This was years ago, but it’s one of those peculiar memories that randomly resurface, still prompting me to sigh and scratch my head.
I stood in the sanctuary behind the pulpit, jotting reminder notes for the upcoming 8:30am worship celebration. Peggy, the accompanist, softly rehearsed the music she’d soon play. Somewhere in another building, Wally—the weekend custodian—was probably arranging chairs in classrooms or emptying trash. It was like most Sunday mornings before the choir arrived to warm-up and the congregation gathered for worship.
Then she walked in.
Never seen her before. I’d been at the church long enough to know (almost) everyone. On a typical Sunday I could forecast the arrival time and order of the regulars, and also who would show up, like clockwork, right after the prayer of confession was finished. I could even confidently predict who’d leave before the benediction. Some people don’t wait for the pastor to send them out into the world.
She wandered through a side door, well dressed but not over-dressed, and slowly circled the room. In the simple rectangular sanctuary, her journey didn’t take long.
Was she a visitor, having miscalculated how long it took for the drive to an unfamiliar church? Maybe she planned to meet a friend and had arrived first? Or perhaps she had a flat tire and needed help?
She walked down the center aisle toward me.
I greeted her. “Good morning.”
“Where are your candles?”
I reacted with a blank stare.
Then, in order to get closer to her, I left my notes on the pulpit and stepped down from the chancel area to the sanctuary floor. With both of us at the same level, I said something brilliant like, “Candles?”
“To light,” she said. “Where are your candles?”
I’m an early morning fellow, and had already gulped copious amounts of coffee, so I was on top of my game. Call me Rev. Alert. I now guessed Ms. Mystery had mistaken us for a Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps she thought this was the Newman Center, a parish a few blocks away.
With a welcoming smile and friendly tone, I replied, “Well, we don’t have candles. That’s probably more a Catholic–”
“–Maybe you should.”
I’m not sure those were Ms. Mystery’s precise words; trust me, they’re accurate enough. However, I vividly recall her staring at me—after I’d politely noted our Protestant candle deficiency—with a withering gaze. Her look bluntly declared: How could you not have candles? How could any church on God’s green earth not have a ready and steady supply of wax and wick for unannounced guests?
“Well,” I said, “it’s not part of our tradition. We don’t have candles. We–”
“–What are those?” She pointed to the two unlighted candles on the altar.
Okay, we had candles. But not the Roman Catholic, row-upon-row of candles ready for personal prayers or penitence. Though it would be another hour until the worship stewards processed along the aisle to light them, there were indeed slender sticks of wax—a.k.a. candles—directly behind me.
Frowning, she started to walk away. However, as she turned, her stern, accusatory demeanor hinted at regret. Maybe sadness. Melancholy.
She had arrived in wintertime. At this time of year, even with the north-facing wall of windows and with the overhead lights not yet switched on for worship, the long night still shrouded the sanctuary in tones of somber gray.
Had she tried to enter the door a few minutes earlier, the church would have been locked and secured. If she’d arrived a few moments later, the sanctuary would be chock-full of people: children giggling, ushers preparing, choir members chatting and someone fussing with the sound system.
But now we faced each other in the midst of gloomy shadows. Even with Peggy’s continued rehearsing, silence defined the space between and around us.
Are there places that cause loneliness? I suppose it’s possible, but mostly I don’t think so. In Mark 1:35, Jesus’ walk to a “deserted place” (from the Greek epnmov) was about searching for a place without others, a wilderness where he could be alone, but not lonely. Jesus desired a time apart that, I believe, all of us need and none of us get enough of.
But aren’t there lonely people? Weren’t the Beatles speaking the truth in Eleanor Rigby . . .
All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
I’m confident every worship service I’ve led during my decades-long ministry has included uncounted lonely people. Whether a person sat beside a spouse or child, or joined the same-every-Sunday congregants that always claimed “their location,” it was more often loneliness, and not community, that underscored the prayers and songs and silence he or she heard. But you wouldn’t know they were lonely or lost or anxious by looking at them. With their feelings and fears carefully tucked behind a neutral smile, they sang the hymns and listened to the scripture readings. And they may also greet me with a firm handshake or a quick hug and say, “Nice sermon, pastor,” as they departed for the rest of the day.
I believe all sanctuaries overflow with lonely people.
With the lost.
With the melancholy.
Even when there are only one or two present.
I didn’t know her, but I suspected my Sunday morning visitor carried loneliness with her into this sanctuary. Like her color-coordinated purse, it was part of her ensemble. But I guessed that while her handbag might’ve been carefully chosen, her loneliness was not a choice.
I said, as Ms. Mystery retreated, “One candle on the altar symbolizes Jesus’ humanity, and the other one his divinity. I think if you . . .”
She stopped and gave me a sideways glare. “Well, can we light one of them?”
Clearly she was unimpressed with the beginnings of my insights on Christian symbolism and unfazed by the awkward attempt to keep a conversation going. I answered, “Of course.”
Together, we approached the altar to light a candle. But I couldn’t locate matches. Finally, fortunately, I discovered a Bic lighter in the shelf underneath the pulpit.
Before we prayed, I asked if she wanted me to pray for someone or something. No response. I asked for her name, figuring that was as far as I should venture. This time she replied, but I couldn’t understand what she said even after she repeated it. Her voice, when not accusatory, was indistinct, softer than a wisp of wind. All I clearly heard involved her name being a female derivative of Charlie, her father’s name. Had she said Charlene or Charlize or Chanda? I didn’t know.
But I soon knew, after we lighted the candle, and after our prayer, I’d mispronounced her name. She mentioned my mistake as the “amen” echoed in the room.
Sigh. It seemed I could do no right.
The author of The Letter to the Hebrews (13:2) cautioned, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Jesus, toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, proclaimed, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (25:35)
She left, down the aisle and out the door. Had this cranky angel—Charlie’s daughter—searching for a candle to light, found what she needed? And which candle’s symbolism now sputtered on the altar: a flame honoring Jesus’ humanity, or the one declaring divinity?
For two millennia theologians have argued the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. However, in the lonely times, theology is about as nourishing as reading a menu. We seek, all of us, the divine spark, light that brightens the darkness. And don’t we also, each of us, search for a fellow human, for companionship that lasts a lifetime or at least a brief encounter within a welcoming community?
I wondered, in each of our worship services over the next few hours, if Charlie’s daughter might quietly settle into a back row. But she didn’t return. Not that Sunday. Not a week later. Not ever again.
Had I failed or disappointed her? Maybe. And yet I also felt, as the choir members noisily straggled in, the accompanist continued rehearsing hymns, and as the season’s delayed light dappled the sanctuary, that something good enough had happened. Enough of a word had become flesh.
I don’t know whom or what we lighted a candle for, but I hope its symbolic flame pushed back a smidgen of the darkness and loneliness for Ms. Mystery. I hoped my foolish efforts at conversation hadn’t gotten in the way of what she was searching for, of what brought her into a sanctuary.
Even with her murmuring and my bumbling, perhaps Ms. Mystery was reminded that she was one of the Divine’s beloved. And on that morning, maybe she also found—though it can be as fragile as a candle’s flicker—a moment of humanity and welcome.
Blessings on her. Blessings on her wanderings.
May the Holy light her way.