Friday, March 13, 2009

Death and Resurrection

It was a day in February of 1995 when we, along with other folks in San Angelo, TX learned of a young woman soldier abducted from a laundry room on Goodfellow Air Force Base there. There was a vague description of the man who had taken her given by another young soldier who had attempted to intervene, but had been injured in the process. Her parents came from their home out of state, and pleaded on the news for anyone who knew anything of her whereabouts to come forward. We all prayed for her safe return.

Then, about a week later, what everyone feared finally came to light. The authorities had arrested a man who admitted he was the one who had done it, and that she had been brutally raped and murdered. He led them to wear he had left her body. It was an unspeakable tragedy and an inexplicable crime. The man who had perpetrated this atrocity was one who had not only had no criminal record, but was a retired soldier who had an impressive service record, including courage and valor under fire. Everyone in the community was horrified by what he had done.

Then, something even more strange occurred. I discovered that a member of the congregation I served there as pastor at that time had visited this very man in the jail, and through her ministry with him, he had come to know Jesus Christ and had a powerful experience of God's grace and forgiveness. When she shared this with me, I was shocked. I admit I was reluctant to admit that it was possible for a person who had done such a thing to be forgiven by God. But God began to deal with my own heart. I felt like God was giving me a "pop quiz," and the test question was, "Do you really believe this message you preach of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ or not? If it doesn't apply to someone like him, what makes you think it applies to someone like you? Aren't you also a sinner, hopelessly unable to save yourself by your own merit?" I was also a bit skeptical about "jailhouse conversion." But I went on to visit this man in the jail, after Vicki (my parishioner who had led him in his conversion) had secured his agreement for me to come.

From the first time I met Louis Jones, it was evident that he in no way attempted to deny or minimize his crime, and demonstrated real remorse for the rest of his life. But it was also evident that he had experienced the transforming power of God's grace and forgiveness, and was living a new life in Jesus Christ. This began a long relationship in which I visited him and formed a relationship with him. My wife and children (who were 10 & 12 at the time) both corresponded with him and spoke to him on the phone when he called (from the jail). I testified at the sentencing hearing in which the federal government was seeking to impose the death penalty (that is a whole other story I'll tell at some other time). After he was sentenced to death, I continued to visit him and correspond with him over a period of eight years.

On March 17-18, 2003 I was at the federal death row facility at the federal prison in Terre Haute, IN where I spent with him some of the last hours of his life, sharing and praying. Then in the wee hours of the morning of his execution, we also celebrated Holy Communion together - that act of worship in which we remember the horrible death of Jesus caused by our sin, experience the real presence of the risen Lord to impart to us his life, and look forward to his coming again and our full experience of that life. It was one of the most powerful experiences of death and resurrection I have ever had. Later, I was a witness to Lou's execution. This was one of the most awful and yet wonderful experiences of my life (and that is a whole other story, also), as he was killed there by our government with the words of the hymn, "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross," on his lips until they were stilled.

A day or so later, it was my ominous task and honor to preside at his funeral and burial in Chicago. I am writing this from Chicago where I am attending a conference today. Yesterday, the day I arrived, I traveled once again to the cemetery to visit his grave (when I took this photo), as I do each time I am in this city as I have opportunity. I am reminded once again of the stark reality of death, but also the powerful reality of new life in Jesus Christ, and for how both of those were demonstrated in the life of Louis Jones.