No, not a real ghost. I don't believe in those. Elder X was definitely gone before we ever got in the car that night. Yet his passing plunged us into one of the strangest, spookiest nights of my life. I was going to save this story for Halloween, in fact, but I'm going to excuse my impatience and say that summer campfire-story season is good enough. Besides, I'd rather tell it on a bright sunny day.
It was a cloudy day in February, but strangely warm. The layer of snow had melted away under a heavy wind. The long-dead autumn leaves got tossed around the road like scurrying brown spiders. But it was Friday night, and I was finally, happily, in my pajamas and robe and ready to make a puzzle (yes, this was pre-children). No good ever comes from having to change back out of one's pajamas in the night, I would like to say.
We got a phone call just about bedtime. Elder X had died that afternoon. We expected it--he had even said a few days before that he hoped it happened soon. But it was a grim thing to change back into presentable clothes, which I did while Jim was still on the phone, and steel my heart to go visit the dead man's house.
It was good and dark by the time we set out. The warmth was gone, but the spectral wind was constant, blowing the crumpled leaves into our headlight beams, looking all the more like frightened, fleeing animals. We had printed directions to the house--cell phones wouldn't have worked out in that wilderness, even if we'd had them. I clenched the armrest, and for a few miles we were fine.
But this was the wilds of rural Pennsylvania. The road you were looking for might, in fact, have a name, but that didn't mean the locals felt like sharing the information. We pulled out the state atlas (we weren't fools enough to be out without one), but in the dark, long driveways and paved nothings look a lot like roads. We were close, but it was impossible to know just where we were.
The first spooky place we hit was the school. We reached it at the point where the wrong road turned into a dead end. It was brick and iron, and stately. And crumbling--oil and industry were ghosts now in the region, and the population had receded like a river flood, leaving broken things in its wake. A tangle of chain-link fencing stood upright only at the remaining posts. On that night, in that wind, it was ready to be the set of a horror movie, and even I--mostly ignorant of the genre--could have written the first half of the plot.
The next place we found was the cemetery--the very place Elder X said he wanted to be buried. The road hugged it around the corner at the top of a hill, all overgrown and interrupted with ancient trees. We had no intention of stopping for directions here, but someone had stopped, apparently. We slowed to look at the car, parked on the grass, spun back to face oncoming traffic. The driver's door was open, bouncing slightly in the gusts, the dome light on, the vehicle empty. To this day I have no explanation.
Another turn, and we found an actual house. The front door was open, inexplicably on a February night. I climbed the brick steps to a narrow porch and rang the doorbell. And waited.
Kreee. The sound was right beside me--I caught my breath and turned to look. At a weather-vane--a black rooster, turning gracefully in the energetic wind.
Why is there a weather-vane on the ground?
I was chilled, and spooked, and no one was coming to the door. I wanted to give up, but there were no other houses with lights on, and if I didn't stay, we'd have to wander some more, and find who knew what else. I rang the bell again. And finally someone came to the door. He was elderly, wearing only his underwear and a paunch, and he stared at me through the screen as if he couldn't see me. I swallowed, and asked my question anyway. And after two or three tries, he understood enough to tell me where the road was.
And all of this, of course, before we reached the dead man's house. But the dead man's house was the scariest place of all. Everything else was just odd sights on a windy night. But at the house, we met Elder X's family, his widow, and adult children. Elder X had been failing, and in pain for a long time. His family was as relieved as they were grieved, not surprisingly. What was surprising was the almost predatory way they reacted to us.
I had never met any of them in church. The Elder had been too ill for many years, and none of the others came without him. But his years of service to that congregation, by tale, had been as stormy as that night. His contribution had been a decades-long power struggle to control the church. The congregation, by the time we arrived, boasted no more than a dozen people on a Sabbath morning. And the family was just as ravaged by the culture of controversy.
I remember distinctly the way the elder son scooted his chair closer to mine, his wiry white beard twitching, to say, in a voice of scandal, "Did you know they changed the hymnal?" I remember the widow's almost gleeful condescension when she saw Jim had set his Bible on the floor under his chair. I stared at the orange shag carpet and felt the weight of pessimism in the house. And I wondered, What would it feel like to live here?
Elder X's family had the comfort, that night, of the hope of a resurrection. But they didn't have the comfort of a God of grace, because it hadn't been in his legacy to them.
I remember also the text Jim read that night, Revelation 14:13--Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.
It was a promise. But as I remember that night, it feels like a warning, too. Elder X was at rest, but the fruit of his particular faith lived on. It will follow him, in the hearts of his family. What he lived, they will carry.
I want to pass that warning on to my church today, a church so twisted up in controversy that the issues are hardly the issue any more. This same demanding attitude, this same lock-step legalism is being entertained in our organization. These works, too, will follow us as a church.
What will our legacy be? We may have the comfort of being right, but we need a God of grace more. We need to ask ourselves, not only "Am I right?" but "What does it feel like to live in this church?" Because if we do not live the love of God, the price will fall on those whom we leave, quite literally, in our wake.
This is my Adventist ghost story. Because dead faith leaves a specter far more substantial than any silly fear of the departed. This is my camp-fire terror story. I hope it scares you, too.