Editor’s note: The following is an abridged excerpt from Norris Burke’s upcoming book, “Finding Forgiveness in a War Zone.”
During my 2009 service as an Air Force chaplain in Iraq, I saw countless examples of heroism. However, the most spiritually heroic act I witnessed was the prayer of a soldier who asked God to forgive the insurgents who had killed his battle buddy.
It was an act I also found haunting, because his prayer shamed me into facing the resentment I’d harbored for 10 years toward a chaplain colleague. My stubbornness had become a real-life enactment of Dr. Seuss’ “The Zax.”
The Seuss story involves a North-going Zax and a South-going Zax who meet on a narrow trail through the Prairie of Prax. Both refuse to step aside to allow the other to pass. The Zaxes maintain their stubborn standoff until eventually a highway overpass is built around them. The story ends with the Zaxes standing “unbudged in their tracks.”
I was the Southern Zax who was “unbudged” in my spiritual tracks. In my revised version, the other guy was the Northern Zax who was not only a stubborn fool, but also a big liar who was out to get me. He was paranoid. He was ... blah, blah, blah — so went my amended view of history.
For years, I made showy attempts to deal with my resentment by talking to counselors and praying with pastors. But I always made excuses for not doing what I knew I must do: find my former colleague and confess my part of what now seemed a sum total of banal trivialities.
Five years ago, my excuses faded when I accepted a speaking invitation in a city near to my old nemesis. I mustered a small measure of the heroics I’d heard in the soldier’s forgiveness prayer and broke my indignant silence. I emailed the chaplain with a meeting request.
Two weeks later, he graciously welcomed me into the church where he served as pastor. Inside his office, we shook hands and sat talking about the things important to everyone: faith, family and purpose. Gradually, the image I had created of him shrunk, but in a good way. It shrunk to the size God made us all.
He told me that he had no memory of the details of those years past. Then he said what I needed to hear: “Whatever I did, I hope you will forgive me.”
Then I heard myself saying the words I never thought I’d say: “I hope you will forgive me, too.” And just like that, the resentment disintegrated, annihilated by grace, never to return.
There was no idealistic or dramatic ending; we simply shook hands and said our good-byes. Yet we both found and bestowed the grace we needed. We were no longer Zaxes; we were fellow sojourners working out our salvation in this life.
That young soldier’s prayer for forgiveness for his enemies, more than anything else, has taught me that if you want to avoid the path of a Zax, you might want to consider Jesus’ advice when he said: “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him — work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend.”
While time may heal all things, I think the tone of Jesus’ words favors sooner more than later, and He definitely would not approve of waiting 13 years.
I’m thinking that forgiveness is the heroic choice.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” He is an Air National Guard chaplain and a board-certified hospital chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains. You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit www.thechaplain.net.