What Would Pete Think?
Ok. I have to admit Lisa Fox's story about her Uncle Russell inspired me to write this post. Her post got me to thinking about those things in our lives that, if we did not grow up in the Episcopal Church, might have been the "prequel" to our finding TEC as our church home.
Now, for at least two and a half decades, I would have told you that this man, Wellington Buel (aka "Pete") Stewart, was one of the people who encouraged me to go to medical school and, ultimately, lead me to a career in pathology, even though he died before I ever graduated from medical school. But it was only in recent years that I have come to realize he also posthumously led me to the Episcopal Church, in some ways. The photo above is of him when he was chair of Pathology at the University of Kentucky Medical School, in 1960--the year of my birth.
I knew Pete from my Amateur Radio ("ham" radio) activities in the 1970's-1980's. But the part that was lost to me back then, and has grown over the years, is that I realize he was a loyal Episcopalian, and a member of Calvary Episcopal Church in Columbia, MO. Pete was one of those guys who didn't really "talk church" much, but I now realize he was one of those guys who led "a secret life of faith." He simply mentioned "heading off for church" or "getting back from church" in a matter of fact way, or things would come up in the conversation that exuded what I would call "A comfortable faith." It was "just part of him."
Church was simply "part of the 'fit' in his life." He didn't ever get too worked up about church politics or the details of sermons. He was the kind of person who was more likely to go to the early service than the late one. He was old school, and deep down inside, he was a "Rite I" sort of guy, and was not crazy about a lot of singing, preferring the spoken service. But his love for the Book of Common Prayer showed through every now and then.
At the time, I was living my life as a "disaffected LCMS Lutheran." Once in a while, we'd discuss deeper subjects over a beer. I distinctly remember his classic line when we were talking about prayer--what it was, what it does, and speculating "how it works." He used to say, "I don't pray anything that isn't in the Book of Common Prayer." At the time, I thought he was being a stodgy, unimaginative old fart. Now that the BCP and I are old friends, I realize his words had more to do with the fact there is probably something in the BCP to use as a "jump starter" for any possible prayer, and that the BCP has had so much thought in it, it truly has an almost universal quality to its ability to "fit the situation."
Only once in my exile did he ever bring up anything even halfway close to the "E" word--evangelism. We were doing the "discussing deeper subjects over a beer" thing at the old Heidelberg restaurant/bar in Columbia, MO (the one that burned, for you natives) and we were discussing my self-imposed exile from the LCMS. He very matter-of-factly, without missing the timing of his beer-swigging, "Have you ever thought about coming with Polly and me to Calvary sometime? Everything you're mad at about church, it's not an issue with us. We ordain women. Our theology is based on the Incarnation, not about guilt or shame for your sins, or "boy, oh boy, aren't you lucky Jesus died for you." It's not about that stuff. It's a theology for thinking people, and really, the way your mind works, you'd actually make a very good Episcopalian."
Then he sort of winked and added, "Of course, in the beginning, we might have to let you in the side door," then quickly said, "Not really--I'm kidding. Seriously, you could even go up for the Eucharist the first time you visited."
But nope...nope...I was still more interested in being mad, I guess.
I did, however, go to the rail at his funeral Eucharist. I had remembered his words. I wonder sometime if that wafer planted a seed, albeit a very slowly germinating one.
Seventeen years later, I began to regularly attend Trinity.
I think about him now and then when we do Prayers of the People and remember the dead, especially when the week of his birthday and the week of the date of his death rolls around. I wonder sometimes if he's sitting among the company of Heaven on those Sundays and hears me think it, and tells the gathered company, "I KNEW IT! See, I knew this was a fit! It just took a long time, that's all, but I WAS RIGHT!" I do muse now and then in church, "I wonder if Pete can believe it? Yeah, he probably can and does." I worry now and then he is scrapping with my late friend Debby for dibs on the credit. I imagine Debby credits her role in all of it, too.
When I think these things, I do have one unfulfilled longing. I do long for one time, that I can feel him sitting in the pew beside me. I think I would like, just once, to feel he and I have transcended a boundary and have "attended the service together." There's a lot there to thank him for, and I think I have felt that I have thanked him for everything in this life he did for me sufficiently except this one little leftover part. Maybe some Sunday, I will feel it. I hope so.