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Amazing Grace: The Story of Ashley Smith
AndrewSullivan.com ^ | 3/26/05 | Andrew Sullivan

Posted on 03/26/2005 2:27:06 PM PST by TFFKAMM

She went out for cigarettes.

That's my favorite detail of the story of Elizabeth Ashley Smith. This was not a noble calling; it wasn't even a noble errand. But the craving for nicotine at 2 o'clock in the morning led Smith into the loaded gun of one Brian Nichols, a man who had already raped one woman and murdered four men. Acccording to Smith, Nichols forced her into her apartment, tied her up, put her in the bathtub and told her "I'm not going to hurt you if you just do what I say."

What would you do under those circumstances? Scream? Panic? Beg? But at that point, something else intervened. Smith actually communicated with her murderous captor. She says she saw him not as a monster but as a human being. She talked with him. She told her own story. How her former husband had been stabbed in a petty dispute and had died in her arms, how she had then developed a drug habit, had been caught for speeding and drunk driving, arrested for assault, and ceded custody of her young daughter to her own mother. She showed him her own wounds as a human being. And she saw through the terrible crimes this man had committed to the wounded soul beneath.

It would be politically correct to describe this encounter as a spiritual one. But it seems to me that it was more than that. It was, in the minds and souls of both human beings, an encounter with God. Smith's weapon was a hugely popular book, "The Purpose Driven Life," by Rick Warren, an unabashedly Christian guide to making it through life's highs and lows by constantly asking what God has intended for you. The book is indeed a powerful one - precisely because it insists on the notion that God knows all of us intimately - especially sinners. Smith says she read from Chapter 33, which centers on the role of Christian service, on the idea that in every moment there is a chance to serve others. "You can tell what they are by what they do," is one of the chapter's inscriptions from Matthew's Gospel.

Smith, blessed by what can only be called grace, saw this terrifying early morning in suburban Atlanta as one of those opportunities. Warren writes in that chapter: "Great opportunities to serve never last long. They pass quickly, sometimes never to return again. You may only get one chance to serve that person, so take advantage of that moment." Smith did. By her own account, she talked to him, made breakfast, told him her story, listened. And as she revealed her own openness to grace, so, apparently, did he. "He told me I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ, and God had led him to me," Smith said. Maybe he was right.

We latch onto this story not just because it's a riveting end to a high-stakes manhunt. We find ourselves transfixed and uplifted by the sordid ordinariness of it all. He was a rapist and a murderer. She was tied in a bath-tub, clinging to the wreckage of a life that was barely afloat. One was a monster; the other a woman unable to care for her own five-year-old, looking for cigarettes in the dark. And out of that came something beautiful. He saw his own purpose: to serve God in prison, to turn his life around, even as it was saturated in the blood and pain of others. She saw hers: to make that happen. These people weren't saints. Grace arrives, unannounced, in lives that least expect or deserve it.

I say this as a believer. The crimes of Nichols are inexcusable. The serenity of Smith is close to inexplicable. But the message of the Gospels is that God works with the crooked timber of human failure. This was an exceptional moment of redemption. But every day, we have smaller, calmer chances to turn another's life around, to serve, to listen. How often do we simply not see what is in front of us? How often do we believe that the world's evils - from terrorism to crime to emotional cruelty - are beyond our capacity to change? Or that there is no one in front of us whom we can serve? Smith and Nichols' story is a chastening reminder that we may be wrong.

There's a line in a Leonard Cohen song that has always stayed with me. It kept me going in a bleak moment in my own life, when I thought, as we all sometimes do, that I couldn't see how good could come out of the dreck I had turned my life into. "Forget your perfect offering," Cohen advises. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Happy Easter.


TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; Culture/Society; Editorial; News/Current Events; Philosophy; US: Georgia
KEYWORDS: andrewsullivan; ashleysmith; briannichols; christ; christianity; crime; easter; forgiveness; grace; sin

1 posted on 03/26/2005 2:27:08 PM PST by TFFKAMM
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Comment #2 Removed by Moderator

To: TFFKAMM

I'll be darned. Who'd have expected this from Andrew Sullivan? From a televangelist, sure, but from Andrew Sullivan? It just goes to prove the point he argues in this essay, I guess.

I'm sending this one to my list.


3 posted on 03/26/2005 2:41:54 PM PST by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: TFFKAMM
"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

So true.

4 posted on 03/26/2005 2:42:39 PM PST by just me
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Comment #5 Removed by Moderator

To: Cicero

To not repent of sin and yet claim Christ as your Savior is to defile the gospel you claim as your own.


6 posted on 03/26/2005 2:47:15 PM PST by The Ghost of FReepers Past (Legislatures are so outdated. If you want real political victory, take your issue to court.)
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To: The Ghost of FReepers Past
To not repent of sin and yet claim Christ as your Savior is to defile the gospel you claim as your own.

To whom are you referring: Nichols, Smith, Sullivan? All of the above? All of mankind?

7 posted on 03/26/2005 2:52:01 PM PST by Salvey
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To: The Ghost of FReepers Past

Could not have said it better myself.


8 posted on 03/26/2005 2:55:01 PM PST by rep-always
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To: TFFKAMM

"The Angel of Atlanta"


9 posted on 03/26/2005 3:01:18 PM PST by Run Silent Run Deep ("Leftists are little Ward Churchills")
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Comment #10 Removed by Moderator

To: TFFKAMM

"I say this as a believer. The crimes of Nichols are inexcusable. The serenity of Smith is close to inexplicable. But the message of the Gospels is that God works with the crooked timber of human failure."
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

That would be each and everyone of us.


11 posted on 03/26/2005 3:04:34 PM PST by Run Silent Run Deep ("Leftists are little Ward Churchills")
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To: TFFKAMM

http://www.newswithviews.com/PaulProctor/proctor68.htm


12 posted on 03/26/2005 3:11:15 PM PST by TommyDale
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To: Salvey

Sullivan. The other two sound like they do repent of sin. The gospel isn't about God changing His mind about sin. It is about us repenting and turning to Him in faith. You can't get there without repentance. Jesus said that unless we repent we will perish.


13 posted on 03/26/2005 3:13:11 PM PST by The Ghost of FReepers Past (Legislatures are so outdated. If you want real political victory, take your issue to court.)
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To: TFFKAMM
Great article. Thanks for posting it on Free Republic, TFFKAMM.

With all the bad news about Terri Schiavo this Easter weekend, its nice to go back and reflect about this story.
14 posted on 03/26/2005 3:19:47 PM PST by Ticonderoga34
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Comment #16 Removed by Moderator

To: TonyRo76

Not only is it not the best way, it is a couterfeit gospel. Jesus didn't die to change God's heart. He died to change our hearts.


17 posted on 03/26/2005 4:18:34 PM PST by The Ghost of FReepers Past (Legislatures are so outdated. If you want real political victory, take your issue to court.)
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To: TFFKAMM
The verse from Cohen that Sullivan quotes is one of my favorites also. The title is Anthem from Cohen's album The Future, a great, if largely unheralded, album.
18 posted on 03/26/2005 5:14:56 PM PST by beckett
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Comment #19 Removed by Moderator

To: Cicero

Ashley Smith also received About $62,000.00 in reward money this week along with many other offers that should help her further down her road of life. After watching the Fulton County Sherriffs office act like Barney Fife during the early Mayhem. The Ashley Smith story was the perfect closing to a dreadful day in Georgia.

The sad note is, Ashley must now pay taxes on her reward money. I'm just glad this Angel survived to live and more than likely help many others with their poor choices in life. I love you Ashley and wish GLTY every day.


20 posted on 03/26/2005 6:34:49 PM PST by herkbird (PAIN SUCKS and my Pain meds are insufficient to kill it.)
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To: TonyRo76
However, for Sullivan to call himself a believer while still unrepentantly practicing a sinful "lifestyle" is, shall we say...not the best way to proclaim the Gospel.

Give him credit for being a believer, but a slackard and rationalizer for not having the will power to do as he claims to believe. Homosexuality is a grave sin. Some of the things I've done-- and more of the things I've neglected to do-- may be lesser sins, but even sinners may be believers.

Christ came not to save the sinless, but to show the way for the sinful.

21 posted on 03/26/2005 8:00:40 PM PST by Vigilanteman (crime would drop like a sprung trapdoor if we brought back good old-fashioned hangings)
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To: Vigilanteman

God works in mysterious ways. Yes, Sullivan is apparently still an active and unrepentent homosexual, but this article suggests to me that he may yet find his way back home.

Oscar Wilde died repentent, and his earlier work shows a similar mixture of sin and grace, IMHO.


22 posted on 03/26/2005 8:48:51 PM PST by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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