For several days and nights, I’ve preached the Gospel to teenagers, thirty-somethings, and those who have paid the dues of time and life and have the white hair to prove it. I’ve poured out my heart to them about grace–receiving grace and living grace, praying grace and forgiving grace, grace for the prodigal and grace for the elder brother, grace everywhere for everything–and salvation that comes with grace as a package deal.
The result has been uneven like planting a garden and having the carrots all bunched up at the end of the row and nothing at the other and the corn stalks growing up into a gap-toothed grin.
On Thursday afternoon, I speak about making room in one’s heart and life for Christ and how the prayers and loving diligence of parents and teachers can build that room to be filled for eternity with the love of the Father revealed to us in Christ.
I tell of my own Dad living out that love with generous heart and spirit. Dad bought me a Bible and hymnal set at camp meeting when I was twelve and taught me to love the Word and the hymns of faith as practical guides to living. I share with the group Dad’s loving acceptance of his children who were always welcomed home no matter where we had been or what we had done.
“This,” I say, “gave me a glimpse of the love of our heavenly Father and built a room in the hearts of my brothers, sister and I where Christ lives and where we still return, again and again, to find life and hope and healing. That room built in prayer, kindness, and family worship is the greatest gift a dad and mom can give their children.”
The people who come up to talk to me afterwards thank me for being “real.” One old man in a yellow coat and a straw fedora to match his ivory goatee approaches me with stern eyes and trembling body. “I hope that you are grateful for what you have,” he says with fire in his voice.
“Excuse me, sir.”
“I hope that you are grateful for what you talked about . . . what your Dad did for you.”
“I am very grateful, sir. Everything that I told you starts from my father’s love pointing me to Jesus. . . .”
He does not let me finish. “Because my father never gave me any of that.” He pauses, obviously fighting for control.
“He was illiterate and could never hold a job for the shame of what the other men would say about him. He never told me he loved me. He never gave me advice or tenderness like you talked about. Nothing! Nothing! I never even had a Bible until I was 24-years old.” His voices rises in an anguished sob and he turns away from me for a moment.
I can see that the old man trembles because my talk of father-love has awakened emotions long since buried in his soul. He is fighting hard for control of something that is eating him away from the inside.
Now, as the late afternoon thunder rolls across the mountains and the west wind spatters rain on the windows of the conference center, he turns back with me and squares off his stance in front of me. His voice is hard as he snaps the words, “You need to be grateful, that’s all!”
The old man is rigid and fierce before me, even if moved, unmoving. He has kept the hole in his heart covered for a long time. Somehow my words have cleared away the brush and pulled the tarp back and there is the hole. He sees it now with nothing to be said for it except, “There it is!”
All my carefully crafted words of the past hour about the love of the Father are a drop in the bucket of the old man’s need that threatens to pull me in. The other people waiting to talk stand back a respectful distance from the charged electric field between the old man and me.
“Sir,” I say softly, “God is the Father that no one has ever had–not you and not me. The best of parents are only human and come up short, but our Father in heaven loves us and doesn’t quit loving us. I believe this and you need to know this in here.” I tap my finger over my heart for emphasis.
Even as the words come out of my mouth, I think, “This is preacher-talk and he knows that I am no preacher.” I doubt that my trickle of words will soak into the drought-hardened soil of the old man’s heart.
But yet, here he is in front of me responding to the message of the Father’s love with a ferocious demand that it be true. The message has come late, maybe for the last time, so it simply has to be true.
There comes a whisper in my heart of a Scripture, but with a new understanding: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). That was the cry of an anguished father for his child. It is Christ who answered it then. It is Christ who will answer it now when the anguished child cries out for the Father.
The word I have delivered has exposed the wound, but it is Christ who will tenderly heal it. There is something sacred happening here and my fingerprints should not mar it.
The old man stares at me for another long moment with eyes full of remembered pain and regret. Then he turns away and so do I to greet the next person in line.
All I know is that the old man is there in the third row on Friday afternoon. I see him smile when I speak of forgiveness. I do not hold back in speaking of the power of Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves in prying loose the grip of the past from our souls. May the good Lord, as he knows and as he wills, have healing mercy on the pieces of the old man’s broken heart that still rattle around in my mind and prayer.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,