His name was Charles. I sat by his bedside as he lay dying. It did not promise to be a peaceful passage. Charles was a hard man; rude to the medical staff; alienated from his adult children; and just plain mean. I had been called to his side, not to comfort him, but because even in his failing condition he wanted to argue about religion.
But it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the end of life, toward the fact that this man’s time was short. Gigantic tears formed in his eyes. His hardened façade began to crumble, and Charles said, “I need to tell you something.”
Charles took me back to the French countryside. It was the summer of the D-Day invasion. The now old hospital patient recalled being a young GI who was assigned to guard a Hitler youth, a teenager, who had been captured. Unexpectedly, the boy produced a knife from his boot and attacked Charles. In the struggle that ensued, Charles killed the young man. He concluded his story by saying, “I have prayed for that boy’s soul every day of my life.”
Charles’ crusty shell and mean spirit were nothing more than the natural outcome of carrying this sorrow around for his entire life. And remarkably, after this confession, Charles’ condition improved dramatically. Ultimately, he recovered and returned home. 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 we allowed those regrets 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. It leads to new life.
Philip Yancey wrote a marvelous little book: “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” There is a chapter entitled, “Patches of Green” where Yancey talks about the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. When the first scientists returned to the mountainside, it looked like a moonscape. There was nothing but ash covered dunes, craters, and dust.
But they also found small patches of grass and flowers where the forest floor was returning to life – patches of green that were eerily shaped like deer, bear, and moose. The places where life first returned were the places that life had ended. Fertile soil was created for fresh, healthy growth to take root.
It’s a painful lesson but a necessary one: Where and when we fall, and a part of us dies, that is not a place to wallow too long in our regrets. That is where new life can flourish – life like we never thought possible.