Sunday, December 23, 2001

Spirit of Christmas in August

        Our pastor used to joke about it. His flock peaked twice a year, and he called them his C&E members — Christmas and Easter.

        He told my mom he thought these people were missing a lot. My opinion was that they were hitting the high spots, especially at Christmastime. The choir sang on key, the poinsettias were lush, and the church smelled like evergreens instead of incense.

        Sometimes there was food.

        Even the sermon was more interesting. A new baby. A family camping out in a stable. This was much more appealing than parables about prodigal sons or dire warnings about Judgment Day.

        But I was just a little kid and thought church was just for Sundays. Sort of like my patent leather Mary Janes.

Church pillars

        I know better now. And just in case I needed a reminder, I have lately been swept into the circle of Knox Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park. This is due to Elizabeth Annett, who has been a member of this congregation since she was born 20 years ago. Her dad, Larry, sings in the choir there. Her mother, Jan, teaches Sunday school. Her brother, David, helps lead a youth group.

        They are what might be known as pillars of the church, except that sounds far too remote and abstract to describe what they really do. Regular members of the casserole patrol, they supply food to the grieving or sick. They baby-sit. They are part of the church's Hospitality Network for the homeless and have pounded nails to build Habitats for Humanity.

        Beginning on Aug. 14, they found themselves, for once, on the receiving end.

        Beautiful, golden-haired Lizzie checked in with her doctor before she returned to classes at Miami University in Oxford. She'd been having headaches. A couple so bad, they had awakened her from a sound sleep.

        Her physician, “just to be on the safe side,” ordered a CAT scan. That night, about 7, a friend from Knox rang the doorbell. A doctor, he is in practice with the physician who got the results of Liz's test. Bad news. He thought the Annetts should hear it from a friend.

Incredibly cheesy

        The tumor growing in Liz's head was about the size of an orange. On the day a surgeon removed it, about 250 people gathered at the church to pray. Another 50 or so were at the hospital. One young man designed a Web page with up-to-date information and a message board. Another church member updated the message. Every day.

        The Rev. Tom York “seems to know when to step in and when to let us take care of each other,” Liz says. “You'd think maybe people would worry about you at first, then disappear. But they're still there. Even now.”

        Four months later, food is still arriving at the house. And every day, someone picks Liz up and drives her to The Appointment for radiation. It is an enormous privilege, and competition is fierce. We call it “Drivin' Miss Lizzie,” which she says is incredibly cheesy. But it makes her laugh.

        This morning, I am guessing that churches will be packed. Maybe there will be standing room only at some worship services, due to the C&E members. Some sermons will focus on faith, as if it is something vague and intangible. But I have seen the spiritual side of a church. It is as tangible as a roast beef sandwich. As modern as the Internet. As traditional as prayer.

        And people who only stop in twice a year to hear the choir are missing a lot.

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