We all come to faith and our belief in Jesus Christ through different paths and experiences. Although we, at St. John’s, may not believe the same way, we are committed to supporting and loving each other as we all continue on our faith journey — struggling, questioning, affirming, and wondering. Below are faith stories shared by members of St. John’s.
God’s Love by Jean
My name is Jean and I am here today to share with you my personal story of experiencing God’s love. What is God’s love? For me, it is about trust. Trust that He has a plan for me. Trust that He knows my struggles and my desires. Trust that he won’t give me more than I can handle. Trust that how things are today is for the best. If you know anything about me, I can be a control freak. Just ask my husband, PC. I’m a planner and I work hard to reach my goals. So it’s really hard for me to let go and trust God with all things in my life. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on my your own understanding” from Proverbs 3:5 has been a cornerstone of my faith but really difficult for me to follow. I usually trust myself and my own abilities more. Not because I think I’m smarter or anything like that. But because it’s more tangible and controllable. If I work that much harder, can I influence the outcome? Somehow, God always seems to remind me that I should trust Him and that He is looking out for me and my family. It’s often humbling and reassuring. A really recent example of this involves Owen, my 9-month old son.
Over the Christmas and New Year holiday, he had a bad case of teething (8 teeth in total) and he became really ill when he stopped drinking any fluids. It was a scary time as a first-time mom. I tried so hard to help him. I diligently gave him breast milk to build his immunity, I used a medicine dropper and fed him liquids. I made smoothies with baby yogurt, breastmilk, strawberries and bananas. I pureed every fruit with high water content that I knew he liked. In the end, he still grew more sick and contracted RSV, a highly contagious virus. On New Year’s Day, Owen ended up being hospitalized. To say I was terrified is an understatement. I asked God, “Why would you let someone so innocent and young get so sick? What could I have done to prevent it? Will everything turn out alright? Will Owen get better? I prayed to God not to let my baby suffer. I prayed to God to give the right diagnosis to the doctors.” All these questions raced through my mind. At the hospital, I tried to stay as calm as possible. It was really hard. I watched Owen cry and scream for an hour as the nurses tried to draw some blood for lab tests. I watched Owen wimper and fall asleep exhausted. As I held his hand as he slept, I couldn’t help but feel utterly helpless. I could only hope that his doctors could properly diagnose his ailments. The nurses were taking his vitals every 2 hours. They gave him broad spectrum antibiotics. Owen was still getting worse. He contracted a few other infections. The diagnosis for one infection kept eluding them. The pediatrician thought he might have brain meningitis. They said they he might need a lumbar puncture for which we would need to go to the ICU. Outwardly, I had a brave face. Inwardly, I was terrified. By Day 4, something changed. Owen woke up from a long afternoon nap and as he lifted his head, he smiled. It was the first smile I had seen in days. It was a beautiful smile. From that afternoon onward, Owen steadily improved. By Day 5, the pediatrician was sending us home. The doctors still aren’t exactly sure why Owen turned the corner for better. That’s when I knew that this was another example of God’s love and my need to trust Him. He wasn’t going to give
me any trial that was more than I could bear. God was watching over Owen. It was His way of saying to me, “Trust me.” As we took Owen home after 5 days in the hospital, I was reminded of God’s love. God heard my prayers and answered them. It’s things like this that keep teaching me about trust.
God never stops reminding me that he is here and I should trust him. Even so, it still isn’t easy for me to let go of things and trust God with every aspect of my life. It’s in my nature to try to control the outcomes of things but I do find comfort knowing that God is watching over me. I’m trying one day at a time to trust God more and more. And I think it means trusting the people around me who love and care for me. I still have a long way to go, trust me, I know.
Not Alone by anonymous
Growing up in a developing country in Asia, religion did not get any attention – my parents were basically Taoists. Most Chinese families there were either Buddhists or Taoists and my family was not any different. And it did not mean much to me. Nevertheless, I also had friends growing up who were Muslims, Christians, Hindus, etc., but religion was never a part of any conversation in my earlier childhood. As I grew up and entered secondary school, I had a few Christian friends who were more inclined to share about their faith. But religion hardly made any impact on my life nor did I have any interest in it.
I didn’t think much about anything religious as a teenager. I was just somewhat sailing along in school and life. I pretty much had a plan or so I thought. I was headed in the direction everyone (including myself) expected of me – to finish school and become a doctor … end of life, end of story …
But things changed. That didn’t happen. I did go to med school for a short period first in after completing the ‘A’-levels. For various reasons, I left my home country and ended up going to college in Massachusetts.
I had no real clue what I wanted to study and do when I came to this country in 1981. It was a whole new experience for me – to be on my own and to learn a lot about everything. I had no family here. I was alone. As a consequence, I learned a lot about myself in the years since I first arrived in the US. And I missed having my family and friends that I grew up with around me. I moved again in 1985 and came to Berkeley for grad school. But it was not until the late 80’s after graduate school that I started wondering why we even existed. That’s when I first started checking out the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, introduced to it by friends who attended services there. I eventually joined First Presbyterian around 1990 or so – I can’t remember exactly. There I found a community of people I could connect with – especially so with the bible study group which I was a part of. It was the people that I was drawn to. I felt like I belonged.
I had no idea what having faith really was. But by that time, I realize there is a God. And I believe my existence in this world is really a miracle that happens everyday. This miracle was more apparent to me when I first met my 2 year-old nephew in 1990. I mention him, mainly because when he was 5, he asked me a question, which I could not answer to his satisfaction. The question was – what happens when mom and dad die? And he got me thinking of my own questions about life and after-life.
My feelings of loneliness made me want to have fellowship, which I found through the Church and its members. It was through the Church and my bible study group, that I found a second family. I wanted to be a member of the Church at First Presbyterian so I could have a family and that’s when I decided to get baptized. Didn’t know what baptism was all about.
Since then, my journey has been full of ups and downs. I realize that I am still learning about what it means to be a Christian. But I know what being a Christian means to me. For me, it’s about faith and family, my Christian family. I moved to this neighborhood (on lake street) and first met Pastor John around 1994 or so. I was looking for a place, a community of people where I would feel comfortable, accepted as I am. Looking to find a family in a sense. But I did not come back here until late in 2003! In those years, quite a few things happened. My sister (who I was closest to) moved from London back to our hometown, I became a homeowner, my grandmother passed away in December 1998, I became a citizen, my father passed away and finally, I got laid off. All these events basically were related to losing or separating from family in some way.
So when I finally came here again, I wanted to be in a family. And this time, I’ve stayed a bit longer. I have learned a bit more since then. And made some connections with some of you here. Being here has been easy, mainly because this church community accepts me as I am. And you care. For me, this community and family, you all, is how I have faith.
Faithful Memories by John
Here’s just a little background on my church experience. Most of my youth was going to a small rural Presbyterian church in Maple Plain, MN, just west of Minneapolis. After college, I attended a more urban church with a very active mission work. When I moved to San Francisco, I started attending St. John’s about twelve years ago. There are two instances in my life that have shaped my faith perspective in my life.
While attending the Maple Plain church, we had an interim pastor Dr. William Bell. He was filling in while the call – search went on. Billy was in his mid to late eighties at this point and was living in a retirement home in Minneapolis. I would drive in on Saturday afternoon and pick Billy up to spend the night with us and get him to church the next morning. We would have great conversations on the way home. The most memorable conversation was about his perseverance and what it did to my perspective on my life in my late teens. Right out of seminary, Billy took a job as a traveling pastor and had several small congregations. On one cold and snowy trip between churches – now this would have been in the 1920’s and by horse and sleigh – he said that there were many snow drifts and on one of these drifts his horse made it over but the sleigh and he didn’t. The sleigh went over throwing him into the snow. He told me about righting the sleigh and continuing on. When everything gets a little tough, I think back to this story and think again that life isn’t so hard.
The next instance happened just a few years ago. My children each have one of the Tang brothers in their class at school. You may remember Jerry Tang who went missing here in San Francisco about three years ago. There was an e-mail sent out for volunteers to help search around the city for him. They thought that he maybe confused and walking around the city. As I was on my way out the door to the search headquarters the guy that was working with me came in. He had just gotten his new laptop and wanted to show me all the bells and whistles. I said I had to leave to help with the search for Jerry Tang, but he insisted that he show me one more thing. On my drive I got a call from another friend. He asked what I was up to. I explained about Jerry and the search. His next words were “Call me when you get to your search area and my wife and I will come help you search.” We spent two to three hours searching around Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park.
What does this have to do with my faith journey? It reminds me to look at what is important in life and not get caught up with the shiny new things.
Rejoicing Not Only in Hope by Carol
I’ve learned that tragic events can focus our faith. I’ve also experienced how change—going in a completely different direction—can give new perspective and meaning to a faith relationship with God. I was brought up in the Presbyterian church in Florida. My parents were—and still are—active in their church. Naturally I experienced Sunday school, youth group and so on. I married my former husband in the Presbyterian Church. Like most young married couples, we planned to have children, but we couldn’t. We endured several years of difficult infertility treatments and eventually learned that we couldn’t conceive. Accepting that I was never going to be a mother was a painful experience. Mother’s Day is always a little hard for me. But I felt God’s peace through that tragedy. I came to accept that we had done what we could and God must have other plans. Several years later our marriage failed. That was more difficult, especially since what I was hearing at the church I attended was that Christians really are not supposed to get divorced. What I was hearing was, we want a better version of you. The messages I heard made me feel like an outsider who wasn’t entirely welcome. In hindsight, a lot of that had to do with my own perceptions about self-worth.
I learned a wonderful passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans about rejoicing not only in the hope of the glory of God, but also in suffering. Paul says we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5: 2-5.) Paul’s message is powerful. For me it was also empowering. The ordeal of divorce led me to gain strength, and understanding, and hope, and a new purpose. I met Andy; we dated long distance from San Francisco to Florida for three years. Each of us had a lot of alone time to reflect on which direction our lives should lead next. I found a fantastic therapist. She might as well have fallen out of the sky, she was that good for me. She offered perspective, guidance and strength. I prayed a lot. I gradually realized that my former marriage had become unhealthy for me as a person, and that I needed to go in a different direction to be healthy and open to what God wanted from me.
Nearly 8 years ago Andy and I were married in the same Presbyterian church in Florida where I was married the first time. Same church, different pastor, much smaller ceremony! I moved to San Francisco. We’d been attending St. John’s for a number of years, but somehow only took the leap to become members a couple of years ago. Now I wonder what kept us so long. We talk a lot about discernment at St. John’s—we pray that we’re able to discern what God’s plans are, that we have the ability to hear His purpose for us. When I look back at the past dozen or so years, I realize that when I married Andy, I made enormous changes. I moved across country, away from friends and family, away from a familiar community, took a new Bar exam in California after practicing law for 20 years in Florida and changed jobs. Yet all of those things seemed perfectly natural and logical. And each step of the way I absolutely knew I was doing the right thing.
This morning is Mother’s Day. I know I’m in the right place, the right city, and the right faith community. I realize that God has had His hand guiding my life all along. And if I keep trying to discern His purpose, He’ll continue to do that. It’s sort of amazing.
The Intellectual Approach by Catherine
“Sharing faith” — for me, those two words inspire fear and trepidation, as it is out of my comfort zone to talk publicly about something I feel inadequate to speak on. What to say? A news reporter would find no story in my faith journey, no ‘big moment’. Instead, it has been lots of little things that build on one another to strengthen my faith and knowledge of God as time has gone by.
I have approached a relationship with God mostly through an intellectual approach — reading the bible and other things that seem to add evidence or insight to my growing understanding of the mysteries of the meaning of life and my place in it. It seems that evidence abounds of God’s existence, in the consistencies found among religious traditions and the natural world. One recent discovery is in reading Masaru Imoto’s book “Hidden Messages in Water” in which he describes his experiments photographing ice crystals and seeing how they respond to the quality of the water and energy around them. Obviously pure water crystals photograph like beautiful snowflakes while polluted water is misshapen and ugly. But the interesting thing is that he found that water exposed to “love and gratitude” were the most beautiful, no matter what the language or whether written, spoken, or expressed through beautiful music. Both humans and the earth are over 70% water — so in a scientific sense, “love” and gratitude” two things found in abundance in Christ’s teachings, are key to health.
I’ve learned most about love and gratitude through having a family. Julianne Moore, becoming a mother for the first time, said, “One of the greatest things about having a daughter is that now I finally understand how much my mother loves me.” I agree with that and take it one step further: now that I have experienced the intense, unconditional, “want what’s best no matter what” feelings of love for my sons, I can better understand God’s love for me, for all of us. As a parent, you love your children so strongly — when they are disobedient and it causes them pain or discomfort, you are frustrated and ache too, but they make their own choices, you can only try to teach and influence. It must be something like that for God who loves us so much — He tries to teach us, sent His Son to show us, and yet, we still don’t always “get it”, and don’t always obey Him. Yet He still loves us, is always there, waiting and hoping we’ll follow Him, but giving us the choice.
My son likes to say “I love you more than God does” as I’ve tried to instill in him the notion of how much God loves him, loves all of us. It is wonderful the intense and passionate love a 3-year-old son can feel toward his mother. I am not yet able to truly say that I love God in the same way, but I hope instead that my love for God will grow deeper as my relationship in him grows deeper. However, I also know that my son’s love for me is a selfish love – not truly a love that wants the best for me, for my sake, as God does. I hope that God’s gift of my family, for which I am so grateful, continues to be a way of getting closer to Him, understanding His great love for us, and can lead me where He wants me to be.
Acceptance of Me by Dale
I was born to very religious Methodist parents in North Carolina. We were taken to church several times a week. My parents’ faith was based mostly on don’ts. There was only a Methodist God, and he couldn’t accept me as I was. I figured religion was all that way. I felt guilty, and saw a big gap between church and reality. At college, I was captivated by a new perspective from the religion professors—biblical history came to life, and I saw the difference between OT and NT faith. I started studying Christianity in a more enlightened way. Yet, I could not yet reconcile the disparate elements.
Years went by in my life after college, when I did not go to church much — maybe only to experience something unusual, like the famous Riverside Church when I lived in NYC, or on special occasions. I gave church another yeoman’s try when my daughters were entering their teens, but their resistance was even stronger than mine had been, and it didn’t “take” for any of us. Later on, I got very involved in a big church in NYC. I became an Elder, and head of Stewardship. However, I wasn’t going to church for the right reasons, or experiencing any real faith during these passages of my life. I went out of curiosity, sometimes to see and hear a performance (I always loved church music), or for appearances — it looked good (to my wife, my friends, my resume, my colleagues, etc.), or because I could do something interesting in finance or fund raising on a church committee. I enjoyed meeting successful people at church (but, honestly, didn’t stop very long for any of the rest).
Then, I went through a 2nd divorce, and at the same time, I chose to retire from my career. I went through a period of sadness, depression, and loneliness, associated with losing all these transient “identities,” marriage, business card with impressive title, etc. I felt lost, spiritually.
That’s when I started to attend St. John’s. Soon, I felt this was the real “church home” I’d never known. I was finally able to see in action, what I had been missing.
My life experiences finally prepared me to appreciate a place like St. John’s — a place with a tolerance for individual expression and a spirit and a sense of warmth that encourages the kind of Christianity that I feel right for me – the climate I need to best enable me to experience God in my life. The most important things I find at St. John’s are the acceptance for me, and the sense of community. This is what I need now, to enable me to learn how to love others and to allow them to love me. It isn’t that I am a great Christian, but now I know a little more about how to love others and to experience God’s love for me.
O Ye of Little Faith by David
I have between two and three minutes for faith sharing. That is about right, for I guess I’m someone of little faith. My Grandfather Liddicoat was a Methodist minister. My Grandfather and Grandmother Miller were charter members of our neighborhood Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was a church where most families knew one another, as opposed to a large downtown church where most families did not know one another. We lived close to Grandpa and Grandma Miller and our family attended that same neighborhood church. Mom and Dad attended every Sunday. We kids attended most Sundays too. I feel that our family was well grounded in faith.
Most things in life make logical sense. So as a child, I was shocked when I learned in Sunday school that we should love God more than anybody, including our folks! It didn’t seem right! I couldn’t explain it. I still can’t. It is true that God is without fault, while humans are fallible. But how can a young boy love God more than someone who hugs him when he falls and skins his knee? Oh well, I was being taught by adults, and they had my best interests at heart. I couldn’t explain how you could pick up a nail with a magnet either, nor could I explain free candy on Halloween. I tried to practice that advice to love God more than anybody. I only got as far as trying. I loved Mom and Dad more.
Today, church is still very much like an adult teaching a child. We know that church has our best interests at heart. Therefore, we listen and try to practice all we hear. We aren’t supposed to pick and choose what we want to practice. And to want to practice all we hear, we’ve really got to have faith!
Home Away from Home by Dick
As I considered how to write my story, I felt like I was missing something. I had never had a dramatic life changing experience which we frequently hear people describe when they discuss their faith. My experience is much more ordinary, and much more centered on how I have been strengthened by the community of believers.
I was raised in a Christian family; the oldest of five children. We were involved in all the church activities. Every week there was Sunday school, church services, youth groups, and potlucks. I was even in the children’s choir until they realized that my vocal skills were on par with those of the dancing penguin in the movie “Happy Feet”.
As I was growing up, my father’s job required that we move three times. Each time we moved to a new community, a first order of business was to find a new church home. It was a big part of our family life and our new home needed the nurturing of a community of faith.
When I was seventeen I joined the Army as a Cadet at West Point. You may have heard stories about how unpleasant life is for plebes (freshmen) and West Point. Those stories are generally accurate, but the religious community is strong there, and was a source of comfort and reassurance to see me through difficult times. In 1978 I graduated from the Military Academy and began my career of service to our country.
Frequent moves are common in the military. I’ve lived in 20 different places in the last 29 years. Each time I moved to a new duty station I would seek out a new church home. I needed to be with the community of faith. That sharing experience with the new church communities has been an important part of my life and has led to great rewards. Twenty-five years ago I met my wife Cindy in a church in Tacoma Washington. Her father was the minister of music there. I tried to stay on his good side by not joining his choir (my vocal music skills have not improved over the years). It took me a few years to convince Cindy that she wanted to follow a soldier around the world. I was finally successful, and she has been doing it for the last twenty years.
We have been very fortunate that military service has called us to San Francisco, and St. Johns, twice. Our daughter Nicole was born here in 1998 and was carried down the aisle by John Anderson at her baptism. You have all been here for those baptism ceremonies, (and if you haven’t, you will, because we have one today). Part of the ceremony asks all of you to commit to help the parents in the raising of the child.
That shared responsibility in the nurturing of our children has a special importance to me. My specialty in the Army is Engineering and Construction. I have been called to serve in many austere and dangerous places. When service members go on these types of assignments, their families remain in the United States. I recently served a one-year assignment in Iraq, returning 18 months ago. I was responsible for rebuilding the critical infrastructure of Baghdad and Anbar provinces – the two most volatile provinces of Iraq. You have all seen the environment there, and while I faced personal risk on a daily basis, I was much more worried about my family back here than I was about myself. I took great comfort in knowing that a church family that was committed to nurturing them was standing by to fulfill those commitments that they made at my children’s baptisms assist where I could not.
We came to St. John’s for the second time in 2005, after my service in Iraq, and have gotten involved in just about everything that goes on here at the Church. One of the greatest things that we have gotten involved with is the “Harvest” program. Every Saturday morning we provide food to about 170 of the low income families living in our neighborhood. For the Thompson’s this has been a family activity and we get much more out of it than we give. That is what our community is all about.
My life has been one of transitions. A week from tomorrow I will retire from the Army and begin a new type of service. I will be overseeing the construction and operation of facilities for an organization in southern California dedicated to the prevention and cure of cancer and other life threatening diseases. The organization is called City of Hope and it has been serving people in need for almost a century. We are saddened to be leaving our friends here, but are excited about this new opportunity to serve, and confident that we will find another community of faith that we will be able to call home.
I’m Okay with That! by Donna
Where God is in my life is a long and difficult question for me to answer. It is probably more instructive to speak of what brought me to St. John’s to really address where my faith stands now. A bit of history – I was brought up in the Congregational church in Manhassett, L.I., which like so many churches in the 1960’s and 70’s had big congregations and substantial youth programs, though I stopped participating once I was confirmed. Like many, my teen and young adult years were busy and church was only on my radar at Christmas and Easter.
What brought me back to church quite simply were my children. I thought (and still think) it would be valuable for my children to know their spiritual selves as well as learn about the life of a teacher, Jesus, whose lessons I greatly admire. This led me to teaching Sunday school here, which I found really delightful. I think I was just as happy revisiting stories with the children, than I was in worship with the adults. The challenge to get the message to the kids in ways that they could process and take with them into their lives was very satisfying even if the curriculum was sometimes challenging and the kids occasionally needed to just play and have the lesson in “readers digest” form.
So where am I now – how are the teachings of Jesus working in my life? I’ve been talking with my kids about this a great deal as daily it seems there are events that for me call into question the nature of my faith in God as well as Christ’s living examples of compassion. Honestly, I do not always feel that I have both feet grounded in this thing called my faith. In spite of my pessimism, I decided to become a Deacon here. I thought it important to get closer to my doubts. It has been a good decision. It is very moving to be surrounded by people who are actively engaged in carrying out Christ’s message of compassion. I know that this is the very heart and soul of the members of this congregation. The living examples set by many of you here today have absolutely convinced me of the power, beauty and necessity of the commitment to strive to live a life of compassion. I expect that the doubts on my journey of faith will never completely disappear. And I’m OK with that.
Unanswered Questions by Elaine
The last time I shared my faith story was in college, where I became a committed Christian. Back then, it was called a testimony. It is sharing how you came to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. If you’re not familiar with evangelical jargon, it means sharing your faith story. But the story I’m about to tell today is quite different from the story I told many, many, many moons ago.
Giving your testimony was like an initiation rite. We were expected and asked to share our testimonies during fellowship meetings. Like any good fairy tale or Hollywood movie, testimonies begin with a setting—what life was like before encountering Jesus—then build up to a climax (either a crisis or conflict like a chase scene or battle scene that has the audience at the edge of their seats) and flow into a resolution, where good overcomes evil, the storyteller meets Jesus Christ, and they live happily ever after.
Some people didn’t have to try very hard to create drama because their lives were dramatic. Broken families, hurting relationships, and addictions were some examples that led to the climax. Others of us, like me, had to work hard to create drama. What drama can there be in a quiet and sheltered life? My parents created a safe and stable home and always provided for us. I tried to be a good student, get good grades and not get into trouble. Somehow I managed to fit my testimony into the fairy tale mold and got through this initiation rite.
I tried to live my life like a fairy tale. When people asked how I was doing, I would always answer that I was fine. I gave the impression that I had my act together. Isn’t that the Christian life? To believe in a big God who would protect me from all troubles? It took me a while to realize that that was not the Christian life. What then is the Christian life? It may be easier to answer what it is not than what it is. Besides, I am still discovering what it is. It is not a neatly tied package. There are many loose ends, and there are many questions with no answers. For example, why are there homeless people on the streets in a world-class city like San Francisco, in a state that is one of the largest economies in the world? And what can we do about it?
On a more personal level, why did a close friend become emotionally and psychologically unstable? In her condition, she stopped contacting me and left no forwarding address. What has happened to her?
And why do I have so many fears? They are not exotic ones, just your garden variety of fears, like the fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of criticism, fear of ridicule, not to mention the fear of public speaking. If I believed in a great God who saved me from death, why do I have these fears?
The amazing thing is I continue to live in faith. By God’s grace and love, I continue to live with the tension between unanswered questions and hope. God’s grace and love is shown in many ways. One way is through people, in community. It is like cooking a meal. I like trying new recipes. Sometimes it turns out looking like the picture in the magazine. But more often, it takes a lot of imagination to see a vague resemblance. But how does it taste? God’s grace and love come through when family and friends are willing to be guinea pigs no matter what the dish looks like or how it tastes. And it always tastes better when it is shared.
So I end this story with no answers, but a reminder that God gives us faith. Sometimes God gives us answers, but always God give us faith, showers us with grace and loves us in many ways.
Faith-Learning by Evelyn
Most of my childhood, I grew up “nothing” — that is, at least, religiously. I always felt like there was a God but my family weren’t church-goers so neither was I. It wasn’t until I went to college that I really had the opportunity to try out the church stuff. Early on in college I met a life-long friend who has two very remarkable qualities. One, she is literally the nicest person you’ll ever meet. And two, she is also someone who is able to talk about God in her daily life without being preachy or overbearing.
So one day I asked my friend if I could go with her to a Friday night church group that she regularly attended. I always wondered why she didn’t ask me to come, but in retrospect, I appreciate that it required some initiative on my part to go. We came to a time of prayer and I remember the leader saying something like, “If you haven’t yet said yes to God, you can do it right now. You can say yes, Jesus, I accept you in my life. If you’re willing to do that, then just raise your hand. That’s all it takes.” I remember sitting there with my eyes closed and thinking, “huh, that seems reasonable. No one will see, so I can do that.” So I raised my hand. Little did I know that there were people with their eyes open watching! I don’t think I really understood what I had done until the end of the service and people came up and congratulated me. I was like, “Ack! What have I done?”
So that was sort of the beginning. From there, when I went to grad school I became a regular church-goer and I admit that what made me a regular was the church softball team. It’s really hard to come up with excuses why you are able to make softball but not show up on Sundays! But it was the friendships that I made that made me actually want to go to church on Sunday and see how everyone as doing. At that church, I learned what community was and how important and valuable a church community is.
It wasn’t until my time here at St. John’s and after having met my boyfriend that I really feel like my faith-life has caught up with what I signed up for so many years ago. Church is still fun — don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved the community here — but I think I’m at a point now where it doesn’t just end there at community. I’m actually trying to learn more about what I supposedly “believe.” So I participate in the weekly bible study, and I pray, and I have to admit, even though I’m constantly shocked by what I read in the bible, it hasn’t scared me off! I guess for me, St. John’s has been a great place to learn and to give back. And I just hope that, I can be for others like my friend and many others have been for me. On the one hand just a super nice person, and on other, if you’re willing to ask, someone through whom you can see the light of God in their daily actions.
Gratitude by Jackie
I am one of those incredibly fortunate individuals who has had the opportunity to be involved in church all of my life. Family lore has it that when I was 2 weeks old, my dad, a southern Baptist minister, and my mom bundled me up and took me to church, introduced me to the congregation as “our joint project- together we will raise this child to know and love the Lord. And to know and love the scriptures.”
I was blest with wonderful SS teachers and they took my spiritual education very seriously. I was grounded in Bible study, scripture memorization, sword drills, etc.
We talked about Abraham, Moses and Daniel so much I thought they were my uncles! I went off to college with my role models the powerful and Godly women of the Bible — Esther, Ruth, Rehab, Deborah and Dorcas, to name just a few.
Early after arriving at college, I fell in love. I married my husband and we began our spiritual journey. Early in our marriage, my husband came into the military and began his career as an Army Chaplain with a tour of duty in Viet Nam.
In 1983, we moved to SF when my husband was assigned as the Post Chaplain at the Presidio. We retired after 30 years and 17 family moves around the world.
In April of this year, I retired after 20 years as a senior executive with a computer consulting company. Since retirement, I have had the opportunity to be involved at St John’s, especially with Harvest. Harvest is a wonderful mission of our church allowing us to give from our bounty, provide a service to the community and a fellowship with community and church volunteers.
My spiritual journey is about gratitude — for my roots in the small town in South Carolina, the paths my journey has taken and the people who have loved and guided me. My Dad who gave me a vision of a life of power committed to prayer and Bible Study. My husband who helps me keep my faith real.
And, now three little granddaughters who are helping me write a new chapter on unconditional love. My mom died this summer and my dad, at 90 lives in a care facility in SC. He is battling advanced dementia. When I visit, we cannot talk about many things, but he can pray. It is a miracle to listen. When I look at him, I can almost hear the Lord say, “Jackie, why are you so surprised? Didn’t you think I could hold onto him?”
I am reminded of God’s wonderful promise in Isaiah 43: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you walk through the valley, I will be with you, when you walk through the fire, you will not be consumed. For you are precious to me and I love you.”
My Journey by John
Like most people who have stood here to share their faith journey, I do not think I have anything profound to say. All I hope to do is to tell you a little about how I got to my current point in faith. I grew up on the East Coast. I was one of five children in a Roman Catholic family. My family was pretty devout. We went to Mass every Sunday and my siblings and I attended Sunday School after church. We also attended other Church events like picnics and dinners. At points, two of my siblings attended Catholic schools.
The benefit of my early faith was that I fully absorbed Christian values and they form a very basic part of my identity. Through my church and family, I learned: to accept Christ as my Savior; to try to obey the Ten Commandments; to try to follow the Golden Rule; etc. So in that way, the Catholic Church and the priests and nuns were a very positive influence on me. However, in other ways the church was a negative influence. Somehow the joy of the Christian message was largely obscured. Most of my family’s religious actions seemed driven by guilt, rule or ritual rather than the more positive aspects of the Christian message. I do not mean this as a general criticism of the Catholic Church – it is just what I experienced.
I left home to go to college and then on to law school and to work. During those years, organized religion was not a part of my life. I would very occasionally attend church but most Sundays a few extra hours to sleep or to work were more important than church. However, I still tried to follow basic Christian values and to do the right thing and to help others when I could. But I always felt a bit of a void since I did not belong to a church community. I worked in New York and Asia as a lawyer and then moved back to the U.S. to work for an investment fund. Working in these business circles exposed me to a variety of people – some of whom had very different values than mine. In some ways this was a big shock to me. I think it was these experiences that started to lead me back to church. Let me give you a few examples: During this time, I always tried to help those who asked me for help. I remember being surprised when others did not help those in need because there was “nothing in it” for them. I also remember one investor telling me he would help someone but only because that person would then owe him a favor that he could call on later. I also worked on a number of transactions where parties flatly lied to gain some economic advantage. And thought nothing of it.
A number of events like these made me realize how integral Christian values were to me. Of course, like everyone, I am flawed and frequently fail to live up to Christian ideals. But, I realized how much I aspired to follow those ideals. Thus, when my wife and I moved to San Francisco, we started looking for a church. Happily, we found St. John’s and its wonderful sense of community. It is welcoming and joyous, especially towards children – quite the opposite of the church of my youth. I feel very lucky to be part of such a wonderful Christian community. And I hope that this community will help to instill in our two sons those same basic Christian values that have sustained me: faith in Christ; compassion; doing the right thing.
I would like to close by talking about two deaths. As I wrote this I started to see them as important “milestones” along my faith journey, to continue that metaphor. I feel that somehow they may indicate how far I have come. The first was the death of my mother. My mother had her first seizure when I was 13, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and eventually died my junior year of high school. Her death did not drive me away from God but her death was hard for an adolescent to understand and hard to reconcile with the concept of a loving God. The second death was that of my best friend who died suddenly this January as the result of a heart attack while training for Masters Swimming. Although his death was also tragic and a shock, like that of my mother, with God’s help my reaction has been very different. My reaction has been one of simple gratitude to God: gratitude that I had the opportunity to know and love and learn from my friend for almost thirty years.
I now see that both lives were gifts from a wonderful, loving God – gifts for which I am humbly thankful.
The Shape of Things by Kim
It was September 2001. Aaron had died a week earlier, and I was caught up in an endless spiral of online SIDS research, googling through a mass of conflicting and questionable clinical studies, wacko theories, and the parent blame game. I remembered the nurse’s response that there was nothing I could have done to revive Aaron. “Oh, honey, none of them come back. Not if they’re SIDS babies.” she’d said. I’d felt a rush of gratefulness for her candor and relief that my unexpected coffee stop hadn’t kept me from being there to catch him in the nick of time. Taking to heart the nurse’s gentle words and the circular, unanswered questions surrounding SIDS research, I moved past my first small step towards recovery – that there was nothing I could have done to save Aaron. Instead I shifted to what could have been different about Aaron — what physical attribute had contributed to his death. In other words, I was looking for another angle for my guilt.
After two hours online, my head hurt from the negative, conspiracy theory-based rants of desperate, devastated parents. I turned off the computer and left my cramped, messy office nook to sit in Aaron’s nursery and connect to him.
Sitting on his blue and green car-shaped rug, I imagined the sounds and smells of this room only a week ago: Aaron’s flailing hands and feet on his changing table; lazy, nursing naps with him in the glider; rounds of Dr. Seuss books on the futon. I glanced over at the “Tyler”-stenciled bookcase we’d moved to Aaron’s room (a hand-me-down that I figured wouldn’t cause any trouble for at least a few years), and I noticed several board books scattered along the bottom of the three-tier shelf. I bent down to neaten the row, organizing the books by height. In what I can now cast as Aaron’s urging, but at the time just felt like a memory I needed to stroke, I began to read The Shape of Me and Other Stuff. As usual, Dr. Seuss’ words hit home. “The shape of you, the shape of me, the shape of everything I see; Of all the shapes I could have been, …I say HOORAY for the shape I’m in!” As I read, I felt my heart expand, wide and warm, and heard that little whisper inside my head that I was starting to recognize as Aaron. He told me, “I’m perfect. So are you.”
The link between his words and Dr. Seuss’ came to me in a rush, too quickly to sit and ponder whether I’d connected the dots for myself or just listened to my heart. The voice inside my head continued, “Not early, not late, but right on time. My time.” At that moment, I felt that he knew. He planned it, just as Kevin had said the day of his death. SIDS was the vehicle, not the horrible accident, not the wrong end of 2000:1 statistics, not the cutting short of what could have been a wonderful life. Aaron had fulfilled his purpose and his life’s goal. It just wasn’t what I thought his life would look like when he arrived in a rush on May 29th.
I should probably clarify here that I don’t see these “defects” as being God-directed, so to speak, as in “God decided you would be miserable” but instead, that all aspects of our lives — our family circumstances, our body chemistry, our birthplace – are all part of the toolkit we choose to fulfill purpose in our lives. I’d grown up with clear ideas of what was good about my life, what was difficult, or “bad”. What I could not have understood without Aaron’s loss was that this worst-possible-thing-that-could-happen to a parent could also be wrapped in intention. Purpose. A purpose that Aaron and I agreed to take on together, with God’s guidance, with free will to accept or alter. Blessings — with responsibilities, lots of questions, and many other emotions mixed together. But still, blessings.
The Reflection of Faith by Martha
A few Sundays ago, John talked about one’s comfort zone and stretching its boundaries. For me, this is one of those moments. I have been hesitant to accept John’s invitation to come up here because I have felt that my story is not truly inspiring in the world of “faith sharing”. On the other hand, perhaps my own experience may seem somewhat familiar to your own.
I recently ended a year-long term as a leader in my local parent group that I have belonged to since my son Brett was a baby. (he recently turned four). In my final column for the monthly newsletter, I wrote about the sense of community that the club had given me and my family, something I did not even know had been lacking in my life. On any given day, I can go to Safeway, our local parks or even the Target a few miles away and see at least one person I know or have met through this organization. This phenomenon will only increase when Brett starts elementary school and maybe by then, a little anonymity may be in order.
Thinking about my faith and how to explain it is similar to what I’ve just described. I didn’t realize there was something in me that wanted and needed it. My religious upbringing was neither oppressive nor was I ever discouraged from questioning meanings or any of the “rules” I was meant to follow. Nonetheless, I never felt connected to my church or felt I belonged to the greater community it represented. Now that I’m older, I realize this was simply a reflection of my own immediate family’s way of living and not any deliberate attempt from anyone to keep us away. In any case, it became quite easy to stop attending church when I became older and certainly not feel guilty about it. I never stopped believing but didn’t feel compelled to do anything about it.
As the years went on, I found myself attending church in the infamous “Christmas and Easter” fashion and enjoyed the services but no urgency to commit myself further. I found myself praying when life got a little challenging but then would immediately chastise myself for seeking God’s help only because times were rough. This certainly wasn’t the behavior of a true believer was it? And yet, why did I even bother if there wasn’t something that made praying a natural thing do? Was I the only one who felt this way?
As it turns out, I wasn’t. However, neither my husband Andy nor I could put our finger on what exactly we were looking for in a church, so our search began in the most pragmatic of ways with the geographical approach. Luckily, we were living in the Richmond at the time so our search ended quickly and happily after two mere visits to St. John’s. Being welcomed here every time, even when the interval is a bit long, makes the path to faith a little less daunting. John and Theresa have certainly set the tone in making St. John’s a good place to discover one’s faith but so has this congregation who has created this welcoming community.
So when I did find myself confronting some rough waters a couple of years ago, I prayed for the strength to get through it instead of praying for God to simply make it go away. I didn’t chastise myself either which is certainly progress and an act of faith, I believe.
Women of Faith by Matt
As you know, Pastor John has asked the deacons and elders to share a faith story with the congregation. In preparing for today, I noticed something that maybe other deacons and elders have also experienced. I noticed a similarity with preparing for this mornings talk to getting ready for a recent dentist visit. As my dental appointment drew closer, I found myself brushing longer and even flossing daily. As this Sunday drew near I found myself praying more, asking for guidance and forgiveness more often. Therefore, I stand before you this morning flossed and forgiven!
Well, like many people at St. John’s, I grew up in a church. As a child, I went to Sunday school and church each Sunday, sometimes twice on Sundays. The church I grew up in was also a Presbyterian church but a different denomination than Presbyterian USA. It was much more legalistic and very literal in how they chose to interpret “certain” parts of the bible. One of the main differences between the two denominations is in the roles of men and women in the church. In the Presbyterian church I grew up in, women where not allowed to teach men, be elders or deacons, nor be a pastor. Women could just teach each other or children in Sunday school. I remember most of our elders in this church being older Scottish gentlemen who could pray for 30 minutes straight and claimed to be childhood friends with John Calvin. Given this spiritual upbringing, plus living in a house with a younger brother, mother, and father who definitely was head of the household, I clearly grew up in a very male dominated world. Boy, did God have another plan for my life…. I see you have met Suzanne, Taylor and Quinn.
About 16 years ago, after my first of two daughters was born, my wife and I began shopping for a new church. Shortly after the ’89 earthquake, I started anchor-bolting homes to their foundations as part of my business. One day, I was bolting down a new client’s home. He told me that he was an organist at a church that was getting a new pastor and that he was very excited about the new minister. So we came to St. John’s on Pastor Bennett’s first Sunday. We were one of the only families here and the only parents in our late 20s at the time. Everyone was very welcoming. I remember Dorothy Arney would not let us leave coffee hour until we promised we would come back next week.
I found the St. John’s community and ministry very open and accepting. All are invited to the communion table. It did not matter what your specific Christian faith history. Interpretation of scripture was much more open-ended, there was more than one possible answer. All this was new to me coming from a Presbyterian church. But even more refreshing is its view of women in the church. Women are elders, deacons, lay-ministers, teachers, and pastors. This is very important for a man with an independent, career and family minded spouse, and two intelligent, hard working and independent thinking daughters. St. John’s having female leaders such as Earldean, Carol, Elaine and Theresa (just to name a few) as important role models for the three ladies in my life is something that is important to me. Adjusting to this change of gender leadership came easy to me, because it just felt right.
The one change, when we first came to St. John’s, that took me a little more time to adjust to, was having women pastors preach from the pulpit. At first it just felt different. Part of it could have been my fear that my parents might choose to visit St. John’s on a Sunday when we had a female guest preacher and that they would walk out at the beginning of the sermon. But that feeling did not last long and now, I look forward to Sundays that Pastor Theresa delivers the sermon. (So, Theresa, were cool.)
So you can see that God’s plan of finding St. John’s as my home church has been very important to me in the second or adult phase of my spiritual life. I am very grateful to all the female and male leaders of this church in how they have spoken to me and been wonderful examples to my family.
I See Clearly by Theresa
Faith is such an abstract concept. It is hard to fully grasp or wrap our heads around the meaning of faith. Hebrews 11 helps by describing faith — “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.” To me, faith is an important ingredient in my life journey. Faith truly helps me handle not only those things I can’t see yet, but those things I can’t explain yet. I can’t explain why there is suffering and pain in the world. And for that matter, I can’t explain why there is also tremendous joy in the world. I can’t explain why my father-in-law was diagnosed with prostate cancer and on the same day, InHo and I found out I was pregnant with our second child. I also can’t explain why in the same week, my father-in-law had a successful surgery that made him cancer free and I began to have symptoms that eventually led to a miscarriage. For a while there, not only could I not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I couldn’t see where God was in all of this. I am thankful during those times to have family and friends who gently guided me to the light when I couldn’t see it and had faith on my behalf when I had lost it. I am thankful for the wise people in my life who have already lived a lifetime reminding me that this all will pass. I am thankful and grateful for the young ones in my life who remind me that there is a life worth living and life goes on. I am thankful for my partner in life, InHo, who journeys with me through the ups and downs. I am thankful for my little Ian, who wakes me up in the morning with a bright smile and a crazy dog, Chewy, who prods me outside when I would rather veg on the couch. And lastly, I am grateful for a faith community, like St. John’s, who makes the concept of faith less abstract and more concrete, through the sharing of your faith stories, through the hugs and hellos, and through your example of Christ’s love.
When faith is lost, it creeps back in through the act of being thankful and counting one’s blessings. I guess that is how it is “our handle on what we can’t see.” When we can’t see the hope, the future, or the joy, we need to have faith that it does exist and that in time we will return to a place where we can see it. I see it. Clearly.
God’s Promise by Doug
My parents chose to raise me in a church that reacted against the dominant Dutch Calvinism of my hometown, a church that denied the divinity of Jesus, the accuracy of the resurrection accounts, and the coherence of science and faith. It did however teach two necessary if insufficient truths: that humanity has an innate yearning to worship a loving creator, and that it is a sin to think that we have created ourselves through acts of will, intellect, or deed. I was to lose sight of those truths. When I turned 30, I read the Bible in extended patches for the first time. During these tentative readings, I felt God draw near. I had the distinct and joyful impression of His planting the word of promise within my mind. Yet it was to be sometime before I became aware of its fruit. Instead, I was crippled by the onset of depression. I later met Katy. After two years of dating, we decided to part ways. The day after our breakup, I read the Ten Commandments. I felt a presence take a firm and loving grasp of my being. I felt ineffable waves of forgiveness wash over me. Astonished, I began to develop awareness of my belonging to a loving, forgiving creator. The next day I reconciled with Katy. The next three years were arduous. After a decade of stability, the depression recurred. I was repeatedly prostrated by despair. Katy was intensely challenged as well. We persevered. I grew in faith after each episode. During this time, I proposed to Katy through a prayer that she shared with me asking guidance for our future. God granted me both a future and the promise, so that we have been blessed with two beautiful young sons, Rowan and Evan. Following that moment with the Bible in my hands, and I in God’s, I applied myself to the scriptures. In the course of my study, I have repeatedly experienced joy and the counsel of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit led my wife and me to St. John’s, and my mind and heart confirm our family’s place here.
Church Community by John
As I think about this 23 year old young man who did such violence upon 32 others at Virginia Tech, it is hard to intellectually understand all that contributed to such irrational motivation. I’m sure his family did all they could to surround him with attention and support. The college did all they could within the limits of what was legally possible. Sometimes families are too close to give the care needed and official institutions too detached to give the empathy required. Because of our culture’s emphasis on the individual over relationships and community, personal weakness and frailty can be at greater risk, failure and frustration easily can be a disturbing result.
My faith experience, along with my identity was nurtured and mentored because I was in a church community where many knew me and expressed concern for me. They may not have known my every thought or hurt, but the unconditional acceptance I experienced was enough to carry me through the times when I questioned my own value and values. It was the support from others who were not required by blood or legality to care, that helped me see a God who accepted and supported me unconditionally. I didn’t understand or express what that all meant to me at the time, but deep down I sensed and discover enough peace within to keep going, even when self destructive thoughts were compelling.
The community I find within the church is still essential to my growth as a Christian. I thank God for those people in my life who simply asked how I was, or took time to share a joke with me or complimented me on my appearance. It is not what they said as much as they took the time to notice who I was and what I might become as God’s child. These days I can’t help but think about other lost souls who can be found and encouraged when surrounded by the loving community of the church.