Copyright© 2012 by Robert McKay
So this is what church is like, 'Berto thought. Though his interest in God was nil, his interest in the proceedings was great. Never having been in church, he had no idea how things would go or whether every church did things the same way.
He tried to follow along in the hymnal – not to sing along, but simply to follow along. It was all new to him, while those who've been singing the hymns of their church for years often repeat the words automatically, without considering what they mean. To 'Berto it was all fresh, and while he didn't understand half of what he read in the hymnal, he paid attention. Of course not knowing how to read music didn't make it easier for him. He figured out that the higher a note sat on the lines of the music the higher it would come out from the singers' throats, but he had no idea what any of the other variations and symbols meant.
He noticed that Toni was singing along – very quietly, so quietly that he could hardly hear her though he was right next to her, but singing. He doubted that she realized what she was doing. Probably she had never thought she would sing hymns in church again, and had trained herself not to think about them – but here they were, suddenly right there with her, all around her, and her voice, muffled though it might be, woke to the once familiar words.
After the first hymn the song leader sat down, and someone arose in the congregation and walked to the pulpit. It turned out he was going to read a passage from the Bible, and pray. Toni opened her Bible to the passage, one in Jeremiah, and showed him where the man was reading. It seemed that her years of putting the Bible away hadn't dulled her familiarity with it; she turned to the place and found the right verse without any difficulty. 'Berto found it meaningless, though there was one verse that caught his eye: "The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying, /'I have loved you with an everlasting love;/Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness.'"
An everlasting love ... that sounds like what I have with Toni. But I don't think that's what this is talking about. He didn't know who the "him" was the Lord had appeared to, but surely if the Lord – God, apparently – was loving this person with an everlasting love, it couldn't be the kind of love he had for Toni. Although my love for her is everlasting, I don't think this is talking about that.
For the first time 'Berto realized that there was more to the Bible than a bunch of rules and regulations. His notion had been that the Bible told people to do a few things, and told them not to do a whole lot of things. And the things it says you're not supposed to do are the ones that are the most fun. But here was a passage talking about something else – exactly what he didn't know, but it wasn't a list of rules. Maybe I ought to look through there and see just what it's all about. If Toni's going to get religious on me, maybe I'd better know what I'm talking about when I disagree with her.
The prayer was a revelation too. His notion of prayer was "saying prayers," reciting words that someone had written down long ago, reciting them as a formula without meaning them or necessarily even understanding them. But this was something different altogether. This was someone talking to God – that was the only way 'Berto could characterize it. God isn't there, but this guy doesn't know it. He really believes there is a God, and he really believes God is listening.
Christianity was turning out to be very different than he'd expected. His notions had been very nebulous, the only definite ideas being that the Bible was a set of rules and prayer was a ritual and none of it was any fun at all. The rest he hadn't been at all sure about, but whatever he might have thought it was, this wasn't it. These people weren't dour and fearful – they were happy, they were glad to be there, they were confident that what they believed was true and that it was good. While he kept his attention on what was happening at the pulpit, he looked around periodically, making sure he didn't stare, and he saw people who truly loved what they were doing ... who, apparently, truly loved the God they believed in.
He thought of a tiny seed which, falling into a crack in a boulder, may seem inconsequential. But 50 or 100 years later the tree which grows from the seed will have split the boulder in two. As though thinking in 'Berto's skull, the preacher during the sermon mentioned that Jesus likened faith to a mustard seed, which grows into a tree that is larger than everything else in the garden. 'Berto thought of his heart as the boulder, returning to his own image, and it had a crack in it – his love for Toni, which was the only thing that could ever have gotten him into church. And his realization that he had been wrong about how Christianity operates seemed to him a seed falling into the crack. Only time would tell whether the seed would sprout, and grow, and demolish the boulder. But just thinking these thoughts was more than he could or would have done as recently as the previous day, and already the fear that the boulder would crack and split was less than it had been.
It was amazing how easily she slipped back into the old ways. Finding the hymns, and recognizing them; finding the passage for the Bible reading, and the text of the sermon, and following along; paying heed to the sermon, and actually making a note or two in her Bible as she used to do ... all these things came back to her as though she'd never left off doing them.
And yet the ease with which she slipped back into the external appearances of Christianity was a sham. I may look like I'm serving God, but I know better. I'm unclean, I'm living in sin, and no matter how closely I follow the service I'm a foreigner here. She felt like the stereotypical hypocrite in church. I never knew one – at least, I never knew that anyone was a hypocrite – but now that's exactly what I am. I'm pretending to be a Christian when in fact I'm a foul creature who has nothing to do with God, and never can.
She wasn't sure how she felt. On the one hand it did feel good to be in church again, to follow along with the old hymns, to read along in the Bible, to hear someone expound the Word of God. It was like coming home after an absence of years – to that extent she identified with the prodigal son of the text. But it was a bittersweet homecoming. Every time she found herself enjoying the service, and thinking she could benefit from it, the memory of her sin rose up to blacken her sight. What good was the Scripture to someone who had banished herself from God? What point was there in singing or praying or reading or hearing, when the God who loved these people was her enemy? I suppose I could glorify God in my condemnation, she thought, but it's so hard to do anything but despair.
As the preacher drew toward the close of his sermon, exhorting prodigals to come to their Lord, tears sprang into her eyes. They were partly tears of joy, for she was once again in church, a place she'd missed more than she had realized, a place that was full of the glory of the Lord. But they were also partly tears of sorrow, for that joy could never again be hers; she could never again partake with the saints of the great bounty that is in Christ.
When the congregation rose for the closing hymn, she found that she could hardly see the page, much less the words there. 'Berto didn't say anything, but he must have noticed, for his arm came around her shoulders and he pulled her close, and held her as she leaned her head against him and fought against her tears. I'll cry when I'm home, she told herself. I'll cry when I'm home. Here isn't the place.
Toni seemed to be enjoying things – though at times Roberto thought that her eyes became brighter than they normally were. It was hard to tell, for he was sitting beside her and didn't have a good angle, and was paying attention to everything else besides. But she was following along in her Bible, making a note now and then in the margin, listening attentively to the preacher. Clearly this was important to her for reasons other than the wedding. I never knew she cared this much about religion, he thought. She never said anything about it.