something was going on with this kid, and approached him while he was standing in front of all of us. And that’s when it happened – the kid swung at our speaker, an uncapped pen in hand, attempting to stab him. The speaker wrestled the student to the ground and several other pastors came running up to the front. The kid began screaming and speaking in a strange, low voice, saying things about how God would not win.
I was no more than six feet away. I saw this kid push away six men who should have been able to restrain him. I heard the voice that came out of him. I could feel, deep in my bones, that something supernatural was happening in that room.
I was rooted to my seat, unable to do anything but pray, continually asking God for help. I heard a friend shouting for God’s protection. I’m told this friend was speaking in tongues, but it sounded like English to me. The kid on the floor continued to fight and writhe for the better part of an hour. Most of the chapel had cleared out by that point, and students were gathered around the building, praying and singing worship songs. It was a good forty minutes before I was able to stop crying and praying long enough to stand up and walk out of the chapel myself.
The entire camp was shell-shocked. We all regrouped in the dining hall, where our pastors explained to us their understanding of what was happening and that the kid would be going home soon. The next morning, the kid was gone – his parents and one of their pastors had come out, performed an exorcism, and took him home. According to the pastors who were present for the actual exorcism, it was quite a fight. There was vomit and shouting and sickness, but the kid, in the end, was all right.
This is an experience I am as sure of as I am of my own birthday. But I don’t know how to place this experience within my broader life. Throughout college, this supernatural moment defined much of my life. I drew closer to God, convinced of God’s existence and reality because of what I had seen and heard that Thursday in June. I more readily accepted the idea of actual evil forces in the world and the actions of the Holy Spirit in the world. To some extent, this event is a part of what still anchors me to Christian belief and the belief in a eschatological goodness that bends the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
But as I’ve grown older, traveled more, matured in my theology, I’ve become less and less sure about this experience’s place in my life. It’s an anomaly, an event that, if I heard about it from someone else, I’d approach it with skepticism. And it’s entirely possible that it was a planned event, a conspiratorial “possession” engineered by cynical pastors. Except that I knew and know my youth pastor well enough to know that his sincerity would never allow him to participate in something as blatantly deceptive as that.
Talking about it makes people think I’m legitimately insane, and I understand that reading. But I have to face the facts that there are parts of my life that genuinely cannot be placed into any reasonable context.
So much of our perception of ourselves is built out of the idea that we’re playing out this larger story, that we have a neat little narrative we can fit our lives into. X leads to Y leads to Z. But sometimes, there are events and things that are so out of character, out of the blue, that our entire neat little narrative gets disrupted and thrown off track.
These disruptions, for me, are a reminder of how necessary grace is. No one person fits into the neat little narratives we tell about them, just as I don’t fit into my own narrative about my life. We are, all of us, so much bigger and so much more than merely the sum of our parts or one blog post or even one book. We are, all of us, creations of God, sustained and beloved and complex, just as God created us to be.