Posts Tagged ‘Prayer’

“Good evening. The first clue anyone had was the woman at the bank; she came to the window to withdraw $15,000. Then in a calm manner, she told the teller that men were holding her family hostage in their nice suburban home. Tonight, a Connecticut jury has done something very rare. They’ve handed out the death penalty for one of two men charged in one of the worst home invasions in memory. That woman at the bank was later murdered back at her home. So were her two daughters. Only her husband lived after a savage beating.”

– Opening lines from November 8, 2010 broadcast of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in a segment titled “Killer at Peace with Death Penalty Verdict, Says DA”

The 2007 Cheshire home invasion Brian Williams spoke of involved the brutal torture, rape and killing of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Petit (17) and Michaela Petit (11) by two men, including Steven Hayes who was sentenced to die this week. The crime and the resulting criminal court proceedings have received a fair amount of national news coverage as demonstrated above and have been especially heavily reported on here in Connecticut as the tragedy occurred in our own backyard. The crimes were committed approximately eight miles from where I and my family live, but the case hit even closer to home on Monday morning.

I work in an unpredictable field and can honestly say that three and a half years in, I have not had two identical days on the job. But some days journey beyond unpredictable into the unbelievable and November 8, 2010 was that kind of day. Through a series of highly improbable circumstances, I found myself in the cell block of the New Haven District Courthouse Monday morning with the same Steven Hayes that would later headline the evening’s national news.

I had been escorted into the holding cell area by an attorney and was told I would have to wait to complete my affairs, when I looked up and locked eyes for a brief moment with an inmate that seemed strangely familiar. The man was pacing in a holding room less than ten feet from me and I nodded in his direction as an acknowledgment of his presence and a sign of basic male respect. He faintly narrowed his eyes in receipt of my gesture, but his response was not one of contempt as much as it seemed to be one of bewilderment. As if he had not received so much as a non-threatening glance in some time.

I knew from entering the Court earlier in the day and walking past a dozen local and national news trucks that a jury was deliberating this day on whether Steven Hayes’ October 2010 conviction of six counts of capital felony charges warranted execution. I also knew from a previous visit to this same Court holding cell area, which room was designated for holding Mr. Hayes when he was not present in the Court room and this man was occupying that room. Instinctively, I knew it was Hayes, but could not be certain as the appearance of the man before me did not exactly match the mug shot of the completely bald and overweight criminal that has been so widely circulated in the press. The man before me had unkempt dark hair growing from the sides of his head and appeared much thinner and unhealthy than the photo of Hayes we have all seen in these parts. I wanted to ask one of the correctional officers if this was indeed the notorious Hayes, but thought better of it as the door to the unidentified inmate’s door was open and I was easily within earshot of the man.

While waiting for further instruction from the Correctional Officers about how to proceed with my own task, I found myself convinced the crazed man nervously pacing back and forth in the tiny room must be the convicted killer. He had a bestial quality about him; specifically striking were his cold and beady eyes that seemed to dart between the area’s inhabitants and yet simultaneously presented as distantly focused on heavy and sorrowful thoughts far from his current material reality. I felt pity for the man as it was apparent his spirit was not well.

My own thoughts drifted briefly and I thought of our new friend Robbie James of the Higher Point Christ Fellowship in the Northeast Denver area. Robbie was present at the Mission Alive Theology Lab last month and is the type of guy that you decide you like before you even get a chance to speak with him. My intuition was confirmed when shortly after his arrival, Robbie asked if he could borrow a copy of The Message from our table and I granted him permission but noted it was a only a copy of the New Testament. Robbie just smiled and replied, “That’s okay. I like the New Testament. It’s in my top two Testaments.” Robbie then went on to share that practicing the presence of the Mission of God begins by consistently being in an intimate relationship with the Father and being attuned and attentive to the Holy Spirit. Robbie said that practically he asks as he comes into each place, “Father, what are you already doing here?” Followed by the question, “Father, what have you authorized me to do here?”

I asked God what he was doing here and became distinctly aware that as I could not explain how or why my life path was crossing with the path of Steven Hayes at this moment, that perhaps God had ordered my steps in this direction on this day for a reason. In asking what I was authorized to do, I felt compelled to pray peace into this man’s life and found myself attempting to literally breathe the Spirit in His direction. I prayed that whatever he was being haunted by in the moment, that he might be able to experience a wave of peace, a release from the grip of anxiety as he awaited his fate. I wanted to speak to him, or perhaps to even physically touch him, but thought either of those actions were sure to get me kicked out of the Courthouse.

It was then that a Correctional Officer invited me to sit and pointed to a chair just outside the door of the inmate’s room. I suppose I should have felt fear, but instead readily accepted my seat and continued my prayer. The atmosphere reminded me of the film Dead Man Walking and of my interaction in 2002 with Sister Helen Prejean, the nun on whom the story is based, which forevermore changed my thoughts on capital punishment.

The Correctional Officer sat across from me looking directly at the prisoner and confirmed that the inmate was indeed Steven Hayes. I now fully realized that only a wall separated me from the killer, as he paced less than a yard away at times. I could see his reflection in a glass pane across from me and found myself studying him. Despite the awful atrocities that the man has committed, he appeared to be consumed with despair and perhaps remorse and I found myself wanting him to find forgiveness. Yet, feet from the man, I asked myself, would I die for him? Would I trade places with him if it meant saving him?

I thought of my beautiful family. Of Shepard, who at fifteen months gives Howard Dean-like squeals of delight when he sees a cookie or ice cream cone and wants to follow me wherever I go, including to work each morning. Of Clara, who proudly reported to strangers last weekend while visiting a children’s museum that “me and my dad, we’re two peas in a pod.” Of my strong and amazingly beautiful wife Jaime, who is my anchor and motivates me daily by the way she picks up her cross and yet still shares her contagious joy by laughing so genuinely that she inspires everyone to laugh along with her. Of our unborn child, whose own blessings we are just beginning to experience through fervent kicks from the womb. And quickly and resoundingly I knew that I would not die for this man Steven Hayes. Yet, the mind blowing truth is Christ did.

I was again struck by the amazing grace of our Lord and Savior. I was so dumbfounded for a moment that I barely registered the presence of four Correctional Officers who congregated to escort Hayes back to Court. Eventually another man, sharply dressed, referred to later by a Correctional Officer as the “Boss” entered the room. His pointed confidence was only briefly deterred when he questioned who I was, rightfully questioning the presence of the only non-officer to share this moment. A moment that I realized shortly thereafter, was the last moment Hayes had before learning that he would be executed by the State of Connecticut. Hayes walked inches in front of me as he was taken back into the Court to face his sentence and Dr. Petit, the man whose family he killed.

The experience of being in one’s presence while their fate is being decided by others, and knowing you are free to leave, is extremely powerful and humbling. And thus, in a strange way, I felt grateful to have been there. I could not however escape the weight of the encounter which affected the remainder of my day. Especially so, as I considered the fact that perhaps I had just participated in some level in a very real spiritual battle and hoped that I had acted as an acceptable proxy for the Kingdom of God. Therefore, I found solace in news that perhaps others found disturbing when I learned later that Hayes had reported after the sentencing that he felt “at peace” with the death penalty decision.

While listening to Morning Edition on NPR on Monday morning, I heard the following during a segment on technology:

Mr. Smith: Seniors, for instance, are the fastest growing group in terms of their use of social networking sites. And we also found, in this study, that six in 10 seniors own a cell phone.

Steve Inskeep: Okay, the study says that the typical American under the age of 45 owns four gadgets – things like smart phones, mp3 players, and e-book readers like the iPad or the Kindle. Smith says these new media gadgets are continuing to change the way Americans live.

Mr. Smith: You’ve got a few minutes free, you can text your friends, you can call someone, you can play a game on your cell phone, you can listen to music on your iPod. So, you know, the times where you were just, you know, sitting at a table, you know, kind of doing nothing or just contemplating the world, I think are becoming fewer and further between as more of these technologies permeate our daily lives.

Renee Montagne: No more contemplating.

Ms. Montagne continued to speak after stating “No more contemplating,” but I found the statement so shocking, I didn’t really hear the rest of the segment. In part, the shock was caused by the recent time spent dwelling on contemplation as a necessary component of spirituality while Jaime at I were at Mission Alive’s Theology Lab in Dallas last week.

As a Christian living in a western culture, there is quite a lot to learn from Jesus’ commitment to a contemplative life. Scripture appears to indicate that Jesus’ time spent alone in prayer was not only a large component of His life, but that it was necessary to His success and enabled His incredible service and attentiveness to God’s will. I think many of us admire Jesus’ commitment to contemplation in the Gospels, but rarely give thought to the work and discipline such a life requires. We especially seem to give little regard to the connection that Jesus’ prayer life appears to have with fasting and meditative breathing. But in the land of the obese and gadget-obsessed, we have no discipline or time for such a lifestyle. And then we wonder why we are so unhappy.

It doesn’t figure to get better any time soon. I saw a 12 year old almost crash his bike the other day while trying to ride and talk on a cell phone. No joke. Soon there will arise a generation in our country who will never have known a world without the internet, Google, instant answers and social networking. As NPR noted, now even our seniors are getting in on the loss of contemplative time. While I do not believe technology to be intrinsically good or bad, it appears that in the face of increasing technology we may be facing a continuing loss of our humanity.

Tod Vogt of Mission Alive shared this excerpt of a T.S. Eliot work with us during the Theology Lab that I believe illustrates the point:

“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All of our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us closer to death,
But nearness to death, no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

Eliot wrote this in 1934. Imagine what he might have written after witnessing the 21st century.

As Tod pointed out, contemplation is not everything. For without action “(contemplation) can degenerate into mere escapism,” but without contemplation action is reduced to a “frenetic attempt to impose one’s will on others or the world.” I believe there is a strong case to be made that our cultural pendulum is approaching its extreme in favor of action and that this mode of operating is unsustainable.

As entropy in our relationships and social structures progresses through continuing technological innovation, I pray God will use His church to show us back toward a contemplative life and ultimately toward Himself. For as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of the New Monastic movement writes, “Contemplation is not about a “quiet time” when we can feel safe with God. In contemplation we learn to trust God precisely because we need him.”

Wilson-Hartgrove in his chapter of Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism goes on to say, “Contemplation is the flame through which our own souls find liberation.” In the face of our greatest trials and doubts, Jonathan notes that it is the through a life of contemplation that “we can trust God. We can believe that the darkest darkness may indeed be a light so bright that it is blinding our weak eyes. We can believe that beyond death there is resurrection.” Amen.

No more contemplating? No thank you. Let’s turn off our gadgets for a while and practice being silent so God can speak into our lives. Let’s give Him an opportunity to rescue us from ourselves.