A new parable from the pew. Let anyone with ears to hear listen.
I had just relaxed into my regular seat in the pew when she lumbered in through the back door. We were minutes from starting the service as she shuffled down the aisle. Several people had spoken to me when I arrived, but it appeared no one had spoken to her. It would have been difficult I suppose. She was unsightly, bent-over, and she seemed to have a large mass on the back of her neck, settled there heavily, as if to press her downward. I could not see her face, or her eyes. She approached my pew, hunched over, not noticing that no one had spoken to her. Not noticing the stares. Not noticing so many who had turned away before her eyes might meet theirs.
I had already slinked closer to the center of the pew as is my habit every week, to avoid being tapped by the ushers when they ask for help with the offering, which left the seat beside me near the aisle vacant. The bent-over woman sat there. It was rather more of a slump. She slumped into the seat beside me, bent-over to enjoy only the floor, and her feet.
I saw the lump on the back of her neck. And if I was not a rational man I would say it moved, a wiggle perhaps as if shifting shape or rearranging its weight in order to settle in more comfortably on her, longer. And it seemed larger than before. But I am not sure. Perhaps it seemed larger because it now rested heavily on her near me.
Hoping she would not speak to me, I stood to sing the first hymn, There Is a Balm in Gilead. I was comforted by the familiar, old song we had sung many times before – it speaks of healing and forgiveness. I remember feeling thankful God had spared me the misery and burden this woman suffered.
After the hymn as I sat down I also thanked God this woman had not spoken to me, which is when she did. She whispered toward my feet words I did not hear clearly. I turned to her, seeing only the back of her neck and the ugly lump, which most surely had grown even larger, and it moved again – this I am sure. Not wanting to be totally callous toward her disfigurement, I leaned over slightly – in case she chose again to whisper toward me, which she did.
Sir, I need your help with my burden. Please, sir, remove it from my back.
I’m sorry? Could you repeat that? I whispered as well trying not to disturb the young family in front of me during the sharing of prayer requests. A little girl – the young couple’s daughter I assumed – turned in the pew to face us. I saw her innocent eyes widen as she stared at the woman bent-over beside me.
I asked the woman again. What did you say?
Would you please, if you do not mind, kind sir, help me with my burden. Take it off my back.
I didn’t know what to say. Surely this woman is not lucid, and I pitied her. Of course, who would not pity this woman with her … burden, her delusions? She leaned toward me, and to my feet again whispered in a louder, raspy tone.
It will not hurt you. Grasp it with your hand, toss it aside. Please, sir, take this burden from me.
I was relieved to discover the bead of sweat forming on my forehead because it provided an excuse to do something with my hand. Nervously, I ignored the pitiful woman, and her burden.
Please, sir, she repeated more loudly.
The minister was about to begin his sermon, and not wanting to be disturbed by the woman I screwed up the courage to ask her to be quiet. This is when I noticed that little girl. She stood up from her seat and walked around to the bent-over woman. She placed her tiny hand on the woman’s arm, and with her other hand grabbed the fleshy lump on the woman’s neck, pulled it away, and tossed it to the floor in the center of the aisle. The ugly mass did not move, at first, but I do not remember clearly. This felt like a foggy dream to me. Dimly, as if from a distance — in my mind at least — I heard only the minister’s voice sharing words spoken hundreds of times before.
In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
In this moment the mass on the floor quivered and disappeared into what seemed like an oily vapor. This was too incredible and I turned to question the elderly man seated behind me but I only heard him recite in unison with the congregation words I have recited many times.
In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. He seemed not to notice the little girl, or the woman or her ugly burden on the aisle floor disappearing.
I turned back in time to see the little girl gently kiss the woman on her cheek, smile, and return to her seat. Her cheek. I had not even noticed the woman’s cheek.
The woman slowly lifted her head and looked at me. I saw her eyes and her smile. She was, of all things, smiling at me, cutting through my embarrassment. As she raised her head and straightened her back, she turned and whispered more clearly.
I am only the first of many. You will see. You will learn to love them all, even me.
After the service I do not remember seeing the woman or the little girl and her family, or the elderly man who recited the familiar words. Frankly, I was unable to notice much of anything for the rest of the morning. I cannot explain to you what happened that day. But this I know. I am forever changed — by the woman bent over who dared to ask me for help with her burden, and by the little girl who dared to love the woman enough. I am forever changed by my shame, now exposed to me. I am forever changed by the woman’s smile and her hopeful eyes – which I did not notice until she had been freed to stand up – to look at me, to love me, even though I could not bear to first love her.
I left the sanctuary that morning wondering many things. Mostly I wondered who that day was truly freed of burden, the woman or me? And today, when I enter this sanctuary eager to be forgiven as I want every week, the woman’s words haunt me – is this dread or anticipation?
I am only the first of many, she said. You will see. You will learn to love them all, even me.
[Presented to the congregation at Enon United Methodist Church, on Sunday, August 25, 2013, after singing There is a Balm in Gilead.]
© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2013)