Chapter 1: Prelude
The heart she woke to beat slower than the one she knew best. Her next breath revealed that her mother’s subtle perfume of milk and soap had also been replaced. In its stead came the sweet, peppery scent of cologne. Her eyes remained closed, but she could feel that the fabric her face rested against was different as well. It was smoother than the soft terry gown that cradled her head when she nursed in the mornings. Cooler, too, against her delicate skin than the fleece that brushed her cheek when she was bundled outside.
She blinked her eyes open, her yawn followed by a soft chorus of coos and murmurs that rose quickly before fading away. When the hands she was cupped in rose, she threw her tiny arms and legs wide, igniting a ripple of laughter that echoed to follow her as she was carried down the aisle.
With eyes still too young to focus on the ones that followed her, she turned from the shimmering montage of soft, jostling forms to tip her chin up high. The constellation of lights in the chandeliers above glowed from a place so far away that her new mind quickly catalogued them as a hundred tiny suns, hung in a brilliant white sky.
The tide that carried her through the sea of faces slowed, then reversed. When it slowed again she caught the quick, black blur of her father’s beard in the final spin that turned her before she came to rest.
Then the voice of the one who carried her rang out, loud, but warm—in words with meaning she knew only as the tones and patterns of one more mysterious medley of sound. They ended with a small shower of cool drops that fell to brush her brow. She drew in a quick breath as the stream ran to tickle her scalp, making a cool trail from the crown of her head to end in a tingle around one pink and perfect ear.
Just as a pout creased her small lips at the surprise, she was raised and returned to settle with a squirm back into the familiar embrace of her mother’s arms. She quieted there, growing calmer under the soft caress of fingers that found their way to stroke and smooth the damp threads of her fine, brown hair.
She nuzzled close as her eyelids fell, beginning her drift away from a world so new that each day still dawned with wide-eyed wonder at the simple miracle of being alive. Then, the voices that followed her back into sleep rose in common chorus—singing their praise of that very same gift.
Chapter 2: Sermon Story
Tina Decker always got there first. She tried to beat Tina this time, but her parents always sat in the same place. Fourth pew from the back, and on the window side, not the aisle. She had thirteen pews to pass before reaching the one that Tina sprang from this morning, then three more before climbing the small set of stairs to where Pastor Tom sat, waiting for them all.
She’d counted those rows of pews often, along with the panes in the windows and the shiny gold pipes of the organ. She even counted the tiny rubber communion-cup holes on the back of the pew. She’d count anything to take her mind off all the boring parts of the service, before she and the other children were finally released to make their way up the aisle.
The crowd was bigger than usual this morning. The little kids were fussing, but when Pastor Tom started talking, they began to settle down. He had a children’s bible on his lap and started reading a story she’d heard before. It was the one where Jesus fell asleep in the boat during the storm, then woke up to shout at the wind and the waves to make them die down.
When he finished, Pastor Tom asked them what the story meant, and before he could call on any of the kids who’d raised their waving hands—wouldn’t you know it—Little Miss Smarty-Pants, Tina Decker, just blurted out an answer.
“It’s a story about faith,” she said. “It tells us to believe in something, like God, even if we can’t see him.”
“Very good!” Pastor Tom said quickly. “Are there any questions about Tina’s answer?” He waited, beaming, his toothy smile gleaming just as brightly as his smooth, white hair.
She had one. “But how did he do it?“ she asked.
“Do what?” answered the preacher.
“Stop the storm. Is Jesus magic?”
Pastor Tom’s grin faltered. “Yes,” he said slowly, “in a way, I guess he is.” Then he asked the children to bow their heads. His voice boomed so loudly that nobody heard her quiet response when he started the prayer.
“Magic isn’t real.” she said.
A few minutes later, she and Tina and the rest of her class followed Mrs. Pritchard upstairs to make pictures of the story. They rummaged through the big cardboard box in the center of the table for whatever arts-and-crafts supplies they wanted for their work. She grabbed the first crayon her hand found and started sketching aimlessly, her mind still downstairs on Pastor Tom’s reply.
She used to believe in magic. In unicorns. In dragons. In fairies too—until last summer. When she hiked with her parents, she’d come to love to search for the glittering pieces of mica that her father told her the forest fairies left for the children who believed in them. Then, she saw him, after he’d walked ahead, kneeling to place one of the shiny slices of stone right in the middle of the trail.
Her father thought she was sad when she came to where he stood and burst into tears. But she wasn’t sad. She was mad. She decided right then and there, nobody was ever going to fool her like that again.
Mrs. Pritchard told them to finish up and tack their pictures on the wall. She hadn’t even really made a picture, just a lot of wavy lines, so she left her paper on the table to look at the rest of the class’s work. Right in the middle was Tina’s and—of course—it was the best.
Tina had glued macaronis together to form the clouds that floated above a wavy purple sea. A tiny white plastic triangle was pasted on the horizon for a sail. In between were lines of glue she’d sprinkled with a shower of silver glitter. Those shimmering lines looked just like falling rain.
But as she studied the drawing while Mrs. Pritchard chirped brightly about the work, a thought came to her. Maybe Tina had gotten it wrong. Maybe faith wasn’t believing in something you couldn’t see. Maybe it was believing in something you could see and knew all too well—but believing instead that it could be something different than what you thought it was.
Maybe it was like believing a bunch of ordinary junk stuck on a simple piece of paper could be the sparkling scene of the wind and waves in a storm.
And just maybe, she considered, the same was true of people. Maybe you could have faith that there was more to them than you thought, as well.
“I like your picture, Tina,” she said.
Then, for the very first time since she’d known her, Tina Decker turned, looked her straight in the face, and smiled.
Chapter 3: Call to Worship
It was all Mark’s idea. The flowers, the choir, the preacher they’d had to meet with three times before today. She didn’t even know the woman. Pastor Tom had gone off to get his heavenly reward a long time ago. Not that she would’ve come back if he’d still been here.
Her mother was thrilled, of course, and her dad played along, following Mom’s lead, as usual. She knew he preferred her first idea for the day, renting a boat just big enough for the closest of family and friends. He’d have liked to have done the whole thing out under a clear blue sky in a comfortable shirt with a cold beer in his hand. So would she.
But Mark had insisted. “I’ll arrange it all,” he’d promised, “you just show up.” And for the most part, he had. Well, he and her mother had. That was fine with her. She had work to do. Making her rounds at the hospital. So much sickness, so much death. It was medicine that most of her patients prayed for. Not God.
She knew that was harsh, but life was harsh. And quick. Many of the patients that did turn to God usually did it at the end, when there weren’t any other options left. They still died. There one day, gone the next. Their beds remade with a fresh set of clean, white sheets, waiting for the next body to lie down.
She gave her head a quick shake to clear the thought as her girlfriends buzzed around her like a swarm of happy bees. She wanted to be happy too. She was happy—wasn’t she? She had Mark, her career, her family. What more could a girl want?
She took a breath and the scent she breathed in carried her back to an earlier time. The smell was a bit musky, institutional even. Maybe it was the floor wax, or Windex, or the air that filtered up from the ancient boiler in the basement. Maybe it was all three. Whatever it was, it was familiar, and, for some reason, comforting.
Her girlfriends disappeared to be replaced by her father. She tried not to laugh. He looked like a big black beetle that had been dropped on a frying pan as he fussed with his suit belt, his collar, his tie.
The scene before her inspired another one in her mind: the two of them turning right around and running straight out the door to head for the hills. They could drive all the way to camp to leave all this fuss for the simple pleasure of watching their dry flies drift at the end of their lines.
Then that old familiar refrain from the organ brought her back. It was one she’d heard more often in the RomCom movies her girlfriends always talked her into watching than in real life. In a lot of ways, this day felt like a romantic comedy. She sure loved Mark, but it sure felt funny to be here too.
Then she spied him while she walked with her father holding her arm. She kept her eyes on him alone, afraid that anyone else here would see right through her if she returned their gaze. She kept walking while the music played on, surprised by the sting in her nose that promised tears.
It was the look on Mark’s face. He really did believe. In her, in her family, in the power of this place. He really did believe. Maybe, even, enough for both of them.
Chapter 4: Silent Prayer
She was the only one in the balcony. She’d come in on a whim, or maybe, a wing and a prayer. That was a laugh. When was the last time she’d prayed?
The service had started, and that was good. Except for the usher who’d tried to take her upstairs until she waved him off with a strained smile, nobody knew she was here. She’d even slipped her heels off at the top of the landing, opening the door slowly to sneak in like a thief, looking to steal the one thing that was so precious to her these days—a little bit of time.
When had everything started moving so fast? It was different the last time she was here, twenty years and a lifetime ago. The twins had brought her back then; Mark said it would be good for Kyle and Katie, so she went along. He’d been right of course. The stories, the songs, the apple juice and ginger snaps afterward—it all made for the kind of happy little club that made sense when they were young. They even brought a bit of it home. Grace before dinner. A bible for the coffee table. Katie reciting her bedtime prayers.
When they got to high school they had to bribe Kyle to come. But if anything, Katie grew even more attached to the place. As a mother, she’d worried about that, the need that drove Katie’s desire to be here at a time when most of her friends were off getting caught for the normal petty crimes committed by kids her age. It made her feel guilty that she couldn’t give her daughter whatever it was that she found within this place.
Then it all came apart. (As if they ever even really had it together.) Katie went to college, Kyle went to rehab, and her marriage went to hell. The fights with Mark became so frequent and bitter that these days she was working double-shifts just to keep from coming home.
She’d just come from one now, pulling in at the last minute, not even knowing it was Sunday until she saw the parking lot filled.
He was halfway through his story, the kid in the pulpit. He looked impossibly young, not much older than Kyle. But he’d certainly been practicing, polishing his act in seminary before hitting the stage. He barely looked at the pages in front of him. Made good eye contact with the crowd. Warmed them up with a few jokes, a couple colorful quotes. Slowed things down to deliver his moral punchline with style.
It all sounded good, but it didn’t move her. She sat through the hymns, her mind drifting through the prayers. She liked the silent one best. But though she waited, remaining open—eager even—she heard only a soft cough or two from below. No still, small voice for her.
She stayed put right through the postlude, listening to the warm farewells in the narthex, the race of tiny footsteps followed by the happy squeal of a child. When the last door gave a soft slam, she made her way down, stopping for a moment to take a peek down the long and empty aisle.
She turned to go, then stopped, surprised by the one feeling she hadn’t anticipated that morning.
She wanted to come back.
Chapter 5: Benediction
Everyone was there.
Mark and Kyle were right up front with her, with Katie’s big, noisy family filling the pew behind. It’d been a while since they’d all been here together, but it hadn’t been that long since each of them had been here with her.
That was the funny part, that she should be the one who’d bring them all back.
It had started with Mark, during their darkest days. After a few Sunday mornings alone, he figured it out. Crept right into the balcony after the opening announcements one morning to take a seat at the end of her pew. It only took her a moment to slide over and—for the first time in months—reach out and take hold of his hand.
It wasn’t a miracle. It still took months of visits to the counselor’s office to learn the long, slow dance back to the kind of bond they’d shared before kids and careers took their toll. Week in and week out, it was three-steps-forward, two-steps-back. But almost every Sunday, they found their way here.
They didn’t even talk about it. She’d step out of the shower to find him slipping on a sports coat and tie, so she’d pull on a pair of pantyhose and iron a dress. If she was up first, they’d simply reverse the routine, each of them taking the lead that led them to the post they’d picked out, leaving the balcony for their pew by the window, midway down the aisle.
A couple years later, Kyle surprised her when he asked to join her a week after his third detour through a halfway-house. She supposed he was looking for a new place to find his higher power. Mark was smart enough to stay home for a while then. The battles between father and son had been bigger. Better to let Kyle find his way back to them one-by-one.
Then Katie got transferred back from the other coast. Rob, God bless him, turned it all into a lark. Quit his job while Katie flew ahead, taking all four kids out of school to drive them cross-country just so fussy little Penny wouldn’t have to fly.
They found a split foyer they couldn’t really afford, so one of them was always working on Sundays. But the other often managed to corral the kids to come here, especially if Grammy was there to help keep them from knocking the big white building to the ground.
When she got sick, she couldn’t make it here very often. But if she had a good day on a Sunday, it was so much better once she came. And when she got really sick, there was a constant stream of casseroles, banana bread, cards, and countless other goodies flowing from the kitchens of those who hadn’t forgotten her while she was away.
Now they were all here together. And it was all for her.
One-by-one they came up front to stand by the big poster covered with snapshots of her at every age. A few stopped to give the casket a gentle touch along the way.
Then they laughed and they wept, sharing so many stories that she knew by heart, and so many new ones that touched her there.
With those tales came her answer, the one she’d spent her whole life searching for: That very quest for an answer was the answer.
The power of this place that she had orbited her whole life was her communion with the others who found their way through it doors. They came to sing and to speak. To listen and to learn. To celebrate and to struggle—together.
They came to share their common hunger.
Hunger for meaning.
Hunger for purpose.
Hunger for the one true calling of every life—the thing that every human heart is set to beat for:
To love. Only to love.
It felt so good to be home.