I Have Done Unspeakable Things
The man stood before me. He was old, perhaps five feet tall, thin, sinewy and hard as a pine knot. “I have done unspeakable things,” he said, his eyes dark pools that no light known to this world could penetrate. The faces he saw at night haunted him, he told me, faces of those he had killed during his time in the South Vietnamese army.
We met in a class I was teaching for lay ministers of churches made up of Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese parishioners in the United States. This man and his family, with American help, had escaped Vietnam at the end of the war. He loved his adopted country. And he was eager to learn all he could about his adopted Christian faith.
In all the years of teaching, the annual summer school for lay pastors originally from Indo-China was one of my very favorite assignments. The warmth and gratitude of these students was overwhelming. Their eagerness to share their food and culture with those who taught them demonstrated the very heights of hospitality.
You had to learn to lecture slowly enough that the translators in the room could keep up with you. The students spoke several different native tongues. And the classes lasted for several hours each day, stretching over two solid weeks. But none of the professors assigned to teach these students ever complained. The students were just so wonderful.
I still recall the face of this particular student. Lines carved by grief and hardship and misfortune in his face. His face itself haunted by hungry ghosts that would not let him rest.
“I have done unspeakable things.” His eyes closed. He looked down.
From time to time his face and his words return to me. It is easy, perhaps, to think that such words can only be spoken by just a few people in this world. But this is simply not true. I have come to believe that most of us, placed in certain situations, are capable of doing what we cannot imagine, acts of unspeakable cruelty and violence.
I think of this sometimes when we come to that moment in worship when we are invited to confess our sin and are asked to receive God’s pardon. Forgiveness of small unkindnesses, slights, grudges held, words we regret having spoken, thoughts and acts that we can’t quite excuse: this is relatively easy to believe God forgives. But what about the incalculably inexcusable? What about the unspeakable?
When I think these thoughts, I remember the face of that former soldier from South Vietnam. I remember his haunted eyes. And I wonder what it must be like to walk in his shoes and what it must be like to come face to face at night with atrocities he regrets with every breath he takes. And when I think of him, I think of the incredible news we call the good news, that a man tortured to death by the Roman army forgave the soldiers who tortured and killed him even as he died. And I remember the even more incredible claim of this good news, that this man reveals in his life and death the heart of God toward all of us.
In the name of Jesus of Nazareth in and through whom God has revealed himself, we are forgiven. Whatever we have done or left undone.