Bile roiled and churned in his stomach as the accused sat alone in the cell awaiting the trial that would seal his fate. The stench of human depravity and sweat permeated his minute world. The specters of others who had awaited their time before the judge, closed around him dimming the light from the single bulb above his head. The weight of the unknown hung before him like the gallows outside his cell.
Until this moment, he would have said he was a good man. He did not understand the charges leveled against him. He was being accused of theft and murder. He knew of no one he had killed. Who had he stolen from? Nevertheless, here he was accused and in jail for such crimes. He shifted on the thin rail bed, stretching his sore, stiff back. Surely, there was a mistake. He had been confused with another. Why then did his heart condemn him as he looked at his plight? What was the truth? Had he indeed murdered someone and stolen from others? Did he have some alter ego that took over unawares, a Mister Hyde that shanghaied his body to do things of which he was oblivious?
Standing to his feet, he paced the small confines of his world. Eight by eight was the whole of it. Bars down one side and concrete block on the others. Graffiti decorated the walls. Silent screams of the condemned before their own day in court. Maybe it was their guilt haunting these walls that pressed so upon his mind. Possibly it was just being placed in this position that brought the waves of panic and feelings of guilt. He glanced at some of the ‘wisdom’ of those who had gone before, short snippets of desperate individuals seeking their own justification.
The clank of the heavy metal door at the end of the hallway brought his attention to the bars before him. Footsteps echoing in cadence toward his cell had his full attention. He stepped over to the barred door as the uniformed men stopped before him. When the key clicked into position and the door squeaked open, hope arose at the thought that the error had been discovered.
“Thomas William Smith,” one guard said, ” you are to come with us.” His escorts gave no hope or condemnation in their eyes. They were here to do a job, and their job was not to judge. They treated him with respect and dignity as he walked between them, although, their presence tolerated no disobedience.
Each step toward the inevitable stripped more and more of the hope from the accused. By the time he entered the court, he felt as though his heart would implode from the weight of his own terrifying expectations. They escorted him to the table on the right side of the room and sat him down. The prosecutor was at the other table going over his pages of notes.
A door opened at the front as the judge entered the court. “All rise,” spoke a disembodied voice. The accused rose, but all he could see was the robe flowing around the judge magnifying his presence and authority, diminishing the little hope he still possessed. The ghosts of all who had stood here before whispered condemnation to his heart as the gavel came down.
“Thomas William Smith, you have been charged with murder and theft,” the judge’s voice echoed through the room. “Do you understand the charges against you?”
“Your honor,” the accused choked out, trying to put breath behind his voice. “I don’t understand these charges. I neither remember stealing from nor murdering someone, anyone.”
“Prosecutor,” the judge said. “Give him a copy of the accusations you are bringing against him.
“Sir,” the judge continued, as he turned to the accused. “You will have one day to look over the evidence against you and the witnesses who will testify as to your guilt. Upon the morrow you shall give your plea to this court.
“Sheriff, return him to his cell until tomorrow at nine o’clock sharp.
“And, Thomas William Smith,” the judge added as he looked again at the accused. “It would behoove you to search your heart and answer well. Only truth and justice can stand in this court.”
Back in the cell, he sat again on his cot gazing on the thick pile of papers beside him. He was a church leader, a man of influence and generosity. He had given to the poor and counseled those who were caught in sin, trapped by its weight. He had witnessed of his own liberation as he had explained the way to freedom in Jesus Christ. How could this large stack of papers be his. Yet, emblazoned across the front was his full name and address, complete with the picture of himself he had chosen to use in his social media. He had been told it was the photo that made him look kind and sincere.
With a trembling hand he lifted the folder from the bed. He stared at the picture while his pounding of his heart counted down the eighteen hours he had left. The fear of what lay within kept his hand from opening the cover. The document more resembled a book than a file. The judge had said that it was all the evidence with a list of witnesses. Witnesses! How could there possibly be witnesses. He did not even know what he had done. When the anger overtook the fear he ripped open the cover and stared at the first page.
He found no smoking gun, no bloodied knife as he perused the document. Instead he found names and dates of people he had defamed with a word, passed on gossip about, as well as decisions he had made that killed the dreams in those he had been placed in a position to help. The witnesses testified to what had died within them as they had been crushed by his words and deeds. He read far into the night unable to put down the tome that condemned him as accusation after accusation hit home. His mind played over each person as he viewed his life through the lens of truth instead of his myopic self-righteousness. He realized how his actions had stolen other’s dreams, birthrights, and callings so that he could look good. He saw how others had died a little at a time as he burnished his reputation with gilded half truths and well constructed facades.
The second section was filled with times, dates, and places where he held judgment on another man, woman, or child. People who had done him wrong. Small slights that he had magnified as snubs to his authority and legitimacy. Here too was an accounting of what those judgments had produced in the lives of those so judged. He had put them in prison for refusing to pay the debt he believed they owed him. His judgments had robbed them of the fullness of life they might have had if he would have forgiven them. The ramifications of his actions was the light that finally exposed the pettiness of his self-righteousness and the cost borne by those whom he was called to shepherd and mentor. People whom God held as treasures. Those whom God loved and valued every bit as much as him.
The picture on the cover now began to haunt him as he thought of how it was the face of a fool. Was he really free in Jesus or was this prison the reality of his life? He laid the file down on the cot and slowly rose to his feet.
Dawn was beginning to send light through the small window high up on the wall. He stretched, longing to see the sunrise again. How had he come so far from the freedom he had felt when he was first washed from his life of sin. He had been twenty-five, and by that time had already collected a lifetime of darkness and iniquity. Nevertheless, he had been forgiven and washed by the blood of Jesus. The Son-rise had flooded his soul that day and he was made new. Looking down at the folder he realized that, in his pride and ‘growing knowledge of what it meant to be a Christian’, he had forgotten the work of the cross and the love that had been offered to him.
He was startled back to the present when the door of his cell opened. A man stepped in with a tray. It held a beautiful omelet cooked to perfection with potatoes fried with onions and peppers just the way he liked. Crispy bacon, toast on the side, and a glass of orange juice rounded out the meal. Tears stung his eyes as he recognized the man.
It was the face of the one witness he had not seen in the file who should have been there. Charlie was a layman who had come to him feeling that the Lord wanted to begin a new converts class. Charlie sensed the Lord calling him to disciple others in how to walk in the Spirit. Thomas had been gentle with him saying that it was not a need the church had right then. In reality, he couldn’t see Charlie being an effective leader or having enough understanding to disciple others. He had no training, no Bible school under his belt. He was a rather plain individual who would not present the image the church was looking for in its leaders. Later, on his Facebook page, Thomas had used the scenario as an anecdote about how some people just did not have what it took to be leaders in the church. He did not name any names, of course, but if Charlie had read it, he would have known.
After giving him the tray, Charlie laid his hand Thomas’ shoulder and blessed the Name of Jesus over the food. The accused noticed Charlie’s simple humble smile before walking out of the cell. In Charlie’s eyes, Thomas saw the love of the Savior reflecting forgiveness and mercy.
The accused sat before one of his favorite breakfasts but was unable to take a singe bite. The majesty of such forgiveness took away his appetite, realizing too late how very qualified Charlie would be to teach such a class. With just two hours until the trial he was completely laid bare. He now saw the guilt of his multiple thefts and murders, and had no justification. He only could see the inevitable results of such heinous crimes coming home to roost.
The shame overtook him as the sounds of Charlie making his way out of the cell block clanged in finality. He had never felt so alone. He had only himself, and now, felt as hollow as he had ever felt in his life. It was not someone else who now condemned him, but his own actions and words. The judgment would be swift and final. The sentence would be just and righteous.
He lowered himself to his knees by the bunk to search his soul. In that position his wife and children came to his mind. He realized in the light of this reality that he had spent his life using them to bolster his position and legitimacy in ‘his ministry’. ‘Does my wife have dreams?’ he thought. ‘Do my children have a calling outside of serving as props for my vanity?’ Such thoughts had never entered his mind before today. His family had become merely the framing on the picture he desired to show the world. He had only considered his life as being important to God’s plans, his family had been the periphery. Now, as he examined the truth through unveiled eyes, his heart sank. As his sin expanded to confront, the weight of the condemnation pressed him lower. They, too, had chosen not to testify against him. However, the dates and the charges listed in the brief were thorough enough to show that the prosecutor had eyes and ears of which he knew not.
Anger flared again as the battle raged in his soul. He searched for that which might justify him in the light of these accusations. He could find none. In the light of truth there was no justification, no excuse for his selfish acts against others. As he raised his eyes in his desperation, they fell on the graffiti. All his justifications would be no better than those who had gone before. God had given him gifts to give away. He had used them to make a name for himself. “God, Jesus,” he shouted. “Is there no hope for me? Has my life come down to wood, hay, and stubble? Has it all been selfish acts strewn across the landscape of the decimated people I was to help?”
As the door clanked open down the hall, his eyes found a symbol scribed upon the wall with one word below it. That symbol was a cross. The word was ‘remember’ inscribed in blood. It was small and obscured by the vast amount of justifications on the wall, but in his position of humility, it was clear to see.
The guards lifted him from his position on the floor and walked him down the hallway. His mind stretched back to the time he had seen his sin and his ugliness at twenty-five. He had been young, much younger than now. It was the time he first knew the power of the cross and the blood of Jesus. He remembered how very clean he had felt. All he wanted to do was to show others the freedom he had found. When had he lost himself? Somewhere in his accumulation of knowledge, he had lost hold of the power of the cross and trusted in his ability to know and judge out of his own wisdom. Now he was exposed for the fraud he had become, having even taught the lies he believed were an acceptable form of religion before God. He had become the Pharisee that he had preached against.
The court was solemn as he entered. The gallery was filled with the witnesses that had been listed in the brief. Shame, once again, overwhelmed him as he took his rightful seat as the accused. Remember. One word, but upon it his whole case must hinge. Remember what? In the midst of the overwhelming shame and condemnation he could only think of what he deserved, the gallows. Remember. Through the haze his mind caught a single thought. All his righteousness was as filthy rags. He was back where he had started his journey thirty years before. What was the power of the cross? What was the purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice? He had shamed himself and his Savior, but would his Savior still stand with him? If not then all was lost, but a ray of hope had seeped into a crack of his shame.
“Bailiff,” he called, “is my advocate in the court?”
An unassuming man stood from the gallery behind him and walked up to the chair on his left. “Would you have me assist you?” the man questioned him as he sat. As the accused looked up into the eyes of the stranger he saw in the reflection of the faces of those from whom he had stolen life.
The accused turned his eyes down in shame, condemned before he had started, but the advocate raised the accused man’s head and said, “remember,” as he breathed on him. His vision now cleared, Thomas saw again his history with all of these people he had wronged. Only now their eyes held the eyes of his Savior. He realized that he had not just sinned against them only but against Jesus, too.
The prosecutor paused as he took his seat. His eyes hardened and filled with hate for the one who sat with the accused. The prosecutor was seething at the presence of the Advocate. The judge arrived only moments later to call the court to order. Turning to Thomas’ table a smile creased his lips as his eyes rested on the Advocate. A connection deep and eternal lit his face. He then turned to the accused and asked, “You have seen the accusations against you. How do you plead?”
Thomas William Smith stood to his feet and with tears streaming down his face, he said, “Your Honor, I stand before you today guilty as charged. I make no defense for my actions and offer no excuse. I ask instead for your forgiveness and that of every person that I have wronged. If I could make restitution for all my actions I would; however, the debt would be far higher than I could possibly afford. However, having seen my deeds through the light of truth, I release from my judgments all those who have wronged me that they might live free. I lay no claim to any debt owed me, for I have no right to judge anyone else.”
“Very well,” said the judge. “Is there anyone else who would testify for or against the accused in this matter.”
“Your Honor,” said the man sitting next to me as he rose from his chair.
Thomas wanted to cry out in anguish, The very One he had wronged, now stood to give testimony. His heart sank within him. The churning in his stomach was only moments from unleashing a catastrophe. In shame and defeat, his head dropped to his chest.
“I would like to testify today on behalf of the accused. While it is true that his debt is too large for him to pay, I would like to pay it for him as is my right. I take full responsibility for the entire debt so that he might be free to live the way he was designed to live with no encumbrance other than to love.”
It took a moment to register what he had heard. Could such love exist in the universe? Could such kindness be displayed in a single man? Nevertheless, would his plea be enough to release the weight of all Thomas had done?
“Thomas William Smith, please stand,” the judge commanded. “This court is only just and righteous if every law is obeyed and every legal right is met. All debt must be noted and accounted for and paid to the fullest extent. You have shown wisdom today to stand with your Advocate. Since he has seen fit to accept and pay off the debt that you owed in full, the full extent of the law has been met. He will turn the debt you have had to good in the lives of those that you have harmed as they release their own judgments. For Your part, I decree that you learn the law of love so as to release those I bring to you instead of binding up those who desire your help. You are free to go.”
“Jesus,” Thomas cried as he turned and knelt before his advocate. “I am overwhelmed by your generosity and love. Thank you, my Savior.” Thomas wept at the feet of His Advocate until Jesus reached down and lifted his head. Thomas then asked, “How did I stray so far from the day you cleansed me?”
“When your eyes were full of light,” Jesus said, “You saw Me in those around you and loved them in My Name, but as you gained knowledge, you became puffed up. Instead of your life being about Me and My love for these, they became tokens and trophies to build your ego and legitimacy in the world of men. In your drive to make yourself a great reputation you have destroyed what could have been. You were not called to ‘a ministry’ but to minister my grace and love to those I put before you. That begins at home with the wife of your youth and your children.”
* * * * *
The sun was clearing the horizon and beginning to sneak past the shutters on the east-facing window. The birds were beginning their morning rituals, their songs taking flight in fanciful snippets for a new day.
Thomas William Smith found himself lying beside his wife. The sounds of dawn speaking to him of new chances and renewed hope. He quietly rose from bed to go downstairs and spend some time reflecting on who he was, and who he had become. First he booted up his computer and typed REMEMBER in the largest type that would fit on a single sheet of paper. He printed it, and taped it over his desk. He printed a second for his office, lest he forget. He then began a list of those whom he had wronged, resolving to make restitution as he prayerfully considered how that would look in each case.
As his clock displayed eight o’clock, he made a call to Charlie. After asking for forgiveness and owning up to all he had done, he asked Charlie if the offer was still open as the church could sure use a class in walking in the Spirit. “And Charlie,” he spoke through his tears, “can I be the first to sign up? There is much I believe that you have to teach me.”
In that moment, Thomas William Smith embraced the conclusion that life was not about him, his accomplishments, or his goals. Life was about the Savior, the cross, and the release of all debts for the sake of love.
He remembered what it was like to be clean and free, and he would not forget again. He then rose from his chair, padding to the kitchen to make his family their favorite breakfast, for the first time in his life.