New Life (Sept – Oct 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by David Lee Beller
September – October, 1996

XYZ News Service—A small church burned yesterday in Collin, Texas. The newly renovated facility was the home of New Life Church. Arson was the suspected cause of the blaze, authorities said.

The darkness on the deserted street cloaked all movement. They quickly laid the trail of gasoline around the building. A dozen yards away bottle tops glinted in the pale light from the street lamp.

Flames tore the night. Falling glass panes clanged and the home-sewn curtains at the windows wagged in the low breeze of the growing fire. Casually the three men walked to their waiting car a block away, laughing. A multi-colored banner proclaiming “Praise Jesus” lifted from the wall, blackened, and disintegrated in the flames.

Later,

“Oh, Lord Jesus, Nora. Lord, help us!”

“Mmm?” she whispered, struggling out of her dream.

“Church house on fire,” he panted.

“What?”

“Call Jim — and Nathaniel. Stay here with the children.” He dialed 911 and handed her the phone. “I love you.”

“Be careful, Jesse.”

A strip of yellow light penetrated the curtains and fell across her face. From the second story window she could see over the high fence across the lot behind the warehouse. The clock in the hall struck two as the silhouette of her husband darted into sight, up the block toward the burning church. Her heart wailed with the sound of the approaching sirens. Could they make it in time? The trucks pulled up, sending more jets of light into the night sky.

She stood transfixed before the window.

Part of the roof fell in. She could see that Jim and Nate had arrived with their teenage boys. The men were helpless against the heat and smoke. They stood watching. Worried, she stroked the curtains with her free hand. Between her fingers and thumb she felt the embroidered stitches. They matched the curtains at New Life Church.

Next Day.

For the rest of the night Jesse couldn’t sleep.

Six o’clock came early, and he resisted the temptation to drive by the church. What used to be the church, he thought.

Work was tedious and he was tired. A few people who knew him stopped to say, “Sorry, man. Saw the news,” or, “Too bad.” He didn’t want to look at anyone, he felt ashamed for some reason. His insides boiled every time he thought of the searing heat and the blackened ruins.

On his way home, Jesse stopped, pulling his old Monte Carlo to the curb. He couldn’t really look. “Oh, God! Why?” He stepped out of the car, over the nicely kept grass at the curb. Brother Tom works so hard to keep this perfect. His flowers — all dead. The lot was flattened. He could see the street beyond, the houses and beat-up cars, a kid on a bike. Yesterday the beautiful white building would have blocked his view of these things. He could trace its outline in his mind. Up the sidewalk to the double doors. Stairs are here, railings up to… up to what? Nothing. Burnt earth. Charred timbers and siding. The only thing above the ground was the foundation that lay in a grid before him. In his mind he could see the pews, the pulpit, the baptistry. Gone.

“Peace, be still,” he thought. “No!”

Day Seven.

“Mama, how come I feel like someone done kicked me in the stomach?” Abel wondered, half of his arm buried in a bag of Doritos. “Mama, why would somebody do us like that?”

“We don’t know, son. And stop sayin’ ‘done kicked me,’ boy. You sound like a clod.”

“But Mama, ain’t there somethin’ we could do ‘bout it?”

“Yes. You can thank your God that nobody was hurt. Besides, the police are trying to find out how it happened.”

“My friend Bucky says the police ain’t gonna do nothin’, Mama.”

“Hush, boy. You know I don’t like you talking like that rabble from your school.”

Jesse stared at Abel, then out the window. Anger consumed him. “A kick in the stomach?” he thought. No, a kick in the groin. He ached inside. His family, Nate’s family, all the families were good people, faithful people. Why, God? Why? Abruptly, he stood up from the table, grabbed a sweatshirt, and went out.

Across town, James Jordan answered a knock at his door. Framed by the peep hole, he saw the face of Jesse Harper. Smiling, he opened the door. The two men, separated by three decades in age, embraced.

“How you doin’, man? Are you all right?”

“We’re okay. James, I’ve got to talk about this thing. Got to do something. I’m angry. I’m afraid I’m angry with God. No… I know I’m angry with him and I can’t stop it. I can’t pray. I don’t want to sing. Sunday worship was worse than digging for a splinter. And you know there are others feeling just the same. How can we deal with this? It’s senseless. We didn’t do anything to anyone, and God is supposed to be our protector, not our enemy. Help me!”

“Hold it, son, slow down,” James responded soothingly. “You have some terrible things going on inside you, but these are questions that need to be thought about. You’re on the road to making peace with this though, and that’s good.”

“Have a seat.” James motioned toward the couch and clicked on a table lamp. “See, Jesse, since we cannot find all the answers, mostly the best thing to do is to live the questions.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been asking, Why? And How long? Live those questions! They’re the cry of a faithful heart.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Go home and read the Psalms, Jesse. Read Lamentations. You’ll see how those people prayed. They wrung the anguish out of their hearts in God’s presence. These are not the prayers of ‘nice’ people. Sometimes it gets pretty scary. Look at Psalm 137.”

“You know, James, we all feel like this, even the kids. It’s something many families share.”

”You’re right, Jesse,” he said thoughtfully, considering a plan. “It is something we share. You just gave me an idea. I’m going to call the other elders. This is a time to remind the church that the Bible has something to say to Christians about their grief. It’s full of this stuff, just what you’re going through, right on the pages of Scripture.”

Day Thirty-two.

The bulletin had said this Sunday would be different.

Brother Morris wasn’t preaching. James Jordan and the other elders taught a lesson about dealing with unanswered questions, experiencing the pain together as a church, and about the hope they had in God.

“So you see, good folk,” James was saying, “we have to be faithful to God any way we can, and in situations like this—well, it’s best we present our complaints together, directly to the Lord himself!”

“Ancient Israel would come together to mourn and lament before God,” said another elder, “and sometimes they would fast for his deliverance. Look at Esther 4:4 and 16. The nation is at risk so the people worship, calling out to God.”

A third elder, Jarvis McLellan, announced, “We believe we should lament to God as a church community. Next week we will hold worship at the old church lot. Please attend. It will be a day for healing to begin, but first we gotta let the pain out.”

Jesse wasn’t convinced.

Day Thirty-nine.

“Dear Lord, I fear this morning,” Jesse prayed as he left his house. “I don’t want to go. Please give me strength.”

From his bedroom window he had seen families gathering around the lot. People hesitated to stand where the building used to be, and instead gathered in clusters near the sidewalk as if it were any Sunday before the fire.

“Where’s Nora?” he wondered. He found her near Jim’s family, and bowed his head, her hand in his. James Jordan is praying.

“And so we plead for healing, Father, and hope, knowing that you can deliver us, this church. But today we weep, we moan, we wail. For our precious memories. For what might have been. For lost labor and lost treasures. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Jesse moved to the center of the circle. “We have a great family here at New Life, and God has blessed us in the past. But I just don’t know. I believe we should trust him, but I’m angry.”

He wiped a tear with the back of his hand and began to read from Psalms 44: “Yet thou hast cast us off and abused us, and hast not gone out with our armies. Thou hast made us turn back from the foe; and our enemies have gotten spoil. Thou has made us like sheep for slaughter . . . .”

“That’s right, that’s how it feels!” someone shouts.

“And has scattered us among the nations. Thou hast sold thy people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them,” Jesse continued reading.

“Mmmmm Hmmmm. Sold us out . . . .”

“Not forever, sister. Not for good. No way.” Another voice reminds.

“Thou hast made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those about us. Thou hast made us a byword among the nations, a laughing-stock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face, at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the stranger.”

Jesse paused. Silence.

“All that has come upon us,” he read, “though we have not forgotten thee, or been false to thy covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from thy way, that thou shouldst have broken us in the place of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness. If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread forth our hands to a strange god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. Nay, for thy sake we are slain all the day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

James Jordan joined him in the midst of the church, placing an arm around Jesse’s shoulder.

“This is how it feels, good people. But He has not abandoned us, though things can and do happen because of the actions of evil men.” He turned to Jesse. “Keep reading, son.”

“Rouse thyself! Why sleepest thou, O Lord? Awake!” Jesse was beginning to understand. “Do not cast us off forever! Why dost thou hide thy face? Why dost thou forget our afflictions and oppression?”

Jesse closed the Bible and rejoined his family, feeling now something of what James had meant by living the questions.

The service continued as several members offered prayers of frustration, prayers for healing, punctuated at times with poignant, tearful silence.

Everyone present felt that they had come to the end. Emotionally, they were exhausted, empty of the black despair they had felt earlier, and moving toward peace. Suddenly an old woman began to hum. Men and women joined her, singing softly, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome . . . .”

“He doesn’t forget! He remember us! He is here now! He understands!”

Finally, Jesse joined in, and his strong baritone rang out above the others, changing the words to “He shall overcome.


Dedicated to the memory of John Collin Koonce and his parents, Ken and Charlene.
Wineskins Magazine

David Lee Beller

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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