Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Kindness Beyond Imagining

                                                        Reflections on Matthew 18:27

And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.
                                                                        Matthew 18:27

“Tell us what happened?” a reporter asks on the steps of the King’s palace.

A man says, “I wasn’t in the King’s chamber. I was standing outside when we suddenly heard a burst of applause followed by shouts and singing. When the doors finally opened, people were saying, ‘The King showed mercy to a man who owed a huge debt!” I know nothing more. I never heard the man’s story.”

“I did,” another said in anger. “This guy owed the King more money than what our country makes in fifty years. 1 He begged the King for time to pay it back. Can you imagine that? And get this, the King granted his request. It’s not fair.”

“Why wasn’t it fair?” the reporter pressed.

“If you ask me, the King should’ve put country first. We can’t afford not to have that money and have it now.” One of the King’s policemen standing in earshot shook his head and said, “That’s not what happened. Don’t listen to him.”

“Were you there?”
“Only a few feet away.”

“What did you see?”

“Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Usually when the King renders judgment, we remove the person from the chamber. But this time he made us step back. He wanted to hear what the man had to say. I saw compassion in the King’s eyes, a tenderness like a father would have for his own child. Even then, I thought he’d order us to take him away. But instead, he bent down…”

“The King bent down?” the reporter reacted.

“Yes, and gently lifted his head. The poor man was scared to death, afraid to even open his eyes. The King then spoke, barely above a whisper, and said, ‘I will not grant your request. Do you hear me?’ The man nodded, still refusing to look at him. ‘Instead, I will do more than you can ever imagine. Today, in your hearing, I release you from everything you owe me. Do you understand?’”

“Those of us who heard the King gasped. We couldn’t believe it. We saw the man open his eyes, bloodshot and red, and whisper back, “What was that?”

“’I forgive it all,’ the King said. ‘Now go, pay what you owe others. Show them the kindness I have shown you and from now on, do what is right by me.’ The King then tried to help the man up but he couldn’t stand. He collapsed again, crying with all his might. Somebody behind me then shouted, ‘The King has forgiven him! He has shown mercy!” and the whole place erupted in applause and song.”

The policeman said it again, loud and strong, “The King has shown mercy!” and everybody – well, nearly everybody – gave a rousing cheer and started to sing:

            “He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
                        Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
                        For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
                        So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.” 2

*       *       *

Later that night, I picked up Ricky’s letter and kept reading.

A few months passed. I still hadn’t figured out what the pastor was saying. I kept working myself to the bone – at the job, at church. I was happy most of the time but, if I were to be honest, I missed you both more than I can say. I kept praying, “Lord, be with my daughters. Don’t let what I’ve done get in their way.”

One Saturday afternoon, I was in the church yard cleaning up when the pastor walked over and said, “Still haven’t figured it out yet, have you Ricky?”

I didn’t know what to tell him.

“You got it, you know you got it, but you won’t receive it. Now tell me why?”

 “Pastor, I’m doing what I can,” I said, upset. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“You tell me you’re saved, is that right?” he shot back.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, what do you think that means, Ricky?”

“It means Jesus saved me. I’m a different man. I’m not like what I was.”

“Saved you from what?”

“Saved me from my sins.”

“Is that right, Ricky? He saved you from your sins – you mean all of them?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well then, receive it. When Jesus died on that cross, He took away your sin. He took away the guilt of your sin. He took away the power of your sin. He took it all, you hearing me? You gotta stop paying back what He already paid. If you’re forgiven by Jesus, be forgiven, live forgiven. Something’s gotta change, Ricky.”

I stood there, shaking my head. “How am I supposed to do that?”

“Ask Him. Let the Holy Spirit do His work in you and when He does, receive it.”

“Pastor, I’m gonna live with the guilt of what I’ve done all my life. You know that. You know there’s no getting around it. I can’t take back what I’ve done.”

“Well, I’ve got news for you. Best news you’ll ever hear. It’s over, Ricky. Now you gotta listen to what I’m telling you, IT’S OVER!”

When I heard those words, “It’s over,” I finally got what the pastor was saying. I was doing what I was doing because of the guilt I felt for all I’ve done to mess up. So I got down on my knees and asked the pastor to pray for me. I asked the Lord to forgive me. I didn’t mean to insult Him by doing what He’d already done. Now, it didn’t happen right away. It took some time. But there came a day, just like the pastor said, when I knew in my heart it was over. The Lord took away my guilt. It was gone and I could feel it. I went to my pastor and told him everything.

You know what he did? He hugged me so hard I could barely breathe!

“So what do I do now?” I asked him.

“Same thing you were doing before.”

 I looked at him funny. I didn’t understand.

“You did what you did out of guilt. Now go do what the Lord calls you to do out of love. He showed you mercy, go show mercy. He showed you kindness, go be kind. He showed you blessing, now go be a blessing. Give what He gave you and never stop because, thank You Jesus, it’s paid! It’s all paid! We get to love as we’ve been loved. We get to forgive like we’ve been forgiven. You’re free Ricky, I mean, free!”

And I was. I knew it.

So I started asking the Lord what He wanted me to do. Where do I start? He put on my heart the widow of the man I killed. I started praying for her like never before. One thing led to another and I learned she was attending a Pentecostal church across town. So I decided to go meet her pastor. I just walked into the church one day. I was told I could see him if I came back later that afternoon.

So I did. I met with him. I told him my story. Every bit of it. I told him I’d come to see if there was anything I could do for her.

“You’ve already done it,” he assured me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“By coming to see me.”

“That’s it?”

“I’ll tell her you came by and asked for her. I’ll also tell her what Jesus Christ has done for you. She’ll want to know that. I think she thinks you’re still in prison. It’ll be hard for her to hear that you’re not. But when she comes to terms with that news, I think she’ll be glad to know the man who murdered her husband isn’t out there murdering others. He’s walking with the Lord now.”

“Will you tell her, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I’m praying for her and her family?”

The pastor nodded and asked me, “So what’s next for you?”

I told him I didn’t know.
“Well, if you want some advice, I’d tell you to get right with your own family first, Ricky. You know what I’m talking about.”

And I did. It’s the one thing I swore I’d never do.  But what choice did I have now? If the Lord showed me mercy like He showed me mercy, I knew He’d help me show mercy to the man I hated most in life.

“Yeah, you’re talking about my dad.”

1 Again in France’s commentary on Matthew, he records that the ancient historian Josephus reported “the total annual tax income from the whole of Galilee and Perea in 4 B.C. was only two hundred talents.” At this rate, it would take fifty years to raise the ten thousand talents. (see p.706 note 22.)

2 The whole of Psalm 103, but in particular verses 8-14, sing the song of the Lord’s kindness (His mercy and steadfast love) which celebrate His love and forgiveness to us who in no way deserve it. Such grace! Such kindness beyond imagining! For more reflection on the glories of this grace, see Ephesians 1:3-14.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Give Me A Chance

                                                 Reflections on Matthew 18:26

The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, “Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.”
                                                                        Matthew 18:26 (MSG)

It happens a lot.

The moment judgment is pronounced, the guilty almost always cry for mercy. They beg the court for leniency as if, in a last ditch effort, they’ll be heard. Their voice usually gets louder as they’re taken away – desperately louder. The doors open, the doors close, and their muffled voice trails off until, at last, it’s gone.

But this one is different.

This one falls humbly at the King’s feet and somehow wins his attention. Is it because he refuses to lift his head and look into the King’s face? Or is it because he doesn’t do what a lot of them do. He doesn’t cry foul saying he didn’t do what people say he did, or didn’t mean to, or doesn’t deserve to be sentenced like that.

            Not him.

His voice is barely audible. Even from a distance, it looks like he knows his guilt. His posture, his head buried in his hands, speaks of a broken, guilty man.

At once, the King’s police descend on him but they stop the moment the King stretches his hand out and makes them step back. There’s an audible gasp in the chamber. Silence fills the room except for one small voice heard by those closest.

“Give me a chance.”

It doesn’t seem possible that the King would listen to the poor wretch. After all, he’s nothing more than a slave now and slaves in his kingdom have no voice. They are nothing more than personal property – animals to be branded, used, and abused – expelled from the rank and dignity of even being called human.

“I will pay it all back – everything.”

One flick of the King’s hand and the police would descend immediately on the man who refuses to hold up his head. One flick and it’s over. But instead, he has the beginning of a smile on his face and a kindness about him. Is it because the man actually thinks it’s possible to negotiate the absolutely impossible?

He can pay back everything? Really?

The King just stands there. Every eye is fixed on him wondering why he hasn’t banished the wretch already. They expect it. Especially this man for what he’s done. But still the King doesn’t move. Is he actually considering it?

The sound comes once again, slowly, quietly.

“Give me a chance…”

*       *       *

“This is beautiful,” I said to Ricky, handing the papers back to him. “I mean, really well done. It’s like you’re giving your daughters your heart.” A waitress came by, poured more coffee, and landed the check on the table.

“Thanks, but it needs work.”

“Not much from what I can tell.” I watched as he put cream and sugar in his coffee and stirred it. “Have you finished writing it?”

“Not yet, I haven’t written the part about my father. They’ve got to know the whole story. The men in my family have messed up for generations – me included – and I gotta break the cycle. It ends with me. I don’t want it touching my grandsons. If my daughters can see it, they can do something about it.”

“Tell me about your dad.”

“Mind if I hold off on that for a bit? I’d much rather tell you what happened next, after that night in the jail cell.”

“Yeah, of course,” I apologized, not wanting to rush him.

“There was a Bible in the cell. I picked it up and started reading. I can’t tell you how it happened but it’s like I already knew what was in it. Everything my grandmother ever taught me came back to me that night. Whatever she planted in my soul, it’s like it came alive. I’m telling you before the sun came up the next morning, I was saved and I knew it. I knew I’d serve out my sentence and that’d be it. I’d never be coming back to jail -- ever.”

He stopped, his smile came back, his look confident. “Oh, thank You, Lord! Just remembering that night makes me praise Him!”

I smiled back, echoing his thanks.

“The guys in prison knew something was different too. They’d come to me, spilling their guts, asking me to pray for them and I did. It’s like God had favor on me. He let me do for others like He was doing for me. I’m telling you, I saw miracles, prayers answered. Some of the guys got saved. I was there a couple of months and it was like the best time of my life. I almost didn’t want to leave but when I did, I came out a new man. I was never gonna be what I was.”

I sat there, amazed by his story.

“That’s when you and I met, remember that?” Ricky said, pointing at me. “And I asked you to pray for me. Man, I needed prayer. I hadn’t seen my daughters yet, not since the day they saw me arrested in front of my house. I was so scared. I was afraid they didn’t want to see me let alone talk to me.”

Again, Ricky turned his face toward the window. I could tell this was hard for him to relive.

“The Lord helped me. I said to Esther and Dora, ‘I know you’re not going to believe me. But something happened to me in prison. The Lord did something in my life. If I’m right about that, if I’ve changed, you’ll know it not because I’m saying it but because I’m living it. All I ask is that you pray for me.’

“But they wanted nothing to do with me. They were hurt – hurt bad. So I made up my mind to do the best I could. I went to rehab upstate. When I got out, I found a job, found a place to live, and started going back to church. The pastor is a good man. He took me under his wing and promised to help me.”

Ricky picked up the stack of papers and said, “And you can read the rest.”

“Hey, that’s not fair. You’ve got to finish the story!” I teased.

He got that Ricky smile again, ear to ear. “I gotta go.” He grabbed the check and went to the counter to pay for it. “If you don’t mind,” he said when he got back, “do what you can to make it better. I’ll try and finish it before we meet again.” We set a date two weeks out, same time, same place, and said our goodbyes.

As I walked to the car, I kept looking at this letter in my hand, a long letter, maybe thirty pages handwritten back and front. I found the place where he’d ended his story and, once in the car, I started reading. As always, Ricky surprised me. What I thought was coming next wasn’t coming at all.

Not yet anyway.

If I wasn’t working or home sleeping I was at the church. I wanted to be there to help out, clean up, do work projects on the building, be at every meeting I could. If the church went out to serve, I went. If they stayed back for prayer, I stayed back. Nothing in me wanted to be the man I used to be. I was free – really free.

One day, the pastor looked at me said, “Why are you always here?”

“I feel like God wants me here,” I replied.

“You doing what you do for Him or for you?” he asked.

“I hope it’s for Him.”

“You think about it and get back to me,” he said and walked away. That really bothered me. I prayed about it for weeks. I finally asked, “Lord, maybe I’m trying to prove myself to my daughters -- is that it? Is that why I’m doing all this?” I finally went to the pastor and asked him what he thought.

“Maybe that, maybe not,” he said.

“What else could it be?”

“Could be guilt for what you’ve done. Guilt for the people you hurt. Guilt for the man you killed and the family he left behind. Guilt for the father you hate. Guilt for what you’ve done to your family. Guilt for all the sins you’ve done to God. Guilt that piles up as high as the mountains and pushes the soul down into hell.”

I hate it when I cry. The older I get the more it happens. But for me, it almost always happens when I feel the Holy Spirit working on me. And, right then, I started to cry in front of the pastor.

“You’re trying to pay it back, Ricky. Pay it all back. That’s what I think.”

“I’m doing my best, sir,” I told him, wiping my eyes. “I’m doing my best.”

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John 15:1-11, the Vine and the branches. "Is He everything to you?