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From his commentary on 2 Samuel. We post this remembering our son Jonathan, who would have turned 32 today had he not died in 2002.
A lament is a formal expression of grief or distress, one that can be written, read, learned, parcticed, repeated. A lament differs from the informal, spontaneous, immediate outbursts of grief like those of [2 Samuel] 1:11-12. A lament is no less sorrowful or sincere; but it is a vehicle for the mind as well as the emotions. A lament is an expression of thoughtful grief.
In a written lament then words cannot simply be dumped or gushed or mushed as in initial grief. Here one cannot simply vomit out feelings but must choose words. Not that the lament is cold, objective, and detached. rather the intensity of one’s emotions unite with the discipline of one’s mind to produce structured sorrow, a sort of authorized version of distress, a kind of coherent agony. In a lament, therefore, words are carefully selected, crafted, honed, to express loss as closely yet fully as possible.
I wonder if there is a principle here for all Yahweh’s people when they lose, especially, Christian friends or loved ones. Along with our emotional grief should we not also express our reflective grief? Why not write down our grief in careful, thoughtful lament form and offer it up to God as such? And do so again and again?
The sorrows and wounds God’s people receive from their losses are not miraculously healed after a short time of emotional catharsis. And sometimes in the church there is such an impatience with grief. Why isn’t Allan ‘over’ Carol’s death or Connie over Tom’s since it’s been eighteen months – why can’t that mother get beyond the death of her ten-year-old? But the lament-form of the Bible assumes that our grief is deep and ongoing, and it invites us to enter the discipline of expressing that grief in words that convey our anguish, in images that picture our despair, in written prayers that verbalize despondency. Why should God’s people be shoddy in their sorrow?
Based upon reader requests, we have compiled our “Ten Years Ago” Series – a series written to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of our son, Jon – into digest format, with all posts in one PDF file, which can be downloaded here. Perhaps the series will help someone in some small way who is going through some form of grief – please feel free to distribute the file as you see fit.
The series is actually incomplete. There are still thoughts on grief I have yet to place in a coherent form and there is still much to be said about the exhaustive sovereignty of the living God – much. That will follow at a later date.
We still miss Jon. Terribly.
Ten Years Ago, Part 12: A Jewish Prisoner Who Can’t Believe You Forgave The Person Responsible For Your Son’s Death
During the Keryx ministry three-day weekends, at two points the issue of forgiveness is addressed. One is during a lengthy talk mid-morning on Saturday and then later that day at a service which focuses exclusively on the issue of forgiveness. This account involves related incidents from two of those weekends, one in 2000 and the other from 2003.
In April of 2000, I encountered a prisoner who was rather unique. He is serving a life sentence and he is Jewish. He attended the Keryx weekend at Chippewa Correctional and for some reason took a liking to me. For the subsequent couple years he was at that facility, he sat with my wife and I regularly at Keryx gatherings.
On Friday and Saturday during the weekend, we eat our afternoon meal in the prison cafeteria, although no one calls it a “cafeteria.” It’s either “the kitchen” or “the chow hall.” This meal is the regular meal prepared for the prisoners – we eat what the prisoners eat at this meal.
On our walk across the yard to the kitchen, I was walking with this Jewish prisoner. About 50 yards away, a line of prisoners was walking toward a housing unit. All of a sudden, my friend yells, “______________!!” to one of the prisoners in that line 50 yards away. The prisoner turns, raises his hand to acknowledge the call, but does not respond verbally. My friend turns to me and says, “That man I just yelled at? He’s the angriest man I know (and my friend had been in prison for 15 years at that point). He really needs to attend this weekend.” Keep in mind my friend is Jewish and the Keryx weekend is intentionally evangelistic and explicitly Christian, proclaiming a message of salvation in Christ alone and his friend to whom he has yelled is Jewish as well, as my friend tells me.
A few years pass. I have pretty much forgotten the encounter in the yard. It’s now the Fall of 2003. The prisoners show up for the weekend and among them is…guess who? The “angriest man I know.” To be sure, he was still angry. He spent Thursday night and all day Friday at a distance from the other men at his table. He sat there most of the time leaning back with his arms folded, scowling.
Saturday morning rolls around and I present the talk that includes the topic of forgiveness and I talk about Jon’s death and having forgiven Jon’s best friend. About 15 minutes after I finish, there’s time for a break and I am just standing in the hall, leaning against the wall. All of sudden there’s someone one in front of me – who is it? It’s “the angriest man I know.” Before I can say anything, he says, “I need to talk to you.” I say, “OK,” and tell him I’ll get us somewhere private. He says, “I don’t need that. I want to talk to you here. NOW.” I explain that if we do it there, now, he won’t have the setting of privacy and our communication will not be privileged. He says he doesn’t care and wants to talk NOW. I said, “OK” and moved down the hall a few yards to get out of the main traffic.
What does he want to talk about? “How could you forgive the guy who did that to your son?” I told him it was only by the grace of God and that I was commanded to do so by the God who grants grace. Why does he want to know? He wants to know because of the source of his anger. That source? A man who had sexually assaulted his young son and who was now incarcerated for that crime. I asked him, “You’re Jewish, right?” Hes aid he was. I asked him if he had talked to his rabbi about this. he said he had and in fact had talked to two rabbis about it. I asked him what they said. He said one rabbi told him he was to forgive and the other had said he didn’t have to forgive. I asked, “Which one is right?” “I don’t know.” “Let me ask you this: do you really want to forgive the guy who did that to your son?” “I don’t know.” “Can you sleep at night?” “No.” Well, I can. That’s what happens when you forgive.” “I can’t.” “Yes, you can, but you won’t. You’ve decided it’s more important for you to hate that guy than to do what you know is right and forgive him and let God deal with him.” “I just can’t.”
We eventually sat down and talked for about an hour. What pained him much as well was the fact that this hatred for this other man (expressed by the fact he told me had fellow Jewish prisoners within the system giving that man “messages” [prison ‘messages’ being some form of violence] reminding him that the father of his victim was still out there, waiting his turn to exact vengeance) had caused him to lose his faith. He loved his Jewishness and he had lost fellowship and intimacy in worship because of the hatred he held for this other man. What I told him was that I could only express the Christian view on the matter and that if he desired to remain a Jew he’d have to find a Jewish solution to his problem.
By the time our discussion ended, he was smiling. He did something interesting later in the day.
On another break there’s a tap on my shoulder. It’s the Jewish prisoner. He says, “I want you to come with me.” I respond, “Where?” Volunteers can’t just go anywhere – we are limited on where we can and with whom we can go. He points down to the end of the hallway where a prisoner is standing and says, I need to talk to _________ and I want you to come with me.” “OK.” We go down to the end of the hall and I have no idea what’s coming.
He walks up to the other prisoner and tells him that he knows he’s given him a “hard time” (which can mean anything, including violence) but that he knows he’s been wrong in doing so and he asks the prisoner if he will forgive him. The prisoner (a Christian) is just dumbfounded from the look on his face, but he says, “Well, sure. Apology accepted and I forgive you.”
The Jewish prisoner and I walk back down the hall. He says, “That felt good.” I said, “You ready to forgive ____________ yet?” He smiles. “No, not yet.”
Sunday arrives. It’s mid-morning. He wants to talk again. The topic? He says he’s regaining his Jewish faith. I said what was happening was the Spirit of God was enlightening him and what was happening to him was the Christian message working in him. He says he doesn’t want to leave Judaism. I told him becoming a Christian isn’t leaving Judaism, it’s embracing the fulfillment of everything Judaism has been waiting for in the person of Christ. He says he doesn’t want any of that – he just wants to be a good Jew. “Are you ready to forgive ______________?” Another smile. “No, not yet.”
Our last service begins and at its end there is a time where the prisoners form a line and we have one last chance to say goodbye before we leave. This is the last time we will see many of these prisoners. I get to the point in the line where my Jewish friend is and we greet each other and he embraces me and as I start moving on to the next man I stop and ask him, “You ready to forgive that guy?” This big grin curls up the corners of his mouth. “No. Not yet.”
Shortly thereafter that prisoner was transferred to a higher security prison, most likely because he had encountered some trouble with th staff or another prisoner, which may well have been another manifestation of his anger at the man who assaulted his son.
If only that prisoner knew true forgiveness. If only he knew the One who not only forgives us upon faith in His Son, but also empowers those who have bowed the knee to Him so that we can – and must – forgive others. Where is this man now? I have no idea, but think of him often. I pray he has since seen the Light.
Ten Years Ago, Part 11c: Forgiveness After Your Son’s Death – The Accused, Attorneys And “What is Justice?”
Five months after the preliminary hearing where Jon’s friend was bound over for trial, the criminal trial occurred. The trial was scheduled to last one week. My prayer going in was to “just get it over with, Lord.” That, He did.
As the second day of trial was beginning the prosecutor waved me up to the rail. He said he needed to discuss a plea agreement with me – very much to our surprise. Being surprised, I didn’t want us to make any rash decisions and told the prosecutor we would discuss the matter at lunch. It was not easy sitting in the courtroom waiting for lunch, as testimony was given concerning Jon’s death, including attorneys waving 8 x 10 photos around to show the jury – my head was down when that was happening because I didn’t want to see any crime scene photos. (After the trial, our family was offered the opportunity to see the photos. Two of our children accepted the offer. My wife and I did not. What we saw in Jon’s casket was bad enough.)
The trial adjourned for lunch and we went downstairs to a small room where the prosecutor laid out the state of affairs. Here’s where the question in the title of this post arose: what is ‘justice?’ Jon’s friend was on trial for three 15-year felonies. If found guilty, it was possible for him to serve up to fifteen years in prison. Was that “just?” My personal take had been that 15 years was too much. Given the nature of our system, though, that was where things were. The prosecutor proposed a plea – for Jon’s friend to plead guilty to what is called a “high court misdemeanor.” Those of us who grew up in Michigan in the 60’s and 70’s were taught that there were two types of convictions: misdemeanor and felony. The general rule was that misdemeanors were punishable by up to one year in a county jail, while felonies were punishable by more than one year in a state prison. In the meantime, Michigan created a new category – the “high court misdemeanor.” A high court misdemeanor is punishable by up to two years of confinement. The sentence could be served in a county jail or a state prison – in a jail if under one year, in a prison if more than one year.
If Jon’s friend pled guilty to a high court misdemeanor (in this case “negligent homicide”), he would be subject to a sentence ranging from six months to two years. Again, it would be served in either a county jail or a state prison, depending upon its length. What is “just” here? Did we believe Jon’s friend had intentionally, deliberately, killed Jon? No. Was Jon’s friend responsible? Yes. Was Jon’s friend drunk when he ran over Jon (as was Jon)? Yes. Is punishment necessary? Depends upon your perspective. Some have held that as Christians we should never be interested in seeing anyone punished for sins or crimes – that we are only to forgive and move on. Is that the biblical charge? It depends. We see in the Old Testament an example of the Lord both pardoning people and holding them accountable for the issue which He had pardoned, with accountability resulting in punishment (Numbers 14:13-23).
At this time I had been volunteering at our local jail for six years. I knew enough to know that as jails go, this one was considered a “country club” of sorts, as much as a jail can be such. My wife has a story concerning someone she mentored for a year in that jail which would boggle your mind. It is also my understanding that things are not so at the current time at that jail. Once again, what is justice? What is “right?” What is proper punishment? Or should punishment by incarceration even be part of the equation? Is believing that incarceration be part of punishment seeking improper vengeance? After discussing the issue with our family and making phone calls to family members who were unable to attend, we made a proposal: Jon’s friend to plead guilty to negligent homicide with the requirement that his sentence be served in a state prison. The prosecutor walked the proposal around the corner to Jon’s friend and his attorney. He was back in less than five minutes saying the plea had been accepted.
Is is curious the reaction we received from the locals in our small village afterward. Many could not believe that Jon’s friend at worst would serve two years in prison. They thought we were crazy to have agreed to such a proposal. The prosecutor had told us he would do whatever we wished with regard to a plea. If we had desired no plea and wanted the trial to continue, he would have continued the trial. Our family put the final decision in my hands. I now have a hint of what a judge wrestles with when he or she is deciding upon how to sentence a person for a crime. ‘Tis not an easy thing to consider.
The plea was submitted and my prayer was answered: the trial was over, five days before we had been told it would end. What now? Six weeks until a sentencing hearing where we, as “victims” under Michigan law, would be permitted to speak. Forgiveness became an issue there as well.
At the sentencing hearing, there was some legal jockeying between the prosecutor and the defense attorney before testimony was to begin. It came time for the defense attorney to speak on behalf of Jon’s friend. What he said was…….indescribable, at least to us. What follows is from the official court transcript of the sentencing hearing. (click on the link to read the transcript excerpt) Keep in mind this is in open court where they write down everything said.
THE COURT: Do you wish to make a statement on behalf of your client, Mr. ____?
MR. ____: Thank you, your honor, I do. Your Honor, you know, as lawyers we are always trying to make our truth fit the reality and really, considering what reality we work with, the truth very, very rarely fits. This is a case of a perfect example of that, okay. (emphasis added)
Moments later, he then said:
We’re not here on this plea agreement because the defendant had a witness problem. We’re not here on this plea agreement because the prosecutor had difficulty with the case. We are here because both the prosecutor and the defendant and Jonathan’s parents graced and blessed a plea agreement that allowed the defendant to plead guilty to reduced charges.
There’s a lot of discussion in our courts these days, there’s a lot of uproar these days about how we separate ourselves from God and we separate ourselves from religion. There’s an uproar. But I can tell you today for all people present, God is here today and God’s commandments are here today and that this plea agreement is the embodiment of those commandments. This plea agreement which commands us to love God and love each other especially under circumstances in which we’re angry, especially under circumstances in which we’ve been hurt and harmed. It’s child’s play. It’s simple to love people who treat us nicely. It’s simple to love people who don’t hurt us and who protect us. And the Peterson’s, defined as Christians by their actions, defined as Christians by their words, put their blessings on a plea agreement under circumstances that would have been very, very difficult to do on the second day of trial. On a day of trial in which many witnesses would have accused the lawyer, me, of pure and absolute beguilement, of manipulating and exploiting facts, of making things up, which is what we do. (emphasis added)
We were sitting there stunned. This attorney just told everyone what many people joke about as being what lawyers do because they are lawyers. This attorney had presented himself as a Christian. He attended a church with my boss. And he just told the judge that lawyers a) try to make their truth fit reality and it very rarely fits, and b) that lawyers – he – make things up and manipulate and exploit facts. We were dumbfounded. The judge was not amused. As the attorney attempted to continue in this vein, he shut the attorney down by saying “This is not about you, Mr. __________.” (A few months later I had occasion to talk to the court administrator, who had worked for the judge for many years. She said after the hearing, she heard a swishing sound coming from the judge’s chambers. Swish, swish, swish…what was it? She went in and found the judge pacing briskly back and forth – why? Because he was walking off his anger at what the defense attorney had said. She said in all her years she had never seen him so angry.)
Time for another decision; forgive or not forgive? There was a few minutes prior to the time when our family would be permitted to speak. My prepared remarks said I had forgiven Jon’s best friend, which I had. Now, however, I had another decision to make: forgive or not forgive. By the grace of God and by grace alone, I forgave.
The article in our local newspaper the next day said the hearing was “highly emotional.” Indeed it was. Two of our children spoke. My wife spoke and then my turn came. What do you say at this point? Think back to Part 11a, where we included the video of the father of one the victims of the “Green River Killer” expressing forgiveness at his sentencing hearing. What I actually said deviated a little from my prepared text, in part because at times I couldn’t see my text through the tears. The prepared text is included below, including some very personal details about our family that are not easy to discuss. The court transcript does not reflect my exact words – I received a phone call from the court after the hearing saying the court reporter didn’t get everything I said because she was crying so much during my speaking and they asked me to forward my prepared text so it could be entered into the official transcript. She was 10 feet in front of me while I was doing it – my tears were such I couldn’t see her tears.
The hearing ended. The family of Jon’s best friend was there, as would be expected. Two memories remain. The first was walking out of the courtroom and a man approaches me whom I’ve never met – he walked across the hall and introduced himself. He was the pastor of one of the older brothers of Jon’s best friend. He said, “I’m ______________. I’m (elder brother of Jon’s friend)’s pastor. I just want you to know I think you spoke the truth in there and I have no problem with anything you said.”
Wow. I mumbled “Thank you.”
Then we finally left the building. The father of Jon’s best friend is standing on the sidewalk with other family members and he is in tears, as would be expected, given the finality of hearing his son being sent to prison. What do I do? What should I do? All I can report is what I actually did. I walked up to him, looked him in the eye, gave him a hug and said, “You keep on loving that boy.” Through his tears he responded, “I will.” We shook hands and we departed.
With all that had happened up to this point, looking back, I cannot imagine having lived life if I had not forgiven. Over the years in the prisons, I have seen the consequences of unforgiveness in many prisoners and we will review some of that in upcoming posts. Praise God He was generous in granting me grace enabling me to forgive. Praise God, indeed.
Sentencing Hearing Statement, January 20, 2004
Your honor, I thank the court for this chance to express myself. I would ask for the court’s patience, because it will be very difficult for me to get through this.
It has been 599 days since May 29, 2002. I have been wrestling about what to say right now for 599 days. You have heard the pain that some of my family members are experiencing. A few of our child have chosen not to speak, for reasons that are personal to them and we understand. Our 19-year-old daughter could not make it here from college today. Our pain is all different. Ken and Heather speak of an older sibling’s pain of losing their little brother. You heard the pain and anguish from a mother’s point of view when Sheryl spoke. All I can do now is tell you what’s on the heart of a dad whose little boy is dead.
As a parent, you take certain chances. The first chance is the birth of your child. When Jon was conceived, Sheryl and I weren’t married. Bringing a child into our world, back in 1982, when we were both on the low end of the income scale, with Sheryl already having two children from a previous marriage, involved taking a chance. Before we met, Sheryl had been sexually assaulted and had been deceived by an OB-GYN here in Petoskey into having an abortion. She regrets that decision to this day. But she could have aborted Jon, too. She didn’t.
C.S. Lewis wrote something about the chance you take when you love. He wrote this: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness….It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers of love is Hell!”
We took a chance with Jon’s birth, just like you do whenever a child is born. You give your all to that child – that child is a part of you. But with that chance comes great moments of happiness, and the possibility of great moments of sadness and heartbreak. May 29, 2002 exposed the dangers of love that C.S. Lewis spoke about. Burned into my mind for the rest of my life are the words of ______’s mother on the phone: “Jon’s in the ditch and he’s not alive!” A few minutes later I was told by Trooper Ferguson at the scene that Jon was deceased. They don’t tell you your son is dead. I don’t know why. Maybe “deceased” is supposed to cushion the blow. It didn’t.
How do you describe the pain of the last year and half? What it’s done to me, my wife, and our children? The hole in my heart that will never be fixed as long as I live? You remember all the struggles you had. The victories. What hurts is the creation of memories in Jon’s life stopped May 29, 2002. I went to a wedding that summer. One of the girls Jon went to Sunday School with as a child got married. I sat there crying through the whole thing knowing I would never attend Jon’s wedding. I would never see Jon’s first child be born. I would never see Jon and Ian bickering like brothers do, then goofing around together and having a ball. Jon would never see me grow old.
The things that made you choke up a little when your child is alive now bring real tears. Jon getting his first bike at 5 or 6 years old. The bike didn’t have any training wheels. Jon rode that bike up and down the driveway all day long that day until he figured out how to ride it by himself. Going to watch Jon at baseball practice when he was 15 and watching him hit a baseball at the Alanson high school field higher and farther than I’d seen a 15 year old hit the ball and see it hit the right center field fence on the fly and realizing that my little boy wasn’t so little any more. Seeing him so proud of his first car. Playing the outfield behind him in a church league softball game and watching him dive for a line drive playing shortstop and being parallel with the ground.
Jon was the type of kid who thought he could fix everything. We always had electronics torn apart in a million pieces because Jon thought he could fix it. As Jon grew up, he also though he could fix himself. We talked to him a lot about his behavior. But Jon thought he could fix whatever was wrong with himself, and fix it by himself. He also thought he could fix ______. We tried to instruct both boys as best we could. One time, ______ said to Sheryl, “why are you lecturing me?” Why? My wife and I volunteer in the prisons up in the U.P. and the jail next door. We lecture because we have both seen the consequences of the actions of men who thought they were invincible. I have encountered hundreds of inmates, and count over 100 as good friends. The ones who are honest will tell you that they belong in prison for what they did. They may not agree with the length of their sentence, but they agree that prison was the right thing. They also will tell you that being sent to prison was the best thing that could have happened to them because it woke them up. My prayer for ______ is that he wakes up. That he wakes up and sees that he can’t handle everything by himself and that he is human and that he needs to do what Almighty God commands all of us to do and that is to fall on his face before God and turn from his sins and turn to God.
No matter what happens here today, the trauma of what we have experienced will never go away. The horror of what we saw in the casket on May 31st, 2002 will never go away. We knew that seeing Jon in the casket would be the worst thing we had ever done, but we all did. It was horrible. How do you deal with the memory of your 15-year-old daughter hyperventilating and having to sit down twice between the back of the room and the casket because she literally couldn’t breathe? I hadn’t planned on keeping a picture of Jon on my desk after he died, but that changed when I saw him in the casket. His funeral had a closed casket because of the grotesque sight of how his head had been put back together as best as the funeral home could. Your honor, I can’t get that sight out of my head. That’s why I have this frame right behind me at work, plus another picture in front of me. To try and have something to look at when that sight of his head in the casket comes into view. A couple months ago, a patient came into our office – I work at the front desk. She saw that picture frame and asked, “Are those your boys?” I said, “No, those are all pictures of my son Jon. My oldest daughter gave it to me after he was killed last year.” What she said next makes me cry almost every time I think about it – she got this stunned look on her face and said, “Oh, Jeff..he’s beautiful.” Yes, he was.
The name Jonathan means, “Gift from God.” That he was. In the Old Testament, Jonathan plays a prominent part in the life of King David. Jonathan of the Old Testament was known for his loyalty and his friendship. Jonathan Peterson was loyal to _______. After Jon died, we found out what a good friend he had been to a lot of people whom we didn’t even know existed. That’s what makes what happened after Jon died so disappointing. I need to say that I have forgiven ______ for what happened – I did that right away. I don’t need the anger and bitterness festering inside me that unforgiveness breeds – my Lord Jesus gives me the ability to forgive ______ and let go of the hatred. But that doesn’t negate accountability and consequences for one’s actions. We forgive our kids, but they are still accountable. God forgives us, but we still deal with the consequences of what we’ve asked forgiveness for. But what lingers in my mind is disappointment. Jon’s best friend didn’t even show up at his funeral. _______’s mother and other members of his family did and I commend them for that. But Jon’s best friend deserted him. When your son’s best friend lets your son down, it hurts. I may be mistaken, but it is my understanding that _______ has not been to the cemetery to see Jon’s gravestone, either. No one can prepare you for the first time you see that. Seeing your son’s date of death on a rock is indescribable. Jon died at 19. I have yet to bring myself to go through some of his stuff almost two years later now. One thing we did run across was this. Jon wrote this when he was in 4th grade. It asked what his favorite age was. He wrote 19. If we only knew that Jon would be 19 forever.
_______ may feel that he’s being treated unfairly or too harshly. Prison is not a normal experience, and it shouldn’t be. I’ve volunteered enough next door in the jail to see that jail time doesn’t make an impression on enough people. I’ve seen too many cocky men and women blaming everyone else for their problems and treating jail like it’s not a big deal. It should be, but for too many, it isn’t. _______ has what Jon doesn’t – a second chance. His life is not over. He has a chance to start over. His parents can still hug him and talk to him and yell at him if they need to. We can’t. I pray that one outcome of all this is that every member of _______’s family AND my own family take stock of themselves and think about it when they take that first drink of alcohol. The tragedy of May 29th wouldn’t have happened without that first drink for the boys. Jon paid the price for that drink. _______ is paying it now. A crying shame is that whoever broke the law and provided them with the alcohol is still out there, probably still providing, and some other people will end up in this court someday before you, Judge Johnson, because they were not held accountable.
That patient of ours was right – Jon was beautiful. CS Lewis was right – the only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers of love is Hell. We were blessed with Jon for 19 years and 309 days. The reason it hurts so much is that we loved him so much. I’ll take that chance any day. 19 years and 309 days of love in exchange for the pain I’ll feel the rest of my life. A lot of people have talked to us about closure. Closure isn’t in my vocabulary. No matter how you try to soften it or mold it, the root word of closure is still “close.” I can’t close off that part of my heart that is empty because of Jon’s death and I don’t want to.
Your honor, when people ask me how many children I have, my answer is the same as before May 29, 2002. I have six children. One is dead, though. Jon is my son and always will be. He was no perfect angel – we certainly had our disagreements. But that doesn’t mean he deserved to die the way he did. 14 people sat over there [the jury box] and saw the carnage of May 29, 2002. I can’t bring myself to see the pictures they saw. The vision of Jon in the casket is bad enough. He was cold. So cold. But I just had to touch him and hold him because he’s my boy. He always will be. May 29, 2002, Jon’s future stopped. No more memories to be created. Kendall still has that chance. He can change his ways. He can still make a difference. Jon is 19 forever. I trust the Lord God in that I believe He has everything under His control, but God made Moms and Dads and brothers and sisters to love each other, and I don’t think God minds when I cry. But it just hurts so much. Thank you.
Matthew 6:14–15 (ESV)
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
In an earlier post we had written that our son’s best friend had been a suspect in Jon’s death. Over the year following, police investigations continued in that direction.
We cannot pretend to know what it is like to be under scrutiny of law enforcement for extended periods of time as was Jon’s friend. He was eighteen years old, most likely scared as his family most likely was as well. Throughout this part of the legal process, which played out for eleven months, the direction things took as orchestrated by a defense attorney seemed quite puzzling to us.
In another earlier post, I mentioned a white pickup truck that had been stranded across the road from our house. The truck was impounded that day and taken to a secure location by law enforcement. What appeared to be human tissue was found in a wheel well and sent to Michigan State Police labs for DNA testing.
One watches “CSI” and all its related shows and sees Grissom or Horatio standing there tapping their toe waiting for DNA that was brought down the hall 20 minutes ago. We sat there and just laughed when we watched “CSI” – it took seven months for the DNA results to come forth in this case, and by current standards then, were reasonably swift.
The results came back and were indeed confirmed to be brain matter from our son. Even though it was not surprising, it still hits you in the face like a brick wall – the thought of what happened to your son to cause his brain to end up in the wheel well of a truck is…well, you can figure it out.
While all this was occurring, legal machinations continued, many from our perspective of a head-scratching nature. Could we have an idea what was going on to cause such things? No. Interestingly enough, however, in the midst of this, the defense attorney sent an email to my boss, they being friends who attended church together. The nature of the email? He stated that he knew he was causing a lot of disruption and problems in the community and wished to – looking back ten years – do some cleansing of his conscience (which will be addressed later in this post).
It was approaching one year after Jon’s death and an arrest had yet to be made. I was serving on a Keryx ministry weekend at Chippewa Correctional Facility and one of my assignments was to present a service on Saturday evening on the importance of forgiveness. In those days I left the prison for a couple hours to fuflill my role in the Keryx ministry as Trainer for some volunteers who would enter the prison. At 230pm that Saturday, I did so and was met by my wife at the training site, who proceeded to tell me that Jon’s friend had been arrested that morning on three felony counts.
This is where forgiveness rubber meets the road. It’s easy to preach forgiveness when all one has to do is forgive for relatively minor things. When it gets intensely personal, though, then challenges arise. I still recall very clearly watching a news story concerning those affected by Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing and hearing one lady say she would never forgive him as long as she lived. (If you have never seen the video here, it’s a must watch. Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer” was sentenced for the multiple murders he committed. At that hearing, people lit into him about what pain he had caused. Ridgway sat there impassive through those speeches. Watch the video at the 2:15 mark. The father of one of his victims spoke and said how he had forgiven Ridgway – watch Ridgway’s reaction. That father lived out the fruit of the gospel which had saved him and he was obedient to the command to forgive, which is not given with a list of exceptions letting the Christian off the hook if he doesn’t forgive based on environment or circumstance.) There is also the story of one affected by the crimes committed by Seth Privacky, who was a prisoner at Kinross Correctional Facility (the prison where I speak once a month and have volunteered for 16 years) – and who was killed during an escape attempt a few years ago – the one affected was not interested in forgiving Mr. Privacky for the crimes he had committed.
Was this arrest a surprise? No. They had made the arrest first thing in the morning and then had driven to our house and notified my wife, who then drove the 65 miles to the prison as she had already planned on doing. Still, again, when what is expected actually happens, it still hits you in the face. Jon’s friend has been arrested. Does the arrest mean he was guilty? Of course not. Investigation had shown, however, that Jon’s best friend was the only driver of the vehicle that night as other family members had disavowed doing so. Another question was this: just what was he guilty of committing? Justice is quite gray in an area such as this. Did he set out that night to kill Jon? No one believes that. If he was drunk, as was Jon, and it was purely an accident, what is just? These are not easy areas. What no one had ever said through all of this was that Jon’s best friend was not driving the vehicle that killed him – not even Jon’s best friend denied driving the vehicle, as he also affirmd he couldn’t remember driving the vehicle, either.
At this point was where I had to practice what I was going to preach. In a few hours I was going to be in a small classroom inside a medium security prison with my fellow volunteers and about 40 prisoners all packed in tightly and I was to tell them the absolute importance of forgiving those who have caused you pain through whatever means.
Returning to the prison, I told no one for a while. Then as we had a brief break before that service, I gathered my mentor and one of the pastors serving on the weekend and I took them with me to the end of the hall in front of the room where everyone was congregating for that service. I remember crying as I told them Jon’s friend had been arrested. There was no joy in the arrest. There was nothing to celebrate – it was a time of profound sadness – not only because it brought another stage of the process to a head, but for the fact what the future was most likely to bring for Jon’s friend and his family.
I asked my brothers to pray for me. They knew what I had to do in a few minutes – they knew I had to walk in that room behind us and tell the prisoners about forgiveness – and not be a hypocrite myself and stand there not having forgiven my son’s best friend. Both my friends were in tears. The pastor prayed. This pastor was one who was never at a loss for words – until then. Here was his prayer, in its entirety: “Lord, I don’t know what to pray.” An ideal prayer. What could say it any better?
Romans 8:26–27 (ESV)
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We all embraced each other. They entered the room along with me. I forgave Jon’s best friend right there – for whatever he had done, since we knew not the details. Then I was able to tell the prisoners that – the fact that a few hours before an arrest had been made and so forth.
Forgiveness is a volitional act. We choose to either forgive or not forgive. The child of God, being indwelt by His Spirit, can never say, “I can’t forgive.” That indwelling Spirit enables us to forgive. Several years after this, I told our story concerning Jon’s death and forgiveness (more on that tomorrow) at a church to a group of about 70 women. A few hours later I was asked to see a woman who wanted to talk.
This woman had already been talking for about 20 minutes to another woman and was not getting the answer she was looking for. I joined the two of them. The problem? This woman could not forgive her husband – for what she did not disclose and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. She wanted to know how to forgive. I asked her if she was a Christian. She said she was. I asked her what made her a Christian and she gave the correct answer.
“So how do I forgive him?” My answer?
“I know this may sound trite and be a cliche, but it’s like the Nike ad – you just do it.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Yes, you can.”
“This may not be what you want to hear, but here’s the problem: you say you are a Christian. The Bible commands you to forgive. God has equipped you to forgive. If you don’t obey what God commands you to do, the Bible calls that…what?”
“Right. And however he has sinned against you – whether it’s real or perceived as sin, you have to forgive him.”
“But I can’t.”
“No, ma’am, it’s not that you can’t – it’s that you won’t. You seem to be deciding that holding on to your hatred for your husband is more important than obeying an explicit command from Christ Himself.”
“How did you do it?”
“It was more important to me to forgive and obey what God tells me to do than to be miserable just like you appear to be right now. I can sleep at night. My conscience is clear. Now, I could only do it because of the Holy Spirit working in me, but you told me you’re a Christian if that’s true, you not only can forgive, you must forgive.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Yes, you can. If you don’t, it’s not because you couldn’t, it’s because you wouldn’t. There a big difference.”
As far as I know, she hadn’t forgiven him by the time we all went home the next day.
By the grace of God, that evening I was able to stand toe-to-toe (literally) with all those prisoners and my fellow volunteers and tell them how I was able to forgive and how they not only could, but if they were Christians, must forgive.
The defense attorney? That came to a head many months later, which we will present tomorrow.
Revelation 21:1–4 (ESV)
The New Heaven and the New Earth
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
In an earlier post, I had mentioned that when our son Jon died, we did not have sufficient funds to purchase a headstone for his grave site and that he, being an independent 19 year-old, did not have life insurance or any means to provide for his own burial other than the cash which was in his pocket at the time of his death. Through the kindness of God’s people, however, we did at one point finally have funds to purchase a headstone.
What do you put on your son’s headstone? My wife and I thought about that long and hard and wrestled with what to settle upon. You only have so much space and as you’re again, like with the funeral arrangements, negotiating with the headstone vendor, you try to maintain composure when they tell you that such-and-such can’t be done or this can’t be done or that can’t be done or “you have to do this.”
Since Jon died, I had always rued the day the headstone would arrive at the cemetery. That would place the reality of Jon’s death and our loss front and center and cement it in stone – literally. One of my prison ministry colleagues had a son die at Jon’s age in 1987. He told me he had not even been to the cemetery yet – 15 years later, at this point – because he could not bring himself to see the grave site with his son’s date of death displayed. My wife had said that she didn’t think she would struggle with the stone once it arrived – it had been my thought that I would struggle mightily.
We waited several weeks. Then, while at work, one day, I get a phone call. It’s my wife.
She is sobbing uncontrollably. All I said was, It’s there, isn’t it?” She managed to get a “Yes” out. At that point I was unable to leave work and go to the cemetery but I made a phone call.
Greenwood Cemetery in Petoskey, Michigan is a beautiful cemetery, as you can see from the photos on its site. It’s over 100 years old and sits on a bluff overlooking Little Traverse Bay. As an aside, at the base of the bluff are the Emmet County Fairgrounds, where we spent many a day with our children in their days as 4-H participants. After Jon’s funeral, and we as a family had made our graveside visit, one of our daughters said something interesting. She said in the days past, she and her friends would sneak up the hill after dark and goof around in the cemetery. Now, she realized how wrong that was. Life is a wonderful teacher and now she had learned that death instructs as well.
Jon’s plot was in the new part of the cemetery, out in the open. There were no trees in this part of the cemetery and this is where the small, least expensive plots are located. Being in the open, however, affords this: a view all the way across the western part of the cemetery to the adjacent residential area. The people who live there can a look a few hundred yards out their east windows and see Jon’s grave. One of those people is the pastor of the church we were attending at the time.
I hung up from talking to my wife, who still inconsolable. I called our pastor, hoping he would be at home. He was. He, of course, knew where Jon was buried. I asked him to go to his patio door and look toward Jon’s grave.
“Do you see a car there?”
“That’s Sheryl. The headstone just got there. She’s beside herself.”
Before I could say anything else, he said, “We’re on it,” and he and his wife got over there pronto to console her.
Shortly thereafter I was able to go there and join her and we wept together. How does one describe the first sight of your child’s headstone?
One can’t, as one can’t describe many things.
Visiting the cemetery always reminds me of the consequences of sin. If it were not for sin, we would have no cemeteries. We would have no grief, tears and so on. Almost every visit to cemetery – to this day – brings tears. Things that may seem insignificant matter. Yes, it bothers me when the birds leave their deposit on the stone and you have to scrub it off. In 2002 our youngest son made us promise that we would never walk on the part of Jon’s grave over the top of his body because he didn’t want anyone walking on his big brother. As we have discussed, Jon’s earthly body was merely his earthly tent, but we honor his wish to this day. That rectangle is something we do not step upon. If we have business to do there, we walk around his body or straddle his body and do not step on it.
Visits to the cemetery make the significance of Revelation 21:1-4 more real than ever before. There will be a day – for the believer – when there will be no more mourning or crying or pain because these former things will have passed away. For the unbeliever, just the opposite. The practical implications? It matters now what decisions we make with regard to Christ. It matters that people be told – biblically – their current state and the only means of redemption from their state, that means being faith in Christ.
Winters are difficult because the cemetery is closed due to the snow. For 4-5 months every year, Jon’s grave is inaccessible. It’s hard. Each year when the cemetery finally reopens is a big deal around our house.
In closing, what you see here is Jon’s headstone – “Musembi” being the nickname the local people in Kenya gave him when he was there at age 15. “Musembi” means “fast runner” – “fast runner” being quite a compliment from the Kenyans, if one is familiar with Kenyan success in track events at the Olympic Games.
As far as I know, my friend whom I mentioned above still has not been to his son’s grave due to the pain, now 25 years later. As Christians, we should not deny the realities of death and pain it causes. The pain does not nullify the joy of the Christian but the Christian is one who mourns what should be mourned and grieves over what should be grieved. Death should be mourned and grieved. It should also remind us that we all have a date appointed for our death and so does everyone else. We just need to be ready.
Ten Years Ago, Part 9: “Through Death The Gospel Came Alive” – A Prisoner’s Perspective On Your Son’s Death And Unexpected Subsequent Developments
Back in 2002, the prisoners at KCF were publishing a monthly newsletter entitled, “The Keryx Journal,” an eight-page assemblage of essays, poems and other items written/submitted by prisoners. The prisoner who prayed that night in the cafeteria the night after Jon died wrote a brief essay about what had happened and it appeared in The Journal a couple of months later. We were unaware that he was going to do this and were quite surprised when we were handed our copy of The Journal upon publication.
What happened subsequent to this was more surprising.
Late in 2002, upon arriving at KCF, the prisoner in question was very excited. Why? He had sent out the essay he had written for publication and had received a response from Mennonite Publishing in Pennsylvania. They had agreed to publish his essay in their monthly Sunday School bulletin (and pay him about $30 in addition, which is a lot of money for a prisoner). It was our understanding that around 12,000 copies are distributed monthly. It was published early in 2003.
Someone somewhere read it, because not too long afterward the prisoner received a letter from Nazarene Publishing House in Kansas City, asking if they could republish the essay. The prisoner agreed and received another small stipend for the essay. They published it early in 2004.
A couple of years later, I was at a church about 100 miles from El Rancho Reformado in casual conversation with a small group of people and one who knew us mentioned Jon’s death and the prisoner having written about i and the others inquired further, so I elaborated. When I did and mentioned the Mennonite publication, one lady blurted out, “That was real?!?!? I read that and thought it was just another story somebody had made up!” I said, “Yeah, it’s real. That guy was me.” “Really? I really thought it was a made-up story.” “No, ma’am. It’s all real, just like he wrote.”
People do read those little publications and those who read need not think they are fictional accounts. Ours is decidedly real.
The story of what happened in a remote prison, in a cafeteria with three volunteers and 40-45 prisoners ended up being spread around the world. Was that my intent when I called and asked if I could go to the prison with those other two men that night? No. I just knew I needed to be with some men who loved me and my wife and who were going to be hurting from what they had heard the day before. The words of a hurting dad, spoken to men who reside in contemporary society’s version of a leper colony, saw the light of day far beyond that old cafeteria and perhaps ministered in some small way to a hurting soul whom we would never see this side of heaven.
God’s providence shines forth again. Praise God.
The prisoner’s essay is shown below, for ease of reading. The links can be clicked to see the original publications. The Mennonite publication is Copyright 2003 by Faith and Like Resources. The Nazarene publication is Copyright 2004 by WordAction Publishing Company (the photo accompanying that version is not the prisoner who wrote it). The prisoner’s name has been redacted for reasons of security and confidentiality.
Through Death The Gospel Came Alive
Last night my son was killed by a hit-and-run driver,” said Jeff Peterson in a voice cracked raw with emotion. Before a room instantly quiet, Jeff continued, “Today has been the hardest day of my life. I know many of you have been praying for my son, and have heard my wife and me talk about our difficulties with him over the last year and a half. I’m here tonight because I felt I needed to tell you in person about his death.
“A lot of people feel finding out who was responsible and making them pay is what is important,” said Jeff, opening his heart even deeper. “I’m here to tell you, I don’t care about that. Knowing who did this won’t change what happened, and punishing the person responsible won’t bring my son back to life. All I know is that my son is dead and nothing will change that.” Strong words—words made even stronger because they were spoken to a room full of convicted felons. Words spoken to men who themselves had committed acts of violence and caused the kind of pain they heard and saw in Jeff’s trembling voice and shuddering shoulders. Yet, because a man standing fast in his faith at such an emotional time spoke them, they were also words of great healing. They were words that shook a fist in the face of intense emotional pain and shone forth triumphant.
As a volunteer involved in prison ministry since the mid ‘90s, at the Kinross Correctional facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, Jeff knows that prisons are filled with men and women deeply hurt over the crimes they have committed and the subsequent pain they realize their crimes have caused to others. Understanding this, Jeff went into a prison on the hardest day of his life, not to face men in anger, men onto whom he could project the face of the perpetrator who had taken his son’s life. But rather he entered the prison knowing his pain would be understood and he, himself, could be ministered to through his own act of spiritual kindness.
“Jeff really needed you guys last week,” said his wife Cheryl, a week later during another gathering at the prison. “He knew you guys would help him to get through his crisis. You guys sure didn’t fail him there. For that we will always be grateful.”
The pain of losing a loved one is a devastating, life-threatening experience. As your soul cried out questions no one can answer, solace can only be found in acceptance that God, who is at work, will one day explain why all our pain was necessary. However, this acceptance cannot he passive. Jeff knew that, and he also knew that for his healing to begin he had to look his son’s death in the eye. He did this by seeking comfort from men whom most would consider the least prepared to give it. Through this simple act of faith, seeking solace from men who had caused the kind of pain he was feeling, not only was Jeff’s healing process begun, but the men who ministered to him felt their healing begin too!
“What has been slowly pressed upon my spirit as this day has worn on,” said Jeff, as he sought to put his son’s death into perspective, “is how much God loves me. Loves us. To willingly send forth his son to die. That was an act of love so deep. Until today I guess I always knew that, but I never really understood it. However, after experiencing what it actually feels like to lose a son, well, all I can say is, my eyes have been opened, and I see that God’s love for me—for us—is an amazing, humbling reality.”
Drawn irresistibly by the Spirit to surround Jeff and lay hands upon him, the men humbled themselves before God and sought his in mercy in prayer. As these prayers were spoken the gospel was brought to life, and once again, death was conquered by hope. Proving without question that all of Iife—even the hard, incomprehensible stuff—is surely worth living, and that healing can come even when it is sought where it normally isn’t found. For it’s not the physical places where we seek healing that matter, it’s the source. And when the source is God, he is bound only by the limitations we place upon him.