I am worshipping with a congregation that is not my own, a community of Christians on the far side of the planet. Though I am there primarily to learn and to worship, I cannot help but observe one of the members of the church as he sits just in front of me. His wife is pressed close to him on one side and a chair has been left vacant on the other. He rises with the rest of the congregation as the pastor speaks the call to worship. “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”
“Because God is worthy of our trust,” says the pastor, “you can pour out your heart before him. No matter the circumstances of your life, you can trust him because he is powerful and he is good. So let’s join our hearts and voices together to sing of this good and powerful God.”
The musicians take up the first strains of the opening hymn and the people soon join in.
O worship the King all-glorious above / O gratefully sing his power and his love. / our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days, / pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.
I observe that as this man begins to sing, he glances toward the door at the back of the room, his eyes searching for something or for someone.
O tell of his might and sing of his grace, / whose robe is the light, whose canopy space. / His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, / and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.
He sings a few more lines, then looks that way again.
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail, / in you do we trust, nor find you to fail. / Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end, / our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!
The hymn gives way to a Scripture reading, then to reciting a creed, and still I can see that his attention is divided—divided between worship and watching, between the front of the room and the back.
The service continues with prayer and song and still I see him looking forward and back, still I can see his heart expressing praise while his face expresses expectation, longing, hope.
It is only after the service has ended and I can speak to one of the pastors that I learn why his attention has been so divided. It is only after the service that I learn what he has been looking for—or, better said, who he has been looking for.
His daughter has said she will come to church today. His daughter has wandered far but has said she is ready to return. His daughter who has squandered so much says she has learned her lesson. His daughter who has caused her father’s heart to ache has said that today she will soothe it. This man is looking for his daughter, his beloved daughter.
As time goes on and as the elements of the service pass by, the glances become less frequent and less hopeful. Unless I’m wrong, his shoulders become a little less straight, a little more stooped, for it becomes clear that this will not be the day on which the prodigal daughter returns. This will not be the day on which sorrow gives way to joy, on which weeping gives way to dancing. Though I do not know him and though we live worlds apart, I grieve with him and for him. I grieve as a brother in Christ.
I spend a fair bit of time with men who know loss, fathers who have laid a child in the grave. Some of them are grieving beloved daughters and I know they sometimes experience stirrings of jealousy when they see other fathers with their girls. It causes them to remember better times, to remember the pleasures of being father to a daughter, to long to experience it and enjoy it again. I sometimes feel like this too when I see fathers with their sons.
But in this moment, this moment in which the congregation takes their seats and the pastor approaches the pulpit, words flash into my mind, words I came across in an old book from long ago. The author pointed out that in many lives the sorrow over the living is greater far than the sorrow for the dead who have passed on to sweet rest. Far more often, he says, has his heart been moved to pity for the parents of a living sorrow than for the parents of a departed joy. There are some sorrows harder even than the sorrow of death, he insists, some griefs deeper even than the grief of bereavement. And while I find little benefit in comparing one kind of grief to another, I am certain the sorrow of watching a living child careen toward hell is every bit as sharp as the pain of losing a child, but knowing he is safely in heaven.
And so, “God save that girl” my heart whispers. “And pity her father, Lord. Bless that man and comfort the sorrows of his troubled heart.”