Originally published Tuesday, 02 June 2015.
One of the most frequent questions I have been asked over the last couple years is, "When does your book come out?"
Over and over, I have given the same answer: "June 2015."
Quite honestly, June 2015 seemed like it might never get here, but with time flying by as it has a habit of doing, June 2015 has most certainly arrived. Can you believe it? You probably can, but I can't! It's hard to believe I'm nearing the end of this three-plus-year writing journey.
Letters from My Father's Murderer: A Journey of Forgiveness will officially be released on June 27th!!! (Though if you pre-ordered the book on Amazon, you may get it earlier, but you didn't hear that from me!) To celebrate the month of my book's release, I'm giving you (my readers) a sneak peak of the book today, one that's not included in the official excerpt provided by my publisher, found here. I do hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think!
Letters from My Father's Murderer
A Journey of Forgiveness
Chapter 5 *
This was not the first time I had thought about visiting Anthony. In the early years after the murder, part of me wanted to go into that prison just to make sure Anthony felt absolutely terrible about what he had done. I wanted to ensure he knew well the wake of destruction he had left behind. I wanted to yell at him. To tell him all the ways he had ruined his own life, my life, and the lives of those closest to me. I wanted to hurt Anthony—just as he had hurt me.
They say hurting people hurt people. I believe this to be true.
But why do people secretly revel at the thought of their enemy’s misery?
Why do we have this detestable desire to know that our enemy feels pain?
Disillusioned, we often believe causing pain will somehow ease our own. We feel some sort of retribution must be paid for what our enemy did, and who better to enact that justice than ourselves, right? But justice is not ours for the taking, and inflicting pain on our enemy will not heal our own.
Inflicting pain never heals pain.
We cannot overcome evil with evil but must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). Hate simply gives birth to more hate, and committing evil will only result in the presence of even more evil. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”** And he was right. I love this quote and believe it to be true with my whole heart because, you see, Jesus gives us a better way than the ways of this world. A way that is just and good. A way that allows good to prevail.
For all the years I wanted vengeance, I stood in the place of God. I hijacked the role of God, deeming myself judge and jury, when that role was never mine to hold. I knew it was about time I stepped down from that judgment seat and allowed God to take His rightful place on it. It was time I left Anthony to God’s judgment. Because, after all, God alone is judge.
God had been at work in my soul. And He was working quickly. The girl who had been motivated by anger and vengeance, who wanted to go into that prison to inflict further pain and suffering, was now replaced with a woman whose sole desire was to follow God and bring good. No longer motivated by anger, no longer driven by emotions or pain, I pursued this visit for the purpose of bringing healing, not pain—with forgiveness and love as my means.
“Daddy!” the girls and I shouted in unison as Travis walked in the door from work one night. The girls leapt from their seats and ran into their daddy’s arms as I stood making dinner, watching. Smiling.
Travis made the rounds, hugging and kissing each of us in the kitchen before setting a pile of mail down on the counter. He grabbed the letter on top and handed it to me. “You’ve got a letter,” he said. I could tell it was no ordinary letter—Travis’s expression made that clear.
My heart quickened as I read the words “Northern Nevada Correctional Center” stamped boldly on the back side of the envelope. It was from Anthony. A letter from Anthony.
Tears stung my eyes as I looked at Travis and spoke in a faint whisper, “I gotta . . . I gotta go,” I said. “Take care of the girls.”
I ran upstairs and into our bedroom, closing and locking the door behind me. As I sat on our bed, I placed the letter before me, not want- ing to touch it. I stared in disbelief. What do I do, Lord? I prayed. Help me, God. I need You—I can’t do this without You.
After some time, grace was given and my courage had built enough to pick up the letter and open it. It read:
If you feel led to visit me I’m OK with that. If the prison has a special format for a one time visit, I’ll sign the form. If not, and you have to get on a visitors list, let me know and I’ll submit the paperwork. Please know that no matter what happens I am truly sorry for what I did, most especially to your family. I wish I could take back that day, every day. Again, Let me know what needs to be done and I’ll do it.
“Most especially to my family”? Does “my family” include my dad? I thought. Are you sorry for what you did to him or sorry for how the murder affected the rest of his family? Or perhaps you wish you “could take back that day” because you simply don’t like paying the consequences of your decision. Anger rose once again, and all the fluff surrounding the idea of forgiveness dissipated as I stood challenged by its reality.
There I was, holding a letter from him. I was holding paper he had touched. I was seeing his handwriting. These were his thoughts written on this paper I held. The same hand that pulled the trigger—not once but twice, killing my dad—had wielded the pen that wrote this letter.
My stomach churned.
I knew Jesus was calling me to love my enemy. To forgive. But this is not what I signed up for. This is not how I thought it would go. I wanted to visit Anthony—to talk to him, give him a Bible, and be done with it—not correspond with him. Never once did it occur to me that Anthony might respond to my letter. In my mind, the letter I sent to Anthony was strictly business, a means to an end that hopefully would result in his approval of my visit. A visit, mind you, that wouldn’t take place for months.
This was not my plan.
I didn’t want this letter. It brought me back to the darkest chapter of my life, and I really didn’t want to go there. But I needed to. I knew I needed to. I knew Jesus was leading me toward forgiveness and healing, and, even though my path had taken an unexpected turn, I was determined to follow. No matter the cost.
I sat on the bed, reading the lines over and over—picking the letter apart, analyzing every word, every phrase—when I was struck with a thought. My truth may not be God’s truth. And at that, I thought perhaps it would be beneficial to try to see this tragedy from a different point of view. I am the murder victim’s daughter, after all, a position that lends itself to many biases. And as I recognized this, I began to ask myself very difficult questions.
What lies am I believing?
What biases have I taken into this situation?
How has my role as the “murder victim’s daughter” colored the way I view this tragedy?
It was a pivotal moment. And in that moment, I began to pray: Lord, let me see as You see. Let me see with fresh eyes. Let me shed my biases and no longer see this situation as the murder victim’s daughter, but as You see—through the lens of the gospel.
For the first time, God allowed me to see that my truth was not the truth. That my perceptions were, in fact, amiss.
I walked to my closet and took an old box off the top shelf. I had filled this box only weeks after Dad’s death and had kept it ever since. It’s my “Dad box,” containing many cherished things of little use and little value that I hold on to simply because each of these items reminds me of my dad.
I set the box on our bed and opened the lid. A blue binder sat on top. I knew it was time to go through its contents, time to revisit my past. I needed to see with new eyes—eyes that had been opened to the truths of God.
As I pulled out the binder, I prayed for strength and began to read. Dad’s death certificate, letters of condolence and support, every newspaper article printed covering the murder, notes taken during the trial, the Victim Impact Statement I gave during the trial, and much more lay within—compiled throughout the years to share with my children and nieces and nephews when grown. I read them all, praying, Lord, let me see as You see.
Hours passed. The girls were in bed, having peeked in when Travis let them in the room at one point to say good night. Finally, I finished. A sea of tissue—crumpled and used—littered the floor around me, as I whispered a prayer of thanks. God was working. I felt it. Old scabs tore off, revealing fresh wounds once again. But I was thankful, even though my heart bled.
“Tonight,” I wrote in my prayer journal, “I’ve been reliving the trial and newspaper coverage—all of it. I desperately need Your wisdom. I recognize that my knowledge and wisdom are flawed, so I seek Yours. Please, Lord Jesus, guide me and show me what I should see.”
The next morning, I called Pastor Bobby, the counseling pastor at my church. I desperately needed some good, godly counsel—counsel I knew Bobby could provide. I didn’t want to go into this alone. I needed wisdom. And I certainly didn’t want to assume that I had all the answers because I didn’t—and I still don’t.
I began rambling practically the moment Bobby said hello. Bobby must have thought I was a bit crazy. I didn’t know him very well at this time, and there I was, calling out of nowhere, telling him about Dad’s murder. I tried to fill him in on all God had done in my life in few words and little time, telling him I got a letter from the man who murdered my dad. Then I pretty much wrapped up by asking, “What do I do?” I think that’s enough to make any pastor pause for a moment and think, “Wow. Okay then . . . Where to start?”
Bobby was amazing, though. He handled my ramblings well.
The thing was, I knew what God was calling me to do. I knew I needed God to enable me to forgive and love my enemy, but I didn’t know what my role would be. How much of this would be God? And how much would require action on my part? Where does God stop and I begin? Or is it more fluid than that? Perhaps we work simultaneously. Together.
I had tried to will myself into a place of forgiveness for years, so I knew I couldn’t do this on my own. But how do you forgive with God? And what is biblical forgiveness, anyway? Did what I believe about forgiveness line up with Scripture? Or did I have worldly misconceptions about forgiveness still swirling around in that head of mine? I had so many questions, but at the root of all these questions—what I was really getting at, what I really wanted to know—was if I was headed in the right direction.
Bobby confirmed my actions and said my theology seemed to be sound, much to my relief. I respect Bobby. His theology is good, and it was comforting to know I wasn’t becoming some rogue fundamentalist—deceived both in mind and spirit—believing I was doing the will of God while actually practicing folly. After all, several people in my life strongly disagreed with what I was doing. But Bobby reassured me that I was headed in the right direction.
He told me that forgiveness is, in fact, a decision. That just as I had thought, faith is not intended to be something we simply have. The Christian life is not intended to be passive; our faith is supposed to be alive and active. We’re to pursue and obey the commands of God.
Yet Bobby also pointed out that forgiveness is a decision that must be empowered by the Holy Spirit, as is every other part of our lives. For apart from God’s involvement, this decision would lead nowhere. Without the empowerment of the Spirit, this pursuit of mine would end right where it had begun—and I’d be no better for it in the end, which I knew all too well.
During our conversation, I told Bobby about one of my main concerns. I feared that telling Anthony I forgave him would only lead him to think what he did was okay. But it wasn’t. It would never be okay. I asked Bobby, “If I tell Anthony I forgive him, won’t that justify his behavior in his own mind?”
“Laurie, Anthony is in prison,” Bobby said. “He relives his mistake every moment of every day. Forgiving Anthony is in no way going to make him feel like murdering your dad was okay or justified because it wasn’t, and he will be paying for what he did for the rest of his life. What forgiving him will do, however, is show him what the gospel looks like—what the gospel looks like in action.”
I liked that.
“Okay,” I said. “But then how do I love Anthony? Jesus is telling me to love my enemy, but how do I do that? Practically, I mean. What do I actually do?”
“You just keep doing what you’re doing,” Bobby said. “You are loving your enemy, Laurie. Keep doing that.”
I can do that, I thought.
That night, in my prayer journal, I wrote:
Thank You, my Lord, my God, for this trial. Thank You for pointing me toward forgiveness. . . . I know it is Your will for me to forgive. . . .
Direct me! Make my path straight! I lift my soul to You and entrust myself to You! I know You will guide me and protect me but help me when I doubt!
Help me love my enemy. Show me what to do—do it through me! Bring Your light into my heart and let Your light banish all darkness within my soul!
I choose to forgive Anthony. I choose to love others, including my enemies! Help me to be Christ centered—other centered—at all times. Don’t allow me to become self-absorbed during this process of forgiveness! Help me to deal with it in Your strength without becoming self- destructive and without losing sight of Your will! Thank You, my Lord! Thank You!
Anthony had agreed to see me. And I was one step closer. To what, I did not know. But after receiving Anthony’s letter, there was no turning back. God had called me on this journey—I was certain of that—and if I were to see any victory in my life, I had to conquer this mountain that loomed large before me. Clearly, the only direction to go was forward. And so I would. One prayer at a time.
Any thoughts? Share in the comments.
* Laurie Coombs, "The Letter," in Letters from My Father's Murderer: A Journey of Forgiveness," 63-70. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015).
** Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies” (speech, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, November 17, 1957).