Jesus, again deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Roll the stone away," he said. – John 11:38-39
I had known Christine* only three months, and now I found myself alone with her in my office. I hadn’t been in Springfield very long and was getting used to my first pastoral assignment. And now Christine was sitting across from me – rigid, knees pressed against each other, elbows dug into her sides, hands clasped together on her lap, head bowed down, her eyes cast even lower.
Christine had told me earlier that she wanted to talk. I was looking forward to our conversation, as she was obviously a thoughtful person concerned about important issues. Though quiet, even pensive, Christine processed matters most young people her age either didn’t have time for or were too afraid to think about. We had already discussed the question of war and what a Christian’s response to it should be. She was also bothered by our country’s policies and actions in Central America and was pondering how she could show her solidarity with the people in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
As Christine sat there in my office I soon realized she hadn’t come to discuss ideas or issues. She hadn’t come to discuss anything. Something else was on her mind, something heavy, foreboding.
I wasn’t sure whether to probe or just wait for her to start. I took the latter approach, but after several minutes, the silence became too unnerving. So I started in.
“Christine, is something bothering you?”
“Yes, but I...I don’t think I can tell you,” she replied.
Ah, good. Here’s my out, I thought. I can simply invite her to come back when she feels more ready. I myself was certainly not ready for this. I hardly knew her and we were almost the same age. Besides I had virtually no pastoral experience. Maybe if she came back later I would be better prepared to help her.
“Would you like to come back later?” I asked her.
She said nothing. It was almost as if she was in free-fall, frozen in fright.
In a sudden flash I realized that something very important wanted to happen. It also dawned on me why Christine was the way she was. To my mind she was just naturally shy, and I thought that since she had come from a more strict religious background she was purposely unassuming. But I immediately sensed that whatever was bothering Christine had a stranglehold on her and it was choking her very being. She was battling with something, something that worked deep within her, like a sliver, infecting her very demeanor.
It was evident that despite her intelligence and pretty smile, Christine was in some kind of prison and had come to tell me about it. But there she sat, motionless.
In seminary I was taught never to pry or press. Private domains in a person’s life were inviolable – only God could tread there.
“Christine,” I said. “Maybe you should come back another time. God knows what’s burdening you, and in his time, he will lift your spirit up.”
Silence. Nothing but silence. Long...silence. Five minutes, ten minutes...
My brain was stuck. I was more than tongue-tied. Like Christine, I was paralyzed. I was frozen in a fearful stupor of not knowing—of not knowing how to help and of not knowing what might happen if she dared to divulge. She came to me for help. But something ominous loomed in the air and I found myself cowering before it. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
For some reason or another, the words Jesus spoke as he stood before Lazarus’ tomb,came to me, “Roll the stone away.”
Huh? But how? It’s too heavy. Why me? I hesitated. Then without thinking I blurted out, “Christine. Christine, look at me. Look!”
She tried to look up but all I could see were her eye lashes.
“I’m not going away until you tell me what is bothering you,” I said quietly, but firmly.
As the words slipped out I felt repulsed. Who was I to tell Christine what to do? Wasn’t this the wrong thing to say? How could I be so commanding? Besides, she was a woman and I a man. Maybe what was weighing on her was inappropriate to share with a man.
Christine kept her eyes low.
“Charles, I...I want to tell you but I can’t. I’m too ashamed. If I...It will be the end of me if...”
And more silence—a terrifying, bleak vacuum that screamed horror and condemnation. Another ten minutes or so passed by.
“Roll the stone away!” I heard it again. “The stone must be rolled away.”
But I can’t! I don’t want to. Whatever is haunting her might start to haunt me! It must be terribly frightening.
I got up from my chair and went to the window. It was springtime. I saw a gangly bush of tightly woven green buds. I was told they would blossom into a burst of yellow. Forsythia. I had never seen Forsythia. I heard that if snipped and brought inside, they would bloom early. I figured it was best to let them blossom in their own time.
When I turned back around Christine looked even more defeated and pathetic – so tightly bound up, withdrawn and deathly still.
“I’m sorry Christine. I didn’t mean to pressure you. I don’t think I can help you. Not now. You need to turn to God. He’s really the only one who can help you.”
For some reason my words sounded hollow. As true as they were, I knew, in fact, they were a lie – at least in that instant. Christine had come to me, and I had a distinct feeling that it was God who had sent her. Had she been brought inside...to come out?
“Charles! Roll the stone away!” But Lord...
Then I dared it. The thought had actually occurred to me several weeks before. Whenever Christine and I talked together she never really looked me in the eye. The way she was today, oddly enough, was not so different from how she usually was. Although intelligent and warm, I knew that something was keeping Christine from being herself. Something heavy was weighing her down.
“Christine. You’re afraid, aren’t you? You’re afraid that you might be doomed, that it will be the end of you. But don’t you already live in a tomb? You live as if you are doomed already – that is, unless you come out.”
Suddenly, Christine began to weep. Quietly at first, then more noticeably.
“I can’t come out... I can’t. I can’t change what happened. It’s no use. I’ve ruined everything! It’s much too black.”
What could she be referring to? I rummaged through the laundry list of all the sins I could think of. What could be so bad that God couldn’t forgive?
“It was a long time ago,” she continued. “Yet it keeps clinging onto me. It won’t leave me alone. It won’t go away.”
“What, Christine? What won’t go away?”
Again, another long pause. Christine retreated back into herself, into her tomb. And then suddenly she started to get up to leave.
“Wait! Christine. No. You’re forgiven! Christ forgives you! Whatever you’ve done, I know he has forgiven you! That’s why you’re here.”
Christine stopped. Ashamed and beaten, but as if off-guard, she began to mutter, “I had sex...Sex with a married man...A few years back, and...” She hesitated. “But it happened several times, back in college. And then he moved away somewhere – and I haven’t....
“Haven’t what?” I asked.
“I don’t know where he is, and I...I haven’t been able to tell him how sorry I am.” And...
I could see that Christine was about to embark on a downward spiral of self-accusation. She desperately needed something that would catch her. All I could think to do was to tell her the truth.
“Christine, you are forgiven.” I reiterated it several times and tried to assure her that God’s love was far greater than her sin. And then, as if startled or stunned, she said,
“Yes, really! Come out Christine. The stone is rolled away. Jesus is calling you. The tomb of your past can’t hold you back.”
And then came a torrent of tears. Sitting back down, with head bowed in her lap, tiny rivulets streamed from her eyes. I noticed her dress was getting wet from her tears. I had no tissue to give her. I didn’t know what to do. Did she believe me? What was happening? She just kept crying. I wanted to do something, say something, but couldn’t. And then she slowly raised her head and looked up at me.
“Yes, Christine, really.”
“Are you sure?”
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to purify us from all unrighteousness,” I replied.
With her eyes now transfixed on mine, she exclaimed, “Oh, thank you! Thank you!” And she took my hand. Squeezed it, and darted out.
A few days later I saw Christine. She came straight up to me, looked me in the eye and again clasped my hand. She was somehow more erect, alive, herself – no, not herself, but someone new. Several friends noticed the change and asked her what had happened. What made her so free – so joyfully free?
I don’t know if Christine ever tried to answer. She didn’t have to. She would just smile and then, with her eyes, make those around her feel loved and wanted. The stone had rolled away. The Risen One had called her out of her tomb and brought her back to life.
*Not her real name