He stood alone at the back entrance of the church, the winter sun shining on his weathered face. His shoulders were slightly stooped, his white hair and beard neatly trimmed. He reached for the handle of the door. Should he go in?
It had been a long time since he had been inside a church. Life had been hard. His wife had left him a few years ago, and he and his 16-year-old son shared an apartment overlooking Portland’s harbor.
Starting a new business after retiring from the Navy wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t the ex-wife, the wayward son, or the change of life work that weighed on his stooped shoulders. It was the nagging, empty place in his heart.
When he had been a kid, his grandmother had taken him to church. He had learned Bible verses, sung “Jesus Loves Me,” and prayed. But he had dreams. Big dreams. Church just didn’t fit into them.
Sometimes, when all was quiet in the middle of the night, he would look up from his puffy pillow into the darkness and wonder about God. Did God still love him after all his wasted years?
The thought in the back of his mind kept hounding him: perhaps he should find his way back to church. Maybe something there would be a balm to his aching heart.
The winter wind tugged at his down parka. He pulled it closer about him and opened the back door. It was warm inside. Women were already heating the covered dishes for potluck, and the aroma surrounded him.
Faint voices of children in the kindergarten room came floating up the stairway. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” He was drawn in by the voices of these little ones. He remembered that long ago and far away He was the little boy in the blue shirt who sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know!”
His blue eyes began to sting, and a tear rested on his weathered cheek. This is where I belong, he thought, as he made his way closer to the singing. I’ve come home.
When he told me the story a few months later, he had a new look on his face, and shoulders were no longer stooped. I could identify with his story.
I was a 13-year-old from the city. Day after day on the freeway, trucks with diesel engines roared past our house. Police and ambulance sirens wailed day and night. The sky hung heavy and gray, blocking the golden rays of sunshine; my lungs ached for a breath of fresh air. There was no spot where a little girl with long brown hair could go to be alone and ponder the long, long thoughts of youth.
Then came summertime. Uncle Felix and Aunt Mary lived on a cattle ranch among the rolling green hills of the Midwest.
From the farm, I could see the little white church some five miles away on a yonder ridge. Church was special. Farmers gathered at the churchyard early, as soon as their chores were done. Women brought covered dishes of green beans, new potatoes, and fresh red tomatoes from the garden. Men gathered and talked about the weather, and what it was doing to the hay. Then the singing started.
Uncle Willie sang bass; Uncle Delbert, tenor; Uncle Felix took the lead. The songs went on and on, until it was time to start the service. Then my uncle would raise his hand for the worshippers to welcome the platform participants. He would start the song, and we would all sing together, “There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God. . . . Hold us who wait before Thee, near to the heart of God.”
I could look out the window over the rolling hills dotted with small farms
and Black Angus cattle. The windows were wide open, and the smell of freshly mowed hay was in the air. The silver notes of the meadowlark’s song blended with our own singing. The words of the songs etched themselves into my mind.
Ever after, when life seemed brittle, I would visit the farm again. The scene was the same. Women gathered around the table with the covered dishes, men talked about the weather, and the singing would begin. As always my uncle would raise his hand and invite us to sing, “Hold us who wait before Thee, near to the heart of God.”
There’s something to be said about finding that what was there when you left is still there when you come home.
The teens at our church have a prayer group that meets at my big old New England farmhouse after the service every week. We’re not very fancy. We just have soup, swirl bread, and peanut butter. That’s all.
After the meal the kids rush to my office upstairs to stake their claim to which puffy flowered pillow they will hug for the afternoon, and who gets to nestle into the old feather tick. Their favorite item is the downy puff covered with the white-and-green-striped sheets. As many as possible sit on the floor atop the green Prussian rug with this green-striped comforter over their legs and their Bibles in their hands. It is a precious time as they make their own memories. I’m glad the green-striped puff is part of it.
A few months ago I went to one of those periodic “retreats” at the church’s youth facility back in the mountains beside the lake. Cabins are there, but you have to bring your own linen and sleep on a cot definitely designed with youth in mind.
I spread the green-striped puff atop the sagging bed and crawled between the sheets. I had just closed my eyes when I heard the door creak.
A beam of light shone on the green-striped puff. “Oh!” whispered a little blond teen to her bud. “It’s the green-striped comforter!”
In a moment they were on the bed, snuggling under the green-striped puff, and sharing the long, long thoughts of youth.
Could it be that in these days of change and uncertainty we need a few security blankets around? The new songs, the new ways of doing church, the new viewpoints are refreshing, and have their place. But everyone needs a green-striped comforter to come home to.