As children, my friends and I sang a song in Sunday School:
The devil is a sly old fox
If I could catch him I’d put him in a box
I’d lock the box and throw away the key
For all the mean tricks that he’s played on me
But none of the mean tricks the devil played on me came near the stunt he pulled on a teenager named Mark.
Mark was from out east, and that made us a little suspicious of him. His hair always laid the way he wanted it and his sense of fashion was out of the pages of GQ, but he didn’t seem otherwise impaired. He was friendly and outgoing and musically talented. He was happy, the kind of happy which implies a lack of serious religion. In hindsight, maybe that was evidence of his downfall.
The rumor around youth camp was that Mark was gay. He made the mistake of confiding in another teen, and before long the preachers and God and everybody knew. The preachers’ theory was that Mark’s homosexuality, like so many things we didn’t understand and therefore didn’t care for, was caused by demon possession.
The devil was slick, the men of God told us. He’ll perch, smiling, on your shoulder. He’ll convince you of your happiness. Then, when you least expect it, when you’ve begun to experiment with secular music and Ouija boards, when you haven’t prayed or read your Bible for a few months, the devil will snatch your soul. It happened all the time in Africa. We shouldn’t think we were exempt.
The damning part was, it was next to impossible for the one possessed to detect Satan’s presence. Slewfoot didn’t care what he had to do to get you. He’d even talk you into disbelieving his existence if he thought it would help.
One sure way to determine whether someone was devil possessed was to walk right up to the victim and say:
“You’re devil possessed.”
“I’m devil possessed?” the deluded sinner would say. “You’re crazy.”
Denial. That’s how you knew for sure the person’s soul belonged to the evil one. Recovery depended on an outside force, usually a preacher or a preacher’s wife, pointing and praying out the devil.
That’s just what Mark would need. The preacher giving the Wednesday night altar call decided it was time.
“Maybe somebody here tonight has been struggling with demon possession,” he said. “We’re going to sing one more verse of Just As I Am. This could be your last chance to get right with God.”
When the preacher reached the seventh ‘one more verse,’ suggesting that anyone in that building could die on our way home and where would we go, heaven or hell, Mark responded. He approached the wooden altar like a lamb being led to slaughter, understanding completely what was expected of him.
The preacher stopped his begging immediately, making it clear Mark had been the target of his impassioned appeal. People erupted from their pews and flooded the front of the sanctuary. They knew, too.
As Mark cried out to God for deliverance, one of the many preachers at the camp grabbed his forehead.
“Satan,” he shouted into Mark’s ear, “loose this young man in the name of Jesus!”
That was enough for me. I had come to the altar to be where the action was, but an exorcism wasn’t the kind of action I was looking for. I walked as casually as I could toward the back of the church and shook off the willies.
Exorcisms were dangerous, especially for those of us who were spiritual flyweights. Once, when I was 10 years old, a demon had been exorcised in a church I attended. I lingered close to the front of the church, hoping to see the woman’s head spin around.
One of the elders of the church told me I should get as far away as possible.
“Son, when a demon leaves somebody, it looks for somebody else to possess,” the man said. “You need to go sit in the back.”
He was implying I might not be in cahoots with God, which was the only thing that could keep the demons at bay. That and, evidently, being more than 10 feet from the demon’s exit point.
I wasn’t offended, though. The devil seemed to have more power than God himself. I wanted no part. While Mark’s demon was being prayed out, I sat in the back scared, thankful I wasn’t Godly enough to be up there with him.
After about an hour of praying, crying, and, I imagined, spitting and growling, Mark denounced his gayness that night, much to the joy of the hundred or so people around the altar. They applauded and cheered his pronouncement of instant heterosexuality.
The next day, Mark’s parents showed up to take him home early. I never saw him again. I heard he and his partner, James, live in a large Colonial home in Vermont.
We were right about one thing. The devil was indeed a sly old fox. Maybe he’s still pulling one over on Mark, out there believing he’s so content and fulfilled. In love.
But it sure feels like the joke was on us.
Copyright Rev. Andy Burnette, 2008