Three Days


The days are long when you are on death row in Texas, especially for a crime that you didn’t commit. A younger version of Stevie Washington joined with some friends looking for fun on a Friday night in Houston. They decided to hold up a liquor store to get some cash and some booze and, in all the craziness, the liquor store clerk was shot and killed. Stevie didn’t even know that his friend, Julawn, had a gun with him. At trial, Julawn testified against Stevie to save his own hide and Stevie was convicted of murder while committing a felony and sentenced to death. That was 15 years ago. By now, all of Stevie’s legal appeals had run out and all that was left was for the presiding judge to set an execution date. Stevie knew that there would be some time before that happened because there were six men who were set to die before him.

Stevie’s thoughts broken by a guard who stopped in front of his cell, peered in and said, “There’s someone here to see you, Stevie. It’s Reverend Ned Turner again. Do you want to see him or not?”

Mama was up to her old tricks again. She had sent Pastor Ned over to see Stevie many times before, but each time Stevie had refused the visit. Stevie had no use for that religious stuff. He didn’t believe it, he didn’t want it and he couldn’t see how it was any use to him, especially now.

But the days were going by slowly and it had been a long time since Mama, his little brother Jimmy and his little sister, Clarise, had been around to visit him. So, more out of boredom than anything else, Stevie agreed to see Pastor Ned. After going through the long process required before you can receive a visitor in a super max prison, Stevie sat down in front of the glass partition separating him from a large man on the other side and picked up the phone on the desk in front of him. “It is great to see you, Stevie!” The warmth of Pastor Ned’s disembodied voice boomed through the telephone receiver.

“I thought that pastors weren’t supposed to lie,” Stevie sarcastically replied.

“I’m not lyin’,” Nat humbly responded. “I pray for you every day. I’ve been praying for years that you would let me visit you. And now it’s happening. It really is good to see you.”

“I don’t know why I let you come to visit me. I’m not buying what you are selling.” It was clear to Pastor Ned that Stevie had built a tall, thick wall around his wounded soul. It was going to take a lot of time, love and God’s Word to bring that wall down.

Ned responded gently. “I’m not here to sell you anything, Stevie. I’m just here to sit with you a while. Why don’t you tell me about your day?”

There was a lot of silence during the 2 hours that Ned and Stevie spent together. But at the end of that time, when Ned asked if he could come and visit again, Stevie said, “Sure.”

What followed was a series of regular visits. At first, they were just once a month, and then they switched to twice a month. Usually it was early on a Monday morning when Ned would jump in his Ford F-150 with a steaming mug of coffee in his hand and drive an hour north of Houston to West Livingston, where Stevie was held, along with all the other death row inmates in Texas, at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit.  Sometimes, Ned would read a passage from the Bible to Stevie. Sometimes he would pray for him. Mostly, he just listened. One time, he brought a copy of The Message Bible for Stevie. Ned gave it to a guard, who inspected it carefully and then gave it to Stevie. Stevie didn’t want to read it, but when you are by yourself in a 6 foot by 10 foot cell for 23 hours a day, you get bored. So he began to read. First, he read the Gospel of John, then the book of Acts, and then Romans. After that, he read it from cover to cover, and when he finished, he started over again.

Brick by brick, those walls started to come down. Stevie began asking Ned questions: questions about the Bible, questions about Jesus, questions about life. On the Monday after Palm Sunday, Ned noticed that Stevie looked especially sad. “There’s no point in you comin’ to visit me anymore.” Stevie said as soon as both of them had picked up their phones.

“Why’s that?” Ned asked.

“The judge set my execution date last week. It’s going to be on July 1.”

“Oh no!” The big man on the other side of the glass shuddered. Several moments of silence passed between the two men. “I’m so sorry.”

“Me too,” said Stevie. “Anyway, I really appreciate all that you have done for me, but you don’t need to come and visit me anymore.”

“Is it okay if I read you a passage from the Bible?” Ned asked.

“Sure,” Stevie glumly replied.

“This is from Luke, chapter 24, starting at verse 1.

1-3 At the crack of dawn on Sunday, the women came to the tomb carrying the burial spices they had prepared. They found the entrance stone rolled back from the tomb, so they walked in. But once inside, they couldn’t find the body of the Master Jesus.

4-8 They were puzzled, wondering what to make of this. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, two men, light cascading over them, stood there. The women were awestruck and bowed down in worship. The men said, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Then they remembered Jesus’ words.

9-11 They left the tomb and broke the news of all this to the Eleven and the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them kept telling these things to the apostles, but the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.

12 But Peter jumped to his feet and ran to the tomb. He stooped to look in and saw a few grave clothes, that’s all. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head. (Luke 24:1-12 The Message)

After a thoughtful silence, Stevie said, “That’s a cool story: Jesus rising from the dead. But what does it have to do with me? That happened a long time ago on the other side of the world. I’m in a cell in Livingston, Texas and in a little over 90 days they are going to stick a needle in my arm and kill me. I’m as good as dead already, Pastor Ned. How can Jesus rising from the dead help me?”

The big man drew a deep breath and leaned forward towards his friend. “You are living under a death sentence, Stevie. But so am I and so is every other human being who is alive on this planet right now. And Stevie, I can tell you that you are already more alive and more free than most of the people walking around on the streets of Houston these days. Can I tell you a story?”

“Sure,” came the reply from the other side of the glass.

“This story is about three days. The first day is Friday. On Friday, Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends. He was arrested by some people who hated him, he was beat up, and he was falsely accused of something that he didn’t do. He was whipped worse than anyone would whip any animal. And then he was nailed to a cross to suffer and die. And as he hung on that cross, all of your sins, Stevie, and all of my sins, and all the sins of everyone in this whole world were put on Jesus. He was completely innocent, but he willingly took the rap for the all the bad things that everyone has ever done. That includes all the sins that we have ever committed in the past, and all the sins we will ever commit in the future. All those sins were paid for in full by Jesus, and then he gave up his life and died. That’s Friday.

“The next day is Saturday. Jesus is dead and laying in a stone, cold tomb. His followers are heartbroken. They believed Jesus was the Messiah sent from God to save his people. But now Jesus is dead. This is the day of shattered dreams and broken hearts. And through it all, God is silent. That’s Saturday.

“The third day is Easter Sunday. This is the day that Jesus rose from the dead. This is the day that we celebrate with joy. This is the day that gives us hope. This is the day that promises us life even in the face of death. This is the day that assures us that God’s promises really are true and that we really are forgiven and that there really is no condemnation from God for us. Easter Sunday is the day that tells us that Jesus really loves us and accepts us and that we really are forever safe with him.

“So here’s the deal, Stevie. You have to decide what kind of person you are going to be. Are you going to be a Friday person, where you are driven by guilt and shame and you live just as if Jesus never died for your sins?

“Or are you going to be a Saturday person, where your heart is filled with fear and doubt and you live as if Jesus is still in the tomb?

“Or are you going to be an Easter Sunday person, where your soul is filled with joy and confidence and you live each day with your eyes focused on your risen Saviour?”

Ned was a little out of breath by the time he came to the end of his Gospel rant. And if he had not been listening carefully, he would have missed Stevie’s soft-spoken reply: “I want to be an Easter Sunday person.”

Stevie never forgot that conversation with Ned. Ned started coming every week and their conversations deepened. They began praying together.

The guards began to notice a change in the demeanour of Stevie Washington. He began to smile a lot, and that was not common among death row inmates. He was polite and respectful to the guards. He said “Thank you” when they brought him his food. He gave them words of encouragement when they took him to and from the exercise each day. He wished them a cheerful good night when they came to check on him before the lights went out for the evening.

Ninety-five days later, on July 1, Stevie was moved from his cell at Livingston to another at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. The first time that Ned was able to touch Stevie was on the last day of his life. They hugged and they prayed and they cried. Mama and Jimmie and Clarise were also there. Together they sang a couple of hymns. Stevie gave Ned a letter he wrote to the family of the clerk who was killed saying that he was sorry for all that he did. Ned led Stevie through a time of personal confession and forgiveness and then they all had Holy Communion together. About 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Mama, Clarise and Jimmy had to leave. But Ned stayed with Stevie and they talked and prayed some more. At about 6 pm, Ned walked with Stevie the last few steps that he would take on this earth. And then Stevie died. But he died an Easter Sunday person.

And so I ask you the same questions that Ned asked of Stevie. You see, you can be as free as a bird and still be in a prison of your own making. What kind of person are you going to be as you live and as you die?

Are you going to be a Friday person, where you are driven by guilt and shame and you live just as if Jesus never died for your sins?

“Or are you going to be a Saturday person, where your heart is filled with fear and doubt and you live as if Jesus is still in the tomb?

“Or are you going to be an Easter Sunday person, where your soul is filled with joy and confidence and you live each day with your eyes focused on your risen Saviour?”

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

 

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.)

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About James Paulgaard

Living in the in between, becoming, but not quite there yet, old and new mixed together, hanging on with all my might to the One who is holding onto me.
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