Sowing Uncommon Grace

by Jason Overman

It was just an ordinary Wednesday night Bible study. The faithful — thirteen in all — came to the church at 110 Calhoun Street to discuss Mark 4, the parable of the sower. There, Jesus taught that just as the sower scatters seed that falls on both good and bad soil, so when the good news of God’s Word is shared, sometimes it finds receptive hearts and sometimes not.

On this fateful night, a young white visitor joined the thirteen black worshippers in attendance. The boyish man, in his early twenties, looked as innocent as a child and was warmly welcomed to the small circle. He sat down right next to the pastor. Less than an hour later, as heads bowed in closing prayer, the visitor rose from his seat, drew a concealed handgun, and opened fire on the small assembly. Six minutes and 70 shots later, nine of the thirteen were dead.

By now most of us are familiar with the story of how Dylann Roof, a hateful racist, entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, and massacred nine parishioners.

Showing no remorse but a dogged pride in his act throughout the trial, last month the blank-faced Mr. Roof was convicted and sentenced to death for his horrific crime. Beyond this, he will stand before God on Judgment Day.

King Solomon wrote among his many proverbs, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3, NKJV).

Evil is real in our world; hate is at work. Dylan Roof and his actions are but one blunt example in our times. Where true justice is so hard to find today, it is comforting that God sees. He will answer.

But what of the good? It is real, active, and seen too. It’s not just in the presence of those welcoming Christians gathered around the Word and prayer that summer night in 2015 but also in that uncommon grace poured out to Dylan by the victim’s families. Though a grossly fallen man, he is still created in God’s image.

This part of the story is lesser known, as acts of goodness so often are. But in the face of such abject violence, this gospel-grace is the better part, and the more astonishing, in this tragic story. As reported by the New York Times at Mr. Roof’s bond hearing only two days after the shooting:

One by one, they looked to the screen in a corner of the courtroom on Friday, into the expressionless face of the young man charged with making them motherless, snuffing out the life of a promising son, taking away a loving wife for good, bringing a grandmother’s life to a horrific end. And they answered him with forgiveness.

“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” . . .

It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, the mother of 26-year old Tywanza Sanders, a poet who died after trying to save his aunt, who was also killed.

“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” she said in a quavering voice. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you” (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/us/charleston-shooting-dylann-storm-roof.html).

“It was as if the Bible study had never ended. . . .” For believers, the study does not end but is lived. There in South Carolina the good news of Jesus’ parable of the sower was alive in the face of unthinkable hostility. This “good” is the truth that the love of Christ is not diminished, but brightened against the inky darkness of hate.

These are not isolated stories of grace but the often-overlooked reality of life and healing that follow for all Christians from the very cross of Christ. Just last month Now What? published Wendi Johnson’s similar forgiveness story [“Inside Job,” http://nowwhat.cog7.org/inside-job/]. Stories like these may seem uncommon by the world’s calculation but for the Christian they are the shape of God’s surprising and unsurpassing love. It’s just the way things are.

Like Proverbs, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught of God and of good and evil. Those teachings He modeled on the cross, and they are at the root of all acts of uncommon Christian grace:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44, 45, ESV).

Yes, evil is real and at work in our world. But where Christians follow Jesus in word and in deed, His goodness reveals another way — one where love and forgiveness, of even enemies, pierces the darkness and holds out a promise of how this world is supposed to be, was created to be, and is destined to be.

Next time we are gathered together in our study of the Word, let’s pray that every evil be countered with the good of that sower, who goes forth sharing the seed, the Word of Life, with all. Let it fall on good ground and grow.