We are in the fourth ward of Atlanta, which is not exactly where one generally goes on vacation. She was looking across the street at something, with her eyes squinted. It caught me in a second. The relaxation of her shoulders and the care in her eyes and the way her words came quickly, tumbling over each other…it all added up to a moment in which, suddenly, she was so beautiful. Standing there on the cracked sidewalk. And it happened again with each of them.
As she turned the gold ring around her finger and talked about this boy and making a home. The light was glazed over by the rain, and she was dancing to herself a little from the front seat, with the vent blowing her hair around her face. Her phone lights up with his name, and her face glows.
As she stood in the farmers’ market, holding a bag of produce and waving her hands in excitement. It didn’t matter that the building was under construction or that the drizzle was gray and heavy. She was light and her face was bright with love for the town. Bright with the excitement of everything that she has found here. And it was beautiful.
They were, all three of them, suspended in these perfect moments. These moments in which ‘shalom’ seemed possible, in which everything seemed to be the way it was supposed to be. Never mind that we’re all still feeling our way clumsily through these transitions. Never mind that none of us have managed to fully embody these things God has set in our hearts. It was there, in a moment. The peace of being and doing exactly what you were put together to do. And it was beautiful on their faces.
As I walked through it all, I didn’t feel it in my heart. Didn’t sense the peace, the shalom, of life settling into a holy order. Instead of the beauty, I felt very conscious of the wrinkles in my shirt from the suitcase and the tiny dreadlock forming in my salty ocean hair. Out of step, out of place…I waited for the peace to come. For some sense that I had found this place where my joy meets the hunger of the world. It did not come. I walked through three states, waiting for a sense of wonder.
And I read. I read stories of hope and healing and hurt and horror across the world. I read about just a ton of pain. Of brokenness. And I saw hands reaching. I saw pockets opening. I began to hear the stories, to see the changes, the fighting for the helpless. I listened closely, and was sure I could almost hear prayers rising in every tongue. Pleading for faces and names they may not meet this side of heaven.
It was another moment of vulnerability. Another moment not special except for this sudden glimpse of what felt like peace. The face of the church, the way she was always meant to look. Pleading. Reaching. Calling on heaven and earth to move on behalf of her brothers and sisters. And in that moment she was beautiful. Her snarls and wrinkles faded into this gentle beauty of purpose and…
…and shalom. And for a moment the church was there, was the vehicle it always might have been.
And it may be that I never feel that look, that peace, fall over my own eyes.At least not again. I felt it, maybe for a moment, that afternoon when I sat with the little girls tugging my hair into braids and smearing sticky red fingers across my forehead. It may never return. It may be that I always walk just out of step with the ache in my heart. But for a moment this strange looking, crazed creature that I am a part of was completely lovely.
I think I will remember it for years. I think I will think back to the fourth ward, and to the highway across Carolina, and to the cluttered street in Carrboro. I think I will remember the flashes of beauty, and remember a moment when the church was present. When the imperfections somehow mattered less than the presence, than the softness around the edges and the sense of purpose.
Today the church was beautiful, even if just for a moment. As the whispered prayers rose across the world, for a moment I loved it, I ached with its beauty.
That kind of feeling cannot last. It flies away the moment a pastor uses a clumsy word or a televangelist smiles crookedly. It falters in the face of the cynicism, pain, tiredness, and assumptions that we have come to associate with the church.
But for a moment, for this moment, it is lovely in the way it was meant to be. It is shalom. And if there is peace nowhere else, it is present here, in this love between those so far away from one another.