I am a big fan of the British author Terry Pratchett. In one sense he writes fantasy novels, but within them is biting social commentary, complete with footnotes that add a zinger or two. Yes, they are fantasy, but he makes Disc World so everyday- real that the fact that there are dwarfs, trolls, goblins, werewolves and vampires among the working-class human residents seems reasonable. They are all regular beings, trying to make a living and go about life. The hero is the chief of police who tries to maintain order while also dealing with in-house issues such as a vampire demanding his Equal Opportunity rights to be hired, pointing out that there were no vampires on the police force (why not?) In one scene, a tired dwarf sergeant doing the front-desk duty tried to explain to the speaking ashes of another vampire that technically it was not murder if you are already dead when it happens.

One of his books not set in Disc World is Good Omens. There, the end of the world is supposed to be happening soon. The anti-Christ has been sent to earth to be born the son of a major political figure. (Think The Omen movie trilogy.) Unfortunately, the ones making the switch that would replace the infant of the politician with the anti-Christ blundered. Instead of the politician, the child was placed with a common bank clerk. Instead of growing up as the privileged son of the elite, here was a kid who went to regular schools, had chores, got grounded if he misbehaved, and had unexceptional friends. Even the sending of the Hell Hound backfired. The demon dog would become what the kid named him. Instead of Terror or a similar name, the boy while talking to his friends described the type of dog he would like: not big, not small, just a medium-sized mutt that he would name Dog. Thus the Hell Hound was transformed into a people-loving regular kid’s dog.

On the story goes, with both demons and angels trying to change things. But the kid is wise, deciding it was all too complicated to try to fix everything. He would simply let the world work itself out, while he dealt with his friends, school, and trying not to get grounded.

During Advent we celebrate Jesus’ birth, as well as the future Second Coming. I suggest that we should also give thanks for the setting in which he was raised: by ordinary people, in a community that was a minority and oppressed yet still maintained its culture and sense of worth, each struggling to make a living and trying to do what was right, without power or influence. All of the children would have chores and help out keeping the family going. As a toddler he would have been reprimanded, as a child and teen been grounded (or whatever their version was, probably simply more chores.) He would have been afraid at times, confused at times, maybe even bullied by kids of wealthy parents. He would have rolled his eyes, griped with his friends over the unreasonableness of parents, and taken in all of the complexity of life.

That is our good omen: God “pitching his tent among us,” one of us, so understands what we are going through. Emmanuel – “God With Us.” Which also means besides

understanding our struggles, God also understands our joys, shares in our laughter, appreciates the silly as well as the well-loved mundane. A good omen, indeed.

In my office is hung a framed T-shirt, with the saying emblazed upon it, “I Survived Panic in a Can.” I was awarded it after finally managing to get out of a submerged helicopter simulator, the first two times with eyes open, the final time wearing blackened goggles. I flunked the first time, managing to hit the ceiling rather than the exit, and the divers had to pull me out. Before they put me through it again, I got remedial training. For that, the instructor strapped me onto a chair just above the water, then lowered me in upside down. I was to not release the straps immediately, but pause to get my bearings first. Oddly, when I did that, I saw the exit, my heart rate went down, I did not start running out of breath, and I managed it easily. After three or four practices doing this, he had me put on the blackened goggles. Again, I paused while upside down, this time in total darkness. But in my mind I “saw” the exits. Again, calm came, I unhooked, then hand-over-hand pulled myself to the exit.

When I finally got to go through the submarine again, I made it! I was delighted, my instructor and the other students applauded.

Just before then, I had to demonstrate that I could swim a distance with overalls on, plus boots and helmet. These things definitely weigh you down. The fact that there was no speed minimum, that I could have essentially floated my way did not matter. I tried harder and harder to swim faster, to get to the end, but was not making it. Pounding the water with everything I had, I more or less managed to swim in place, with my boots pulling my legs down and my helmet blocking my sight Then I heard a commanding voice shouting in my ear, “Breathe! Breathe!” It was a rescue diver swimming alongside, who I had not noticed in my concentration to stay above water and move. I took the hint, slowed down my pummeling, and let myself get to the far side. I simply alternated slow side glides with some swimming.

I let myself get there, rather than forcing myself there by sheer strength of will and increased flailing. That is a standard axiom of swimming – treat the water as your enemy, pound it with your legs and arms to go faster and farther. It is a matter of muscle strength, conditioning, and practice.

So imagine my surprise when I read the obituary in the Nov. 18th issue of The Economist for Terry Laughlin, a record-breaking swimmer and renowned coach. It was him who coined the term “total immersion.” Rather than fight the water, immerse yourself in it. Flow, swim silently. “Worry less about the power of your engine, and more about the sleekness of your fuselage.” Reduce friction. “Aim to glide through the water, concentrating on balance, fluidity and relaxation, delaying exhaustion by using just the muscles you need, and only when you need them. Thread your hand through an imaginary slot in the water, treating it like the prow of a ship.”

Working on your mind in order to put this into practice is a lifetime’s work. Concentrate on “incremental improvement, through cleverness, patience and diligence.” The starting point is unconscious incompetence – when a swimmer does not even realize what is amiss. Next comes conscious incompetence, when you spot what is wrong and try to stop doing it. Then comes conscious competence, when you

do the right thing but only with effort, and finally unconscious competence: the mental equivalent of automatic pilot.

Reading the article, if I had substituted spiritual formation for swimming, I could have been reading an ancient, revered work by many spiritual masters. What would change in our view of good discipleship, if we applied his swimming principles to our faith walk ? As we begin Advent and face the start of a new year, it is worth considering, then trying them out. “Total Immersion for Christians”: that has potential, doesn’t it?!

Recently the Food for Thought group (which meets every Tuesday morning at 11:30) watched a documentary instead of discussing a book. The documentary was The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It showed the astounding, jaw-dropping animal paintings on the walls of a cave in France. Carbon-dating has placed the works somewhere between 28-30,000 years ago. They are not “primitive” stick figures, but full three-dimensional portrayals of lions, horses, rhinoceros, fighting bulls, and other creatures, with movement conveyed. As the narrator commented, one could almost hear the sound of the bulls’ horns connecting. In one section, the heads and necks of three horses are portrayed, each with different expressions, different personalities. In another, a cave lion is about to pounce. It is six feet long, yet the proportions are perfect, as is the depiction of that pause before pounce, when the cat’s rear is slightly up, the shoulders ready to spring. All this, done 28,000 years ago.

We discussed what was missing from the panels: no humans, no story line of hunt or conquest, no religious connotation, no reason to be there except……. Why? Why did the artist draw them? Why were they honored (the honor shown by being allowed to remain)?

Perhaps part of the answer is that we all have a basic, inner need to share the wondrous. The beauty of horses galloping, a mountain lion prepared to pounce, bulls fighting. Once years ago I took part in a charity run-walk with my dog. I had planned on taking part in the run, until I saw the group prepared to take off. Each looked liked they ran marathons. The dogs were lean sporting breeds, ready and conditioned to go miles at full speed. The men looked like greyhounds on steroids. My collie and I looked at each other, then decided to switch to the walk-group, where we joined an elderly friend with her two Shelties. The runners took off first, with a start that reminded me of the Kentucky Derby. Nearby, a woman restrained three gorgeous Borzoi hounds. (Two of the three were breed champions, the third was one show short of getting his championship status.) Their long coats gleamed in the sun, their muscles rippled as they surged together as a pack to follow the runners. Instinct kicked in, and the pack wanted to hunt. With difficulty she held them back.

I will never forget that fleeting moment of wondrous beauty, when the sun reflected off of their long silky coats and the muscles rippled. If I was an artist, I would have done my best to capture the moment on canvas.

I would do so for two reasons: to remember, and to share the experience. If someone else “caught the vision” and took similar pleasure, my own joy would be increased. Perhaps that need to share is as much a basic need as the need for shelter, for food. The artist was not “wasting time” when he could have been doing something else more practical. Instead, he used his great skills to share, and now, 30,000 years later, we continue to appreciate and be grateful as well as in awe. What

he saw and shared, what we see, is indeed wondrous, and our lives are enriched because of it.

It is a good thing to remember wondrous moments. It is a good thing to give thanks for them as the gift from God to us that they are. Then may we have the courage to share them. The world is better off when we do.

I am sitting here the Saturday before All Saints Sunday (aka Reformation Sunday), when we will be giving Bibles out to three kids. Before me on my ottoman is a bible I cherish but do not use: it is too special. I have to admit, I haven’t looked at it for a long time. Part of me wants to share its story with the kids getting their bibles, and with the congregation members (who may or may not be bringing their own bibles.) But the service will already be long. An additional long story would put us past the mandatory one hour limit. So instead, I will tell it here!

I want to tell the kids that besides guidance, their bibles will give strength and hope. That it is okay to mark up your bible by underlining or highlighting special passages. If they ever move on to wide-margined study bibles, they can even write notes in the margins! A bible is meant to be used. Now the large “family” bibles that contain genealogy records should be kept safe and preserved, to pass down for generations. But like the Velveteen Rabbit, your own personal bible should be worn due to use.

The bible I cherish is worn. On the empty pages at the beginning for several years I wrote a paragraph on Pentecost, when I joined the Presbyterian Church. I summarized what had happened, and what I faced. Rereading those paragraphs brings back memories and gives me perspective. Unfortunately I ran out of room, and did not continue in a journal! But even so, the recordings are part of what makes this bible special.

But the rain-soaked and wrinkled pages are the holiest. When they first became soaked and dried, it was very obvious. Now, pressed by books on either side, the wrinkles are less pronounced. My journal entries have some waves, but no ink ran. All is legible, just slightly battered. And the battered parts are not battle scars, but evidence of my one experience encountering an angel.

It happened during seminary, when I was signed up to take the Clinical Pastoral Education Course (CPE) which is a hospital chaplaincy where you visit patients, write up verbatims, then go over them with your supervisor and other students to see what you did right, wrong, and examine how you felt as you were doing it. I had arranged to ride with another student who had a car. The first week went well. Then our instructor had a heart attack and ended up in Intensive Care. The other understandably dropped out. I asked if I could continue, working as a quasi-chaplain. The hospital agreed!

For the class, I bought my bible, which lay nicely in the hand and was wide enough to flop and stay open on a page. I could picture myself reading the bible to attentive, appreciative patients. For my first day solo, I had researched what buses I needed to take (two changes and over an hour trip for a 20-minute normal drive). I had the numbers and streets on a paper in my coat pocket. I dressed up for my first day, wearing open-toed shoes with heels. I made it to the hospital.

At some point, I cleaned out my coat pockets out. Ready to go home, I reached for the paper and it wasn’t there. I went outside, hoping to spot a bus stop sign and recognize a number. No signs, no obvious bus stops, and it started to rain. I went back into the hospital to see if anyone could advise me. Nope. So back outside I went, hoping to spot a bus, ANY bus. I did not have money for a taxi, and no phone numbers for the few people I knew who had cars. I was stuck.

A guy at a gas station said he thought there was a bus stop across the street, but wasn’t sure, since nothing was marked. So I stood there, hoping, praying hard, and as my bible got soaked and my feet got wet, despairing. Finally two elementary-aged boys came walking up. One was good looking, with a flattering hair cut and wearing a black leather jacket. He ignored me. His friend, in a denim jacket, standard hair cut and teeth that would need braces in a year or so, came up to me. “Your bus will be arriving in just a few minutes,” he told me.

Let’s just say I doubted. But sure enough, there came a bus down the street! We all got on, with the leather-jacket kid walking to the back of the bus. His friend sat down next to me. He showed me his report card – C’s with some B’s, and an “Improving” in Behavior. After a bit, he told me, “You need to get off at the next stop. The next bus you need will stop across the street. You will recognize the number.” He then offered me his umbrella, which I turned down. (To this day, I regret that. It would have given me something tangible to remember him by.) As we approached the spot, I did indeed recognize the area. I thanked him, and told him I looked forward to our next meeting at the bus stop. “We will never see each other again,” he countered. I expressed incredulity, but he simply shook his head. Again I thanked him, then got off.

He was right: we never saw each other again. I believe he was an angel sent by God to help me. Not something with wings and light shining forth, but one who, like the strangers who visited Abraham, was still God’s emissary. And my poor, battered, rain-soaked bible reminds me of that day.

Our bibles: not just for study, but to remember.

newsletter 1117

I often thank my Irish ancestry, which factors in that which cannot be factored in. Think of multiple-choice tests, where one of the answer options is “none of the above.”  In life and in theology, that is often the answer. Theologians who debate words and their definitions often cannot get along. Monks of different faiths can be best friends, for they acknowledge that there are areas where words are inadequate.  Thus, Thomas Merton, Catholic Trappist monk, could be friends with the Buddhist Dali Lama.  They were comfortable with the grey areas, able to be friends despite major theological differences. Another two would be the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu, who together recently co-authored a book on joy.  

So I now present two of my experiences with ghosts. I do not know how to put them into my official theology. They don’t fit.  Yet I cannot deny what I have experienced. So thanks be to my Irish ancestry (which takes in stride the existence of “the little people” and miracles) I simply acknowledge, and leave to God to eventually make sense of it all.  They occurred, they must fit in,  but for now I will label them in the “mystery” category covered by “none of the above.” 

The first instance occurred when I was a combination chaplain and teacher at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska. (Now defunct due to the financial improprieties of the president of the college and others – another story, some day.) Near the college was the Alaska Police Academy, where twice a year I did the invocation and benediction at the graduation ceremony.  One spring day I walked along a dirt logging road, with my dog Tess.  We had walked on the road many a time. But this time, in the distance I heard what at first I thought was rhythmic practice shooting at the academy. Then two things occurred to me: 1) they were not taking time to reload, and 2) there was emphasis in the rhythm, not like true shooting.  Add to that, a growing sense that I was being followed. Tess affirmed it. Normally, off lead, she would be ranging in the woods, checking back periodically. Today, she stayed about five feet in front of me, tense, hair up in a Mohawk, looking at something behind me. I kept glancing back, but there was nobody.   

The feeling grew that I was interfering with something, unwanted. Much like when you enter a room and conversation stops, then resumes off-subject, tension evident.  I was interrupting something. I was not wanted here. What now sounded like drums increased. I walked on, but ever slower. A sense of not so much threat as wrongness grew. Tess came closer, still watching something unseen behind me. Finally my nerve gave way, and I retreated, hurrying back to my car on the road.  Once I came to the road, the sense of being followed and unwelcomed evaporated.   

I did not go on that road for a hike until the next fall.  By then, leafs had fallen. When I got to the spot where I had turned around, I noticed untended graves among the trees – a forgotten Native Alaska cemetery (made during a time when native ceremonies were forbidden, as “un-Christian.”  They were buried, but outside the cemeteries for Caucasian Christians.)  I reported it to the local Native Alaskan group, who nobly took up the cause to clean and honor the site.  

In one sense it was not a ghost encounter, since I saw nothing. But I felt, I heard, as did my dog.   

The second was after I was in the Navy. I was living in a house built in 1927. A two-story, with a wonderful master bedroom which had large windows on two sides. I could sit propped up in my bed on a Saturday morning, coffee carafe on my nightstand, and look out into the branches of tall old trees.   It was like being in a tree house, only better.  One Saturday, I was just waking up when above me I heard a door slam, then three heavy footsteps. My first thought was, “Somebody’s walking in the apartment upstairs.” Then I woke up, and had to acknowledge that I was in a house, not an apartment, and I had not lived in an apartment with people above me for many years.  I thought I had just imagined it.  

About two weeks later, it happened again. Propped up in bed, coffee on nightstand alongside, reading while occasionally glancing outside at the trees, above me a door slammed hard. Three heavy footsteps, stopping just to the left of my ceiling light.  I sat there, stunned.  When it happened again a week or so later, I bravely called out, “Is there anyone there? Do you need help?” Silence. To this day I have no idea what I would have done if I had been answered.  

After another experience, I decided to investigate. I bought a six foot ladder, and checked out my attic. The home inspector had warned me not to try walking in the attic, for there were essentially  only beams, with minimum supports for the insulation. I climbed up with my flashlight and checked the attic out. No floor, no door, no floor.    

After another time or two of door slamming, footsteps, compunction set in. “Dorn, you are clergy, If someone is stuck, you should help,” I told myself. So one afternoon I got my Book of Common Worship from the 1940s, and while sitting in my armchair in the living room, read aloud the funeral service. NOT an exorcism, just a commendation of the deceased into the care of God.  To my immense disappointment

it worked. Since then, no slamming, no footsteps.  Blast. 

Once in the Navy chaplaincy, I served with a Catholic priest of Ukrainian background. One day he talked about living in a parsonage, where parishioners kept asking him if he was okay living there.  He then noted couples coming to him for counseling, who remarked on seeing an elderly priest walk past, in a worn but cared for cassock.  After researching, and as time went on, he would respond by simply saying it was Father X.  He just didn’t add that Father had died many years ago.  He was used to living with other priests: the fact that one was dead didn’t change things that much.  I have often thought that this was the perfect way to deal with a haunted parsonage: they are merely a roommate. If non-violent and/or evil, and if prayers don’t stop them, simply deal with them as you would another. Not something for migraines, faith-challenges or ulcers. They are simply “other.”  

Since then, over the years of  being clergy, several times I have encountered when the dead appear in dreams to people, before another family member dies.  I do not question it, for I know that there are some areas of mystery, of “none of the above,” which do not fit into our theology, yet occur.  One good note: in the bible, we are not told that they are fake, just not to be led by them into disobedience.   

I have now moved into a house over a hundred years old. I have to admit, I had hopes to have an encounter. But sadly, my cats have not warned, and all has been well.  If something threatened my cats, I would again whip out my 1940  Book of Common Prayer. But first, I would thrill in the “other.” 

It is fascinating how enthusiasm for unusual things can be contagious.  At the YMCA where I exercise, I have observed a distinctive-looking woman working out for long periods every day.  She is my height or shorter, with past-the-shoulder length long white-blonde or pale grey hair (more “white” than grey.) She started talking to me one day when she noticed I was doing the Pilates’ 100. (You lie on your back with your legs up and stiff at a 45 degree angle, shoulders off the mat as well,  then pump your stiff arms up and down fast for a minute (or 100 beats). Your neck and shoulders are to be relaxed, so the only strain is on your abdominal muscles. Better than sit-ups, for it doesn’t hurt your back if done right.) She does them, plus some variations. I learned that she is preparing for her first body-builder competition.  I learned that there are four categories: Bikini, Figure, Physique, and Body Building.  Within each level there are competitions for beginners (never competed), novices (competed but never won), and professionals, and most also are divided into age categories.  As a “going on 40” mother of three, she thought that information would sway judges.  Like all of her competitors, she has between 8-10 percent body fat, and great muscle tone. 

From her I learned a new definition of “shredding.”  In body building, it means how distinct the muscle divisions are: can you see the ligaments and divisions? In Bikini, no shredding, just “look fit.” Figure, more muscles, but no real shredding. Physique, shredding there. Body building, shredding very visible, emphasized.  But it is more than muscles:  poses, confidence, “presence” and presentation (hair, bathing suit, body oiled, perfect make-up) make a big difference.  For some reason, wearing high heels is important to her, which is done in the first two categories. (That part did not make sense to me, but given she repeated it several times, I did not challenge.) She is going to compete in either beginner Bikini or Physique, at a competition in Duluth on Friday the 13th* (which she viewed as positive, since 13 is her lucky number).  

Her enthusiasm was contagious. Not that I am going to get into body-building (I am still trying to lose the weight I gained since retiring), but captivated me enough to go on-line to learn more about what she was talking about. And I will be watching for coverage in the Duluth newspaper.   

I cheer her on, and admire her efforts, even though I am still mostly clueless.  But now, “body building competitions” are not something done far away, but by someone I have met, and who will be competing locally. It is now real.  

Off topic, yet on a similar vein: via NetFlix, I watched a documentary called Chicken People, about people who raise chickens for competition. I knew of dog shows, cat shows, horse shows. I did not know there were chicken shows. Besides interviewing four or five competitors and tracking them as they prepared for a big show, the filmmakers interviewed their family members as well.  These noble souls (spouses, parents, kids) did their best to explain the loved one’s chicken obsession.  Again, a whole new world opened up before me.  And, if I hear of a chicken competition locally, I may attend!  

People are fascinating, in that so often there is more going on in others’ lives (and loves) than we may expect. The world is wondrous, in how many things can captivate and challenge us, if we are open to learning and being challenged.  If we are bored and/or stuck in neutral, maybe we have closed our eyes to the everyday small miracles that surround us!  

 

*Update: I saw the body-builder yesterday.  She was delighted to have taken 5th place in the competition and is now aiming for a competition in May.