I did not even want to be there. It was hot, southern hot. The kind of hot that makes it hard to think or breathe or walk in a straight line. I was fresh out of a worship service, and my body was tired. I needed to eat, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit in another pulpit. I wanted to go home, watch television until my dreams hijacked the lives of the characters on the screen. But I had promised to be there because I love this family, and this family loves me.
When I pulled into the lot and saw that there were no legal spaces left, I joined the rest of the latecomers and snagged a brightly marked “No Parking” space and hustled to enter the crowded church. In a way, I was relieved. Crowded is not the right word. It was, as we say in these parts, PACKED. Men and women of every sort stood in the vestibule, too close for comfort, but not close enough for altercation. I peeped into the sanctuary. Mourners were stuffed in every pew. Others leaned against the walls, like grieving sentries posted for duty. Seeing this, I devised a plan to wade through the crowd, glad-hand for a moment, view the body, greet the family, and share my regrets for not being able to stay. After all, I did not have a seat.
But God had other plans.
An usher recognized me immediately, and said, “Follow me.” Before I could respond, she was gone, and the sea of people parted as if she had raised a staff and the breath of God had swept through the sanctuary. I had no choice. Through the crowd I walked until I reached the very place I was determined to avoid. The pastor greeted me with a hug and the kind of smile that bespoke fatigue, compassion, and apology all at once. I know that smile. My colleague pointed to the empty chair next to him. Of course, there was a seat for me. We both serve this family, and we knew what it meant for me not only to be there but to be seen there, up front to support them.
When service began, I noticed two women standing directly in front of both columns of pews. Both wore kind smiles, and their deft hands translated every phrase of praise and adulation that floated from the pastor’s lips. In that instant, I finally realized what everyone else already knew. At least half of the congregation could not see or hear or speak. In fact, deafness had presented a formidable challenge for the young man* lying before us, but he had not let that stop him from living a full, purposeful, joy-filled life. My preoccupation with heat and fatigue had blurred by vision. I could see, but had not seen; hear, but had not heard. Though grieving, we were a beautiful hodgepodge of people—different shades of brown and caramel and sand and stone, differently gifted to hear and see and speak and sign. Some shouted hallelujah, others tapped tambourines, many waved their hands or swayed and danced in their seats.
Amazingly, those who could not see through their natural eyes or hear through their natural ears were the most animated. They worshipped without shame or restraint, joy glistening among them like shekinah glory. Meanwhile, the rest of us looked bored, bothered, or just anxious to leave. I recognized my dashed hopes for escape in the shadows of their tired grins, sleepy nods, and constantly shifting bodies. In one sanctuary were two peoples—one open and receptive to the revelation of God’s grace; the other, impassable and unimpressed by the presence of the holy.
A rush of embarrassment tore through me, for all of us who were like me. I was ashamed for us because we take our blessedness for granted, because we resent being inconvenienced, and especially, because I, at least, felt a bit put off by those who were there to worship in spirit and in truth. I had allowed my senses to cling to everything that had been wrong about the day—the parking, the heat, the crowd, my fatigue—instead of celebrating everything that was right. Because of that, I had nearly missed the Spirit moving among us. Thankfully, my musings were interrupted near the end of the service. A worshipper stood up to sing, and he did so without saying a word. His lithe, swaying body, his glowing face, his tears, and his quick hands ushered us through the song.
Did you ever know that you're my hero,
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle
For you are the wind beneath my wings…
I heard Bette Midler’s voice through the sound system, but he made her words come alive by singing with his body. It was a beautiful tribute to his friend, who had taught everyone who knew him how to hear with their hearts and magnify God with their lives. I wish now that I, too, had known this man who could out-talk anyone with his hands, make you bend over laughing while he lay dying in a hospital bed, and reveal the mystery of faith without ever speaking a word. At the end of the song, those who had eyes to see and ears to hear stood on our feet. We raised our arms to the sky, extended our fingers, and shook them as a wave offering to the Lord.
It felt odd at first. Shaking uplifted hands instead of saying thank God, yes, glory, hallelujah, or some other phrase of exultation. That would have certainly been more comfortable and familiar for me, but God had other plans. As I shook my hands, my watery eyes alighted on a few family members of the deceased. We all smiled, and out of nowhere, we heard giggles, laughs, claps, stomping, and a beautifully out-of-beat tambourine.
The heaviness of grief had lifted from the sanctuary, but something else had left, too. When we shook our hands toward heaven, the spiritual weight of self-centered entitlement, apathy, and resentment had been flung into the air like leaves from a quivering branch. And the breath of God had blown it away from us. I felt it in the laugh bubbling like fizz through my body and flowing from my lips like honey. Every soul was drinking from the well of salvation and had become living fountains of praise.
Walking out of the sanctuary, I decided to stay a few more minutes even though the late afternoon sun refused to show us any mercy. The immediate family had gathered near the hearse, so I headed in that direction. Nearing one animated circle, I saw tears sliding into curved lips, and wet eyes dancing with gratitude. Before I could say anything, his sister embraced me and whispered something ridiculous in my ear. We both laughed a bit too loudly. She took a half step back, looked into my eyes, and held my arms as a mother would hold her daughter’s before giving her some top-secret intel about life.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Thank you for being here.”
On my way to my car, I lifted my face to the sky, took off my jacket, and smiled. It was still oppressively hot, getting out of the parking lot was definitely going to be hell, but I didn’t care. God had changed my plans. God had shown up in the sanctuary and given me a seat in the kingdom.
Open your eyes. See.
Open your ears. Hear.
Open your heart. Love.
Until next time,
Be. Speak. Live.
*Names and exact locations have been omitted out of respect for the deceased and his family.