I felt a little like I was getting ready for a date. I had picked out my clothes the night before, hanging them carefully over my chair, but in the light of day, they just didn’t seem right.
I found a white jersey dress that I almost never wear (mostly because almost everything I do involves eating, and I am not good with food and white). It was the right choice.
I wore make-up, too, which is less common than not these days. My stomach was a little jittery as I slid the eyeliner across the edges of my lids.
I couldn’t tell you why now, except that I’d felt it deep in my center the night before. The winds were changing, the leaves were stirring.
I went to bed nervous, but excited as well.
I went to bed wrapped in hope.
I took in every detail on the drive the next morning. It was sunny, which made it easier to get out of bed with joy, and as I parked my car and began to walk, I noticed that the sun brought out the bright colors of the mural on the side of the church.
I took a deep breath and walked inside.
Almost immediately upon entering, I made eye contact with my pastor’s husband and quickly spied their son (one of my favorite children). Almost immediately after, I recognized a couple I’d met at a friend’s outdoor movie night earlier in the summer. They were greeting people near the entrance to the sanctuary. I said hello and and asked to be pointed in the right direction. What with the sun and all of the people, I was already a little disoriented, (and still nervous).
They smiled and showed me where to find a printed liturgy. I found a seat and picked up a hymnal, ready to flip to the correct page.
I took a deep breath. The sanctuary itself was filled with light. The floors were a light golden wood, and the stained glass windows are formed from a glass almost the color of lilacs.
I caught the eye of my pastor, and she smiled warmly at me.
Next to her, I noticed another familiar face, another welcoming smile (a poet I’d met at that same outdoor movie night, which was beginning to seem like the cornerstone of my social life).
The service began.
The last time I went to church was during Holy Week. A friend was singing in the choir at our local cathedral and invited me to the Maundy Thursday service. I wrote a bit about it later, especially about watching the stripping of the altar and the way that it contributed to my own desolation.
I also wrote about hearing the words from Exodus read aloud, in reference to the Passover feast: “If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one.” At the time, it made me feel small and alone. I was preparing to spend Easter alone, and many other days besides. I couldn’t think of a near neighbor with whom I could join forces.
Last Sunday, in this sunshiny church, I heard those words read aloud again. Of course the liturgy for my re-entry included these same verses. This time, I saw something else as I listened to the text. We read Exodus 12:1-14, and I realized that joining with a close neighbor to eat a lamb wasn’t simply about requiring companionship. It was the blood from that very lamb that saved the Israelites from the angel of death. Community, while sometimes hard and uncomfortable, is a matter of life and death in this passage.
I’ve been struggling lately, with feelings of isolation, coupled with the scars of pain inflicted a year ago at this time. I’ve been fighting the urge to hole up in my home, and even in my bed, doing my best to reach out, even when I haven’t felt like it.
One of the times I reached out, my pastor reached back with a poem. She read it aloud to me, and I’ve played it back over and over again since. She couldn’t have known how it spoke to my weary heart, so intent upon ignoring what grace really means.
As part of the liturgy, we turned over our bulletin to read a poem together in unison. It was the poem she had sent me, and I repeated it with the rest of the congregation, the words familiar like a stone I had been keeping in my pocket, rubbing with my thumb.
from A Timbered Choir
By Wendell Berry
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
(The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997)
I could talk about the fresh garden produce at coffee hour. Green beans and tomatoes and cucumber, (brought by one of those couples I met at that movie night). I could talk about the conversations I had, conversations where I didn’t hold back from saying that I was still healing from past church wounds. “This is a good place to heal,” one woman said.
I could talk about the way it felt to be remembered, with bread and wine, with word and wink.
But I think I’ll close by telling you that in the middle of the service, someone behind me spilled a cup of coffee. Those of us in my pew moved quickly to avoid being covered in the liquid, as it pooled near our feet. We did all of this with little sound, and one man ran off for a few paper towels, which didn’t accomplish much.
We kept right on singing.
I couldn’t help but think about how community, especially church community, is a little like that cup of coffee. It’s warm and messy and a little sticky, and ends up in unexpected places. But it’s sweet. And it spreads out, defying containment.
We keep right on singing.