John did not know it yet, but he had just been born.
This life began for John with a dawning awareness of light and consciousness of sound. Unlike others just newly born, he already knew that if he opened his eyes he could see, and he expected to recognize what he was seeing. He knew already where the sounds were coming from. He identified the distant brassy protest of a car unexpectedly denied its rightful place in the stream of merging, moving traffic. He distinguished the starting roar of a diesel truck near at hand. He heard the high social chirping of a flock of birds that had exchanged the clean trees God originally made for them for polluted urban opportunities. These soloists stood out against the unfigured bass of the other noises of a city downtown.
John thought his first thought: “This is what I expect in a city, this time of the morning”
Morning. There was brightness, but it was still edged with the chill of the night just ended. Welcome warmth crept over him; he would open his eyes upon clear skies and sunshine.
In a city.
What city? He did not know where he was, or how he came to be there. He did not yet know himself to be newly born. He turned from questioning to feeling, and sank back into the pleasant sensations of being. Wherever he was, he was here. The concrete under his legs was still chilly; the wall his shoulders were leaning against, rough with decaying stucco. He flexed his leg and it rustled under newspapers he must have covered himself with for warmth during the night. He had endured. Another day had come. Painfully squinting against the glare he opened his eyes.
He saw a littered walkway between two buildings, run-down, neglected. Cans and papers were scattered about, cracked plaster was scaling from the walls. There was the unmistakable odor of urine. Not a pleasant place to walk through, much less, to spend the night.
Did he live here?
Curiosity was waking in him. Suddenly there was much he did not know. He must belong here, yet in his mind there seemed a shadow of something else, of somewhere else. He ran his hand slowly over his face and his beard told him he had not shaved for a long, long time. His mouth tasted foul and dry, as if he had not eaten since he last shaved. He didn’t think he was really hungry. He felt tired still, and his muscles and joints were aching. A definite odor was rising out of his clothes, which badly needed washing. When He looked down at the back of his hand he saw that dirt was ground into his skin and his fingers seemed stained and neglected. I should stir myself, get something to eat and drink.
Slowly he pulled himself to his feet, steadied himself, and began to mosey along the passageway. He came to the end of the walkway and moved stiffly and carefully down cracked and broken steps to a sidewalk below, emerging from between buildings onto a downtown street.
He looked around. Nothing looked familiar, though he believed it should. He tried to remember which way to go. On impulse he turned left and ambled forward, paying little attention to where he was going.
He shook his head, as if that would clear the confusion. There was something about himself he must know. At the intersection he looked up and down to be sure no speeding car would endanger him as he crossed.
He wandered on. One block. Another. Still another. He stopped. It was, he decided, a beautiful day. The sun was bright, the air was clear, and he was alive. He pulled his shoulders back and found it didn’t require attentive effort to keep them so.
There is no excuse for my slouching.
That had to stop.
He lengthened his stride and began to swing his arms. It felt good to stretch his muscles and feel sidewalk sweep under him at a respectable speed.
This was how I walked when I was young. Then I always walked this way. When and why did I change?
There was that menacing, unspoken query gnawing on him just out of reach in the back of his mind. He would feel better when he had some food, he told himself. Not drink. He wondered if yesterday he might have wanted a bottle. There seemed no hint of thirst in his throat. Except for coffee. He longed for steaming black coffee.
Suddenly, he was hungry after all: thirsty and hungry. He wanted coffee and eggs, with ham, toast, and potatoes; with good strawberry jam such as Jan made every year.
A name had come to him, a name that seemed somehow natural and important. Who was she? A person named Jan. A woman. He tried to picture what Jan might look like, the kind of person she would be. The name seemed familiar and special, the only name he had so far remembered.
He had to find some other names.
That was the threatening question. His own name. It was important. My name is–he tried hard, but could only almost remember. Maybe if he wouldn't try so hard it would come to him. He tried to stop thinking about names and to think only about walking in the sunshine and how good it felt.
Jan. The name brought him no pictured face, but it did bring a feeling of deep peace and warmth. Whoever she was, she was someone special to him. Maybe she had left him and he was here as he now was because of her going. It hurt to think, and he felt discouraged. His thinking produced only more questions without answers. His stomach was now insistently asking one thing: where and when food might be. He felt in his pockets and found them empty. He had no money. You could not live without money. Maybe he would find something to eat when he got where he was going.
He came to the end of another block and this time he saw a red light glowing at him from the fixture on the post on the opposite corner. He waited for the signal. It was an excuse to stop, to look around and get some idea where he was going. Still, nothing looked familiar. He peered ahead at the next block, with its row of run-down stores, shops, and service places seemingly stretching out to a ramshackle infinity. On the opposite corner was a large gray-stone building. It seemed to reach up above the whole neighborhood, and he looked absently at the cross that stood at the pinnacle of the steeple silhouetted against the sky. It was an old church, one that had obviously seen better days but still appeared open, attended, and ready for business this bright morning. The metal gateway leading to the door marked “Office” was clearly unlocked and ajar.
That building held promise for him, he decided. Something about it was drawing him to it. Was this the place where he came for help, food and drink? Or was there something more there, something he could almost remember, something not quite forgotten?
The signal winked green and he made his way quickly across to where the gate of promise beckoned. He went up the steps, through the door and into the hallway. It smelled the way a church should smell, an odor of quiet sanctity and deep serenity. To the right was a glass door leading into the church office. He looked in, careful to avoid being noticed. Several women were there, standing, sitting and talking in young, loud voices. He slipped quickly beyond that doorway and down the hall toward the double oak doors bearing the worn brass sign, “Sanctuary.” He would come back later to this office, when the in-house business had subsided and someone would be free to deal with a needy outsider. Right now, he felt a longing to go into that place with the promising name. He hoped the door was not locked.
It wasn’t. The door swung open with a gentle squeak, and he was in the dim, high-vaulted auditorium, looking down the aisle toward pulpit and altar and large stained glass windows. The something in him that had begun to stir this morning was at last rejoicing. This was all familiar.
He looked carefully at the altar and the pulpit and around the walls. It felt familiar. Was this church known to him, or did he feel this way about being in any church? He looked again at the scarves hanging from the pulpit and lectern, and covering the altar.
Purple. Judging from the weather outside it must be Lent: late March or early April. No palm branches around, so perhaps Palm Sunday was still to come.
Lent. Another name.
But now he was using lots of names. These things were very familiar to him.
Pulpit and lectern and chancel— the nave, the narthex, the pews, the baptismal font; he named them as he turned slowly, surveying the room. Somehow, this seemed so usual.
The thought of Palm Sunday felt right.
“And the people took branches of palm leaves and went forth to meet Him and cried, 'Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna.” He uttered his first sound, his voice hoarse from lack of use. He imagined this room filled with worshippers, reliving the triumph of that ancient day in Jerusalem. He walked up the aisle slowly, savoring the feelings of this holy place.
That is a good pulpit, he thought. Well placed for being seen, sturdy and equipped for effective preaching. He looked to see if there were any notes, or maybe a bulletin, left there from last Sunday. Perhaps they would tell him what day it was or year it was, and what this city was. Possibly they would start to supply those answers he needed so desperately.
Yes—the question that had been lying in wait for him at the back of his whole consciousness was now out in the open: Who and what was he?
He stepped into the pulpit and looked inside and beneath the reading stand. The custodian had done his work well. There was nothing left to tell him what had happened last Sunday, nothing but a hymnal and a Bible and the pulpit itself. He stood and looked out over the empty pews. As bright as the sunshine was outside, it was dark in here; but it was a darkness that could not be described as gloomy. It was restful. The shadows that filled so much of the space before him seemed to be shades of the joy and love of those who regularly came here. Much spoke to him of faith. He braced his arms on either side of the pulpit and leaned forward over the desk.
It would be easy to preach from this pulpit to the congregation in this place. It would not be the best appointment in the conference, and you would never be elected bishop from such a church, but the people would be sound and the work solid and worth doing. He glanced back at the pipes that towered above his head in the wall behind the pulpit.
A pipe organ: no question of it. Good. That was usually the best sound for worship. Much could be said for other accompaniments, even the guitar, but for the whole church to sing the great old hymns required the voice of a good organ and a skilled organist.
He looked up at the balcony. It was probably unused, except at Easter. Even if the church were only half filled, it would be enough to call forth a good sermon from any preacher worthy of his calling. In his mind's eye he began to see them sitting expectantly in their pews, ready to hear the teaching he might bring from the Lord. He threw his head back, closed his eyes, and uttered the words of Ascription:
“In the Name of The Father, and of Jesus Christ The Son, and of The Holy Spirit. Amen.”
A voice answered him out of the shadows at the back of the auditorium, “Hey you, what do you think you are doing up there?”
He was silent as he sought for an answer and found one: “I believe, sir,” he replied slowly and clearly, discovering the truth in himself with every syllable, “I believe I just found out who I am.”