Last month, before the prelude in a UCC church in Tennessee, I watched an older couple assist a young woman with Down syndrome as she labored up a short flight of stairs into the chancel. Since she had some physical disabilities, it was a tortuous, time-consuming process. At the top of the steps, she made her way to a bare tree where white paper doves hung from the branches. As the couple helped her, she added her dove to the others. Then, while we watched and waited, the three slowly made their way down the steps.
Later, I learned that the doves on the tree represented the dreams of those who had placed them there. The whole congregation had waited patiently for church to start while this woman had added her dream to the others.
A similar moment occurred at my local church last summer. Because the sanctuary was being remodeled, we were worshiping in the fellowship hall. That Sunday we received two new members, Sandy and Vicki. As her gift to the service, Sandy had asked if she, along with Vicki's mother, could play a piece on their accordions. Our pastor was a bit taken aback, but agreed.
When the moment arrived, there was an awkward pause. Chairs had to be moved, a music stand set up, accordion cases opened. Those of us in the congregation could see that something wasn't right, but we didn't know what. Sandy's skin was sallow and her arms so weak she needed help lifting her instrument. What she knew, and we didn't, was that she was dying from cancer. Just as important, she also knew that she finally had found a church where she felt at home, where she felt accepted, where she sensed a community based on the love of Christ.
She had two goals: to join our church and to play her accordion for us. So we waited. After one or two false starts, we waited some more. Then, tentatively, she began and kept going. At first the two accordions didn't mesh. After a few measures they got synchronized and we could recognize "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
Then Sandy's will power took hold and the beat became confident. Toes began to tap. A few hands began to clap. Sandy bent over the accordion and squeezed with gusto, smiling at the response and playing her heart out for us. Next thing we knew, just about everyone was beaming and clapping to the strains of the "Take it to the Lord in Prayer Polka."
It was a magic moment. Within two weeks Sandy died. But in that moment she had shown us what it meant for someone to recognize in us a Christ-like presence we didn't even know we had. She had challenged us to seek that presence in others—and to continue to show it in our own lives.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.