Dne day last summer, as my small children were taking naps, I had the chance to lie upon a creaky bed in a summer cottage and spend some precious moments in quiet. Gazing out a nearby window, I looked up at the branches of an enormous tree that towered over the cottage. As the afternoon sunlight filtered through the leaves, I noticed how some of them were dark from shadows, while others were almost yellow from the light. I thought about how God’s light is like that, shining into our lives, shining into parts of our life stories. As I noticed how each leaf was connected to the branch and the branches to the larger tree, I recalled that Jesus spoke in the Gospel of John of himself as the vine and his followers as the branches, and I couldn’t help but consider how our human and spiritual stories are gathered together into something so much bigger than ourselves, much like the leaves growing upon a very old and deeply rooted tree.
I have found that when people seek out clergy and church workers, often their hearts are breaking and they need a safe place to share their painful, human stories. However, unless we have special training, most of us in ministry feel inept at pastoral counseling. My guess is that many of us refer the troubled families and individuals who come to us to the best counselor we know. But what about the times when we have to meet with these wounded people, pray with them, and listen to their private hurts? Is it possible for us to help them see themselves within a story of the Bible that may speak to their pain?
My family and I live in a home that gets all of its water from a well. Unfortunately, we don’t physically draw the water from that well; it remains hidden until it comes out of one of our faucets. In Jesus’ time, however, people gathered at the well to draw their water and share it. It was visual and visceral. They dropped a bucket down into the well and pulled up cool water from deep within the ground and then poured it into their water vessels for others to drink and for the journey home. From the depth of the well they drew all they needed for the day. When I sit down with a parishioner and listen to his or her particular pain, God provides what I need by bringing a story into my heart. It is as though I am drawing from the deep well of biblical stories to share with another.
On one occasion, a woman shared with me the years of guilt she had felt for past sins and the sorrow her decisions had brought to her life. As she spoke, what came to my heart was the story of the woman who, after hemorrhaging for 12 years, was healed when she reached for the fringe of Jesus’ garment (Matthew 9:20-22). Simply by touching Jesus, a power came forth from him that healed the woman. I shared with my parishioner Jesus’ moving words to the woman in the story: “Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you.” I told her that whenever she began to replay the litany of her guilt I wanted her to close her eyes and imagine Jesus speaking these words directly to her. I wrote the verses from Matthew down for her so that she could look them up for herself. When I next saw her a new peace seemed to glow from her. The Lord had begun to heal her heart.
During a visit with one of our members serving some time in prison for theft, I spoke to him through the prison glass about the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. I asked him to consider how he was like Paul, who converted from his former life as Saul, the persecutor. “What scales have fallen from your eyes through this experience?” I asked. “In what ways do you feel that Jesus is changing your heart?” I shared that Saul had been forgiven and that he then became a new man with a new name, making a difference by spreading the joy of Christianity. Paul became a new creation and later penned the words, “When anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” I asked my parishioner to think about what newness Christ was creating in his heart. Soon thereafter he joined the prison chaplain’s Bible study group, and six members of the congregation began sending him notes of encouragement and compassion.
Three days after his parole was granted, he was in church for our early
worship service. When it came time to pass the peace in our liturgy, he left his pew to greet others, for the first time. I was amazed at how many of our members shared God’s peace with him and how many he extended Christian love toward. The judgmental scales seemed to have fallen from the eyes of our members. As we prepared for Holy Communion and all faced the altar, I looked out into the congregation to see tears of relief and joy streaming down this man’s face. That day, as he extended his hands and looked up at me to receive the Lord’s body, his eyes carried a new peace in them that I had never seen before. Truly he is a new creation, a Saul transforming into a Paul.
If our call is to Word and Sacrament, we have a sacred responsibility to connect the people of God back to the body of Christ and to the sacred story of God’s people. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Peter (and us), “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” What a holy purpose we have been given: to feed our own generation with the stories of faith that will speak to their frustration, doubt, failure, selfishness, and brokenness. Connecting individuals to the biblical narrative can be life-giving and life-changing for them.
A few months ago, I spoke with a husband and wife who were experiencing their own brokenness from an affair. Trust had been broken, and it could not be fixed with any kind of Harry Potter wand. While talking with the wife one day, Jeremiah 18 came to mind: God the potter will shape something new, even out of the pain. Then, enlarging on this image of clay, I remembered one of my favorite passages, from 2 Corinthians 4:7-12: “But we have this treasure in clay jars to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” I acknowledged that their marriage was broken, and I suggested that before healing could happen, the betrayal also needed to be acknowledged. I asked them to find a cheap, decorative clay pot, take a hammer to it, and break it into pieces. I said to the betrayed spouse, “Whenever you feel moved by a prayer, a feeling of forgiveness, or a hopeful conversation with your counselor, take a piece of the broken pot and glue it to another piece. One by one those pieces of the broken pot, as they are mended, can represent God’s healing of the relationship.” “It is difficult to be patient,” the offending spouse told me, “but the pot is a reminder that true forgiveness will take time.” I shared with the couple that although the clay pot will never be perfect, their marriage, like that empty pot, can be filled with the extraordinary power of Jesus, who will pour out his living water upon them and their relationship. New hope and forgiveness are possible because God is the mender of broken souls. God is the potter and we are the clay.
Just imagine how gleaning hope from these sacred stories can help God’s people see the power in the Word of God. At the same time, by sharing a fitting biblical narrative, we open up a desire within people’s hearts to read more of the Bible. This helps all of us see that we are connected to something larger than ourselves. Sometimes, like those leaves I gazed up at on a summer afternoon, our lives are in shadow, and sometimes we become more aware of that glorious light from on high shining upon us. Let us be reminded that, like individual leaves connected to a vast, old, and deeply rooted tree, we are all linked back to the greater story. How important, then, to know this story of redemption that changes lives and to tell it again and again. Indeed, this is our calling. To quote from one of our most beloved hymns, by Katherine Hankey, “I love to tell the story; I’ll sing this theme in glory, and tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
Anne Durboraw is a Lutheran minister in t
he ELCA denomination who has served rural parishes in Nebraska and Maryland for the past 14 and a half years. Anne earned her bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University and her master of divinity degree from the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She is married and the mother of two preschool-aged children.