My family in Georgia had been going to the same church since moving into the house on Timber Ridge about eight years ago. A little more than a year ago, they decided to explore other churches in the area. They found a church not twenty minutes further away from their house than the first one. I came along to explore this new church while visiting for Christmas a year ago.
Walking in for the first time, I noticed the walls along the central cavity of the building were stapled with smooth and warm-toned wood panels. A fireplace was nestled in the middle of three bold, grey leather couches. To the left of the front entrance, about fifty steps forward climbed a steel staircase. It traveled to the second and final floor with additional couches sitting comfortably enough apart to engage in conversation or for spending time alone. Freshly brewed coffee was prepared in the cafe from the far side of the first floor, across from where we walked in. Rich caramel and fresh steam collided with the scent of burning firewood and crackling embers in the middle of the room.
As we made our way through the middle aisle, we chose to sit about halfway between the stage and the back of the room. The lights dimmed about half a minute later, and dark silhouette shadows began to walk across the stage. The music developed slowly, gliding delicately from the stage, then upon the audience. It started off with subtle guitar chords forming ethereal echoes, gracefully transitioning into the a fairly upbeat song.
The music continued throughout the night as fresh and inviting. After the fourth or fifth song, we were instructed to take our seats. The lights dimmed into a cozy darkness as I once again made out the silhouette shadows as they departed from their positions, back into black space leading off the stage.
The lights brightened back just enough to make out the color and design of the clothes of the man standing in the center of the stage. He wore a casual button-down shirt with dark, slimly-cut jeans. He introduced himself to the congregation as senior pastor, with a warm and levelheaded tone of voice. He made it a point to welcome all visitors before going into his sermon for the evening.
The pastor spoke a message of hope and surrendering to peace with ourselves and things even greater. His message reasoned us to see through the superficial traditions of the holiday season, clinging instead to the reason that we all sang earlier about peace on earth and mercy mild. I had heard, like so many others, not to lose sight of the “true meaning” of Christmas. Those words coupled together practically resembled every other countless Christmas card filled with cliches. What resonated during and past that week was how uncomfortable I became.
I could not come to terms with the thought that a society with such tangled priorities and self-centered mindsets could find it easy to accept and surrender to such a complex object as “peace”. Was it I who couldn’t accept peace for who and what it was, despite the world and its “incapacity for peace”? Was I just going to let “peace” take care of our economy? Of suicide and scandal? War and absent welfare? Every school, every movie theater, battle ground compensated for on behalf of “peace”?
“God let me see peace through just one of these issues, if it can be so.”
I learned to accept that not everything would be revealed to me when I expected it to, no matter how diligently I prayed. I also learned that God has a timing and a purpose of his own for each thought we think and event we experience. This was, in no way a coming to terms with the things I have seen and heard in this life. However, it certainly made me seem much smaller in the scheme of what we are truly capable of. And what God is capable of allowing. I was lessened to silence and placed on the bleachers of the world, witnessing a world fighting within itself. I’d like to think God was crying. I knew he was.
It was Thanksgiving of this past year, and I drove over once again to visit for the long weekend. My dad was the first to tell me, a few hours after I had settled in from the drive.
“You remember the worship pastor, the young, lanky one with dark hair? We joked how he reminded us of Phil from Modern Family?”
I vaguely made out his frame and what I could remember from his face. He did resemble, somewhat, the hilarious father-kid figure from the sitcom we loved.
“Andrew was cycling along a main road yesterday afternoon and was hit by an oncoming semi-truck. He passed away at the scene.”
After a while of continued conversation between my dad and step-mother I happened to catch the last few words by which my step-mother reminded my dad,
“He left behind three young children and a wife; you’ve seen her on stage a few times, singing alongside him.”
It wasn’t the way he died that bothered me, nor did the carelessness of the truck driver get under my skin. All other thoughts swept beneath my consciousness. My mind went straight to the church. His family.
The week drew closer to the weekend. I began to think about Sunday. What would the pastor say? How would the congregation respond? Would the music be the same? Would there be any? Would we sing hymns instead? Would there be un-containable sobbing? Like a funeral? I felt very uncomfortable at funerals.
Sometime between that Friday and Sunday morning, I remembered Christmas service; remembered what I had heard a year ago. Sitting in the faded darkness of the congregation, I recalled listening, with my eyes focused and attentive as the pastor spoke about mercy, about peace. I remembered prayer after prayer, doubts and second thoughts about my own faith. Why I felt such pity and lack of compassion towards the world he was talking to. The world I was not de-attached nor admitted from. I was still alive and held a part in the world, and regardless of how much scripture told me otherwise, I was oftentimes of it.
“How could I invest in the peace and mercy in a God that take so easily take such a young and visioned role from his church? From his family?”
I remembered how peaceful and warm my first visit to this church was. A whole Christmas ago now. It did not feel like a year had passed.
That Sunday, just a month ago from now, we went to church. We walked through the same double doors leading into the same warm and inviting central cavity, their living room. I remembered the same fireplace surrounded by the three cozy, grey leather couches. The coffee was the same, the fresh crackling embers were the same. The people were the same; authentic and vulnerable smiles, embracing each other, cordial conversations filled the air. But I saw few tears.
We made our way down the same aisle, sat in the same area as before, a tad closer to the stage. The setting was darker than before. The stage was naked and black, decorated by two lone, acoustic guitars that each leaned gently on a stand. A sleek and gorgeously curved, velvety black grand piano angled towards the congregation still filling in their seats.
After the last song came to a somber but hopeful close, the lights darkened like they did before, a year ago. The same silhouette shadows, only fewer, escaped to the back side of the stage and out of sight. They seemed to move slower than before, the few of them that were there.
The same pastor got up on stage and began with few words. He gazed intently at his bible. Closing it before beginning to speak, he hesitated. He started by addressing his audience and the guests that were unaware, of the events that had taken place a week prior to that day.
I remembered what he encompassed his entire message around a year ago.
“Peace on earth and mercy mild”
The peace brought into this hurting and angry world came for but a short time. Peace that, like me, was in the world, and continued on in peace. It came to me and stayed for a while. It showed me what love and joy, hope and forgiveness was. Then it left.
I think the tendency of God to “give and take away” is to be taken literally. He oversees thousands of shootings and injustices far past the borders of our nation. He sees divorces, cancer invasions, and deadly but preventable accidents.
Only recently am I beginning to connect the peace that was spoken about last Christmas, born into this world to
“compensate for the things like Andrew, shootings and the world’s fight within itself”
on behalf of our peace. Peace came into our world to be our peace. I find peace knowing that our world cannot be explained. I find peace having accepted the Peace that came so that these things need no explaining.
The pastor’s message that day was filled with hope, uncertainty, vulnerability, and peace. Peace was in the air that day.
Peace He gives freely to us, but not as the world gives.