Monday, November 24, 2008

WINDOW PAINS by Donald Patterson

I’d finally managed to arrange a day off. It was early and my wife and I were rushing to take our sons to their separate schools. As my older son and I sat in the driveway warming up my old car, Karen appeared at the front door making “phone” gestures. “It’s Willard,” she shouted over the engine’s roar, “sounds important.”

Great, I braced myself for the usual litany of Willard’s personal woes. How right I was. When I picked up the phone, Willard spoke in his usual slow-talking drawl. “Pastor, we've had quite a bit of damage done to the church building. It looks like somebody had themselves a field day chucking rocks through our windows.”

So much for my day off.

Talk about personal; it hit me right in the gut. It felt like a judgment against my entire ministry. I felt insulted, I felt enraged. As I drove anger grew within me. I saw everything and everyone on the road as an extension of my problems. Traffic lights seemed timed to delay me. Old men dawdled in ancient pickup trucks clogging the streets. Creeping across town in slow motion, I mentally added up the possible breakage. I wondered how much money we had left at the tag end of the month. My depression deepened. I considered thoughts gloomy enough to dispatch Kenneth Copeland AND Robert Schuller to the pits of despair.

By the time I arrived at the church plant I had whipped my wrath into a fine lather. Then I saw the damage—Ouch! Seven windows starred, holed, and just plain shattered! The windows down one side of the building had been enthusiastically attacked by a storm of rocks. Stones and shards of colored panes littered the auditorium. As my shoes crunched through broken glass, I honestly think I would have preferred to handle a tragedy, even a death. At least those were problems within my area of expertise.

A workday to replace these same windows would have been cause for rejoicing. Now however, I was depressed at the thought that anyone would do such a thing to a church building. To be honest, my righteous indignation was not unmixed with fleshly self-pity.

We had called the sheriff and the window glaziers. What was keeping them? I ached to clean up the mess. My building—God’s House!—had been desecrated. It reminded me of the time my son broke his collarbone and I fumed over the time it took to relieve his pain. Finally, a sheriff’s car appeared, followed presently by the glass truck. While the deputy made his report, he informed me that vandalism of a synagogue or a church was a felony. At that moment—God, help me—I secretly hoped it carried the death penalty.

Anger was a reaction I could have anticipated. It didn’t really surprise me. What I did not expect was the feeling of vulnerability I experienced afterward. I felt defenseless. When the windows had been reglazed, floor swept, glass shards vacuumed from the pew cushions, I saw my fresh, matching golden windows not as an improvement but rather as liabilities. There they were—targets, monuments to vandalism. Here I glaze mine Ebenezer. They could be shattered again—all too easily. I found myself reluctant to leave.

Less than a week later, the windows were attacked again. The same seven were broken. I determined to foil the miscreants. I resolved to catch these vandals—obviously lineal descendants of the original barbarian tribe. I went to work collecting evidence. Willard took photographs of the crime scene. I measured sneaker prints in the dust. My son identified the sneaker brand by the tread pattern. I staked out the building at odd hours. I bided my time until they fell into my trap.

Wise as serpents, eh? I said to myself. I'll show ‘em.

And then one afternoon it happened. Driving into the parking lot I saw three boys walking across our property on their way home from the neighboring junior high school. As I parked, I heard the raucous clatter of breaking glass. The building alarm began its earsplitting razz. I ran around the back in time to see the boys sauntering out the other side of the lot. They studiously ignored my call of “Hey guys, I want to talk to you!”

What could I do? I yelled in a taunting manner, “What’s the matter, scared of an old man?” They stopped.

I stopped too. Then, in as friendly a voice as I could muster I said, “We really can’t afford to have any more windows broken here. It’s cost this church seven hundred dollars in the last three weeks.” They responded by informing me that they had never been, were not now, and never would be involved in such a reprehensible activity, no sir. At least that’s the best translation I could make of their inarticulate mumbles.

There they stood: radical hair, dangling earrings, counter-culture T-shirts, and expensive footwear. I thought briefly of how I’d like to punish these guys. What I actually said was, “I don’t know or care if it was you guys or someone you know. I’m not the police. I just want to say please don’t do it again. If I’ve done anything to tick you off, I’m sorry. I’d like to apologize.”

This time the response was easier to decipher. A sullen, “We didn’t do nuthin’.”

I trudged back to the building to reset the alarm. Sherlock Holmes solves another case. I had physical proof. One of their shoes appeared to match, but without the services of the FBI forensic crime lab it probably wouldn’t be considered admissible. I didn’t really want to put three more kids into the juvenile system anyway, in spite of my hard-nosed philosophy of criminal justice.

As I swept up the mess one small rock had made I heard hesitating footsteps in the hall. Two of the three boys had returned.

“We’re sorry,” they mumbled. “We won’t ever do it again.”

“Thank you,” I said, stunned. “I appreciate your honesty.” They turned and left me alone with my dustpan, and my God.

How do I explain what had just taken place? I hadn’t taken the opportunity to share the gospel with them. I failed to get their names for my prospect file. One thing I do know, grace occurred. It happened to them. It happened to me. Forgiveness of a debt that could not be paid had once more been placed on Jesus’ account.

I haven’t seen those boys since. It used to bother me that I didn’t have the presence of mind to hand them a tract or ask them Dr. Kennedy’s spiritually diagnostic questions. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that God doesn’t waste opportunities. Perhaps He was able to begin moving in their lives through a simple lesson of honesty seasoned with grace.