"Nature Abhors a Vacuum"#91-23
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on February 4, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Ephesians 4:32
This year, 2024, Chris Carrier will turn 60. In 1996 when he was 32 years old, he was featured in a story by The New York Times. The article was titled, "Forgiven and Befriended by Victim, Attacker Dies."
Chris was that victim, and a 77-year-old man named David McAllister was his attacker. It all happened 22 years ago in 1974 when Chris was 10 and David was in his 50s. David kidnapped Chris, tried to murder him. But hey, that was 20 years ago. Let's forgive and forget. Who cares that you shot me in the head and left me for dead in the middle of nowhere? Let bygones be bygones. Let's move on. Be friends. At least that's how The New York Times told the story back in 1996. But if you asked Chris to tell you the full story, he would say it wasn't that simple. He would tell you how he became the unwitting victim of a man settled on revenge, but also how a bigger story would settle on the both of them. So, you want to hear the real story?
In the winter of 1974, somewhere in South Florida, a middle-aged gray-haired man named David McAllister is angry with a family of 10-year-old, Chris Carrier. This man, David, who had been employed by Chris' family to provide in-home healthcare for Chris' uncle, now was disgruntled because he thought it was unfair the way they fired him. Now, from the family's perspective, it was because they suspected David had been drinking on the job. And whether or not they treated him unfairly, God only knows. After David had been terminated, I'm sure he tried to let bygones be bygones, to clear his mind and move on. But what The New York Times article didn't tell you is that it's not that simple. You know how hard it is to clear your mind of a grudge.
What's that saying? "Nature abhors a vacuum." Which means that if you don't let something else fill your mind, the old thoughts come back. Anger, resentment, revenge. They keep resettling in your mind. And if you're not careful, grudges, feuds, vendettas, they will fill every available orifice and opening. That's what was happening to David. They lived in a small Mayberry-like town near Miami, Florida. Everybody knew everybody, so it wasn't too hard for David to track down Chris, this beloved son of the family that had cost him his job and threatened his livelihood. So, on December 20th of 1974, he kidnapped Chris, drove him out into the Florida Everglades, stabbed him multiple times with an ice pick, shot him in the head, and left him for dead. In the week to come, there would be an investigation, a manhunt, a $10,000 reward, and a media frenzy.
Six days later, a local hunter finds Chris laying there in an alligator-infested forest. His head was bloody. His eyes were black. But somehow he was alive. The bullet had passed through his left temple and out the right one. It severed his optical nerve, but did no damage to his brain. He'd passed out unconscious for six days from December 20th to the 26th. When he woke up and that hunter found him, he hadn't even remembered that he'd been shot. He remembered only that a grey-haired, middle-aged man had stabbed him and left him in the woods. He thought he'd been asleep for only 20 minutes and that his dad was on his way to pick him up.
Chris recovered, although the attack left him blind in his left eye. But he would eventually move on and lead a mostly normal life, outwardly. He went to college and grad school. Got married, had kids. But the experience had scarred him physically, emotionally, spiritually. And what do you expect? If you've been kidnapped and nearly murdered as a 10-year-old, fear, angst, bitterness, resentfulness—it all just becomes part of the air you breathe, the atmosphere you live in. The New York Times article makes it sound like he just cleared his mind and moved on like nothing happened. But you know it's more complicated. Nature abhors a vacuum. The only way your mind can be cleared is if something weightier displaces it. The police only ever had one suspect: David McAllister. The lead detective was certain he'd done it. When they came to arrest him. David told the cops, "What took you so long?" But a few months later when they put David in a line-up with several other gray-haired, medium-build, 50-something men, Chris wasn't sure which one it was. And there wasn't enough physical evidence to convict. So, for the next 22 years, the case was left open.
It wasn't until 1996 when David McAllister was 77 years old in a nursing home, bedridden, body broken by years of drinking and smoking and begrudging when the sight had gone out of his eyes and he weighed just 60 pounds. Only then was he ready to admit what he'd done wrong and ask for forgiveness.
I found Chris' story in that New York Times article after I'd read about him in a book titled, Why Forgive?, by Johann Arnold. It's a powerful book filled with story after story of people—some who would forgive those who trespassed against them, and some who would not. The author tells a story of a woman named Jane, who said she was unable to love. By all appearances, nothing was wrong with her. She was neat, well-groomed, hard-working, honest, lived a blameless life. But talking with her, you could feel the ice in her veins. After several months of visiting with her, the cause of her coldness became clear to the author: she couldn't love because she couldn't forgive.
Now she couldn't point back to a single trauma that had victimized her. No one had drug her name through the mud or betrayed her, tried to murder her. Instead, it was the collective weight of a thousand small grudges—all the people who had let her down, or snubbed her, or failed to do what they'd promised. And surrounded by piles and piles of offenses, annoyances, and microaggressions, Jane sat along like a hoarder in a house with no nook or cranny left empty. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Gary Larson in one of his masterful single-scene, far-side comics, gives us a bird's-eye view of a path threading through a dark forest. In the center of a path, we see a woman with a beehive hairdo wearing a red dress with black dots. She's all alone on the path, but is eyed by a crow, menacingly perched on a skeletal tree limb above her. She's walking resolutely, slightly unnerved, as though on a mission to clean someone's house. And she's pushing it, rolling it forward with her left hand: one of those classic models with a heavy-duty head at ground level. And attached to its stainless steel pole and handle, a yellow dust bag.
The caption reads, "The woods were dark and foreboding. And Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. And worst of all, she knew nature abhorred a vacuum." Larson is playing with a saying that traces back some 3,000 years, passing through Aristotle into the recesses of ancient Greek philosophical tradition. Nature abhors a vacuum, it was said. It's nothing against your Bissell or Dyson. No. It's just an observation of how things work.
For example, you got a plastic straw, put it in a glass of milk, or soda, or juice. Now take it out of the glass, suck all the air out of it, and what happens? Suck all the air out of the room and what always happens? More air always comes in because nature of abhors a vacuum.
Now, put your finger over the hole on the other end of the straw, seal it up, airtight, suck the air out. What happens then? The straw collapses. It caves in because the world cannot abide empty spaces. Now, put your straw back in your glass. Put it all the way to the bottom so that it fills with liquid. Now, put your thumb over the top airtight and lift the straw up again. What happens? It defies gravity, doesn't it? It stubbornly refuses to let that liquid go until you let the air in. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum, right?
Well, sort of.
What the ancient Greeks didn't know was that you can easily create a vacuum by filling a glass tube with liquid mercury, inverting the open end, and submerging it in a bowl of mercury. It's called a barometer. See, the ancients didn't know the modern scientific account of how the atoms which make up all material are 99.999 percent empty space. Or that outside this razor-thin slice of earth and atmosphere we live in, the whole universe is mostly empty space and appears to be expanding in every direction at the speed of light into what seems to be an infinite sea of emptiness. The ancients didn't know how much more complicated things get on an atomic or galactic scale, but here on planet earth, their saying still holds. Not because of nature's negativity towards Alice's Bissell, but because every square meter of earth has roughly 10 tons of atmospheric weight sitting on top of it. And that tends to squeeze air into every available nook and cranny, orifice and opening. It's not so much a nature that hates vacuums, but an atmosphere eager to fill empty spaces.
And it's also how Chris Carrier could begin to face the prospect of forgiving his attacker if he ever met him again. Which at the time seemed unlikely. Still, people kept asking him that question. Hypothetically, what would you do if you met him again? Almost always someone wanted to know whenever Chris told his story. At first, Chris' story was just about how an evil man had tried to murder him, how his parents, and teachers, and police officers couldn't really protect him. And how the world out there must hate him. After the attack, it was like the thin ozone layer of his childhood had sprung a leak and some new alien atmosphere settled on him. Fear, suspicion, dread became the air he breathed. For three years, he slept in a sleeping bag on the floor beneath his parents' bed. He tried clearing his mind, but the memories kept piling up like that liquid standing in your straw, defying gravity, refusing to leave until something new comes in.
Author Daniel Paavola says it this way in his book on forgiveness: "Making our mind a vacuum, we'll only invite the memories to refill the void. We can't change the past into nothing. It wasn't nothing. It was serious and it hurt. The only way we can forgive is when our mind is filled with another story besides our own. Only when we first remember can we hope to forget. We forget when we remember a story that's more memorable than our own."
That's how it happened for Chris. When he was 13 years old, a friend invited him to church to hear a speaker. Chris had been raised in the church. He knew the characters and stories of the Bible, though he did not yet see himself as a small part of that bigger ongoing story of the Bible. Something clicked for Chris when he heard the speaker that night. He saw himself within that larger story that leads to and from Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the crucified, risen, and returning Son of God. That was the bigger story of a good Creator God, who was no stranger to the pain caused by evil. The God who had demonstrated His settled opposition to evil, the God who had become human, to let the full weight of sin settle on His shoulders. The Victim who prayed for His attackers, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
This was the story that came to settle on Chris, the story of God's crucified Son, risen from the dead, and returning to judge the world to displace evil and fill the creation with His forgiveness. It was this story that filled Chris to begin living by a simple principle. Forgive as God in Christ forgave you, (see Ephesians 4:32).
Maybe you're like Chris. You found yourself resettled in this life-giving atmosphere, this faith, and love, and loyalty from Jesus. Take a deep breath. Breathe in His Word, His Spirit, His fellowship. Let it fill every nook and cranny of your life Because nature abhors a vacuum. Something is going to fill you. It could be bitterness, resentment, detachment, despair, or something else. There is, in principle, no empty spaces. Physicists now theorize that even if you removed all the air, even in a vacuum, there is an infinitely deep sea, quantum fields of force, gravitational waves, immeasurable energy. It seems the Creator designed it this way.
And so, you, wherever you are, full or empty, wandering, seeking, or surrounded by piles and piles of grudges and letdowns, would you know that at the heart of reality, it's not abhorrence, but forgiveness. Not a principle, but a Person, Jesus, God's crucified, risen, and returning Son, for you.
If you want to hear the full story of Chris Carrier and David McAllister, search online for a seven-episode podcast titled, "Kidnapped: A God Story."
Twenty-two years after David McAllister tried to murder Chris Carrier in an abhorrent act of revenge on his family, Chris finds himself sitting in a small room next to David's bed. David was 77 years old in a shell of his former self. He had no one listed as his family or next of kin. And by now much of the anger and resentment had drained from him, leaving mostly regret and despair to fill the void. When he confessed his crime with Chris in the room, David gasped and began to weep. Fumbling for Chris' hand, he held it out and said he was sorry.
Chris said his response swept over him like a wave. Why should anyone have to face death without family, friends, the joy of life without hope? "Mr. McAllister?" Chris said, "I want you to know that there's nothing between you and me except our newfound friendship. I want you to know I forgive you. And I want our friendship to go beyond this place. And I'd like to come back tomorrow and pick up where we left off." And the weeks that followed, Chris learned that David's favorite food was smoked amberjack fish, and he brought him some when he visited. And also brought along his wife, Leslie, and their two daughters. Chris and David would talk for hours, reading the Bible together, praying together. Little by little, the despair in David was displaced, and Jesus came to stay instead.
When Chris told his story again, this time it sounded like Joseph from the book of Genesis—how he had told his brothers who years before had nearly murdered him, "What you meant for evil, God used for good." That's the essence of forgiveness: not excusing evil, but embracing the person guilty of it and gripped by it. Because that's what God did for us in Jesus. Nature hates a vacuum. But God died for the love of sinners and lives to fill all creation. That's the rest of the story. Amen? Amen.
Reflections for February 4, 2024
Title: Nature Abhors a Vacuum
Mike Zeigler: We're visiting with Dr. Daniel Paavola, professor at Concordia University in Wisconsin, author of several books, including one we've been talking about at length over the last month, a book about forgiveness. The title is Flowing from the Cross. Welcome back, Dan.
Dan Paavola: Well, thank you for letting me be with you and all our listeners. It's always a pleasure.
Mike Zeigler: Dan, your book develops an image of forgiveness on a vertical and a horizontal plane, and you have this image of the cross, which so clearly has those two dimensions, horizontal and vertical. And so you say that forgiveness flows from the cross of Jesus Christ down to us in that vertical dimension. Why is it also important to talk about how forgiveness flows out horizontally to others? And how do we keep these in their proper order?
Dan Paavola: Well, the order is a wonderful question because I think in a way you could start either way. Forgiveness. Maybe at first somebody says, "Well, I should forgive my neighbor, I know. But where am I going to get that forgiveness?" So they are starting on the horizontal plane, but hopefully they're going to look upward and say, "Well, the only real source of forgiveness is God's forgiveness first to me. And the overflow of that extends then to my neighbor." Or somebody could begin on the vertical plane and say, "I have done so many terrible things. I feel so guilty. I am so wrong. God, please forgive me."
So, I think, Mike, you could start either horizontally with somebody else or vertically with God. But either way, the abundance that God gives us of forgiveness is an overflow that's not meant to be caught up in a water tank. It's a river that's intended to flow out from us and go to others.
Mike Zeigler: You talk about steps that people might take toward forgiveness, specifically forgiveness in that horizontal sense, maybe when there's a blockage. So, you say the first step is simply to retrace His steps. What do you mean by that?
Dan Paavola: Well, thank you. That's a little story I put together that didn't happen to us. But just imagine that you're walking out to your car in the parking lot and you see somebody just drive right into it, back right into your car, and they're about to drive away, as though nothing happened. I don't know about you, but I'm going to go, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa! And then let's just say that very conveniently, a policeman drives by. He pulls in. And what are you going to do? You're going to tell the story. You're going to go through exactly what they did to you. And that story is in your mind. How do you get past that story?
If somebody were just to say, "Well, just forgive them." How do you get a different story than the one that's on your mind? And Mike, it's not enough just to tell people, "Well forgive and create a vacuum within your own mind as to what happened." Vacuums don't stay empty, and I'll guarantee what comes back is a retelling of your same story of what happened. What about another story? What if we told His story to ourselves? What if filling that vacuum or maybe pushing out some of our own story, we focused on His?
What did He do? How did He deal with sinners like us? How did deal with those who were trying to undo His ministry? Well, trying to undo His life, how did He act? I think as we tell His story to ourselves more and more becomes that which fills what would otherwise be a vacuum, and it also pushes out or calms at least our own agitated story. So retrace His steps, tell His story, and it's a beginning at least to move away from the anger to forgiveness.
Mike Zeigler: The second step you mentioned in the book is count His cost. So retelling His story, counting His cost, how might that work?
Dan Paavola: Jesus says, consider My cost. What did it cost Me to pay for you and for all the world? What does it cost to have your sins put on Me? And He says nothing about that other than to accept them unto Himself. You and I are very quick to seek our own justice and rightness. He welcomed the sins of the world onto Himself. And what a cost, both that He would then die and that He would have to cry out, "Why have You forsaken Me?" Isn't that a remarkable cost? And so I think as we focus on His cost, again, our focus on ourselves, our own personal cost begins to diminish. It doesn't disappear. I know that. But what are we going to fill our minds with? I think better we fill our minds with His story. We fill our minds if there's a ledger being kept, let it be the ledger of what He paid and what He did to save us, and we're on the debit side.
Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you again for being with us today, Dan. If you're struggling with how to extend forgiveness to someone else, maybe Dan's book would help these steps towards offering that forgiveness of retracing the steps of Jesus, counting His cost, and letting His story take over. So check out his book. It's titled Flowing from the Cross by Daniel Paavola. Thanks for being with us, Dan.
Dan Paavola: Thank you for letting me join you and a blessing to you and all our listeners.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive" performed by the Kammerchor, Concordia University-Wisconsin. Used by permission.
"Hail to the Lord's Anointed" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.