That night was much like many others. Every Wednesday, Saturday, and twice on Sunday, I waited in my front yard for the brown and white Oldsmobile. The car always felt safe. I loved the rich smell of leather as I climbed in the backseat, warmed by the laughter and chatter of my friend’s family. I was usually kindly called down for being too loud, too boisterous, or for kicking the seat in front of me. My well-honed habit of playing the clown, spinning tall tales, singing loud and silly, and making weird noises was a cover for the storm of confusion and dread inside. Images swirled together of my parents fighting, sadness about the death of my baby sister, and guilt that I was somehow at fault. The cloud was easier to ignore if I kicked up a little dust.
Squeezed in with my friend and her siblings, I rode wedged against the door, admiring the plain but neat houses that guarded our path. They all looked safe. I pressed my forehead against the window glass to catch first sight of the little church perched like a watchful crane at the end of the lane. Arriving first in the small gravel parking area, we scrambled out of the car and skipped against the wind to get inside. My friend’s father turned on the heat and prepared the room for the small congregation.
The warmth inside was soothing. The family feel of the church members and the happy chatter and laughter as people bustled in made me happy. My favorite part was singing from the hymnal, voices raised with gusto and clapping hands in time. I don’t remember the selections of that night. The singing was followed by the preaching which seldom stirred little more than mild interest. But that night, while much the same as others, the message brought a permanent, still, and ever-present change.
That night, I clearly remember my storm was quieted for a moment as familiar words settled around me, brightening my attention in a different way. Bible stories about Jesus were in my books at home. Sermons urging people to come forward and “be saved” were familiar. That night, the familiar words felt different. Something stilled the turbulence inside me. My feet stopped kicking the pew in front. I stopped rolling my bubble gum around in my grubby hands and all room sounds faded away as I stared at my feet, listening. The message that Jesus knew and cared crept past my chaos and got inside of me. God loving me even though most people found me irritating suddenly felt like truth for me other than a strange idea that may be real for others. I was mesmerized as every word of the message built a patchwork of love and warmth around me. Then, the message ended with the familiar invitation to come the front and accept Jesus. A new feeling of hope rose within me. I felt surrounded by a quiet strength and warmed inside. As usual, music played as the preacher urged people to come forward. He promised that Jesus would meet those who sought him and dwell within to guide those who offered their lives and heart to Him.
I did not go to the front. I was afraid. I felt ugly and unkept. I was sure that everyone would look at me and think I was playing for attention. Music faded, closing prayer was said, and the service ended. The new feeling stayed. I ran with my friends up and down the aisles of the little church while the adults chatted their way towards the door and outside into the night. But things felt different. All the while running up and down and giggling, it was if something was pulling me. I didn’t talk about it but felt it like warm sun after rain. Not loud, not scary, just different…and solid.
A dark, chilly night waited outside the church. Crickets chirped sharp in the crisp cold. I looked down at my brown “car coat” with the top button dangling from a three-cornered tear in the fabric. With a twinge of shame, I noticed my scuffed shoes then tossed my curly hair, tangled as always and twirling in the wind. Our shadows danced in the glow from the light above the church door as we found our way down the path to the car. The ride home from church always seemed too short. I closed my eyes and rested my head against the window glass, comforted by the murmur of voices around me.
Suddenly, I felt the car slowing to a stop as my friend’s father cheerfully boomed “We’ll see you tomorrow.” I clamored out into the frigid night. My own house faced me. It seemed grim and unsafe. I was nine years old and the first born of three; well, four including the one lost. Things had always been chaotic in my family but it was worse after we lost Melody. My five-year old brother and year-old baby sister, born just 10 months after Melody, looked to me for help with baths, bedtime routines, and consolation when our parents fought. I was never sure how things would be inside the house.
The new feeling followed me up to my front door. Once inside, a cold quietness announced that the family was asleep. I slipped down the hall to my room, checked the crib in the corner and pulled the cover over baby Cindy before crawling into bed. Usually, I filled the space between settling and sleep with wild imaginings of myself as beautiful and famous or as the hero who saved the day in a variety of imagined scenarios. That night was different. I could think of nothing but the words I heard at church and the pull to respond. I was not afraid or confused, just oddly comforted by a presence I could not describe. I closed my eyes. There was no audible sound yet, the presence I felt clearly communicated that I did not have to walk to the front of the church; that I could pray to Jesus right there in my room. As if moving in a dream, I slipped from under the covers and knelt shivering on the cold wooden floor.
I don’t remember my exact prayer. I do remember words were not necessary. The promise of God’s unconditional love overwhelmed me as I surrendered to the pull. It was quiet in the room but a feeling began to swell in my chest similar to, but dramatically more powerful than, hearing peaceful music or coming upon something beautiful and amazing. I felt light and warm in the dark room. His presence covered me and tears slipped down my face. I didn’t have to say anything. He knew I surrendered; He knew I believed and accepted Him as my Savior, my protector, and my friend. Slipping back under the covers, my heart beat slower and my storm calmed, I closed my eyes and slept.
I’m grateful the message that night was one of unconditional love, not fear. There is no question that my experience was personal and that I was compelled by warmth and love, not fear of Hell or rejection by God. While my personal code of behavior and beliefs are inspired by the bible, the lists of sins, dos and don’ts that usually accompany religion had nothing to do with that night. God was there for me where I was, drawing me to Him, and loving who I was. The rest of it I’ve been banging out over the years and continue to learn and to grow.
The days, weeks, and years since that night were not perfect. My life road is littered with dysfunction and disappointment in myself and others. The path was rocky and the seas rough. I’ve wandered far from the light of that night, made damaging mistakes, and fallen again and again. But the presence I found that night has been steady with me, opening impossible doors, comforting sorrow, giving hope, making me better. One could write it off to conditioning, imagination, or to desperately clutching something unreal because of the very real need inside. But I know the solid truth. Having used my imagination to impress, get myself out of a jam, or distract me from whatever calamity at hand, I am all too familiar with the products of a creative mind. That night was different. His presence was an unexpected voice cutting through the noise of my internal chaos with a whisper as soft as a sleeping breath but as strong as a lion. His voice, His tangible grace, His love made that night a beacon for every trail in my life and more real and more solid than any night since.