JOE LAGUARDIA: Churches can be haunted by the ghostly baggage of past conflict

When I was trying to think of something patriotic to write about for the Fourth of July week, I couldn't think of anything specific.

Sure, I considered writing about the separation of church and state -- a Baptist thing to do if there ever was one -- but I thought (being a good Southern Yankee and all) why rock the boat?

Instead, what kept haunting me (no pun intended) was all of the ghost stories I've heard (and told) related to the founding of our nation. Go to any historic town in our nation, from Savannah to Salem, and you can take a ghost tour and hear about some pilgrim ghost child running amuck in the local watering holes.

Ghouls and goblins keep coming to mind because I have a thing for ghosts, always have. No wonder, then, that whenever youth stay at the church for a lock-in or some special nightly event I remind them of the ghosts that live at Trinity Baptist.

The youth know them well by now: ghosts unlock impossible-to-reach windows, make noises that go bump in the night, and snatch video games or TV cables from the game room.

One time, when I was walking through the church at night with my daughter, she asked whether the ghosts are real. I told her that the ghosts at Trinity are no more real than the ghosts in Savannah and, like any good story, my ghost stories are mostly pretend but have some element of truth to them.

I explained to her that the only ghosts in our church -- and churches all across America -- are the remnants of relationships, situations, crises, and legacies that have affected the life of the church over the years.

Your church is no exception; each church has its own baggage, its own ghosts, so to speak.

Truth is that, although such ghosts don't steal video games, many of them appear as old hurts and conflicts that end up rearing their ugly heads now and then. These bitter disputes leave a residue -- ghosts -- that awaken from a deep slumber whenever contention or anxiety erupt in a business meeting or fellowship function or dispute between churchgoers.

Relationships are strained after all of these years, and reconciliation is hard to come by. Yet, forgiveness and unity are needed in a community that depends on some sense of Christian camaraderie.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul, a commensurate ghostbuster, pointed to lingering ghosts, or sources of division, in the community that caused disruptions to the Gospel. "Enemies of the cross," he called them, whose "minds are on earthly things" (Phil. 3:18, 19).

They were not necessarily specters from horror movies, but people who left behind a wake of hardship and destruction, discord and toxic rhetoric.

To combat such haunts, Paul encouraged his audience to "be of the same mind" and to "hold fast to what we have attained" (Phil. 3:15). He does this by pointing to his own ability to forget "what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead" (Phil 3:13).

Whenever ghosts erupt in church life, they can be extinguished by seeking reconciliation, healing wounds of old, and committing to a common ministry vision that looks forward to what God has in store for the community.

There is an intentional shift from dwelling on the past to facing a hopeful future.

In fact, a forward-looking mission is one that brings out the best in people rather than recalling the worst elements that lead to paralysis.

Over the years, I have heard about churches that erupted in conflict. Pastor resigns; people flee the pews. Never once have I ever heard of a conflict that just erupts out of nowhere, over night; rather, conflict is the consequence of long-lost haunts that hurt and fan the flames of discord at the most vulnerable of times.

"But our citizenship," wrote Paul, "is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ," not the ghost of a church's past, present, or future (Phil. 3:20). Believe it ... or not.

The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. Email him at trinitybc3@bellsouth.net or visit www.trinityconyers.org.