THE DEVIL IN PEW NUMBER SEVEN
By DANNY MINTON
You sit quietly in your home with your family and the phone rings. On the other end is a voice, a voice from the past that brings back memories, memories that you wanted to forget. The voice on the phone is trembling, and you hear the sniffles of tears. You are stunned and want to hang up but remain on the line. Then the voice speaks and with a quiet softness begs you to forgive him.
He was the one who made faces at your dad as he preached on Sunday and would tap his watch when he thought the sermon was too long. Then would come the late-night threatening phone calls or complete silence, keeping the family on edge. There was the constant driving by the house, staring and glaring. There were the explosions on his land near your home and the church. Bullets ripped through your home narrowly missing your little brother. Poison pen letters and hateful notes.
He was the one who indirectly incited a man who would murder your mother. He would harass your father so severely that years later his heart would give out due to the stress. The man on the phone who had been in the middle of all this now asks for your forgiveness! What do you do?
Rebecca Nichols Alonzo thought of her mother Ramona, murdered years earlier. She remembered the suffering her dad, Robert, had experienced. She thought of her brother almost dying. She had been robbed of her family by this man who sat in pew number seven every Sunday morning. He was now seeking, having been released from prison, seeking forgiveness from Rebecca and her siblings. What did Rebecca do? She forgave him.
The Nichols story is recounted in the book, “The Devil in Pew Number Seven,” Rebecca’s memoir of what happened in the Free Welcome Holiness Church in Sellerstown, North Carolina, in the late 1970s. She was nine years old.
Forgiveness is not easy. I’ve heard many people say that they could never forgive someone for something that they did. Others say that they forgive, yet hold on to a deep feeling that refuses to release them from their true feelings. Then there are those who truly forgive and move on with their lives.
Contrary to popular belief, it is almost impossible to “forgive and forget.” To forgive doesn’t mean that you forget something. It does mean that you no longer hold what the person did against them. You don’t bring it up again. You move forward and allow them to do the same. People are still accountable, but we allow justice to be placed in God’s hand, not ours. Maybe things won’t be like they were, but by forgiving we release the feelings inside us that separate us from God.
Forgiveness is an important part of being a Christian. Jesus ties our forgiveness to how we forgive others. In his teaching on prayer, he makes the statement “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) He continues a couple of verses later with a warning in Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
As hard as it sounds, God expects us to extend to others the same forgiveness he gave to us as Jesus hung on the cross and exclaimed, “Father, forgive them!” He teaches that we have to look beyond any wrong done to us and extend grace and mercy to those who have wronged us in some way. As Paul put forth in the letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Learning to forgive means putting aside the hurt feelings. It means looking at the person instead of the act. It means looking to Jesus as the example of how we see people. It means replacing our selfishness with selflessness.
There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers. (Bits & Pieces, October 15, 1992, pp. 13.)
Forgiveness not only relieves us of the burden but also helps the person being forgiven to begin to heal. We all have found times where we wanted forgiveness. This is what we should remember as we deal with those by whom we’ve been wronged. This is what Jesus taught the men who were ready to stone the woman who had been caught in adultery. This is what Jesus was teaching his apostles as he taught them to pray. This is what Jesus taught to those who nailed him to the cross.
With the words, “I forgive you,” Rebecca Alonzo removed from her life the bitterness and baggage of a life of tragedy. The memories of it would survive. She would never forget the name of the man who took her childhood away. However, in the end, her heart would be relieved of a burden of hate and bitterness by allowing a broken man to begin to heal from a past he too regretted.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you–Ephesians 4:32
Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ