Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died hundreds of people from across the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, but one – former President Richard Nixon, who had not long previously dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”
Source: Reported in Maxie Dunnam, The Workbook on Living as a Christian, pp.112-113
Tomas Borge was a leader in the struggle against the totalitarian regime that had dominated his country, Nicaragua. During the revolution, Borge was captured and put in prison. While there he was subjected to the most extreme torture for over 500 hours.
After the revolution Borge was freed and become the Minister of the Interior. One day he found one of his torturers in jail. He walked up to this man who had inflicted such terrible, relentless and brutal pain upon him and said, “I am going to get my revenge from you”. He then held out his hand and said, “This is my revenge, I forgive you.”
Source: Reported by Ernesto Cardenal, The National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1979
There was once a very poor orphan who wanted nothing more in the world than to belong to a family. Finally, his opportunity came. He was eight years old and a family wanted to adopt him! Introductions were made, papers were signed, and just 6 days after his eighth birthday he left for his new home. He took with him his hope and his possessions – the old worn and torn clothes he was wearing and a single soft toy. His new parents were excited to have him with them, and wanted him to feel like one of the family. A special celebration dinner was held, he was given his own room, and he was introduced to the other kids in the street. His new parents took those old clothes, threw them away and bought him beautiful new clothes. They bought him a bike and more toys, and pretty soon he began to feel just like all the other kids in the neighbourhood, loved and part of a family. One thing however was curious. The young boy’s old shoes, the ones with the big holes in them, weren’t tossed out with the rest of his clothes. His new father placed them on the mantelpiece. It wasn’t long before the newly adopted son found out why. Every time that boy did something wrong his father would go and get those shoes and say “Look at all we’ve done for you. We took you in when you had nothing, but look at how you’ve behaved”
Unfortunately we do the same thing all too often in our relationships. We dredge up the past and throw it back in someone’s face, never letting them forget how much they’re in our debt. Forgiveness means throwing out the shoes as well as the clothes, refusing to dredge up the past and make it a reason for action in the present.
Former US President Richard Nixon is infamous for his place at the center of the Watergate scandal. He disgraced both the office of the President of the United States and the United States itself in the eyes of the world. When Hubert Humphrey, a former US vice-president died, Nixon attended his funeral. Dignitaries came from all over the country and the world, yet Nixon was made to feel decidedly unwelcome. People turned their eyes away and conversations ran dry around him. Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Nixon, held out his hand, and, smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”
Carter gifted Nixon with love and compassion. Nixon certainly had done nothing to deserve it. It was an act of pure grace on Carter’s part. When the bible speaks of God’s blessing it speaks in exactly the same way. Blessing is never a reward for good behaviour. It’s a gift, a gift of pure, unadulterated grace.
Alexander III was Tsar of Russia from 1881-1894. His rule was marked by repression, and in particular by persecution of Jews. His wife, Maria Fedorovna, provided a stark contrast, being known for her generosity to those in need. On one occasion her husband had signed an order consigning a prisoner to life in exile. It read simply “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Maria changed that prisoners life by moving the comma in her husband’s order. She altered it to “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.”
In Christ God has changed the comma that stood against us. From “Pardon impossible, send to Siberia” comes the good news of salvation: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia.”
Sources: biography.com and Today in the Word, July 14, 1993.
In June 1973, Marietta Jaeger went camping in Badlands National Park with her husband, Bill, and their five children. As they slept in their tents one night, their seven year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped. Marietta suffered all the pain and emotional turmoil you would expect in such a nightmarish situation. In the days immediately following the abduction, she was surrounded by people who talked about the kidnapper in venomous terms, routinely characterizing him as inhuman (even though his identity and gender were still a mystery).
Despite this climate of anger and vengeance, something inside Marietta began to shift as the days of waiting turned into weeks. As reported in the May/June 1998 issue of Health Magazine, Marietta heard a voice. “What Marietta heard was God telling her, ‘I don’t want you to feel this way.’ As she pondered the message, the weight on her chest seemed to lift and her stomach relaxed. She fell into the first deep sleep since Susie vanished.” This was the beginning of her commitment to releasing her anger and finding a path to forgiveness.
One year after the abduction the kidnapper called Marietta’s home. Because she had used the intervening months praying for forgiveness – searching within for the strength to find the humanity buried somewhere within the kidnapper – she was able to convey genuine empathy as she spoke with him. Despite the obvious risks to the kidnapper, Marietta kept him on the phone for more than an hour, ultimately providing the FBI with enough information to locate and capture him. His name was David Meirhofer. He had abducted and killed other children. In FBI custody, he confessed to murdering Susie Jaeger a week after taking her from the family’s tent. A few hours later, he committed suicide.
Given Meirhofer’s horrific revelation, it would be understandable for Marietta to abandon the course of forgiveness. Her husband never let go of his anger and he died of a heart attack at 56 after suffering for years with bleeding ulcers, but Marietta stayed the course. She began travelling around the country to speak with others about forgiveness, sharing her experience. She even befriended the kidnapper’s mother, Eleanor Huckert. “She and Huckert went together to visit the graves of their children,” the Health article concludes. “Afterward, the two mothers sat at the Huckerts’ dining room table sipping coffee and thumbing through old scrapbooks. There was David on the front porch – a rosy-cheeked little boy, scrubbed and eager to set out for his first day of school. As she studied the smiling boy in the snapshot, Marietta felt that her struggle to invest the faceless criminal with humanity was complete. ‘If you remain vindictive, you give the offender another victim,’ she says. ‘Anger, hatred, and resentment would have taken my life as surely as Susie’s life was taken.'”
Source: reported by The Forgiveness Project
There was a priest in the Philippines who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had repented but still had no sense of God’s forgiveness.
In his church was a woman who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ and he with her. The priest however was sceptical. To test her he said, “The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in bible college.” The woman agreed.
A few days later the priest asked, “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?”
“Yes he did”, she replied.
“And did you ask him what sin I committed in bible college?”
“Well what did he say?”
“He said, ‘I don’t remember.’”
Source: reported in Ron Lee Davis A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World
There was a little boy in the supermarket one day with his mother. He was having a particularly naughty day and his mother had forbidden him to touch anything else in the shop. While mum was going up an aisle she heard a huge crash, and turned around to see her son standing with a can in his hand beside an aisle full of cans. He’d decided to grab a can from the bottom of the display and had sent hundreds tumbling down.
Well mum’s face went bright red, a mixture of embarrassment and anger. She stormed down the aisle, picked the boy up and placed him firmly in the child seat in the trolley. “Don’t you dare move another inch young man!”
After a few minutes had gone by the boy plucked up some courage and said “Mummy, you said the other day that when God forgives our sins he buries them at the bottom of the deepest ocean didn’t you?”
“Yes son” mum replied through clenched teeth.
“And you said that it didn’t matter what we did, God would never drag those things up again didn’t you?”
“Well mummy, I’ve got a feeling that when we get home you’re going to go fishing.”
Former Beatle, George Harrison died in December 2001. During his final days his wife and child, and his sister, Louise were at his bedside. It was Louise’s presence that was especially poignant. You see, she and George had been feuding with each other for almost forty years. Their feud began when Louise opened a bed and breakfast named “A Hard Day’s Night”.
The rift was healed only when George realised he would probably die from his cancer. Louise reports that their reconciliation was difficult but satisfying. “We sort of held hands like we used to do” she said. “We used to talk for hours about life and God and the universe. We were able to look into each other’s eyes again with love. It was a very, very positive and loving meeting,”
This episode tells us exactly what reconciliation is – two people who have been at odds with one another, coming together in a renewed and restored relationship, one where they are able to “look into each other’s eyes again with love.” This is what it means to reconcile with God, and with our fellow human beings.
The tragedy of course, is that George and Louise took so long to reconcile, that they missed out on so much. Similarly, it is a tragedy when we wait so long to be reconciled to those we love and/or to God.
Source: Ananova News Service, December 9, 2001
Gabrielle Carey is an Australian author most widely known for co-authoring Puberty Blues. In a later book, In My Father’s House Carey relates an incident that led to her conversion to Christ. Carey was raised in an atheist humanist household. Her father was a university lecturer with a passionate commitment to the left side of politics. Throughout her upbringing he railed against oppression, capitalism and was a key figure in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years. He also railed against God and the church, finding it impossible to believe in a God when the world was full of so much suffering.
But that left Gabrielle tremendously burdened. In her book In My Father’s House she writes, “One of the hardest aspects of growing up as the daughter of a humanist was the worry of having to live up to incredibly high intellectual and moral standards. And worse, what happened when it was discovered that you hadn’t? Would you be given a second chance? Could you confess your weaknesses? Would you ever be forgiven? What would my father say if he found out that I was just another brainless, mind-moulded, media-manipulated failure to humanity?”
It was this burden of guilt Gabrielle found lifted when she converted to Christian faith. “Perhaps what I liked most about Catholicism” she writes, “or at the least the Catholicism the abbot had introduced to me, was knowing I could be wrong, knowing I could behave badly, awfully in fact, and that I would still be loved. That all I needed to do was own up and I’d be forgiven…At least with a Catholic God and father you could fail without feeling that it was the end of all hope. And that was such a relief.”
Source: Scott Higgins, based on Carey’s In My Father’s House (Pan McMillan, 1992)
“I paid little attention as the glare of headlights briefly illuminated my boyfriend Mark’s face and then swept on…” So begins Debbie Morris’s amazing story of suffering and forgiveness. On a Friday night in the 1980’s Debbie and her boyfriend Mark were kidnapped while on a date. One of the kidnappers was Robert Willie, the character made famous in the Susan Sarandon, Sean Pean movie Dead Man Walking. After shooting her boyfriend in the head and leaving him for dead in the woods, the kidnappers subject Debbie to two terrifying days of rape and brutalisation.
Just two days in a lifetime, yet they understandably left an indelible Mark of Debbie’s life. She spent years struggling with pain, anger, depression, alcohol abuse and guilt. Most remarkable of all however is her journey towards healing and forgiveness. In the book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking she tells how she learned to forgive her kidnappers.
She realised that she needed to forgive Willie, if nothing else, for her own good. She had seen the way rage and bitterness consumed the lives of the parents of another girl raped and murdered by her kidnappers. She didn’t want to become a prisoner of her past. And so the night Robert Willie was executed, Debbie realised she could forgive him. She prayed, “Lord, I really do need to forgive Robert Willie. As best I can anyway. If the execution goes on, make it fast and painless. I don’t want him to suffer anymore.”
But what does it mean to forgive in a situation like this? Debbie describes how helpful psychology professor Dr Terry Hargrave was. Dr Hargraves divides forgiveness into two parts: salvage and restoration. Salvage involves insight – recognising how we were violated and who bears responsibility, and understanding – trying to understand why something was done. Restoration involves overt forgiving, where forgiveness is openly sought, given and received and compensation, where there are things which compensate us for past hurts. Hargraves explains that restoration is possible only where there was a prior relationship, or a relationship you want to restore. This was not the case with Debbie. For her salvage was the highest goal she could seek. With its twin dimensions of insight and understanding, its allowed her to move beyond her self blame and bitterness to “salvage” something from her hurtful experience.
Debbie was also helped by Lewis Smedes book Forgive and Forget. In a section entitled “forgiving Monsters” Smedes writes “If we say monsters are beyond forgiving we give them a power they should never have…The climax of forgiveness takes two, I know. But you can have the reality of forgiveness without its climax. Forgiving is real, even if it stops at the healing of the forgiver” In this light Debbie writes “The refusal to forgive him meant that I held onto all my Robert Willie-related stuff – my pain, my shame, my self-pity. That’s what I gave up in forgiving him. And it wasn’t until I did, that real healing could even begin. I was the one who gained.”
Throughout this process Debbie has struggled with what she feels about the death penalty. She closes her book with these words, “God seems to put a higher priority on forgiveness that on justice. We don’t sing ‘Amazing Justice’; we sing ‘Amazing Grace’. Does that mean I think a holy God would oppose the execution of a convicted murderer like Robert Willie? I don’t know; I’m still wrestling with that question. But I do know this: Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.”
Source: Based on reports in Debbie Morris, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking (Zondervan, 1998)
Once upon a time two brothers shared adjoining farms. For over 40 years of they worked side by side, sharing equipment and helping each other out whenever needed. Then one day a rift developed. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by months of angry silence.
One day the eldest brother, Pete, was out in his fields when a ute pulled up. Out jumped a man who approached Pete carrying a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs I could do for you?”
“Well, yes I do,” said Peter. “See that creek down there, it’s the border between my brother’s farm and mine. Me brother keeps it nice and deep to stop me from setting one foot on his beloved farm. Well I’ll oblige him. I want you to take that timber over there by the barn and build me a new fence, a real tall one, so I don’t have to look over at my stinkin’ brother and his farm no more.”
The carpenter was glad to have the work, “No worries mate. I understand. Just point me to your post-hole digger and I’ll get the job done.”
So the carpenter set about working. Meanwhile farmer Pete drove into town to the cattle auction. When he returned at sunset he was shocked to see what the carpenter had done.
There was no fence. Instead the carpenter had built a bridge and walking across it was Pete’s younger brother. He held out his hand and spoke to his brother, “Pete after all I’ve done to you these past few weeks I can’t believe you’d still reach out to me. You’re right. It’s time to bury the hatchet.”
The two brothers met at the middle of the bridge and embraced. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said farmer Pete. “I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but I have more bridges to build.”
Bud Welch lost his 23-year old daughter, Julie, in the blast that destroyed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in all. In a story entitled, “Where Healing Begins” (Guideposts Magazine, May 1999), he recounts the extraordinary personal journey to forgiveness that began for him on April 19, 1995. “From the moment I learned it was a bomb,” Bud writes, “I survived on hate.” His anger was focused on Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and like so many others, Bud wished for their speedy conviction and execution. When he saw McVeigh’s father on television a few months after the bombing, however, Bud’s emotions began to shift for the first time. “Oh, dear God,” he remembers thinking to himself, “this man has lost a child, too.”
A second turning point in Bud’s journey came when he revisited the site of his daughter’s death in January 1996. Bud spotted an elm tree near the place where Julie had always parked her car. Despite damage from the blast, the tree had survived and even sprouted new branches. “The thought that came to me then seemed to have nothing to do with new life,” he writes. “It was the sudden, certain knowledge that McVeigh’s execution would not end my pain.” Bud’s advocacy of the death penalty for McVeigh ended soon after, and not without drawing notice. He began receiving invitations to speak about his evolving feelings, and one invitation arrived from Buffalo, the home of McVeigh’s father. Bud knew it was time to meet.
On September 5, 1998, Bud Welch found himself in the home of Bill McVeigh, a “blue collar Joe” just like him. He also met Bill’s daughter, Jennifer, who reminded Bud of Julie’s friends. “We can’t change the past,” Bud told Bill and Jennifer, “but we have a choice about the future.” After this visit, Bud launched a campaign to save the elm tree outside the Murrah Building from a bulldozer, and the tree now stands as part of a memorial to the victims of April 19. It also stands as a memorial to Bud Welch’s remarkable journey from hate to forgiveness
Source: Reported in Guideposts Magazine, May 1999
John Ortberg is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, Illinois. He tells the story of how he and his wife once traded in their old Volkswagon Super Beetle for their first piece of new furniture: a mauve sofa.
The man at the furniture store warned them not to get it when he found out they had small children. “You don’t want a mauve sofa” he advised. “Get something the colour of dirt.” But with the naive optimism of young parenthood they said “We know how to handle our children. Give us the mauve sofa.”
From that moment on everyone knew the number one rule in the house. Don’t sit on the mauve sofa. Don’t touch the mauve sofa. Don’t play around the mauve sofa. Don’t eat on, breathe on, look at, or think about the mauve sofa. It was like the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. “On every other chair in the house you may freely sit, but upon this sofa, the mauve sofa, you may not sit, for in the day you sit thereupon, you shall surely die.”
Then came the Fall.
One day there appeared on the mauve sofa a stain. A red stain. A red jelly stain.
So John’s wife, who had chosen the mauve sofa and adored it, lined up their three children in front of it: Laura, age four, Mallory, two and a half, and Johnny, six months.
“Do you see that, children?” she asked. “That’s a stain. A red stain. A red jelly stain. The man at the sofa store says it is not coming out. Not forever. Do you know how long forever is children? That’s how long we’re going to stand here until one of you tells me who put the stain on the mauve sofa.”
Mallory was the first to break. With trembling lips and tear-filled eyes she said “Laura did it.” Laura passionately denied it. Then there was silence, for the longest time. No one said a word. John Ortberg knew they wouldn’t, for they had never seen their mother so upset. He knew they wouldn’t because they knew that if they did they would spend eternity in the time-out chair. He knew they wouldn’t because he was the one who put the red jelly stain on the sofa, and he wasn’t saying anything!
The truth is, of course, that we have all stained the sofa. God offered us forgiveness, but many of us struggle to feel forgiven. This is why God has given us the practise of confession. When we practise confession well we are liberated from guilt and we will not be able to look at the sin in the same way in the future.
Source: John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted.
(Note: this is a modern retelling of the parable of the prodigal son. The details are fictional. When using the story adapt the details to your situation – eg city, etc. Also remember to point out at the end that the story is fictional)
Jenny grew up in Rankin Park, Newcastle. In her early teenage years she fell into a pattern of long running battles with her parents. They didn’t react too well when she came home with a nose ring. They were furious when she stayed out all night without so much as a phone call to tell them where she was. Her friends weren’t exactly her parent’s first choice.
One night Jenny and her folks have a huge fight. “I hate you!” she screams at her father as she slams the door to her bedroom. That night she acts on a plan that’s been forming for some time. Once everyone has gone to sleep she gets dressed, packs a bag and goes into the kitchen. Opening the kitchen drawer she rifles through her parent’s wallets. She takes the credit cards, the cash, and their bank book. She hops on the train and heads for Sydney. When she gets there she waits on the doorstep of the Commonwealth Bank so she can be the first through the door. She forges her mother’s signature and withdraws $12500 her parents had in their investment account. She grabs a cab to the airport and uses Dad’s credit card to buy a ticket to Melbourne – she figures the last place her parents will look for her is on the streets of St Kilda.
She arrives in Melbourne and pretty soon she’s enjoying the high life – a new group of friends, plenty of booze, late nights, sleep all day, no school, no parent’s hassling her about a nose ring, let alone her experiments with sex and drugs. It doesn’t take long til the $12500’s gone and the credit cards have been cancelled.
Back home her parent’s are frantic. Mum’s had to start packing shelves at night to pay off the credit card debt, and the $12500 set aside for her sister’s university fees is gone. The police are notified, the streets are searched – first Newcastle, then Kings Cross. Her parents don’t know what’s happened. They fear the worst.
Meanwhile down on the streets of St Kilda things aren’t going too well. Jenny’s soon addicted to heroin and the money she stole doesn’t go too far. She moves into a squat and starts selling herself for sex.
One day she’s walking down the street and sees a poster on the telegraph pole. It’s headed “Have you seen this girl?” Below the heading is a photo of her – at least as she used to look. The poster’s got her parent’s phone number on it, and asks for anyone with information to call. Jenny rips the poster down, folds it up and puts it into her pocket.
The months pass, then the years. Jenny’s been careless one time too many. At first she writes off her sickness as just another bout of flu. But the illness persists. She goes to the free clinic to discover she’s contracted Hepatitis C and HIV. Not even the brothel wants anything to do with her now.
As she sits lonely, tired and hungry in the squat, she looks at the poster she’d rescued from that telegraph pole and saved for the last few years. She thinks back to her previous life – as a typical schoolgirl in a middle class suburban Newcastle family. It triggers memories of the famous family waterfight one steaming summer day when she was 12; and of crazy moments dancing together; of her sister’s comforting arms when she broke up with David. “God, why did I leave?” she says to herself. “Even the family mutt lives a better life than I do.” She’s sobbing now, and knows that more than anything she wants to go home.
Three straight phone calls, three connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Mum, dad, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a train up to Newcastle. I’ll be at Newcastle station about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well I guess I’ll just stay on the train til I get to Queensland.”
The next day on the train Jenny thinks about all the flaws in her plan. What if mum and dad were out and miss the message? And what are they going to do if they heard it anyway – after all, it’s been 10 years and they haven’t heard a word from me in all that time. How are they going to react when they discover I’m a junkie with AIDS? If they do show up what on earth am I going to say?…”
The train pulls into Newcastle station at ten minutes past midnight. She hears the hiss of the brakes as the train comes to a stop. Her heart starts pounding. “This is it. Oh well, get ready for nothing.”
Jenny steps out of the train not knowing what to expect. She looks to her right and sees an empty platform, but before she can look back she hears someone call her name. Her head whips around and there’s her mum and dad and her sister and her aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother. They’re holding a banner that reads “Welcome home”, and everyone’s wearing goofy party hats and throwing streamers and popping party poppers, and there’s her mum and dad running towards her, tears streaming down their face, arms held wide. Jenny can’t move. Her parent’s grab her with such force it almost knocks her over.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I know…”
“Hush child. Forget the apologies. All we care about is that you’re home. I just want to hold you. Come on, everyone’s waiting – we’ve got a big party organised at home.” And Jenny finds herself awash in a sea of family and love that she has not known for over 10 years.
Source: A fictional story by Scott Higgins modelled on a similar story in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace and paralleling the story of the prodigal son