That the Guilty May Live

Tomorrow a large portion of the Christian world celebrates Good Friday, remembering the day that an innocent man died so that the guilty could live and live abundantly.

It seems appropriate, then, that today my attention is glued to the news story of Anthony Belton’s trial, a guilty man who murdered a gas station clerk. That clerk happened to be my friend Matt. Back in 2008, early in the morning on August 13, Belton robbed the gas station convenience store where Matt was finishing up a third shift. After Matt handed over all the money in the cash register, Belton shot him in the back of the head.

The following week, hundreds of people flocked to his funeral, so many that the building could not contain them all. I heard story after story from people who described Matt’s generosity, his gentleness, the way he always had time for people, the way he reached out to people. In a quiet, unassuming way, he had impacted so many lives.

Now, nearly four years later, Belton is finally on trial. Yesterday he was (not surprisingly) found guilty of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery. The trial has moved into the sentencing phase and Belton very likely faces the death penalty.

This grieves me deeply. For the past three and a half years, every time I think of this case, this trial, this man, something in my spirit groans for mercy. Even in those first few days after Matt was shot, as we tried to process through what happened, I felt deeply compelled to show grace to Belton. I had recently finished reading What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancy and felt that, in some way, this was the final exam of what God had been teaching me about His amazing, radical grace.

I have found, though, that suggesting mercy for a murderer unleashes some vicious opposition. The comments on news stories about the trial are filled with statements like:

“Excellent News. Another POS off the streets.”
“Show him the kindness he showed Mr. Dugan.”
“He is a waste of taxpayer money.”
“Juice em’.”
“There’s nothing to debate…….lights OUT.”
“Lights out punk.”

Oh Jesus. Mercy.

What grieves me even more, is that this “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” attitude is so prevalent, even within the church. The same people who gushed about Matt’s generosity, compassion, and love for Jesus, staunchly demand justice and death for Belton and react in disbelief that I could suggest anything different.

Why is mercy so hard to fathom?

To offer mercy to a murderer…that’s radical, I know. But do we realize how radical the grace that we received is? Do we believe that it is somehow less radical because we have not robbed a store or shot a man to death? Have we deluded ourselves into believing that there is a hierarchy to transgression, that we are basically good as long as we have not climbed to a certain rung on that ladder?

Jesus tells us otherwise. In the same chapter that He overturns that justification of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” with the call to turn the other cheek and love our enemies, He tells us that anyone who has been angry with their brother is as guilty as a murderer:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [a term of contempt, which means something along the lines of “You idiot!”] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

I have been angry. I have been hateful. I have been desperate. I have been guilty, deserving of judgment, even of death. I would be deluded to pretend otherwise.

But yet, I have received mercy. I have been showered with love, life, and good gifts, even beyond what I need or ask for. Do I deserve this, simply because I have managed to make it twenty-four years into my life without killing someone?

Life is my right, yes. But not because of my innocence, in myself. Not because I am basically a good person.

No, life is my right because of an innocent Man who died so that I might live, who shed innocent blood to cover my guilt, who took the judgment and death I deserve upon Himself so that I am washed clean and set free. There is nothing about this that trivializes my guilt. Likewise, advocating for mercy for Belton does not trivialize what he did. What it does is speak of the great love and mercy I have been shown that compels me to go and do the same.

And so I am praying fervently, with tears running down my face, for the courts to spare the life of guilty man. Please, join me.

Update: This afternoon (April 6) Belton was sentenced to death. He is scheduled to be executed on August 1. Though I am obviously grieved by that sentence, I am believe his life is in God’s hands as much as ever and am still praying that he encounters the Lord deeply before that time. 

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What Does Love Look Like?

“What does love look like?”
is the question I’ve been pondering
“What does love look like?”
“What does love look like?”
is the question I’ve been asking of You

            – Misty Edwards (“Arms Wide Open”)

Over Christmas break my heart has been awakening to the call to love again. It began over my visit home, stirring in the few quiet moments amidst the flurry of activity as we made the rounds of families and friends. On our return to Kansas City, it intensified as I began reading The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, one of my gifts this Christmas (I’ve wanted to read it for several years now). And as Derek and I joined over twenty thousand people at the Onething conference, I heard that same call to love fully echoed over and over, in the times of worship, in the messages, and in the cry of my own soul in response to it all.

When I began to read The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence’s simple descriptions of how he formed a habit of conversing with God continually and doing everything out of love for Him stirred me to the high and simple invitation to desire God above everything else. It sounded so simple. He didn’t share a three-step plan or five essential practices or a formula of any kind. He merely described his experience of loving God and falling back on His grace over and over. It sounded so simple. And yet, it also brought the painful realization of how far I am from that reality in my life. More often than not, I try to slap a half-hearted pursuit of God on top of everything in my life and pretend it’s all for Him. In reality, my motivation comes from so many other places but rarely from genuine love for God. I want genuine love for God to be the root of all that I do, but as I recognized the absence of that in my life I also begin to realize how little I truly understood about what it means to love God well. Or what it means to love Derek well, for that matter. This past semester produced a stellar report card and a new job, but what of my relationship with God? What of my marriage? Did I love well?

During the Onething conference, focused this year on “Jesus, Our Magnificent Obsession”, that invitation to return to my first love for God surfaced over and over, not just in the worship and the talks but in my own heart as I responded to what I heard. Over and over I was reminded that nothing was as crucial as loving God fully.

One of the most profound parts of the conference for me was Dwayne Robert’s talk that Friday morning. He spoke about how Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that we go through seasons of our life, yet eternity has been put in the heart of man. We were designed to connect with the Eternal One and nothing will fully satisfy us until we are dwelling with God. He cautioned that our careers and even our ministry cannot be our focus. These are our calling, not our reward, not the place in which we find our satisfaction. We will never be satisfied even by miracles or power going forth from our bodies. Instead, we must be compelled by the love and revelation of Jesus. He said that the cry in the inner room of those who walk in signs and wonders is, “Jesus, my magnificent obsession, I love you!” “I am not going to let this eternal cry be met by anything else but a Man with eyes aflame with love for me,” Dwayne declared. “My life is a failure if I enter eternity with my life dull to Him.”

At the end, he issued a call to be diligent in our calling, but to shift the goals and focus of our lives, to enlarge our hearts, to detach from everything that is contaminating our hearts and to do whatever it takes to break our addiction to the American dream. His words were cutting and powerful, but it was the passion behind them that spoke most deeply to me. As he spoke, I saw a man desperate to love God fully, to turn away from every other passion but Jesus, and to see others engulfed in that same passion for God. I recognized the puniness of my own passion for God lately, how little I truly loved this Man Jesus, how little I even know Him. But it stirred the coals of that fire a little more. I want to know Him. I want to love Him more fully. I want to see my life radiating passion for the Eternal One. I want to see that passion engulf every other passion and desire in my life until it compels everything I do.

So in this new year and new season for me and Derek, I have resolved to pursue God again, to open my life to a deeper knowledge of Jesus and invite Him to feed the flames of love for Him in my heart. Even as I turn my heart back to God again, though, I can feel the tug of my flesh in the other direction. There’s the constant temptation to draw away again, to feed myself with the world, to let my mind and spirit simply coast, to take the easy way. More and more I recognize my incredible need for God’s grace to seek Him and know Him. I am encouraged by a prayer that Brother Lawrence was in the habit of praying whenever he found that he’d failed in his pursuit of loving God fully: “I am used to do so; I shall never do otherwise if I am left to myself” (The Practice of the Presence of God, p. 13). In the past couple weeks I’ve often found myself echoing that prayer in my own words, pouring out confession after confession of my own inability to relate rightly to God, and inviting Him to pour out His grace in the places of my weakness. Because weakness and all, that invitation is still there to love Him more.

Emmanuel, Our God With Us

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

(John 1:14, The Message)

We highlighted this passage on our Christmas cards this year. It seemed to fit. This fall (and now into the winter) we have seen that glory with our own eyes, the glory of the Word made flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood, into our house even.

On Sunday, as we sang, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, I reflected on this profound reality of Emmanuel, our God with us. He chose to become flesh and take up residence with us, not in the flesh of a king or emperor, rich or powerful. Instead He chose the flesh and blood of a baby, tender and needy, born to the scandal of an unwed mother. Yet here was the Messiah, our Savior, Emmanuel with us, and the whole earth trembled at the profound greatness of His coming.

And now here we are, sharing a house with another young unwed mother and her two beautiful children, born to that same scandal, yet full of the grace of Christ. I can see His face in these little ones. Emmanuel. God with us.

Last week we took in another young mom, just sixteen years old, and her new baby for several days while she worked out some things with her family (I’m finding that any sort of plan I have for ministry collapses into the simple plan of saying yes to the doors God opens and trusting that He’s going to meet us there). The house churned with life and I spent hours each day just sitting and talking, eating together, playing games together (a new and profound experience of family for Ashley), just taking it all in. And there He was in the midst of us again. Emmanuel. God with us.

In the turmoil of scandal, in the face of the outcast, in the eyes of a child who needs everything, there You are. Emmanuel. God with us, right in my own home, running down my hallways, sharing my food, greeting me as I come and go, leaving sticky fingerprints on tables. Oh so very much with us. Emmanuel living in our house.

Isn’t this what He promised, when He said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18) and “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40)? This is where Emmanuel dwells and here He invites us to join Him at His home, to meet with Him there.

Of course, this Christmas rolled in with a short (and mostly sleepless) night and some drama that filled me with about as much “Christmas spirit” as Scrooge (bah humbug!), the sobering reminder of our still-present brokenness, even in the midst of that revelation of the reality of God’s presence with us. Even in the wrestling, though, God is still present. Emmanuel is with us. Yes (and I repeat this as much for myself as for anyone else), Emmanuel IS with us. We still carry this treasure in jars of clay and the work isn’t complete. We still need Him, so much more of Him. And so we both mourn and rejoice as we sing:

“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”


A Glimpse of Jesus in My Life

Recently I’ve started reading A Glimpse of Jesus; the Stranger to Self-Hatred by Brennan Manning (I’ve always been impressed and convicted by any quote I’ve heard from him, but have yet to read one of his books). In the second chapter he issues the challenge:

“Who is the Jesus of your journey? How would you describe the Christ who is the still point of a turning world for so many people and an irrelevancy or embarrassment for countless others…The challenge, so keenly put in the New Testament – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ – is addressed to each of us. Who is the Jesus of your own interiority? Describe the Christ that you have personally encountered on the grounds of your own self?

Only a stereotypical answer can be forthcoming if we have not developed a personal relationship with Jesus. We can only repeat pious turns of speech that others have spoken or wave a catechism under children’s noses if we have not gained some partial insight, some small glimpse of the inexhaustible richness of the mystery who is Jesus Christ.” (Brennan Manning, A Glimpse of Jesus, p. 24-25)

I read on a little further, but eventually had to stop and close the book so I could ponder this question. Who is Jesus in my life? “Who do you say I am?”

I feel like I’m still just beginning to truly know Jesus and make Him known in my life, that I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the fullness of life in Him, but I’m encouraged by Manning’s words:

“Perhaps what is decisive is not how much we see, but how much we trust and follow Jesus of Nazareth, however sketchy the portrait, how ever sketchy the glimpse,” (A Glimpse of Jesus, forward).

That said, here are few glimpses of the Jesus I’ve come to know in my life:

He is the one who shifted the priorities in my life by showing me what is most important to Him (time with Him and our relationship with Him). He is beautiful and captivating. He draws my heart like nothing else. Everything else that I pursued and anything else that I could pursue pales in comparison with time spent in His presence. He is fullness of life that satisfies me in a way that chasing after my own desires and glory never did.

He is the one that gives me hope by His promises. He gives me hope for continued transformation in my own life, but also hope for the transformation of people and communities around me, hope for broken people to be healed, shattered foundations rebuilt, new life from death, and redemption from failure. He is the picture of who we will be and the face of God’s love and mercy towards us.

He is my first Love, my faithful friend. He is always with me when I cry to Him. He pushes back the despair and lifts the loneliness. He tells me who I am and reminds me of His plans for me. His love never fails. He is always there and always sufficient.

He is my compass, who reorients my life and points me in the direction I need to go. He is the nourisher of my soul who feeds me with His words, corrects me, gives me wisdom, who draws the depths of my heart (both the dreams and the filth) to the light of the surface.

He is my Redeemer, who makes sure that nothing in my life is wasted. He brings light and growth out of even my deepest pain or sharpest failing.

This is still such a partial picture of all that Jesus is and promises to be in our lives, but I hope and pray that I will continue to come to know Him more. I pray that as I come to know more about Him, that the things I know about Him will become more and more evident in my life and I will truly know Him more. And for now, I strive to be faithful to what I do know.