Living a life rich with Spirit fruit in the real world is about relationship, trust, building up, love, and forgiveness. Strength in the Circle offers an inspiring example of this kind of life.
Today, on this last day of 2021, I’m posting about living a life rich with Spirit fruit in the real world. In particular, I’m going to focus on an amazing and inspiring example of brotherhood that exemplifies this kind of life.
I’m an elder and occasional speaker in a small nondenominational church in northern Nova Scotia (most of my Exploring Faith blog posts originate as sermons), and I never quite know how a sermon message is going to come to me. Perhaps I’m reading Scripture when one particular word or phrase jumps out at me, and it keeps nagging at me until I speak about it (example: rejection). Or perhaps a friend lends me a challenging book, and—Pow!—I know I have to speak about the topic that the book addresses (example: finding joy in suffering). In the case of the sermon that led to this post, three things happened independently and then all came together.
What would you tell your younger self?
Here’s the first thing. In March, 2021 (before Covid again caused lockdowns), my church held a discussion-group-style sermon based on the concept of what you would tell your younger self if you had the chance. The idea came from Nichole Nordeman’s “Dear Me” song video, which a friend had forwarded to me, and which I passed on to the discussion leader. I taught Sunday School that day and so didn’t participate in the discussion, but that thought—what would I tell my younger self?—kept rattling around in my brain. One day, while out walking, I came up with five things about living a life in Christ that I would tell my younger self.
Relationship, not rules
First, I would tell myself that following Jesus is about relationship, not rules. It’s about relationship with Jesus, one on one, and it’s about relationship with others, both believers and non-believers, one on one. Creating and maintaining a strong relationship, a good relationship, is hard work. It demands respect, honesty, kindness, gentleness, and patience. In marriage and in our connection with Christ, the relationship demands complete faithfulness.
In Ephesians 4:1-3, the apostle Paul wrote, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” His words speak to the kind of relationship that is at the core of Christian life.
Trust, not certainty
The second thing I would tell my younger self is that following Jesus is about trust, not certainty. Living the Christian life is a heart song, not a mind song. Perhaps my all-time favourite passage, Proverbs 3:5-6, tells us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Trusting—not relying only on our knowledge—leaves us vulnerable, and God can work with vulnerability. That’s when our shields are down, that’s when our hearts are exposed, that’s when we’re most receptive to his guidance.
Building up, not tearing down
The third thing I would tell my younger self is that following Christ is about building up, not tearing down. In 1 Thessalonians 5:11, we read, “Therefore encourage one another, and build each other up…” Our country, Canada, has been deeply saddened by the revelation of hundreds of unmarked graves found at former residential schools and by the bringing to light of shocking violence committed against Indigenous children at residential schools. The residential school staff who committed those atrocities were not focused on building up the children in their care, they were focused on tearing them down.
We all have hurts and troubles, and we all need to feel that we have value, both to ourselves and to others. By encouraging one another, by building each other up in love, patience, kindness, and gentleness, we can help overcome those hurts and troubles and instill the so-necessary feeling of value.
Love, not judgement
The fourth thing I would tell my younger self is that living the Christian life is about love, not judgement. It’s about trying, with an open mind, to see another person’s point of view, to understand their story, to see where they’re coming from. And it’s about going beyond self-centredness and pettiness and resentment and impatience and annoyance and frustration and hurt and anger and pain and fear and misunderstanding—all those things that erect barriers between people. We need to get beyond them in order to fulfill the second greatest commandment that Christ gave us: Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39).
Love is never all easy, and it sometimes seems impossible, yet love is the one word that should be equated with a life of following Christ.
Forgiveness, not condemnation
The fifth thing I would tell my younger self is that living the Christian life is about forgiveness, not condemnation. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:23) As well, in Matthew 18:21-22, we read, “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Jesus’s life on earth was all about forgiveness. He died on a cross so our sins could be forgiven and we could be reconciled with his Holy Father. John 3:17 tells us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Forgiveness is the road to freedom, both for the one forgiven, and for the one who forgives. I would tell my younger self to remember that.
Spirit fruit in the real world
You will recall that I said three things came together to create the sermon I gave. The first was what I would tell my younger self. The second was the decision by our church this past spring (during Covid lockdown) to have a series of sermons based on the fruit of the Spirit when we could again hold in-person services. The thought was that such a series would provide inspiration for us all during the anxiety-ridden latest wave of the Covid pandemic.
With the arrival of warm temperatures in June, we were able to hold outdoor services with masked attendees sitting in physically-distanced family bubbles. One of the elders spoke passionately about joy, another, about gentleness, and another challenged us to look at where we, in our perception, stand in terms of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
No problem, I thought. In my message, I can easily fit some, if not all, of those qualities in with describing what I would tell my younger self.
And this was true, I could do it, but when I sat down at my computer on the July Monday before I was scheduled to speak, I didn’t get very far with my message before I had the sense that I needed to be still and wait. I needed to wait for something more.
Strangely, I wasn’t worried or anxious. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but I knew it would come in time for me to finish my sermon. Christ would provide. So, I left my computer and wandered among my gardens. For the next two and a half days, I added basically nothing to my sermon, but I did a lot of weeding, I harvested strawberries, sweet cherries, and our first peas, and I waited.
An unlikely story of forgiveness and support
On the Thursday afternoon, three days before my speaking date, my husband, Vilis, mentioned a CBC podcast called Now or Never that replayed a story of how a man stabbed on a transit bus not only forgave his attacker but also set in place a system of support for him when he was released from prison. (CBC Now or Never: Finding Strength in the Circle). Some of you might have heard it. The story had a big impact on Vilis, so I looked up the podcast. The third piece of my sermon puzzle clicked into place as I listened to it.
Two main characters
Let me set up the podcast story for you. It has two main characters: Jonathan (known as Jonny) Miekle and Devon Henderson, both living in Winnipeg. (Note: All information in the following story is taken from sources listed at the end of this post.)
Jonny Miekle is a trained boxer and an Afghanistan-war veteran. In the not-too-distant past, he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and spent time in prison. However, through rehab and community support, Jonny successfully overcame his addictions and began a new chapter in his life. He’s now studying community development at Red River College and volunteering with several community organizations, including the Bear Clan neighbourhood watch.
The second main character is Devon Henderson. Younger than Jonny by six years, Devon was given into foster care at the age of three months. His parents were teenage drug or alcohol addicts and descendants of residential school survivors. Devon grew up and aged out in foster care, living in more than 75 (according to his case history)—and perhaps 100 or more (according to Devon)—different foster homes. When he was nine, a foster parent forced him to try crack, just to see what it would do to a kid. By the age of twelve, Devon was addicted to alcohol and drugs and stole from his foster families to support his addictions. He was bullied in school because he was a foster kid. Fueled by a lifetime of emotional trauma, Devon became a very angry young man. In 2018, at the age of twenty-three, he was a member of three gangs in Winnipeg, was still addicted to alcohol and drugs, and had been in and out of prison since he was fifteen.
A violent intersection
Jonny Mieckle’s and Devon Henderson’s lives intersected for the first time on November 4, 2018. One year almost to the day after Jonny quit drinking and drugging, he and a friend—both off-duty volunteers with the Bear Clan—took their seats on a Winnipeg Transit bus. Meanwhile, Devon Henderson robbed a man at knifepoint. A short time later, he got on the bus that Jonny and his friend were on.
As soon as Devon entered the bus, Jonny recognized the gang colours the younger man was wearing, and that he was extremely drunk. Jonny told the host of Now or Never, “I said, well here’s another Indigenous brother who’s involved in a gang. He’s obviously intoxicated, so caught up in addiction. I thought about my own story.”
Drunk to the point of memory blackout, Devon yelled threats and racial slurs at a passenger and threatened to stab the man in the neck. The passenger got up to leave the bus, and Devon pulled up a bandana over his face and rose to follow, with knife in hand.
At this point, Jonny intervened. He yelled at the knife-wielding man to get his attention and then kicked him in the chest, after which Jonny and his friend grabbed him. The bus driver pulled over, and Jonny and his friend wrestled Devon off the bus and onto the sidewalk, where they managed to disarm him and restrain him until police arrived. However, during the fight, Devon stabbed Jonny in the leg, causing a wound that would require eight surgical staples to close it.
Handcuffed and covered in blood, Devon snapped out of his drunken haze in the back of a police car. He saw the blood, and he was scared. “What happened?” he asked. “Did I kill someone?”
The man who stabbed him needed help
Jonny was on a stretcher being wheeled to an ambulance. He saw Devon in the police car and registered the expression on his attacker’s face. And do you know something? Jonny’s reaction wasn’t one of anger or judgement or condemnation. His reaction was that the man in the police car, the man who had stabbed him, needed help.
Jonny told a reporter, “With every hero story you have a ‘good guy’ and you have a ‘bad guy’. And nobody ever wants to know much about that ‘bad guy’ … I got very curious. I wanted to know what his story was.”
Later, on the Now or Never podcast, Jonny said, “When I am harmed, when somebody does hurt me, my mind goes to well, what is this person’s story? And that kind of empowers me to ask myself well, what can I do in this situation? Where do I take my power back, and where can I help, if that’s even possible? Sometimes, it’s not, but it allows me to forgive at least, so I’m not carrying that toxic resentment.”
Jonny did find a way to help. He attended Devon’s sentencing hearing and asked for restorative justice. There, he met Devon, who received a two-year prison sentence, and Jonny kept in contact with Devon during those two years. He wanted to build a relationship with the younger man. He wanted Devon to know that someone cared about him.
Strength in the Circle
In March of 2020, Jonny founded Strength in the Circle, a group of Indigenous men in Winnipeg who are dedicated to supporting each other and other Indigenous men who are trying to heal from their pasts, trying to beat addiction, trying to not fall back into the criminal justice system, and hoping to build a better future. Jonny wanted to welcome Devon into Strength in the Circle.
In November of 2020, Jonny and other Strength in the Circle members drove six hours from Winnipeg north to The Pas to pick up Devon after he was released from prison. Because northern Manitoba was in Covid lockdown, after they picked up Devon, they had to pile right back into their two cars and drive another six hours to get back to Winnipeg. Check out this video clip of the meeting after Devon was released from prison.
In the Now or Never podcast, Jonny said, “I’ve told Devon that I love him, and he is my brother, and if he falls, if he stumbles, I’ll still love him and I’ll still support him, no matter what.”
So much hope, so much challenge
I see so much hope in this story. I see so much of what I wanted to tell my younger self: relationship, trust, building others up, love, forgiveness. I see so much Spirit fruit in the real world: love, kindness, gentleness, goodness, patience and understanding, faithfulness, self-control, peace, joy.
It’s all there, it’s all there in one man’s determination to forge a relationship with the man who stabbed him and to help that man heal from mental and emotional wounds incurred throughout his life.
I am humbled by this story. It challenges me to look for ways in which I, through the work of the Holy Spirit in me, can make a difference in the lives of people who are hurting.
I hope it challenges you as well.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by this post, please share it.
CBC News, “Despite getting stabbed, man who came to defence of fellow passenger has no regrets,” November 4, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-transit-man-stabbed-1.4891228
CBC Now or Never, “Finding Strength in the Circle,” November 4, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/nowornever/finding-strength-in-the-circle-1.5782524
CBC Now or Never, “Winnipeg veteran helps man who stabbed him change his life,” November 5, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/nowornever/finding-strength-in-the-circle-1.5782524/winnipeg-veteran-helps-man-who-stabbed-him-change-his-life-1.5791122