“They are only a ghost if someone alive is still holding on to them.” –The Secret Garden
“The church and people can break your heart. God never will.” — Rev. Carey Stone
I really should have seen it coming. I’d been a getting little too big for my britches. On more than one occasion, when a concerned friend asked me how I was doing, I had smiled broadly and replied emphatically, “I’m great! I really am. I’m doing great.”
I wasn’t lying. I have felt more confident, more secure, genuinely happier over the last few months. But looking back, something was off last week. I was super busy at work. We had activities after school every night. There were no margins in my days. I just felt … meh.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t have time to be still and listen. Instead, I put on my armor of busyness piece by piece, activity by activity, office hour by office hour. So, I really shouldn’t have been surprised when the armor cracked Sunday morning.
A few weeks ago, my dear friend asked if I would come to church with her to celebrate her installation as youth ministries leader. Sounds like an easy thing to do, right? Here’s the catch: four years ago, this church, and many of the people in it, broke my heart.
It had been my church home when we moved back to town. We chose it because it was attached to the parochial school where I attended K – 8 and where we enrolled both kids. I dove head first into volunteering, both for the church and for the school. Soon, my entire life and all my heart revolved around those few city blocks in downtown Little Rock.
All that came to a screeching halt when the Vestry and the Dean voted to close the school with two weeks left before graduation. I’ll spare you the ugly details. If you need the back story, you can read more here.
Needless to say, my heart was shattered. My faith took a beating, too. I carried around a mental list of all the people who’d been present at that closed-door meeting. I held grudges for every snide comment, every harsh word and every cold shoulder. I played the blame game … a lot.
Man, that was a heavy, heavy burden. Over the years, I laid it down bit by bit. I thought I’d made my peace entirely.
Sunday morning marked the first time I’d attended a service there since the last school graduation in May 2011. Here’s what I had hoped would happen: I’d walk in the back of the church; inhale the familiar smell of furniture polish, candle wax and mustiness; see the gorgeous stained glass windows whose designs I’d memorized as a child; hear the organ music and the tower bells and my heart would soar.
That didn’t happen.
As I walked up the steps, I was tense. I tried to breathe deeply and relax. I entered the church and saw a woman I’ve known since I was in junior high. We chatted. She hugged me. Then another old friend was at my side … and another. So far, so good.
Just after the first hymn began, I started seeing the ghosts.
In place of the boy carrying the cross, I saw my son on the night he served as Crucifer in the Christmas pageant. I looked over at the hand bell table and saw figures of children — remnants of the school’s hand bell choir. I saw my daughter and her classmates flying down the center aisle in angel costumes. I heard my children’s voices — and mine own as a child — emanating from the choir stalls. I pictured the sanctuary with the dimmed lights on the eve of my own 8th grade graduation. Instead of listening to every word of the sermon, all I could see was my dear friend the school chaplain standing in the pulpit during that final graduation, imploring us to “stay on the vine.”
Although I was distracted, I wasn’t yet overcome. However, one of the chosen hymns during the service was “I Want to Walk as A Child of the Light.” On a good day, at my own church, with no ghosts swirling around me, I have a hard time hearing that hymn. It was the traditional closing hymn at every Cathedral School graduation. As the proud parents, teachers and student body sang, all the recent graduates walked down the aisle carrying candles, symbolically sharing their light with the rest of the world as they moved on to new schools.
On this Sunday, the moment the organ started playing the familiar tune, my tears started flowing. I fled for the back door, running from the ghosts lurking in every corner. There, on the steps of the church, I broke down into heaving sobs. I was shocked. I didn’t know there was that much grief and sadness still left in me.
I thought I was “Great! Really great!” Apparently not.
After church, I went for a long walk to shake the ghosts. I thought about my friends who’d stayed at the church after the school closed. Their hearts were broken, too. Yet, they’d stuck it out. They hadn’t run away. They’d grieved at the appropriate time, so the memories didn’t turn into ghosts.
Slowly, it began to dawn on me: I was surrounded by ghosts in that sacred space for the simple reason that I was still holding on to them. When the school closed, I hadn’t given myself time or permission to confront my pain. I’d done what I had always done when things got really hard: I numbed. I got busy finding new schools for the kids. I got busy scheduling summer activities. I got busy at work. Anything I could do to stay in motion so I wouldn’t have to be still and know the pain.
Suddenly, I realized what had been tugging at me all week. It was that voice in my head that I’ve been trying so hard to listening to these days. The voice that says, “Slow down. Look around. Be present. Be grateful. Acknowledge your imperfections. Lean in. Let it hurt. Be you.”
Last week, I drifted. Instead of living intentionally, I’d allowed the hustle and bustle of life to overwhelm me. It took a big cosmic “ha!” in the form of a simple hymn to bring me back. It was as if God said, “Oh no you don’t! You’ve still got work to do, missy. Here. Let me show you.”
I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in moments of grace. There was a reason I chose to witness my friend’s installation into a new church position on the exact same day that hymn was chosen. I needed to hear it. My heart needed to break wide open again, just for a moment, so I could face the pain head on this time. That, my friends, is my idea of grace.
During my walk, I processed a lot of grief. I’m sure there’s still more there. Only time — and more trips to that church — will tell.
By the time I returned home, I had a smile on my face and grace in my heart. There was no darkness, only light. The ghosts were gone. And these were the words I was singing in my head:
I want to walk as a child of the light
I want to follow Jesus …
In Him there is no darkness at all
The night and the day are both alike
The Lamb is the light of the city of God
Shine in my heart Lord Jesus
Peace be with you.