Earlier this year, I spent a couple of hours at the county jail. Before you go too far down the, "what did Nick do" line, let me just disclose that I occasionally fill in as the Thursday afternoon chaplain for guys who are in lock up. I do this a couple of times a year, and usually I meet with a few guys who are awaiting trial for some kind of drug-related charges. Guys in jail can request to meet with a pastor and anyone can request this meeting.
So on this particular day, I found myself face to face with a guy who looked...well, for lack of a better word, normal. Nothing about his appearance would suggest hardened criminal, or even a recreational drug user for that matter. His hair was neatly cut and his appearance to me was of a kind, middle-aged man. Not long into our conversation, though, I discovered that he was awaiting charges on double homicide. In a fit of rage and regret, he had busted in on his ex-lover and her current lover and shot them both to death.
It was a unique feeling that day to listen to this man's story; to hear his remorse, his fear, and his anger come spilling out. He didn't care much about what stripe of faith I was from- he saw me as a priest to whom he could confess and then ask if God could possibly forgive. My faith and my Bible tell me that God forgives all, and I told him as much. I did the best I could to speak hope and peace into a situation that had very little.
Yesterday, that man was sentenced to over 70 years in prison; an essential life sentence. Not only had he ended the lives of two others, but he had in a very real sense ended his own life. And as I look back, I find two compelling thoughts coming to mind. From my view, these two aspects of life are both like homicide for your soul; actions that can bring a quick end to the life, joy, and peace that God wants to bring.
First, I would say never underestimate the cumulative power of many small, bad decisions. Up until Mr. Feeney went and got his gun, his story could sound like many thousands of others- jilted in love, discouraged by relationships, feeling alone, and uncertain of himself. Nothing in his story was evil or horrid. He was just a guy who kept making bad decisions about relationships and how he would respond to them.
Now, I am not trying to suggest that any of you are on the verge of murder. But I do think it's worth pausing and reflecting on the truth that no one plans to do that one thing that will destroy a job, a marriage, or a life. We don't plan to go off the deep end. Very often, though, we do continue to make a string of bad decisions, convincing ourselves all the way that it won't catch up with us. We isolate from our spouses, skip out on church, drive past the gym, eat the extra cookie, buy more than we can afford, stray on-line a bit- little things perhaps in and of themselves. But all of these can indicate a direction in life. Would you be willing today to look at the cumulative choices of your life and ask, "what direction am I headed in?"
A second thought is this: the way we respond to hurt and pain will either bring us life or death. I was saddened and amazed, but not surprised, to read of one family member of the deceased saying in court, "We will never forgive you." I'm sure this raw emotion was and is completely warranted, but I found myself thinking, "how sad. You lost your loved one and now you are in danger of killing your own soul." Bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness have a powerful way of working into our psyche and destroying us from within. It has been said that it's like drinking poison and hoping the other person gets sick. But we are the ones who ultimately pay.
Bitterness or unforgiveness give us the illusion that we are somehow punishing or controlling the one who has hurt us. The truth, however, is that we have no ultimate control over others. We can choose to be bitter and angry, and that other person can also choose not to care. We try to punish them but only punish ourselves. I hope the family member who stated this finds a path to forgiveness- not because Mr. Feeney does or doesn't deserve it, but because I know the power forgiveness has to bring life.
So, perhaps these ramblings will provide some perspective for you today. It's not every day we have a front row seat to watching a life unravel, but when we do it's a good opportunity to learn and to grow.
May your season be marked by Love, Joy and Peace in Christ-