Practice makes Grace Real #21
I was born into a multicultural environment where we exchanged favors without having anything in common. In school, I was able to do favors for my classmates who pretended to be my friends, but when rumors of war came, my friends became my enemies. Their parents were in power, and I had to continue to do favors to them against my will. In my heart, I began to build an intense dislike for these false friends. However, in my daily conduct, I could not show any animosity against them. In a racist-charged society, where we were of the same race than the invaders were, imagine how I felt when I had to choke on my pride, and avoid getting my family into trouble. At that time, I did not realize that I had begun to learn what “grace” really meant, without the Scriptures.
My Childhood Understanding of Grace
To me, “grace” was not a gift from heaven — “grace” was a skill and a tool, which I learned to use from my parents and grandparents. Therefore, the skill of “grace” kept me out of trouble, which could have led to harm and even death. Grace was not gaining favors, but “grace” was giving favors to those who had the power that could exterminate us. When Germany invaded Poland, our people were incarcerated, our father had to report to his Polish army unit. And our mother took us, three boys into hiding, until the Soviets delivered us from any further harm. Yet, my people feared the Russians more than they feared the Poles or the Germans. During the First World War, my grandparents had a taste of Siberia. Our people regarded being sold to the Germans as a blessing from heaven. However, it did not take long to discover that the use of “grace” became an art of diplomacy to live by. Even as a nine-year old lad, I managed to get along with friends and hostile people by being one on whom they could depend on for favors. In that sense, I was truly blessed from heaven with the ability to prepare myself with assets, which came in handy when I had to be tolerated, and I also had to take the blame for their failures. I had to learn early not to offend anyone or stand out by volunteering answers or skills that would embarrass my friends or my foes.
On one occasion, I did embarrass myself. A German officer, in shining uniform, came to our school looking for achievers. He asked what anyone would like to become. Foolishly, I raised my hand and proudly said, “An officer!” The Nazi leader was ready to take me to one of their preparatory institutions — only I panicked — and my father had to intervene and rescue me. However, the fellow students became merciless, saluting me with raised hands and standing at attention, and then they ran away. This experience did add to my skills of being more careful with my self-exposure and my tongue. In elementary schooling, I did study and gained more praise from teachers than my classmates, which put me into a disadvantage in being friends and part of their group. To them, my higher grades and my generosity lowered their image of me and they resented me. I, at the same time, was too wrapped up in myself to notice that I did rank myself a little better and higher than my fellow students did.
Also, I was not an outgoing boy who pushed himself ahead of others and that, in the Nazi way of life, was against me. My scores in school were not enough to move me up in their aggressive and total submissiveness to their nationalism. Nevertheless, when a classmate, who was a year older and who also was our neighbor, had himself promoted to be our area cub scout leader. However, he put me in charge over two of the groups, ages between ten and fourteen. At fifteen the lads became “Hitler Jugend” (HJ), similar to the Boy Scouts. After a year of running these two groups, the head leader suggested that I go for ten days to the Nazi training center in a major city in western Poland. To please him, I volunteered and his friends and two of my friends went with me. We barely survived. It was a rigid military experience where we had to learn trickery and dishonesty to turn us into mean little Hitlers. However, we simply were not aggressive and mean enough to become leaders in the Third Reich. Yet, we were tough enough to pass our tests. Back home, our teachers and students welcomed us with acclamation. This was not a time when we were able to act graciously or even thoughtfully. We were not being brought up in the “fear of the Lord God,” but in the fear of “Der Fuehrer Adolf Hitler,” and “Josef Stalin.” It was a marvel that we turned out the way we did. The little “grace” we showed did not come from the political leaders, but from our parents. Our grandparents and our parents tasted the kindness of the Lord and planted the “seed of grace” in us and we children had to grow up into it (I Peter 2:2).
For Me, Grace was a Growing Process
I did not wake up one morning and found myself full of “grace.” However, I did wake up for over ninety years and found that every day I had to use a little more grace to make it through the day. As I look back to my youth, adulthood, and even my ministry, the word’s of the Apostle Peter and Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in need of care come to mind:
But grow in the grace and knowledge (truth) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18).
And Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I found none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ And the vinedresser answered, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).
In a way, I was arrogant, a wild and fruitless fig tree, and it was mostly my own doing. Physically, I turned out quite handsome, and so did my pride. Mentally, I adapted easily and quickly to the requirements that life demanded. Morally, my conscience kept me decent, kind, polite, and friendly when needed. I did behave and displayed good manners, which were resented by the boys and men of my generation. However, to their parents, I was what they hoped their sons would be. I attended a party and danced with a young lady, and one of the popular town youths badmouthed me while his father was watching. His father stopped him and reprimanded him. The next day, my father had to do an errand while a friend and I worked in our shop building hand-wagons. Father met the father of the boy who had insulted me and praised me to my father for being such a well-mannered young man. Normally, my father would yell at me and threaten me; however, this time he broke down in tears and asked me, “Why would I even consider going to a place where I would cause disharmony between a father and a son over a dance?” I was moved by my father’s tears and did not cause another incident. The young man, who insulted me, also changed and became friendlier towards me and wanted me on his soccer team; however, his friends did not. Something good came out of the incident, but not good enough for my father. I had yet to learn to weigh my intentions before I acted.
I turned fifteen several months before World War II ended. And during the next six years, I grew physically into manhood, but not mentally. I blundred too much and made too many mistakes to claim that stature. During that time, I was totally oblivious to the idea that I was being protected by “Some One” who had a higher purpose for me. In addition from being snatched from death four times that I know of, my conscience kept me from completing actions and intentions that could have caused me irreversible harm. To add insult to injury, I was led to believe that I was being punished by heaven for my mistakes. When in fact, heaven through my conscience and heart, was showing me how to minimize my ill behavior and manners to improve my standing before God and man. It took me some time to realize that to impress God, I had to impress my fellowmen. It was not enough to be an acceptable and well mannered young person, who appeared to be in control of himself in public, but I was unable and not equipped enough to share the good that was in him, to benefit others.
Yes, I did not see myself as a fruitless fig three in those days, and no one around me thought of fertilizing or of grooming me, so that I could have become a productive person. It was not their fault, I did learn, much later in my “Journey of Grace” because they, themselves, were not fertilized nor were they properly groomed. They did to me what was done to them. They made me feel very guilty and lost. Their prescription was: repent, pray, believe in Jesus, and He will take care of my guilt and make me into a new person. At first, it appeared to work. I was baptized, joined the Church, attended study groups and surprised people with my Bible knowledge. I, myself, was not surprised because I had eighteen months in the hospital recovering and re-reading the Bible for the first time. And while I was in the hospital, a minister felt that I too belonged in the ministry, and I decided to follow his lead. And when I was discharged, I joined a German-speaking Church, and that pastor knew of a Bible School that helped people like me to prepare for college and seminary. The school had daily chapel services. Different speakers came and roasted us on the “altar of guilt.” Students confessed to bad things and broke out in tears and mumbling. To them, that was a sign that they were touched by the Holy Spirit, and I could only marvel why I did not have that experience. One time, I stood up and forced myself to say something about the Spirit, and a voice in me said, “Sit down you liar, I said nothing to you!” Guilt persisted in making me even more miserable. The school year ended and I spent the summer with my parents and siblings in Winnipeg Manitoba.
How Did “Grace” Affect My Life?
God is “Grace!” And God is “Spirit!” Then, how can God serve me? I heard it enough and taught it myself that Jesus takes care of that service. But when Jesus left this earth to go back to God His Father, to whom did He charge with that service? After a long stretch of guilt, my mother’s border took me to a man who showed me how Jesus could change my problem of guilt. The man invited us for lunch; and in a timid and humble way, he began to tell us what he had to do to allow the peace of Christ enter his heart. He was in charge of his own redemption! To make things right with his fellowmen, he had to remove all the obstacles, which were in the way of his conscience, and that cleared the way to God and to Jesus Christ.
What did this good man do? He began to make things right with the people he had hurt and insulted. It was not just feeling remorse and an apology, but repairing and reimbursing for the losses people had, due to his mistakes. While he spoke, my conscience sent me home to my father and he was surprised that I had not felt right towards him. I began to make things right with apologies, letters, and even money where I could have and did not act properly. At once, a river of peace came into my life! And I, too, like that fig tree with the help of the vinedresser, began to live and bear the “fruit of grace,” by making things right with my fellowmen and that opens the way to our heavenly Father, who is the Father of us all (Matthew 5:21-26).