Written December 30, 1988
At Thanksgiving of 1988 I returned to Fort Worth, a place of many of my roots – my family, early friends, beginnings. I had lived there for about a year and a half in 1967 and 1968. My family had moved back to the town where my parents had grown up, and where many of my relatives still lived.
We began attending Mathews Memorial Methodist Church, which my parents had attended while they were growing up. It was there I had first found a sense of church family, and had formed some bonds that had lasted until the present. It was currently known as University Methodist, but in my heart it would always be Mathews.
I had seen a flyer that stated there would be a garage sale at the church on Saturday morning. That day I went over to the church, planning to browse the sale and just look around. I went into the gym, filled with the chaos of a typical garage sale. I saw a few vaguely familiar faces, but could not connect them with names. I bought two books I had wanted for a while, and left.
As I passed the side doors of the church, on a whim I pulled at one, intending to roam the once familiar halls. To my surprise, the door opened on to the side of the sanctuary. I stepped in and listened, but could hear no one. It was much smaller than I had remembered; a sanctuary seating approximately 400, with light blue carpet and baby blue walls, stained glass windows of Bible scenes down each side. Now it was hushed in muted stillness, tranquil and warm.
I walked in and sat on the second pew, memories flooding me. Our gang had all been in a Christmas play together, performed on the platform beside the pulpit. Our youth minister had stood at that pulpit and preached a memorable sermon, using the analogy of a ship: “Who are you, where are you going, who is your captain?” A stately matriarch sat in the choir loft on Sunday mornings and glared at the fidgety ones (like me) sitting in the balcony. Once I had forgotten and worm white socks with my suit. It was Communion Sunday and I had to kneel before the entire church at the altar rail, convinced they were all looking at my socks.
Then my eyes wandered up to the wall behind the choir loft. It had a large circular stained glass window; Jesus, seated, with arms outstretched – offering. Along the outer border were three segments of a verse: My Peace – I give – unto you. I had always been attracted to those words, because you could combine the segments any way you wanted and they still made sense. I had forgotten about the stained glass, and it affected me powerfully.
It hit me with tremendous force that the title of my first book was “Search For Peace.” It was an autobiographical chronicle of my spiritual journey, my struggles to find God, yet also my resistance against God. For the first time I realized that the title of my book came from some corner of my heart where the words in the stained glass window had been stored.
Looking back down at the altar rail I remembered Sunday night services. They would dim the lights in the church, and people were free to come forward, kneel at the rail and pray. I suddenly remembered vividly a prayer of mine one night when I was 18. I had said something like “God, I don’t know if You’re up there, but if You are, and if You are listening, here’s what I have to say. The way I am running my life is not working. There’s something bad wrong, but I don’t know what it is. So if You’re up there, and if You really care, help me! I can’t give you much, but whatever I have I give You.” That experience had stayed with me vividly through all the years. I could even tell exactly where at the altar rail I had been when I prayed that prayer.
I had recently been feeling an incredible sense of peace and freedom, after a long struggle with some very deep seated issues. The peace was not just intellectual statements any more, but I felt it down very deep inside me. My gaze drawn back to the stained glass, I thought of a completed circle – finding peace and returning once more to the exact place where the journey began – from beginning to beginning. I went and knelt at the altar rail, at the same spot, tears welled up and a prayer of thanksgiving flooded from my heart up to God.
Several weeks later, just before Christmas, I was back home in Houston and awoke to a rainy day. I had been carrying the experience in Fort Worth in my thoughts for several weeks, yet its full significance eluded me. There was some element of it that whispered at the edge of my awareness, like a long forgotten but barely remembered memory.
I needed exercise, and went to a local mall, The Galleria, to walk – which I sometimes did when the weather was inclement. It was a pleasant form of exercise; it had the additional bonus of fascinating people watching. As I began walking, I noticed the vast number of people hurrying, doing their Christmas shopping, but in a terrible rush; some of them did not look happy!
For several laps I had noticed a grand piano sitting in an atrium area at one end of the mall. As I passed one time, a young, neatly dressed black man sat at the piano, playing a light, soothing melody – appealing, yet unrecognizable.
I stopped, sat down on a bench, and began quietly listening. It was a complex piece, lifting up to airy heights, then deepening, ripening fully, powerfully, then scaling back upward in a soothing pattern. I found myself becoming very tranquil and calm, though the hordes were still bustling past.
He finished and arose. He had seen my interest among the bustlers, came over and sat next to me. In talking with him, I discovered that the piece was his original composition. He had had no formal training, could not read music, but just played for the love of it. He did not work for the mall, but had just seen the piano and sat down to play.
Since I had missed the beginning, I asked if he would play it again, which he gladly did. After he finished, he returned and sat shyly next to me.
“Wow,” I said, “that is a really beautiful piece. No one gave you lessons or anything?”
“No, I just picked things out by myself. I’m out of practice. You should hear it when I’ve been working on it. I missed some parts.”
“Well, it’s really wonderful as it is. You really do have a gift. You should stay with it and develop it!”
We sat quietly for a moment.
“By the way, what’s the piece called? Does it have a name?”
“Yeah, sure. I call it Redemption. It just seemed right.”
“Why did you call it that?”
“Because of what Jesus has done in my life.”
“Mmm. That is really special. Beautiful.”
We talked for a few minutes more, shook hands, bid each other well, and he went out of my life.
It took several more weeks before I realized the gift he had given me – a Christmas gift. He gave me the word that had been eluding me, though the concept was well documented. I guess I had been too close to the experience to see it. It was the sensation I had been experiencing and trying to describe. Redemption. From the vague and pleading prayer at the altar rail at Mathews, to the thankful prayer of gratitude upon return to the same spot.
Redemption. My Peace – I give – Unto you. I had sought; I had found. It was not just an awareness or intellectual comprehension of a concept. It was an offer that had been made – by God, through His Son Jesus, and at that moment of my life, I could fully appropriate it, claim it. Not just thinking it to be true; not just believing it – but knowing it. Deeply. I felt overwhelmed with love.
My greatest Christmas gift. From God, to me – Redemption.
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