On Faith: A ghost in the White House
Editor's note: The following is based on a sermon titled "Unhaunted" given at Sychar Lutheran on April 15.
Dolley Madison is one of the most remarkable women in U.S. history. Upon occupying the White House with her husband, James, she would be credited with bringing high society to the previous swamp known as Washington D.C.
Dolley's greatest claim to fame, though, arose when America was under attack during the War of 1812. Dolley continued her outreach to Washington's fellow residents, even as the White House burned to the ground.
Dolley left the White House as one of the most popular first ladies in our nation's history. When Dolley died in 1849, her death was mourned to a similar degree as a president.
In the years after Dolley's death, strange reports began to surface. Dolley was frequently seen roaming the halls of her former residence accompanied by the smell of her favorite flower: lilacs.
Nearly 70 years after her death, during President Woodrow Wilson's term, a proposal was made to dig up Dolley Madison's rose garden. A whole crew shows up to complete the task, only to flee terrified at what they believed to be Dolley Madison's ghost. The project was dropped, and Dolley Madison's rose garden continues to bloom today.
The story of Dolley Madison and the rose garden raises an interesting issue for us as Christian people regarding the possibility of ghosts' activity in the world. On multiple occasions in the ministry, I've been approached by congregational members with their own ghost stories similar to that of Dolley Madison.
These stories have included ghosts terrorizing home through the vanishing of possessions, encounters with friendly spirits connecting with long-lost relatives, and requests to perform exorcisms of people's homes.
The ghost question is even tougher for us to sort out as Christian people as we come across numerous books, movies and TV shows that detail ghost sightings, especially during our recent Halloween season.
The Christian scriptures themselves even possess a ghost story (Luke 24:36b-48). The dsciples are gathering on Easter evening after having witnessed Christ's death first hand two days prior.
Out of fear of Roman soldiers and other religious authorities, they locked the doors. Then suddenly, Jesus appeared before them like an uninvited ghost. The disciples initial reaction was terror. Jesus has to calm them by eating boiled fish in their presence to the point to the true nature of his flesh and blood.
What's interesting about this story is that Jesus does not deny the presence of ghosts. The whole arc of scripture centers on supernatural belief regarding devils, demons, witches, spirits and heavenly forces. These descriptions like those of a ghost that we can't necessarily see, hear, touch, or weigh exist far outside the realm of modern science.
So what might ghosts be? Martin Luther makes the point that ghosts aren't the souls of the dead who have previously walked the Earth, as there is no scriptural example of this. According to Luther, the fate of the dead is to await the Resurrection, which is to come. Luther saw ghosts as evil forces when intending to frighten and terrify people to despair over their salvation.
So how should we interpret any ghost stories that we encounter? A pastor colleague of mine tells the following story:
Once upon a time, there was a librarian at a theological library where they possess books for seminary students. The library was quite old and allegedly haunted by the ghost of a former librarian. Reports of the ghost's activity were numerous: a chair being moved without explanation, books knocked off shelves and loud, scary unexplained noises throughout the night.
The librarian would always be asked the question whether the ghost stories in his library were true. His answer is instructive for all believers today: "I don't know, but I believe if there are ghosts. We need not be afraid, because our savior's resurrection proves that our God is stronger than any ghost."
Pastor Stew Carlson serves at Sychar Lutheran in Silver Bay.