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.

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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.

I splurged big time at the Virginia Botanical Garden Sale. To my delight, they had a sizeable number of selections in the “shade” section. The large section of my transformed garden is behind a hedge and under a tree, so definitely qualifies for needing shade-prefering plants. During my search via internet and local nurseries, I found very few plants that qualified. Some would qualify as “partial-shade” tolerant. But the majority of plants that would survive a Minnesota winter required full sun plus rich, well-draining soil. Even with bags of compost drug in, my shade garden did not qualify. So when I showed up to support the local sale, my expectations of finding something were minimal at most. But to my shock and delight, I had choices!

Now, admittedly, some had no white plastic markers that said what they were. I have compensated for their lack by creating my own plastic sticks, with a “?” on it, followed by “Bot. Garden Sale” underneath. That way, even though I don’t know what it is, next spring IF it survives, I will know it is an official, planted plant, and not a weed. To give myself credit, IF things survive, I will have a nice variety in terms of the size and coloration of the leafs, as well as the height variation. Two are to be “large clumping”. One was labeled a lily.  I thought all lilies need full sun, but per the plastic identifier, this one prefers shade, yet grows tall. Who knows?

One disconcerting plant was a little one that a staff person praised for its two-toned flowers, even though it was labeled a “ground cover.” Worried, I would swear that I had pulled some of those out, because they looked like weeds. But when I looked it up once home, it was called a weed preventer, since it doesn’t allow other “weeds” to grow. One person’s weed is another’s flower. It now has its own plastic spike label, to remind me.

IF things survive, I will take pictures and seek out a Master Gardener to help me identify them. Until then, rather than bare ground, my garden is now in place, even with each plant having room to expand! I am delighting in it, both in what it currently is, and in what might be next spring and summer. Before the sale plantings, my original plantings have even survived a hail storm, which I find this side of miraculous. If they can survive hail, maybe they will survive below-zero temperature! Coming from local gardens improves the odds.

This all reminds me of an incredible PBS documentary called “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” The video is on the ancient (“caveman”) paintings on the walls of some caves in France. Until I saw it, I labeled cavemen drawings as the archetype of what is now called “primitive” art. Basic, child-like, with no real skill shown in terms of technique or conveyance of image. But these paintings convey movement, three dimensions, and are indeed the thing of dreams. They are impressively well done. Yet they were created thousands of years before Jesus walked on the earth. They make us redefine our dismissive label of “primitive.” Whoever made them were truly gifted artists. They saw, and through their work others also saw and remembered.

To see with multiple sets of eyes is a gift: you see the present, the future, and that which is timeless. I am thinking of the extremely baby (the trunk under an 1/8th of an inch thick) maple tree that I am cultivating. It arrived by accident with a batch of iris plants. Yet it has three very large (for the size of the trunk) magnificent maple leaves. I have planted it, and surrounded it with stones so that it does not get mowed down. Is it a maple tree? In one sense, it doesn’t even qualify as a sapling. Yet it IS: I see it with two kinds of sight. It is now MY maple tree. Will it survive winter? I have no idea. But if it does not, my TREE will have died. Should it survive, it will take decades, after I have died even, before it looks like a respectable tree. But for right now, that does not matter. I can “see” it. Hopefully similar to how God sees me: there, yet not there yet, but still the essence is undeniable.

Click the document below to open our October Newsletter.

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In the September 24th issue of the Washington Post, there was a very good article by Michael Frost on the NFL “bent knee” controversy, comparing the Christianity of Colin Kaepernic with Tim Tebow’s. The following excerpt summarizes the issue that is dividing the church:

“And not just in the United States. In many parts of the world it feels as though the church is separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism.

One version is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest.
One is concerned with private sins like abortion. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination. One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of political and social transformation. One is reading the Epistles of Paul. The other is reading the Minor Prophets.
One is listening to Eric Metaxas and Franklin Graham. The other is listening to William Barber and John Perkins. One is rallying at the March for Life. The other is getting arrested at Moral Monday protests.

You can see where this is going. The bifurcation of contemporary Christianity into two distinct branches is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other. ”

This would be worth discussing more than once. A Christianity that is most concerned with inward piety can all too easily turn a blind eye to the evils in the world it is called to fight, by standing up for (and with) those Jesus sided with: the poor, the powerless, the expendable. But a Christianity that forgets the inward journey and stresses “the Church militant” in terms of activism, can all too easily turn into simply another social service agency and loose its bearings, heart and inspiration. As Mr. Frost said, both sides can be enriched by the other. But only if we will both talk and truly listen.