The worship service had already started when I slipped in. I had been helping out in the church kitchen, cleaning up after the meal we always serve right before the Friday-night service. Looking at the pile of dishes in the sink, I thought about skipping the service completely. Still, it was Good Friday. I knew they were doing Communion, and I knew I should be there.
The sanctuary was crowded, but my husband had saved me a seat. When I sat down, I turned to the woman beside me and smiled hello. She was by herself, and I’d never seen her before, so I leaned over and asked, “Are you with one of the other churches visiting tonight?”
“No,” she answered. “I haven’t been to church in a long time.”
I nodded my head and said I’d traveled that road myself for a few years. We talked for a few minutes during the music, while I answered her questions about the church, even leaving the sanctuary to find a brochure for her to take with her.
Once the music ended, they started the Lord’s Supper. Row by row, we made our way to the front, where our pastor and another church leader were holding a loaf of bread and a cup of juice. We would tear off a piece of bread and dip it into the cup as we passed by. It was a solemn, meaningful experience, especially walking by the cross that they had placed on the stage just for this service.
The woman sitting beside me didn’t take Communion, remaining in her seat instead. When I sat back down beside her, something led me to reach out and pat her hand. We sat there in silence in the darkened sanctuary for a moment, while the rest of the congregation filed past the front of the church.
After a moment, the woman leaned over and said, “I didn’t take Communion, because I don’t think God wants me to. I’ve done so many things wrong, he could never forgive me.”
Don’t do this to me, God, I thought. I’m not the person to handle this. Where are our prayer warriors? Where are the women in the church who have mentored me and encouraged me so many times? They’ll know what to say. But then something reminded me that God didn’t put her beside one of those women. He put her beside me. This was meant for me.
Instinctively I put my arm around her. All I knew to say were the words that I would want someone to say to me. I reassured her that she was a child of God, and no matter what she had done, God could never quit loving her. I pointed out the empty cross on the stage and reminded her that Jesus had done that for her, so she could be free and let go of her shame. And then this stranger, this person whom I had known for maybe fifteen minutes, laid her head on my shoulder and cried. And I cried right along with her, just telling her over and over, “God loves you. God loves you.”
I don’t know how long this went on -- maybe five minutes, maybe ten. I felt my husband’s reassuring hand on my shoulder, but other than that, she and I seemed to be all alone. Gradually she calmed down. We sat in silence through the rest of the service. Just before it ended, she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek and said that God must have brought me to her that night. I gave her my phone number and told her to call anytime.
I can’t imagine what courage it must have taken for her to admit her shame and her brokenness. I just pray that she was able to let go of some of it that night, that God used my words to touch her in some healing way.
Now, here’s the thing: How many of us are just as broken, just as filled with shame? How many of us want to cry on someone’s shoulder? How many of us need to hear someone telling us “God loves you” over and over? We may not be brave enough to open up so quickly, but that doesn’t mean the pain isn’t there.
Before Friday night, I can’t tell you the last time that someone cried on my shoulder. I don’t remember the last time I told someone, “God loves you.” I’m not proud of that.
Are we paying attention to the people who are hurting? Or do we keep ourselves too busy? Do we spend so much time taking care of what we think is most important, or what makes us feel most important, that we pass right by the walking wounded? They’re out there. They need us. We need one another.
I learned a couple of things Friday night. First, I learned that it’s really, truly not about me. I wanted to be in the kitchen, getting a head start on the dirty dishes, so that I could get home a little earlier. I wanted to be a Martha. Remember the two sisters in the Bible, Mary and Martha, who spent time with Jesus? Martha was the one who bustled around, cooking and cleaning. Mary was the one who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. I wanted to be busy in the kitchen; God had other plans.
Second, I learned that I’m a grownup. Oh, I know I’m closer to fifty than I want to be. The creases in my face remind me every time I look in the mirror. But the spiritual maturity, that took a little while to develop. When did I become a giver of support and not just a taker? I guess that’s part of the journey I’ve been on for a while. Now that God apparently trusts me to help carry another’s burden, I have to trust myself, and quit looking for someone else to take up the slack. It’s something new for me, but I’m finally ready for the challenge. After all, as a close friend is fond of telling me, “God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called.” The next time someone needs to cry on my shoulder, I’ll be ready for it.
Oh, and one more thing: God loves you.