She came to me when the shadows of the past had started to eclipse her vision of the present. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the trauma that was done to her had a way of surfacing every so often. She had spent years doing the hard work of therapy–and praying. After talking about the dark place in which she found herself, I suggested that we might meet in the sanctuary some evening to share communion. I’ve only done this a couple of times in more than thirty years of ministry. Communion, by its very nature, is communal so we typically celebrate the sacrament in the context of congregational worship. But something seemed right this time to offer an opportunity to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, seeking God’s nearness together. She thanked me but said that she wasn’t worthy. Self-doubt and guilt are some of the ashes that lie on the floor of our souls when we’ve survived abuse. I assured her that she was worthy and invited her to prayerfully consider accepting my offer.
The idea took root in her. She processed it later with her therapist who had lovingly walked with her through the horrors of the past so that she could be liberated to enjoy the present moment. She, too, urged her to move forward with the sacrament to claim her value as child of God. A close friend and spouse echoed the same message. In surround sound, God was pushing her out of the darkness and into the light in spite of her protestations. It took some time for her to relinquish the feelings of inadequacy. But in God’s good timing she came to me to say that she was willing and we set a date.
The evening came and we arranged for her to be there with her therapist. It would be the three of us seated at the foot of the cross in the chancel area of our lovely sanctuary. These walls held testimonies of faith from about 80 generations of believers. How beautiful that the Spirit would mark our space with another holy visitation. She brought the elements that her husband and a close friend had provided. They would be present to her through these symbols of Christ’s body and blood. We set things up on the altar under the tall cross. She had chosen a scripture passage that we read from the massive Bible that sits so far removed from the congregants that it is seldom used. We prayed for the Spirit to transform these simple elements of the earth into a glimpse of Christ’s glory. We broke bread and shared them together. She brought in a heavy brick that represented the weight of her past and the destruction that the abuser still exercised over her. We set that at the foot of the cross. She told me that she had written a letter to Jesus. In it she surrendered to Him all the shame, anger, hurt and pain that threatened to derail her from the many gifts of her present circumstances. It was a hard letter to hear but one she had needed to write. We concluded our service with the Lord’s Prayer and a tidying up of the space. I was struck that folks in worship on Sunday would never know how God had moved in this place during the week. She gave me the letter as we put away the bread and chalice. With high hopes for healing, we walked down the center aisle to head home.
The next time I saw her she told me that she left that sacred space feeling like a huge weight had lifted. The darkness that had been her unwelcome companion for months had fled. The brick that we now use to elevate floral bouquets on the altar held the secret of her past which no longer had power over her. I became keenly aware through this experience that the mystery of the Eucharist is indeed powerful and I have underestimated its transformational capacity. Where three of us had gathered in faith, the Spirit had shown up with healing!
I didn’t know what to do with the letter she had written. Like the brick, it was an inanimate witness to the surrender she offered to her Savior. I didn’t want it to be found by anyone so I tucked it unceremoniously in a back compartment of my Chevy Suburban. Every now and then, when unloading groceries, I would see it and remember that I needed to do something with it. What do we do with a gut-wrenching, life-changing confession that is hand-written to Jesus? The important thing is that her life had moved forward with remarkable levity that she viewed as miraculous. The letter opened the way for her to leave the past.
As the Lenten season approached several months later I was making Ash Wednesday plans. Our congregation was hosting a service for several other church families. I ordered the ashes that would mark our foreheads and herald a change in spiritual direction. The ashes are derived from burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. They remind us that earthly praise can degenerate into murderous mob scenes. Walking beside Jesus toward the cross in Lent, we smudge a mixture of ashes and oil on our foreheads to let the world know that we serve a crucified Messiah.
Then I knew what to do with the letter to Jesus. I put it in an empty coffee can on my driveway and burned it. I let it cool then rubbed the black remnant into a powder. I liked that there were still some pieces of the letter that defied pulverization. I emptied the contents of the sooty can into a baggie and carried it in the front seat of my Suburban to the church. On Ash Wednesday I added those ashes to the smooth mixture I had purchased from a Catholic supply house. I added the oil of anointing to make a paste. That evening the faithful streamed forward to be reminded of their mortality through the ashes and their beloved stature as sons and daughters of the Prince of Peace through the oil. Another pastor and I pushed back bangs, looked folks in the eyes and smeared a dark cross on their foreheads with ancient words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy:
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the LORD.
I had told the woman what I had done with her letter. She was there with her husband and we shared in the beauty of a secret that marked her healing. Her surrender had become a means of redemption from a weight she could no longer carry. What she left at the cross had become a gift to other believers who submitted to Christ as they began their Lenten journeys. She came forward and I dipped into the messy blackness of the bowl in my hands. I could see bits of her letter rebelliously sticking out from the otherwise smooth paste. Even in our healing we have reminders of the pain of our past. And so the movement of our spiritual walk is to continually surrender and know that Christ meets us where we are and redeems even the murkiest parts of our lives.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the LORD!