Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Grace Beneath the Pentecost Tree

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams. (Acts 2:17)

Today, June 9 is Pentecost – the church holiday that should be more popular than Christmas because it denotes the birthday of the Christian church.

This is the season we should be squeezing into crowded malls for those last-minute Pentecost sales, and piling gifts in elaborately embossed red paper beneath Pentecost trees emblazoned with red lights and orange tinsel.

The event is prominently recorded in scripture, but don’t try to find Happy Pentecost cards in the Hallmark store. The fact is, a lot of folks have never heard of Pentecost and it has had little impact on retail merchandising. It’s one of several key biblical events that we tend to trivialize, like foot washing.

Sure, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and told them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15)

That sounds like a huge Jesus rule to me, just as explicit as his instructions for the Lord’s Supper. Still, for most of us foot washing is on our “OK to ignore” list, along with “love your enemies” and “eschew pork.”

And maybe that’s understandable. When Jesus told us to wash one another’s feet, he had never heard of pantyhose. Years ago the World Council of Churches, faced with the dilemma that Orthodox members declined to participate in Holy Communion with other members,  thought everyone could happily join in Jesus’ call to wash one another’s feet. It didn’t work. Nobody liked foot washing. The first time it was attempted I was partnered with a 60-year-old Russian Orthodox monk who had worn the same socks for twenty years. Foot washing does not open new pathways to Christian unity, and we pray Jesus will forgive us for pretending we’ve never heard of it.

But if society were to take Pentecost seriously, it could be a great celebration, a gala of extravagant gift giving to commemorate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit poured out “on all flesh.”

In Acts, we get a kinetic picture of the event: blinding pyrotechnics as the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples and changes them forever. Bland, unimaginative men who so often misunderstood Jesus were suddenly transformed into charismatic linguists with the courage to pour into the streets of Jerusalem to preach the gospel in languages they had never heard. What an ecstatic holiday Pentecost could be – a Mardi Gras second line of brass, beads, dancing and multi-lingual praising of God and people.

But if Pentecost has never made its way into mainstream culture, it may be more than an oversight. There are some elements of the event that bother us, including the possibility that under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we may all be changed for the better. For most of us, “love your enemies” remains engraved on our “OK to ignore” list. If the Holy Spirit is able to transform our enemies into good and righteous people, that could be more than we can take. And if the Holy Spirit transforms us into loving and forgiving souls, that may be more than we can accept.

Can the Holy Spirit change people? In church, we stand and shout Amen! But back in our kitchens on Sunday night, our human skepticism douses the flame of hope. Do people really change? Our faith says yes. Our experience in the real world says, show me.

One of the first things I learned as a cops reporter in Pennsylvania is that very few police, prosecutors, district justices and editors believe bad people can change into good people. Sociopaths are sociopaths all their lives, poor in their reserves of conscience and rich in their storehouse of charm and deception. And they will never change.

This is a hard thesis to test because, for the most part, sociopathic murderers are among the nicest people you’ll ever meet. William Bradfield, an English teacher in Upper Merion, Pa., was convicted of murdering a colleague, Susan Reinert, and two of her children. Most people who met Bradfield in Graterford Prison in Collegeville, Pa., found him credible and charming. (He was portrayed by actor Peter Coyote in a television miniseries about the murders.) Bradfield had joined “The Graterford God Squad,” a group of prisoners who met with the chaplain to pray and study the bible. Bradfield said that although he was innocent of the crime, he had found God and was a changed man. The chaplain said most prisoners participated in the God Squad to convince parole boards of their “good behavior.” I would place Bradfield in that dubious category. If you talked to the ingratiating SOB, the only quirk that would strike you as odd is that he thought Ezra Pound was the greatest poet who ever lived. But the evidence that he was a calculating killer was more compelling than his charm. He died in Graterford following a heart attack several years ago.

There are many famous prison conversions. Nathan Leopold, half of the adolescent Leopold and Loeb team convicted of the thrill killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, became a born again Christian and joined the Church of the Brethren.

Susan Atkins, a member of the Manson family and a participant in the Tate/LaBianca murders in 1969, said she was born again in prison in 1974. She may have been sincere, or she may have been seeking the good will of the penal system to allow her to marry and engage in conjugal visits, which she accomplished on different occasions with two husbands. An American Baptist who interviewed Atkins in prison was ambivalent: “I see her hands raised in prayer and I am moved,” she said. “And then I remember what those hands did.” Atkins died of brain cancer at the Chowchilla women’s prison in 2009.

One of my first assignments as a Pottstown Mercury reporter was to “go over to Tommy DeBlase’s house and knock on his door.” I had never heard of DeBlase but quickly learned he, his brother and a friend were accused of murdering the DeBlase’s uncle, David Swinehart. Swinehart had been bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat in January 1982, reputedly because the murderers sought to enable Swinehart’s beautiful wife, Patricia, to collect on $530 life insurance policy. Tommy and "Patty" were having an affair at the time, but she was later acquitted of playing a role in her husband’s murder.

Tommy DeBlase was arrested and charged with first degree murder, but he was held in jail so long without trial that a judge determined that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated and ordered him released. It was at that point Mercury editor Walt Herring, sure of DeBlase's guilt, decided to keep Tommy in the public eye until the decision to release him was reversed. Along with several other Mercury reporters, I was one of the appointed stalkers.

DeBlase wasn’t home that day knocked on his door. Several weeks later we got a tip that Tommy had joined a Pentecostal congregation and was on the work crew laying cinder blocks for a new sanctuary. Editor Herring, who thought I knew stuff about religion because I had heard of CROP walks, told me to run over and get an interview. “Talk Jesus to him and get him to say something about the murder,” Herring said.

Tommy wasn’t at the church work site when I got there. Several men in blue jeans and T-shirts were lifting cinder blocks onto the growing wall. It didn’t take long to identify the pastor, a pink-faced, pear-shaped guy with a crew cut and a T-shirt that said, “Pastor.” I introduced myself and told him we had heard that Tommy DeBlase thought he was being treated unfairly by the media and my editor wanted to give him a chance to tell his side.

“Tommy isn’t here,” he said, not unkindly. “But lookee here …”

The pastor looked around to make sure all the workers were busy with their chores, and led me by the arm to the far side of the site.

“Lookee here,” he said softly. “I’m a pastor. My job is to provide spiritual guidance for these people, not to judge them. Tommy DeBlase looks me in the eye and says he loves the Lord and says he never killed anybody.” The pastor looked imploringly into my eyes. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t read his mind. I can’t read his heart. But I see no deceit in him.”

“We have no desire to hurt Mr. DeBlase,” I said, knowing the editor would probably turn that into a lie. “We just want to give him a chance to say to our readers what he said to you.”

The pastor looked over my shoulder and I realized by his anxious expression that the young man approaching us was DeBlase. I turned and extended my hand to the man, but he declined to shake it.

“Mr. DeBlase,” I said, “I was just telling your pastor how much the Mercury wants to treat you fairly.”

“Shit,” DeBlase said, “I don’t even read the Mercury any more. Every time I do, there I am on the front page, getting trashed.” He turned abruptly and walked away. We didn’t exactly encounter one another as brothers in Christ. I felt sorry for him, but at least he had given me a passable quote for the morning paper.

Three years later, after I had left the Mercury to join the New York staff of the World Council of Churches, DeBlase was tried for the murder of his uncle and convicted. The members of the jury looked into his heart and thought they saw deceit in it. As he was led away to jail, a reporter heard him say: “I am trusting the Lord to deliver me another way.”

I was probably one of the few persons in Pottstown who had no opinion about DeBlase’ guilt or innocence. I wanted him to be innocent because I knew his pastor wanted him to be innocent. But I think there’s a good chance that on a frigid day in January 1982, Tommy DeBlase – young, insanely in love with his uncle’s wife, and desperate for her approval – took a baseball bat and beat his uncle to death. I also think there’s a good chance that his acceptance of Jesus was genuine, and he may have believed that the blood of Christ washed the sin from his heart and enabled him to stand in before his maker in perfect innocence.

The very idea would have driven my editor crazy. Herring, one of the purest misanthropes I ever knew, believed all criminals were bad and needed to be punished. He also believed that even born again criminals had debts to pay to the criminal justice system. He was right about that, of course.

It’s all too human to be cynical about those who sin boldly enough to make headlines, the murderers and rapists and abusers among us, the purveyors of injustice and committers of atrocity. And it’s all too human to resent the grace that cleanses the souls of evil people who don’t deserve it.

But it’s also too easy to overlook the fact that none of us deserve it. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a gift beyond our comprehension.

And once we grasp its true value, all of us will be deliriously happy to rise early on that blessed Sunday morning, cleansed and free and intent on opening the present a forgiving God has placed for us beneath the Pentecost tree.