26th August 2011

My younger brother and I, as young teenagers, made it our business every December to steal a Christmas tree for the family. It never occurred to us at the time that we were being trained as ‘thieves’. Sadly, this is one sin in my past that I have never been able to make restitution for. With the tacit approval of our parents, who never said anything about it, my brother and I would eye a tree for months as we travelled along the Zululand roads to and from Felixton, where we lived: size; height; shape, et cetera. No tree shorter than three meters would do!

It is never too late to adjust!

I don’t quite think God was amused, but these episodes were extremely funny!

As was often the case, the tree we would spot was situated many kilometers from our home, but no problem, since our zeal always amply covered the risks!

The exercise had to be planned: how to cut the tree; how to cover the noise of the ax; the best way to carry the tree; what the possible obstacles were; how to avoid being seen by anyone, and the time of the night to do it!

I remember one year we had to traverse a 200 meter single-car lane bridge over a river. The evening had begun tensely enough. The tree was positioned one hundred meters from the main road on a farm about six kilometers from our home. We hacked the trunk in spurts using the noise of passing cars to muffle the sound of the ax.

It was plain to us that that tree, and a car of any size, would not fit on that bridge at the same time.

Waiting in the dark on the far side for more than an hour as we calculated the time it would take to run along it, and then estimating the time it would take for a car approaching on the horizon to get to the bridge, was hectic, but the moment came! I grasped the trunk, and yelled at my brother, who was hidden somewhere two-thirds of the way down the tree with pine needles sticking in his eyes; nose, and ears. I screamed, “RUN! NOWW! Unfortunately, halfway across, a pair of headlights appeared on the horizon, I will never ever forget the feeling I got at that moment. I knew that if we did not get across in time, we were done for; we were fried meat; we were goners! We couldn’t go back. We were too far in for that! Nothing left to do, but to shout louder to my brother to run faster. Still today we have no idea how we made it over, but just as the car was about 50 meters away, we dived into the dark bush on the other side!

We never asked ourselves what the poor farmer would say about our escapades. We never got caught. No criminal records. No anxious waiting behind the front door for the ominous police visit, and no sense of guilt. It just never occurred to us that we had done anything wrong at all. Jail; Juvie; arrest records, et cetera, did not enter our minds. We had our tree. That is all we wanted. The only memories we would take into the next year were the intense celebrations in our household as we arrived in the dark of night dragging that tree! We remember the glee and laughter of our two sisters. We laughed; we told our stories again and again. Nothing ever rained on our parade. We would spend the next day decorating – every spot was filled with some ornament. The smell of those fresh pine needles would permeate our home. Our presents would rest at the bottom of that tree on Christmas Eve. We sang our songs thanking God for his blessings around that tree!

It had been stolen, but who would tell us that we had done wrong?

The lesson was however, sadly lost on me, until recently when I encountered God’s grace in a greater measure than before in thirty-four years of ministry!God tried wrath against Israel, but to no avail. They rebelled even more; they hardened their hearts even further; they turned their shoulders away from him even more deeply to their idols! God said, “I struck him; I hid my face and was angry, but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart” (Isaiah 57:17). But then, Isaiah teaches that God had, if that were possible, a ‘change of mind’. He said, “I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners” (57:18). God decided to extend his grace to them instead of the wrath they justly deserved, by sending his son to die for them; to take their sins on his shoulders. This was God’s ‘olive branch’ to humankind. The King of glory was coming in (Psalm 24). He would enter Jerusalem riding a donkey – humbly and with grace and mercy. Paul in the book of Romans writes that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2).

Corrie ten Boom wrote, “It is a joy that God never abandons his children. He guides faithfully all who listen to his directions”. Paul goes further in using Psalm 69:9 to explain God’s grace, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “the reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me”” (Romans 15:1-3)

We should praise God therefore, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he has loved us, even though we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ – for by grace we have been saved(Ephesians 2:4-5)!

Thus, the summation of all of life comes back to the one awesome truth: that God does indeed love us with an extravagant love!

The story would not be complete without saying that today my brother and our two sisters, and all our spouses, are serving God in some way, and almost all of our nineteen combined children know God as their savior, and are in various stages of preparing to serve him with their lives, and have already at a young age become missionaries to various parts of the world. I am glad to say: there is not one thief among them (or at least, we do not know)! Such was God’s awesome grace over us; such was his love; such have been his ministrations in helping us to walk into his presence!

Keep on in grace. Loys