Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Beginning

He wasn't sure how long he had been there. He felt relief and rest. For the first time in a very long time he prayed. The words didn't come easily at first, but soon they began to flow. From somewhere deep inside his heart he began to call out to the One whose words were written in Jeremiah 33:3. He waited for an answer but nothing came. Nothing except that first touch that startled him into thinking that someone was in the room with him. He looked again. No one was there. He stood and walked to the windows where the sun shone in delicately. The stained glass prevented him from seeing outside. He started to step into the foyer to get a better look through clear glass, but something pulled him back inside. He wasn't ready yet to leave the room. Something was happening inside his soul, and he was afraid. Afraid to leave and afraid to stay. He chose to stay. 

This time he picked a seat in the back of the room. He remembered his grandmother calling these wooden benches by a name. What was it? He thought for some time but couldn't remember. Nevertheless he reached down in the rack that was in front of him and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. It was a program of some kind. At the top was a date - last Sunday. Under the date he found what must have been the order that the program would follow. Something called a Call to Worship, followed by a Pastoral Prayer. What in the world was he seeing? The word pastor took him back to the slick speaker who stood before the crowd in the place where his wife had asked him to go a few months ago. He was polished and seemed to have all of the answers for life. That day he talked about steps to a healthy marriage. They hadn't worked, by the way. His marriage was in more of a crisis now than it had ever been. He tried each one of the steps. For forty days he worked on being a better man, a better husband, a better father. The harder he worked the worse he got. Now here he was off in the middle of some country place far removed from any civilization that he could see - except for this building at the end of the winding road. Others obviously travelled the road. The ruts in the dirt gave that much away. There was landscaping, and the room was well taken care of, but it seemed very simple. Not at all like the structure back in the town where he had a house, a yard, a car, a job, and a family. 

As he looked at the program he noticed that there was singing, an offering, and preaching. That seemed familiar to him for a couple of reasons. Back in history he remembered a time when he visited his grandmother, and she took him - or brought him - to church. Was this the place? The meeting he had been to months before back in the city had music and speaking and some people passing chicken buckets around asking for money. They prayed too. He remembered because at the end they said "Amen", the universal sign for everyone to open his eyes and focus on the front again.

He struggled to remember. Why could he not remember? This place must have been the place where his grandmother brought him. Back then it was uncomfortable, and he couldn't wait to get out. Now he felt safe, and he didn't want to leave. What happened next left him frightened and in awe.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Give Me That Old Time Religion

The conversation was quiet and broken. Whenever anyone walked through the door everything grew quiet - almost too quiet - as if the ability to speak had somehow vanished. Or maybe it was the ability to hear. Whatever was happening was worthy of investigation. The trouble was that investigation was impossible because investigation required presence and presence brought the silence. Of course the only ones who knew about the strong silence in the middle of presence were the other elements of the small, wood-frame building that his grandmother called her sanctuary. The pews, the piano, the songbooks, and the pulpit sat ominously in the room, a shadow of what used to be with a hope of what was still to come. Was there no way to find out what conversation was being had between the pieces of hardwood in the floor and the splinters in the rails? 

As he walked to the front of heritage he noticed a bench worn with odd shaped ruts just a few inches apart. Someone - or something - spent a lot of time in those spots. An urging of some kind seemed to draw him down to the bench where his knees smoothly settled into the grooves. The words of his grandmother came back gently. "The strength of a daddy depends on the length of time he spends on his knees." Of course. Now it made sense. A kneeling bench. He had never seen one before today, but the feel of this one made it seem so real. 

The room was so quiet and still. He decided to stay a little longer. He slowly and reverently moved to the second row of the room split into two sections by an aisle. Someone once said that brides used to walk down the aisle as a sign of some covenant between God and His people. He wasn't sure about the symbolism because he had not seen a center aisle. Actually he had never seen a building quite like this one before. The pull wouldn't let him leave. Second row it was. He reached into a rack in front of him and pulled out a book. Was the cover faded green or a dull gray? He couldn't tell. The light through the stained glass windows didn't make it clear. The edges of the book were red, but when he opened the book the pages were a worn and tattered brown. Square notes and lines made up the page with words between two lines of music. Four sets on some pages and five on others. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Reality hit him like his grandmother's hand pinching his leg when he used to fidget too much in the church he grew up in - one very different from this one.

He needed a mighty fortress right about now. The days had been hard lately. The world around seemed to be an unsettled place. The stress of bills piled high and sinkholes of cash. The kids were sick. Home was heaven, but sometimes it wasn't. The pressure of the customers was suffocating, and the sales director was pressing for another marathon that requires deeper breathing than is humanly possible. Driving down the long country rode earlier in the day he prayed as the dust covered his windows that he could somehow escape for a while. A fortress would do. A bulwark never failing. The sales pitch failed. His friends' marriage failed. His efforts at forgiveness and his attempts to be a good dad and husband failed as well. God. Fortress. Bulwark. Would he really never fail?

There was another book in the rack. This one was black with gold pages. He replaced the book with all of the notes and words and picked up the other book. As he opened it he knew immediately what it was. He had seen one by his grandmother's bed on the day she died. The front said "Holy Bible." He knew better, though. Mamaw called it "Sword." He always thought that was a strange name for a book full of stories from a long time ago, but when he picked it up he felt a sense of power run through his spine. He sat a little straighter. He looked around and felt a little stronger. For the first time he heard a voice. The voice was quiet and seemed to come from within the walls. The voice spoke softly but clearly. He opened the book, and the page seemed to come to life. Jeremiah. Was he a man? Did he write this book or was it about him? These numbers seemed to give some order to the pages. As he looked more closely he saw something that would change his life forever. His name. Written right there in the margin of one of the pages was his name - in his grandmother's handwriting. He felt a warmth and a presence he had not felt since the week before as he stood beside her casket with tears in his heart  - and his eyes. Next to his name, which now became the prominent part of the page, was a number. 3. Just above it was another number. 33. He remembered his grandmother showing him about the "Sword." The word at the top of the page was the book. The larger number was a chapter, and the smaller number was a song. No that wasn't it. A verse. Yes. That was it. A name, a chapter, and a verse. Jeremiah 33:3. "Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not." The voice again. Call to God - the Mighty Fortress that Never Faileth - and He will answer thee.

Why had he never felt this way before? There was a place where his wife asked him to go one Sunday. It didn't feel like this. There was no reverence. No quiet. No books. Instead there was activity, noise, and screens. The sign said church, but there was something about this place that was different. The sign outside said church, too, but somehow it seemed that the building was not the most important part of this experience. The presence. The silence. The Presence.

He moved back to the benches and steadily lowered himself to his knees. He tried it. He called out - quietly, but out still the same. He called to the Mighty Fortress and asked for a passing grade as a dad and a husband. He asked for Someone that Never Faileth. While there on his knees he decided to stay there as long as he could. He now understood that his wife was partly correct. He did need religion, but it wasn't the religion of the crowd and lights and well oiled machine. He needed Mamaw's religion. He decided to fight for what she had, and the fight would start with her "Sword." Her hand reached out and touched his shoulder. "He answered you," she said. He turned to look, but no one was there. Had the walls spoken for the first time where there was presence? Decided. He wasn't leaving this place until he found what he needed to make it for the next forty years. Mamaw had a God, and he would find Him, even if he died on the journey.