Ill never forget the first time I saw Karen.* It was in the final moments of the Christmas musical. In the closing scene, the actor portraying Jesus was to descend from his throne and walk slowly to the front of the stage. Everything was moving right on schedule. As the music swelled to a crescendo, our pseudo-Jesus stretched forth his arms to the people in the audience as the choir with lifted voices sang, “Come unto me! Come unto me! All ye who labor, come unto me!”
There was a powerful anointing in the church as the musical reached the carefully rehearsed climax. Several actors and actresses were placed strategically in the audience, and the script called for them to leave their seats at predetermined times and go forward in response to the invitation being issued by Jesus. The pre-set musical cues were perfectly timed to allow each person to climb the stairs up to the stage and receive a blessing from the man playing Jesus. What could possibly go wrong?
Sitting in my seat on the front row, I watched the final scene being played out before me. Everything was going perfectly. There went the first actor onto the stage to receive his blessing. Great! Then came the second—right in time with the music.
And then to my utter amazement, an unknown woman rose from her seat, came running down the aisle, and darted up the stairs onto the stage. Throwing herself down at Jesus’ feet, she cried out, “Oh Jesus, please save me! My life is such a mess! I need you!”
Although the choir looked surprised, they continued to sing. And the young man portraying Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He reached down and helped the anguished woman to her feet and wrapped her in his arms, holding her briefly as she sobbed against his shoulder. Then he placed his hands upon her head, and I could see his lips moving as he prayed a blessing upon her.
The anthem was rapidly drawing to a close, and I really had no idea what was going to happen next. But I had no need to worry because “Jesus” had everything under control. With the unknown woman’s hand in his, he gently assisted her down the stairs, and they walked together up the aisle to the back of the church.
As the congregation rose to its feet, giving the choir a standing ovation, I quickly left the sanctuary, eager to meet the unexpected addition to the Christmas musical. Karen was there in the lobby, tears still streaming down her face. The miracle of Christmas became reality as Karen prayed with me, accepting Jesus as her Savior. Christ the Lord was born that day in her heart.
It was probably one of the most exciting things that had ever happened in the church! For a Christmas present, the Lord had given us a most wonderful gift—a precious soul. Karen was filled with overflowing joy as she received hugs from many in the congregation. Everyone showered her with words of encouragement. She had become a part of the family of God.
As Karen left the church that night, her parting words were, “I just love this church! From now on you’re going to see me, my husband, and my son here every time the church door is open. I never really knew what love was all about before tonight.”
I can remember putting my arms around her and sensing the love of God welling up within me. “This is your family now. Just as you are precious to Jesus, you are also precious to us. We want to see you grow strong in the Lord, and you can always count on us. Whenever you need us, we’ll be there.” Little did I know when I made that statement that she would need us nearly 24 hours a day for the next three years.
Yes, the church was excited over this miracle child! Of course, everyone is always excited when a new baby is born. But the birth of the baby is only the beginning. It’s the next 18 years or so that takes a toll.
Do you remember when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? At Jesus’ instruction, the stone was removed from the entrance of the cave. Then the Lord cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”
To everyone’s utter amazement, Lazarus emerged from the tomb. It seems logical to assume that he “hobbled” out of the tomb because it is recorded that Lazarus was bound hand and foot with graveclothes. Perhaps he was so tightly encased that those who were nearby had to help him walk away from the place of burial.
Finally Jesus turned to His disciples and commanded them, “Loose him and let him go” (John 11:44). Although it was Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead, He gave the disciples the responsibility of removing the graveclothes and setting Lazarus free. Who in his right mind wants to be around someone encased in graveclothes with the stench of death still clinging to him? This had to be a most unpleasant task.
And we were called to that same unpleasant task with Karen. Jesus had raised her from the dead, calling her forth to new life, but she came to us still bound in stinking graveclothes, fouled by the many years spent in the darkness of the tomb. Karen had life in Jesus, but the graveclothes she had worn for so long were putrid. Within a very short time, we knew it was going to take the grace of God to strip the remnants of death away from Karen.
To make matters worse, Karen wasn’t the only one wrapped in graveclothes. Her husband and son also arrived at the church wearing them too. In all my years, I have never encountered a family that had more problems than this one. Think of any problem, and it was either buried in their past or active in their present.
When Karen had cried out to Jesus during the Christmas musical that her life was a mess, she had accurately described the situation. To use the modern-day vernacular, a dysfunctional family had been added to the family of God and to our church. The husband was out of work, Karen was fighting tremendous emotional problems (manic-depressive with seizures), and their four-year-old son was completely out of control. Their car didn’t run, there was no food in their house, and they had no money to pay the rent. They stood on the brink of bankruptcy. I really wasn’t sure whether we had received a blessing or a curse. There were so many problems in this family that we hardly knew where to start. But God is faithful and His grace is always sufficient.
I am convinced that no one person could have possibly removed all the graveclothes, but the family of God is not made up of one member, but of many. A special anointing for “gravecloth removal” came down on the church members, and we saw the Lord orchestrating a miracle of mercy where everyone played a role in sharing the love of God.
Just as our on-stage Jesus stretched out his arms to embrace Karen, many arms were stretched out to embrace the troubled woman and her family. When one member became weary of unwinding the graveclothes, another took over. Someone was always available to help Karen and Bill with transportation or shopping. Sums of money would turn up for them at just the right time in mysterious envelopes marked, “From your Friend, Jesus.” Invitations to dinner and encouraging telephone calls were constant reminders that they were accepted in the Beloved.
Their little boy, who came to us screaming, biting, and throwing temper tantrums, began to respond to the ever-present love of “aunts and uncles” who reached out to him in love. He started coming into the church with his arms open wide, ready to receive the hugs of those who loved him.
Here a gravecloth, there a gravecloth. First one arm unwound and then another; strip by strip, the reminders of the tomb are being removed and cast aside. An easy task? Definitely not! But we will not give up, for from out of the graveclothes we are seeing a beautiful child of God who shows tremendous promise for the kingdom. We are still patiently unwrapping Karen’s legs, believing that she will soon be able to walk unassisted in the Spirit.
Three and a half years have passed since that miraculous Christmas when a child was born at our church—a child who is teaching us how to love.
* Name has been changed.