Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Grace...Saving Sinners (Me)

My friend George Lawson recently went to minister for 3 days at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola). He recently posted about his time at the prison on the BCLR Blog. I would encourage each of you to visit the blog and watch the 25 minute video when you get the opportunity. Just another amazing display of God's grace to sinners like you and me. There is also a book titled Cain's Redemption which tells the story of the transformation taking place at this prison. Here is the excerpt George posted from the book:

Taken from the chapter "Saving Antonio" in Cain's Redemption

“He didn’t have much time. In just a few days, Antonio James, sentenced to death for killing a man in a New Orleans robbery, would leave his “home” for a final journey. Guards would transport him to a holding cell in Camp F, some distance from the Death Row complex and on the other side of the broad expanse that is Angola.

The teenager, Marshall Cain, had asked his dad, Burl, the warden of Angola who would preside over James’s execution, if he could take a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies to the condemned inmate, now less than a week from his appointment with death. The father, who had come to deeply appreciate how James made the most of his days on Death Row, readily agreed.

There, on top of the chest, was a worn and much-underlined Bible, Antonio James’s most precious possession. The inmate kept it open so he could immediately turn to one of his favorite passages.

“Here,” Marshall Cain said as he inserted the paper plate filled with cookies through the narrow slit between the cell bars. James took the plate, sniffed the cookies approvingly, and sampled one. In a moment he turned his attention to the youth.

“Thanks,” the inmate said, “that was kind of you. They’re my favorites.”

Marshall nodded somewhat self-consciously, then asked a question that clearly reflected both his disbelief and dismay. “Antonio, I have to ask you something. You are a Christian. You care about others; you teach the other inmates to read and you do Bible studies. Why are you here on Death Row? Now my dad has to execute you—why?

James did not answer for a moment. Then he began to talk about his abusive upbringing, about a father who liked to hurt and belittle him, about escaping by sleeping under the house with his dog keeping him warm. He talked about running away to New Orleans when he was twelve. He and his friends formed a small gang that would rob tourists at gunpoint in the French Quarter. Most of the time, the victims did not resist, except one. Antonio shot him, and he died. “That’s why I’m here,” the condemned man said.

“I didn’t mean to kill that man,” James insisted, as he had throughout his years on Death Row. “But it happened, and I take responsibility for that.”

As the date of his death drew near, Antonio asked the warden lots of questions. “How is it when you die? What happens to your soul, and how does it really work?” Cain listened, taking the man’s question seriously. He quoted Jesus’ words to the chief hanging next to Him on the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

He also told Antonio what Billy Graham, in his book Angels, says about those celestial beings and how they escort the redeemed soul to heaven. Antonio asked Cain if he would hold his hand when the time came, so he would be connected to this earth while he reached into heaven with the other hand. Cain promised he would.

Burl Cain had done his best to prepare Antonio James for death. The two men had spoken often about the events soon to unfold, most recently just that day. The warden had explained what would happen when he would arrive to escort the inmate from his holding cell to the death chamber. He spared no detail, believing James would be helped by knowing exactly how things would play out.

The inmate listened intently, taking everything in without interrupting, almost as though the procedure were meant to help, not put him to death. The calm expression on Antonio’s face did not change as Cain explained what was going to happen.

“Any more questions?” the warden asked Antonio shook his head. “Let’s pray together, then,” said Cain. “I’d appreciate that very much,” Antonio said. The warden reached out and grasped the inmate’s hand as he whispered: “Dear God, You’re about to welcome Antonio into Your kingdom. Help him to keep his focus entirely on You during the coming hours. Help him to realize that he is about to come into the presence of Jesus. And Father, we just pray for the victim’s family, that You’ll be with them and comfort them…”

The efficient strap-down team did their work in ninety seconds, securing leather straps around the prisoner’s ankles, thighs, abdomen, chest, and shoulders. Then the executioner began searching for a vein in his right arm into which he could insert the needle.

“Antonio was so calm, his pulse so low, that we couldn’t locate a suitable vein even when he made a fist,” Cain said later. “He apologized for making things difficult. The EMT slapped his arm to see if he could raise a vein. That didn’t work, so finally we inserted the needle into his leg,”

Now, with every step of the procedure accomplished, the warden signaled for the curtain to open so the witnesses could observe the actual execution. Cain took hold of Antonio’s hand and stared into his eyes. Then he said, “Antonio, the chariot is here; get ready for the ride. Here we go; you are about to see Jesus.”

The process, irrevocable began. In a moment, the first drug began to enter Antonio James. The inmate breathed two deep breaths, relaxed his grip on Burl Cain’s hand, and closed his eyes for the last time. The lawyers had tears in their eyes.

Grace upon grace,

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