Like usual, I was the first to walk outside the sanctuary. As the choir sang the final benediction, I stood waiting in my clergy robe under a red maple, its leaves falling softly, and thought back to the spring when, under the same tree, I met her for the first time. She was there ostensibly to find the graves of her ancestors; as we spoke, the leaves were bright green, full of life and promise, striving toward the light, yearning for life.
From a simple invitation, she started coming back on Sunday mornings. I always noted her presence, in part, because she broke the sacred Presbyterian taboo against sitting in the front pew. And I was even more aware of the tears that streamed down her face as we lifted our voices together in song. During the sharing of joys and concerns, she frequently said, “I thank God for the beauty of this day.” About that time, we learned that she was living out of her car, bathing in the river and applying make-up in the rearview mirror before arriving for worship.
Spring passed into summer. The leaves yellowed in the sun while her relationship with church members deepened in the glow of meals and coffee, conversation and testimony. Prayers were offered. Money quietly changed hands. She began attending our Wednesday morning Bible study. Shy and quiet at first, she spoke with gathering strength, her voice occasionally breaking with emotion.
As the leaves turned bright red and yellow, her dinner dates, study partners, and fellow travelers on the journey of faith gathered in the sanctuary. The sunshine streamed through the windows on their smiling faces, its bright rays reflecting off a small, golden bowl filled with clear water. Water that soon glistened on her hair and mixed with the salty tears from her eyes in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Water that connected us as brothers and sisters in the ancient faith and living God, who as sure as the seasons change, continues to bring hope and promise.
I thought about all of this as the choir sung, waiting in a moment of silence under the fall colors. A cold wind whipped up suddenly, a reminder of winter days ahead. Then, with a rush, the family of faith poured out of the doors. She led them down the steps, but they caught up to her, embraced her all-as-one, a tender-fierce-holy moment of vulnerability and strength, soggy with tears of joy and saturated with a presence for which I have no other word for save, God. And we cut a cake in celebration, which read, “Welcome Home.”