When I return to the death house after the weekend, Robert is ready to ply me with questions. He jumps in before the death house Sergeant has even brought a chair to set in the hall outside the cell door.
“I’m not sure how to do this,” Big Bob dives in while I’m still getting settled in the newly arrived chair.
“Wo wo wo…” I hold my hands up to the bars, palms out, pleading and laughing at the same time. “Robert … you have been here all weekend. I just arrived here after driving across the state and being very thoroughly searched by the guards at the entrance, down to my socks and skivvies.”
“You mean they let you keep your socks and skivvies on when security searched you this morning?” Robert and the cohort of his death house officers are belly laughing at my obvious discomfort with this discussion.
“Well, mostly on,” my shrug and sputtered defensive words unleash another round of guffaws. For a quick second, while the laughter crescendos, I pause to take in the circle of laughing faces surrounding me in the Florida death house this morning. These officers are all country boys like Robert. These men’s lives have much more in common with Big Bob’s life than they do with any of the politicians in the State Capitol who are demanding that they kill him.
“I need a moment to adjust myself to these surroundings, Sir,” I address the uniformed officer of highest rank in the room.
“Don’t take too long, Chap,” he responds firmly but kindly, pointing to the ceiling video cameras that are connected to the offices of the Governor, the Attorney General and the prison system Central Office, all in Tallahassee. “We’re not alone today for sure.”
Robert jumps in, as well, “Don’t take too long, Brother Dale, because I need some answers.”
“And you will have them.” I smile and nod toward Big Bob, confirming that he has been heard and I will answer his questions.
“You are in trouble today, Chap,” the death house Sergeant stationed outside the inner bars at the entrance to this wing feigns sympathy. “He’s been loading up for you all weekend and practicing his questions on us.”
“Well, if you guys have already answered all Robert’s questions, I’m sure my work here is done. I can just get another cup of coffee for the road and head home to Tallahassee.”
“Not so fast, Chap,” Robert and the death house guards are all speaking as if in one voice. “You can’t leave until you answer his questions and ours.”
“Okay!” I laugh in mock surrender, “But you’ve convinced me that I better start with some more coffee. Strong, black, fresh coffee!”
“It’s already made!” the Sergeant smiles as he hands me a brimming Styrofoam cup through the bars.
“Thank you, Sir. Shall I stay in this chair here?”
“That’ll do just fine.”
“How about I start with Robert here?”
Robert is ready. “So, Brother Dale. If somebody has said his entire life that he hates Jesus and Jesus’ followers, and then at this point, about to be executed, he says, Jesus Save Me! Jesus Save Me!” Big Bob wrings his hands in feigned desperation and rubs his fists in his eyes in mock tears. “How hypocritical is that! Why would anyone take it seriously?”
“Some people might disdain it, Robert. But God will take it seriously if the person’s heart is serious.”
“How do we know if the person’s heart is serious?” the officer standing by the wall to my right slips in his quick question.
“We don’t know, Sir. Scripture tells us that only God knows the human heart.”
“So, why do we even bother with all this saving stuff with...?” His voice trails off as he realizes his question may sound more judgmental than he meant.
“...With murderers?” I finish his sentence for him. “Let’s deal with this before we move onto another question.”
“Our Christian faith has a rich tradition, documented through history, of murderers and other criminals coming to Christ at the final moment of their life. God and men see that very differently.”
“How do you know how God sees it?” my Christian Sergeant is holding my feet to the fire.
“Because Jesus told us in the Gospel how God sees it.” I open my Bible to Mt 20 and read aloud to Big Bob and the group in the death house.
The Workers in the Vineyard.
1 The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
2 After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 and he said to them, “You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.”
5 So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
6 Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?”
7 They answered, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You too go into my vineyard.”
8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.”
9 When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.
10 So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.
11 And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,
12 saying, “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.”
13 He said to one of them in reply, “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
15 [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“So, Robert, based on Jesus’ own words, your decision to come to Him in the death house is effective — God accepts it.”
The death house Sergeant who has been quietly reading along with me from his own King James Bible nods, too, “That’s what it says in my Bible. Seems pretty clear. But didn’t you have some other questions, Big Bob?”
“Well, yeah. I still have doubts about faith that I can’t seem to get rid of. How can God accept me if I have any doubts?”
“The Gospel account in Mk of Jesus healing a boy with a demon makes it clear that our inability to eradicate doubts does not put Jesus in a straitjacket.” I answer while turning to the page and again reading aloud.
The Healing of a Boy with a Demon
14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes arguing with them.
15 Immediately on seeing him, the whole crowd was utterly amazed. They ran up to him and greeted him.
16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”
17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit.
18 Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.”
19 He said to them in reply, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.”
20 They brought the boy to him. And when he saw him, the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth.
21 Then he questioned his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” He replied, “Since childhood.
22 It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
23 Jesus said to him, “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.”
24 Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
25 Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!”
26 Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out. He became like a corpse, which caused many to say, “He is dead!”
27 But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. [Emphasis mine.]
“So, Robert, can you honestly say, “Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief?”
“Yes, but why would Jesus accept that?”
“Robert, Scripture tells us at Mk 9:24 that Jesus does accept it. We don’t have to know why.”
As Robert’s questions and those of the death house officers are each presented, the clear answer from Scripture is consistent. Jesus and His power to heal, forgive and restore are much greater than our power to do evil. God wins.
I share the Biblical account of St. Dismas, frequently referred to as the condemned criminal who stole heaven. And then I read the Scriptural account from the Gospel of Luke. Robert and the death house officers are all either listening intently or reading along in their own bible.
32 Now two others, both criminals, were led away with him to be executed.
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left.
34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”] They divided his garments by casting lots.
35 The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.”
36 Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine
37 they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”
40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?
41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Robert, this is no joke, no pie in the sky nonsense.” There is not a sound in the death house except my voice. No one is commenting or squirming.
“I believe with everything in me that if you accept Baptism this afternoon and refrain from sin through your execution this evening, you will go straight from that gurney to the arms of Christ, just like the criminal crucified next to Jesus. So, Robert, what is your decision?”
After a very long few minutes, Robert asks, “So, when I get to heaven and meet the Christians who hated me, how do I explain being there?”
“Not your job, man. If I were you, I would greet them with the biggest smile you’ve ever had and say, ‘I’m sure you remember me; I’m Big Bob. So, glad you made it, too.’ God and the angels and the saints will take care of the rest.”
“And Robert, when it comes my time to show up at heaven’s gate, I will be looking for you to greet me.”
At 2:30 p.m., just a little while before the death squad took him to be strapped down for execution, Big Bob joyfully received Baptism into the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Two days later, after returning to Tallahassee I receive a call from one of the highest-ranking officials of the statewide prison system. After exchanging greetings he proceeds in earnest.
“Brother Dale, I wanted to catch you before you come back to the prison. There’s a lot of rumors in the prison halls that Big Bob’s conversion wasn’t real. I was there in the strapdown room and the execution chamber the whole time. And I wanted you to know that it was completely real. Every person that came into that room, Big Bob wanted to read them the Scriptures that changed his mind. The other stuff is just gossip.”
“Thank you for letting me know, Sir. That is what I had surmised, but its always comforting to hear confirmation.”
By DALE S. RECINELLA