Jacob waited outside Ascension Presbyterian until after the bell in its tower rang, signaling the beginning of worship. Daniel had offered to save him a seat with his family, but Jacob declined, feeling more comfortable sitting alone. As he entered the sanctuary, his eyes were drawn upward to the stained glass window that dominated the wall behind the chancel in the front of the church. Before it a large, stark twisted rod iron cross was set in the frame of the window. A mosaic of thousands of angular rich golden and pale yellow glass shards alternated grew from the center of the cross like a fiery halo. Surrounding the halo were slightly larger blue panes, ranging from indigo to cornflower that simulated the varied colors of the sky. The narrow windows around the perimeter of the sanctuary let in narrow shafts of light that mingled with the blue and yellow glow from the front of the church.
Other than the stained glass window, the sanctuary itself was characteristically austere for a Presbyterian church. The sanctuary had a narrow column of pews in the nave, surrounded by two aisles on either side. The pews on the sides of the two aisles were angled toward the exterior walls. Above the aisles on the sides of the sanctuary there were two narrow balconies for the choir that ran along the length of either side of the sanctuary. Three stairs lead up to the chancel in the front of the church, where the pulpit stood on the far left side of the elevated platform, balanced on the far right side by the baptistery. The baptistery was a large copper basin that stood on a twisted rod iron pedestal of the same make as the cross in the window. A large rough and scarred oak table served as the Lord’s Table on the platform’s rear center where the bread and wine rested awaiting communion later in the .
The service began as Rev. Torrance led the congregation in the invocation. Much of Jacob’s youth was set to the metronome of the Presbyterian order of service. There was a comfort in returning to the rhythms of worship he had known since he was a child. Then came the reading of the Law, the prayer of confession, and the reading of the Gospel. Jacob was lost in the memory during the initial movements of the service, but he was gripped by the declaration of A.
Rev. Torrance said, “Because of what he has done for us, nothing in the whole of creation, not even death itself, can separate us from the love of God. His life is our life; his victory is our victory. Is this your hope this morning? Do you cling to Christ in this life and in the face of death? If it is, I declare to you that your sins are forgiven and you can worship God in peace.”
At the pronouncement of absolution, something began to break loose in Jacob’s soul. The crushing doubt began to lift ever so slightly. The light that eluded him for so long had been lingering below the horizon since the trip across the country. Now it seemed to him that dawn was cresting on the hills that had been shrouded in shadow through the darkness of night. The life of faith, beset by peril on all sides, still pulsed ever so faintly within. He had to set his jaw to keep it from quivering. This day, the first in thousands behind him, Jacob could worship in peace.
After Rev. Torrance offered up the pastoral prayer and led the congregation in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the choir rose in the balcony and the Reverend directed the congregation to join them in singing the great Anglican hymn penned by Henry Francis Lyte, Abide With Me. He found, between the choir singing from above and the congregation singing from the floor of the sanctuary, that he was caught up in the rapture of the collective voice of the congregation as they lifted their praises to God. As the congregation sang the last three stanzas, he found himself silent, lending his heart and mind to the words being sung:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless; O abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life and death, O Lord, abide with me.
Rev. Torrance returned to the pulpit after the hymn was complete, and asked the congregation to remain standing for the reading of God’s Word. The sermon would be on the first several verses of Revelation 21. Jacob had been a fairly studious reader of Scripture in high school and college, all the way up to his days as a soldier. But, like so many others, he felt lost whenever he read from St. John’s Apocalypse. He geared up for another sermon he would soon forget, choosing to linger upon the small measure of peace he felt growing inside.
Jacob somehow caught the end of Rev. Torrance’s introduction, “If we insist on expecting that this present world will satisfy all our homeward longings, we will be sorely disappointed. But, if we fix our gaze upon that eternal city, whose architect and builder is God, we will have the courage to endure the pain and sorrows of this world as we await the appearing of our heavenly home.”
Home. Jacob felt the word strike his heart with a sweet ache. It was a place that lay on the edges of his mind where hope and uncertainty mingled. He had longed for it, longed for wholeness. He had sought a world were sense ruled, only to find a world ruled by senselessness. The deep root of his malady had been that he had sought a peaceful home in a world that refused to offer it. As the world destroyed his dreams, he destroyed himself. It had occurred to Jacob as Rev. Torrance preached that his problem wasn’t his longings, but where he had placed them. His broken state was brought on because he could not forge the world into the kind of place he could have peace in. He could not accept the sorrow or pain or tears, so he could not make his way through the world any longer. He had forgotten something along the way, or maybe never truly grasped it to begin with – this present world wasn’t his home, it was not the place where his hopes could blossom into reality.
For the balance of the morning, Jacob found himself drifting in and out of the sermon and into his own internal world, vast as the cosmos itself, where his encounter with God was unfolding and a billion points of light were shining in the darkness. But as the message drew to an end, Jacob’s heat was arrested by Rev. Torrance’s closing remarks, “This is where I ask you Christian, what do you believe? In Whom do you believe? If God has spoken in Scripture as we confess that he has, then he has grounded this revelation in himself! Do you believe? Scripture ends with a great crescendo in Revelation, where God’s work in creation rests in his own immutable character. Either this is true just as he says it is, or it isn’t. Revelation is a book that speaks to many things. None of them are meant to coddle us into complacency or unbelief. Either the promises of God are true, or we, of all men, are most to be pitied. Either he is who he says he is, or we are alone in a vast universe that offers us no hope and no comfort and no home. If you hear anything your pastor says today, hear this – believe! Believe that there is a place for you, that he will satisfy you with living water, that God himself will wipe away your tears because he has rested his promises to us in his own being. God will bring this about because he is God, faithful and true from beginning to end.”
Jacob’s heart felt as if it would leap from his chest as he listened. All the pain, all the tears, the bloodshed, and heartache were driving him to the apex of his own soul’s crisis. Did he believe? There was so much evil and brokenness in the world, in his own life, that shouted down his faith, reducing its flame to a dim ember. But, as Rev. Torrance preached, he felt breath on that smoldering wick and fire ignited in his heart. Jacob already knew the alternative of unbelief – despair. He had struggled in his faith long enough to know that there was no balm for his soul in unbelief. There was only the nihilistic gauntlet of an indifferent and chaotic world. The flame that was rekindling in his soul seemed to come from the outside in. He couldn’t help but believe. When the choice was boiled down to its irreducible core, the options were quite simple – either he would believe or he wouldn’t. With this, the dawning hope began to break forth into morning splendor. Jacob believed.
When the sermon was over, the congregation joined in reciting the Apostles Creed as they prepared for Communion. As the elements were distributed to the congregation, Jacob found himself wrestling again. It had been so long since he had partaken of the Lord’s Supper that he felt the pangs of his long wandering. He felt utterly unworthy, yet at the same time he felt the ravenous hunger in his soul for true food to fill him and true drink to slake his thirst. As the usher who was serving the bread and the wine came near, he nearly shrunk back.
In that moment of indecision, he felt as if Christ himself was before him, grabbing him by both lapels and forcing him into the back of the pew, saying, “Remember me Jacob, remember me!”
It was the fury and love of an older brother and long lost friend that compelled him to take the bread and wine with trembling hands. It had been years of a spiritual amnesia that had driven him far from God, and now he was reaching down from heaven to bring his prodigal warrior home. If forgetting drove him far from God and the hope that springs from the life of faith, it was remembering, recalling the mighty work wrought by Christ at Calvary that drew him back to God, back to faith and into the hope of his calling. Jacob felt relieved that he had chosen the lonely pew in the back of the church. The congregants could not see his eyes welling with tears or how overcome he was. He could not even mouth the chorus of the communion hymn.
The rest of the service was a blur, after it was over, Jacob briefly spoke with Daniel and Tina. He turned down an invitation to join them for Sunday lunch over at their house. He made his way to his apartment just a block away with the sense that what began in church needed to continue. He took a defining step on a journey he was now resolved to see through to the end. As he sought out a lonely place, he felt compelled into the mystery of God’s faithfulness, knowing that he needed to know more still. Jacob had tasted the budding reality of spiritual restoration, knowing it had not yet sprung forth into full bloom. As much as a man is made to experience God in the presence of his people, a man must also meet with God in the lonely recesses of his own heart, so he walked through the mysterious and wonderful gates of solitude, and for the first time in his life he was not alone.