By Jerry Harris
It’s interesting how some people can be so isolated, even in a crowded room. That’s the way it was for Susan when I first saw her.
Hiding in the Crowd
It was in between services at church, and there was the usual commotion with all the coming and going, the white noise of all the conversations creating a hum. She was diminutive in stature already, but her body language was working to make her even smaller to the point of near invisibility.
I caught up with her before she was able to escape through the exit doors. She recoiled from my hand on her shoulder. Being 6´4˝ tall, I know that my height can be a bit intimidating to people, but there was something more I was reading in her face. She frowned a bit when I introduced myself and was reluctant to look up and speak to me directly. I could tell that even though she was close to my age, she was missing most of her teeth, and her avoidance of looking up was an attempt to shield her embarrassment.
The short conversation was extremely difficult for her, and the safety on the other side of those exit doors was pulling her away. I was able to find out that her name was Susan and that it was her first time at church. She left that day with my invitation to come back.
The next week she was back, still committed to the security of her relative invisibility, but I was able to spot her. Calling her by name had an effect, and I introduced her to a couple who was gifted in conversation and good first impressions. A fragile relationship with the church began to form, and Susan started, over the course of the next few weeks, to share her story with these two new friends.
Hurting from Abuse
Susan had been married and had two grown children who lived some distance away. They had been eager to get out of the house because of the abuse of their father. But the majority of that abuse was leveled at their mother, who for years endured the toxic relationship. Slowly and painfully, Susan’s story started to trickle out; over time it started to flow, and along with it, the deep hurt and scarring that comes with abuse, abandonment, betrayal, and loneliness.
Her teeth didn’t fall out or rot out—they were knocked out by her husband in one of his fits of rage. It was hard to imagine a man beating on a woman barely 5 feet tall. Finally she had stirred up the courage to leave, and the marriage ended in divorce, but she was haunted by the ended relationship, even in his absence. It displayed itself in incredible fear and shame and was visible in her reluctance to have any social interaction. Her isolation and loneliness only continued the feeling of abuse, even though the abuser was gone.
Susan was such a vivid picture of what Satan wants to do to all of us—to get us off by ourselves in some dark corner and hurt us. The kind of damage that he does in those places is so hard to heal from. As Susan’s story came to light, I was amazed at how much courage it took for her to risk walking through our church doors in the first place, of seeing a man tower over her, and her attempt to try to have some sort of conversation. Over the next weeks and months, Susan began to go to our Celebrate Recovery group. She went for her hurts, fears, and the hang-ups that had been produced in her life, and she started—slowly—to get better.
Carrying the Burden
Jim was the husband of the couple I introduced Susan to on the week she came back to church. He was also responsible for leading a Saturday morning men’s prayer group. He was sharing with the men about how they could best honor God in the context of their home life and in their marriages; and he told a story of an anonymous woman who had come to church some weeks back who bore the very visible scars of domestic abuse illustrated in having all of her teeth knocked out. The stark reality of the story sent a wave across the room and the discussion that followed was truly amazing.
The men discussed that because it was a man who had abused his wife this way, in some measure it was a reflection of all men, at least in her eyes. They felt a collective personal sense of responsibility for her pain. With the knowledge that Susan was a person of little means, one of the men volunteered to help pay for whatever dental work would be required to restore Susan’s teeth. Other men in the prayer group also responded, and before long, the entire group of men felt that they should share the financial responsibility of the restoration of Susan’s teeth.
Jim was then tasked to take this offer back to the anonymous woman from his story to offer this small attempt to show the love of Jesus and aid in her healing. Her disbelief and general distrust didn’t make it an easy sell, but after some convincing, Susan agreed to have the procedure.
I will never forget the day I saw Susan in the church lobby after the dental work was done. It was a sunny day and we have four skylights in our lobby, but Susan’s smile was brighter than all of them. I had never seen her smile until that day, and it was a smile like no other—she beamed! It made me think about the countenance on the faces of people who were touched and healed by Jesus. It wasn’t just the new teeth. There was something coming from a much deeper place where beauty had been exchanged for ashes and dancing had replaced mourning. She wasn’t the same.
Looking for the Broken
I asked Susan if she would be willing to let me share her story with the congregation, and she agreed. Then this invisible person, locked up in the dark recesses of her personal hell said, “I would love to stand up there and say thank you.” The congregation heard her say, “Jesus gave me my smile back!” The tears flowed freely that day at church. People were inspired and most didn’t leave the same way they came in that day.
Susan held on to her smile. She shared it, along with her story, at all of our Celebrate Recovery groups. She also led her own recovery small group.
The love and compassion of Jesus came here for everyone. There are no limits to the words “whoever,” “any,” or “all” when the gospel is shared. I think of the countless Susans who walk in and around our lives every day, almost completely invisible, wondering if there is any hope or help in this broken world. And I wonder how many of us would ask God to give us the ability to see all the broken and hurting everyones, so that every once in a while we could have the eternal blessing of watching Jesus transform a person right in front of our eyes.
Jerry Harris is senior pastor of The Crossing based in Quincy, Illinois, and is the new publisher for The Lookout and Christian Standard magazines.