The church was decorated for the season.
hung over the
front door and on the steeple. Inside, a
Christmas tree, decorated with fabric roses and a large, white angel perched on
top stood in the atrium. Liz gaped at
the tree until Jackie took her hand and lead her into the sanctuary. They followed Delia, Sandra, and Morgan into
a pew near the middle of the sanctuary. Garlands
Liz let her eyes wander. It was a bit emptier than it had been on her first visit, and most of the people there looked to be in late high school or college. None of the older members were present. Apparently, this was actually a youth meeting.
“Where’s Pastor Simon?” she asked suddenly, turning to Jackie.
Jackie didn’t appear concerned. “He’ll be here.”
“So there’s a different activity each night this week?” Liz asked no one in particular. “What’s tonight’s?”
This time Delia spoke up. “We can’t be sure. The schedule changes from year to year. But it’s bound to be something fun. We really just meet in here; we’ll probably move somewhere else. It’ll be some sort of teambuilding activity, though. Pastor Simon loves that kind of stuff. He says we can’t truly deliver God’s word to the world if we’re not able to trust each other.”
Liz smiled. “That doesn’t sound bad. Most Christmas-related services I’ve ever gone to are insanely boring and make me want to fall asleep.”
“That’s one of the theories Pastor Simon has,” Sandra said. “If we’re having fun and enjoying coming to services, we’re more likely to pay attention to the lessons and to take something away from them. He says that’s what the problem is with traditional churches—while the lessons are explained, the congregation doesn’t necessarily tune into what’s being said. It’s more important to everyone here that we actually learn the information and understand the choices we’re making by coming here. If we get to have fun in the process, then it’s worth it.”
Morgan and Liz exchanged a look. “It certainly sounds a lot better than my other church,” Morgan agreed.
By this time, a familiar silence began spreading over the congregation. Liz and Morgan turned in their pew and looked back toward the doors. Sure enough, Pastor Simon was making his way to the front of the church. Every eye in the sanctuary followed him as he approached the front. Unlike the first time Liz had seen him, when he had been wearing a white robe, he was simply wearing street clothes. Except for the white and red rose stole around his shoulders, he looked like everyone else sitting in the sanctuary. He looked much more approachable this way, much more like he’d be someone that teenagers could talk to. Liz could feel the excitement building in the large room.
“Good evening, Children and visitors,” he began.
“Good evening, Pastor Simon!” the congregation responded.
Pastor Simon gave a warm smile and opened his arms. “I’m so glad to see all of you on this first night of our Christmas week celebrations. I see many new faces in our group tonight, and I want to welcome all of our visitors to this very special week.”
Morgan squirmed in her seat. “Is it just me, or does it always feel like Pastor Simon is talking directly to us?” she whispered.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” Liz whispered back. Morgan hesitated for a moment, then nodded her agreement.
“Before we begin our celebrations, will you please all join me in prayer?” Pastor Simon continued, bowing his head. The congregation followed suit. “Lord, guide us this week as we continue to follow your Word. While we are having our fun, help us to understand the deeper significances. Place your love on our visitors this week, that they may better believe in all you have taught us and help them to make the best decisions as they go forward in their lives. In your name, amen.”
A collective “amen” sounded around the sanctuary, and everyone lifted their heads to return their gazes to the Pastor.
Again, Pastor Simon spread his arms open to his congregation, sharing the same warm smile. “If you’d please all stand now, and follow me out to the atrium, we’ll begin tonight’s activity.” With another warm smile, he made his way back down the center aisle. Everyone in the sanctuary stood and filed out into the atrium.
In the atrium, the group talked idly while they waited for Pastor Simon to give instructions. Liz, standing next to Morgan, looked around at the other people standing in the room. Most of the others were clearly members of the church, wearing brightly colored scarves or stoles. Some shades of green, others shades of yellow. However, there were many people wearing black ones, like Liz. All these other visitors seemed to be clustering together in groups of two or three—safety in numbers, Liz supposed, even though she was doing the same by staying close to Morgan—and they all were looking anxiously around at the other faces in the congregation. There were also some people, though, wearing black scarves that had small white flowers printed on them. These people, Liz figured, were clearly not just visitors. The people wearing these scarves were talking comfortably to the members around them and did not seem at all anxious as to what was going on.
“Those people, the ones in the black and white scarves, who are they?” Liz asked Jackie.
“They’re new members to the church,” Jackie answered. “They’ve just been baptized within the last few months.”
“But you’re not wearing one of them,” Liz pointed out.
“I was baptized three months ago. I’m not new anymore. I’ve already been promoted.”
Liz opened her mouth to ask what Jackie meant by promoted, but Pastor Simon had stood up on a chair on the other side of the room and was beginning to talk. “Okay, I’d like us all to split into three groups. Let’s see…how about everyone on this side of the room,” he gestured toward his right, “all the way over to where Tina and Kyle are standing,” he pointed to two church members, “you’ll all be one group.” The group he had gestured toward broke away from the rest and stood near one wall. “Now, let’s have everyone here in the middle, all the way over to Derek—why are you standing so apart from everyone?” A boy in a visitor’s stole scooted closer to the group in the middle. “That’s better. Don’t be afraid of them, they’ll watch out for you,” Pastor Simon smiled again and the boy seemed to relax. “Okay, so this group in the middle will be another group. Everyone else will be our third group. I’d now like each group to form a tight circle. The tighter your circle is, the easier this activity will be to set up.”
Jackie grabbed Liz and Morgan’s hands and pulled them into the circle. Liz found herself standing next to Derek and she gave him a comforting smile. How does he know all the visitors’ names? Liz wondered.
Once all the groups were standing shoulder-to-shoulder within their circles, Pastor Simon continued, “Good. Now, everyone reach both of your arms into the middle of your circle and clasp hands with a couple of people standing on the other side. No one should be holding hands with the same person. Share the wealth. And you can’t hold hands with the people directly next to you.”
This was a little difficult to manage, as each of the circles had anywhere around fifteen or twenty people. Regardless of this, though, there was success, and everyone bent at awkward angles to be able to continue holding hands with the people standing on the other side. Giggles and nervous laughter began breaking out amongst the three groups—it was an awkward position to be in.
“Now, untangle yourselves,” Pastor Simon instructed, “but you can’t release hands. Work together to reform your circles.”
The circle Liz was in struggled at first—individual people trying to twist themselves free, mostly. After a few minutes of making very little progress, a girl in a yellow scarf took control.
“Jacqueline, you have to limbo under Sandra’s arm…yeah, there you go, that’s a little better. Now, you—Derek, is that your name?—okay, Derek, turn the other way around, your arms are crossed. Ericka, Emily, you two need to kneel down, get your arms as close to the ground as possible, so Alexander can step over and lead this group around. Great, guys, look how much better this is. Now…sorry, what’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Elizabeth. Can you kind of go under Delia’s arm, and then you’ll have to step over Ericka’s and Emily’s arms. Yeah, like that. Good.”
This continued for another half hour, the group sometimes becoming more tangled than it had been at the beginning of the activity, but, finally, the group found itself in a full circle again, each person holding hands with the people on either side of them. When all three groups had finally broken themselves free, Pastor Simon clapped his hands in congratulations.
“Well done, Children and visitors, well done. You may release hands now, if you’d like.” Each circle unclasped their hands and gathered around closer to where the pastor was standing. “It looked like you were all having a good time with this activity.”
As a whole, the group nodded.
“Good. But, in all this fun, take this message with you. You may sometimes find yourself in a challenge, and you must trust each other to get through it. Some of you will step up and be leaders, some of you will be followers, but you would not have made it through this challenge—these human knots—without all of you working together. Anything can be achieved if you work together. As says in Ecclesiastes, chapter four, verses nine and ten, ‘Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.’ Remember this always.”
He paused here, looking around at the young adults staring at him in awe. Liz felt as though Pastor Simon was looking directly at her, into her, as though he knew everything she had ever done wrong. Liz dropped her gaze then, wishing she had been a better person, that she was less focused on just herself. Jackie was concerned about so much more—she cared about the animals’ well-being, she didn’t let what other people said about her beliefs get to her.
“Well, Children and visitors, this brings us to the end of our first night of Christmas week. Remember, we have activities every evening this week and I hope to see all of you. With that, I leave you with these words from Second Corinthians, chapter thirteen, verse eleven: ‘Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.’ Have safe trips home, and remember tonight’s lesson as you go out into the world.”
The group scattered, but many remained standing in the atrium, visiting. Liz found herself standing near Derek, who was still looking rather nervous. Now that she got the chance to study him closer, and outside of a group activity, she noticed he had kind eyes—but he was constantly shifting his weight, like he was getting ready to run. She smiled at him again.
“Hi, I’m Liz,” she said, holding out her hand.
Derek twitched almost unnoticeably at the movement, but then took her hand and shook it. “Derek,” he answered quietly.
“Is this your first time visiting?” Liz asked.
Derek shook his head, his brown hair falling into his eyes for a moment before he brushed it away. “Nah, I’ve been to a couple services. One of the guys from my school is a member here and knows the hard time I’ve been having and thought it might be a good place for me.”
“Hard time?” Liz realized suddenly that this may have been an inappropriate question, because Derek looked at her with very wide eyes. He looked as though he had never been asked this question before, or that the last thing he wanted to do right now was answer it. “I mean,” Liz backtracked quickly, “you don’t have to…you know…say anything you don’t want to. I was…just…wondering…”
Derek shook his head again. “It’s not a big deal. Most people don’t ask.” He sighed, getting up the courage to explain. “My parents are divorced and my dad has custody, because she didn’t want either of us. My dad’s…well, not a great dad.” He shrugged. “I figure that if I can spend my time at a church, then I don’t have to be home as much, you know?”
Liz nodded. Even though her parents were fine parents, it was still the same excuse she was using to come here. She’d rather be here where she was actually someone rather than at home where she was always lost in the litter of siblings.
“What about you, Liz?” Derek continued. “Is this your first time visiting?”
“No, I’ve been to a service and hung out with a couple girls who are members here. My sister is a member. She’s the one who brought me.”
Sandra walked up at this moment and snagged Liz’s arm kindly. “Sorry, I have to steal Liz,” she said with a smile to Derek. “We have to go, but we’ll see you later, right?”
Derek nodded, waved good-bye to Liz, and then the two girls walked toward the front doors of the church, where the rest of their group stood waiting.
“He seems nice,” Sandra said, jerking her head back toward where Derek had been standing. “That’s the great thing about the Children, you know. You get to meet some great people, strike up lasting and important relationships with them. Who knows? Maybe you and Derek will turn out to be more than friends.” She shot a knowing smile at Liz, who widened her eyes in shock at the turn of the conversation.
Out in the parking lot of the church, the girls crammed back into Sandra’s car, all of them talking excitedly about that night’s activity. Liz found herself sandwiched between her sister and Morgan.
“See?” said Sandra as they began pulling away from the church. “Didn’t we say that you two would have a blast?”
“I really did,” Liz said, adjusting her scarf on her head, but not feeling compelled to remove it—she was growing more comfortable with its presence. “I’ve played that human knot game before, but this held so much more meaning than the other times.”
“No kidding,” Morgan spoke up. “I never would have thought it could hold more meaning than ‘hey, let’s all work together.’ Somehow, and I don’t entirely understand how, but Pastor Simon made it make so much more sense.”
It wasn’t long before the car pulled up in front of the McLancy home. The two sisters climbed out of the car, bid their friends farewell, and made their way into the house. They made it up to the second floor before they encountered any of their siblings. Liz wasn’t sure if she counted herself lucky that they didn’t run into their parents—she didn’t know how they would react to her enjoying this church that confused them so much, and she was pretty sure she didn’t have the same confidence as Jackie to express this.
It was Eva they encountered halfway to their attic stairs. Inwardly, Liz groaned—Eva was almost as bad as their parents.
“Well, well, if it isn’t our very own religious pioneers back from worship,” she snickered as she walked past.
“You’re so—” Liz began, turning around. The oldest stopped her, grabbing her elbow and turning her back around to face the attic door as they continued walking.
“Don’t let her get to you,” Jackie whispered. “She doesn’t understand what we do. She hasn’t experienced what we have. She has no say and you shouldn’t let her.”
Liz sighed, tugging off her black scarf at last, bunching the silk in her hand, and pulling the elastic out of her hair, letting the French braid slowly unravel. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough for this. You’re so much surer about your beliefs. Why would any of the people from your church want to associate themselves with me?”
“You are, Liz. You are strong enough for this. The Children will make you stronger.”
“Look, no one is forcing you to go to the services. If you don’t want to go, just tell me.”
“I do want to go.”
“Okay then,” said Jackie, smiling. “Stop worrying about what the rest of our family thinks, or what your friends will think, or any of that. Just think about the rest of this week, and try to remember how you felt tonight.”
Liz nodded her understanding, shaking more of her braided hair free in the process. As she headed to her room, she released her grip on the scarf. Looking at the wrinkled fabric, she felt guilty for taking her frustrations out on it. She sat on her bed and kicked off her shoes, smoothing out the scarf on her lap and gently folding it into a small square. With a sigh, she picked up her pen and opened her journal.
My new friends are amazing and I can tell they really care about me. The fact that they think of me means a lot—they cared enough to invite me to the mall and to their church stuff. I hate being lost in this family. I love them, but I always feel I’m in competition. I think Jackie and all them are right. What if this could be the right place for me? Why would I give that up just because I’m nervous?