There’s the story of a young man on death row in the USA. Even his mother, ashamed and disgusted at his crimes (rape and murder), had given up on him. He was described as perverted, twisted and even rejected by his own mother. His name was Jimmy Lee Davis and he was sentenced to death, imprisoned on death row.
A young Christian in Melbourne read his story in a newspaper and for some reason was moved with compassion for the young man, a man no-one else thought anything of. He felt deeply that God loved even this despised and despicable young man – that no-one, even this cold and perverted criminal, was beyond God’s capacity to love. The young Melbourne man believed that if only Jimmy could experience and know God’s love as it had come to him; if only he could know the depth and beauty of God’s love, he would change. He wrote a letter to Jimmy in his prison and told him in his simple way that Jesus loved him and that had made all the difference in his own life.
The young man was amazed that within a couple of weeks he received a reply. It said: ‘It’s the most wonderful letter I’ve ever received in my life. I do wish that I could know Jesus in my own life like you do. I’ve made such a mess of it. You have given me hope.’
The young man from Melbourne got yhe idea into his head that he had to go to America, that God was in this and he needed to go. He was determined to go and meet Jimmy and share God’s love with him. He prayed about it and talked to some friends. Before long all sorts of donations were coming in from different places and he soon had the fare to America.
He landed in Jackson, Mississippi, knowing no-one, hoping to get into death row and meet with Jimmy Lee Davis. A whole series of events unfolded that led to him receiving permission to enter death row, twice a week for four hours a visit, for couple of months. He took his guitar with him. He sat in that cell in death row with Jimmy. They talked, he sang Christian songs, they cracked jokes, they laughed and came to behave like brothers.
Jimmy grew into his awareness of God and became committed to Christian faith and the way of Jesus. Over a couple of months the two men had deep fellowship as close friends and brothers in Christian faith. The last visit was Jimmy’s baptism. A Christian magazine carried a picture of Jimmy and the prison chaplain coming out of the small pool dripping wet. The young man’s visa had expired and he had to leave. They hugged each other and said their goodbyes.
He returned to Melbourne and for two years Jimmy awaited his fate. In the meantime they wrote letters to each other. Jimmy was growing deeper in faith – there had been a remarkable transformation in his life. He was truly a new person. In one of his letters he said: ‘There is one thing I’m not going to do. I’m not going to dishonour the gospel of God by using my conversion to escape the death penalty.’
One day a phone call came through to Melbourne and the young man’s wife received the call. She rang him at work and asked to come home at once because Jimmy had permission to call from his prison cell – he’s being executed tonight.
He tore home from work and got through to the prison in America two hours before Jimmy was due in the gas chamber. He said he just broke down and cried on the phone. However Jimmy, on the other end of the line, said, ‘I love you man. Thank you for all you’ve done for me. I’ve got to go now. Goodbye. Be seeing you.’ And Jimmy hung up.
Second chances – sometimes third, fourth, fifth… – can make a difference. How many of us haven’t had second chances in various parts of life. We make a mistake and are forgiven to start again. We miss the mark, fail the friendship, let someone down, lose the plot and a second chance, along with forgiveness allows us to start again.
In this story, Jimmy really didn’t deserve a second chance for his hideous crimes of murder and rape. He deserved justice and that is what he received. He also had a second chance, a chance to turn everything around and embrace another way of being. He was given a chance to become more deeply, lovingly human, perhaps for the first time in many years. His conversion was grounded in a significant transformation, one Christian faith calls repentance. This is a complete change in mind, heart, spirit and being. It is a complete transformation of our lives and the direction of our life.
Jimmy experienced unconditional love from a young Christian from Melbourne. He encountered the love of God through this man and it changed him. As God’s love broke into his being and melted his hardness and evil, he was slowly changed. It was a second chance. He still submitted to and faced the legal requirements of the state for his crime and was put to death. The one who died was a different person to the one who committed the crimes. It is reminiscent of the stories of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who were put to death in Indonesia for drug trafficking. Their lives were changed dramatically and they were making a difference to the lives of others in prison – a second chance to do something significant with their lives before facing the death squad.
The passage this week (Luke 13:1-9) contains a story where Jesus speaks of a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The owner wants it removed because it is a waste of space. The gardener calls for one year’s reprieve – a second chance. If they dig around the roots, put down some manure and give it another chance, perhaps there will be fruit next year. The owner consents to a second chance.
This story contains a couple of calls for repentance, a complete change in mind, attitude, action and being. Initially Jesus confronts the issue of bad things happening to good people. He tells them that bad things are not punishment and they happen to good and bad people. So change your mind and stop judging other people because of what has happened to them, what they look like, do etc – Repent!
The second call is for repentance in our lives such that we live into a new way of being. We are offered second chances so take them but be changed through the experience! Don’t waste the chance. Don’t do the same thing several times and wonder why everything is messed up – learn and repent. More than that, surely the implication is that we are to believe in second chances not only for ourselves but for others. Can we believe that others can change, that they deserve a second chance? How would we respond to someone like Jimmy? How do we respond to people around us who desperately need a second chance?
I wonder how we respond to people who are different? How do we respond to people who have made mistakes or have made choices we don’t consider respectable or reasonable? How do we respond to people who have gotten things so badly wrong and messed up their own and other’s lives? Can we be gracious and offer a second chance? Do we know God’s love deeply enough to be able to be gracious and loving towards others who are despised? Do we believe that we are indeed deserving of a second chance in God’s grace? It changed Jimmy, it can change others and us!