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Amazing Grace

Grace Goodenow was a church lady…perhaps the quintessential church lady. She had served her time in the nursery and teaching and coordinating Sunday School, Awana, and Vacation Bible School. She had composed and printed the church bulletins and calendar before they had gone online. She had laundered, ironed, and mended altar linens, choir robes, and stoles – back when they had altar linens, choir robes and stoles. She had painstakingly rubbed Murphy’s Oil Soap onto dozens of pews, wooden pulpits, and offering tables, and altars – back when they had pews, wooden pulpits, and altars; shampooed and vacuumed plush, red, woolen carpets – back when…you get the picture. Yes, the quintessential church lady who had done it all.

            What Grace Goodenow was best known for was her culinary prowess. She could make a sheet pan of macaroni and cheese (back before it became popular) or scalloped potatoes and ham an epicurean delight. And her desserts! Hidden along the back wall of her pantry were thirty years of blue ribbons from the county fair for her pies, quick breads, and cakes. From the quarterly pot blessing dinners, to baby dedication buffets, to funeral lunches, Grace Goodenow was in high demand.

            Or, at least – she was.

            Grace had expected change when the new pastor was installed and was prepared to weather it. After all, hadn’t she survived the change from choir to worship band (in skinny and holey jeans instead of choir robes – on the plus side, they no longer had to endure the off-key soprano of Matilda Mortensen), from hymnals to computer generated and projected lyrics (complete with animation!) and from gleaming oak pews to comfortable padded chairs (complete with cup holders!)? However, there was change…and then there was CHANGE. The new pastor was young – young enough to be Grace’s grandson, that is, if she had ever had children. For Grace, the small congregation of fifty or so souls, excluding children, was all the family she had since her parents and elder siblings had passed. Pastor Trevor had been officially installed three weeks ago, but this coming Sunday, Easter, would be his first official service.

            Grace sighed as she unlocked the side door. Gone was the solid oak portal with massive iron hinges. Instead, she faced a sheet of plate glass – bulletproof – she had been told. It was just one of the renovations made possible by Evangeline Edmonton’s endowment. (Who knew Vangie had amassed such a fortune?) Grace stepped into the hallway behind the stage. This at least hadn’t changed and the red carpet was soft beneath her feet. What greeted her in the sanctuary was a world of difference. The shiplap behind the pulpit was an ultramarine so deep it was almost black. No cross, but the name of Jesus stenciled in white across the broadest board. The remaining walls were dove grey, accented with white and ultramarine trim, the flooring thin, dark charcoal grey carpet. Ironwork in the form of words, “believe,” “love,” “thankful,” “trust,” and “faith” alternated with color-coordinated, almost abstract paintings along the walls. A single Easter lily on a low column sat in front of the Plexiglas pulpit.

            Making her way into the lobby, she surveyed the same grey, white, and ultramarine colors. Tiny bistro tables with tall, metal chairs lined the wall opposite the coffee bar. Last Sunday, in a reversal of roles, Grace had observed frail Mrs. Harman and her grandson as the lad boosted the tiny woman onto the high chair where she sat with her feet dangling. The fellowship hall was more of the same – grey, white, deep blue. Grace missed the painstakingly stitched, embroidered and tatted lace wall hangings created by the women of past generations. Instead, abstract grape vines and sheaves of wheat in hammered metal snaked along the walls. It was all so trendy. It was all so…sterile. The grey pressed in on Grace like a sunless, cloudy November day. Grace noticed crumbs spangling the dark carpet beneath the children’s tables. The hired cleaning crew would get that before Sunday, but Grace could not leave it. She pulled the vacuum cleaner from the utility closet in the kitchen and suctioned up the debris. The kitchen was one room of which Grace approved. The renovations committee had run out of funds before they could do more than replace the aging refrigerators, freezer, and range. The birdseye maple cupboards gleamed with generations of polish and the buttercup yellow walls were as welcoming as sunshine after a storm. Grace

            Opening a cupboard, Grace took out the communion elements and filled the trays. She tsked. Ever since the pandemic, the church used pre-filled and sealed plastic cups with tasteless white wafers. The cups were nefariously difficult to open, especially for the older members of the congregation, so Grace used a butter knife to carefully pry up the little tabs – just enough to make them easy to grasp, but not break the seal. Grace glanced at the eight-burner, stainless steel range and sighed. She would not be needing it this week. She would not be coming the afternoon of Holy Saturday to boil and color twelve dozen eggs. She would not be coming in at sunrise Easter morning to prepare ten of her famous quiches for the traditional Easter breakfast. Instead, the new pastor had decreed their church would be joining five other churches to host a community brunch and egg hunt at the senior community center. Of course, Grace had offered to help but had been informed that the two largest congregations had it all under control.

            Grace carried the filled trays into the sanctuary, setting them on a side table. At least this tradition had not changed. Her task complete, she wandered through the nursery, the children’s room, the classroom, and the restrooms, double checking that all was in order. The cleaning crew would be in tomorrow, Thursday, to do a deep clean, but it never hurt to be certain. The worship band would be in later this evening to rehearse, but for now, Grace had the church to herself. She took her usual seat in the chapel and bowed her head but found it hard to pray. Before the renovation, the familiar sanctuary held the welcome of an old friend. Now she was distracted by every little difference. Finally, she rose, left by the side door, checked to be sure it was securely locked behind her, and went home.

            At home, Grace felt almost as lost as she had at church. With no family nearby, and none of her usual church chores to occupy her, Grace had no idea what to do. She watered the pot of yellow tulips on her dining room table and dusted the furniture. The only decoration was a crystal basket filled with Psanky eggs on the coffee table in the living room. She briefly considered going grocery shopping to purchase a small ham to prepare for Easter dinner as was her custom instead of attending the community brunch. She thought of calling her niece and wangling an invitation to celebrate with her family. Now that would be a change! Easter service with no Grace Goodenow. Wouldn’t that set a few tongues to wagging! Grace could do it. Her car was in excellent condition and if she paced herself, she could manage the 320 mile drive on Good Friday, have Saturday to recover, spend Easter with Dottie’s family, and drive back on Monday. But no. If Grace knew one thing, she knew where her duty lay. “Enough moping!” Grace thought. She would still attend the Good Friday service at the assisted living center. And if she didn’t need to bake for church, she could deliver eggs and cookies to the women’s shelter. Grace might not be needed by her church, but she could still find things to do to fill her week.

            Daylight came late on Easter Sunday and it was the roar of a snow blower instead of sunshine that woke Grace. She peeked out her front door and waved at her neighbor Chuck who was clearing three inches of April slush from her sidewalk and driveway. The sky overhead was an even darker grey than the church décor. Well, that would put a damper on the egg hunt on the community center lawn. With plenty of time, since she had no baking to do, Grace enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and still was one of the first to arrive at church, guaranteeing a good parking spot. But when she walked into the sanctuary Grace was astonished to find a stranger sitting in her spot…and not just her spot, his family took up the entire row. Grace knew precisely where each regular member of the congregation sat. There was no way she could usurp a fellow parishioner’s seat. That meant she would have to find a chair among the “Chreasters,” those folks who showed up only for Christmas and Easter. It was just too much, the last straw, the breaking point. Grace did an about face and marched out to her car.

            Grateful for the heavily tinted windows, hands upon the steering wheel and head upon her hands, Grace Goodenow wept. Her heart wailed, “Lord! Haven’t I served You all these years? Haven’t I served Your people? Why must You take everything I know and love and take comfort in away from me?” The tears didn’t last long. Grace was, after all, made of sterner stuff. Yet at the same time, she did not feel like attending the service. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose on a napkin and leaned back in her seat considering her options. And that was when stern, practical, tradition-loving Grace Goodenow received the surprise of her life.

            “Grace, Grace. You are worried about so many things. Service and duty are all well and good, but do you not know how much the Father loves you? It is not for what you do but for who you are. Change is but an opportunity to grow, to prepare you for the ultimate change when you see Me face to face. Your friends inside have chosen the best part, to worship Me in spirit and in truth and it shall not be taken from them.”

            The voice was not audible, but the words were unmistakable. The impact of them hit Grace with a shock that set every nerve on fire. Her tears were no longer tears of frustration but of wonder. Wonder and love and submission. For a few moments she sat, breathing deeply and shaking. Then she grabbed more napkins and mopped her face. Once she felt more in control, she reached for the door handle. Grace was startled by a gentle tapping. Standing beside her car were Pastor Trevor’s young sons Timothy and Jonathan. Jonathan held a small, brightly colored basket. “Miss Grace? Miss Grace, are you okay? Daddy sent us to look for you when he didn’t see you. He asked us to come get you.”

            “Yes, yes boys, I’m fine. I was just about to come in.” Grace got out of her car. Jonathan handed her the basket.

            “This is for you. Daddy said we were s’posed to ‘company you to your seat.” Timothy reached out to take Grace’s empty hand. Together the threesome entered the church. They walked past the “Chreasters” in the back row. They walked past Grace’s usual seat in the middle of the room. They walked up to a row of chairs marked, “reserved.” There was one seat left. Filling the other seats in the row were the Sunday School teachers Fred Matthews, Jennifer Porter, and Cicely Brown, the Sunday school coordinator Melissa Patrick, and church secretary Connie Adams, Matilda Mortenson, and Walter Dombrowski, the former church custodian. The little boys waited until Grace sat down then went to join their mother.   

            Pastor Trevor opened with a reading of the Resurrection. The worship band led off with the old hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen, Today” before singing a medley of more contemporary songs. Grace entered into worship more deeply than she had ever done before, not even noticing Matilda’s off-key soprano just two seats away. Pastor Trevor stepped up to the pulpit again.

            “Change,” he said. “Today is all about change. It is Easter Sunday and the most profound change to ever happen on the surface of this planet happened this day some 2,000 years ago. For on this day, the mortal body of Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and the fate of every person living, dead, and yet to be born, who would place their faith in Him alone, was changed. As Jesus died as the atonement for our sins and offered the world His Father’s forgiveness, our fate, our deserved destiny, was changed from eternal separation from the glory of God to an eternal home in heaven.” He continued on for several minutes more. “Yet there is one more change coming. The Apostle Paul tells us that when Christ returns, we shall all be changed. In the twinkling of an eye, we shall be changed. What will that look like? I don’t know, but the Apostle John writes, ‘we do not know what we shall be, but we shall be like Him for we shall know as we are known.’ And that is a change worth looking for.”

            Pastor Trevor continued. “We celebrate the risen Christ and our new life in Him by sharing in the meal He instituted on the night before He was betrayed. All who are believers in the saving grace of Jesus Christ are welcome to partake. But before the elders pass out the communion elements, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the people who are sitting in the front row. You may have noticed upon entering this morning the reserved sign on the row of seats that typically, in most churches always remains empty. The very special people sitting in this row are those who have either in the past or to this day serve each and every one of you in this church, and whose ministry is every bit as important as my own. Would you please all stand?”

            Grace rose with the men and women seated with her to the applause of Pastor Trevor and the congregation. Her cheeks burned pink as she recalled her thoughts of the week past. But then the words she had heard an hour earlier echoed in her mind. “I guess change can be good after all,” she thought. And enjoyed the best Easter ever.   

By kathykexel

I've been writing from close to the time I learned to read. Fortunately, almost nothing exists from those days. Throughout my working life, I've jotted down bits and pieces here and there. But now that we m retired, I've run out of excuses not to write.

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