His name was Charles. I sat by his bedside as, for all practical reasons, he was dying. I couldn’t begin to recount for you all the things that had gone wrong, medically speaking. Physically, he was a train wreck, as if his body was in rebellion against him. And to make matters worse, he was a hard man. He was rude to the medical staff. He was demanding. He was just plain mean. So when all else failed, they called for a pastor to make a visit. The only reason the man accepted a visit from me was because, even in his compromised condition, he still wanted to fight about religion. And fight he did.
But it didn’t take long, jousting back and forth, for our conversation to turn toward the end of life; toward the fact that this man’s time was nearing an end. Gigantic tears formed in Charles’ eyes. The hardened façade he had been maintaining began to crumble, and he said, “I need to tell you something.”
Charles took me back six decades to the French countryside. It was summer and the weeks following the D-Day invasion ofNormandy. The now old hospital patient recalled being a young GI forced into guarding a Hitler youth, a teenager, had been taken captive by Allied forces. Charles, who was not an infantryman, was put in charge of holding this kid until he could be relieved.
Unexpectedly, the boy produced a knife from his boot and attacked Charles. In the struggle, that ensued Charles killed the young man to save himself. Charles concluded his story by saying, “I have prayed for that boy’s soul every day of my life.”
By this time those gigantic tears were rolling down his face, and mine. His body shook with a grief that was sixty years old, but a grief as fresh as the telling of the story. The thick hide and mean spirit were nothing more than the natural outcome of carrying this sorrow around for his entire life.
After this confession Charles improved dramatically. Ultimately he went home feeling much better, and the last I saw of him he was still doing well. Now, I had nothing to do with his turnaround. It was the result of him unloading his regrets.
God knows we all have regrets. We can resist and fight against these, allowing the past to drive us to self-abuse and destruction, one day waking up hardened, calloused and nasty, having failed at living – not because mistakes were made or because we have regrets – but because of what those regrets were allowed to do to us.
Or, we can take those same circumstances and learn from them. Let them draw us to a generous God. Experience his grace, learn to grant that grace to others, and find that the time of sorrow is not time wasted. Sorrow that leads us to God, leads us to our own salvation.
Philip Yancey, a few years ago, wrote a marvelous little book entitled What’s So Amazing About Grace. Toward the end, there is a chapter entitled “Patches of Green” where Yancey talks about the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens.
When some of the first scientists returned to the hardest hit areas after the eruption, it looked like a moonscape; nothing but ash covered dunes, craters, and dust. But they also found small patches of green grass and flowers where the forest was coming back to life. It took the researchers a while, but they began to notice that these patches had an eerie shape.
They were in the shape of deer, bear, moose, and mountain lions. The green patches, the places were life first returned, erupted in the exact spots where life had ended. Where the animals fell and died, new life was born.
What does God want to do with our regrets? He does not want them to be the end of us. Where we fall, and a part of us dies, that is where God can bring new life to flourish and grow – life like we never thought possible.