In 1988 we were living in the first home my parents built themselves. Well, they hired people who built the home, this isn’t a Little House on the Prairie-type story.
It was a beautiful 3 bedroom home with a huge backyard in a neighborhood full of children. I had a happy childhood. That is the end of that statement. There is no “but” or “except” my childhood was happy.
The only thing I can say that perhaps made my childhood unpleasant was me. I was full of anxiety and fear as a child. To this day, we still don’t know why. I say “we” because I have discussed it at length with my parents and at times a counselor. But the only conclusion is that I was very simply a sensitive child. Things upset me.
Around 1988 the thing that upset me the most was the man with one arm. This was not a real man this was “scary” story (as scary as a story can be as told by a 7 year old) I had heard at a sleepover. To the best of my recollection it was about a man who died and then someone dug him up and took one of his arms so he haunted that person looking for his arm. The person kept the arm in a box under their bed.
I was terrified. I could not sleep at night. I did not have any way to understand ghosts, death, or amputation. To top it all off, let’s just say some things happen so strangely in life, our neighbor across the street worked for a company that sold false limbs to doctors to fit onto amputees. There were arms all over his garage. No joke, this is for real. Every time we went over to their house to play with their kids I had to walk past lots of unattached arms.
As a child, especially during this time, death had nothing to do with God. There was no Jesus who defeated death. There was no Kingdom of Heaven or Communion of the Saints. There were dead people all around us. They were ghosts and if you took their arm they were going to follow you and haunt you and make your life miserable especially after dark.
Death was something sad and bad that happened but after that it got even worse, especially if you had unfinished business or one of your limbs was missing. Ghosts were real, not even my copy of the King James Bible, Precious Moments addition that my grandma gave me could solve this problem. Scary movies and scary stories were a depiction of real life.
In other words, my idea of incarnation was uncarnation — ghostly. There was no presence of God, there was presence of evil. The idea that God came and walked among us as Jesus and then died as a human had died was no where to be found. Ghosts, however, were everywhere.
I have to tell you the way this tragedy got resolved is quite funny. In fact, I’m pretty sure my parents had a hand in it. After weeks of amputated ghost fear my parents let me have a sleepover. For no reason and out of the blue. As we lay on the floor in our sleeping bags the one-armed ghost story came up and I mustered up the courage to ask, “What happened to the man, the one who took his arm?” My friend smiled and said “He gave the ghost his arm back and the ghost said ‘thank you’ and left him alone.”
The nightmares stopped. The fear of arms stopped (although let’s all take a minute to recognize that the false limbs in the garage is totally crazy, right? Right?) and life went back to normal.
I didn’t understand incarnation until I was in seminary. I have no idea if I could have understood it then. I’m not sure I would have understood Jesus at all during this time. I’m not sure I would have understood God or Heaven or death in any better way.
Parents in my congregation struggle to explain Easter and Christmas and Jesus and incarnation all the time. I’m sure my parents struggled.
And I don’t believe in ghosts, by the way. I stopped believing in ghosts when I realized God loves us. Perhaps that is where we start with our children, no matter how young they are. God loves us. When we die we go to be with God. Why? Because God loves us. There are no ghosts because God loved those people too and God would never leave someone behind to be miserable and haunting, yes, even if they had two arms and someone took the one. No, Bloody Mary does not appear in the bathroom mirror if you say her name 3 times (the next terrifying thing that kept me from going to the bathroom after dark) because she is with God.
Rev. Jessi Higginbotham
Delray Beach, FL