I had the honor this past semester to take my students to Poland for our mission trip. We are associated with a small church upstart there in Warsaw, and our primary goal was to spend time with them, encouraging them and aiding them in what Father has called them to be in their city.
One of the main things I wanted to do while in Poland was to visit a Nazi death camp. I knew, in certain terms, that the specters of nazism, communism and a institutional catholicism still haunted the Polish people, and I wanted our team to have a first-hand experience of what happens when a “big idea” is pushed and twisted in such a way that individuals can divorce themselves from responsibility to the larger atrocities. We headed out to Lublin and the most complete camp still in existence, Majdanek. It was a harrowing moment; everything is almost exactly as it was when the Russian troops descended on the camp on July 22, 1944. The nazis had no time to destroy the evidence of what had taken place there over the previous three years.
I knew the process of walking through this place would not necessarily be an easy or enjoyable one, but I wasn’t sure how to receive what i stood in the midst of. We often tend to filter our own experiences through an anticipation of how we’re supposed to feel, and I wanted this trip to be one that was pure and honest. Perhaps the most powerful revelation for me was walking down a pebbled path between the barracks, hearing my own footsteps crunch in the wet stones, and realizing I was walking where these nazi soldiers had walked. Young men, not so different from me. Caught up in a big idea. Snowballed in lies until they couldn’t sort through the reality of what they were doing. I was overcome with sadness as I realized that the same spirit that drove them to partake in such an oppressive and destructive regime was also in me. It was uncomfortable to say the least.
The bus ride back to Warsaw was not a joyous experience. In my attempts to fall asleep, I found tension building within me. I was still wrestling with my experience in Majdanek, I was fighting frustration at my team for [what I selfishly perceived] was their attempts to shut out the reality of the concentration camp and pretend life is dandy, and I was frustrated at myself for my own inability to overcome my bitterness and selfishness. Eventually I began to dialogue with Father about all these pains I was grasping so tightly, trying to ask for forgiveness yet remaining unwilling to let it go. Have you ever found yourself in that sort of tension? I was keenly aware of the theological answers to my disillusionment, but I could not will myself to fully hand it over to Him.
There was a girl sitting next to me on this bus. She was young, probably in her early twenties. From the moment I sat down I hadn’t once made eye contact or even looked at her; from what our friends told us that sort of thing is not as culturally acceptable in Poland as it is in the States. As we were nearing downtown Warsaw and I continued hash out this internal battle, there was one peak-of-a-thought that escaped through the cloudiness to God: “Lord, what do you want to say to this girl?” It was just a squint of a prayer in the midst of my selfishness. But God is faithful. He immediately gave me an image of this young lady knitting a woolen hat, not unlike the one I was wearing at that moment. Right over the image I saw the word COMFORT. Needless to say, I did NOT want to share with this girl. The prayer had been an accident, I wasn’t in the right mental space to minister to a stranger. “Okay God,” I said, “if this is something you want her to know, then you can communicate it to her through the Spirit, and I’ll know it’s real”. Silence; nothing happened. Hmm. There was an anxiety building within me, almost like it was filling up my spine. I have learned over the past year to translate that feeling as genuine revelation of the Spirit and not my stuff. I spent another 20 minutes or so going back-and-forth over whether I should say anything to her, all the while struggling with my personal hurt of the day. Finally, I drew up the courage to say something.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“Are you a christian?”
“Has God ever spoken to you?”
Sigh. “Well, I was just sitting here asking Him if He had anything to say to you, and he gave me this picture,” I described to her what I saw. “I think He wants you to know that He’s gifted you with a strong ability to comfort others. Even in small things, like a word or your presence, you carry a powerful spirit of comfort. And He loves to watch you step in to that. The most insignificant things you may do to comfort others delight Him.” I paused. “Is that weird?”
“A little bit.”
“yeah, that’s weird. I’m sorry. But just think and pray on that.” I went back to staring holes in the back of the seat in front of me.
Two minutes later we arrived at our stop. I quickly gathered my things and exited the bus, but as soon as I did, I felt this tremendous release of anxiety and self-deprecating frustration. As I spoke of it to my friend Jozef about it, I recalled this profound epiphany my dear friend David has spoken of in his sermon a month prior. At the end of the gospel of John, Jesus appears to his disciples as they are fishing. After a miraculous catch and some breakfast, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter replies. “Then feed my lambs,” Jesus says. Again, Jesus asks the same question, and Peter responds with the same statement. “Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says. The third time Jesus asks him, Peter is hurt. “Lord, you know all things. You KNOW that I love you.” “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says a final time.
David said this was Jesus actively forgiving Peter for his denial on the advent of the crucifixion. I first I didn’t make the connection outside of the number three, but then it hit me. Forgiveness is not simply a few nice words and a clean slate. True forgiveness from God gives us opportunities to demonstrate forgiveness. To sit in it as a way of life, to swim around in it and breath it in. To be saturated by the reality of forgiveness. Jesus was forgiving Peter by giving him a mandate to love those who desperately needed it. To respond to his forgiveness, not as a way to earn it, but as a way to experience it to the fullest.
God forgave me on that bus ride to Warsaw, and it wasn’t through simply making my frustration go away, but by providing an opportunity to administer His kingdom into the world. It was through feeding one of His lambs. That revelation has transformed my understanding of His forgiveness and grace. I was empowered by the Father Heart to release my idolatrous expectations of His children and share love in some small way with a complete stranger.
So when you find yourself overcome by wretchedness, inadequacy, frustration, petition your Father. Don’t simply ask for forgiveness, but ask for an opportunity to exercise what that forgiveness means in a tangible way. It is your willingness, not your ability, that qualifies you. May God forgive you, and may He continue to forgive me.