Monday, April 27, 2009

Lunch Served by the Dalai Lama

One of the most remarkable stories I read in the media over the weekend was one which described the visit paid to a California soup kitchen by the Dalai Lama. In addition to greeting and speaking with those utilizing the kitchen's services - he referred to himself in his remarks as homeless as well, which I'm certain did wonders to give the patrons a sense of elevation - he also put on an apron and jumped behind the counter to serve lunch.

You see politicians and celebrities here in the U.S. making these sorts of gestures all the time (genuine or otherwise) and they often go without much notice (just because you see it so often).

This is definitely something you don't see every day...

You can read the full story here. The photos that I've included here were taken by photographer Noah Berger and ran with the story.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rethinking the Death Penalty

Consider this: your spouse or one of your children heads out of the house to run a quick errand – picking up a gallon of milk or gassing up the tank of the car. While there, a gang of kids approaches them in the parking lot and demands their wallet or purse. Your family member resists, and in the course of fighting off the robbers they are killed. There’s a trial and conviction, and because the killing occurred during the commission of a robbery, the potential sentence could be for the guilty to be put to death.

Fast forward to the sentencing hearing, and you are asked to speak – either in support of the death penalty or of life in prison.

What would you do?

For many years, I always thought that it would be an easy question for me should I (God forbid) find myself in that situation: execution. If someone is going to take the life of someone I love, then it’s only fair that there be retribution and that they pay with their life. I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve seen a news story or investigative report about a killer somewhere had their execution delayed time after time (and I get particularly angry when the killing involves a child) and gotten upset over the delayed justice.

In the past few days, however, everything I thought I knew about how I would react – and my support of the death penalty in general – has been turned on its end. After reading a review of Thomas Cahill’s newest book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, I decided to go out and pick up a copy, and without question it has made me rethink my entire position. Dominique was a young black man arrested, tried and convicted of a murder during a robbery and later sentenced to death. The conviction came about through a combination of ineffective legal representation, backroom deals between the prosecutors and other white defendants, and a flawed system of justice in Texas whereby a person doesn’t even have to be the triggerman to be sentenced to death.

Cahill makes the point that he’s not even sure whether Dominique was guilty or not of the murder, and Dominique - who always insinuated that someone else pulled the trigger – never named names. However, he does an outstanding job of outlining the horrific miscarriage of justice brought about by the Texas judicial system, and it is infuriating to read about court-appointed attorneys not pursuing leads, prosecutors taking the word of white defendants over that of a black man (with absolutely no evidence to back up their position), and countless other intentional “slips” and sidesteps that ultimately pushed Dominique to his death by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas in 1994.

In the midst of the book, there were several things in particular that really seized me and wouldn’t let go. One was a quote from Sheila Murphy, a retired judge who came into Dominique’s case towards the end and who made a valiant effort to save his life; she is speaking here about witnessing wives and girlfriends bringing their children to visits with their husbands and boyfriends on death row: “No place for children to play, no books, no coloring books. They just have to sit and wait while their mother talks on the phone to their father. They just look on with eyes so sad – such inhumanity to innocent children under color of law.”

Another point that clung to me was reading about Dominique’s horrible childhood: drug-addicted and abusive parents; a supportive grandmother who died while Dominique was still young; and ultimately fleeing the home with his younger brothers to protect them from the same beatings and burnings he had endured. He had to resort to selling drugs and stealing, but all the while doing so knowing that he couldn’t allow his brothers to travel the road on which he was moving.

There was an overwhelming level of support Dominique received from various individuals and groups, both here and in Europe. Cahill talks at great length about the amazing men and women involved with the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome who, after one member responded to a letter from Dominique published in an Italian newspaper, went out of their way to show him support and – most significantly – love. They developed a deep and genuine affection for him and were in many ways responsible for the transformation he underwent during his 11 years in prison.

I developed an even greater level of respect for Archbishop Tutu than I already have because of his involvement in this story; he took the time in the midst of a packed schedule in the United States to visit Dominique – to listen to his story, to laugh with him, to cry with him, to show (as with those in Sant’Egidio) him a love and compassion that he hadn’t experienced from his own family. Tutu became a champion of his cause and a source of inspiration for Dominique and for all his fellow prisoners on Texas’ death row. During a sermon following his visit with Dominique, he pointed out one of the great paradoxes about the United States: “You are a very generous people, Americans, and it is very difficult to square with your remarkable vindictiveness, which doesn’t square with your remarkable generosity.”

I was amazed by the transformation which Dominique underwent. Recognizing that he was receiving extremely substandard legal representation by his court-appointed team, he took it upon himself to read every aspect of the law and educate himself about every bit of his case. He read books to improve his mind and strengthen his spirit, and over the 11 years of his incarceration his writing and communications skills evolved from someone with little formal education to a young man of great intellect and articulateness.

But the most powerful take-away from this book (and to bring this entry full circle) was the power of forgiveness – the forgiveness that Dominique had for those who had wronged him, but most especially the forgiveness of the victim’s family towards Dominique. They forgave unconditionally, were strong advocates of a life sentence versus lethal injection, and because of their opposition to the sentence were not invited to witness the execution. One of the sons told reporters, “I felt it was dirty, and the state will have their chance to face a higher authority – that is, God…I mean, Andrew Lastrapes was my daddy in the first place, and I forgave Dominique. I know God has a place for Dominique in heaven. The person I met doesn’t deserve to die. He became close to me, and I pray that he goes to heaven.”

The book left me with quite a few questions. On the surface, how can this country – as advanced and moral as we claim to be – allow such an atrocious judicial system as that found in Texas to continue to exist? How can this country – as advanced and moral as we claim to be – be in such a rush to put people to death, the way Romans crucified without hesitation.

How can we do this – a nation as advanced and moral and, according to many, as Christian as we are?

There are questions on a deeper level as well. How is it that a family who has actually gone through the experience of losing a loved one at the hands of someone else can forgive so easily, and yet for much of my life I have felt there should be no forgiveness? Why is that I have tried live by much of what I learned from Christ in the New Testament, yet have such an Old Testament view of punishment? Is forgiveness learned, or is it just done?

Yes, this book left me with quite a few questions – questions that I’ll be struggling to answer for quite some time…

Sunday, April 19, 2009

First Date Follow-Up

Following up on my last post, I had several comments - both on the blog and off-list - stating that I had done a great job of teasing folks but hadn't done enough to fill out the story and remove the "cliffhanger" status. So, to respect the wishes of some of my friends and readers - and without going into so much detail as to make it boring - let me give you a bit more.

Twenty-five years ago, my family - after having attended one church for nearly two decades - decided to move to a church closer to our home. Being a lover of history and of all things old, I was immediately captivated by the fact that our new church was nearly 150 years old - a brick building with a beautiful sanctuary, huge windows, an extremely high ceiling, and one of those classic churchyards with the tall old oaks and faded stones that give off that wonderful, mysterious aura. The front was bordered by an elegant bring serpentine wall, and the view from the back of the church was of nothing but farms, fields, and a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I was also immediately captivated by a young lady in my Sunday school class - long, blonde hair, beautiful smile, intelligent, and funny. She was also three years older than me, which for a 14-year-old was exciting in itself (my father thought it was great, but to this day I'm convinced that my mother was not at all thrilled with the age difference). As interested as I was in her, I was very pleased to find that she was equally interested in me, and our first few Sunday conversations quickly led to numerous telephone calls, notes, and - as I mentiond in my last post - a first date. It was a wonderful evening, and to this day I vivdly remember much of everything that happened.

The first date went well enough that there were others - concerts, plays, walks through the woods. The whole time I never gave a second thought to the age difference, but I should have recognized that it was always the elephant in the room. As much as I was enjoying our time together, she (as I found out later) was becoming concerned about the elephant, and after a few months things did taper off and ultimately end.

For a 14-year-0ld, that sort of thing can be devastating, and it took me quite some time to get over things. With the hindsight of 25 years, however, I can see even more clearly just how wonderful things were, and how blessed I was to have that time - even with the age difference. In my mind, I have this idealized picture of how things had gone, an image to which I was more than happy to cling. Recently, I pulled out my journal from that time and - other than being able to clearly see how I really was a 14-year-old, no matter how much I thought or acted otherwise - was happy to see that much of the idealism was confirmed.

I haven't seen here in about 15 or 20 years, although I've kept tabs on her and know that she's happily married now and living in Europe. I would like to think that perhaps we'll see each other again one day, and I'll have the opportunity to introduce her to my wife and children and to meet her husband. Maybe there will even be a few laughs about the old days - about our church and our youth group, the friends and experiences - and perhaps even a chance for me to say "thanks" for some great memories that I've gladly carried with me for 25 years.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Special Day

Twenty-five years ago tonight, I went on my very first date. It was a special night indeed, and I still treasure the memory of every moment from that evening.

It seems hard to believe that it was already so very long ago...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Living an Effective Life

As I was perusing several of the blogs which I regularly visit, I ran across a great post at Jim Martin's A Place for the God-Hungry which is actually the first in a series on enjoying life and being more effective. In this installment we read about the first three on the list: taking time each day to nurture your center; surround yourself with encouragers; and choose your attitude.

Personally, this post could not have come at a better time as a result of some challenges I am facing right now, and I took away quite a bit from reading what Jim had to say. I wanted to share the link with you and encourage you to go over for a visit. I've been reading Jim's blog for quite a while and always find some interesting and thought-provoking material there. It will definitely be well worth your time, and I'm certainly looking forward to the continuation of this particular series.