She was crying silently. Lighting candle after candle, and sobbing. But without really knowing it, she had come to the right place.
The big church was lit sparingly. The side chapel glowed in the dusk, the glorious stained glass windows gleaming like jewels. On the altar the silver candlesticks reflected the flames, on the chalice danced flecks of colored light.
So we approached her. One of my parishioners asked her how she was doing. I touched her arm and listened. She told us of how she's been running from God for too long.
The love is so very hard to believe.
”I don't believe God does not exist”, she said, ”I just don't think he listens to me. I have said such horrible things to him.”
But something had kept on pulling her back. Time and time again she had tried to open church doors, and every time she had been disappointed. Closed sanctuaries and cold buildings. This evening, she had been standing outside our foreboding facade, not even daring to hope it was open. But she reached out, and the door opened and she almost fell in. In to glowing beauty and serenity, to warm words and listening hearts.
So I changed two of the hymns. I asked my cantor to sing a different postlude. The text: Jacob and the ladder, was already one that spoke of impossible love and feeling non-deserving. She never once looked up. I spoke about how the cheating and deceiving dark hero Jacob found the door to heaven in the midst of the desert, of how maybe we sometimes need to lose before we win, of how there is a community of losers waiting, of how we are always and forever loved. I spoke long about not deserving but still receiving, and about the way Jesus shares our crooked and strange lives.
And then I broke the bread. I lifted the chalice high. And we gathered around the altar, in silent community. She hesitated. Wordlessly, the others made room for her, and she sank to her knees. Her hands trembled as she took the bread and drank from the cup. Her shoulders relaxed when I spoke the benediction.
She hugged me after. Long and hard. And whispered ”Thank you”. Worship, when done right, is such a pastoral event. Healing, telling truths, speaking hope.
And I think about all of those other wonderful worship services I have led and participated in. Huge services, and tiny little gatherings like this one. Very rarely have I felt God's presence so clearly as I did this night. And I wonder if it had even been possible if we had been a couple of hundred people. I am so glad this woman came to us this night. She met a church community that had no interest in her money or good singing voice or purity of heart. She met kindness, and charity. She met church as I dream it to be, and in helping us see and be this, she gave us a wonderful gift.
I watched her leave into the night. I don't know if I will see her again, but she gave me a gift. She gave us all a gift. This night, we were community. This night, we were the eyes and arms and loving words of the God she had been so desperately fleeing from. This night we walked in Presence. This night we gave Love. And this night, we received Love.