by Lisa Caine
March 3, 2015
2 Corinthians 12:9 — “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
I can’t imagine what it would be like to go to bed on Sunday night knowing that in all probability it would be my very last night on earth, knowing that the next evening, I would be strapped to a gurney while people I didn’t know prepared to put me to death.
That’s what Kelly Gissendaner had to do Sunday. I had forgotten about her, the scandal of her conviction in 1998 for the murder of her husband the year before long gone from my mind. I stood at that time with the ones holding the stones, ready to throw them at her because of her sin. Righteous indignation is always so easy to gin up.
I didn’t think about her again until Saturday when her story once again became newsworthy and clergy friends of mine began posting on Facebook about her impending execution. TV focused on 18 years ago, the heartless murder of her husband for the insurance money. My friends focused on the new Kelly, the person they had met and mentored for the last 18 years through Candler School of Theology’s prison ministry program, and who was now mentoring others, encouraging them reminding them that their suffering can be redeemed.
My friends spoke of a woman who had confessed her sinfulness and who took responsibility for her actions. She had changed from the woman, who in her own words, “had become so self-centered and bitter about my life and who I had become, that I lost all judgment,” and still could not understand how ”I had let myself fall into such evil.” In prison she had learned,” no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”
In 2011, in a speech to her prison classmates all of whom had studied for a year to receive the Certificate in Theological Studies from Candler, Kelly said, “receive the word and revelation and act on it; your life will never be the same . . . there is only one who can bring a clean thing out of something unclean . . . . When this miracle occurs, and only through Divine grace, our life is not wasted.”
We preach a lot about redemption, about salvation, about being born again, about new life in Christ. We say we believe it. We say we trust in it for our own salvation. We read in the Bible about sinful people who turned their lives around, still were far from perfect, but were used by God for powerful purposes. King David as an adulterer and a murderer, had much in common with Kelly, but he too repented of his sin, and wrote “Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.” And of course, there is Saul, who had such a turnaround, that he received a new name to signify his new being – Paul.
We sing with great gusto the old hymn, “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” Do we really think those words are meant only for us “good” folk whose sins are mostly hidden and much less messy than Kelly’s, but nonetheless sin – pride, anger, envy, lust, sloth, gluttony, indifference, to name a few. Do we think we can judge who is eligible for salvation or do we believe Jesus’ words in Matthew, “Judge not that you be not judged, for the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Are we so sure of our own righteousness that we can risk our own judgment for the pleasure of judging another? In advocating for her death are we not also committing murder in our hearts? Let the person without sin cast the first stone.
The only way I can understand this obvious contradictory thinking is to believe we have split minds, our “civil” mind and our “religious” mind. So we can simultaneously believe the courts have the right to judge “crime” and God has the right to judge “sin”; thus, God’s grace and mercy may abound freely over sinfulness of all kinds, but our human civil “justice” can’t show mercy, can’t show grace, can’t show forgiveness because that would somehow be condoning and encouraging heinous behavior. This dualistic thinking is the way of our fallen world, not the way of God.
For now there is a stay of execution as the State examines the quality or potency of the drug that they were to have used last night. It was “cloudy” for some reason. Kelly has one more day at least, and of course, that is all any of us has – one more day. And so in that brief time that is guaranteed us, perhaps we can, to use Kelly’s words “put off hatred and envy and put on love and compassion. Every day.”
Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, we lift up to you our sister Kelly. In life and in death you are God and Kelly and all of us are surrounded by your love and upheld by your grace whether we live or whether we die. In this time of Lent, may we focus on our own sinfulness, our own alienation from you and from one another. Prevent us from turning our attention outward and focusing on someone else’s weakness; it’s always easier to look out than to look in. In our own weakness may we turn to you for strength; in our own sinfulness may we turn to you for forgiveness, mercy, and grace. And as we pray for these things for ourselves, may we not ask for what we would not want for someone else, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.