In 1990, the country-western singer Garth Brooks had a hit song titled “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places.” It’s the story of a young man whose girlfriend has dumped him to marry an older and wealthier man. The young man shows up at her wedding, but he doesn’t have the right clothes or behaviour and so he stomps off in anger to join his hard-living friends, telling her, “I’ve got friends in low places, where the whiskey flows and the beer chases the blues away ….” Raucous words, but set to a powerful melody.
I’ve sometimes thought that with a slight change these words could apply to God-in-Christ: “He’s got friends in low places.” Perhaps even, “He’s got friends in low places, where the mercy flows and the free grace is for you and me ….” How do we learn mercy? Some people learn mercy by taking the plunge and doing it.
Such was the case with Sister Helen Prejean. Her story is told in the book Dead Man Walking, which was made into an excellent film. Sister Helen hears one day of a correspondence program with prisoners on death row. She decides to participate and begins writing, even though she’s been told not to expect to hear anything in return. Much to her surprise, though, one of the prisoners does respond and catches her completely off guard by asking her to be his spiritual guide. Apparently his execution date was fast approaching, and he wanted some representative of God to be there for support over the next several weeks.
Sister Helen hesitates. It is one thing to do charity long distance. It is quite another thing to do mercy face to face with a convicted murderer. Gary had been sentenced to death by lethal injection for participating in the brutal rape of a young woman and the subsequent murder of both her and her fiancé. Sister Helen recoils at the very thought of meeting this rapist and murderer, let alone ministering to him. But a voice deep inside of her tells her she must go. So she does.
The first several meetings are difficult. Gary comes across a whole lot more cocky and arrogant in person than he did in his letters. He refuses to admit his guilt and insists that he is the innocent victim of a corrupt legal system.
To make matters worse, Sister Helen is despised and publicly vilified by the victims’ parents for even spending time with Gary. How could she, a deeply religious nun, befriend this cold-blooded murderer! They are horrified and let her know that every time they see her.
And yet, despite these difficult barriers, Sister Helen risks her name, her reputation, her own safety, to reach across them and embrace Gary with the love of God. And the more she perseveres in loving him, the more his defences begin to crumble. Finally on the night before his execution, Gary confesses to his crime and asks for God’s forgiveness. In a flood of tears, he thanks Sister Helen for all her love and support. He then tries to send her home, insisting that her work with him is done and that he is now ready to meet his Maker.
“No, that’s okay,” she responds. “I’ll stay through the execution.”
“But why?” Gary wants to know. “I’m only getting what I deserve.”
“Because,” she replies, “the last face I want you to see before you die is not one of hatred and vengeance, but one of love and mercy.”
The next morning, Gary is strapped into place while Sister Helen and the victims’ parents watch through the window of an adjacent room. Within a matter of minutes, the last lethal dose is injected and Gary is pronounced dead. Most of the by-standers breathe a sigh of relief. Some even begin to applaud. But Sister Helen alone stands there with arms reaching out to Gary and a look of pure mercy on her face.
Most of us, like Sister Helen Prejean, learn mercy by just doing it to those who least deserve it to those who are unclean, who are despised and rejected by society.
As did Jesus Christ all those centuries ago. He called to discipleship a detested tax collector, loathed by the society in which he lived and worked.
And when the unco guid of his day criticised Christ’s apparently bizarre action of going to Matthew’s home for a meal with him, and other tax-collectors and so called ‘sinners’, Jesus replied with these words: (as we find them in our Good News Bibles)
“I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts”
Not the righteous but the sinners
What all-embracing mercy! What an amazing grace! ………
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
was blind but now I see.