The first time I went to church with Carla, I went, of course, because I loved her. I wasn’t used to attending church; my family never went, except maybe at Easter time. I’d been invited in the past; some guy from Young Life must have asked me a dozen times during my senior year in high school, but I found him annoying, and I figured that whatever church he went to was probably full of annoying guys like him.
The pastor at Carla’s church–Pastor Stu was his name; he was a cool guy. By “cool” I mean, not that I thought he was cool, but he was one of those newish sort of pastors you hear about at the more casual type churches–the sort who wear jeans on Sundays when they preach, and they wear their collared shirts untucked and try to make the Bible sound more hip by changing the character’s names. Old Saint Peter becomes “Pete” and Father Abraham becomes “Abe”.
The evening I first met Pastor Stu, he wore the jeans and the untucked sport shirt, and he also wore about four days of stubble on a face that seemed to radiate a warmth every time he smiled, displaying a set of dimples a mile deep. He was an olive-colored man with a mess of dark, untameable hair, so wiry, his noggin would have made an excellent deck brush of some kind. He shook my hand with a hard, enthusiastic grip that caught me by surprise.
“I want you to take good care of my friend Carla, here.” he said, gesturing in Carla’s direction, while pumping my hand up and down with alarming enthusiasm. He looked me full in the eyes while he said this, which I found unnerving in the same way that I first found Frankie’s gaze unnerving. Despite his unnerving zeal, I decided early on I rather liked Pastor Stu. He didn’t seem to smell the stink on me. I mean, he didn’t smell the wordly, non-church smell on me. The few times I’d been to other churches that were similar to Stu’s, the people came across as calculating, like shaking my hand might be sort of a job, and they’d look forward to it not being Easter anymore, so they’d no longer need to pretend they gave a crap about me. When I met Stu, it was like I could have met him anywhere. We could have met over a game of pool at a sports bar, or been sitting next to each other at a basketball game, and he would have been as inviting as he was that day, when he was minutes away from delivering a sermon I’d never forget.
“Without vision, the people perish.” Stu said from a rickety podium, chips of white specked here and there across its blonde wood finish–like the sorry thing had once gotten caught in the crossfire of a lively pellet gun fight. “What’s that mean to us?” he asked. I caught sight of Carla out of the corner of my eye. She was watching me. She was glowing a smile. Her expression gave me a thrill, for in all our time together, I’d grown used to being the one watching her, smiling at her. In fact, I usually felt like she was well ahead of me – like she was keeper of some sacred bit of knowledge that life had denied me. Now, I was with her in a part of her world, and I wasn’t uncomfortable; she knew this, and I think it fascinated her. She took my hand, interlaced her humbly adorned fingers with my own, and placed our hands upon her lap. I’d loved her before, but it was love in the way of stories. Now, I was caught up with a love that was bigger than myself or her or the entire building in which we sat. I would give my life for her, and I would give my life for this purpose that Pastor Stu was speaking about, because I felt that purpose had something to do with Carla. That night, with Carla catching glances at me, holding my hand, I felt more at home than at any time in my life.
“How differently would you live your life if you truly understood that God had a purpose in mind when he created you? There are adventures He has laid out before you. There are people He has planned in advance for you to touch.” It wasn’t the words Stu spoke that I found compelling. I’d heard pastors say similar things; it was the way he spoke. It’s easy to talk about the plans of God in a way that makes a person anxious. You can become anxious because you don’t know what the plan is, so you might miss it–anxious that you could live your entire life wondering if the life you’re living is, at best, second rate. But his words didn’t incite worry in me at all, I think in part because of his genuine excitement. He believed what he was saying. The other part of my ease came in being too busy watching Carla, watching me.
In fact, I spent much of the remainder of that evening watching Carla, watching me. In those moments, I could not have told you the secrets written between the lines of the pre-composed annals of my life, hidden by the divine hand of the Maker of all things. I was certain only of two things: I was meant to be there that night with Carla, and whatever it was the Maker had in mind for her, I wanted in. I needed to be in. I needed it so badly; so enraptured was I by the light magic of Pastor Stu’s words, and Carla’s endearing smile, and the touch of her hand, that the moments of time following the service–the memory of coffee afterward, and meeting her friends, and the car ride home–dissipated in the way of smoke in the cool, evening sky.
Were I able to return to that night, I would better engage my mind. I would listen intently to Carla’s words–those about her vision and her purpose, and I would allow those words to wash over me–and understanding their impact, I would hide myself forever in the solace of her company. I would grip her hand in a way that I would never forget the sensation of her flesh against mine.
-to be continued-