Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
This is the second in a two-part series. Read the first part here.
* * *The sickness that bloomed in her suddenly, a nuclear spring, made the words real to him as they’d never been. Airy abstractions condensed and fell out of the sky like stones. God, help. Please, Jesus, God, please. He stands, opening the worn book with the red cover even though the words are printed in the bulletin; she sits beside, pinching the bulletin between thumbs and forefingers. His hair is black, but his back curves toward the book, the pew, the earth. To sing is to take these two bodies and make them as weightless as words, given without measure to the invisible, inaudible God.
He sits alone. White hair, a deeper hunch, hands that sometimes shake. She is not here. His children come back to town to see him as often as they can, bringing their own kids to church to populate cold stretches of creaking pews. A tug on an elbow: “Dad, what’s wrong with grandpa?” He looks to his father, whose hands are shaking, and whose open book has just been splotched. “I don’t know, buddy.” He frowns, purses his lips, holds up his bulletin, and sings. His son stares with boundless concern. The words flow around him. The grandfather’s lower lip wobbles. Everyone around him is politely ignoring him.
Great is thy faithfulness, oh God my father
There is no shadow of turning with thee
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not,
As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.
The grandfather looks down the pew at his grandson and smiles, eyes dripping into the creases of his cheeks. He even winks. His grandson frowns. God’s happiness for people is seriously complicated, what with the bone-deep sorrow and the crying and everything. The child looks up at his dad, who’s still singing through a frown. What an alien feeling, he thinks. He looks back at his grandpa, but the old man is singing again, too. He turns back to the pew, where he’s been coloring on a bulletin. “Comfort, comfort…” is printed under a blue crayon star.
The final transition is from sitting to lying on a bed with metal rails, a grey plastic console nearby recording signs of life with little whirrs and cresting pixels. The blanket over the thin sheet is soft and synthetic. His gown drapes over protruding bones, the blanket and sheet bunched to the side of the bed.
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest
Sun moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.
He is at home, and his children and grandchildren come and go. The boys take turns these days lying next to him in his thin bed, listening to his breathing, listening for when he might try to say something. He remembers one of his grandsons by name, and the boy never forgets it: the past blessing him.
The father asks his son to go to the hotel with mom, and he leaves. The father stays. Another father and another mother join him: three kids, now bringing up their own, looking at the one who first raised them.
Slatted yellow light inches up the far wall and fades into the silver blue of the deepening night outside.
What to bring into that sterile room? What book to open next to those heavy aluminum canisters with meters and dials and knobs and tubes? Scripture? Yes. Now is a time for recalling the works and promises of God, but not as the solitary dread-filled believer might; the time for considering one’s absolute relation to the absolute has passed. Now to read of Christ with His disciples: Christ teaching the masses of ragged, sweaty, hungry, and selfish about the Kingdom of God, that impossible realm beyond Roman helmets and coins. How the meek will inherit the earth.
How to bless this man, now, at the end of things? To allow him to hear each of his children’s voices at once, in harmony, through the words in that worn red book. They know his request without hearing him say it. His daughter and two sons open their mouths over the open book, and he closes his eyes. They sing with millions; they are alone in the dust and cold and darkness of this arid room, and, my God, my God, how many are joining them:
Pardon for sin, and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide
Strength for today, and bright hope for …