Carolina Tiger Rescue: Saving Wild Cats and Calling for Laws “With Teeth” in the Regulation of the Exotic Pet Trade

Carolina Tiger logoIn the next episode of On the Road with Mac and Molly, I chat with Kathryn Bertok, Curator of Animals at the Carolina Tiger Rescue. The organization, formerly known as the Carnivore Preservation Trust, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit wildlife sanctuary whose mission is saving and protecting wild cats in captivity and in the wild.

LISTEN NOW AT http://www.petliferadio.com/ontheroadep28.html.

Kathryn with Raj
Kathryn with Raj

In this program, Kathryn and I touch on all things tiger, discussing everything from chuffling (tiger speak) to mother-cub interactions to the tiger’s affinity for water (not only for drinking but for bathing). We review how tigers are faring in the wild and what happens to an ecosystem when a top-of-the-food-chain predator is diminished or removed.

We discuss the $15 billion exotic pet trade (only drugs and weapons are bigger moneymakers on the black market) and we expose the use and abuse of exotic animals for the entertainment of human beings. Most heartbreaking of the stories shared by Kathryn is one involving tiger cubs that are used for photo opportunities in petting zoos; once these animals grow out of the cute and cuddly stage (after they’re only about three months of age), they may be euthanized, end up in canned hunts, or be sold as “pets.”

Kathryn and I lament how little there is in the way of laws in the U.S. regulating the sale and purchase of exotic animals. The health and safety of not only the animals but human beings as well are put at increased risk through this lack of oversight.

Just recently, Noah Barthe, 4, and his six-year-old brother Connor were killed (strangled to death) by a 100-pound African rock python after it escaped from an enclosure inside a friend’s apartment in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada. Authorities believe the snake escaped from its tank, slithered through a ventilation system and fell through the ceiling into the room where the two boys were sleeping. The snake has been euthanized and the Canadian government is now considering what it should be doing to help ensure something like this never happens again.

The CBC reports that the coroner who presided over a snake death inquest in Ontario two decades ago bewails that nothing was learned from that earlier tragedy. “Dr. David Evans says the inquest called for changes to municipal, provincial and federal rules regarding exotic pets, but none of the jury’s five recommendations was implemented, including the suggestion for an exotic pet registry.” Perhaps now, following these most recent deaths, greater protections will be put into place in Canada. And, perhaps, the United States will follow suit.

In the U.S., you could have a lion or tiger–or a 100-pound python–living next door to you and there may well be no laws in your area requiring your neighbor to make you aware of that fact. (For more information on the U.S. laws regarding exotic pets, see “Saving Aria: Finding Sanctuary at Carolina Tiger Rescue” on this site.)

Aria, shortly after her arrival at the sanctuary
Aria, shortly after her arrival at the sanctuary

Kathryn and I conclude our time together with the story of Aria, a tiger who was confiscated from her “owner” after she was determined to be desperately ill. Carolina Tiger staff traveled down to South Carolina to collect her. She weighed only 200 pounds (a healthy female should weigh closer to 360), was suffering from diarrhea, and had no muscle mass and no fat coverage on her ribs. The staff had difficulty getting a heart rate. Kathryn said, “I have no doubt the man [who’d kept her as a pet] loved this cat and had tried to care for her . . . [Nevertheless] in my fourteen years [with Carolina Tiger] this is by far the worst condition in which I’ve ever seen a rescued animal arrive.”

Aria was placed in thirty-day quarantine at the sanctuary and run through a battery of medical checks. She was started on anti-diarrheal medications, Pepcid, and antibiotics and, as she wasn’t eating, an appetite stimulant. “You can’t force-feed a tiger,” Kathryn noted. “The first day, we weren’t sure she’d survive. Then she started to eat a little and became more active.”

Aria after treatments
Aria on the road to recovery

Bloodwork revealed a pancreatic insufficiency so the staff started feeding her beef pancreas, the enzymes from which worked to break down the food she was eating so it could be digested. The enzymes were powerful enough to eat through the latex gloves of the individual handling the beef pancreas but they were exactly what the tiger needed to jump start her system. Following other medical treatments, Aria is now making a wonderful recovery.

In addition to Aria, the 55-acre Carolina Tiger Rescue has more than 70 animals in its care at the Pittsboro, North Carolina facility. Along with tigers, binturongs, lions, cougars, bobcats, caracals, kinkajous, ocelots and servals have found sanctuary there.

The organization is working toward the day when “wildcats are not owned by individuals as pets; wildcats are not used for entertainment purposes; no trade exists for wildcats or their parts; and all wildcats prosper in sustainable, native habitats.”

Rajaji
Rajaji

To achieve that mission, Carolina Tiger Rescue:

  • rescues wildcats;
  • provides lifelong sanctuary for wildcats;
  • educates the public about the plight of wildcats in captivity and in the wild;
  • conducts non-invasive research to further understand and aid wildcats; and
  • advocates for action to maintain wildcats in sustainable native habitats, or–when that is not a viable option–for the respectful, humane treatment of them in captivity.

I hope you’ll listen to this program and I hope you’ll care enough about the plight of tigers to act on their behalf. There are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild but perhaps as many as 10,000 are kept in captivity in the United States; five thousand of these animals are in Texas. These magnificent cats and other wild animals deserve our respect. Please care. Educate, advocate, volunteer, donate.

Photographs by Carolina Tiger Rescue.

Jellybean
Jellybean

Christ is Risen!

John 3:16; Matthew 28:1-6; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 6:4

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Christ is alive! And, at the appointed time – in the fullness of time — trumpets will sound, choirs will sing their alleluias, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed – the mortal will be clothed with immortality, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! Death swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

God gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Romans 6:4 proclaims that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. And paraphrasing Ephesians, chapter 2: those who are dead in their sins are given new life as they come to Jesus in faith.

That is the Gospel. That is the gospel truth of Easter, Resurrection Day.

Edward Markquart, pondering the meaning of Easter, muses over what might have been printed if there were newspapers in the first century like those we have today. If there were, an obituary for Jesus might have appeared in the Saturday edition noting His time and place of birth and His lineage. There we might have read about the publicity He’d received because of unusual occurrences associated with Him such as the blind being given sight, the deaf hearing, and the lame walking. The obituary might have noted the rumors about how He radically changed people’s lives and how one day He entered Jerusalem to the loud acclamations of Passover crowds who hailed Him as king.

The piece would likely have gone on to say that those crowds had turned against Him and called for His death and how, succumbing to those crowds, Governor Pontius Pilate, representing the Roman Empire in Jerusalem, sentenced Him to death. And, in that article, we would have learned how Jesus died on a cross at three o’clock in the afternoon on Golgotha, the hill of the crucifixion, outside the walls of Jerusalem. His burial was in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

If that obituary had been printed in the Jerusalem Post or the Nazareth News, everyone would have thought that the Jesus movement had ended. Its leader was dead. His disciples had gone into hiding. This little episode would have become one minor footnote in history. His reputation, His teachings would have faded…if not for the third day. On the third day, the grave was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead.

The news spread, from the angel to Mary to Peter to the disciples to the 500. And they became a new people. They became a new brand of men and women who were filled with a new power, with resurrection power. They were no longer afraid of living because they were no longer afraid of dying. They had a new passion for life because they had resurrection power within them!

On Easter – all these centuries later – the Church, gathered from every race, every culture, every nation…the Church gathered by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions – the Church…gathered to hear the Resurrection message – to sing the songs and hear the good news, to celebrate new life — Christ has been raised from the dead by the victorious power of God. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This day is not only concerned with God’s victory over physical death; this day is also concerned with God’s victory over spiritual death. God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. God raises spiritually dead people to life all the time, and I’ve seen it again and again. I have seen and heard and experienced real life stories of people who were spiritually dead and God put new life back into them. That’s what Easter is all about.

I’m quite certain there is someone reading this today who is spiritually dead OR who is so close to being spiritually dead, you would never be able to tell the person was alive. Spiritually comatose. Too busy for God.  Too busy running in circles and God is not part of that circle.

The apostle Paul, writing in his epistle to the Ephesians, tells us that we need to put off our old selves and put on the new. We are made new experientially when we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

For someone, your spiritual life is as dehydrated as the dry bones described in the book of Ezekiel. Your life is relatively unaffected by spiritual things. On Good Friday, you didn’t stop for even a moment to recall Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  The study of Scripture and the practice of daily prayer are not on your itinerary. Oh, you may pray when you’re in a jam, like just about everybody else. Oh, you may believe in the “Man Upstairs,” but that daily authentic walk with God is just not part of your life.

Tell me, can a person who is deaf hear the thunder? No. Can a person who is blind see the piercing flash of lightning? No. Neither can a person who is spiritually deaf truly hear the Word of God speaking to them every day, nor can the spiritually blind see the piercing light of God shining on their lives. The spiritually deaf can’t really hear the voice of God and the spiritually blind will not be overjoyed at seeing the beauties of God in Christ. Some are living like the dead dead, rattling around with dry bones like the skeletons described in the book of Ezekiel. … No thunder of God do you hear! No light of God do you see! No delicacies of God do you really taste or eat!

But the Easter message is that the awesome power of God, who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, can miraculously take your dead life and mine and make it alive. God can take a person who are spiritually dead and fill that person with resurrection power, vibrant power so that life is lived with a passion for the ways of God. And it’s time. It’s time to wake up, come out from the spiritual coma, be raised up from spiritual lethargy by the power of God.

If you’re reading this today, I believe it is because God wants you to read this so that you might hear afresh or for the first time the Easter promise that God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. Victory over death was won by Jesus Christ.

Let’s recount what God did in Christ so that we might live.

Jesus had a Last Supper with his disciples and spent an excruciating time waiting in Gethsemane when those disciples couldn’t manage to remain awake with Him as He agonized over His approach to the cross. In a garden, He was betrayed with the Judas kiss and then He was brought before His accusers in a sham of a trial. He suffered the emotional pain of acknowledging the betrayal of yet another beloved disciple.

Then He suffered the physical pain of the scourging – Jesus was struck over and over and over again with a whip constructed of long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead and glass. With each lash, the whip wrapped around His body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body was barely recognizable.

Then a crown of thorns was jammed on His head and He was beaten on the head repeatedly with a staff. They led Him away to be crucified. Jesus – battered and exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.

On the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His wrists and feet. And He remained on that cross for six hours until He said the words: “It is finished” and “Father, into You hands, I commit my spirit.” Then He took His last breath.

The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:

  • The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (John 19:33).
  • The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (John 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
  • When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
  • Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Matthew 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (John 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). Any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
  • The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred and the scriptures make clear they were certain He was dead (Matthew 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.

After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time.

The stone, they estimated, would have weighed 1½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To tamper with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded by soldiers of the Roman Empire, the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail assigned to Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.

Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would have faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two-ton stone, unwrap and fold neatly the hundred pounds of grave clothes, lift the body and carry it away? Really!

And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives.

But then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.

They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – the scriptures tell us the women who had followed Jesus made their way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.

Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found — to her amazement and fear — that the stone had been rolled away and an angel said: “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. Just as He said.” He is risen!! Alleluia!

So this day calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow spiritual death, eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the new life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ. Jesus loves us. He gave His life for us. When we believe this and follow Him, we follow Him to resurrection. We live.

We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb, knowing that death will not hold us in its grip. We are free to claim the abundant life that Jesus has won for us. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name. Why live like the dead when you can live as the living?

If you are reading this and you have never welcomed Jesus into your life and if you feel a prodding in this moment to do so, I invite you to pray the prayer that follows. If you already know Jesus and want to rededicate yourself to Him, you can use this prayer to do that as well.

Dear Jesus, I admit that I am a sinner. I am sorry for any sin I have knowingly or unknowingly committed against you. I want to turn my life around and live for you. I believe that you died on the cross for me. I – with all sincerity and with all gratitude – accept your sacrifice in my place and invite you to come into my heart and my life to be my Lord and Savior. I place my hope in you and thank you for the gift of you, the gift precious beyond all gifts. Amen

If you genuinely – from the depths of your heart and mind and spirit – prayed to welcome Jesus as Savior today, know that the Word of God promises that you will have eternal life and you are a new person in Christ from this day forward. This is good news to share and I hope you will share that good news with me and with any other Christians you may know. You can take your first steps as a Christian reading the gospel of John which you can access via the Bible Gateway link on this website. A next step would be connecting with a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring congregation in your community. You will never be alone again as Jesus will walk with you and His Word (the Bible) will transform you as you read.

Folks who have known Jesus for awhile: I would love to hear how you were introduced to Him and what that relationship has meant in your life.

I wish you well on your journey of faith and pray it may be as transformative and exciting as has been my own!

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Following Ruskin’s Lead

Roughfolk Falls, Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota
Roughfolk Falls, Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

John Ruskin was a leading English art critic, social thinker and philanthropist of the Victorian era. He was also a watercolorist who lamented that most individuals do not take the time nor make the effort to see what is right before them.

In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton notes that Ruskin believed one way to “possess beauty properly was by understanding it, by making oneself conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it . . . [T]he most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding was by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.” Ruskin was motivated by a desire to “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.”

Ruskin not only sketched but also “word-painted” (writing so as to cement his impressions of beauty). He not only described what he saw but analyzed the effect on himself of what he saw in psychological language (“the grass seemed expansive, the earth timid.”) In the Alps, he described pine trees and rocks in similarly psychological terms: ” I can never stay long under an Alpine cliff, looking up at its pines, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like a shadow of the one beside it – upright, fixed, not knowing each other. . . All comfortless they stand, yet with such iron will that the rock itself looks bent and shattered beside them – fragile, weak, inconsistent, compared to their dark energy of delicate life and monotony of enchanted pride.”

Ruskin calls us to sketch and word paint, to search into the cause of beauty, to penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. Rather than just walking down a lane, he calls us – on that walk – to look up and observe “how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. . . to see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves. . . to see the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty.”

Should we choose not to see, not to sketch and not to word paint, we may just pass along a green lane, and when we come home again, have nothing to say or think about it but that we went down such and such a lane. Perhaps if we follow Ruskin’s lead, we may begin to find a walk down a green lane, or a moment in the company of a sanderling, or the contemplation of the rain on a windowpane, an adventure. We may begin to truly see, understand and be stirred to love.

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Sanderlings. Topsail Beach, North Carolina. Photo by Donna Hailson
Topsail Beach, North Carolina

Unforgiveness: A Loose Cannon Below Decks

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:12-13, NIV, 1984.

French author Victor Hugo, best known for Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was also the author of the novel, 93, (Quatre-vingt treize). The book is centered on the year 1793, Year Two of the French Republic, which saw “the establishment of the National Convention, the execution of Louis XVI, the Terror, and the monarchist revolt in the Vendée, which was brutally suppressed by the Republic.” (See Goodreads for a review.)

In a chapter entitled, “Tormentum Belli,” which Hugo translates in the text as “war machine,” is the story of the corvette “Claymore.” The three-masted, square-rigged warship was in rough seas when suddenly an awful noise arose from below decks. Hugo tells us: “a frightful thing had happened.”

The vessel was equipped with thirty carronades, short smoothbore cast iron cannons able to fire large shot at short range. These had been fastened below deck by triple chains and the hatches above had been shut. Now, one of the cannons had broken loose and had become something akin to what Hugo calls an “indescribable supernatural beast,” rolling, pitching, rushing, and crashing into the ship’s sides.

“Nothing more terrible can happen to a vessel in open sea and under full sail,” Hugo reports, for a loose cannon is “a battering-ram . . . [that] has the bounds of a panther, the weight of an elephant, the agility of a mouse, the obstinacy of an axe, the unexpectedness of the surge, the rapidity of lightning, the deafness of the tomb. It weighs ten thousand pounds and, it rebounds like a child’s ball.”

“How to control this enormous brute of bronze?” Hugo asks. “How to fetter this monstrous mechanism for wrecking a ship? . . . The horrible cannon flings itself about, advances, recoils, strikes to the right, strikes to the left . . . crushes men like flies.”

The whole ship was now in awful tumult as the cannon, which is said to have appeared to the crew as owning “a soul filled with rage and hatred,” tears apart the insides of the ship. Hugo tells us that often, it is true, that more dangerous to a ship is a loose cannon inside than a storm outside. And what is true of ships is also true of human beings. God’s Word invites us to go “below decks” for a look at the turmoil that can result when the cannon that is unforgiveness gets loose. And it is in the Word that we will find the help needed for taming this “beast,” this “battering ram” that – left uncontrolled – can wreak devastating havoc.

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Perhaps we might begin by considering what acts can set the cannon of unforgiveness loose.

If author Lewis Smedes is right, these are acts of disloyalty and acts of betrayal. Words like abandon, forsake and let down are attached to such acts and capture the nature of the hurting involved:

When your spouse has an affair with your best friend.

When your mother or father fails to show up at a banquet at which you’re honored with a hard-earned award.

When you fully dedicate yourself for years to doing your very best work at your place of employment and a new manager moves into play and tosses you out on your ear.

When a tornado sweeps through your neighborhood and leaves your house in shambles. When you go into town for supplies and return home only to discover that looters have taken what little was left of your belongings.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer.

When you commit a colossal blunder or fail to follow through on a promise to a dear and trusting friend or when you speak a word you believe needs to be spoken and it’s received as an attack.

When your loved one contracts a debilitating illness that lingers on for years.

When faced with these challenges of life, we may feel betrayed by the spouse, the parent, the friend, the authority figure, the neighbor, our bodies, ourselves, God.

Bitterness. Bitterness is what you get when you leave anger out to rot. It’s what results when injury is added to injury. It begins to root when you go to bed angry, when somebody rubs you the wrong way and the rubbing turns to chafing. It grows in the fertile fields of jealousy, abuse, and vengeance. It hangs in the air. It’s heard in the “us and them,” in the “you did this to me,” in the “he said, she said,” in the “I can’t forgive myself for….” You fill in the blank.

Anger is a natural reaction to injury real or imagined. Bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness are the sins that grow out of unresolved, unhealthy anger. The antidote for these sins is forgiveness.

But why forgive? How do we forgive? If you’re like me, there are moments when I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer and have found myself wincing when I’ve come to that part where we say, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” or “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” If you’re like me, you may well – like me – have found yourself shooting a prayer up from your spirit: “O Lord, please do not forgive me in the shabby, half-hearted, offer it one day, take it back the next day, ways in which I have ‘forgiven’ those who have trespassed against me.”

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus helps us understand the cost of unforgiveness as he relates the story of a king who decides one day to settle accounts with his servants.

In Matthew 18:21-36, we read:

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven. “The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. “The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt. “The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’ The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.” The Message

So one man is brought before the king. His debt? 10,000 talents. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates that amount to the contemporary equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars. Whatever the amount, it was clear this man was hopelessly enslaved to debt! Yet another person in the text is mentioned as owing a hundred denarii, which today would be a few dollars.

The text also makes it clear that the terrible consequence of being in debt was debtor’s prison. When a bill went past due and one couldn’t pay, the creditor had the right to seize you and throw you into jail until you either rotted or paid up. But, of course, if you were in prison you couldn’t earn any money to gain your release. Your only hope might the mercy of the one who had the power to release you.

Ever been in debt? In debt now? Can you remember — or do you now know — the fear, the worry? Things can look pretty bleak, can’t they? Our passage is telling us that unforgiven sin is like those unpaid debts. They weigh heavily upon us whether we’re talking about a little sin, a great big sin, or a great many sins. Each of us, like the debtors in the text, must settle accounts with the king, God Almighty Himself.

Well, the king, in our parable, calls his subjects before him and the one who owes the thousands pleads for the king to have patience and promises that he will repay the debt in full.  The king is moved to mercy and erases the debt!

The point of the parable is that God is like that merciful king and He is willing and able to cancel impossible debts. He is willing and able to forgive. As Stephen M. Crotts notes in his exposition of this passage, the Greek word for forgiveness may also be translated “let loose.”

“It’s like a terrible knot that suddenly gives and is completely untied. It’s like a horrible bondage from which there is sudden release.”

And what does this free man now do? He goes out and happens upon a man who owes him a measly few bucks. He grabs him by the throat and demands he ‘pay up!’ When the debtor says he can’t and asks for patience, the man throws him in debtors’ prison. And folks who witness this go and tell the king.

What does the king do? He brings the man back, chastises him for his unforgiveness and says, “Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?”  Then he has the man tossed in jail where he will sit until he repays the debt. The point of the parable is clear. If God forgives us, we must forgive others. We must forgive as the Lord forgave us.

But those of us who frequent church services know this — at least on some level — don’t we? So why do so many of us have difficulty forgiving? Why do so many of us have difficulty saying two simple words: “I’m sorry?” Why do we see so little repentance for sins? Why do we see so little forgiveness in Christian circles when repentance and forgiveness are the very foundations of our faith? Amazing grace is what saves wretches such as we all. We, who have turned to Christ for salvation, have been the beneficiaries of amazing grace, amazing love. We’ve been set free. And yet too often we hold one another hostage with our own unforgiveness.

In the December 2012 issue of Leadership Journal is an article on grace and redemption entitled, “Going to Hell with Ted Haggard.”

The writer, Michael Cheshire, recalls sitting in a sports bar in Denver with a close atheist friend. During lunch, the latter pointed at a TV screen on the wall that was set to a channel recapping Haggard’s fall in a sex and drugs scandal. As he did, he said, “That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that’s what keeps me away.”

Cheshire assumed his friend was referring to Haggard’s hypocrisy but he was wrong. His friend laughed and said, “Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can’t forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him.”

Then Cheshire says his friend uttered words that left him reeling: “You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will.”

That prompted Cheshire to investigate what was being said about Haggard in Christian circles. Most shut down and demanded he drop the subject while others dismissed as foolish or silly his question, “Why can’t God still use Ted?”

As he lived within close proximity of Haggard, Cheshire contacted him to see if he would be willing to meet with him and a couple of the men from his staff.  Cheshire found Haggard to be brutally honest about his failures, filled with a wealth of wisdom, deeply caring and pastoral. And Haggard had a growing church in the very city that knew him and knew about his failures; God was causing that church to grow.

When other Christians learned that Cheshire had reached out to Ted, they said they would distance themselves from him if he continued to do so. Several people in his church said they would leave. He was told that his “voice as a pastor and author would be tarnished” if he continued to spend time with him.

Cheshire concluded: “It would do some Christians good to stay home one weekend and watch the entire DVD collection of HBO’s Band of Brothers. Marinate in it. Take notes. Write down words like loyalty, friendship and sacrifice. Understand the phrase: never leave a fallen man behind.”

Where is the love? Where is the forgiveness?

In his wrap up, Cheshire wrote: “The Ted Haggard issue reminds me of a scene in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Huck is told that if he doesn’t turn in his friend, a runaway slave, named Jim, he will surely burn in hell. So one day Huck, not wanting to lose his soul to Satan, writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling her of Jim’s whereabouts. After folding the letter, he starts to think about what his friend has meant to him, how Jim took the night watch so he could sleep, how they laughed and survived together . . . Huck realizes that it’s either Jim’s friendship or hell. Then the great Mark Twain writes such wonderful words of resolve. Huck rips the paper and says, ‘Alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.’”

And Cheshire decides that “if being Ted’s friend causes some to hate and reject me – alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.”

In our passage from Colossians, we read: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

the sunflower coverIn my library is a book entitled, The Sunflower. It’s a story, written by Simon Wiesenthal, with whom you may be familiar. He is well known and well regarded for his activities in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.

In the book, Wiesenthal tells us that he was a prisoner in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Poland. One day he was assigned to clean out rubbish from a barn that the Nazis had improvised into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Toward evening a nurse took Wiesenthal by the hand and led him to a young SS trooper. The soldier’s face was bandaged with rags yellow-stained with ointment or pus; his eyes tucked behind the gauze. He was perhaps 21 years of age. He groped for Wiesenthal’s hand and held it tight. He said he had to talk to a Jew; he could not die before he had confessed the sins he had committed against helpless Jews, and he had to be forgiven by a Jew before he died. So he told Wiesenthal a horrible story of how his battalion had gunned down Jewish parents and children who were trying to escape from a house set afire by the SS troopers.

Wiesenthal listened to the dying man’s story, first the story of his blameless youth, and then the story of his participation in evil. As the man spoke, Wiesenthal’s thoughts drifted to the graves of the Nazi soldiers that he had seen nearby. Each one was decorated with a sunflower and so each one was visited by butterflies. Wiesenthal believed his place of interment would be different: a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of him. No sunflower for him. No butterflies for him.

In the end, Wiesenthal jerked his hand away from the soldier and walked out of the barn: No word was spoken. No forgiveness was given. Wiesenthal would not, could not, forgive. But he was not sure he did the right thing.

And some 30 years later he related the story in the book entitled The Sunflower and he ended his tale with a question: “What would you have done?” Thirty-two eminent persons contributed their answers. Most said Wiesenthal was right; he should not have forgiven the man; it would not have been fair. Why should a man who gave his will to the doing of monumental evil expect a quick word of forgiveness on his death-bed? What right had Wiesenthal to forgive the man for the sins he had committed against others? “Let the SS trooper go to hell,” said one respondent.

Many of us, truth be told, feel the same way when we are sinned against in far less horrible ways. As Lewis Smedes rightly notes: “To the guilty, forgiveness comes as amazing grace. To the offended, forgiving may sound like outrageous injustice. A straight-line moral sense tells most people that the guilty ought to pay their dues: Forgiving is for suckers.”

“What is the answer to the unfairness of forgiving? It can only be that forgiving is, after all, a better way to fairness.

“First, forgiveness creates a new possibility of fairness by releasing us from the unfair past. If we do not forgive, our only recourse is revenge . . . and revenge never evens the score, for alienated people never keep score of wrongs by the same mathematics. Forgiveness takes us off the escalator of revenge so that we can stop the chain of incremented wrongs.”

Forgiveness brings fairness to the forgiver. It is the hurting person who most feels the burden of unfairness but he only condemns himself if he refuses to forgive. Forgiving is the only way to stop the cycle of unfair pain turning in your memory.

Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is not excusing. Forgiving is not smoothing things over. Forgiving is, what Smedes calls, “spiritual surgery.” When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You recreate that person in your thoughts. God does it this way too: He releases us from sin as a mother washes dirt from a child’s face, or as a person takes a burden off your back, lays it on a goat and sends it into the wilderness. (From this, we derive our understanding of the scapegoat.)

Mining the scriptures we discover more than 100 references to the concept of forgiveness and our first lesson in these is that forgiveness is God-initiated.

In Colossians 2:13 and 14, Paul writes: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code…He took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Forgiveness is offered graciously and readily by God.

In the gospel of Luke, we find the story of the Prodigal Son who, having squandered his inheritance, returns home seeking forgiveness and finds there the open and loving arms of his father who welcomes him with great celebration.” So it is with our heavenly Father.

To receive forgiveness, we must desire forgiveness and repent. This done, there is to be no limit to forgiveness. In the 17th chapter of Luke, verse 4, Jesus tells His disciples that, “if your brother sins, rebuke him and, if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” And in Matthew 18:22, Christ carries this further by saying that even seven times is not enough, but seventy times seven.”

For the one extending forgiveness, forgiveness is to be an attitude. Forgiveness, we are told in the 18th chapter of Matthew, is to come from the heart.

In the passage from Colossians, we find the commandment to forgive: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be willing to forgive. Create the climate for forgiveness. Forgive.

The Freedom of Forgiveness coverSo why do we see so little forgiveness both inside and outside the church community? David Augsburger, in his book, The Freedom of Forgiveness, offers us some clues. He says forgiveness is rare because it is hard. It is the hardest thing in the universe. It is hard because it is costly. The one who forgives, he says, pays a tremendous price – the price of the evil he or she forgives.

Forgiveness is costly because it is substitutional and this substitution was perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ substituted himself for us, bearing His own wrath, His own indignation at our sin. That’s what forgiveness costs. The sinner either bears his own guilt – that’s cold justice – or the one sinned against may absorb what the second party did – that’s forgiveness. And that’s what God did in Christ on Calvary.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is costly because it demands that kind of substitution, not the literal substitution of our physical lives on a cross but the willingness to relieve others of the burden of their sins against us as we reach out to them with loving and forgiving spirits.

As Augsburger notes: “God paid the immeasurable cost of your forgiveness. How can you hesitate to pay the infinitely smaller cost of forgiving your brother or sister – or your enemy?”

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer need to rerun over and over again the hurt you suffered, when you no longer need to punish those who hurt you by rehashing the details over and over again with whomever will listen.

You will know that you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer have daily conversations, daily battles in your head, with those who hurt you.

You will know that you are moving in forgiveness when you find yourself praying that those who hurt you will be blessed and will no longer have to suffer for the evil that they did to you or to others.

Forgiveness can be a very slow process and, while we may come a long way in forgiveness, we may well find vestiges of bitterness many years post injury. We need to keep forgiving.

C.S. Lewis learned how long a process forgiving can be. He tells the story of a perfectly awful teacher he had as a boy. He hated what he described as that sadistic person most of his life but, a few months before his death, he wrote to a friend: “Do you know, only a few weeks ago, I realized that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I had been trying to do it for years.”

Essentially we cannot forgive but, with attention to prayer and with the help of God, eventually we can. The Lord works the miracle in us as we yield to His transforming power.

And we all want forgiveness for ourselves.

And we all want forgiveness for ourselves. There is a marvelous example of this desire for forgiveness in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Capitol of the World.”

In this, a father traveled to Madrid to find his son Paco who had left the family farm after a misunderstanding. Keep in mind here that the name Paco is a very popular name in Spain. Well, the father, in order to meet his son, placed an ad in the newspaper which read, “Paco, meet me at noon Tuesday in the newspaper office. All is forgiven. Signed, your father.”

Hemingway reports there were 800 young men named Paco who arrived that Tuesday and stood in line, waiting to see if the man might be their father who had granted them forgiveness. 800 Pacos! How many of us, if such an ad had been placed at certain times in our lives, an ad that carried our name, wouldn’t have leapt at the opportunity for reconciliation with our own fathers.

Well, our heavenly Father offers that opportunity today. It is as though He has placed that same ad – the newspaper is the Bible – and when we answer and stand before Him, He is there like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, ready to offer unmerited forgiveness – the gift of forgiveness. He delights in enfolding each of His repentant children in His loving arms. Have you called on God to forgive you? Have you faced God and told him you’re helplessly a debtor to sin and prayed for mercy? You can be let loose from your sins in Jesus.

And God’s ready forgiveness stands also as an example for us in our relationships with others. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

If you’re harboring unforgiveness, harboring grudges and hatred, you’re playing with dynamite. You’re playing with fire. Just like the loose cannon in Victor Hugo’s story, unforgiveness can crash around inside you tearing your guts out, messing with your mind, tormenting you!

In Victor Hugo’s story, the loose cannon had to be brought under control and chained so that it couldn’t do any more damage.

Right now, why not ask Jesus to take you below decks? Tell him that you are willing to forgive, willing to go with Him to take care of all the troubling things within. Tell Jesus you’re willing. Ask Him to give you power, power to repent, power to turn from your sins, power to say you’re sorry, power to forgive. Pray…

Featured image: Antoine Morel Fatio.

English: 36-pounder cannon at the ready
Français : Pièce de 36 en batterie