February 23, 2014 Sexagesima
He Once Was Lost
Isaiah 50:4-10, Psalm 71, 2 Corinthians 11:19-31, St. Luke 8:14-15
Gov. George W. Bush stood in the middle of a prison yard, in the midst of a throng of men wearing the dingy white pajamas he had provided them as guests of the state. They could not have been too grateful for their wardrobe but they were excited nonetheless. It’s not every day that the governor pays a call at the big house.
So it was a festive scene. Gov. Bush had come to celebrate a special occasion. The prison band was playing, everyone was singing. The band segued from a spirited tune to a more measured cadence: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me . . .”
Feeling the love, the governor looped his arm around the shoulder of the nearest dude in white pajamas, a short black man who didn’t look too menacing, as convicts go. And thereon hangs a tale.
Bush had arrived at the Jester II Unit, one of a complex of four prisons that hunker on the coastal plain in the sprawl south of Houston, to put his stamp on the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a just-launched pre-release program. It came about this way:
Chuck Colson. Pres. Nixon’s lawyer, took a fall for his role in the Watergate scandal and did federal time. Up the river, he came to saving faith – and resolved to do his utmost, upon his release, to lead others still behind bars into the loving embrace of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Colson launched a ministry and branded it “Prison Fellowship.” Before long, he heard of a unique Christian program in a prison in Brazil. The inmates literally ran the joint. Some of the most responsible prisoners acted as a council that meted out privileges for the newer members, who earned, over time, weekend furloughs to spend with their families and then weekday furloughs to work on the outside.
The goal was to provide them a step-by-step transition back into the world. The gate was not locked. And no one ran.
Colson flew down for a look and fell in love with this model and set out to replicate it in the U. S. But state after state turned him down: too risky on separation of church and state grounds. Now, in Texas death row has a population greater than numerous towns. No one has ever accused the state of operating country club prisons. If I were a criminal, I would take my mayhem to a more inmate-friendly environment.
But Colson was just about out of options. Besides, Texas did have this governor who had never been in prison but had been captive to alcohol and no made no bones about Who saved him. Colson picked up the phone. And George Bush said, “Sure.”
So it was that Bush came to stand in the yard at Jester II on an impossibly bright afternoon surrounded by white-clad men and whitewashed buildings and to throw his arm around that inmate’s shoulders as they belted out John Newton’s classic hymn. And so it was that, the next morning, there they were on page one of the Houston Chronicle, over a caption that read, “Gov. Bush sings ‘Amazing Grace’ with convicted murderer Robert Sutten.”
And so it was, in a roundabout way, that I came to meet the most fascinating individual I have ever encountered. In a way that at first seems little short of bizarre, Robert Sutten reminds me of a certain apostle.
Today we find St. Paul at it again. He is reliving his past, as he seems never to tire of doing in his letters to the churches. In particular, he seems so intent on defending his status that we’re tempted to say, “Methinks the apostle doth protest too much.”
We have no doubts as to the authenticity of his apostleship, yet he insists on convincing us in Galatians, in 1 and 2 Timothy, in Titus, in 1 Corinthians and now in 2 Corinthians. Get over it.
But of course, none of the churches addressed read all of his letters. Probably none of them read more than a couple. And the more telling point is that he had good reason to insist on his authority: He always tied apostleship to the gospel.
Precisely because he is an apostle, his readers must take with utter seriousness the gospel he preaches. Already in the middle of the first century, Christians are according weight to an apostle’s words, while the words of others blow away on the wind like so much chaff.
“As we have said before, so now I say again,” Paul writes to the Galatians, “if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” For “accursed,” feel free to substitute “damned to hell.”
Lives are at stake. Receive the authentic gospel and be saved; believe a false gospel and be damned.
There’s more going on in Paul’s biography than his right to be heard, but in our contest neither is this matter of authority a thing to be skimmed over. The great apostle models for us a godly approach to power.
Never does he wield it to abuse others or to advance his own interests or to exalt himself. On the other hand, never does he shrink from exercising it When the good of the churches and the advancement of God’s kingdom require it, Paul comes down like a sledgehammer.
In every time, abuse of authority is a real danger – in our time no less than others. But in our time, waste of authority may be a peril as great for the health of the church.
In our time, relativism demands that no one deem his values more worthy than those of others. Tolerance demands that each of us show respect for the ideas of others, no matter how deluded. Egalitarianism demands that we refrain from asserting ourselves – in many cases I’ve observed even when our position of leadership requires it.
If leaders will not lead, the ship will run around. Some will perish and any survivors will be scattered. The apostle acknowledged a double-barreled danger in those shipwrecks he endured. When one traveled as a prisoner, as he sometimes did, he packed the knowledge that the Roman soldiers guarding him were under orders to execute any captive who might flee from a capsized vessel. It was the prisoner’s fondest hope that the captain act like a captain.
If St. Paul appeared among us today, I think he’d ask us what gospel we’ve been reading – the one Christ lived out and his apostle preached or the one our secular culture would foist off on us.
Yet while Paul had no misgivings about asserting his authority, he was at the same time the most humble of men -- “chief among sinners,” as he wrote to one of the bishops he appointed, Timothy. In his ministry, his biography proved more valuable than silver or gold.
Time and again we find him ratting himself out. In some of these cases, he spills out the indignities he has suffered for his advocacy for the gospel. Today we see him admonishing the Corinthians for heeding the doctrine of “false apostles, deceitful teachers,” whom he now names as “fools.”
The Corinthians give ear to these fools, he says, spreading on the irony as thick as German chocolate frosting, because “you yourselves are wise.” He continues in a mocking tone, comparing his ministry to those claimed by the deceivers.
He catalogues their abuses of the Corinthians, even including robbing from them and striking them in the face, and then adds, “To our shame, I say we were too weak for that.”
What they learn, we must hope – what we learn, we must hope – is that his strength, like his Lord’s, rose not from arrogance and abuse but from humility and gentleness. Was he bold? Yes, he was bold – but for their sake, not his own.
We catch an echo here, too, of that other narrative Paul uses to such effect, the one from his more distant past. “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.”
This is the same Paul born Saul, that Pharisee of the Pharisees who sought out Christians breathing bondage and death upon them like the fire of a blood-crazed dragon. For neither will he conceal this long and sordid chapter in his biography. Oh, hardly that; he puts it to good use.
And this is how he reminds me of that other prisoner, Robert Sutten. Robert was a common criminal – on an uncommon scale. I met him a few years after Gov. Bush did, following his release from prison. We spent hours discussing his past.
Robert went to prison that fifth and last time for killing his common-law wife. Some of the inmates from his old Houston ghetto who came to that prison after Robert went home remembered her well. “Yeah, Francine,” one told me, “good-lookin’ high-yella gal from N’awlins.”
She and Robert were drugging and watching football on TV one night when he pulled a revolver from under the bed, “jes’ playin,’” he said. He emptied it of bullets except for one chamber, spun the cylinder and pointed it at her head. She was screaming at him, but that just made his game more fun.
A man with a record like Robert’s finds no point in quibbling over trifling matters like intent. For some reason he didn’t know, the prosecutor sought neither the death penalty nor a habitual-offender enhancement that would have put him away for life.
Sometimes, we drove around that ghetto he called home and he’d point out a street corner where he sold dope or the vacant lot that had held the motel where he kept the girls who worked for him. He told me about how, barely into his teens, he had taught himself to conceal a shotgun broken down into two pieces in his oversized boots under bell-bottom pants.
He could walk in on a crap game, whip out those parts, assemble the gun and clean the room of cash before the crap shooters could pull their pistols.
One day, I asked him how many people he had killed and he said he didn’t know. I asked for an estimate and he said he had no idea at all. He told his stories in a matter-of-fact tone, much as we would spin stories out of our past, with no trace of pride or sadness. It was just his life.
The only time I thought I picked up a sorrowful note came when I asked about his mother. Robert had another name, George Mason. It had come in handy as an occasional alias but that’s not how it started.
Robert had a number of brothers and sisters by a number of fathers. His mother tried to name him after his father, but she wasn’t entirely sure. “My mother,” Robert said, “liked to drink and she liked to go with men. My mother was what you call a loose woman.”
By the time I met him, Robert had made his first of two trips to the White House.Gov. Bush had become Pres. Bush. He remained pleased with the exceptional results the program he had allowed Chuck Colson to plant in a Texas prison was getting.
He invited Colson to bring some success stories to Washington to advertise those results, and Robert had become the prize show pony of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. He stayed in plush rooms at high-dollar resorts where Colson and his team hosted high-rollers to hear stories of redemption and to write large checks.
When he returned from the White House the second time, Robert told me he made his way unnoticed through a crowded room, slipped up behind Mr. Bush and planted a big wet one on the presidential cheek. He showed me a letter he had received embossed with the presidential seal; Mr. Bush wanted him to know how proud he was of the man with whom he had sung the praises of God’s amazing grace.
But Robert rarely showed any more emotion when discussing his weekends with wealthy donors or even his White House visits. He had received God’s grace, and nothing could compare with that.
Not too long after his release, he married a woman he had “been with” before Francine. By this time she was a faithful church-goer. He joined her at Greater Mt Zion Missionary Baptist Church, right smack in that old ghetto on which he had visited so much death and suffering.
They lived right around the corner, and before long he was walking to work. The church hired him to work during the week as custodian and on Sundays to drive the van and bring the old folks to the service.
In a little more time he was a deacon, up front with the others in a black suit and white gloves serving communion.
When I heard he had died, I caught myself wondering about something. I had not framed the question when he was alive but now I wanted to know why – why he had always been so forthcoming about his sordid history. Most men would have hidden it in shame but Robert never shied from telling the stories.
At Robert’s funeral, I asked Bernard Veal. Bernard was from Chicago, a college-educated man who had made his way to Dallas, run afoul first of cocaine and then of the law, and landed in prison with Robert. They remained close friends after their release.
Bernard confirmed my suspicion. Robert refused to downplay the sinfulness of his old man because to do so would be to diminish the power of God to create a new man. Like St. Paul, he understood that a sordid past is a terrible thing to waste. He could put it to good use for the kingdom.
He could tell anyone who would listen that God had “saved a wretch like me.” And when Robert spoke, as when St. Paul spoke, no one could turn a deaf ear. Maybe the comparison isn’t so far-fetched after all. Amen.