Over 20 years ago I began attending the 8:00 am service at St. John’s. The small quiet service suited me well, for I wanted no part of the social demands often attached to church-going. The early service provided a place for me to calm my anxious spirit before hurrying home to my two lively little boys. I could be alone with my thoughts. Though I was a doubter, I could try to pray. I could recite the beautiful words in The Book of Common Prayer, words penned by Thomas Cranmer more than 400 years earlier, words that had succored many generations before mine. Light pouring through stained glass windows comforted and inspired me. My favorite window was above the altar on the left, depicting a fair angel bearing white lilies. Her hair was pulled back gracefully, and behind her a branch could be seen moving in the wind beyond the glass.
Then the venerable Bruce Allen put a notice in the bulletin – he needed lectors. I auditioned for him in the otherwise empty sanctuary on a Saturday morning. Soon I was reading often and attending regularly. My sons were enrolled in the Nursery School. I remember slipping into Ash Wednesday services with my younger son, Charlie, when he was 4 years old – 20 years ago. (I’m not sure he has ever been to church on Ash Wednesday again, but I loved having him there beside me in the choir stalls on that long-ago afternoon.) The following autumn, my older son James was in first grade and he pleaded with me to teach his Sunday school class. (Thus began many years of edgy Sunday school teaching on my part.) And the year after that Juliet was born – and baptized at St. John’s. As our family grew, Michael and I became ever more connected to the people and traditions of St. John’s.
Pageants and Passions and progressive dinners, silhouettes cut at the Christmas Bazaar, Outreach projects and Vestry meetings, Advent wreaths and Easter lilies, ECW luncheons and Adult Education forums, belonging to a beloved book group made up of “church ladies” from St. John’s, our three children’s confirmations, the honor of reading psalms and prayers and bearing chalice as a Lay Eucharistic Minister, the joy of my Lenten reading (beginning in the year 2000!), trips to the Heifer farm for Juliet, cooking for Open Arms Men’s Shelter for me. The mission trip to Nicaragua, organized by Carla Berry with truly charitable spirit, was life-changing for both Juliet and James.But the wellspring of my lasting devotion to this church was the prayer service organized for Charlie in 1995, when his health was threatened by a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis that carried a grim prognosis. Friends and acquaintances from St. John’s and the wider community gathered at 4:00 p.m. one May afternoon to pray for Charlie’s recovery. They offered me candlelight and resonant words, the touch of their hands and the purest part of their hearts. At the 7:00 a.m. Wednesday services for an entire year afterwards, members of St. John’s continued to offer humble, daring prayers for his complete recovery. And our prayers were answered.
The time of Charlie’s illness was the time when my faith was strongest, when I felt lifted by an invisible hand. It was also the time when I at last comprehended that God and faith in God did not protect us from bad things, but allowed us to endure them and gave us the grace to do so without bitterness.
Even though my three healthy children are now grown and gone, I still want to be part of St. John’s, part of the fellowship I once thought I could do without. For two decades I have lifted my eyes to the white angel bearing lilies; I have sat and knelt as part of this congregation, often with good reason to be penitent, wrestling with doubt, grateful for moments when faith was strong. Letting Paul’s music and the Liturgy of the Word wash over me, looking around the pews at familiar faces, many of them now my dearly cherished friends, I have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. And the branch behind the white angel moves in that wind. – Carolyn Welcome