The most significant symbol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is a tree; a now-sprawling, shade-bearing, eighty-year old American elm. Tourists even drive from miles around just to see it. People pose for pictures beneath it. Arborists carefully protect and shelter it It adorns posters, even letterhead. Other trees grow larger, fuller, even more colorfully greener. But no other one is equally cherished. The city treasures the tree, not only for its appearance, but more importantly, for its endurance.
This tree endured and survived the Oklahoma City bombing.
Timothy McVeigh parked his death-laden truck only yards form it. His malice killed 168 people, wounded some 850 more, destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and buried the tree in rubble. No one expected it to survive because very little around it did. Everyone just shoveled away all the debris in which it was immersed and left it behind, seemingly forgotten. No one, in fact, gave any thought to the dusty, branch-stripped tree because it was simply reduced to a standing pole.
But then it began to bud.
Sprouts pressed through damaged bark; green leaves pushed and shoved themselves through gray soot. Life resurrected from an acre of death. People began to notice and the tree modeled the resilience the victims needed and desired. So they gave the responsive elm a name: the Survivor Tree.
There are still Timothy McVeighs who rock our world. They still, inexcusably, inexplicably maim and scare us. We want to imitate the tree and survive the evil, rise above the ruins, restore normalcy. But how?
David can enter the picture and give us some ideas. When Saul "McVeighs" his way into David's world, David dashes into the desert, where he finds refuge among the caves near the Dead Sea. Several hundred loyalists follow him. So does Saul. And in two dramatic desert scenes, David models how to inspire grace in the person who can give nothing to us but misery and grief.
Scene One: Saul signals for his men to stop and they do. Three thousand soldiers cease their marching as their king dismounts and walks up the mountainside. The region of En Gedi simmers in the brick-oven heat. Sunrays strike dagger-like on the soldiers' necks. Lizards lie beneath the rocks, scorpions linger in the dirt longer than we would like and snakes, just like Saul, seek rest in the coolness of the cave.
Saul enters a cave. Coincidentally, David and his men are hiding far back in the cave (1 Samuel 24: 3). With eyes dulled from the desert sun, the king fails to notice the silent figures who line the walls and whose piercing gaze completely covers him. But they cannot miss him. Dozens of eyes widen and are riveted on the royal person. Their minds race and hands quietly make their way along their sides as they reach for daggers. One thrust of the blade will bring Saul's tyranny and their running and hiding to an end. But David signals for his men to hold back. He edges along the wall, unsheathes his knife and cuts not the flesh, but the robe cape of Saul. David then stealthily creeps back into the safety recesses of the cave.
David's men cannot believe what their leader has done. Neither can David. Yet his feelings do not reflect their miscued thinking. He is so close, yet so far away. Within his grasp was the life of a misery-laden human being who inflicts untold hurt on all in the kingdom. David's men think he has done too little; he thinks he has done too much. Rather than gloat, he regrets. "Later David feels guilty because he has cut off a corner of Saul's robe. He said to his men, 'May the Lord keep me from doing such a thing to my master! Saul is the Lord's appointed king. I should not do anything against him because he is the Lord's appointed king"' 1 Samuel 24: 5, 6.
Saul exits the cave and David later, as the coast is clear, follows. He lifts the garment comer and in so many words, shouts, "I could have killed you, but I didn't" Saul looks up, stunned, astounded, surprised and wonders aloud 'If a man finds his enemy, will he let him get away safely" 1 Samuel 24: 29?
David will, more than once.
Just a couple of chapters beyond this incident, Saul once again, hunts David. David, once again, out-shrewds Saul. While the camp of the king sleeps, daredevil David and a soldier stealth their way through the ranks until they stand directly over the snoring body-heap of the king. The soldier begs, "This is the moment God has put your enemy in your grasp. Let me nail him to the ground with his own spear. One hit will do it, believe me; I won't need a second" I Samuel 26: 8.
But David will not have it. Rather than take Saul's life, he takes Saul's spear and water jug and sneaks out of camp once again. From a safe perspective distance, he awakens Saul and all the soldiers with an announcement: God put your life into my hands today, but I was not willing to lift a finger against God's anointed" 1 Samuel 26: 23.
Once again David spares Saul's life. Once again, David displays the God-saturated mind. Who dominates his thinking? "May the Lord ... the Lord deliver ... the Lord's anointed ... in the eyes of the Lord" I Samuel 26: 23, 24.
Once again we think about the avid purveyors of pain in our own lives. Is it one thing to share God's blessings with a beloved friend, but quite another to impart and share grace with those who give us but grief all the time? Could you do it? Given a few uninterrupted moments with the Darth Vader, the Death Viper of your day, could you imitate David?
Perhaps you could. Some people seem graced with mercy glands. They secrete forgiveness, are purveyors of God's mercy and love, never harboring grudges or reciting lists of their hurts. Others of us find it hard to forgive the Sauls in our lives.
Yes, certainly, we forgive eagerly the one-time isolated offenders, mind you. We dismiss the parking-place stealers, the date-breakers, even the purse-snatchers. We can move past the misdemeanors, but the felonies? The repeat offenders? The litany-long sinners against our pride? The Sauls who take our youth, our retirement and our health? Were that scoundrel to seek shade in your cave or lie sleeping at your feet, would you do what David did? Could you forgive the scum who hurt you? Failure to do so could be even more fatal. "...resentment kills a fool and envy slays the simple" Job 5: 2. Vengeance fixes your attention at life's ugliest moments and stays for a time, impressing its evil on your soul. Score-settling freezes your stare at cruel events in your past. Is this where you want to look and stay fixated? Will rehearsing your hurts make you a better person? By no means; it will destroy you.
We often think of the jocular story told by some. Joe complains to Jerry about the irritating habit of a mutual friend. The guy pokes his finger in Joe's chest as he talks. It drives Joe crazy. So he resolves, he thinks cleverly, to get even. He shows Jerry a small bottle of highly explosive nitroglycerin tied to a string. He goes on to explain. "I am going to wear this around my neck, letting the bottle hang over the exact spot where I keep getting poked. Next time you stick your finger into my chest, you will pay for it." Not nearly as much as Joe will, right? Enemy destroyers need two graves. "It is foolish to harbor a grudge" Ecclesiastes 7: 9, teaches us. An eye for an eye becomes neck for neck and job for job and reputation for reputation, even a life for a life. When does it stop? It stops when one person imitates David's God-dominated thinking mind.
He faced Saul the way he faced Goliath, by facing God more so and very directly, taking God true to his words. When soldiers in the cave urged David to kill Saul, look who occupied David's thoughts. "The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord" 1 Samuel 24: 6.
When David called out to Saul from the mouth of the cave, "David stooped with his face to the earth and bowed down" 1 Samuel 24: 8. He recognized that even though Saul took leave of his senses, he was still king, appointed to the position by God. Then he reiterated his conviction: "I will not stretch out my hand against my Lord, for he is the Lord's anointed." 1 Samuel 24: 10.
In the second scene, during the nighttime campsite attack, David maintained his belief. "Who can stretch out his hand against the Lord's anointed and be guiltless" I Samuel 26: 9?
In these two scenes of importance, we count six times when David called Saul, "the Lord's anointed." Can you think of another term David might have used? In reality, road kill and epoxy brain come to mind. But not in the mind of David. He saw, not Saul the enemy, but Saul the anointed. God still had not retrieved his anointing of Saul. He refused to see this grief-giver as anything less than a child of God. David did not applaud Saul's behavior because in anyone's mind, it was sinful and bizarre. He simply acknowledged reality, he recognized Saul's proprietor, God himself. David filtered his view of Saul through the grid of heaven, of eternity itself. The king still belonged to God, and that gave David hope.
A man tells this story about his beloved pet dog. When given to the care of a kennel for a week-end while the family was on a trip, the small golden retriever puppy was maliciously attacked by a rottweiler and nearly killed, mangled as he desperately was. The owner's feelings toward the mutt were less than Davidic, but he was quickly brought to his senses. He wanted the larger dog put to sleep. The kennel owner, however told him, 'What that dog did was terrible and horrible, unthinkable. But I am still training him and I am not finished with him yet."
Wouldn't our heavenly Father say the same about the rottweiler who attacks us? 'What he did was unthinkable unconscionable, unacceptable inexcusable and you did not deserve it, but I am not finished yet."
Our enemies in this life still figure in God's plan. Their pulse is proof God has not given up on them. They may be out of God's will and bereft of his blessing, but not out of his reach. They may refuse heavenly blessings and salutary grace, but God still has hope. We honor our God when we see our enemies not as his failures, but as his on-going and continuing unfinished projects. God is giving them time and an encounter with us to raise their form, to elevate and to enlarge their vision and ambition of soul.
Besides which, who assigned us the task of "vengeance"? David understood this. From the mouth of the cave, he declared, "May the Lord decide between you and me. May the Lord take revenge on you for what you did to me. However, I will not lay a hand on you.... the Lord must be the judge. He will decide and I will accept his decision" 1 Samuel 24: 12, 15.
Our heavenly Father occupies the only seat on the supreme court of heaven. He is the only one who wears the judge's robe and refuses to share his gavel. For this reason St. Paul wrote, "Don't insist on getting even; this is not for you to do. 'I'll do the judging says God. I will take care of it"' Romans 12: 19.
Revenge removes God from the equation; and it puts the onus of responsibility on us. Vigilantes displace and replace God. They take him out of the picture. In all things, God is in the picture, in the fighting action with us. We cannot say to our Creator, "I am not sure you can handle this one equitably, Lord God. You may punish too little or too slowly or not enough. I will take the matter into my own hands, thank you!" Is this what you might be inclined to say? Our Lord taught us differently. No one had a clearer sense of right and wrong than the perfect Son of God, yet, "...when he suffered, he did not make any threats but left everything to the one who judges fairly" 2 Peter 2: 23. Only God assesses accurate judgments. We impose punishments too slight or too severe while God dispenses perfect justice. Vengeance is his job. Leave our enemies in God's hands. Unload your burden and hand it over to God. You are not endorsing their misbehavior when you do. You can hate what someone did without letting hatred consume you. Forgiving someone is not excusing their behavior, but recognizing it even more acutely. Nor is forgiveness pretending. David did not gloss over or sidestep Saul's sin against him. He addressed it directly. He did not avoid the issue, but he rightly did avoid Saul. "Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold" 1 Samuel 24: 22.
Do the same. Offer God's forgiveness and his grace, and if need be keep your distance. You can forgive the abusive husband without living with him. Be quick to give mercy to the immoral person. Society can dispense grace and prison terms at the same time. Offer the child molester a second chance if he needs it, but keep him off the playgrounds. Forgiveness is not foolishness. Forgiveness is, at its core choosing to see your offender with different eyes. Let it mean to you "let me be able to not think about it anymore by placing it in God's hands."
To forgive is to move on in life, towards eternity, not to think about the horror of the offense anymore, not dwell on it. You do not excuse him, endorse her, or embrace them in their behavior. You route thoughts about them through heaven's lenses. You see your enemy as God's child and revenge as God's job, always remembering when you continually look into an abyss of sin, a cesspool of horror, you can easily be drawn into it and made like it yourself.
How can grace recipients do anything else? Dare we ask God for forgiveness when we refuse to share our own? This is a huge issue in Scripture and Jesus was tough on sinners who refused to forgive other sinners. Remember his story about the servant freshly forgiven a debt of hundreds if thousands of dollars who refused to forgive a debt equal to a few minuscule dollars? He stirred the wrath of God. "You evil servant. I forgave you that tremendous debt... Shouldn't you have mercy ... just as I had mercy on you" Matthew 18: 32, 33?
In the final analysis, we impart and share the grace we have received because we ourselves have received it beyond comprehension and worth. We survive from day to day because we imitate the virtues of Christ and the Survivor Tree. We reach out and spread our roots beyond the bomb zone. We tap into the heavenly moisture of forgiveness beyond the near-death explosion. We dig deeper and deeper until we draw moisture from the mercy of God and allow it to evaporate on those about us.
Just like Saul, heaven's blessing has been poured out on us. Like David, we can freely share what God has first in his love given us.