Ah! The Power of Prayer, Part 7: Why the Haunted House Is Always Empty

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Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Community Church Phoenix, Ariz.

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bring to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. (Mark 2:1-4)

When I was a child growing up in St. Louis, there was a house on the corner of our street. All the kids in the neighborhood knew to stay away from this house. No one lived there and it had been empty for a very long time. Over the years, all of the children in the neighborhood came to understand that this house was haunted. What we lacked for in information, we made up for in imagination. We told stories of how someone had cut people’s heads off and they were still there, so if you opened the cupboards or went into the refrigerator you would find them. Everyone stayed away from that house. I must have been about ten years old when the house was torn down and even today, I can’t tell you why the house stayed vacant all those years or what was going on. However, as a child, I just knew that house was haunted.

There are serious stories about houses that are haunted. How many of us remember stories such as “Amityville Horror”? Then there are less-than-serious ones like “Haunted Honeymoon,” one of my favorites or “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken”? In the lighter fare, we are always trying to get someone to live in a haunted house even though no one wants to live there. I am led to believe that people love ghost stories but I wonder why? Are our imaginations captured by the past or is it just more frightening to consider the future?

In this part of the series we discover why the haunted house is always empty. We continue on through our journey of AhhhÖThe Power of Prayer. The power of prayer to connect to our roots, our source, our selves, to connect to others, to commune with the Cosmos. The power of prayer as the art of healing, the willing of good and then as doing of good. In this part of the series, we will explore the making of peace with our path or with our past.

In our story, from the book “Who Moved My Cheese,” we left the two mice, Sniff and Scurry, searching for new cheese. They had left cheese-less Station C because they had discovered that there was no more cheese there; it was gone. They got their hips in motion and scurried off to find new cheese. Hem and Haw, the two little people, were left standing in cheese-less Station C with Haw dazed and confused and Hem standing, hand on hip screaming, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

The mice, obviously practitioners of Buddhism, quickly realized that everything changes and so the mice moved on. The two little people, obviously singers of the hymn “I Shall Not Be Moved,” remained. They did not budge an inch and there is a reason why. You see, for the mice, cheese was what fed life. Period! On the other hand, the little people took something very simple. The fact that cheese feeds our life or whatever feeds our life, and they built doctrines around it and called this the ëholy cheese’ and that the unholy cheese and built walls around it and said, “This is what you use on this occasion and this is what you use on that occasion. They looked at cheese in very different ways. Haw discovered a simple truth and wrote it on the wall:

“The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold onto it.”

They took it to the level as if to say, if we invest ourselves in something, we want to hold onto it that much more.

The next day they came back, left their homes like normal, they got to Cheese Station C and found that nothing had changed from the day before except that there was no cheese.

Finally Haw opened his eyes, looked around and said “By the way, where are Sniff and Scurry? Do you think they know something we don’t? I know we’re smarter,” Haw said, “but we don’t seem to be acting smarter at the moment. Things are changing around here, Hem. Maybe we need to change and do things differently.”

You see, Hem and Haw are busy analyzing, while Sniff and Scurry are busy finding the food that feeds their lives. (Sometimes we take something that is really simple and make it so complicated. We’re very good at that.) But sometimes Haw would imagine finding new cheese. Day after day they went through the routine of arriving at Cheese Station C, find no cheese, get upset, get depressed, get everything BUT over it! However, every once-in-awhile Haw would stop and think:

“What would it really be like if I found new cheese? It would be an adventure. It would be fun. It would stop making me so hungry.”

Finally Haw decides he’s had enough of sitting around and waiting for things to change. He stops and he laughed at himself. The first trick to doing anything is the ability to laugh at yourself. It means that you CAN retire hymns when they should get retired! Haw, however, was a good and faithful friend of Hem’s and tried to convince Hem to let go, move on, do things differently, but Hem held out. Either his attachment to the past or his fear of the future, which may be the same thing, held him hostage. Listen to what it says:

“You don’t get it,” Haw said. “I didn’t want to see it either, but now I realize they’re never going to put yesterday’s Cheese back. It’s time to find New Cheese.” Hem argued, “But what if there is no Cheese out there? Or even if there is, what if you don’t find it?” Haw said, “Sometimes, Hem, things change and they are never the same again. This looks like one of those times. That’s life! Life moves on. And so should we.”

Haw finally realized it! Life moves on. Life moves on, with or without you but life moves on. Laughing, Haw drew another sign and he drew it so that Hem could stare at it and reflect on it and take it in.

“If you do not change, you can become extinct.”

In our Gospel lesson Jesus returns to Capernaum where he is living. When he gets there, people hear that he’s back and they come to him. They surround the house creating a huge crowd who are asking him to talk and teach and pray with them. While they are there, there are four friends. They ARE the four friends of Hem. They bring their friend who is paralyzed to Jesus. Understand the metaphor? They try to get through the front door and they can’t because the crowd is too great. So these guys become creative, imaginative “cheese-finders.” They go up to the top of the roof and they disassemble it and lower their friend down in front of Jesus and stop everything. Having seen their faith, Jesus said to the one who is paralyzed, “My child, your sins are forgiven.” There were some religious people there who thought that things ought not change and they didn’t like the idea that Jesus had said to this person “Your sins are forgiven you.” So they said, “Who do you think you are to forgive sins?” So, Jesus responds to them saying, “Which is easier to say to someone? Your sins are forgiven or rise, take up your pallet and walk home?” And they said, “We don’t know.” Then Jesus said, “Just so you know, that the forgiving of sins isn’t a hard thing, I will say, ‘Take up your pallet and walk.'” So the man took up his pallet and walked home.

What on earth was Jesus saying to the paralyzed man? Was he saying, “Okay, your sick because you’re a sinner?” Well, if that’s what you want to believe then this sermon isn’t going to help you anyway. Maybe sin isn’t what we think it is. Maybe sin isn’t screwing up. Heaven knows there aren’t any of us who haven’t been there. Maybe sin isn’t making mistakes. Maybe sin isn’t even doing the wrong thing. Maybe sin is NEVER LETTING GO OF IT; of never letting yourself be different, or move on or letting yourself change.

And maybe forgiveness isn’t like saying, “Well, sure you made a mistake, oops, we wiped it out. It isn’t a mistake anymore.” It’s STILL a mistake. There are relationships that I have had that were a mistake. And all the “forgive me’s” and “I forgive you’s” in the world will not change that it was a poor decision, poor choice. They happen. Maybe forgiveness isn’t wiping that mistake away, but embracing it and moving on from it. Maybe forgiveness is the ability to change.

I have no clue what may have been wrong with that paralyzed man. I have no clue what he suffered from. Obviously Jesus intuited that this man was paralyzed by his past. That the real problem lay, not in some physical ailment but in the fact that he was bound, paralyzed, by something that he wasn’t letting himself be free of! Humans have the ability to be bound – to be paralyzed by the past. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t real illness in the world, for certainly there is, but people can be bound by their past. They also have the ability to gain release from their past. If you have the ability to screw up, you have the ability to do something right. Now there’s forgiveness.

“Haw decided that changing was better than becoming extinct. Haw stuck his head out and stared anxiously into the maze. He thought about how he’d gotten himself into this cheese-less situation. He had believed that there may not be any Cheese in the maze, or that he may not find it. Such fearful beliefs were immobilizing and killing him.”

Holding onto the past, whatever that past is, fearing that you may not be able to do something different, make a change immobilizes you. Let me say it this way: fearing the future immobilizes you and if you allow it to immobilize you, it will ultimately kill you. I do believe that the reason that heart disease is far more prevalent in the U.S. than in any other place where the food has more fat content and where they are not “health conscious,” has so much more to do with our internal way of living than our external way of living. The ways we live that out is where we allow fear to immobilize us. So many times I would like to say to people who tell me how bad their jobs are, “If it’s that bad for you, get a different job!”

My favorite complaint is churches. There are people who are still complaining about 4 churches ago. Trust me. I hear it. Let it go! God does care about what hurts us but not in order to help us keep on hurting. Rather it is to encourage us to incorporate the loss and move on. And that, is what prayer is. Prayer is incorporating your life – the good, the bad, the choices, the right, the wrong, the indifferent and walking on. Prayer is making peace with the path you have traveled. The past that is yours, you can’t change it. Instead, embrace it and go on.

I remember after I left the Assemblies of God, a church I was a deep part of ever since I was 2 weeks old. For years after I realized that my church didn’t want me I was angry with them. I wanted to hate them. And finally one day I arrived at a place where I said, “You know what? They’re not perfect, so how can I dare not forgive them.” Boy did that help me. I’m not perfect either, so one day I sat down and wrote a letter to them. I forgave them for the ways they had failed me, I asked them to forgive me for the ways I had failed them. I said, “This is where I have come from but it is not where I am going.” Blessed be! I moved on!

Surely by now you know why the haunted house is always empty. Only the past can be alive in a haunted house, not your future. Only your past, nothing about living or about being alive is there, even if you believe that the dead inhabit houses. Even if they do, we hear that they are trying to hold onto what is already gone. Don’t follow that. You see there is no greater empty pursuit than trying to hold on to what is already gone. It’s an empty pursuit.

Haw became more anxious and wondered if he really wanted to go out into the maze. He wrote a saying on the way ahead of him and stared at it for some time. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

What would you do? How different might your life be? Where would you go? The haunted house is always empty because it’s a place where ghosts of the past are in control. Whether that is in your heart, your life, your mind, it doesn’t matter because if the ghosts of the past are in control you will not arrive at your future. If you are haunted by your past, you can never become fully alive in the present.

Prayer, as Jesus shows us, is making peace with your past, peace with your path, peace with the choices you have made and embracing your life today. It is learning to incorporate all that has been that you might journey to all that is today. I encourage you to pray deeply. Do you know how? I encourage you, in this moment, to confront the ghosts of your past, the good and the bad, then pack your bags, set a moving day and do so. Let haunted houses remain what they should be – a part of the past.

Amen, Shalom, and Blessed Be.

Indented paragraphs are excerpts from pages 34-48 of “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson, M.D.