On Sunday we ate breakfast together, a family of faith chatting in the fellowship hall, eating donuts and breakfast tacos. We hugged. We laughed. We talked about the week that had passed and the one that was beginning. When our bellies were full we moved to rooms all over the church; Sunday school rooms that have heard the gospel proclaimed again and again through the decades. Emerald was in the basement, newly painted with cheerful art on the walls. It’s where several women from our church hid from a devastating tornado that hit our small town in 1951. They stayed there and were safe, sheltered by this building that has stood like a beacon on Main Street since 1916.
Chad and I walked upstairs with our friends to sit in a circle of chairs, looking each other fully in the face while we turned to scripture and heard the words of Christ. Chad taught from John chapter 21. Impulsive Peter had just jumped out of the boat to swim to his Savior because he couldn’t wait for the rowing and the docking and the rigmarole. There he stood, dripping next to the fire where Jesus was cooking breakfast, and he heard from the Lord’s mouth a hard truth: …when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Peter understood what these words meant-he would glorify Christ with a martyr’s death.
Follow me. A simple directive from the Lord of Lords.
Follow me anyway. No matter what. We sat there in our nice clothes in our comfortable classroom, and we bowed heads together and tried to imagine what it could mean to follow Jesus no matter what. We stood up and men slapped each other on the back and women hugged and winked and walked downstairs to gather our children to us.
In the sanctuary I sat in my usual place on the front row with a long line of kids beside me. The future of our church. They sit together and sing together and draw together and learn the ancient words of scripture together.
We settled in and Chad began preaching. I looked down the row to all of the sweet faces, kids who are so loved and cherished by this family of believers. I wondered what their futures would look like. What is it going to be like for them, answering Christ’s simple, glorious, difficult call: Follow me.
I heard a noise coming from the hallway. A fussy baby with his frazzled mama, maybe. But, as my mind sometimes does, I imagined something much more sinister. I considered what I would do to protect these precious little ones if someone busted through the door of the church in this moment. I realized I would only be able to shield Sawyer and his friend, the two children closest to me. I banished the thought quickly with a whispered prayer and refocused my attention on the words of life pouring out of my husband as he preached the gospel.
Less than an hour later as I prepared lunch for my little family, I read about the terrors of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs. I was shocked to imagine that at the very moment I was wondering about the noise in the hallway during worship, an unthinkable horror was happening just down the road in that little Texas church.
Sanctuary. A place of refuge and safety.
As Peter stood there with Jesus, taking in the somber truth that He had just heard, he turned to see John closeby. He pointed to him, his friend, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and asked, What about him? And Jesus answered in the way that only God in the flesh can: If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.
I pictured a little group of ladies a half a century ago, huddled together in the basement of our church, listening to the train-like roar of an F4 tornado, sheltering one another from the broken glass. Within these walls, we are safe, they must have told each other as the storm raged overhead. How they must have prayed. How they must have wondered if the whole place would come tumbling down on top of them in that moment. God held up the building, and the women walked out into an alien landscape, where many of their neighbors didn’t fare so well.
The truth is that there is no way of knowing where the storm will devastate and where it will blow on by.
Chances are good that when mothers and fathers and grandparents and children met at First Baptist Sutherland Springs on Sunday, they hugged. They laughed. Men slapped each other on the back and women winked and gathered children close. They probably didn’t say so, but they all felt it was true: Outside of this place the world is crazy. We come into the sanctuary and take a deep breath. Within these walls, we are safe. They had no way of knowing that a storm was coming.
Following Jesus is a different kind of safe.
It is safety that cannot be stripped away by any weapon or any disaster. It is a safety that gives us freedom to follow Jesus, really follow Him, no matter what, because we know that He holds us in His hand. It is a safety that doesn’t mind if we ask why because the answer is always the same: He knows. It is a safety that keeps us fearlessly relying on His plans and His ways and His goodness. It is a safety that will bring us back to our churches, back to our family of faith, back to our way of living and dying well.
It is a safety that led Peter to keep going, to keep preaching, to keep following Jesus right to that martyr’s death that Jesus talked about. And, as Peter’s body died, never at any time was he unsafe.
Nor were any of our brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday morning.
Jesus holds us tight through every storm.
I pray that the little ones on the front row beside me will understand that following Jesus isn’t the brave thing to do. It isn’t just for the courageous or the brilliant or the wise. Following Jesus is the safest thing. He is that good. His ways are that tender. No one and nothing can ever snatch us out of His powerful hand.
No matter what.