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I've always been known as something of a jerk. I am proud and stubborn and yet I am also unsure of myself. I love to be noticed but at the same time I wonder who's watching me when I go into a store to shop. This can be a problem, especially if the person I am watching who's watching me is store security. So, when someone asked me what I would do when graduating seminary school, I said something stupid like this:
"Oh, just give me a way station at the gates of Hell and I'll save everybody who comes along." (Proud? Stubborn? and maybe a speck of arrogance, ya think?)
So, lo and behold, (to use some biblical language) I find myself sitting in a small green building about 20 yards from some really creepy wrought-iron, black gates. At first I thought it was a joke. I looked around the forest that surrounded me, and found nothing, no one, but a path. A foot-path that I just had to follow to see who was up to this gag. Well, I walked for something like two hours and found myself back where I had started.
It was spooky.
When I returned to the green building (which I now call "The Station") I found it fully supplied with food, furnishings, including a bed in a little room off to the side. The kitchen looked like one from a farm house in the Midwest. It was a galley kitchen, small but surprisingly efficient and rather homey. There was already a kettle of water simmering on the stove and two cups and saucers set out on the counter.
That made me nervous.
I took off my windbreaker and laid it over the back of a chair next to a small table in the kitchen. I turned off the water that was simmering and strolled into the greater area of The Station. In the living room, there were empty, glass show-cases that lined the walls and encircled a sitting area. I couldn't quite figure out what these cases would be used for.
Outside, it was quiet and warm and the sky was the most brilliant blue. There wasn't a sound. Usually, you hear birds or wind or other ambient sounds, but it was silent. That made me more nervous. Then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look out of the window and saw my first customer.
It was a man. Taller than myself, he wore a suit and tie. He stood before the Black Gates eyeing them intently. His manner suggested defiance, but the Black Gates were strong, massive and defeating. As I watched him stare at the entrance to Hell, I had a surprising vision. In the vision, I saw him standing at the Black Gates but his hands were bound behind him with the tie he was wearing. When I returned to the real world he was not bound at all. I realized that God had showed me some secret about this man. He had given me a hint or maybe a key to this man's salvation ... or his condemnation. I felt anxious enough to consider turning away and ignoring him, but the gates shivered as though preparing to open and I was filled with dread. I knew that turning my back would certainly condemn him. For his sin, there could be no remedy. Could I watch while the gates opened and this man, who was condemned already and who was my charge by Divine appointment, walk through?
"I can't forgive him." he said quietly. If I forgive him, it will be like saying that everything he did to me and said to me was O.K. And that's not O.K. with me." He got up and paced around the kitchen.
"Forgiveness doesn't make everything O.K." I said. "That's a common misconception. Actually, forgiveness isn't for him. Forgiveness is for you."
"Hey, remember, he's dead? He won't be forgiving me for anything, and anyway, I did everything I could to please him, so..."
"That's not what I meant," I said, "When you forgive your father, you begin your own healing. The act of forgiveness has nothing to do with your father. When you forgive him, you choose to say 'I will not let anger and bitterness destroy my life. I will live free of my father's control over me.'"
He paused, and blinked as though the concept was difficult to grasp.
"I never thought about it like that," he said. He looked down at his ring. The diamond sparkled even in the relative shadow of the galley kitchen. His expression went from thoughtful to grave.
"So, if I forgive him, that doesn't mean what he did is OK," he said slowly. "If I forgive him, I'll feel better and won't be so angry?" he sat down again.
"Yes, but it's hard for humans to forgive. We say it, and we think we should feel something in our hearts that means we've resolved the issue, but the old feelings of anger and resentment will try to come back. If you truly want healing and change in your own heart you have to do two things."
"It figures." he said. "There's always a catch somewhere."
"Well, do you want to know, or not?"
His mouth became a thin line.
"Fine. Tell me."
"First, you have to trust God to help you with forgiveness. Without his help, you'll never be able to do it. Second, you have to watch your heart constantly. If you find anger and resentment growing there again, if you begin to imagine the things he did and said to you, and how you should have responded or what you would like to say and do now, you will begin to destroy the changes you have made."
"Well, of course we have to bring God into this." he said sarcastically.
I smiled. I couldn't help it.
"Who's gates do you think they are, anyway?" He opened his mouth to make another snide remark, then changed his mind.
"How do I know this is true?" he asked.
"Well, I just happen to have The Book with me."
He didn't run out the door, so I opened the Bible and began to tell him about God's plan of salvation. I began with Jesus: how he died, why he died and our responsibility as followers to forgive others, because he forgave us first.
"What if I just..." he began.
I shook my head. "Don't try to deal with God. He has all the cards. You have to make a decision before you leave this building. You have a choice. You can go through the gates, or you can change your destiny. What will it be?" He sat pensively for several minutes.
"OK." he said slowly. "What do I have to do?"
"Well, it would be good if you were to pray and repent of your sins. Then ask for God's forgiveness and for his help to forgive your father. Are you willing to do that and mean it from your heart?"
"Yes. I can do that," he said.
We prayed and I led him in the sinner's prayer. We prayed for God's help to forgive his father and to help him be a true follower of Jesus. When he looked up, I saw his face, the change was amazing. The coldness in his eyes had vanished and tears brimmed there. I thought I was seeing things.
"I'm sorry." he said as he wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. "I can't ..." He seemed as surprised as I by his emotions. "What's happening to me?" he asked and he suddenly barked out a laugh that surprised both of us. He looked startled, then the single laugh turned into chuckles, then more laughter, tears, sobbing. This went on for some minutes. Finally, he collected himself. He wiped his face again and shook his head ruefully.
"Man, I haven't felt any emotion, except anger, forever. I had no idea how boxed in I was. Do--do you think I'm going crazy?" he whispered.
I smiled, "No. You've just made contact with the God of the Universe and he loves you. He's healing you. You're just feeling it. It will take a while, but if you trust him and take it day by day, you'll get there."
He looked down at the ring on his finger. Suddenly, he began to work at getting it off. Once removed, he held it out to me.
"Here," he said simply, "I don't want it anymore. It's yours."
"What?" I stood up and backed away. "You can't give me that! It's too valuable. It doesn't have any sentimental value for me. What would I do with it?"
"I don't care what you do with it." he looked into the living area. "There's an idea." he said. I turned and saw the empty glassed-in show-cases that lined the walls of the room. "Put it in one of those." he grabbed my hand and placed the ring in it. "A memento."
"No. I can't begin to tell you how much you've done for me and what a weight it will lift from my shoulders if you will accept it. Don't make me take it with me. It will just be a relic from a painful part of my life that I want to be rid of."
"You might never come back this way again." I said as I looked at the gleaming diamond. "You might regret..."
"Never." he said. "Thank you. I'll never forget what you've done." With that, he turned and left The Station. He walked past The Gates, down the path, and I never saw him again. His ring sits inside a show-case on a lame pillow I found. It seems that God thinks of everything.