Wednesday, July 20, 2011

POISON PEN


Each year when Christmas came around my mother played the role of part time Santa, part-time Mother Teresa. She took on the monumental task of making sure that, as it seemed to me at the time, half the town had a present under their tree from the Rendalls. These were not particularly exotic, expensive presents, but rather a token of her love. One year, it might have been a candle or decorated soaps which she had made. Another year it may have been a special food item. She would individually wrap hundreds of gifts for neighbors, friends, families, married students, the senior's organization and many others. My brother Dave and I were called on to act as "Santa's helpers" and were enlisted to help make deliveries.

One house I was usually dispatched to was directly across the street. The house couldn't have been more than 400 square feet and was always neatly kept. I was very fearful of the particular tenants of this house, especially the man. Not because he was part of a gang or the toughest guy in town. He wasn't a particularly big or strong man. Yet I knew he had a weapon. Not a knife or gun, not even a sling shot. The weapon he wielded was a pen . . . a poisonous one.

Tom Brannan and his wife lived in the small house across the street and had moved to Three Hills to enroll their kids in the high school at Prairie. There was some kind of disagreement with the administration over a disciplinary action involving one of his children and Tom really let this get under his skin. Quite frankly he became bitter. This little seed of bitterness grew into an entire root system that choked out life. He began to turn his anger into letter writing. A gifted man and former preacher, he was never at a loss for words. Over the years he wrote dozens and dozens of letters to the local paper and individual leaders at the school. He attacked L.E. Maxwell, my Father and others in his rants. He had not only taken a bitter pill, he had swallowed the whole bottle. Venom and bile spewed from his pen like Mount Vesuvius. Poisonous darts aimed at hurting and causing pain were lobbed in the direction of any and all that he felt had wronged him or his family in some way. He attacked with a vengeance that would have made William Wallace proud. This "cause" absolutely consumed him. He thought of little else and really had no life outside of this obsession. No friends, no real activities, just a very sad life. As is often the case in small towns, the rumors swirled and Tom became a larger than life figure as people went out of their way to avoid him on the streets and in the shops, fearful that he might turn his weapon on them. Looking like something from an aggressive political campaign, even his lawn was dotted with small stakes sporting placards denouncing his great displeasure with Prairie.

So there I was, every Christmas, standing on the step of that tiny house, knocking on the door, gift in hand. Usually it was Mrs. that came to the door, but occasionally "he" would answer. I would hand over the package, wish them a Merry Christmas and scoot back across the street, heart pounding with fear that I might just get shot at any moment. Safely inside, I would take some time to recover before Mom would send me on to the next delivery. Mom and Dad always greeted the Brannans with a cheery hello as they would pass them on the sidewalk or see them out working in their yard. They treated them like neighbors and never shunned them in any way.

Many years passed, the letters continued to be written and at some point, Mrs. Brannan passed away. Well into his eighties, the loss of his wife only made matters worse as it gave Tom more time to focus on the wrongs which he felt had been done. One of our good family friends had also befriended the Brannans and she made a consistent effort to stay in touch with him after his wife died. One day she was over at his house for a visit when he began to break down and lament the horrible things he had written and said about the school over the many years. He said he had been doing a lot of thinking about his life and wondered what he should do. Our friend kindly suggested that they call my Dad and he would know what to do. Dad went over to the house and met with Tom. He sensed a completely different man and so offered a suggestion. "Would you like an opportunity to address the entire church after my sermon on Sunday?", Dad asked him. "You would really allow me to do that?", Tom replied. "Of course", Dad said.

Arrangements were made for Tom to be in church that next Sunday morning. After Dad was done preaching he called Tom up to the pulpit. As he made his way forward every eye focused on the "monster of Three Hills". Dad spoke to the congregation and said, "Mr. Brannan has something he would like to say", and then moved over and stood right beside him. The tears began before he even started speaking. Dad put his arm around his shoulder as he stood there sobbing, his entire frame shaking. With a quavering voice hardly understandable at times, Tom apologized for the hurt he had caused so many for so long. You could have heard a pin drop in that tabernacle. When Tom was done Dad took the microphone and addressed the congregation. He sincerely thanked Tom for having the courage to stand up and say what he had just said. He accepted his apology and then he did what I thought was the most compassionate thing. He invited any of the congregation who wanted to come forward to show their support and forgiveness of Tom to do so. Dozens of people got up out of their seats and came up on the platform. Forming a semi circle around Tom, Dad said a prayer. When he was finished, folk lined up to hug this man and shake his hand. You could see the transformation on Tom's face as the burdens of bitterness, piled up over many, many years, began to slide away.

As I have reflected on this story in recent years, I am struck by three things.

The first is that bitterness not dealt with will grow and destroy. As Rhianna sings in her song, Disturbia:

"It's a thief in the night
To come and grab you
It can creep up inside you
And consume you
A disease of the mind
It can control you"

The second is that it is never too late and we are never too old to say, "I'm sorry", admit our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness.

The third is that as community we need to be willing to offer up forgiveness and restoration and not let our bitterness and cynicism about someone else's bitterness stand in the way.

From that day on, Tom began attending church and would sit right up at the front. After church, Dad would barely be in the door and get his coat off, when the phone would ring. It would be Tom from across the street with a word of encouragement on how much he enjoyed the sermon that day. The poison pen had been put away. . . it had run out of ink.

www.prairieboy.com

© 2011 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.

5 comments:

  1. What a beautiful story. What a lovely example of the forgiveness we all need and receive in Christ. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you for this incredible story! You are right, it is never too late to ask for forgiveness and when it is received then the peace and victory comes!

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  3. Thank you, Steve. Very touching story. Really appreciated.
    ede

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