When I was at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles I frequently got so tired I could no longer function effectively. When that happened, I would sometimes walk north up Main Street a couple of blocks to a pretty spot and get a cup of coffee. On my way to the coffee shop, I walked past a large parking lot fenced off with a six foot high chain link fence.
One especially exhausting day, I left the building to relax for a while with a cup of coffee. My head was occupied with administrative thoughts, so I was not paying attention to the things going on around me. As I walked past the parking lot, I felt someone’s eyes looking at me with enough intensity to get my attention.
I quickly looked around. I saw a middle aged man of normal height and weight. He was clean and shaven, but his clothes were old and ill fitting. He needed a haircut. He standing there, leaning against the fence.
I stopped and introduced myself. His name was Tom. We made conversation for a few minutes.
Then I said, Tom, I stopped because I wanted to tell you that Jesus loves you.
He replied,You only say that because you don’t know what I have done.
That’s true,I said, “but I know what I have done, and I know Jesus, loves me. If he loves me, I know he loves you.
“You only say that because you dont know what I have done?
But I do know what the Bible says. So on the authority of Scripture, I want you to know that Jesus loves you.
“You only say that because you don’t know what I have done.
By this time, I realized that something was going on between Tom and me that was very important. I was silently and intensely praying for wisdom . Finally, I caught on. He needed to tell me what he had done.
I said, Why don’t you tell me what it is that you have done.
He replied, I was in Viet Nam. A bunch of my friends in our company had been killed or maimed in the preceding days. Vietnamese people, that lived in a nearby village, were our friends by day and shooting us at night.
After one particularly horrible night, we lost it. We roared into the village and shot everyone we could find. We killed men, women, children old people, pregnant woman, and even the animals. We burned the village and buried the dead in a trench.
When he stopped talking he just stared at me. He did not seem remorseful or even emotional. He just looked hopeless and helpless.
I said to him, “I am so sorry that happened to those Vietnamese people and I am sorry for the pain you have carried all these years. What you have told me is horrible, but your problem is your arrogance. You think there is something about you that is bigger than God. Your sin is not bigger than God’s love. Your sin is like a paper match to the fire hose of God’s grace. God’s forgiveness is infinitely greater than your sin.
He said, “Thank You, Chaplain.”
I shook his hand and went on to get my coffee. However, the reminder of the wonder of God’s grace the conversation with Tom had given to me, had already provided me a deep rest.
That was thirty years ago. I now realize that when I talked to Tom that morning, I badly understated the depth and power of God’s love.