To tell you this story I have to explain that I'm a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. For those of you who follow the NFL, you already know that this year our quarterback was a man who served 2 years in prison for running a dog fighting ring. That’s right, our quarterback was a felon who joined our roster fresh out of prison. This troubled me.
Now anyone who is following this blog knows that I am crazy about our 2 dogs Trey and Sandy: they were both adopted from rescue organizations we were proud to support. I have preached on occasion about the ethics of how we treat the other animals with whom we share this world. My son recently convinced his Sunday school class to do a fund raiser for the local animal shelter (hence the bags of dog and cat food stacked up in the social hall). I thought maybe I would have to give up being an Eagles fan for a season or two.
I won't even go into my heartbreak when we traded McNabb to one of our divisional rivals. He was replaced by a guy called Kevin Kolb who I was really having trouble getting excited about. Then when Kolb was injured, enter the animal-abusing felon. But as Michael Vick took the field, damned if those football commentators didn’t preach to the minister. They wondered if he had “paid his debit to society” if he had been “reformed.” And I started to think about words like “redemption” and “forgiveness.” It made me ask myself – do I really believe in redemption? I remembered back to my seminary days that I did. But was what I learned in school what I really believed in my heart?
I've preached on prison reform, arguing that prison should be more focused on rehabilitation than retribution. Do we believe it is possible to pay off a debit to society after one has committed a crime? Can a person really atone for the things we have done wrong? Vick didn’t just make one mistake, he was deep in a lifestyle that was, let's say, not respectful of the interdependant web of life of which we are a part. Can we be restored to right relationship even if we have lived a life filled with misdeeds?
I’m a realist about this, and I know nationally men have a %53 recidivism rate after a prison sentence. The friend who lets you down once is liable to let you down again. Consequently I hold the position “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Changing one’s life is difficult. But if we didn’t believe it was possible to turn a corner, how could we hope? How could we go on? Maybe only 47 in 100 can be brought back when they have strayed, but I cannot give up on the one who might be brought back, and the Christian Scriptures back me up on this:
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:12-14)
So it's not just because I'm a bleeding heart UU, it's in the BIBLE people! (Check out the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the Prodigal Son while you are at it.)
As we headed into the playoffs, the sports shows were engaged deeply in the question of whether Vick had been reformed, or whether he would go back to his old friends and old lifestyle. I was so surprised to hear the commentators and call in shows wrestle with issues of reform and redemption. (That one guy on ESPN radio should seriously consider becoming a preacher.) I had asked myself so many times "what was Andy (our coach) thinking!" but as the season wore on I was reminded that his own son had been in trouble with the law, of how important it would be for a young man looking to change his life to have a reliable steady father figure there to help him do it, and of how maybe Andy himself wanted some redemption in that role. It turns out the well respected former coach of the Colts, Tony Dungy not only visited Vick in prison to support his re-entry into life outside and back into the NFL, but that prison ministry is his thing these days.
Now that football season is over, I have been thinking about Michael Vick not as a talented running quarterback, but as a person. I hope that he really has reformed, not only for his own sake, but as a role model for all those in our country who have lost their way, for all those millions in our prison system, and all the rest of us ordinary folks and our daily mistakes, it would mean so much for us to see unfold before us the story of a modern-day prodigal son. My prayers are with him, and with all those who long to be redeemed.