A few years ago, I sat in a question-and-answer session with (the Rev.) Jeff (Miller), who was still early in his ministry at St. Philip’s. One question was about his vision for our church. Among other things, he talked about the importance of getting to know one another, practicing hospitality, the church being a family, and becoming the type of community where we “bear one another’s burdens.”
At the time, I fully understood and agreed with the need to be intentional about spending more time in fellowship, getting to know one another, and strengthening relationships. Though I was baptized in and grew up at St. Philip’s, I often felt like a stranger within our large congregation. Despite a shared commitment to sound doctrine, we often practiced our faith in comfortable silos. We weren’t that great at blending multi-generational St. Philippians and newcomers, young and old, choir people and non-choir people, those from Charleston and those from “off.” Over the past several years, however, I’ve been heartened to witness and participate in a transformation that’s resulted in a much closer church family. I remember sitting at the back of the Chapel of the Transfiguration at Kanuga two years ago, looking around at all the faces, and feeling like I was at a family reunion. Despite this, I still didn’t fully understand beyond the surface of what Jeff meant by “bearing others’ burdens.”
A few months later, my son James woke up on a Sunday morning with a mild fever. I took his siblings to church, and my wife, Beth, stayed home to care for him. By the time we returned, his fever had spiked severely and his heart rate was high enough for the urgent care center to refer us to the emergency room. The E.R. physicians determined it was serious enough for him to be admitted overnight, and I was scared. Within a matter of hours, however, our church family was bearing this burden with us. We heard from four members of the clergy, including Jeff and his wife, Kristin. I vividly remember sitting in my car at the MUSC parking garage praying over the phone with Marc Boutan, and feeling so comforted by his words and support. Our phones were lighting up with text messages, emails, calls, and social media notifications from our church family, who were bearing this burden with us and lifting us in prayer. I remember a non-St. Philip’s friend saying, “You have a great hospital and friends who pray for you––that’s a great team.” James quickly returned to good health.
Later in the year, I began to suffer from a mysterious illness with symptoms that eluded diagnosis for a long 87 days. The physical pain ebbed and flowed, but the uncertainty was constant and taxed me mentally. I tried to keep this situation under wraps, mainly because I didn’t want my children to worry. However, solutions continued to elude my medical team and I couldn’t bear this burden alone.
I looked to my church family for help, and St. Philip’s wrapped its arms around me and hugged tight. The men in my Bible study prayed for me and checked in constantly. Every member of our clergy prayed with me. Hundreds of you prayed for me in your own Bible studies. Occasionally, total strangers introduced themselves and said they learned about my situation during prayer requests at a Bible study, and wanted me to know they were praying for me, too. During a December service (I think Christmas Eve), while serving communion, Martha Vetter leaned down, took some extra time, and prayed vigorously for me, my family, my doctors, and for healing. My eyes filled with tears of appreciation for this love and compassion, and for her willingness to bear my burden with me, along with so many of you.
I’ve been blessed with great doctors and medical professionals over the past eight months, but dozens of visits, blood tests, scans, and referrals to specialists came up empty until I asked you to share this burden with me. Soon after you began your prayers, a diagnosis was made and treatment began.
While I don’t wish difficulty on any of you, you can be comforted by the fact that when life’s storms start blowing, you aren’t alone in your struggle. Most importantly, we have our Lord, but we also have each other. We bear one another’s burdens, and I’m glad I understand that now. As I type this, I’m sitting at Lowcountry Rheumatology for a four-hour infusion. Shortly after the IV was inserted, I received a text from Andrew O’Dell: “Praying for God to draw close during your infusion today.” Amen.
By Jimmy Bailey, St. Philip’s Church, Charleston