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.
Did you ever wonder where the phrase, “turning over a new leaf” came from? In the 1500’s people referred to the pages of books as leaves. When they turned over a new leaf they were really moving to a blank page to begin writing something new. So, the phrase came to speak of starting a new behavior, moving on, “turning the page.”
Andrew is turning over a new leaf. To do it he is battling three decades of bad behavior, shaped by nature and nurture, and he is trusting in the God who is greater than both.
“God is good and He is definitely looking out for His children. I’m starting to see life at a different view these days…”
A new outlook requires a new mindset, and a new mindset requires that you think differently about things. For years Andrew thought of himself and how he could make his own path in life. The “I can do it myself” attitude shaped his thinking and led him away from others, toward independence rather than dependence upon God,
Prison is a rude awakening from that dream. It would be easy for Andrew to go dark and drift further away from God. He has chosen instead to wake up to a new reality where he exists to serve God and others. It’s all part of the new path he has chosen.
“I’ve been wondering how everyone at First Christian is doing. About a year left and I shall be free again, yet I’ll be on parole, probably a good thing (since) I need structure and also a job. That is mandatory…
“I’m also sending a card to the kids of First Christian and, of course, to your two new granddaughters (although they can’t read yet)…
“I would be very appreciative if you could contact my sister for me and wish her my love, along with my parents…”
This is all new for Andrew whose life up to now has taught him not to trust anyone and to look out for himself. The thing about prison is you’re only one outburst away from “the hole” and surrounded by inmates who could easily lead you back where you came from.
With parole around the corner and Andrew looking forward to Christmas on the outside, he is realistic about his chances of success. “I remember how you said, “Sometimes it can be hard being a Christian.’ All I need is a little prayer and guidance (to be) a productive person in society again… The ways of the world can sometimes allow one to fall short. This has definitely been a learning experience…”
Like the pages of a book, life can go forward and back. While Andrew’s mindset is changing, he is judged by his actions, and his December letter casts yet another shadow on his future. As the learning experience continues, he tries to stay positive and braces for another three months in prison.
I often think of that verse I wrote out for him to tuck in his pocket: “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature. The old has passed away, behold the new has come!” It turns out that this describes only our standing before God because of Christ. Every day is a challenge to live up to that standard and turn another page.
Gee I miss talking with people, especially those who disagree with me. In recent years the number of people I can disagree with and still remain friends has been reduced to one.
Thank you, Jon!
This is a slippery slope that leads nowhere, at least nowhere good. Allow me to suggest how we got here and how we can get back…
The Golden Rule
Somewhere along the way we broke the Golden Rule. Following it is the simplest thing. You just treat others the way you would want to be treated. Simple. The principle of reciprocity goes way back, to ancient Egypt and before. “Do to the doer to make him do,” are the words preserved in hieroglyphics. The Romans were more self-interested, “Do ut des” or “I give so that you might give.” The Old Testament rendered the purest principle, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.18).
My only friend, Jon, is a buddhist and tells me that the Golden Rule translates to the principle, “I am the beneficiary of my deeds… my deeds are the ground on which I stand.” Whether those deeds be acts or words, what goes around really does come around.
Imagine the bad things that would disappear if we practiced this rule, things like road rage, Facebook rants, backbiting, sarcasm and outright insults. You hate those things when they are directed at you. That should shape the way you talk. If we followed the Golden Rule, conversations, even with people who don’t share our view, would be enjoyable and productive.
The Golden Rule has been replaced by a Diversity Code thataffirms the essential value of every person, except those who disagree with you. That’s right, “diversity” is the word that is intoned by religious people who can’t tolerate the little people who hold different views from them. An opinion, that thing we used to have and discuss with others, has become a virtue of the highest order, and opposing it has become a sin.
The word, “diversity,” is now code for, “You better accept what we’re saying and not disagree or else we’re coming after you.” If you dare criticize a policy like affirmative action you’re a racist; if you question the wisdom of reparations, you’re a racist; if you urge border security, you’re a racist.
And if you say, “Let’s talk about it,” you’re told to just follow the code and get into line. Many who preach diversity can’t tolerate differences.
In this brave new world where only one opinion matters, the goal is not mutual respect but mutual destruction. Every conversation becomes a no-questions-asked platform for virtue (as defined by me, not you). This platform is a launching pad for verbal missiles aimed at opposing views and designed to shut down conversation before it breaks out.
Those who are deterred choose instead to send signals that they are not targets of attack. “Don’t shoot me! I’m one of you!” After all, yielding to pressure beats the alternative. Just ask Mark Duplass, liberal filmmaker who, after appearing on the Ben Shapiro’s conservative podcast, dared to tweet, “If you are interested at all in ‘crossing the aisle’ you should consider following @benshapiro.”
Missile launch! Duplass immediately deleted the tweet and fell into line.
All of this naturally leads to where we are today. Those on the “other side” must be bad people who are going to hell. No forgiveness here for the sin of disagreement. If there is no room for discussion, then there is no room in heaven for those who dare start one. They are the fools who rush in where even angels fear to tread.
I am a minister and I understand the difference between the religious world and the secular world, or at least I thought I did. Christians and other people of faith hold and share values that are fixed by God and not up for discussion. But now it seems that the line between the two worlds has blurred and God has been replaced by Orwell’s Big Brother who watches over us and insures that, “the best discussions are those that tell us what we already know.”
So, how do we find our way back? Is it as simple as retracing our steps? Unfortunately not. These twisted paths are now well-worn. It’s going to take new platforms that aim at opinion sharing and open discourse. It’s going to take a new breed of social justice warriors who who are as committed to respecting the opinions of their enemies as they are to being right.
We have not reached the point of no return, but we need to find the Jons in our lives and hope that the circle grows.
Upheaval in prison is normal, a new normal for Andrew.
“The mail here gets messed up. Mrs. Marston was very nice to send the money order but they sent it back because it may not have been filled out right. No biggie. My property is not with me and they are moving me to another unit… things are hectic for me, not used to the whole prison life, got caught up in other peoples’ problems. I’m doing my best to stay focused.”
The constant pull from the outside, his family, his church and his dreams, make each day difficult. Every adjustment can be undone with a few angry words or actions and the outside seems further away.
In upheaval, one grabs onto those things that don’t change. Andrew’s Bible has become an anchor that keeps him centered and focused on things that are eternal and do not change. “I’ve learned a lot about parables… very interesting!”
In addition to his personal Bible study, he has come to value a community of Christians that gather on Sunday. “I made it to a chapel service this week. We had a guest speaker, Bobby McGee, a man who spent some time in prison and became a song writer. He is now spending more time in prisons all over the country, spreading God’s word.”
Months earlier I had written a Bible verse, 2 Corinthians 5.17, on a piece of paper and given it to Andrew to keep in his pocket as a reminder. It reads, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” He was excited that the speaker mentioned that verse. “Wow! The Lord really has his ways to remind me how important it is to stay in his Word and keep the faith.”
With the detainer resolved (see last week’s post), Andrew was now able to think forward. “I should be eligible to leave the inside in possibly December. There’s some classes I need to take but everything should work out in a decent time.” An argument with a guard would change that timetable, but at least for a short time, he would be thinking about the future rather than the past or present.
Upheaval can be a dead end. For Andrew it is always a detour, making his journey in prison longer but he always doubles back to the path he believes God has for him. And, as I’ve said, his interest in others keeps him from being too self-absorbed. This letter ended with four questions, not one of them a cry for help or sympathy.
“How’s the family? Anything new going on at church? How was New York? Did you eat the pizza you wanted?” (I had written him that we were taking a weekend in New York City and I hoped to eat at John’s Pizza).
In his next letter, Andrew makes plans for a fresh start on the outside and reflects on the learning experience of prison.