Saturday, October 26, 2013

Watching the Grim Reaper

Have you ever seen anyone die?

Unless you're a medical professional, emergency responder or hospice volunteer, the answer may well be no.

That's what most "normal" people get to say. My past profession as a journalist, however, puts me in a different category. Although I wasn't necessarily up close and personal with the people I saw die, I was standing nearby when I saw that the fight was over, when emergency responders stopped their frantic efforts. Sometimes they walked away. Sometimes here was another soul still trapped in the mangled wreckage of what used to be a car, and the efforts continued around a sheet draped body.

I can remember the majority of those deaths, even if I cannot tell you the names of the people who died. I remember where they were at and what happened. Depending on my overall mood, sometimes the roads I travel are virtually haunted by those memories.

Lately, however, I've been grappling with the memory of a different death. A song by Brandon Heath, "Dyin' Day," which is on the CD that has taken up residence in my SUV's stereo system, has me thinking about execution. It's about a man facing his execution, witnessing to the guard who has treated him decently. He explains that Jesus has come to visit him every day since he invited him in three years earler. That Jesus made him an innocent man.

Nearly a decade ago I was one of the official witnesses to an execution by the State of North Carolina. Steven McHone(Wikipedia helped me to recall the name) had shot and killed his mother and stepfather in a rage. Shortly before his execution, his siblings had begged the state to commute his sentence. His step siblings, however, were not as forgiving and neither was the state.

The morning of the execution, after driving the long route to Raleigh and passing by protestors in the chilly night air outside the prison gate, I was seated with other witnesses in a small room. The man, who looked far different than the man in the mug shots I'd seen, was on a hospital style bed on the other side of a large window. When the set hour arrived, the witnesses watched the life drain from his face and the pallor set in.

At the time, it seemed his death was, if anything, just too easy. His jailhouse conversion was too pat. I had seen too many people die when there were people fighting for their lives, when they had done nothing wrong other than circumstance. I'd watched a firefighter carry a dead toddler in his arms when her car was run over by a truck loaded with steel pipes and her car seat wasn't properly secured. I'd seen them weep when the CPR they'd administered to a 5-year-old boy wasn't enough to save him from the head injury he suffered after his drunken uncle slammed head on into another vehicle on Christmas Eve. I'd seen them put down IV bags and walk away from the remains of automobiles as others draped the vehicle in a tarp to protect it from prying eyes.

His mother died knowing her son had shot her and asking them not to blame him. His death was just too easy. The judgment was what he had earned. My biggest problem with it at the time was that it really served no purpose and cost so much. It was so isolated from society that it couldn't possibly be a deterrent because no one who had not witnessed it would believe in it -- and even then they would likely never envision themselves in his place.

Now, I'm not so sure. Judgment isn't mine to make and it would seem living with the knowledge of what he had done would be the more difficult of the two sentences. I'm looking at him through different eyes and after using the vision I'm used to for so long, I admit I find it troubling. I'm probably becoming one of those people who would have to say I could not impose the death penalty based on "religious" views.

I know all Christians, and a lot of non-Christians as well, don't take that point of view. I've heard it from the pulpit many times. But I've also heard that sin is sin and can be forgiven, no matter how minor or major we may see it. That judgment isn't up to us because we're all sinners. I'm not sure that I would go so far as to say I would be able to forgive him if the people he had killed were my loved ones. But it's a goal I'm working toward. I know that a friend who lost two of his children to a drunk driver and was able to forgive the man has a much easier load to bear than anyone who drags around anger mixed in with his grief for the rest of his life.

And I have to believe that if he was genuine in his profession of faith, that when he was executed he was welcomed in heaven. That he was greeted by Jesus, and perhaps his mother was among those who were there with open arms. That a forgiven killer is as innocent in God's eyes as a forgiven adulterer, as a child who has never sinned. That's a hard concept to wrap my head around.

Maybe it wasn't that his death was too easy after all, but that death for the rest of us is just too hard. Many of us don't get the chance to make peace with our family, time to seek salvation and forgiveness for our souls. We die suddenly from strokes and heart attacks, from someone's mistake on the highway, from violence -- from the mortal fallout of living in this world.

So this week, I've been working within myself to find the person who would answer yes to that man on his dyin' day. The person who would pray with him and share his last meal.

Because I know that every day I touch the hands of a sinner, even if they're only my own.

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