It was my own decision to get up and go to church on Easter Sunday. My friends had asked me to go to the church that they frequent but I was not forthcoming with a commitment until the morning of. For some reason, it had taken a lot to commit to any religious institution. I must say that I have great faith and I have my own direct line to God through prayer but “The church” has put such a sour taste in my mouth that I have made my own sanctuary in my own heart and mind. But this particular morning, something in me just snapped. Being that I know that God has a sense of humor, I heard my grandfather’s voice saying, “Get your butt up and go hear the word!” So, thanks to my body’s natural wake-up call, I got up.
My bladder has become the sole reason that I wake up so early these days. Rolling out of bed to sloth my way to the dark bathroom to void it of supreme pressure at or before the crack of dawn has really started to make me feel old, not to mention make me mad. But nonetheless, it has become my very own built-in alarm clock. Sleeping until my heart’s content has become a faint, faded memory. The calling of my cozy, down comforter in the still-dark room almost made the decision to go to church come too late.
Deep in the heart of the Bible belt, being late to any church especially on Easter Sunday means you will find yourself sitting in a squeaky folding chair or standing up, doing the lean-to on one of the sanctuary walls throughout the whole church service; with my uncomfortable Easter shoes, that was just not happening. Going to many an Easter Sunday service in my life has taught me that much. So, scrambling around to get ready has become my standard mode of operation. My friends had asked me to attend their church with them and, although I really felt uncomfortable going to a new church, I decided to go despite the awkwardness of showing up to a church I had been to only once, and oddly enough, was for a funeral.
Wearing an all-black, Maxi dress to Easter Sunday service is considered taboo where I’m from, especially if that dress looks like it should be worn for funerals only. But I didn’t care. I was going to Church and just going was enough as far as I was concerned. I have long since stopped caring much about what others in my town, the Rose Capitol, deem appropriate, for I am by no means a delicate flower. The simple fact that I didn’t wear underwear would be satisfaction enough to unnerve anyone shooting daggers at me for my long past wicked ways. But I went and the decision to go made me feel good.
Walking in the huge, crowded sanctuary, I found a pew across the aisle from my friends and sat down on the end. They were all trying to scrunch together to make me a small space to sit, but even though my butt is quite small, it would have made their sitting quite uncomfortable if I sat there. Smashed in there would have made paying attention to the sermon difficult. I had no desire to be shoulder-to-shoulder, bone-to-bone with anyone. I was content with the space I had found next to an elderly lady in a pink pant suit and a smile that had “He is Risen!” all over her.
Before the service started, the deacons and ushers looked like secret service men scanning the sanctuary for extra seating on the pews for late-comers to sit, flashing a two-fingered signal to the pew and then to the back of the house to another usher who had a couple waiting for a sign to have a place to sit. The rustling of programs and clearing of throats in stereo was a familiar. Everyone in their Sunday best is a common sight and the bright colored dresses are enough to make you think of the movie Steel Magnolias.
Draped in black and white robes, standing behind the pulpit, the choir looked like something out of a Charles Dickens story that I had envisioned in my mind. Their mouths were open into perfect “Os” as they sang hymns from open books laid out in their arms before them. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
They sounded like a chorus of angels and gave me a strange peace. Songs that I have heard over and over in my life have more meaning now than they had in the past. Though I doubt I know anyone singing in the small choir, I still find myself scanning their faces for people I know. They are to me, in that moment, angels with human faces and I find great comfort in their voices, in their songs.
There will always be a small child in the service wearing what looks to be like a christening gown screaming cries at the top of their lungs in the service, so loudly that you can hear them over the music. And of course the parents never seem to excuse themselves to get the crying under control. “Give that baby a cookie, or a bottle!” is the passing thought I catch going through my mind and soon after, there is silence. For some reason, though, I don’t get irritated at the cries these days as I would have before. I don’t shoot daggers to the side of the sanctuary where the cries are echoing from. I sit in the stillness of the moment and wait patiently for the sermon to begin.
The verses of the affirmation of faith that are recited aloud by the whole congregation are familiar and I find myself saying the words in unison as I have a thousand times as a teenager in the church I have not been to in some time. I was surprised that words that I have not said in so long came flooding into my mind and heart. They, too, give me comfort and a sense of forgotten pride. I looked around while reciting the surprisingly familiar words to find someone who might have known me and my life before the fall, who might be proud of me for returning to the fold, but there were only my faithful friends mirroring my lips with their own. Flashes of smiles and a wink were exchanged across the aisle, warming my heart.
The preacher begins his sermon after a hymn—number 327, Crown Him with Many Crowns—is sung by the congregation. I listen intently and take notes, instead of passing notes, for the first time in my life and find myself paying attention. Throughout the service, it seems the words and the eyes of the preacher seem to be doled out and focused on only me. I look around at the profiles of others next to me hoping to see the conviction on other faces so I can know he is talking to everyone in the room, but I still feel that he is directing it all towards me. It’s almost like he knows. I do not hang my head in shame nor do I feel awkward. I listen and feel a sense of accomplishment for I know I am hearing his words for a reason.
The words that flow out of his mouth like silk are reassuring: “Faith hinges on resurrection.” I have known this for some time, not only Jesus Christ’s resurrection, but metaphorically my own. I had a hard time getting over the mess I once made of myself, and really have forgiven myself, but couldn’t let it go. For a while, I let my mistakes define me.
I do have a history, a past—everyone does—but this Easter I found for the first time I am no longer ashamed sitting in the house of God. The words of the man giving his Easter Sermon, a lesson I have heard in a hundred different ways and through different voices, made sense to me for the first time in my life. It reassured my faith, not only in God but in myself.
I have forgiven myself for the things I have done, but this was the first time I really believed it. And I think that it’s not really about who you know that has forgiven you; it is about you forgiving you. It’s about letting go of the regret and doubt you hold in yourself for failing or going down the wrong path. It is a washing off of yourself after you weather the storm. You ask forgiveness of the people you hurt, especially of yourself, and you let it go.
The preacher also said something I have read somewhere, but until he said it that morning, I had never really given it much thought. He said, “The worst thing is never the last thing.” It is such a true statement to me because when my world was at its darkest and I thought my life was over, it wasn’t. I am a living product of pure grace and I know that I am here for a reason, if only to show the world that through love a person can be resurrected from a life that was lost. My life has been changed through love and forgiveness. I have a fresh start; we all do. I have come out of the worst and plan to make a lesson to share with many. This is the best place to plug my book, Re-Raising Crazy. You should check it out when the time comes.
I didn’t have to be told that Jesus Christ died for me. I know that. It wasn’t the Easter story that I needed to hear that morning. It was the story about forgiveness that I needed to hear. To be reassured that it’s OK to make mistakes; it is the lessons that you take away from those mistakes that shape you. I am proud of who I am now. I am thankful that Jesus died for me and was resurrected so that I too could be renewed. I am proud of the lessons I have learned that make me who I am. I am proud that really for the first time, I get it: Forgive and be forgiven and move on. It was that very Sunday that that preacher left me with a gift. It was a reminder to never take my faith for granted because even though I don’t go to church on a regular basis, my faith is part of the whole that saved me from a life that could have killed me. And then I would be just another tragic story.
It wasn’t until the preacher stopped talking and I looked down at my watch and saw that time was up that I had realized we had been there for a whole hour and it was quite strange because I wasn’t really ready to go. I wanted to hear more and that was really an oddity for me because I don’t like sitting still to hear any kind of sermon or lecture. Only a few other teachers in my life have left me wanting more and it has been a while since those lessons were given. I was grateful for the words of the preacher and the hunger for the word that he left in my heart. I was glad I went to church and even more glad that I had paid attention. It gave me something to think about and a calming peace to go home with. Kind of like one I had just before I left church camp with so many years ago. It was the snoring of the elderly lady next to me that made me laugh out loud. I thought it was a bit disrespectful that she had fallen asleep in the midst of this powerful sermon, but then again, I guess it was likely one that she, too, had heard many times before. For some reason, I think she had already learned the message that I thought was directed at me. I gave her a little nudge and she patted my leg to say,”thank you” and we both smiled as she said, “Hallelujah!”
After the choir started singing “Hallelujah,” it was like something out of a movie. The sun shone rays of through the stained glass windows, filling the room with a bright, colorful light as if the “teacher” was cheering on the student for getting an “A” on a test that would secure her future in the world. And the smile I carried on my face was one whose meaning only God could have known. I had finally gotten it.
When the service was over I went home and changed clothes to go and have lunch with my family. The time was short but sweet and I was on my way home. It was fulfilling for me to go to church and getting something out of it was a first in a really long time. I guess it’s all about listening and being receptive to the lessons I was supposed to hear a long time ago. I guess its a little bit of maturity as well. but as they say, “when the student is ready, the teacher presents himself.”
Forgiveness is like spring rain; it is healing in a way like nothing else. It washes away the dirt so that new seeds can grow.