Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Abide With Me


It was the first time I had ever seen a standing ovation for a  confessed killer.  It was also the first time I had seen a standing ovation after the first keynote address to these high schoolers.  They usually reserve their judgement until  the end of the week.  Their admiration isn’t easily won.

It was also the first time I had a feeling that I was in the presence of greatness.  Princeton Abaroahoa may not be another Nelson Mandela but he’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to in my lifetime.  With a mellow voice holding onto a soft African accent he sometimes spoke as soft and gentle as a mother’s touch.  Then he could switch to make his case for the power of God’s love with the vibrant energy of a drum major.

I already knew Princeton’s son from other youth retreats.  Last week I understood where Daniel got his character from. 

As a child in Nigeria,  Princeton lived inside a world torn asunder by a civil war that began in 1967.  When he was 12 years old he was kidnapped by the army.  This isn’t a new technique and unfortunately they still are doing it.  These are the people who kidnapped the school girls we are still worrying about.

Princeton told us that they were drugged and taught to kill, then sent out to villages to kill innocent people.  He doesn’t think too much of Russia because most of their equipment was manufactured in Russia.  He didn’t give us more details than that and I’m sure it was a time of his life he would like to forget.  What ended his time as a soldier was the day a hand grenade blew up in his hand and burned most of his body.

The doctors usually amputated the hand as a quick and expedient way to get the kid out of the hospital.  There was not enough time or resources to save a badly mangled hand.  Princeton’s uncle found out and took him home to get proper medical care.  He told us how many surgeries he had but there wasn’t room for that statistic in my brain—I was too busy taking in the horror of it all. He needed skin grafts on his hand but that was impossible because most of his skin had been so badly burned he didn’t have enough healthy tissue.  So they grafted skin from someone else.  He showed us pictures of the hand in between photos of the child soldiers and starving children. 

The whole thing would have been overwhelming if not for his comforting words and the idea that the story had as happy an end as possible in the midst of such evil.

After the hospital he went to a school run by Christian missionaries. And there he found Jesus and, as Princeton says, he hasn't stopped talking about Him yet.

He ask them “Who is  this Jesus?  Is it possible Princeton could be forgiven after all he had done? Explain to me this idea of Grace.”  Then he realized he had to go to the families of the people he had killed.  Friends, naturally cautioned him against this move.  "They will kill you," he was told.  I can't imagine what courage it took to do this.  But he went and begged their forgiveness and he didn't get killed.

Princeton ended up in Oklahoma as fate would have it.  He entered a Baptist seminary in Chickasaw, Oklahoma.  Then, as my people would joke, he “saw the light” and became Presbyterian.  And just last year around this time he was approved to serve as a Presbyterian pastor. 

The theme of our retreat was, of course:  Grace.  I’ve come to realize all sermons are ultimately and simply, about Grace.  I tell the Confirmation Class that when they are examined by the elders and asked a question they can’t answer they can  simply say, “I’m not sure but I know it has something to do with grace.”

In fact, the Garland Women’s Retreat in February next year will be about Grace.  We name about a third of the Presbyterian churches Grace Presbyterian. We sing songs about it.  We try to live into it and in this we spend most of our lives trying to understand the concept.

But there was another word Princeton wanted us to understand:  “abide.”  And in one keynote session he spent some time explaining that the goal is to abide in Christ so that He is so seamlessly imbedded in you that folks can’t tell where you end and Christ begins.  A lofty goal.  An almost impossible one, you could say.  But the first step is to understand the word “abide.”

He spoke of grafting trees.  You can’t get an apple from an orange tree.  Unless you graft the host tree with a guest bud.  My friend James has an apricot tree that gives him peaches.  Could my simple life produce fruit as fantastic as Christ’s?

Well, one night at our evening devotional our small group leader asked him to come visit our group and answer questions from the kids.  By this time the kids were so impressed by his story they might have been starstruck.  No one would talk.  And we sat there letting a peaceful silence waft through our circle.

Finally I asked—shyly, because I, too, was starstruck.  I asked him if I could see his hand and feel it.

The skin graft was clear to see.  The new skin was much darker in color than the surrounding tissue.  Whether it was from someone with darker skin (which I rated impossible since Princeton is very dark) or from a different body part than the palm of a hand—I didn’t ask for details.  What I wanted was to feel the margins of the graft.  And I couldn’t feel them.  The skin had by now become his own skin.  There were no bumps where stitches had been made, only a slight dip where the new skin was thinner than the original. The “new” skin had become part of Princeton.  It was abiding in him.  I couldn’t tell the old Princeton skin from the new.

This is our goal:  That Christ could be grafted into our souls in such a way that you can’t tell which is Christ and which is your old self.

Jesus introduces the idea of Abiding in Him in John 15.  He talks about some other stuff in there, too.  In fact, Jesus is quite busy in John 15 as far as quotability goes.  Read the whole chapter.  And you could hum a song while you do it.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Next week:  fun stories and the three hundred person shaving cream fight.  Then I will spend some time talking about Being Vulnerable.

1 comment:

Alex Pappas said...

Sounds like an amazing SYW. Sad I missed it. Hopefully I can round up some of my kids from Nolan and bring them next summer.