A Love Letter Never Received
The former rector (or Episcopal priest) whose Charlotte, N.C. church we attended, and in many ways grew up in, was diagnosed with an agressive form of Leukemia over the summer. He was more than just our rector. Fr. Bill Lantz was family. His son David called me to share the grave news.
At the time, my older brother Randy lived close by where Fr. Bill lived on Sullivan’s Island, S.C. in semi-retirement and was planning to return to the hospital later in the day. I asked that my brother call me when he arrived so I could speak with Fr. Bill.
The call never came.
The next phone ring informed me of Fr. Bill’s passing on the Tuesday following Memorial Day weekend this year.
What follows is a reflection, a thank you, a love letter to Fr. Bill that I never shared with him. Yet, I was honored to share this at Fr. Bill’s memorial service with his family, friends, and parishioners.
To the sweet unknown at the memorial service: Thank you for approaching and hugging a stranger. Your kind words and tears stay with me. I say stranger, but in the house Fr. Bill stewarded, there are no strangers.
After a long Memorial Day weekend, I tossed and turned in bed for hours and lay listening to the gentle rise and fall of sleep beside me before deciding to give up the fight. No sleep tonight.
I walked down the hardwoods of our home to the office and shut the french doors.
In the dark, small hours, I sit alone in the glow of a computer screen staring at blinking cursor and think of you.
A thousand miles and decades in the rearview, I remember a question you asked me.
After hearing a knock, I opened the door of our home on Starbook Drive. You stood on the front porch, smiling up at me. It was 1987.
Opening the screen door I let you know Mom and Bud weren’t home.
“No, I’m here to see you. Can I come in?” you said in your kind, easy-going way.
As we walked the ten paces from the door to the living room couches, I flashed back ten years earlier to the last unplanned visit to us.
After emerging from a Sunday afternoon playing in the creek near the house on Brookcrest, Randy and I stopped in our tracks after seeing your car parked in the driveway.
While kneeling during Communion earlier that day, one of the acolytes caught a case of the giggles which proved highly contagious to the other seven and eight-year-olds serving with him.
We kept it under control until the Lead Giggler leaned a bit too hard on the acolyte next to him, which in turn, started an avalanche. One-by-one little dominoes clad in red and white vestments tumbled to the floor.
I looked up to see the irritation and disappointment in your face at our unintentional disrespect.
A few hours later, we dragged our feet back to the house to face the reckoning. As usual, you were clear in your expectations and kind in your dealing with us.
Fast forward ten years in my flashback, as we talked in our living room I realized that you were truly here to speak with me, not the Lead Giggler from years prior, and not for any right or wrong, anything done or left undone.
You and I sat in our small family room. You with The Bible and me, well I tried to silence the noise of a teenager’s anxious self-consciousness only certain people who loom large in their lives instill.
I can’t remember much of what we passed between us. Too many years have ticked by. I remember you were there and that I was the reason. I know we talked of faith and my plans for the future, my path after graduating high school. I probably sounded as uncertain and rudderless as I felt.
Yet, as vivid as yesterday, I remember one moment, one simple and direct question you asked me as you were leaving.
“John, do you believe Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”
I held the screen door and was looking down at the smooth red stones of the front porch. The question shocked me. You turned to face me and I looked up.
“Yes,” I said.
You looked at me, paused, and straightened your gaze.
“Do you really believe?”
“Yes, I do.”
You paused again, still looking at me, before smiling.
On that day almost 30 years ago, your experienced look knew a truth long before my head and heart were ready to admit.
Silent Aisles and Hallways Echo Memories
As I’ve returned home over the years, I jog around the old neighborhood. I see the houses of kids I knew, who are no longer kids nor are the houses any longer theirs. I run past the houses on Ridgebrook, Oakstone, and Brookcrest we briefly called home.
As I round the corner to hit Starbook, I see the A-frame that once housed St. Christopher’s. Occasionally, I run up the black asphalt drive, which was once simple gravel, and stop to peek in.
Memories echo down the now silent aisles and hallways. I remember many things, but mainly, it’s the people.
Walter Wilkinson handing candy, smiles and hugs to all the kids. Maurice Seaver’s deep bass voice booming during service sounding like God Himself making a surprise visit.
Eating cookies and drinking lemonade on the front lawn, the grass still wet with dew, in the cool spring Sunday morning. Attending Sunday School and memorizing the Creeds.
During one class in particular, I realized Randy should have been an aeronautical engineer. After being asked to read a Bible passage for the rest of the class, I focused on the text and didn’t see the Lead Giggler crafting and aiming a three-pointed paper football. With the time clock running out, Randy executed a well-timed and accurate flick ten yards across the room right as I opened my mouth. He scored. We laughed.
I remember the crush of the gravel drive underneath the tires of Mom’s beige VW bug to attend my first Easter service at St. C’s. I was an angry five-year-old. While well intentioned, Mom dressed me in a brand new suit and black shoes – which was fine except for one thing: The suit was red, white and blue…PLAID. I looked like a deranged circus mini-clown.
By the way, I do now realize the expression I heard the most that day, “Well, bless his heart,” is not necessarily a sweet southern term of endearment or even a compliment.
Feeling the water dripping off my forehead after you baptized me…I felt proud and somehow changed.
Martin, Nancy, and Jori Allen. Martin’s excitement and joy each Sunday. The Guthrie and Hodgson families, Velma Toomer, John Highsmith and many, many others but especially our grandmother, Anny.
I remember people speaking in tongues, not because I challenged the practice or the interpretation of Acts from which it sprang (I will keep that opinion to myself), but primarily because Randy spouted gibberish, opened one eye, and then flashed a self-satisfied Cheshire grin back at me. Another victory for the older brother doing something the younger could not.
Years of serving as an acolyte as well as a lay reader…I remember your hands slowly coming down to steady The Bible from which you read the Gospel passage. It was my first Sunday as MC. I was so nervous my hands were making the large, heavy text move around like kernels popping in a hot kettle. As always I looked up and saw your smiling face. It calmed me and gave me confidence.
A couple of decades later, as I helped the rector prepare communion during our wedding, he leaned over and whispered, “Hey, you’re a natural. Have you done this before?”.
“Retired acolyte and I learned from the best,” I replied.
I still serve in our church today and that’s a great return on investment, I’d say.
The music…To this day, I hear bells chimes during The Great Thanksgiving, voices raised in sung praise and the piano with Bud’s interpretation of Holy, Holy, Holy as I sit with my family in our Texas church.
I remember one eye popping open while at the altar rail during communion one Sunday during your prayer, your arms raised and tears streaming down your cheeks.
Most importantly, St. C’s was the first place I felt at home and at peace. You taught us servant leadership through your own example. You gave us all, the faithful and faithless, the lost and wounded, the alcoholics and addicts, the broken, the young and aged alike…you gave us all a place to call home, to find our feet and our way, without judgment, and return to life with peace. That’s a gift you gave me, and countless others, and one I could never repay. I know what you’d say. It’s not your gift, only the gift given through you.
…Answered 30 Years Later
You are so foundational to our lives and faith. I hope you are proud of your work, your family, and your life. I know I am.
I love you, Fr. Bill. Thank you for everything.
In all honesty and truth, I hope my life has answered the question you asked me decades ago on our front steps.
In Thanksgiving and Celebration of Your Life
He smiles and laughs with the angels now, without fear nor pain, in the presence of God experiencing the reality he spent his life here in service of and about which he taught us. While our hearts break for our loss, there’s strength in knowing he’s reaping the rewards of a life well lived.
Credits: Photos courtesy of One Sojourner. Daily Prompt: Praise