Friday, 29 July 2016

A scandalous grace

Walking towards her house at around 2am, Ashley Smith felt the gun barrel in her back. She was pushed inside the door, the gunman following. Thus began a seven-hour hostage ordeal.

Captive, a movie starring Daniel Oyelowo and Kate Mara, just been released on DVD tells the true story of those seven hours in Atlanta, USA in March 2005. It’s based on Ashley Smith’s account in her book Unlikely angel.

The gunman was Brian Nichols, who earlier that day had escaped from the Fulton County Courthouse, in the process murdering three people and seriously injuring a fourth. Later in the day he killed again while stealing a car.

We know how the story ends. What keeps us watching is the tentative relationship, growing through both words and silence, between two damaged people, both with Christian upbringings.

Nichols, charged with a rape of which he claims he is innocent, learns that his partner has given birth, and consumed by a desperate anger breaks free to see his child. Smith has been addicted to drugs since her schooldays. She watched as her volatile husband Mac was murdered in a street fight. She has since taken crystal meth regularly and has entrusted her daughter to an aunt’s care. She wants to get her life together, but she can’t break free.

She has a copy of a Christian book, The Purpose Driven Life, and during her hours with Nichols she reads sentences from it to her captor. In her own book, she tells us that she had a powerful sense that God was in the situation and saying, perhaps to her as well as to Brian Nichols ‘Choose life or death. Which is it?’

Life has a purpose, she reads. ‘If you want to know why you were placed on this planet you must begin with God.’ ‘That’s a bunch of church crap,’ Nichols says. But later he listens in silence as she continues: ‘We were made to have meaning. The Bible says “well-formed love banishes fear.”’

Through such words she had what she calls in her book a ‘spiritual awakening’. She found  hope that change was possible, and the resolve to live differently. And both the words she read and her own words seem to have spoken to the gunman too, stirring hope in him, prompting him to give himself up rather than dying in a shoot-out.

That day, both gunman and hostage encountered God’s grace. At the start of the movie we see a verse from the Bible. ‘Where sin abounded grace did much more abound.’

I have some disquiet about Captive. It’s too much like a promotional film for one particular book. And though it is dedicated to those who died or were injured in the shootings, there is no reference to the pain of the bereaved and the traumatised survivor. It would have been a much more balanced and substantial film had it portrayed their stories, their anguish, and looked for signs of God’s presence with them in their suffering.

And many of us may have a deep-down disquiet that a man guilty of such heinous offences should be blessed by God, brought by those very crimes to the place of blessing. But isn’t this the radical message of grace – that no-one is excluded, that nothing can put us out-with the reach of God’s forgiveness. ‘It’s not fair, this indiscriminate grace,’ we complain. ‘It’s scandalous!’ Yet this grace is at work, making the world new. For all of us, grace abounds.

God is indiscriminate in how he reveals that grace to us. In Captive God speaks through the pages of an evangelical best-seller. But God speaks to each of us where we are whatever our religion, whatever our beliefs. God reaches out to us in our brokenness, our search for love and freedom and meaning, our pride, prompting us to choose the way of goodness and truth which Jesus taught and embodied.

The actor who played Brian Nichols is a Christian. As a young man Daniel Oyelowo prayed ‘Lord, if you don’t become real for me, I’m out.’ Three months later, he had no more doubts. ‘Oh, OK,’ he said to God. ‘Here I am.’ May we too not dismiss the whispers of God’s grace as coincidences or maverick thoughts.

Ashley Smith called her book Unlikely angel. God, she felt, had used her in her brokenness to reach out to Nichols. I believe God uses each of us, no matter how messed up we are. As the Spirit of Jesus prompts us, we express his grace to others in word and action, and in so doing find healing ourselves.

This week, we may be surprised to find ourselves ‘unlikely angels’, and to hear God speaking to us through the unlikely angels who surround us.

(Christian Viewpoint from the Highland News dated 25th February 2016)

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