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Shalom in the Not-Yet

As I moved across the Narthex, I could see my office door. Inside was a chair I knew I could collapse in and a desk on which I could place all the music, binders, and odds and ends that had accumulated in my arms since the end of the service. Just a few more steps. A few more steps. A few more—

—“Miss Bethany!” the girl cried out and bounded across the narthex to throw her arms around me. “I prayed for you today in Sunday school!”

Juggling as best I could, I returned the hug and smiled back, “Thank you so much! I need those prayers, keep them coming!”

As I straightened out of the hug, and turned again to my office, I was stopped by a Sunday School teacher who assured me it wasn’t just the enthusiastic hugger who prayed for me, but all the children frequently remind her to pray for “Miss Bethany.” By the time I made it to the much anticipated chair and collapsed, I was both worn out and filled up. This isn’t unusual for me on Sundays. I imagine it is a feeling shared by many worship planners and leaders and pastors. The high liturgical seasons of the church can produce wonderfully meaningful times, but can also be draining for those who plan and execute them. 

How could I lead people in singing “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to Jerusalem!” when my vocal chords were weak and raw from coughing? 

This church year has proven especially rich in meaning for me, but also far more difficult than any other year. Just as preparations were underway for Advent last fall, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and though it was caught early and the prognosis is very good, the treatment has been aggressive. I have been through a difficult surgery and nearly four months of chemo, with one month left to go. My weeks have a dual pattern to them: the pattern of work, worship, and rest, a pattern that has been a part of my life long before this diagnosis and will, God willing, continue to be a pattern of my life for many years to come. But these days are also marked by the pattern of health and hardship. I frequently start my weeks feeling well, receive my chemo infusion early in the week, and by Friday struggle to get off of the couch.

“What do you think of when I say the word, ‘cities’?”

The group of children clustered in the front row of church eagerly raise their hands:

“Lots of cars”
“Tall buildings”
“Really tall skyscrapers!”

“Those are all great answers,” I say. “Let me ask you another question: are cities good or bad?” 

These kids know a trick question when they hear one, and they are far more hesitant to answer. One girl swivels her head from side to side as if to say “a bit of both” another boy raises his hand palm down and wiggles it to indicate the same thing. We talk for a while about how cities can have things we like and dislike in them. Then I make the familiar pivot: “What about in the Bible, do you think cities were good or bad or both?”

“Both!” they chime with confidence. 

“Some cities were a mix of good and bad, but how about the cities we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks? Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah? Are those cities good or bad or both?”

“Bad!” one kid pipes up. The hand gesture kid gives them two thumbs down. 

“That’s right,” I affirm. “We have been thinking about how these cities showed a lack of shalom. We’ve learned from them what not to do. This week we are talking about Jerusalem. Do you think Jerusalem was supposed to be a good city or a bad city?”

“Good!” several kids chorus. Jerusalem gets two thumbs up.

“Yes,” I agree. “Jerusalem was the place where God could be worshiped. It was the place where people were supposed to be able to live flourishing lives as God’s people. Now, based on what you know about God’s people, do you think Jerusalem stayed a good city?”

“No!” Two thumbs down.

“No, God’s people always mess things up. Just like we keep messing up today. Jerusalem wasn’t the wonderful place it was meant to be. But God always has a plan to fix things. God promises us a city that will only have good things in it. God promises us a place where people will worship God perfectly and live flourishing lives. The book of Revelation calls this city the New Jerusalem. It will be a place of perfect shalom for us. How does that sound to you all?”

Two thumbs up.

When my Pastor and I began planning our Lenten series on shalom, I was in the midst of a very difficult chemo regimen. I felt that I had to compartmentalize my personal health and the work of worship planning. How could I plan services that celebrated the promise of holistic human flourishing when my immune system was so devastated that a cold my toddler brought home became a months-long cough and even led to a hospital stay? How could I lead people in singing “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to Jerusalem!” when my vocal chords were weak and raw from coughing? 

I learned quickly that the answer was “not alone.” 

But while I have been leading my beloved church in praying for shalom, they have been showing that shalom to me.But while I have been leading my beloved church in praying for shalom, they have been showing that shalom to me.

The shalom I experienced wasn’t the shalom of the New Jerusalem, but of the already-but-not-yet community that God has called to be God’s hands and feet: the Church. Meals and doordash gift cards were supplied so richly that my fridge and freezer overflowed. A friend and mentor helped me plan services on weeks that I couldn’t think through my chemo haze. A team of ladies came around me to pick up duties that I had to lay down: putting together slides, making and printing bulletins, emailing announcements to the community, and leading worship. Friends from church sat with me during my infusions. And I was prayed for. I was abundantly prayed for. 

Every time my Pastor and I sat down together, he began our meetings by giving me space to talk honestly about how I was doing. He also always asked me where, if anywhere, I had seen God’s grace. I almost always gave him the same answer: grace to me came through the people God had placed in my life. Grace to me was the mother-in-law who gave up her weekends to help me catch up on dishes and laundry. Grace to me was the friend who dropped off Starbucks when I had to cancel on lunch plans. Grace to me were the bright purple cards filled with glitter that the 2nd grade Sunday school class had left on my desk in the office. 

The Church was grace. The Church was shalom.

In this week leading to Easter there are still tears—they haven’t yet been wiped away. There is still pain—we do not yet live in resurrected flesh. But while I have been leading my beloved church in praying for shalom, they have been showing that shalom to me.

Artwork created by Lorelai Reiffer for Silver Spring CRC's series on Shalom.  

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