A Beautiful Church

There’s a little Baptist church in midcoast Maine that makes me catch my breath when I walk through the doors. I’ve never been a member or even a regular attender but there is a powerful wind of memories that meets me as soon as the doors swing open.

When I was a little girl, I would come through those doors once a year wearing a pink, flowery dress and an Easter hat. I would sit close to my grandmother and she would hand me peppermints during the sermon and quarters to place in the offering. I still remember one of the sermons. The pastor enthusiastically told the story of Jesus using whips to drive the money changers out of the temple. Close to thirty years later I can still picture the pastor waving his arms and feel my shock at hearing that the same Jesus holding little lambs in my storybook Bible could use whips and turn over tables.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear much of the sermon when I visited the little church. I paced in the back with a fussy baby and noticed that some extra pamphlets from my grandmother’s funeral the day before still sat on a table. For so long there had been two strong grandmothers in that little town and for the second time in three years I had come home and to this church to gather with family in a goodbye. Beside the table where the pamphlets sat were double doors leading to the sanctuary. I remembered how my sisters covered the little windows with white paper on my wedding day so that my husband-to-be wouldn’t catch sight of me until the wedding march was played and the doors were swung open.

My baby was getting louder so I made my way to a side room where a lady I didn’t recognize was working in the nursery. After we spoke for a few minutes she asked me my maiden name and when I told her, her eyes lit up. “I went to school with your father… I used to be a substitute teacher in your kindergarten class and bring in my guitar and sing. Do you remember that? You were so shy! It’s nice to see you are talking now!” We laughed and I vaguely remembered the guitar and the songs and the shy little girl.

My three year old heard there was Play-do and snacks so we made our way to the Sunday school class in the basement.  On the stairs I met a man holding the hand of his own little boy. There was a greeting and a brief memory of being seventeen and decisions that felt so heavy and confusing. Later, as I saw his sweet wife walk by with a new baby, I smiled and thought how God is kind and forceful and we don’t really choose but He moves and He purposes and He creates.

My little one finally fell asleep so I carefully eased into the back pew.  My husband sat with my newly widowed grandfather and a row of our blonde headed children. I remembered sitting in the same spot one Sunday as a teenager and not being able to hold back tears. I didn’t even know why I cried. A sense of something too beautiful for me to own overwhelmed me and loneliness welled up as the hymns were sung. It was surreal to remember and see through time the pew, both full of my people and the girl that I used to be as she sat in the wave of loneliness.

After the service, my eight year old boy asked about the old, cast iron bell that sits in the entry. It used to hang in the old church that burned down. In that old church his great, great, great grandparents used to come and sing and pray. Tucked away at home, I have a poem my great, great grandmother wrote to their beloved pastor when he was ill. She used to pray and write and listen to the bell that my little boy stood longing to ring.

I love history and small towns and feeling like there are roots that twist from the blood in my veins into the buildings and soil and old bells.

Nearly every Sunday for the last twelve or thirteen years, my growing family has made our way to another New England church. This church is in a college town and most of us are from someplace else. When I look around at the congregation I don’t see extended family, old friends or teachers. There are no ghosts of me as a girl. There isn’t even a church building with a bell and steeple, just a high school auditorium rented for the day.

In the Old Testament, before Jesus walked as a man with fishermen and sinners, God’s people built a temple where they could worship. God’s Spirit dwelt in a special room deep in the temple called the Holy of Holies and a thick curtain hung to separate this dwelling from the people. God was too holy to approach. Only once a year the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle blood of atonement at the mercy seat.

The day Jesus died on the cross, when He said ‘It is finished’, the earth shook and this curtain of separation split down the middle. Jesus, being holy himself and the only completely sufficient sacrifice, was able to do what no amount of ritual had been able to accomplish. The Spirit drew near. Now the church heard the words, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”  Instead of separate and impenetrable, the Holy of Holies became the Christian heart.  Instead of looking to a physical temple or a church building, we look to the people God has chosen and we see him abiding in their midst.

Some Sunday mornings I don’t want to go to church. I’ve thought it would be nice to worship alone and I would feel more near to God in the woods and the stillness and beauty of the trees. But, God hasn’t made his Holy of Holies out of wood or boards or branches or blue sky.  He’s made it out of people.

Part of me says that there’s no way this can be true. I’m a Christian and I know that I’m not holy of holy. I see other Christians and they aren’t holy of holy either. I still see God in the distance waiting for me to clean up my act. Out of the corners of my eyes I peek to see how other Christians are doing and judge us all according to the progress we’re making. The progress we’re making on the road that isn’t there.

God isn’t far away. He’s with his people.

And Jesus is passionate. The same zeal that made him fashion whips out of cords and throw tables to cleanse his Father’s house consumes him. It’s what nailed him to a cross where the blood flows and gives us something better than roots. He gives us grace and breaks the curtain.

He loves us. He’s passionate about us. When we get that, it changes us. Suddenly we are the holy of holies. His Spirit abides and overturns our old nature so that we love him and we can love each other.

His church is beautiful and it’s not because we’re perfect or because of the white steeple or because of history in the pews or because we like each other.  It’s because we’re His, and He’s in us and we belong to one another. It’s because we’re all dressed in grace and where there is grace and His Spirit, love flows. We are tied by blood that isn’t in our veins but that washes our hearts and calls us to look to the cross. His church is beautiful because we are singing the same song and clinging to the same message.

“And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” 1 John 4:14-16

Waiting By the Door

My husband helped a friend drag his ice shanty off the lake Sunday afternoon. It was cold for March and our friend brought his toddler to play with my kids while they worked. The little guy arrived with his backpack full of extra diapers, snacks and juice and I pulled out trucks and trains from the toy closet. I scooped him up with a smile but he looked back with arms outstretched and wanted to be with his Daddy. There was a goodbye, a closed door and tears. Eventually the distractions of toys, a houseful of kids and snacks dried the tears but every now and then he’d shuffle over to the door, point and say, “Daddy?”

As I pacified the little boy with some goldfish crackers, I looked in his teary eyes and I knew how he felt. He wanted his people and we weren’t them. He was waiting for the one he loved to open the door.

I’ve been feeling homesick myself. I’ve had this vague feeling of separation anxiety. Last week I drove on familiar roads leading to familiar places and a sense of belonging stirred. This was where ‘my people’ lived and had lived for generations. This is where my memories lived and the hills and back roads and houses are brimming with them. Strangely though, one of those memories is that even when I lived there, there was a feeling, even on those familiar roads, that I didn’t fully belong. I was homesick in the only home I ever knew.

My grandfather married my grandmother just a few months short of seventy years ago; just days after they said their vows, he left to fight in the war on the other side of the world. Their daughter was born while he was away and he came home to a little girl almost a year old.

That baby, my aunt, died of cancer several years ago. My grandmother died on Saturday.

I had always heard that my grandmother wasn’t interested in Christianity. My grandfather would have gone to church but she didn’t want any part of it. I stood in her kitchen on Friday and my grandfather told me through his tears that things had changed this past year.  Grammy had prayed a prayer of faith and belief. Her heart softened and she found hope and grace in the message of the gospel.

When doubts enter in, I find that I have a default religion. In our own way, on our own paths, we’re all headed home and will end up in a better place. It’s what we hear over and over when someone dies. This is a familiar road my heart travels. It says that a decision my grandmother made doesn’t make any difference. The love and beauty of my grandmother’s life is enough and she will either rest peacefully or if there is a heaven the doors will be flung open. It says there is no need for what Jesus did on the cross. In some ways this seems bigger, more universal, more satisfying on the surface than my Christian faith. Strangely though, it leaves an emptiness. It doesn’t ring true or complete.

In the kitchen, with my grandmother a room away and the life fading from her body, the cross made all the difference in the world to my grandfather and me. It didn’t just put a mask on the ugliness of death; it faced it head on and said that it wouldn’t have the victory. It opened up the floodgates of hope and it meant that when my grandfather finishes his commission here, she will be waiting once again with my aunt for him in Heaven.

But still there’s a nagging thought in my grief this week. A familiar thought. What if I didn’t have the assurance my grandfather gave me that day in the kitchen? Can I live with a religion that says there is such a thing as Hell? Do I really believe such a place could exist and that someone from this world could end up there?

One day a spider made his way into our house on a log destined for our woodstove. Just as I was putting the log in the fire I saw him start to scurry from his hiding place. As I saw him there, looking for a way of escape, I was overcome with a sense of guilt and of my power. If I tried really hard I might have been able to save him. I didn’t try. I left him to the smoke and the flames and the heat and as I closed the door, I felt wicked. The spider had done nothing deserving of being burnt up. I had made a calloused decision to let him die. I had sent him to his own Hell. It wasn’t fair.

I left, or tried to leave, Christianity once for this reason. I could not reconcile a God of love with the idea of Hell. I decided my empty, default religion was preferable. I believe in love, in gentleness, in beauty. That’s where I want to live. That’s the religion I want to cling to.

So, then, what do I do with what isn’t love and gentleness and beauty? This world is not the Utopia my default religion would like to create apart from God. There is evil. If I existed in a world where there is only love and kindness and children never got sick or were abused or starved, and someone told me about this world, I would say there is no way a loving God could let something like this be. This world with its pain and hate and awfulness could never exist. But it does. And if I’m honest, I know that the evil I see in the world exists in my very own heart. I’m not as innocent as the spider that I left in the fire.

I found myself praying even after I told myself I had given up Jesus. The truth is that I need him more than I need to have answers to all my questions. Who God is draws me back even when I don’t understand His ways. One day as I struggled in prayer, verses about thanking God came into my mind. There was one thing I had never thought to thank God for and that was Hell. What could there possibly be to thank him for about that? But, maybe out of obedience, maybe as an experiment, I said the words, “God, thank you for Hell.” And, then, I found I could keep talking. “Thank you that you overcome evil. Thank you that the things I hate about Hell… like pain and death, hate and suffering… you want to destroy.” God is not neutral or calloused about pain and suffering. He is not going to let evil continue.

There is so much I don’t understand. But I know He is good. I know that what has been revealed about His character means that He is trustworthy.

I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs of my grandmother. In just a few moments I can flip through photos of her as a child, a young wife and mother, a grandmother. I knew her for my thirty five years as her grand-daughter. There is so much of her life that I didn’t experience. Even during the years I was part of her life, there were parts of her that weren’t mine to know. We each knew her differently. Only One person knew her from the time she was forming in in my great-grandmothers belly until the time she lay on the bed in a stream of light from her window breathing her last days’ worth of breath. He knows her now. He knows her completely.

Today, my grandmother is the same woman in all the old photographs, but because her heart clung to Jesus at the end of this life, she is new as well. Grace changes us. Jesus said that when we finally see him we’ll be like him because we’ll see him as he really is. We’ll see reality apart from the evil that is in this world and in our own hearts. My grandmother is more like herself than she’s ever been before.

I can’t wait to see her again in the beauty she wears in Heaven.

And, until I make my way there myself, there will probably always be something in me that feels like the little boy at my house waiting for his daddy. There’s a little insecurity, a little doubt. There are a lot of questions that aren’t answered. But on Sunday, when the door finally opened, the little boy squealed and bounced for joy and was in his daddy’s arms and the reunion was complete. He was in the place he belonged with the one who loved him.

Someday the door will swing open for each of us. What we believe about the one who is on the other side means the difference between running and hiding as from a stranger or seeing him as our loving father and running into his arms. Faith can seem too simple, too narrow. But Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God, we need faith like a little child. Faith is what knows and trusts the sound of our Father’s steps and waits with outstretched arms.

Home and Forever

I’m sitting here as the snowstorm starts and I’m reading messages from home. They say things like “hospice starting” and “deteriorating faster than expected.”

The children are all waking up and getting breakfast and squabbling. The baby nurses while I read and he kicks contently. Life is awake and loud and busy and my grandmother is going to die soon. I just want to be still and quiet and cry. Most of all I want to be on a different hill. I want to walk through an always unlocked door and see a fat dog and a very fat cat and hear my grandfather say, “Well, hello there!” and I want to hug my Grammy.

And as if things couldn’t get any harder, I have to make whoopie pies today. It’s been years and a few weeks ago my husband mentioned he’d like them. My ten year old earned a dessert and game night and he remembered. “Mom, I think I want whoopie pies for my dessert night tonight. I don’t know what game I want to play. Maybe that one with the pile of cards you have to get rid of… what is that called?”

Skip-Bo.  Really, Lord? You want me to make whoopie pies and play Skip-Bo tonight?

I remember waking up. The tick of the grandfather clock was loud and the gong every hour made life feel safe and predictable. No matter how early I walked in the kitchen Grammy was baking. I remember whoopie pies on the counter and then wrapped in plastic wrap and some large ones placed in the mailbox for the mailman. Years later they made their way postage paid to my house too far away.

When Grammy finds out you like something you will have an endless supply. There have been years and years of hamburg soup. We would drive and drive and walk through the door with children dispersing through the house with toys and things for little hands to play with in corners and behind doors and the quiet house would be loud and Grammy would tell me to sit down and there would be hamburg soup and I would be eight years old again and nothing had changed and everything was home and safe and unending.

I don’t want endings. I want home and safe and forever.

The kids are asking why I cry. The baby laughs as he looks at me and pinches my cheeks.

Grammy hasn’t held the baby yet. He was born and I dread the long drive and I should have gone anyway. I have to tear myself away from what should have been and remember what is. He hasn’t been through the door at Grammy’s house but he’s part of there.

My sisters sit and look at photo albums with Grammy. Albums full of parents and cousins and aunts and babies and all of us. There are so many stories. Some to make you laugh, some to make you cry and some you don’t mention. Stories of a family; real and hard and sad and beautiful. There are faces of people that are away now. Maybe I feel especially part of them because I am away. Grammy’s only sister, her only daughter, her oldest grandson, my other grandmother who was her dear friend and so many others. I feel the ache of being away from Grammy and feel myself there even though I’m physically far away and I wonder if that’s how it is for them as well. Only I’m aching a goodbye and they are aching with an impending welcome.

Someone needs help with their word problems. Something about a dog chasing squirrels on a Tuesday and I want to tell the boy that it doesn’t matter. There is life and it is precious and there is Heaven and it will be here so soon and squirrels on a Tuesday and how to add don’t matter. But, I don’t say it. I read the problem and we talk about it and it matters.

I’m going to cry sometimes today and I’m going to wish I were sitting on the couch with my Grammy and that the grandfather clock hadn’t ticked so fast. I’m going to wish that time could stand still and I’m going to wish that it would be over and that it would finally be safe and together and home and forever.

I’m also going to do what Grammy always has done and what mothers and grandmothers always do. My heart is going to ache with love that sometimes feels painful and my hands are going to be busy with love that mops floors and reads stories and laughs at things the three year old says and cheers with the baby when he claps his hands and smile with tears in my eyes. And this afternoon I’m going to get out a recipe copied from a card in my Grammy’s recipe box and the jar of Marshmallow Fluff and baking cocoa and I’m going to make whoopie pies. Tonight I’ll sit down at a table that’s full of somebody’s great grandchildren and play my grandmother in Heaven’s favorite game, Skip-Bo, and eat whoopie pies and think of my Grammy on a hill in the same snowstorm that’s sending down flakes out our window. I’m going to hold close the babies that are part of me and part of them and know that they are both near and we’re together and there is something that is already forever.