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.
Here I am, twisted up in the same desperate situation again this year. It’s not my fault – I swear it’s not. Anticipating this jumbled mess, and having been stuck in it many times before, I planned carefully to avoid it. A year ago I employed a deliberate strategy to prevent this very disaster, and I put in painstaking efforts to manage my risk. But now I see that my preemptive planning was an obvious failure. Forces beyond my control have conspired against me to deceive and weave a tangled web. My dilemma? The annual hanging of the Christmas lights.
When I put these lights away in the attic last January they were in perfect arranged order. I had rolled and packed them so carefully, I just knew the strings of blinking colors would burst from their boxes unfettered. Instead, every strand – every single strand I tell you – looks like a giant bird’s nest.
How did this happen? Do the electrical cords naturally convulse like this? Is this how Santa’s elves keep themselves busy in the summer months – sneaking into our attics, basements, and storage units to twist and kink our well-organized Christmas decorations? Bah, humbug to it all, I say.
I doubt that Joseph had any holiday lights to string up on the first Christmas, but he had to feel like a big tangled mess had just landed in his lap. One day everything made sense. The next day nothing did. One moment he had a well-conceived plan. The next moment he had a mess on his hands. In January his life was in order, boxed nicely for the future. In December, that same life had devolved into chaos.
One day Joseph was driving nails, building furniture, and doing what carpenters do, and the next he was in the middle of a divine conspiracy. One day he was single, planning a wedding to the fair and beautiful Mary, and the next he was married, preparing to rear a child that was definitely not his. One day Joseph was at home in Nazareth in blissful, warm familiarity, and the next he was fighting off the midnight cold in a strange Bethlehem stable as a new child was born into the world. Forces beyond his control were definitely at work.
What did Joseph do with this tangled web? He went to work untangling every twisted strand of it. He took on the responsibility that had found him. Buoyed by his faith, he believed this child birthed by Mary was the miraculous, chosen One of God – the Messiah. Joseph chose to play the role of father to a child that was not his. He bore the scandalous stares and the hushed small-town gossip about his wife and his adopted son. He kept driving nails, kept building furniture, and kept doing what carpenters do, unraveling each stubborn strand as he went.
I’m sure there were a few knots that never came undone for Joseph. Like: How can God take the form of a helpless, human baby? Why did God choose Mary to bring this child into the world? Why did God pick him to be the child’s surrogate father? There were no answers to such questions; at least no easy answers.
And for us, there are often not enough answers to go around either, just twisting questions and more impossible knots. What do we do? We sit down on the floor with whatever life, God, Providence, or destiny has dealt to us and we untangle as much as we can. We live. We take on the responsibility that has found us. We keep doing whatever it is we do; we stay after it. And why? Because if we are going to live life, it will mean persisting through the confusion; there’s no other choice.
So when your well-ordered, well-kept life explodes into a tangled mess – and it will – what are you going to do? You can point fingers, blame others, curse the Fates, ask a million unanswerable questions, or you can get on with untangling things as you go.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite television shows starred Kermit the Frog. No, not Sesame Street, though I loved that program for a time as well. It was the Muppet Show. Jim Henson, God rest his soul, was a genius. And I will always be grateful to him for creating such characters as Gonzo, Beaker, Fozzie Bear, and the Swedish Chef (You-Tube a few old Chef sketches – they are still hilarious).
Obviously, no reference to the Muppet Show would be complete without discussing those Muppet merchants of doom and gloom: Statler and Waldorf. Those were the two old men who sat in the balcony and complained about, well, everything. According to Statler and Waldorf, the actors could not deliver their lines properly. The show writers were rank amateurs. The rest of the cast labored beneath the bulging, cynical eyes of these two critics. No one could do anything right. Statler and Waldorf have always been, in my mind, the poster boys for the Old Testament prophets; crotchety old men, sitting high and mighty apart from others, mad at the world, and who can’t wait until the curtain drops, the show ends, and everyone and everything is thankfully ushered into the fire.
But I am learning that my thinking about prophets and prophecy is wrong. The prophet is not a critic, though he is often critical. He is not a madman, though he is often angry. He is not observing from the upper gallery at all. The prophet is on stage, creatively pointing to a better world. Or another way to think about it: The prophets weren’t coroners pronouncing death on the world. They were physicians come to the world with the necessary medication. When we think of prophecy, we must learn to think in terms of hope, not of destruction.
Walter Brueggemann says that the prophets shattered the status quo, and pointed to new possibilities. They spoke of the future world, not necessarily as it will be, but the way it could and should be. They described the world as God was making it.
The prophet moved people to hope in a future much different than the life they were living. Prophets arose during dark and dangerous days, often when people were steeped in the disastrous consequences of their transgressions, or surrounded by their enemies, or with their social, religious, and economic structures in ruin.
It was then a prophet would take up his or her brush and paint a picture of a much different future: When the lion would lay down with the lamb, when God would rule and live among his people, when the goodness of creation would be restored. There was not always a host of detail, but there was always hope. Things could and would change.
The supreme prophecy, of course, was about the One who would bring God’s world to earth – God’s kingdom. It was the prophecy of the coming Messiah. From Isaiah 7: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
The New Testament sees the birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of that prophecy. We read in Matthew that Joseph was considering not marrying Mary. Why? Well, she was pregnant, and he knew it wasn’t his baby. But he was assured, as crazy as it sounds, by one of God’s angels, that the child inside her womb was the child Isaiah spoke of six centuries earlier.
And the name to be attached to this child was the name, Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” The extraordinary thing is not that the prophecy came true, this is the world God envisioned after all. The extraordinary thing is that God came to live on earth as a man to appropriate his vision. Initiated by Jesus, and alive in the human heart, God is making all things new. That is extraordinary, and that is hope. That is our hope. And no amount of armchair or balcony-sitting cynicism can extinguish such optimism.