Message in a Bottle

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

She didn’t see the sign on the road that pointed toward Bakken Lutheran Church but she did notice out of the corner of her eye a tall steeple off in the distance.  She looked down at her phone and sure enough, it pointed out that she needed to turn in that direction.

She slowed down and did a U-turn to go back to the road she had just passed and headed toward the church in the distance.  She marveled at how the spot where the church was built was perfect and so unusual.  She could imagine how the first homesteaders to that area saw this rather tall, wooded hill in the midst of a sea of North Dakota prairie land would have thought this would be the perfect spot for a church.  Partly because of how beautiful it was, but also because such a spot would not have been good farm land anyway.

She approached the hill and turned onto the long, thin driveway, about a quarter mile in length, and came to a stop at the edge of the clearing a short distance from the church.  She didn’t want to park right next to it because she didn’t want her car to be in the pictures she took.

She hurried out of her car and noted it was cooler here than it had been back in Fargo.  Sure enough, some clouds were gathering in from the west.  A storm might be coming. She grabbed her sweater and her camera and started taking pictures.

The church was lovelier in person than it had been in the few pictures she had found on the internet.  Although most of the country churches in this area were white and wooden, this one was red brick with striking white trim.  The trees surrounding it were adorned in brilliant yellow and red leaves.  The church faced the east and behind it rested the cemetery.

From the top of that hill, you could see miles in every direction.  She reveled in the complete silence as she took more pictures.  She walked to the church door to see if she could go inside.  She didn’t expect the door to be open.  She had found that most of the time these country churches were kept locked now.  So she was pleasantly surprised to find the door was unlocked!

She stepped inside and felt as though she had walked back in time.  No contemporary instruments or screens here.  There was a traditional white altar and pulpit, a lectern, baptismal font, dark wooden pews, and stained glass windows depicting various Biblical stories.  The walls were painted an unusual pale aqua, the carpet was red.  Although some of the paint was chipping on the banisters on each side leading up to the balcony, the building seemed to be well-kept.

Taking pictures along the way, she moved toward the front of the sanctuary. She felt very at home here.  She always felt this way in churches.  Didn’t matter where they were, there was something deeply comforting about their smell, their familiar objects, their quiet and reverence.

As she moved toward the altar, she noticed there was gold lettering on the front, underneath the painting of Jesus as a shepherd tending a flock. In Norwegian, it was written, “Jeg er den gode hyrde.” “I am the good shepherd.”  This altar was likely made in the late 1800’s when this land was first being homesteaded and settled by the early Norwegian settlers to North Dakota.  Although the Norwegian immigrants had learned English quickly and believed it was best to leave their old language in the old country, there were still traces of these roots everywhere in these old churches.  The oldest gravestones in the cemetery were all inscribed in Norwegian as were the early records of the church.  She had read that the half-moon shape of the altar rails in these old Norwegian Lutheran churches was also a Scandinavian tradition. It was believed that the gathered body of Christ met for communion at the visible half-circle altar rail, but the circle was completed beyond time and space by those who had died in the faith, the communion of the saints.

There was a deep rumbling outside.  It had slowly been getting a little darker outside since she came in.  Sure enough, she heard the sound of rain on the roof now.  She walked back down the aisle and peered out the door.  Quite a little storm was barreling through.  The wind was swaying the trees and the rain was pouring from the sky.

It would be best to wait out the storm here.  After all, that is why these country churches always used to be kept open all the time.  If someone was traveling by and a bad storm came up, they could seek shelter in any church.  This tradition had slowly become almost nonexistent as too many of these churches experienced vandalism or theft. However, she was so glad when she came across the rare church still left open so anyone could come in at any time and pray or take pictures or seek shelter.

There were two stairways, one on either side of the center aisle, leading upstairs to the balcony.  The stairs were small and this made sense because at the time this church was built, people were smaller in general. The average foot size would have been a couple sizes smaller than today.

The balcony had a main level that slanted slightly downward.  There were large steps that led up to another small landing where the rope hung down from the church bell and another set of tiny wooden steps leading up to a trap door, the access to the belfry.  The view of the church from up there was stunning.  She thought it must be a beautiful sight when and if they had candlelit services.  She imagined what it must have looked like long ago when the ladies in long dresses and the men in suits came in for church on a Sunday morning.

She was tempted to ring the church bell.  She laughed remembering how her kids had always wanted to ring the bell at their church in Texas. She let them do it now and then.  No one would mind hearing the church bell toll a few times.  It wasn’t like it used to be generations ago when hearing the church bell toll in the middle of the week meant something had happened in the community and it was time to gather at the church for a meeting.

Church bells often used to be inscribed with a Bible verse or some other phrase before it was hung.  The bell at her church in Texas had no inscription.  She wondered if this one did.   She peered up at the trap door leading to the belfry.

She could check it out.

There was no reason she couldn’t.  There was no lock on the trap door.  Her shoes were sturdy enough to get up those tiny stairs.

What if someone came in and caught her climbing around the belfry?

She doubted many people came by this church even on a clear, sunny day, much less a day when it was pouring down rain.  In fact, she wouldn’t be surprised if it had been many years since anyone had been in that belfry.

She set down her camera.  She couldn’t climb the steep stairway and open the trap door carrying her main camera.  If she wanted to take pictures up there she had her cell phone in her pocket.

She ascended the large red steps to the landing and then put a foot on the first wooden step leading up to the belfry.  It seemed solid enough.  She took one step, then two, and slowly climbed up all the steps until she reached the trap door.  She was very high up now.  Looking down, even the floor of the balcony looked far away.  She pushed on the trap door.  It was heavy.  She pushed a little harder and slowly she was able to open it.  She pushed it all the way open until it rested on the wall directly behind the trap door and then she peered into the belfry.

There were small windows on each side of the square space which was about 10’ X 10’. She took a few more steps and as she glanced out the window to the east, she could see her car sitting off in the distance where she had left it.  The bell rested on a wooden framework.  There was a wheel on the side of the bell and a rope attached to the wheel which was draped through a hole in the floor.  Above her she could see the rafters of the towering steeple.

Spiderwebs and dead bugs were abundant in the space.  Flashes of lightning lit up the belfry but even without the lightning she could see clearly once her eyes adjusted.  She could see that there was no inscription on the side of the bell where she was, but her curiosity prodded her to climb all the way into the belfry and look at the other side.  It was just a few more steps.

She gingerly ascended the last two steps into the belfry and was careful to stand on the wooden beams as she made her way around the bell.  There was some writing on the other side of the bell, but it was only the name of the manufacturer and the city in which it was made.  She was disappointed.

She grabbed her cell phone out of her pocket and took a few pictures of the bell.  It would be a cool story to tell her friends, or maybe a sermon illustration.

She was just about to head back down the stairs when the beam she was standing on let out a loud creak. The noise startled her and she quickly moved to another beam but as she did so, she lost her footing. She fell hard toward the west wall, hitting it with her left shoulder.  Her left knee crashed into the beam beneath her and her cell phone flew out of her hand and out the trap door, clattering down the stairs.  As she fell, she had been trying to grab hold of the west wall but only succeeded in grasping the top of the trap door, which then fell closed with a thunderous thud.

She wasn’t sure which was worse, the pain in her knee and shoulder, the bugs and dust flying everywhere and into her nose and mouth, or the sudden feeling of claustrophobia at being closed in up in the belfry.  She slowly stood up and didn’t feel as though anything was broken – except maybe her cell phone lying at the bottom of the stairs.

She was just about to lift up the trap door when she noticed one of the boards in the wall had come loose.  Behind the board, she could make out the shape of something tucked just behind the board.  Her curiosity piqued, she tugged at the board to see if she could get a better view.

It appeared to be a small, wooden box.  She had to pull the board completely off the wall and set it to the side in order to reach in the wall and pull out the box.  It had no lock or hinges.  It was just a very simple box with a lid. It appeared to be quite old.

This was something interesting! She paused for a moment.  Who knows what she would find in that box!  Maybe it was empty – but maybe it would be a small treasure.  Her mind raced with possibilities.  Perhaps it was some artifact from the early days of this church?  Maybe it was some prayers that had been stored away as part of a blessing on the church building? It could even be a simple time capsule that some youth group had hidden up here with the intention to retrieve it in a decade or two. She thought of how some of the churches she had served would hide away a banner with the word “Alleluia” on it during the season of Lent.  She smiled to think perhaps someone had hidden the Alleluia a little too well one year and never retrieved it again. She savored the feeling of anticipation.

Finally, she took a breath and slowly pulled off the lid.  Inside was a single envelope, yellowed with age. On the front of the envelope it was written the name, “Johanne.”

What could this be?  She was so excited to open the letter her hands trembled.  She set the wooden box down and turned the letter over.  It had never been opened. The letter was still sealed with a wax insignia on the back.  In the wax, there was pressed the letter O.

What had she found? It had surely been here for a very long time. This church and steeple had been built in the late 1800’s.  How long had this letter rested here in this steeple and why?

She wished the letter were not sealed!  She knew she had to open it, she simply could not do otherwise, but she still felt a little guilty opening this letter that clearly had been written to Johanne, and not to her.

Nevertheless, she tugged gently at the wax seal and the letter popped open.  The paper was quite thin and fragile but she was able to pull out the letter out and unfold it.

It was definitely a letter to Johanne, but that was about all she could tell. This letter was not written in English, but in Norwegian!  She must be right that this letter had been there for decades upon decades!

Why was this letter here, and what was the story behind it?

Message in a Bottle

by Sting

Just a castaway
An island lost at sea
Another lonely day
With no one here but me
More loneliness
Than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair

I’ll send an SOS to the world [2x]
I hope that someone gets my [3x]
Message in a bottle [2x]

A year has passed since I wrote my note
But I should have known this right from the start
Only hope can keep me together
Love can mend your life
But love can break your heart

I’ll send an SOS to the world [2x]
I hope that someone gets my [3x]
Message in a bottle [4x]

Walked out this morning
Don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home

I’ll send an SOS to the world [2x]
I hope that someone gets my [3x]
Message in a bottle [4x]

Sending out an SOS [16x]


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