A Hand at Our Back

Some years ago I took a week-long preaching class in Berkeley, Calif., taught by Tom Long (who retired recently from Emory’s Candler School of Theology). Excellent class. Tom is a gifted preacher and teacher. It was a great experience for me.

One of the requirements for the week was that each of us preach a sermon to the others in the class. Of course everyone is always a little nervous about this kind of thing, but one woman—a young seminary student named Lyddie—was particularly terrified. We encouraged her all through the week, assuring her of our support and prayers. But on the final day when it came her turn to preach, Lyddie was all but paralyzed with fear. At the moment when Tom Long called her name, she emitted a small gasp that I could hear from across the room. She slowly stood with a look of dread on her face, steadied herself on her feet, then walked to the front of the room and took her place behind the small pulpit.

As she talked of how this teacher’s witness had led to her conversion, Lyddie began to weep. Then she began to sob. She stood there, rooted to the floor, unable to continue.

About midway through the sermon Lyddie began to tell a story about a Sunday School teacher from her childhood, and of the difference the elderly saint had made in her young life. As she talked of how this teacher's witness had led to her conversion, Lyddie began to weep. Then she began to sob. She stood there, rooted to the floor, unable to continue. The rest of us were desperately trying to figure out how to encourage Lyddie but didn't know quite what to do. Until one of our classmates—an older, African American woman named Rose—stood up, crossed the floor and quietly pulled up a chair directly behind the pulpit. Without saying a word, Rose placed her hand solidly against Lyddie's back, lowered her head, closed her eyes and began to pray silently for the weeping young woman.

The effect was immediately visible. Lyddie took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, then leaned into the rest of that sermon with a confidence and strength that surprised the whole class. Rose eventually removed her hand from Lyddie's back and remained quietly seated there with her head bowed until the sermon was finished. Then she stood up and without a word, returned to her seat.

Often since that day I have thought about Lyddie and Rose, and of the very real power of Christ that flows like an electric current through the Church. I have had, in moments of anguish or doubt or grief, the experience of feeling the strengthening presence of a sister or brother coming to stand beside me. The smallest encouraging word or gesture has, at times, felt like a hand against my back, re-charging my anxious heart with the very courage and power of Christ. I want to be more a conveyer of grace like that. May God help us to be that for each other.

Grace and peace,