It isn’t every day that some event in our lives echoes a Bible story, but it happens. And it happened recently to pastor Stan Purdum.
2 Chronicles tells of when King Josiah of Israel discovered in the temple during a renovation a copy of “the book of the law,” which was probably the scroll of Deuteronomy. The scroll had been stored in the temple years before, but then forgotten. Upon discovery, it was brought to King Josiah who, after hearing it read to him, realized his nation had wandered far from its divine instructions. In response, King Josiah led his people in great spiritual renewal.
Like King Josiah’s story Rev. Purdum’s story begins when he was serving as interim pastor at a church in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. And like King Josiah, a realization was made, and spiritual renewal was birthed, when an old book was read.
On a seldom-used shelf in the church office, Purdum noticed a book about the history of the church from 1740 to 1953, coauthored by three church members in the 1950’s, but were now deceased.
Inquiring about the book, Purdum found that though there were a few copies of the book around the church, the only current member who had read it was the son of one of the authors, now an older gentleman himself. Feeling a bit like Josiah, Purdum decided to read the book, and found the following true story:
From 1947 to 1950, the pastor of the Basking Ridge church was a young man by the name of John Esaias. He and his young bride were quite well liked by the congregation, and Rev. Johnny, as he was known, reportedly did a good job in his role as the pastoral leader. During his time at Basking Ridge, however, there was a tragedy that stunned the whole community and left an especially heavy mark on Rev. Johnny.
In August of 1948, the young people of the church were holding their annual peach festival to raise money for the youth mission fund. Quite a few of the local people patronized the event. Among them was Paul Hausal, the manager of the local airport, and Linda Fish, a commercial pilot employed at the airport who was engaged to George Lewis who was also a pilot. Both chatted with kids and made generous contributions to the fund. One of the girls who served them was 15-year-old Janet Shauger.
After the festival, Rev. Johnny was helping clean up, and there was discussion about what to do with the leftover cake. Young Janet suggested they take some down to the airport to Mr. Hausel and Miss Fish. Rev. Johnny agreed, and since Janet was so enthused by the idea, he offered to drive her to the airport.
When they got there, both Mr. Hausel and Miss Fish were delighted to see their visitors. In response to the thoughtful gesture, and since they weren’t busy, they offered to give Janet and Rev. Johnny a plane ride. Since neither of them had ever flown before young Janet was overjoyed and Rev. Johnny thought it would be neat to see the town from the air. So Rev. Johnny agreed that there would be time for a short ride.
The only planes on hand were two-seaters, so it was decided that Miss Fish would take Janet up in one plane and her fiancé, George Lewis, would take Rev. Johnny in another.
Soon both planes with their pilots and passengers were in the air. After circling for a few minutes, the men landed and Johnny thanked George for a delightful ride. Then together they watched Miss Fish bring her plane in, but as they did, they were horrified to see the landing gear strike some utility lines and the plane crashed. Fifteen year old Janet Shauger died instantly. Miss Fish died in the hospital a few hours later. It was the first fatal accident in the history of the airport.
Purdum discovered in his reading that in addition to the grief Rev. Johnny felt for Ms. Fish and young Janet and her family, he was stricken with a sense that their deaths were his fault.
The book goes on to say:
Rev. Johnny was known to have repeatedly asked himself how he could have been so irresponsible. He believed if he hadn’t consented to taking a ride, this would never have happened. And stunned as he was, he still had to break the news to young Janet’s parents, who didn’t even know she had gone to the airport.
Rev. Johnny felt he was to blame, even though his weeping wife, many of his close friends, and even the bereaved Shaugers argued otherwise. Many in the congregation shared his suffering and did their best to console him. But the mental wound suffered by our conscientious young pastor in this tragic experience would be a very long time healing.
We can only imagine the regret that consumed Rev. Johnny. We can only image how he went on living with that regret. Our text for today may give us some insight.
It’s common in church to think about our sins. We acknowledge them and ask for forgiveness. But many of us also feel the weight of regret because of mistakes, bad judgment, shortsightedness, immaturity, thoughtlessness— incidents that hurt someone in an unintended but permanent way where there’s no chance to undo the harm. And even when others tell us such things are not our fault or that we’re only human and we are judging ourselves too harshly, we are still filled with regret.
Now maybe it’s a mark of our good character that we are not able to shrug off such regrets. But what should we do with our regrets?
We can ask for forgiveness of someone we have hurt—and get it—but that still may not make our regrets go away.
If only there were something that would allow us to square up for the harm we cause, or the sins we commit. Can’t we just pay for our mistakes and be done with them, so they don’t haunt us?
This brings us to Psalm 139, which asserts that God knows us as we really are: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist says. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”
That God knows us as we are can be a frightening thought. God knows the “secret us”, the part of ourselves we never reveal to others, and if there’s anything unsavory or ungodly in that “secret us”, we can’t hide it from God.
But that God knows us as we are can actually be comforting. After all, God understands what it means to be human. God understands living with sorrow and regrets—Jesus shows us that throughout his ministry by constantly going to, and healing those who carried heavy burdens.
Still though, living with regret is never God’s plan.
Which is why God is still helping us figure out how we can live with our regrets to the point that we actually embrace them; grow from them; and become better because of them.
The late J. Ellsworth Kalas, noted preacher and author, said “We should make friends with our regrets. Regret represents the refuse of our lives, the stuff we’d like to eliminate from memory— both ours and that of our community of friends. But regret is the redeeming residue of guilt, the compost of the soul, the place where new life grows.”
Kalas is so right—there is a redeeming residue in guilt which becomes fertile soil to plant seeds of new life.
He goes on to say, “Those apostles of cheap optimism who have abounded in our day will tell you it is useless to waste your time in vain regrets over what you did wrong in the past; that you should be looking ahead and making bright plans for the future. But that, you see, is the exact opposite of our Lord’s teaching. He does not want us to be exercised over the future. Nor does God does want us to be exercised over the past. Our sins are to be a continual subject of conversation between us and him. For God takes our sins as part of the day’s work: we are sinners who are repeatedly given the grace of God. We must not expect to be anything else. We must not wonder if anything else will be given.”
When we make friends with our regrets we discover again God’s grace.
When we make friends with our regrets we are allowing them to make us empathetic and understanding of the faults and failures of others. We’ve all given as good as we have gotten—so let’s take it easy on one another.
When we make friends with our regrets they help us avoid similar mistakes in the future.
When we make friends with our regrets we can make midcourse corrections in how we are living.
More importantly, our regrets can become instruments of God’s grace. They can drive us to God afresh, to discover again God’s grace and mercy.
The psalmist reminds us of God’s presence—not in a way that should make us ashamed of the secret only we and God know about, but that we are loved deeply still.
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Rev. Johnny must have read this psalm because the lost book Stan Purdum discovered tells, “Rev. Johnny probably never forgot young Janet Shauger or Linda Fish, but he did go on to have a long and successful ministry.”
Rev. Johnny must have been able to have that long and successful ministry because he made friends with his regret.
Whatever regrets we may have can never drive God’s presence away from us. For God is always there to remind us that life can move forward. God is always there to remind us we are loved—no matter our regrets.
So may we make friends with our regrets. And may doing so lead us to discover again God’s grace and new life. Amen.