St James’s Church of England Junior School was old, traditional and cosy. Each morning before lessons, the small school in the heart of the village assembled for prayers.
Jennifer, a lively girl, didn’t much care for learning. She was skilled, par excellence in performing cartwheels and back summersaults in the playground. She found the world a more interesting place when viewed from upside down.
But lessons… “Borrrring!” She’d say. “Especially arithmetic.” Rote learning times-tables was a definite no-no.
Similarly with ‘Church Teaching’ lessons, the Apostle’s Creed was learned by repetition, often without understanding of meaning or significance. As for the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ Jennifer chose to mime. She didn’t do crusts. Jennifer enjoyed after school best, playing out with the local kids.
On a lovely summer’s evening, Jennifer, with skirt tucked into regulation navy-blue knickers, was upside down, walking on her hands on the grassy river bank. Mary and Alice were skipping with ropes and the lads were acting the fool on bikes.
Suddenly Carl’s bike toppled, spilling him down the sloping embankment. Laughter erupted and the kids expected to see him scramble, red faced back up the slope. Carl didn’t show up. As the realisation hit, the youngsters raced off in all directions. A young man, alerted by the frenzied cries for help threw off his jacket and dived into the murky water. Time and again he resurfaced for air, until eventually crawling out exhausted.
Carl’s father arrived on the scene. A large man and lame, he frantically scanned the water as he floundered along the embankment, dragging the useless leg behind him. The younger man blocked his reckless attempts to hurl himself into the river.
With sweat obscuring his vision, he begged: “Our Carl… drowned? Please God. Not our Carl…” Heaving for breath, over and again he implored God to save his son.
And Jennifer, with the other kids stood helplessly by and watched.
One week later the funeral procession passed the school on its way to church. The children were lined up in the playground. There were many tears, but not Jennifer.
Mary and Alice asked if she’d like to see Carl’s flowers. After school they walked to the churchyard. As they approached, Jennifer chickened out and chose instead to swing on the iron gates while she waited for them. They returned with a very strange tale: “We saw Carl in the church,” said Mary. “He said we could take home some flowers.” Alice pulled a small posy from behind her back: “Look.”
Jennifer froze. In a split second, something inside had changed. She ran home to Mom.
Mom grew impatient when Jennifer continually refused to go upstairs alone: “You’re being silly,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a ghost.” Jennifer knew different.
“There’s the holy ghost,” she claimed. “It’s in the Apostle’s creed.”
Jennifer couldn’t break free of the disabling fear that clenched her in its teeth, in spite of mom’s assurances: “Did you ever hear of a ghost hurting anyone?” She’d say. “Think about something nice instead.”
It wasn’t easy. Jennifer could still smell the sweat dripping from Carl’s father as he limped along the river bank. She heard his strangled pleas for help. And she remembered before, standing there laughing with the others while Carl, unbeknown to them was drowning.
But she developed a method. Each time the disturbing memory intruded her consciousness, accusing, blaming her, she would shout angrily at it; command it to get out of her head. Over and over she reprimanded the oppressive thought, but it refused to budge.
And so she decided to crowd it out; replace it with something different. Neutralise it. She substituted with a psalm she’d learned at school, albeit begrudgingly--but firmly entrenched.
She recited the words in perfect rhythm, concentrating hard on each one: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures…” There was something mystical about those words that she hadn’t noticed before; but didn’t much understand. Yet there was something appeasing too; pleasing; inspirational. She wanted more.
A fretful young girl, sitting alone tightly clutching God’s Word in her hands, repeating His promises over and over, eventually realised that the fear had fled.
A few years later Jennifer chose the 23rd psalm to be sung at her wedding. And over a lifetime has returned many times to the scriptures when life threatens to overwhelm.
But she doesn’t do cartwheels any more.
*Psalm 23:1-2 NIV
*A story based on factual events.
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