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Is That Love?

Published on 04/04/14

by Siera Weber, written for MtTFC 2014

He was an older man, though not as elderly as he appeared. He hunched over the table, shivering, as if his body were too worn down to maintain its own heat. His wrinkled face drooped with weariness and concern, and his hands shook as they reached for the coffee mug, hinting that perhaps he was in his eighties. In reality, he was only sixty-two.

A half hour passed, and the man did not leave the table. For most of that time he stared out the window, searching for someone. Several patrons in the restaurant would occasionally glance at him, but he was oblivious to any attention. His back refused to straighten. Constantly he would rub his temples and shut his eyes tightly, a grimace on his face. A waitress came to him twice, and both times he politely refused anything to eat. He had stomach problems, he explained, and he had forgotten his medication. He assured her that he was all right and was just waiting for someone. She left, but she would always find an excuse to walk past his table and make certain he was truly well.

About forty-five minutes after the man had started his vigil at the restaurant, a man in his mid twenties entered through the door. He possessed a vivaciousness and poise that made him stand out from all of the other patrons in the restaurant. Seemingly carefree and even jovial, he nodded a cheery hello to everyone he saw and whistled as he walked. It must have seemed strange that this happy individual went to the table of the melancholy old man and grasped his hand in a warm, hearty handshake. Somehow, his infectious grin grew larger.

“Hello, Pastor Rick,” the young man said affectionately.

“Hello, Tommy.” Pastor Rick smiled as tenderly as he would smile at any of his children, then waved a hand to the seat across from him. “Sit down, Boy. How have you been?”

“Great, I just got promoted yesterday, and now I'll get twice the pay. Nancy and I are thinking of a June wedding, and then—” Thomas rambled on for some time, and Pastor Rick hung on every word. However, as the boy—for he was still a boy to Pastor Rick—continued, the pastor noticed that little was said about some very important matters.

Once Thomas paused for a breath, Pastor Rick quietly asked, “And where do you go to church, Tommy?”

Thomas' smile froze, and his eyes drifted down to his former pastor's gnarled hands. Pastor Rick had been his friend from the time Thomas toddled around in diapers to the day he got his diploma. Never once had he spoken a harsh word to him or made him feel unwelcome in his house, and Thomas had returned the favor by doing his best to please his pastor. The last thing Thomas wanted to do was disappoint his former mentor, but he knew that any lies he told would be unconvincing. Sucking in a breath, he murmured, “I don't go to church anymore.”

Pastor Rick nodded slowly. He asked no questions, but Thomas felt compelled to give him the reason for his negligence. However, he knew the truth would hurt his old friend. “I don't go anymore because—it's not real.”

Pastor Rick raised his eyebrows at that statement, but he still allowed Thomas to do all the talking. “In Sunday school,” Thomas rushed on, “I learned a lot about the love of Jesus, and when I was little I didn't question that it was real. But as I got older, I began to notice the adults in the church, and I learned a lot more about this 'love.' I learned that Mrs. Banks and Mrs. White weren't friends anymore because of that incident at the potluck. I learned that the pianist and the song leader disagreed about everything from the choice of music to where the piano should be. I learned that the Jenkins believed that Christians shouldn't celebrate Christmas or Easter because they were pagan holidays, and so they left the church when no one would listen to them. I learned that Mr. Sikes believed Mr. Harvey was on the outs with God because he let his daughters wear pants. I learned that a lot of inconsequential things could turn into a source of conflict. Most of the issues I remember were never doctrinal. They were just silly things that got on people's nerves and escalated into arguments and then estrangement. I learned that the love of Jesus was just a children's song and that it doesn't apply to real life. If it did, those people would be able to overlook the unimportant things and get along; but instead, all they did was fight. I can't remember any of your sermons. The only prayers I remember are the ones Mr. Blake prayed because he sounded so in touch with God while he was praying, but after church he would kick God to the curb and start badmouthing every one of his dear 'brothers-in-the-Lord.' That's why I don't go to church; it doesn't work.”

His speech finished, Thomas sank against his chair and fiddled with the napkin dispenser on the table. For several minutes neither spoke. Only the gentle hum of the other patrons' voices filled the awkward silence. Finally, Thomas repeated quietly, “It doesn't work.”

Pastor Rick closed his eyes and pressed his fingers against his aching temples. Suddenly, Thomas became aware of how broken his pastor seemed, how aged he had become. “Look what they've done to you,” he whispered.

Thomas never did order anything. He sat with Pastor Rick for a little while longer, but there was no further conversation. Finally, Thomas stood, hugged the shell of his friend, and left the restaurant, the spring in his step gone. The wind outside whipped his coat and stung his eyes; that was why they were watering.

The meeting haunted Pastor Rick for the rest of the weekend and hung over him on Sunday morning. As he watched the pianist cast dagger eyes at the song leader and listened to Mr. Blake pray, his face twisted into a sad grimace. Finally, after the last note of the final song had been played, he shuffled to the pulpit and cleared his throat several times before speaking. “If any of you have a scrap of paper or a bookmark, you're going to need it today. Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 4:1-3, and mark that page.” While he gave the people time to flip through the pages, he looked out over his congregation. They were not clearly divided; they sat relatively near each other in the pews. Yet there was an aura of tension between certain people, and he knew it would only worsen as time went on. “Turn to 1 John 4:7 and hold you place there before you turn to John 13:35. I need you all to really listen to me today. We've all committed a great sin, and now two young people about to start a life together are suffering or are going to suffer because of it.”

A murmur swept through the congregation, but Pastor Rick ignored it and began reading. “'By this shall all men know ye are my disciples, if ye have—if ye have love one to another.' Now flip back to 1 John 4:7.” Pastor Rick squinted at the blurring pages. “'Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God: and everyone that loveth—'” He stopped because he could no longer see the page. His eyes were flooding.