My friend Jason, who is an ambassador for the Saint John's Bible, has committed a great deal of his time sharing this masterpiece with people. Last October, he traveled up to the high school where I teach and presented the Saint John's Bible Heritage Edition: Gospel and Acts to all my classes. It was an amazing day, one which I will never forget. One of the stories he shared with us is recounted below. I am glad that Jason has allowed me to share this with you. It is an excellent example of not only the power of the Word of God, but also the committment of one man to share it in any place and circumstance. May I have the same love and patience to share the scriptures with others, in season and out.
In July of 2013, I had scheduled a presentation about the Saint John's Bible at a major university in downtown Chicago. At the time my wife was just a couple months into her fight with cancer, and I couldn't schedule anything in my life a week in advance much less months out. Thankfully, Jim Triggs, the director of the SJB Heritage Edition program agreed to come to Chicago from Minneapolis to give the presentation for me. As luck would have it, on the day of the presentation my wife was feeling OK (or feeling irritated by my constant pampering of her, I'm still not sure which), so I was able to join the presentation after all. As always, Jim's presentation was smooth, experienced, and professional, and after that we split duties and each took a different Heritage Edition volume to different parts of the room to give our audience plenty of opportunity to explore the pages and ask questions. It was an exciting night, all the more so because it was held in a large cathedral and attended by many theology degree, graduate, and even doctoral students who all had great questions and insights.
The event ended. We all went our separate ways.
As was my custom after a presentation, on my way home I stopped at a McDonald's restaurant to have a burger and to read in my little blue pocket Bible that I take with me everywhere. That's when Michael saw me. He walked up to me while I was waiting to order and asked, "Are you a Christian?" "Well, yes, I am." I was holding a Bible in McDonald's, not easy to dodge that question.
"Me, too," said Michael. There was something slightly ... different ... about him. "I'm homeless." Well, that explained a few things. "And I used to be a drug addict." And that explained a lot more. "But Jesus saved me a couple months ago. My name's Michael. Do you want to have dinner with me?" "Yeah, sure." Suddenly, all those Benedictine values I learned about as an undergrad at Saint John's University came flooding back, and there was just something really intriguing about Michael. So we took our food and found a table and sat down to eat. Michael had just spent his last $3 on a cheeseburger and a soda. I gave him my fries.
Over the next half hour, Michael told me about how he used to be a really bad drug addict and he wasn't proud of several "bad things" he had done. I could tell as I listened to him that his addiction had cost him a lot, mentally and physically, but still he exuded this peace and calm. He told me how Jesus saved him just a few months ago and he had been sober since then and found a bed at a shelter, but he missed the last bus home that night so he was back to being homeless until tomorrow. I gave him half my burger after he finished his, and got him a refill on his soda.
"Now I write poetry for Jesus. Would you like to hear some?" It was getting very late, but there was just something so ... different ... about Michael, something that made it so hard to consider saying No to him. He started searching his coat pockets, then his pants pockets, but gave up with a sad look on his face. "I think I lost my poetry book. Can I just say some to you?"
After seeing such unhappiness suddenly cross his face, there was no way I could decline. "Lay it on me, Michael. Bless me with your poetry."
Oh. My. God. Bless me he did. Michael proceeded to recite poetry from memory for almost an hour. Grand poetry. Beautiful poetry. His words expressed such pain and misery yet soared to the heavens with gratitude and a love for God so profound I lost track of time listening to him. He may have lost most of his intellect and everything else to his addiction, and here he was moving my soul with his joyful spiritual fervor. It was as if he was singing new psalms inspired by God.
When finally he stopped I could think of only one thing I could do in return. "Wait right here, Michael. I need to go to my car and get something. I want to share something with you now."
I walked back in a moment later with a volume of the Heritage Edition of the Saint John's Bible in hand. Now, for those of you who don't know what I mean about "Heritage Edition", allow me to explain in brief. The original hand-written hand-illuminated Saint John's Bible resides in Collegeville, MN, in the abbey and university's rare arts vault. In order to better share it, the university spent years creating fine-art replicas of the original pages, 299 sets in all. These Heritage Editions are the same size as the original - more than 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide when open. These are HUGE books, much larger than the coffee table versions you can buy at a book store. They are bound in Italian leather, printed on special cotton paper, and all of the artwork illuminated with gold and silver in the original is also illuminated with gold and silver foil in these replicas.
Yes, I had just set down a $25,000 book on a table at McDonald's and opened it to the beginning of Genesis, to share it with a homeless drug addict. And I began to give my presentation.
Every single time I have ever had the pleasure of sharing the Saint John's Bible with people, they have this reaction. This awe. This child-like wonder. And then come all the questions. Like the graduate theology students just hours before, Michael started asking me all kinds of questions about the meaning of each illumination we explored together.
No long passed before an elderly woman joined us at the table where I was giving my impromptu presentation. While Michael turned pages, I asked her about herself. She hesitated, "I'm... I'm a widow. And I don't like to leave home much. Sometimes I come here to watch TV at night when all the kids are gone and it's quiet. But tonight I heard the most wonderful poetry, and now I get to see this amazing Bible." So as I looked on and occasionally answered questions, Michael and this elderly widow turned pages of the Saint John's Bible together, and read scripture to each other.
Clearly, this was not a normal Sunday night at McDonald's, and the staff could tell something strange was going on in the booths. First one teen walked over and peeked shyly. Then another. Then all of them, about a half-dozen at least. They listened to Michael and the widow read from the Bible. Their manager came over a moment later, angry that all her staff had left their posts and were standing around a table. That is, until she saw what we were all looking at, an enormous hand-written Bible. Apparently not all of the teens could read or speak English, so as this strange blend of people touched pages, asked questions, pointed at illuminations, and read scripture aloud to each other, one girl would translate into Spanish.
So yeah, that's how the Saint John's Bible shut down a McDonald's restaurant one night and converted it into a church whose members included a homeless drug addict, a lonely widow, a bunch of immigrant children, a harried restaurant manager, and me. Our communion table had a McDonald's logo on it. We broke cheeseburgers together and drank diet soda. I know Jesus was present because I saw him in every person around that table.
Around midnight, I watched Michael walk down the road and into darkness, on a search for a place to sleep. He had asked me if I could give him enough money to buy breakfast, I gave him enough for lunch and dinner, too.
Today, my photo of my print edition of the Saint John's Bible was taken at that same McDonald's restaurant.