By Kevin Dougherty –
In conjunction with three other downtown Charleston, South Carolina churches, my home church, First Baptist, is participating in a Lenten series focusing on God’s forgiveness and grace. The series has drawn heavily on the powerful witness of the response of Emanuel A. M. E. Church and the broader Charleston community to the murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel on June 17, 2015. One of those victims was Myra Thompson, and her husband, Reverend Anthony Thompson, was the speaker at the service last Wednesday. He offered an encouraging, uplifting, and almost superhuman testimony of grace, hope, love, and most of all, healing.
Reverend Thompson originally had no interest in attending the bond hearing of his wife’s murderer, Dylan Roof, but his children wanted to go so he acquiesced. He was adamant with them though that they were not going to say a word. As the hearing proceeded, Thompson told us how he found himself checking his watch and asking God to hurry things up. Then he said God whispered in his ear and Thompson knew what he had to do. God had told him he needed to forgive Roof. He needed to make sure Roof knew he had to confess and repent of his sin and give his heart to Jesus. At the bond hearing, Thompson told Roof, “We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that He can change it, can change your ways.”
Reverend Thompson’s was one of the voices of calm, forgiveness, grace, and love that set an example for the world and did much to save Charleston from catastrophe, but what Thompson talked about Wednesday was not so much that as it was the sense of healing that he immediately felt after being obedient to God. He said his heart immediately became as light as a feather and he was filled with God’s peace and love. He described how God took away all the anger and hate and gave him freedom and peace. He said he’s had that peace ever since and that it just gets better every day. He knows God is in control, that God has prepared a place for his wife, and that God now has him on a mission to tell others what we can receive from forgiveness.
Reverend Thompson began this message by telling us that before we can tap into the healing power of forgiveness, we must first understand who we are in the eyes of God. None of us are righteous. All of us are sinners. We must first accept these facts about ourselves before we can understand forgiveness. We too need to be forgiven, and if we want God to forgive us, we must forgive others.
Reverend Thompson told the story of how as a young boy he had shot and killed his grandmother’s cat with a sling shot. His sister had witnessed the deed and was using it as leverage to get Reverend Thompson to do certain things she wanted. The guilt and the dread and the power his sister now had over him built up in Thompson until he was compelled to confess to his grandmother. When he did, she told him she already knew. She had seen the whole thing from her window. She had already forgiven him. She loved him. Reverend Thompson reminded us that God is also standing at a window and sees all our sins. He still loves us and He forgives us.
Reverend Thompson told us of the release he felt from being forgiven by his grandmother. It healed him from the misery he was feeling. Such healing he said, is made possible only by Jesus, reminding us that it is by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus’ sacrifice made it possible for all of us sinners to come together and be healed. Sin, Thompson said, is the disease. Forgiveness is the cure. The more we hold on to anger, the more miserable we will become. The more we hold on to a grudge, the more we hurt ourselves. Only forgiveness can unlock the healing. Thompson said he knew this, “because I had to do that.”
Sometime after the Emanuel murders, Reverend Thompson was speaking at a predominantly white church and a white woman about his age approached him and confessed that she had been taught racism growing up. She said that at some point she realized it was wrong, but that she couldn’t bear to change because of her social place. When she heard about the Emanuel families forgiving Roof, she was moved to step out in faith and ask God to forgive her. Reverend Thompson said he considered the woman to have done a very courageous thing. He confessed that he “used to be a racist too.” “We did it to each other, didn’t we?,” he asked. But then he reminded us that that does not have to be the way it is any more. Hate divides, but forgiveness unites. He described forgiveness as serving the same purpose as a band-aid that pulls together torn pieces of skin to allow healing. Then he listed several torn relationships that might need forgiveness—parents and children, husbands and wives, community members—and asked us “what are you going to do?”
Most of us are not asked to forgive a sin as horrific as what Reverend Thompson forgave. I was immediately convicted of how petty I’ve been in not forgiving the minor wrongs I’ve suffered. Thanks to Reverend Thompson’s example and testimony, I knew the answer when he asked “so what are you going to do?”
This brief and insufficient report does little justice to Reverend Thompson’s compelling words. It serves only as an invitation to watch the entire message at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PrEmHcnYWQ.