There’s an old Baptist church that sits just off the main drag of my hometown in Kentucky. On most days it’s nothing more than a daycare with an empty parking lot and a sign that no one reads. On a good Sunday, the average attendance never clears sixty. But the average age does. It’s just an old church now. A relic of golden years past. You wouldn’t notice it. But I do. I remember that church when the parking lot was full. And so was the sanctuary. Just the sight of it now brings a sense of melancholy to my heart. The kind of sadness that only comes when you’ve seen happiness…and seen it leave. I’ve moved away myself now. To another state. With my own young family. And my own church. But I still return home from time to time. A year ago, during one of those visits, I decided to meet an old friend one afternoon at Starbucks. The one that sits right on the main drag. As I sat outside waiting for my friend, latté in hand, I looked across the street and saw it. That old church. In God’s perfect timing, my friend’s was anything but. So I sat outside for almost a half an hour waiting for him, staring at it through a couple office buildings. It still looked the same after all these years. Frozen in time. Like it had the day I last remembered walking out of it. I suddenly recalled why I’d never enjoyed looking at it. I glanced away as an overwhelming gloom came over me. Just the sight of it depressed me. But it was more than an image. It was the memory behind it. It’s funny how a growing town will pray for God to erect a Starbucks but never a church. In twenty years, that’s apparently where all the people had gone: right across the street. Trading Christ for coffee in some ways. A culture of quick fixes. My friend finally decided to show up, and we caught up on ten years of stories. But for some reason, I couldn’t take my mind off of that old church. As much as I hated to look at it, it was fixed in my brain. And the caffeine only made it worse. The memories of that church were flooding my thoughts like the light through those old stain-glass windows. Finally, as our coffee-date came to an end and we said our ‘I’ll facebook you’s, I decided to get in my car and drive across the street. After twenty years, I wanted to see it again. I had to. The church where my childhood began. And in some ways, ended. I parked the car next to the other three on the side of the building. Then stepped inside. The smell. Churches never change their smell. And just like that I was six years old again.
It’s the smell of old musty hymnbooks and worn red Bibles. Faded choir robes and crinkled Sunday school coloring books, waiting one lonely week for one hour of use. As I walked down the dim hallway, I could hear the sound of children. Turning down another, I saw three open doors, each letting in a chorus of laughs, cries, and screams. I’d found the daycare. I decided to pass by and peek in, stealing a small memory from each small room. Immediately I remembered birthday parties, early 90s bouffant hairdos, cameras and cakes. My mouth hung open a bit and smiled as my neck craned inside each room. Were the rooms still the same color? I couldn’t remember. Certainly not, I thought to myself. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone in the hallway anymore. A younger woman had come out of the office to spy on the strange man creeping around the daycare, looking at the children. “Can I help you?” she asked, arms folded. I turned and smiled. Her look of concern instantly made me stop smiling. “Oh, I’m sorry, I used to go to church here. Just looking around,” I assured her disarmingly. I waited for her response. She studied me. “What’s your name?” she asked, unfolding her arms. She began to walk toward me. “Obbie. Obbie Todd.” Like I was James Bond or something. Like there was any way in the world these people possibly remembered me. I really just wanted to make my way to the sanctuary and leave. After a 2-hour conversation with my high school buddy, I wasn’t exactly in the mood for another introduction. And I certainly didn’t want a guided tour. But when you have a foreign-sounding name, summer-dark skin, and a beard, it’s hard to go unnoticed. And unquestioned. Even in a church. “Wait here. I’ll ask Jane. She’s my boss. She’s been here since forever.” She turned into the office. I could hear her relaying our brief conversation, followed by my name: “Uh…O…be…Todd?” The sound of a pen instantly dropping to the desk should have told me something. I was in for a lot more than a casual coffee date. An older, middle-aged woman appeared expectantly from the office, with curly black hair and soft eyes. She wore blue jeans and a red t-shirt. Starting toward me, she began grinning, almost as if to solve a practical joke. Then she stopped. Her eyes widened. And she cupped her hands over her mouth in disbelief. Leaping forward, she embraced me with a smile and a hug. “You look just like her.” I could hear her soft sniffling on my shoulder. I gently hugged her back, still processing my own disbelief. As she backed away, the sight of a single tear streaming down her cheek startled me a bit. She kept smiling. And so was I for some reason.
She said she was a friend of my mother’s. She also had children the same age as my brother and I. I didn’t remember them, but then again, I didn’t remember a lot about this place. Unlike so many of the former faces at this church, Jane had stayed to watch it dwindle to nearly one-tenth of what it was twenty years ago. Faithful to the end, she said. As we walked to the sanctuary, I listened to her talk about the golden years. About me when I was just a child. About mom. All I could do was gaze. And remember. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was on the inside. They’d re-modeled only one room that I could see. The rest was pristine history. I imagined two young brothers running down the long hallway and up the stairs to the sanctuary. As we approached it, Jane was called away to the children. She directed me where to go, but I knew the way. I walked up to the sanctuary and took a deep breath as I saw the double doors. My life had changed in that room. Yet, as I opened the doors, I realized the room itself hadn’t. I walked in slowly. It all seemed so…untouched. Too untouched. From the pulpit to the piano to the pews, it was exactly how I imagined it…in miniature. But those long arches in the vaulted ceiling still went on forever. I remembered as a young boy staring at that ceiling countless times, completely removed from the sermon…and everyone else. It really was a beautiful sanctuary. Ignored and left to collect dust like a piece of fine china on a shelf. The long, chained, stained-glass lamps still dripped down from the ceiling, giving the room the same slightly gothic feel I remembered. There was so much here. So much of my past. Sitting right off the main road. Watching me drive up and down that strip a thousand times like any restless kid in this town would. I’d just never bothered to step inside. After all, it was just an old church. Forgotten and left to wither one family at a time. But here it was…preserved in time. Almost as if it had been waiting twenty years for me to walk in. For the day when a preacher would step inside its doors instead of a boy. So that I could begin to see something I didn’t want to. I walked up to the pulpit and placed my hands on each side, like I would any Sunday. But never here. The view from this pulpit was different. On this particular day, in this sanctuary, I wasn’t looking out on a congregation. I was looking at one small pew. One seat. To a boy. Sitting on the front row to the right. Dressed in the first tux he’d ever worn. Seated next to his little brother. Looking up at this pulpit. I suddenly remembered the reason I hated this old church.
The last memory you have of something is usually the strongest. For me, it had become the only memory. Seared into my brain and then shoved somewhere I couldn’t find it. Or didn’t want to. But nothing stays hidden forever. No one could have seen those two boys but the man standing from this stage. The last memory I had of this room was the last time I could remember it being filled to capacity. But it wasn’t on a Sunday. It was on a day like today. A warm afternoon in May. Instead of singing and praises there was only crying and tears. To come and look upon someone who proclaimed the Gospel. But it wasn’t from a pulpit. It was from a casket. The last day I recalled sitting in this room was the first time I ever looked upon a lifeless body. My mother’s. It’s the day a six-year-old boy put his arm around his four-year-old brother, trying to somehow supply a piece that could never be replaced. A void in our hearts that in many ways could never be filled. With our feet dangling from the pew, unable to touch the floor, our clip-on ties smeared with tears and snot…all we had on that day was each other. I recalled watching Dad being mobbed by mourners around the casket. Simultaneously trying to honor his deceased wife and protect his two sons from the emotional chaos in the room. So we just sat there. Watching. In that pew. In the same corner my mother played piano each Sunday. My hands gripped the pulpit as I remembered. And cried.
That awful smell. The smell of flowers. It’s amazing how one fresh aroma can trigger such stale memories. Instead of the two poinsettias on stage, I remembered dozens. To me, it was the smell of death. It’s the same smell that turned our house into a mausoleum for weeks after the funeral. All of those flowers at our feet. But it wasn’t really the flowers. It was the hopeless appearance of something beautiful and sweet on a day filled with nothing but darkness and death. A sense of hopelessness that turns everything black. It was the first day I remember trying to be a big brother. Trying. At six years old. Thinking that somehow it was my job to be a man. To be tough. To be something. If not for myself or my Dad, for my little brother. Twenty years later I was back in the very same room. Standing twenty feet away. Still trying to figure out, as a newlywed, what being a man really looked like.
I couldn’t take my eyes off that pew. It was the closest I’d ever come to death. To heart-wrenching pain and sadness. I still remember her face. The woman who’d given me life. I took my hands gently off the pulpit and thought about that life. The one that began in a pew and ended in a pulpit. It all began here. The place I heard the Gospel for the first time. The same Gospel I preach today. And it all started with a corpse and a question. Twenty years later, I finally understood what was then only a mystery. No sinner understands good news without bad news. Life without death. And you’re not fit to lead anyone until you know where to find both. Neither one of us knew how that day would alter our lives. How could we. But today, seeing what my little brother became, I can’t help but ponder the answered prayers of a faithful saint dying of cancer. Little did I know the hand of protection that already lay upon that young boy. More than mine could have ever provided. Twenty years later, he’d outdone me in virtually everything I’d ever attempted. I was an honor graduate. He was valedictorian. I was captain of one sport. He was captain of two. I was all-city. He was all-state. I went to the University of Kentucky. He went to Yale. I became a C student. He became president of his fraternity. I got a job in college. He joined a secret society. I played flag football in college. He played the real thing. I graduated late. He graduated on time. I went home and lived with the parents for a couple years. He became a Marine, fought in Afghanistan, and won the Bronze Star. What I didn’t know twenty years ago, I know now. About that little boy. He didn’t need protection. He didn’t need toughness. He just needed a brother. Someone who loved him enough to introduce him to another Brother. The one in the room with us that day. Made like us. A King who knew every ounce of pain and agony we felt sitting in that pew. A Brother who died a death our mother never could. (Heb. 2:11, 17, 14) The most I ever could have done for that blond, four-year-old kid was to pick up that worn Red Bible and tell him about Jesus. That was my job. That is my job. To watch over his heart with the Gospel. A true brother.
In two weeks, my brother and I will stand next to one another one more time. In a church. And I’ll hold his hand once again. This time to give him the ring he’ll put on the finger of his bride. Standing behind him, right where I belong. Two brothers. Celebrating instead of mourning. Finding life where there was only death. And this time my father will sit on the front pew…but not alone. With a new bride. The woman we now call ‘Mom.’ You’ll find the Gospel at that wedding. Everywhere. A small story that began in an old Baptist church. With two young boys sitting at the end of a pew. Witnessing the weight of death. Only to discover the glory of the cross. Bound by more than our own blood. But the blood of our Savior…and Brother.