The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Around Thanksgiving, 1990
“Sharon, are you okay?” Cindy was concerned. She had invited her roommate and friend Sharon to join with her campus ministry group in a mission trip over their Fall break. They were volunteering at a homeless shelter and soup bank, working with the staff in the mornings to repair, fix, and paint some of the rooms that were used to house women and children, and through the day and evening to feed the down and out of downtown Chicago.
Sharon wasn’t really that into church, though she had attended the campus ministry with Cindy an increasing number of times over the past year. She had agreed to come more because she liked the idea of helping others. In fact, she was 2/3 of the way through her criminal justice degree, which she was pursuing precisely because she wanted to help others. To help them know justice. She usually got very animated when talking about her major, or about volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.
But since yesterday, as they made the four hour trip from Eastern Illinois University up to Chicago, Sharon had seemed unusually distant and quiet. During the little worship service the campus pastor held for the group that night, Sharon hadn’t participated at all. She had barely spoken with Cindy since they started working on painting the room this morning.
“Hmm, yeah, I’m fine,” Sharon responded, dipping her paintbrush in the can of off-white (so eloquently called ‘eggshell’) paint they were sharing.
“Sharon, we’ve known each other for a couple years, and you don’t look fine to me. What’s going on?”
“It’s my mom.” Sharon began to share with Cindy that she had had a big argument with her mom over Thanksgiving. They were at the family farm, just outside of Springfield, and her brother David had decided not to come home for the holiday. He cited his recent breakup with his girlfriend, and his need to study – he was a first year student at Northwestern – as his reason, but Sharon felt like he wasn’t being truthful. She and he had been talking recently, and both were feeling a bit angry about some things that had happened when they were kids, when their natural father had beaten them both.
So on Thanksgiving night, after Sharon’s stepfather went out to the barn to smoke a cigar, she accused her mother of not protecting her and David enough when they were younger. She angrily asserted that if her mother had done the right thing, she would have left their father years before she actually did, and they wouldn’t have ever been beaten.
Her mom, Elizabeth, was in tears by the time Peter came back inside. He started to ask what was going on, and Sharon had lashed out at him before she stormed out to her car. She felt justified leaving them: it was a couple hours drive back to Charleston, and she was going on the mission trip the next morning. But there was a part of her that felt guilty about leaving it that way, especially since she knew she had made Peter angry, and he had never been anything but kind to her.
“Wow, I’m so sorry,” Cindy responded, “I had no idea. You’ve… you’ve never told me about your father.”
“Yeah, well, he hasn’t been in my life since I was, like, 9. But that’s partly why I’m pursuing my degree: I want to be able to help children, to punish people who hurt them.”
“But aren’t you being a bit hard on your mom?” Cindy asked.
Sharon paused, then admitted that maybe she was. “I’ll call her after we get home,” she said. “I just… I don’t know. I don’t know why I was thinking about my dad at all this week. I just was.”
“Yeah, well, did I tell you about what my father did on Thanksgiving?” Sharon shook her head no, and Cindy began to narrate the story of how, in trying to hang the Christmas lights, her father had, quote “accidentally,” broken the plastic Rudolph her mom loved. Of course, he had hated it for years, and nobody believed it was an accident, especially when he got flustered when Cindy’s brother unveiled that he had gotten their mother a plastic Santa for on the roof, too.
Sharon laughed along with Cindy, and soon they were called downstairs to clean up and begin to help serve lunch to the throngs of people that would be coming into the shelter. Their campus ministry had half a dozen students and their pastor helping, and there were volunteers from other local Chicago churches helping out over the weekend, too. Their group was in their first full day at the shelter, and in addition to the various other projects they were working on before they left Tuesday morning, they would help lead worship the next morning. Sharon wasn’t all that excited about worship, but had offered to read something when the pastor asked the night before.
Sharon just wasn’t really connected to the whole church thing yet. She had a kind of fatherly image of God, an amalgam of lessons from the church Sunday School she had went to in Springfield and experiences with her stepfather; but that was about it. She didn’t really read the Bible much, and rarely if ever prayed. She went to the campus ministry because the people were nice, the pastor was kind of cool, and because it was important to Cindy, and Cindy was her close friend.
As she walked among the tables serving coffee to people, Sharon was actually thinking about something the pastor had said the night before, about God being like the “Father” in Jesus’ story about the son who wandered off. She wondered if she wasn’t a bit like the son who took his inheritance and left to do his own thing; and if God would really welcome her back.
In the years since she’d left Springfield for college, Sharon had done her share of … things. Things that good Christians might not look favorably upon. But Cindy had always been nice to her, and she knew about many of the mistakes Sharon had made. Maybe God was like that, but Sharon couldn’t shake the idea that perhaps she just wasn’t good enough for God to love.
As she poured coffee for one of the older women at the shelter, who began to tell her about how she had once visited a coffee plantation in South America, Sharon looked up toward the soup line where Cindy was working. Cindy smiled back at her, and then Sharon noticed that there was an older man working beside her. He looked kind of familiar, though his baseball cap obscured his face, which was turned down toward the bowl he was ladling soup into.
As he finished filling a bowl, he looked up, and Sharon dropped her coffee carafe. Even though she hadn’t seen him in over a dozen years, she recognized him: it was her father!
He didn’t seem surprised, and she realized that he must have recognized her before that moment. But he had kept his distance from her. Now, seeing that she saw him, he said something to one of the staff working beside him and began to walk over to where she was.
Sharon was flustered, the old woman was yelling about the coffee spilling on the ground, and George – Sharon’s father – came up beside her. She noticed tears in his eyes as he looked down into hers – he was still taller than her, though he didn’t look as towering as he had when she was nine.
“Hi, Sharon,” he said, and stopped, swallowing.
Sharon was in tears now, too. “Dad?” And then a hint of anger was in her voice as she asked, “What are you doing here?”
He helped her take a seat, and then began to talk with her. He apologized first, and over and over gain, as he shared with her that he had found Christ some years ago. That his life had really changed, but that it took some time; especially to beat his addiction to alcohol.
“I’ve been sober for six years now,” he told her, “and active in my church for the last three. But I’ve missed you and your brother so much.”
He shared about his life, and asker her about hers, but she was silent. She couldn’t believe that he was here, and didn’t want to talk to him. As she listened to him talk, about hitting rock bottom and being homeless for a year, and then slowly putting things back together, she felt a degree of relief, but also anger. Her mind was conflicted, a part of her was so happy to see him, and to hear him apologize; but most of her was so angry and hurt that he hadn’t seen her for twelve years.
Listening to him brought up all her past, the times he had beaten her – the last night she saw him, when he had left a ring of bruises around her wrist because he yanked her arm so strongly. She suddenly felt like a little child again, reliving the pain and isolation she had known.
“Sharon, I love you so much. I know this must be hard for you, and I understand if you don’t want me to be a part of your life, but I hope some day you can forgive me.”
That was enough for Sharon. “How dare you!?” she yelled at him, standing up and bolting out of the room, leaving her dad sitting stunned, in tears, at the table. Sharon ran up the stairs to the apartment style room that she and the girls from the group were sharing, and Cindy was through the door soon after her.
Through tears, Sharon told Cindy that she had just met her father for the first time in twelve years. After a while, their pastor came up to check on them both, and the three talked for almost two hours. After Sharon was calmed down some, she made a call to her mother while the pastor went back downstairs to let the staff know what had happened.
Through tears that afternoon, Sharon’s mother admitted to her that her dad had tried to contact them over the years. At first, she was afraid of him, and so refused to have anything to do with him. Even when she heard that he had supposedly stopped drinking, she refused to allow him any contact or visitation with the children. She was afraid of what memories it might bring up; memories she wanted to forget.
Sharon’s world was tottering. She had always assumed her dad just wanted nothing to do with them, but now was learning, for the first time, that he had tried to be a part of their lives, and had been refused.
Cindy brought dinner up to Sharon, though she assured her that her father was not there anymore. Martin, the manager of the shelter, came up to talk to Sharon, too. He shared with her that her father, George, had been volunteering at the shelter two days a week for two years, and that he had always been patient and gentle with everyone. But, if George came to help tomorrow, and if Sharon wanted him to, Martin would ask him not to stay.
That night Sharon joined the other members of the campus group, who all took turns giving her a hug, for their worship service. The pastor set up a small candle, burning next to a rubber inflatable globe and a small nativity manger. They all prayed around the circle, and every one of them named Sharon in their prayer.
Pastor Steve had Cindy read a part of the Bible from Isaiah, about the Spirit of the Lord anointing someone, and then he read about the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. Sharon was only half-listening, lost in her thoughts about the events of the day. Pastor Steve shared that Christmas was coming, that tomorrow (Sunday) was the first Sunday of Advent, a season that was all about waiting for the coming of Jesus. He shared that it was easy during Christmas to get lost up in all of the other things that we make of it, but that it is really all about remembering that Jesus was born for us, that we might know forgiveness. When he started talking about forgiveness, Sharon’s ears perked up:
“The prophet Isaiah,” Steve said, “shared about who Jesus was, and what he was coming to do, when he said that God sent him ‘to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.’ We all know what it is like to be broken hearted, and maybe even what it means to feel trapped in the darkness. And if we are honest with ourselves, we also know what it is like to be a prisoner; to know that we’ve done something wrong. But the promise of Jesus, the promise of Christmas, is a promise of hope; hope of healing for the brokenhearted, of light for those in darkness, and of forgiveness for those who know they’ve done wrong…”
Sharon’s mind began to wander again. For so long she had felt trapped, like the time when, as a child, she had accidentally locked herself in a dark cabinet in the barn. She remembered crouching in the dark, scared and frightened, and the relief she had felt when she saw a light and her stepfather opened the door, freeing her.
Sharon realized that she had been longing for light to come into her life; for something to free her. And now, as Steve continued to talk about Jesus and what Jesus meant to him, she began to feel something. It was almost like drinking a good cup of café mocha; her insides were being gently touched, gently warmed; but she felt a growing sense of calm and relief that she had never known, not even from the best of coffee.
As Steve shared about Jesus, Sharon began to feel a sense of freedom, as though a locked door was being opened and light was flooding into he. She found herself listening with new ears, with gentle tears, with a sense of hope for the future that she hadn’t felt for many years. The group prayed together again before they were done, and the pastor talked with Sharon a little bit more, but this time she asked questions about Jesus, and forgiveness, and she began to really feel as though something miraculous had happened.
The next morning, when the staff was getting ready to open the doors and serve breakfast, Sharon found Martin, the manager. He asked if she wanted him to ask George, who was elsewhere in the building, to leave.
“No,” she said, “that’s alright.”
As they worked that morning, she saw her dad come out from the kitchen from time to time, but he always kept his distance from her. After a while, Sharon put her coffee carafe down and went back to the kitchen door. With a deep breath, she opened the door and went inside, walking up to where her father was helping scramble a skillet full of eggs.
“Daddy,” she said, tearfully, as he stepped away from the stove, “I don’t know if we’ll ever be right; I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you. But I want to. And I guess that’s a start.” She reached out to him, and wrapped her arms around him. For the first time in longer than she could remember, he hugged her and said, “I love you, honey.”
Some of the kitchen staff clapped, others introduced themselves to Sharon and told her how much they thought of her father. She was still uncomfortable, but promised to sit down before lunch and talk more with him.
“Hold on a minute,” he said, “I just don’t want this to wait.” He walked over to a shelf near the door, where there was a backpack. He opened the pack and pulled out a small box, bringing it to Sharon.
“This isn’t much,” he said, “But I’ve had it for you for… well, a long time. There were times when it was the only thing I had of any value; but I never sold it, not even when the next drink was the most important thing to me.”
She opened the box, and inside was a silver bracelet, with a small, silver cross attached. The cross was set with some blue green stones, that seemed to catch the light.
“I think that cross saved me, honey,” he said, hugging her again. “And now it’s brought me back to you.”
He helped her put it on her wrist, and she wore it the rest of the weekend they were at the shelter. It became for her a talisman; an object that connected her to the presence of Jesus. A reminder that Christ can bring light to any darkness, free any prisoner, and redeem even the worst offender or situation.