In 1996/97 I was newly divorced, deeply depressed, and looking for any kind of meaning or hope in my life. I was attending a local church and struggling with it: not making many friends, not really progressing, and basically going through the motions. I eventually drifted into the church choir, where at least I felt useful. There was a gentleman in the choir named Phil. Phil was a retired military man, a decently talented singer, gregarious, and well liked. I, of course, was irresponsible, morose, difficult, and on the upside, also a decently talented singer.
I was not really progressing, going to church, but not really understanding this whole God thing, I was waiting, but nothing seemed to be happening, I wasn't changing, church was just an event that happened every Sunday. So new to the experience was I, that I couldn't really grasp what was occurring. I did the same things everyone else did, but, meh.
One particular Sunday was different. Church was going along as usual, reading this, liturgy that, and "now you can off each other a sign of peace". I went about my way gladhanding "Peace be with you, peace be with you, peace blah blah blah..." I made my way around to fifteen or so people and got to Phil, I shook his hand and said "peace be with you", I heard some sort of response, and I turned to make my way to the next person. What happened next could not have lasted five seconds total, but has occupied my mind probably more than any other event in my adult life.
I failed to go anywhere.
I contemplated this for a short second and discovered that Phil had not yet let go of my hand. I looked at my hand and heard him say the words again "...peace be with you." I was genuinely confused by this point, I made eye contact. He said it again, softer "Peace. Be. With you." It wasn't four words of well wishing, it was a command, an imperative, a brand new lifestyle.
I know that at that point Phil let go of my hand. I have no recollection of what I did next. I suspect I continued on with church, too overwhelmed to do anything different. You can call it an epiphany. You can call it anything you want. Phil had allowed himself to be the voice of God, a command had been given to me, so powerful, so loving, that what could I possibly do but obey? Peace had come to me.
It was not long after this happened that Phil was diagnosed with ALS. I found out through the choir. One Sunday after church we talked about why Phil had been absent recently, what the expectations were, and what the disease was like. It did not seem fair to me that a man of such dignity should befall such a fate, but Phil was there when he could be, his attitude, and his love for God never wavered. What was this I wondered? I wanted to more of this God that Phil loved so fiercely.
There came a day when it became obvious that Phil would no longer be able to be in the choir, or even come to church, in fact, he would be dying soon. I sat with him after church that day, and I held his hand, all the barriers were gone. I told him how I loved him and how he made a difference, and suddenly my mind formed a thought so daring, so bold, that it came out before I stopped myself from saying it.
I asked him "Phil, when you get to Heaven, please tell God to forgive me for all the things I have done."
Through his own tears Phil said He already has."
I know I saw Phil three more times before he died, and then he went home. The seven words that I am quoting here from Phil remain the way that I know God. Phil remains the person I look to when I want to review in my head what it is like to live a life of Christian love. Thank you Phil, I hope someday to be God's presence to someone in the way you were for me.
...and Jesus said to them "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the greatest commandment, and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." Matt 22: 37-40