Getting to church on time has proven to be very difficult in the past few months. Hell, getting anywhere on time in the past few months has been tough. So it was no surprise when I arrived to services halfway through the first reading with my three kids last Sunday. Austin and Claire ran ahead and found Austin’s godparents, Josh and Becky. They were sitting in a row with their own children and an elderly couple on the aisle. My kids starting climbing over this couple to get to Josh and Becky. They were making a huge racket and I embarrassingly sat down in an adjacent row with Tommy. Becky gave me a knowing smile.
Our church is one of the few places where it was easy to return after Shawn’s death. It wasn’t perfect, and sometimes people were awkward when they saw us. But in some ways, it was an easier place to return to than the grocery store or the kids’ school, where I might have to talk to someone I barely knew. From the beginning, my church was a place where I met and talked with hundreds of people from across the city. As part of our get-to-know-you conversations, we would talk about the big life questions. What role does God play in our lives? What happened after we died? How could we be good people? Thus, in many ways, when faced with something as difficult to understand as a 40-year-old’s death, I found that many of the people at church – even those I didn’t know well – could talk to me about what I was going through.
Take Don, for example, a guy I taught Sunday school with for a few years. When he found out about Shawn’s illness, he showed up a number of times at my house with homemade soup he’d individually packaged. He brought so much that I’m still eating it. The first time, he stood at my door and told me he didn’t know what to do, but he could cook. Then he hugged me and we talked about our church and my sadness. Don and I had spent many a Sunday morning discussing mundane things, like kids and marriage and playdates, but we had also talked about the role of religion in our kids’ lives and how we think about spirituality. I don’t actually know that much about Don’s everyday life, but yet we engaged on a level that usually takes me much longer with other friends.
Anyway, last Sunday, I saw a number of people I knew as I settled into the pew with Tommy. Other than Josh and Becky, none of them were my closest friends. And yet, when the time came to wish each other peace, there were so many people who came up to me and held my hands in their hands. There was the photographer who took pictures when my kids were baptized, the friend who dropped off grief books in January, and the older couple whose daughter had taught my Sunday school class when I had to be in the hospital. One by one, they said hello and they looked me in the eyes. “Peace be with you,” we said to each other.
Never before have I thought more about that phrase, “peace be with you.” I’m not sure if God has a plan or if there’s even a way that God can intervene here on earth. I believe in God but I don’t know what else I really believe beyond that. I certainly don’t know what is really true in the Bible. Still, the rituals of each church service make it so that these people – the ones who aren’t my best friends, but who are part of my community – can come up to me, hold my hands and say the words, “peace be with you.” Right now, they are probably the most powerful words that I can hear, mostly because peace is so elusive. I feel sadness and I feel anxiety and I feel overwhelmed. But peace? It’s just not something that I feel right now.
That day in church, I felt a familiar heaviness. Earlier in the service, Claire asked if she and Austin could go and sit in the balcony, and I exhaustedly said, “yes.” I was going on 5 hours of sleep and I knew I’d have to spend at least 90% of the time tending to Tommy. They were overjoyed to be so independent. But just after the “peace,” I heard a loud crash and looked up to Claire gesturing to me. Austin had tumbled down the stairs and was hurt. I jumped up, but Josh got there sooner. Austin was okay, and he got up and went to Josh, who put his arm around him and waited for communion to start. He leaned down and said something to Austin, and I felt the stinging sensation of tears that were about to come. The emotion came not from Austin’s pain, but rather from the deep kindness of his godfather and from the image of them standing there together. They are not father and son. And yet – it got me.
I waited and composed myself. Then I led Tommy down our own aisle to get communion. “Hands like a plate,” I instructed him, and he obediently did it. He looked around, unaware of the number of people watching him. We took communion and held it in our hands as I led him over to the wine. I wasn’t looking at the person serving wine, but she bent down to Tommy’s height, and he dipped in his wafer. Then she stood up and I saw who she was.
It was a woman from my church grief group. I don’t know her last name. I don’t really know anything about her life, but I know everything about how she thinks about God and life and death. It’s the oddest thing. I’ve shared more with her about my life than I have with people I’ve known for years. And so, when she tilted the cup towards me, I saw a very specific look in her eyes. It was one of a person who knows me, and who sees a deeper part of me.
On the surface, it may have seemed as though nothing important happened. She just said our ritualistic blessing and I said the ritualistic response, “Amen.” But she saw me. She saw me with my tiniest child, the one who she knows is so grief-stricken that he can’t let go of me. She saw me and she nodded her head and I saw the look in her eyes. It was one of compassion and understanding. It was one of someone who may not know my last name, but nevertheless knows me.
I think this is why, week after week, I return to my church. I am not a perfect believer, and I have many doubts. I do not know where Shawn is now, though I hope it’s in some sort of afterlife where it’s perpetually a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I do not know what the future holds for my family, and I question why I’ve been given such a heavy load. But I know that in my church every week, other people see me. I know that each week, I’ll extend my hand to these people and we will say the words to each other that somehow bring me comfort:
“Peace be with you.”
Image Credit: Chip Somodevilla.