Phil Mitchell had put together a program called “Dear God”: an assortment of hymns and anthems interspersed with personal letters to God from members of the congregation. There must have been a hundred people in the choir, singing like angels, and the orchestral accompaniment was heavenly, but when people began to read their prayers a reverent hush fell over the sanctuary.
Martha Joyner talked about how grateful she was for her family, and especially for her new granddaughter, Emma Grace. Carl Johnson talked about how God had led him into his work as treasurer of the International Mission Board and through a time of deep personal tragedy. But then Hannah Ramsey got up to speak. You could tell, even before she started, that this was going to be hard for her. Her hands were shaking. She took a deep breath and let it out. And then she said, “Dear God, it’s been 99 days since we last talked…”
As she sobbed and struggled through the rest of her letter she talked about losing her sixteen-year-old brother, Jackson, to suicide. She talked about how angry she was—still—and how she had been trying to work through her pain and her grief. Her emotion was raw and real, and she held nothing back. When she finished I let out the breath I had been holding since she began with a single word: “Wow!” And when she sat down behind me I wrote this note on a slip of paper and passed it to her:
“That was just about the bravest thing I have ever seen. Certainly the most honest. Thank you.”
Her courage and honesty added to what had already been shared, and raised the experience of that concert to a new level. By the time the choir sang “Total Praise” at the end of the evening we were all caught up in a kind of rare unity, where it didn’t really matter who you were or where you came from—we had become family just by being there. And as we stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer together as a kind of benediction Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming made his way over to where Hannah was standing and put his arms around her. I glanced over my shoulder, saw what was going on, and thought what a good instinct it was on his part. He’s known Hannah all her life. There was probably a time when she thought Dr. Flamming was God. For him to put his arms around her like that and hand her his handkerchief was just the right kind of pastoral care.
The tears flowed freely.
When it was over I told Hannah’s mother that I had read something that very afternoon about how some people avoid church because it doesn’t seem real to them; they’re looking for something “authentic.” I told her, “But it doesn’t get any more real than it did tonight.”
And I think we all learned something: that we can not only trust God with our most honest emotions but—when church is real—we can trust each other, too. And when we do it can make all the difference. We’re not a roomful of strangers anymore: we’re family. And a girl who has lost her brother might just discover that she is not alone.
Not by a long shot.