It was a beautiful, sunny day in the bush of Canda. Rick, a member of the Lutheran Indian Ministries team, accompanies a man named Joseph* on an important task.
Rick and Joseph had been acquaintances for years, but as their relationship grew, Rick was able to "talk Jesus" with Joseph, now and again, when they would see each other. As their trust grew, Joseph felt comfortable asking more questions and began to slowly grasp on to truths in God's Word. But it soon became clear, because of the stories Joseph would share, that Rick was going to have to report him for the child abuse of his own children.
It was a difficult time for Rick, and he was concern that the relationship and trust were now broken and lost forever, and, therefore, Joseph would be lost. During the time between arrest and finally settling into the prison, communication with Joseph was often brief and trite but Rick prayed daily that his friendship could be salvaged.
Days after Joseph was transferred to the prison, he reached out, and, Praise God!, the relationship continued and strengthened as they picked up where they had left off. Usually, the conversation centered on God's unfailing love and the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus.
"On those visits, I really just wanted to help me with his healing in any way. He was so hurt and so desperate. I've seen too many men break under their pain, and I wanted Joseph to be free!" explains Rick.
Eventually, the time came for Joseph to be released, and with the normal, difficult transition back into daily life came a special job.
A year after his release, Rick agreed to join Joseph far into the bush of Canada. It was there that they found a particular clearing in the woods. In the center were the remains of a cabin, long ago collapsed by weather and time - the remnants of his childhood home, and next to the cabin stood one towering tree.
In the shade beneath the tree, Joseph sat down and cried and called out to God to heal his heart, for it was in this exact place that Joseph, himself, had been sexually abused as a child. This large and foreboding tree was symbolic of all the hurt and pain that Joseph had felt since that day.
When his sobs died down and his eyes had cleared, Joseph started up the chainsaw he had brought with him and took down the tree, cut it into large chunks, and lit a fire. While the fire took hold, Joseph began to read a letter he had written to his father, the main abuser of his childhood. When he finished, he tossed the paper into the fire, as well. As the flames shot up and engulfed the tree that had once stood as a reminder of his past, Joseph began to pray to his Redeemer, Jesus.
"Joseph began with the Lord's Prayer, just like we had prayed before," recounts Rick. "But it wasn't long before the prayer turned into one of repentance. And as the smoke ascended to heaven, so did the words of a broken man turning over his life to his loving Heavenly Father, willing to follow Him for the rest of his days and to show his family and his community Jesus' love instead of his own anger."
More than two thousand years ago, another tree symbolized our sin and pain - the cross of Calvary. Joseph's act of cutting down and burning the tree was one of purification, just as Jesus' suffering and death on the cross was our purification act. He died so that our relationship with our Father could be restored.
This is the good news our Native brothers and sisters need to hear. Whatever their past transgressions, Jesus has already suffered the consequences.
We all face suffering in this life, and Paul tells us in Philippians:
"But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (3:13-14)
Yet there are times to remember the past. If we have not healed from it, so that we can understand and forgive, we cannot press on in a profound way. Like Joseph, many Native men and women are dealing with past abuse, and it can be the physical and emotional healing process that opens their hearts to Christ. Joseph had finally chosen to release the anger and pain of his past with this symbolical gesture, and to forgive his father, finally making room in his heart for love of Christ.
Years later, tragedy struck Joseph's community. Two young men took their own lives within days of each other.
"In my past life," Joseph explains, "I would have been crushed under that sadness. I would have found the closest bottle of alcohol and my family would have paid dearly for it." But now, Joseph was on fire for the Lord. For the past few years, Rick had mentored and discipled him during regular visits, and, although Joseph still struggled daily to the live the life of a child of Christ, he was at a place in his faith (and had seen it in his own life) where he could trust that God could use these tragedies for something good.
Knowing the grief the community was suffering with, Joseph organized a community healing dinner. People young and old came together for a potlatch, comforting one another with shared personal memories of the lost loved ones. Butcher paper covered the tables and crayons were provided, and the people were encouraged to write down their thoughts and express their pain, grief, and confusion.
After the dinner, the paper was taken outside, along with the ceremonially-cut cedar boughs, and were burned, while the people gathered around and said, "Chuu," meaning, "It is done." The burning, just as it had for Joseph those years ago, symbolized the purification of the grief and pain. The grief was not gone, but the healing had started.
This is the future of Lutheran Indian Ministries: Proclaim. Heal. Disciple. It is through men like Joseph, counseled and discipled Christ-followers, and people like you with a passion for Native Ministry that we will continue to make an impact in God's Kingdom. Thank you!
*Name changed for confidentiality.