Celebrating the Real Beauty of Forgiveness
About the Guest
The red Christmas feather became a symbol of God's extravagant love and forgiveness when Tom placed a new red feather on the tree after his mother’s death. Hear Tom recount his mother's parting lesson on forgiveness she left with her family.
Tom ElliffTom Elliff served as the International Mission Board's Senior Vice President for Spiritual Nurture and Church Relations. In addition to his work with IMB, Tom pastored for forty-two years, during which time he served as the president of the SBC Pastors Conference and two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Blessed with four children and twenty-three grandchildren, Tom and his wife, Jeannie are also frequent speakers at conferences and on radio programs addressing issues re...more
The red Christmas feather became a symbol of God’s extravagant love and forgiveness when Tom placed a new red feather on the tree after his mother’s death.
Celebrating the Real Beauty of Forgiveness
Bob: From the time Tom Elliff was a little boy, his family had always placed a special decoration on the family Christmas tree – a red feather that held special significance for their family. But when Tom's father left his mother after 40 years of marriage, the red feather now seemed to symbolize something different –a painful memory of a family that had broken in two. It was a few years later when a friend who knew the story of the red feather, gave one to Tom and encouraged him to start his own family tradition.
Tom: I took the feather and put it in the tree, and when the kids came down, I said, "Kids, I want to tell you something. There is something different about this tree this year, and I want you to find what it is, and it wasn't very long before they had found the red feather, and I told the story once again of my mother's unselfishness, her expression of love.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, December 19th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We'll hear today from Tom Elliff how the red feather brought forgiveness and healing and reconciliation in the Elliff family. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. You know, I think many families look forward to the holiday season with some anticipation and some sense of joy, and it's busy. There's a lot to do. But you're looking forward to being together as a family and to the memories. But there have to be a lot of families who head toward this season with a sense of dread because of what it conjures up from the past or because of the losses, over the years, whether it's somebody who has just lost a family member in the previous year, and they're facing their first Christmas in many years without Mom or Dad or a relative; whether it's a family that has fallen apart during the year; or even if it happened five, 10 years ago, Christmas can be a time that is bittersweet for a lot of families.
Dennis: And as we do head home, Bob, Christmas together with our extended family can represent a lot of relationships that need some repair work because we've been hurt, we've been disappointed maybe repeatedly or maybe profoundly. And there is bitterness, and as we've been listening all this week to a story by Tom Elliff, there is something we can do about that bitterness and, Tom, I want to thank you for being on the broadcast and being so transparent about what took place in your family.
Tom: Thank you, Dennis.
Dennis: You were a PK, a preacher's kid, grew up in a Christian home, and you and your two brothers and sister enjoyed the benefits of a church family surrounding you as you grew up and everything, and we heard earlier how your mom got a gift in 1946 of a beautiful green hat that had a delightful red feather that she plucked out and put it at the top of the Christmas tree, and that became a symbol of an extravagant gift in 1946 to your family. And you celebrated using that red feather in subsequent years even to the time when your father ended up leaving your mother, and you were tempted to no longer pull the red feather out of the box and put it on top of the tree.
Now, you'd been a missionary overseas, and you'd come back home, and you had found your mom to now be suffering from a disease. Share with us how that came about.
Tom: Well, when we came back from Africa to – primarily to get help for our daughter, you know, that had been burned during this tragic car accident, we discovered that my mother was suffering a disease, which, at that time was just – we were just becoming familiar with it – Alzheimer's. We hear the word all the time now, but we didn't back in the early '80s.
And she had actually come to visit us in Denver, Colorado, where I was pastoring at the time, and I noticed, you know, some aberrant behavior. My wife, in fact, came to me and said, "I'm very concerned about your mother." We took her to a doctor, and he said, "I am so sorry to tell you this, but she has Alzheimer's." He said, "We don't know a lot about this, but it's really raging within her."
She had actually driven the airport, bought her ticket, come to Denver, and by the time her visit with us was over, she was unable to drive. We got her back home – my brother and sister made sure, at that time, that she had everything she needed in the home, they were constantly there trying to help her, but she was obviously going down.
And it was Christmas of that year that I determined that I was going to come back and help her put up the tree and put the red feather in the tree, because it was still a reminder of God's extravagant love and such a family tradition.
Dennis: And she was incapable at that point of putting the red feather on the Christmas tree?
Tom: She was rational on occasions and irrational on other occasions. It would have been impossible for her to have gotten up into the attic and brought down the decorations, and so I just determined. I was going to fly to Oklahoma City, climb up in that attic, which I did, found that old grapefruit box, and dusted it off, brought it down, and I was going – we were going to decorate that tree.
I will tell you, that out in the garage, when I took the lid off the grapefruit box and saw the red feather, it was broken in half just like my parents' marriage. I began weeping. I'm not that kind of a guy. I think the older I get, the more like that I become, but at that point I was just weeping, and I don't know how long I spent out in the garage. I know I got some tape and repaired the feather, put it back in the box and, finally, when I thought I had control of myself, I went back into the house, and my mother was there, and she looked over at me, and she said, "You found the decorations?" And I said, "Yeah, I've even got the red feather," and I just started crying again.
At that moment, my mother stood up – now here is a lady who sometimes would be rational, but with Alzheimer's, you know how that goes – sometimes she just didn't know where she was or how to put her thoughts together – my mother stood up, walked across the room, put her arms around me and, Dennis and Bob, she began praying, and I've told people before, I think she prayed for close to half an hour – maybe it wasn't that long.
She prayed the most beautiful prayer – it was a doxology, a praise to God. She thanked God for her family, she prayed for her children, for her grandchildren, she didn't miss a name and, yes, she even prayed for the husband who had left her and was now married to someone else and living in another state. She thanked God for the 43 years of marriage she had with him and the fruit of that marriage, and then she said, "Now let's decorate the tree."
All of a sudden, this lady I had come to comfort was comforting me. And we decorated that tree, and I put the red feather …
Bob: The broken red feather?
Tom: Well, not broken – well, it was broken but repaired – red feather there in the tree, and I looked over at my mother, and she had this smile on her face, and it was as if she was saying, just as she had in 1946, "That's just what the tree needs." And, of course, that's just what the world needs to experience God's extravagant forgiveness.
Bob: Did you think, at the time, that your relationship with your dad was over for life?
Tom: Well, Bob, he had refused to see me. I had made an attempt earlier on to talk with him when I'd come back from Africa, and he had refused to see me. Later on, I did fly to the town where he was living and met him at the airport, and we drove – you know, we met and talked but for all practical purposes I assumed that my father would no longer be a factor in my family's life.
He had had very little contact with us, even when our daughter was in the hospital in Africa. My father, who usually was such a loving, caring person, was so aloof from us at that moment, and I just assumed, "All right, we're going to have to be whatever kind of family we can be without my dad," and my kids needed their granddad. You know, they – our family needed a father, but we just assumed that's a relationship that is on pause.
On Christmas Eve, at our church's candlelight and carol service, it was just an idyllic setting in Colorado – the snow was perfect, it was like you – just a postcard kind of a Christmas. And at that Christmas, for some reason known only to God, in an attempt to get across what it was that God was doing when He sent His Son, I told the story of the red feather – how my mother, in that moment, just ravaged that hat in that extravagant act of love just so that her kids could have a decoration on the tree and how it had been in the tree every year.
And we went home that evening and got the kids to bed, you know, and my heart was just so full. In fact, I thought over and over again, you know, I wonder where my dad is? What is he doing? I had an idea where he lived, but, you know, how could he go through the holiday without his family?
Dennis: How many holidays now had he missed? This would have been the second …
Tom: This would have been the third one, actually, the third holiday that he had missed. And I just thought, you know, "We need him, and I think he needs us." Well, early the next morning, Christmas Day, I got up to light the fire before my family came down for Christmas, you know, and I was sitting in front of the fireplace just looking at the tree and thinking about my family, I heard a knock at the door. Just a slight knock, and I thought, "Who could that be at this hour?"
I went to the door, opened it up, and it was, again, the perfect Christmas. The clouds had gone, the sky was just filled with stars, heavy snow on the ground, but I noticed some footprints coming across from the road to my house and then back to the road. And I thought, "Well, I wonder who that could have been that was knocking at my door?" I couldn't see anybody. I turned around, and I noticed there was a box on the porch. I thought, "I wonder what that is," but when I picked it up, it was empty, it had nothing in it. I thought maybe it had just blown across the yard, you know, from our neighbor's house, perhaps.
But I took the box inside, and I noticed it was taped shut. I began to tear the tape apart, and when I opened it, I thought, "Yeah, it's empty." Then I noticed something right down in the corner of the box. There was a red feather. And I thought to myself, "What in the world is this?" And there was a note from my friend, and he said to me, "Tom, you know, maybe it's time that you and your family had their own red feather, your own symbol of God's love, your own symbol of what it means to love and to forgive."
And there was the feather. I took the feather and put it in the tree, and when the kids came down, I said, "Kids, I want to tell you something. There is something different about this tree this year, and I want you to find what it is, and it wasn't very long before they had found the red feather, and I told the story once again of my mother's unselfishness, her expression of love.
Bob: But it was in the context of her homegoing that your dad reappeared, right?
Tom: Yes. Bob, I was on a mission trip in Africa in the late summer of 1985. When I returned, I received a call from my brother, Bill, who said, "Tom, Mom's in the hospital. She's had a massive brain hemorrhage, and she's just about to die." I flew to Oklahoma City where they were living, down to the hospital in Norman, Oklahoma. I stood at her bedside. The doctor, in fact, said "She may live for hours, but I doubt it. Maybe a day or two, but I doubt that she's going to live that long."
And, you know, something – it's nothing physical but, for some reason, my mother just dug in. Now, she was lying there comatose, never moved a muscle, but she didn't die that die – not in a few hours, not in a day, not in a second day or a third or a fourth. As a matter of fact, a week passed, a second week passed, and a third week passed, and I can tell you that we had some pretty intense meetings with the Lord as we sat with her individually through the night.
And at the end of the third week, when all four children were in the room, my mother stirred briefly. I mean, this is a big surprise to us, and she said this word three times, she said, "Want, want, want." And we said, "Mother, what do you want?" I mean, we were elated. She had revived, you know, "Do you want your pillow fluffed? Do you want crushed ice? Do you want" – and no response. She didn't respond at all.
And then someone started calling people's names, and someone in the room, I forget who, said "Dad?" And she said this word, which she repeated three times that day – "Forgive, forgive, forgive." And we said, "Mother, we know you've forgiven him, and we've told him that we've forgiven him." And she just lapsed back into a coma.
The next morning, the phone rang, and all four of us again were in the room with her, and the phone rang. We were startled, actually. And it was my father. The first time all of us together had heard from him in two and a half years, you know. I had gone to see him but at no time had we all been together with him. And he said, "Tom" – and you know how sometimes men who leave their wives, they use a – they develop a funny language. He said, "I hear your mother is ill." And I said, "Well, Dad, Mom is terribly ill." I said, "She's going to die." I said, "She's got a massive brain hemorrhage."
He said, "Well, could I speak to her?" I can't imagine what courage it took for him to do this. He said, "Could I speak to her?" I said, "Well, Dad, she's in a coma, but I'm going to put this phone up to her ear." You talk about the awesome power of reconciliation, you know, she began to weep, tears began to flow down her cheeks as she was just lying there in the bed. She opened her eyes, and she just said, "Of course, I forgive you. Isn't Jesus wonderful?"
Bob: This is from three weeks of a coma?
Tom: Three weeks in a coma, and six months of not having a rational thought. "Of course," she said, "I forgive you. Isn't Jesus wonderful? I've got to lead more people to Christ," and I'll tell you, and my brothers and my sister will tell that for 24 hours she was as clear as a bell in her conversations. We just talked just as we are talking right here. And then she lapsed into a coma again, and week number 4 passed, and then week number 5 passed, and now my dad is calling frequently.
And one day he said, "I don't know, what do you think, Tom?" And I said, "Dad, I think she may be waiting for you." And the next morning, with all four children in the room, my father opened the door, stepped into the room – the first time we had been together as a family in two and a half years. We wept, we cried, we prayed, we even sang – now, that's unusual.
Dad asked us to leave. He stayed in the room with her. She was not conscious. He stayed – we could hear him weeping. I thought of that poem by Edwin Markham that says "He drew a circle that shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that shut him in."
And my mother had just laid there in a hospital bed in a coma and hooked my father with forgiveness. She died not long after that. We buried her not far from that little town of Lake Village down in a country cemetery near Warren, Arkansas. On her tombstone were the words, which – of a song, which mean so much to her – "Jesus is all the world to me."
Dennis: Tom, I – in listening to your story, just appreciate you allowing us to enter into your family and hearing a great story of great failure but great repentance and great reconciliation, and I want to thank you for being so transparent here and sharing.
But I want to turn to the listening audience right now and to two people – there is a person who is in need of repenting, like your father, and there is another person who is in need of forgiving. And regardless of which one of those two you are, if you know you need to do something as a result of what you've just heard, do it now. Don't allow days, weeks, months to pass, life's too short.
Tom: Dennis, when you refuse to forgive someone, you have literally made a dungeon for that person in your heart. We are meant to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. We're bought with a price, we're not our own. But you've imprisoned that person down deep in your heart, and you can't do that without it damaging you.
Jesus told a wonderful parable about a servant who was forgiven and enormous debt. It's a picture of the way we can be forgiven by God for our sin. And yet that servant went out and found a friend who owed him pocket change. He threatened him with his life. He said, "Pay me what you owe!" When the king found out about it, he imprisoned the servant, he turned him over to the tormenters, and a man or a woman who is listening who will not forgive, do you know who the victim is? It's the unforgiving person, it's the unforgiving person.
Bob: And if that person claims the name of Christ and refuses to forgive, they really need to examine their own heart and ask, "Do I really know the One who has forgiven me," don't you?
Tom: Sure, sure. If you don't have the capacity to forgive, you ought to ask, "Have I experienced God's forgiveness?"
Dennis: Right, and so there may be a third person who is listening – not someone who needs to go and ask for forgiveness, and not someone who needs to forgive, but there may be one who needs to turn to his heavenly Father and say, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner, forgive me, cleanse me, wash me and make me new." And, you know what? God needs us at that point.
If we'll turn from ourselves and our sin and our disobedience, God is ready to forgive even the most evil person who is hearing these words.
Bob: Yes, and there is no better time than today as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of the One who offers forgiveness and transformation and hope. There is no better time for folks to respond to God's offer of forgiveness by saying, "I want to turn my life over to Jesus Christ. I want Him to be my Lord, my Master, my Savior. I want to follow Him and obey Him. I want to be forgiven and transformed."
We have a book that we would love to send to anyone who senses today that God may be tugging on their heart; senses that it is time to do business with God and to trust Christ and to respond to the invitation of the Gospel.
You can call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, and if you would call and say, "I'd like to become a Christian," then someone on our team will be happy to send you a copy of the book, "Pursuing God." That helps you understand what it means to be a follower of Christ. Again, the number of 1-800-FLTODAY. Just call and say, "I want to give my life to Christ. I want to follow Jesus," and we're happy to send a copy of the book, "Pursuing God" out to you.
In fact, that book is written by Tom Elliff's brother Jim, and it's what we send to folks all the time who contact us and say that they are interested in becoming a Christian.
We also have copies of Tom Elliff's book, which is called "The Red Feather," that tells the story that we've been listening to this week, and you can get a copy of that book by going to our website, FamilyLife.com. You can order the book from us online, or call 1-800-FLTODAY and say "I'm interested in the book, "The Red Feather" by Tom Elliff, and we'll make arrangements to send it out to you.
Our toll-free number again – 1-800-FLTODAY or, if it's easier, just order online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
I very quickly want to thank those folks who have gotten in touch with us this week and have made a donation to the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We are dependent on those donations in order to continue the ministry of FamilyLife Today on this station and on other stations all across the country. And in recent days we have had to do what a lot of ministries have had to do this year – stop and consider – can we continue this ministry on these particular stations, or can we continue in this particular outreach of FamilyLife? And we've had to make some cuts, frankly, because of the current economic situation.
We know that's true for a lot of families as well, and so when you have called and said we want to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today, we want to make a donation online or over the phone, that has been especially meaningful to us this year. And those donations are being matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to a total of $425,000 this Christmas.
So if you are able to help with a donation if you've not already contacted us, we would love to hear from you no matter what the donation is, whether it's $5 or $25 or $50 or $100 or $500 or $5,000 – it doesn't matter. What matters is that you express your support for the ministry of FamilyLife Today, and we do look forward to hearing from you, and I want to say thanks in advance for your generosity. We appreciate your support during these challenging times.
And we hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday, when we are going to listen back to what we think of as one of our favorite interviews of the year, in fact, one of our favorite all-time interviews. We're going to hear from John and Donna Bishop on Monday and hear a powerful story of sacrificial, covenantal love. I hope you can b here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend, we'll see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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