Life can be complicated and hard, like a maze that leads nowhere. Andrews path has led him through the loss of family to foster care, delinquency, drugs and now, prison. But he has learned the truth he was taught by his adoptive parents, that there are really only two ways.
“Obey the voice of the Lord your God… This commandment… is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it… I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 3011-15)
As Andrew’s heart has softened he not only understands this for himself but is anxious to pass it on to others. In his most recent letter he says, “It has been on my heart to reach out while I can and while the Lord continues to work his miracles in me.” He included a “Letter to the Troubled Children of America.”
To the Troubled Children of America
“First things first. Many of you are not alone choosing crime, alcohol or drugs due to the circumstances of your pain. These are ways people have been coping for a very long time; not unusual or uncommon for our society or its leaders.
“I strongly advise you to pray and urge you to think about the choices that you may make while you still have your freedom. The simple truth is that our culture has been flooded with young adults experimenting with different ways of dealing with stress and constant pressure.I’ve been there along with hundreds of thousands of other criminals: movie stars, rappers, successful people and poor people. These prison walls do not discriminate!
“We cannot stop crime but you can as an individual. You are the only one you can control. This cycle must stop. Please think about how much better our society could be without criminals before you become one.
“I offer these words of advice:
If you are experimenting with drugs or feeling lonely and depressed, get help!
Listen to friends who care about you. Keep a clear mind. It’s never just about you.
Love others the way you love yourself. Above all love God for God is love.
There is help, there is always help if you’re willing to take it.”
Could it be that the path God has for us is not so much a maze as a map that leads us to give up ourselves and depend upon Him? Andrew would say, “The choice is yours.”
With the passing of the holidays and the onset of early spring, Andrew continues to struggle with two men: the man of his past and the man he knows God wants him to be. Learning from the first and striving to be the second fills much of his time in prison.
I had sent him bits of my first book, LifeDeck, the part that tells of my encounter with a homeless woman in Boston. I was so moved by her faith and positive outlook in spite of her situation that I stood for a moment, “wondering why two souls should be assigned such different lives.”
Andrew never dwells on this paradox, never sees himself as a victim. Recalling our first encounter he says, “It sounds like you lived that story before, like when you bought a walking stick from a homeless guy.” That guy is not the guy he aspires to be, and he resists those who would keep him there.
“The one thing that gets to me is the criminal justice system makes it out as I’m a horrible person and my record is going to make it tough on getting a good job. Yet… I have faith God’s got my back.” That last phrase he uses often, a reminder of how God watches over him. Yet he never uses God as his crutch, and takes full responsibility for his future.
“One thing about me is my knowledge of the work force. Because of the many odd jobs I’ve done to survive, it shouldn’t be too hard to get work.” Before his arrest Andrew’s work ethic was well known. One business owner I spoke with had plans for his advancement but shook his head and said, “If only he could get rid of the anger…”
Andrew has known from the time he was young that there is a spiritual battle raging between God and the devil, but I think prison life has made it real and helped equip him for it. “So many people think that once you’re become a Christian the struggle is over. Well, sometimes that may be so, but when God gains back a fellow soul, the devil loses control of another so a constant battle erupts and who wins that is totally up to us.”
If you’ve ever read the Screwtape Letters, you know this is true. C.S. Lewis imagines a senior devil (Screwtape) advising a student (Wormwood) on the fine arts of destroying faith in God. In one exchange, Screwtape offers this, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
That is Andrew. Removed from the universe of free people, dogged by his past, he nevertheless continues to follow hard after God. In his next letter he takes us deep inside his personal struggle.
Regrets are what happen on the other side of life.
There’s the saddest of pictures in the New Testament, in a story Jesus told of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man lived in luxury while Lazarus lived in squalor just outside the rich man’s mansion. The rich man died and entered hell while Lazarus entered heaven. The rich man begged Abraham for mercy, but was told that he was getting what he deserved, and that there was no do-over.
Talk about regrets!
Our lives are made up of years and months and weeks and days. Each day brings new opportunities that, if seized, will lead us to the end of life without regret. But there are three regrets that will change your life forever…
Regrets not Finding Your Life’s Purpose
It’s not what you think.
My wife knew from the time she was a little girl that she wanted to be a teacher. I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. Purpose in life grows out of your identity, who you are. It may have nothing to do with your career, or it may lead you to one.
Let’s first start with what we know: You are not the person of your past You are not the person others see you to be You are not the person of someone else’s dreams You are not even the person that you dream you will be
Once you agree with the above you are ready to embrace the truth: You are the person God created you to be, even if you don’t believe in God. Your “life’s purpose” is not a pursuit of some goal – yours or someone else’s – but rather the pursuit of God. In Him lies your life’s purpose.
Here’s how I know: “In your book were written… the days that were formed for me when as yet there were none of them.” These words from Psalm 139 should loop in your mind as a reminder that, when you find God, you’ve found your life’s purpose.
Regrets not spending time with family
I’ve told this story before. Here it comes again. “In my last class at seminary we had gathered to hear a popular local pastor speak to us about ministry, expecting he would tell us how to do it. Instead he told the story of how he almost lost his marriage and his church doing the work of ‘ministry.’ It was not what we expected to hear. It was exactly what we needed to hear.
“After that class, I went back to our apartment, gave my wife a hug and promised her that I would never have to learn that lesson twice; that our marriage and our family would always come before the ‘work of ministry.”
Over the years I have reminded myself that what I do as a husband, a father (and now a grandfather) matters more than all of the other things in life.” As Jesus said, “A man’s (or woman’s or boy’s or girl’s) life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.”
That’s just stuff.
Regrets not worshiping God
“Don’t get all religious on me here!”
Well, guess what – you are religious, if by that you mean that you are by nature a worshiper of something or someone. We are all worshipers, like shoppers, going through life, trying on spiritual fashions, searching for the perfect fit.
I’m not one of those who believe, “There are many ways to God,” but I do believe we’re all on paths that lead to God. The detours and back roads lead somewhere else. Along the way we will all have to decide whether what Jesus said was true: “I am the way the truth and the life. No man comes to the father except through me.” If he was telling the truth, the single pursuit of Christ is the only thing that really matters.
There’s another story in the New Testament that occurs at the death of Jesus on the cross. It is the story of the criminal hanging beside him. Actually, there were two. One mocked Jesus, “Save yourself and us if you are the Christ!” The other scolded him. “Stop it! We’re getting what we deserve. He has done nothing wrong.” Then, turning to Jesus, he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “Truly, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s never, never, never too late to escape regret.
The holidays can go either way. They can be a time of family celebration and cheer, or they can twist like a knife in an old wound that won’t heal. Given his checkered history, it always surprised me that Andrew somehow avoided the holiday blues.
His arrest came in the late fall of the first year he was in our church, so he never got to celebrate with us. He was, nevertheless, more like Bob Cratchit than Ebenezer Scrooge in AChristmas Carol, thankfully blind to his condition and genuinely happy for the season.
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family! How are those beauties (our two baby granddaughters)? Did you and the wife enjoy shopping for gifts? Please say Hi to everyone for me!”
Then he adds, “…the only gift I can send is my love.”
Sometimes having nothing at Christmas lends a strange and wonderful spirit to the holiday. Even Andrew’s few belongings had been confiscated when he entered prison a year ago, and now he extends empty hands with joy.
The next words of his December letter make this joy all the more surprising: “Now it’s getting rough in here. Just had a set back and God still looked out for me like always…” (The setback, I would later learn, was a scuffle with another inmate. Because of Andrew’s history, he was put in the hole and his sentence extended).
Then in typical fashion he pivots to my problems rather than his own. “… speaking of which, I heard you were sick. Hope you get better. Was hoping to be on the other side of the wall soon and it’s not looking good. Need some prayer, have to stay out of trouble for another three months and I’ll be back on track.”
I have noticed a shift in Andrew’s thinking in the last year. He left us, accepting that who he had been was who he was. He had settled into a lifestyle of unhealthy relationships, occasional work, outbursts of anger and moving on. In prison of all places, God was there, reminding him of who he could be; reminding him, in the words of that old hymn, that there is a “love that will not let me go.”
In prison his mind found a resting place for the more permanent things of faith, family, friendship and his future. “If you get a chance please tell my family I said, ‘Happy holidays!’ And that I am hanging in there. Say hi to our Starbucks fans. I’ll be out soon.”
He is like the new Scrooge, scared into his better senses by the ghosts of his past having learned the lessons they teach. “I get the point. Keep my nose clean. After a few weeks they will let me go on approved outings and church events. Well, enjoy the holidays, God is good!”
This calls to mind the words of the reborn miser in the Carol, “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!”
Andrew’s not quite there yet, but he beat the holiday blues.
Thank you Alexander Pope for reminding us that forgiveness is impossible without God’s help. Actually the famous quote comes from a really long poem that is really not a poem at all. It’s the Essay on Criticism (bet you won’t read it now!) It’s no coincidence that another famous quote comes from the same piece: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Put the two together and it’s everything you need to know about human relationships. First, forgiveness has divine power to heal and second, we shouldn’t foolishly rush what is an important and sometimes slow process.
Wounds heal slowly. The Bible tells us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” They still need to heal, but they are “faithful” because they are necessary hurts, intended for our good by someone who loves us. But what about those other wounds, designed to hurt and hard to heal? It is harder still to let go of the anger and resentment toward those who inflict them. If you bear such a wound today and harbor un-forgiveness toward someone, consider these five fruits that come from forgiveness…
When you forgive, it makes love possible
Keep in mind that our English word, “forgive” comes from the Greek word, “aphiemi” which means to let go or release. Let it go! If you are nursing the wound caused by someone’s words or actions, you cannot feel or express the love that God planned for you. Instead the hurt and anger spill over into other relationships and short-circuits your ability to love. Letting go of the anger makes love possible and clears the way for God to work in you and others.
Forgiveness frees the offender
“That person doesn’t deserve to be free!”
Not the point. Forgiveness demonstrates the perfect love of God, not yours. You become like the reluctant jailor who unlocks the cell door when the governor issues a pardon. You’re just the gatekeeper. The governor issues the pardon. If you can’t bring yourself to set that person loose, then at least trust God to deal with the offender.
Just let it go.
Forgiveness sets an example
After one madman with a gun took at least fifty lives in a Christ church, New Zealand, something amazing happened.
Amidst the grief and struggle to understand such evil, were the words of Farid Ahmed, a senior leader of one of the mosques whose wife was shot dead in the attack. Paralyzed from an auto accident six years earlier, he somehow escaped in a wheel chair and survived. Asked how he felt about the person who killed his wife, Ahmed replied, “‘I love that person because he is a human, a brother of mine, I do not support what he did, but maybe he was hurt, maybe something happened to him in his life. The bottom line is, he is a brother of mine. I have forgiven him and I’m sure if my wife was alive, she would too.”
This is how you forgive.
Forgiveness opens the door to the future
Back to the Future (the title still confuses me) played upon our fascination with knowing what will happen tomorrow and beyond. At one point Dr. Emmet Brown reminds Marty McFly, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” That may be true for a souped-up Delorean, but not in real life. Here we need roads, and forgiveness opens the road to the future by allowing you and the other to get on with your lives.
Not forgiving condemns us to the past and locks the door to the future. It throws away the keys It says, “Never more” It forbids do-overs It lives in denial It grasps guilt It lays still It kills
Forgiveness makes everything possible because it makes everything new. It leaves the past behind.
Forgiveness forces humility
The only words harder to say than, “I am sorry,” are the words, “I forgive you.” We are shamed into repentance and humbled into forgiveness.
So many easier responses than to forgive… Sulk Anger Grudge Pay-back Bitterness Resentment
The words, “I forgive you,” are the divine response that echoes the words of Jesus from the Cross: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” That’s a high bar, only within reach of those who lower themselves as Jesus did.