The birth we celebrate in one week could have been a great tragedy for mankind. Our ancestors killed God's Son physically and we battle Him spiritually. It would be perfectly fair for God to take revenge.
The same is true concerning another murder. Two decades ago Tim Streett was 15 and living in a northern suburb of Indianapolis. As he and his dad were shoveling snow, young men from the inner city drove up. They demanded money from the white father and son. They fatally shot the father in front of the son's eyes.
The natural step for Tim would have been a descent into bitterness-but he realized that God forgives those who confess, and his duty was to go and do likewise. He might have chosen to have nothing to do with people of the race from which came the killers, but as he became an adult "God called me to work among the black community."
He wrote to the killers. The triggerman is now on death row and did not write back. The driver of the car wrote back, and Mr. Streett went to visit him in prison. The forgiveness conveyed through that visit had an enormous impact on the prisoner. "He had been going to chapel and reading the Bible," Mr. Streett recalls, "but he later told his mom that when he saw me come through the prison gates, he knew the gospel was real."
The gospel explains why the Father, instead of taking revenge, offers grace. God's grace in Mr. Streett's life explains why he did not take revenge for the death of his father, but instead helped the driver to have his sentence of 90 years reduced to 45, setting up (with good behavior) a release date of December, 2001.
Good has come out of evil in several ways. First, the driver Mr. Streett forgave now talks to kids and explains that he went out on the day of the murder to steal but not to kill. He tells them, "Be careful who you hang out with, because what your friends do you'll be doing."
Second, because Mr. Streett began hanging out with Christ, kids from backgrounds like that of his dad's killer are now able to hang out at Jireh Sports in inner-city Indianapolis. Supported by an affluent northern Indianapolis church, the sports program run by Mr. Streett and by Paul Cannada, a former Junior Olympic gymnast, serves several hundred children with after-school and summer programs.
Most inner-city sports programs emphasize basketball, which works well but also leads some kids to fixate on the idea of being the next Michael Jordan. Jireh Sports puts gymnastics on top. Mr. Cannada, short, black, and strong, with a neck like a bull's and forearms that rival Popeye's, conveys to students the emphasis on focus and determination required by gymnastics.
A donation of $100,000 allowed Jireh Sports to purchase in 1997 a warehouse that had been abandoned for a decade. Volunteers, including many kids, did most of the renovation work. They cut, planed, and padded balance beams. They erected parallel bars that would allow gymnasts to swing through the rafters. They built a floor-to-ceiling climbing wall and a tumbling track. They jammed into big rooms other gymnastics equipment and wrestling mats, while setting aside smaller rooms for tutoring and computer training.
Now, posters on white brick walls bring home the big lessons: Honesty, Respect, Self-Discipline. "Did you show self-control today?" one poster asks, and then heads to practical issues: "I used quiet words when I was upset." Jireh has developed a volunteer base of coaches who look at 6-8 kids as their discipleship group. The great majority of the mostly black kids have never had a dad in their homes, and this is their opportunity to respond to male leadership.
Gymnastics is now accompanied by lessons in classic wrestling, which does not include WWF fakery. (Paul Cannada says, "The kids have to plan moves, so they learn patience and the importance of fine-tuned technique.") Lessons on character development come at the end of each class, and everything is within a biblical framework.
Some of the major costs are picked up by the sponsoring church, but people in Jireh's neighborhood also pay something, such as 25 cents per wrestling class. The biggest cost, of course, was the death of Tim Streett's dad two decades ago-but God turned even that priceless expense into a program that yields priceless growth in children's lives.
Joachim Neander's hymn from 1680 begins "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation," and includes the words, "How oft in grief Hath not he brought thee relief, Spreading his wings to o'ershade thee!" And relief comes not only for Mr. Streett, but for a whole neighborhood.