“She went out for cigarettes. That’s my favorite detail of the story told by Ashley Smith. It was not a noble calling; it wasn’t even a noble errand. But the craving for nicotine at 2 o’clock in the morning apparently led Smith into the loaded gun of one Brian Nichols, a man who was wanted for raping one woman and murdering another woman and three men. According 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 captor. She says she saw him not as a monster but as a human being. She talked with him. She told her story, how her husband had been stabbed in a dispute and had died in her arms, how she then had developed a drug habit, had been caught for speeding and drunken driving, had been arrested for assault (the charges were dropped), had ceded custody of her young daughter to her aunt. She showed him her wounds as a human being. And she saw in that man his own wounded soul.
It would be politically correct to describe that encounter as a spiritual one. But it seems to me it was more than that. It was, in the minds and souls of both human beings, an encounter with God. Smith’s weapon, it appears, 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 that 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 account, she talked to him, made breakfast, told him her story, listened. And as she revealed her openness to grace, so, apparently, did he. ‘He said he thought I was an angel sent from God and that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ and that he was lost, and God led him right to me,” Smith said. Maybe he was right.
We latch onto this story not just because if s a riveting end to a high-stakes manhunt. We find ourselves transfixed and uplifted by the sordid ordinariness of it all. He was an alleged rapist and murderer. She was tied up in a bathtub, clinging to the wreckage of a life that was barely afloat. One was a monster, the other a woman unable to care for her 5-year-old, looking for cigarettes in the dark. And out of that came something, well, beautiful. He saw his purpose: to serve God in prison, to turn his life around, even as it may have been 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. . . . The message of the Gospels is that God works with the crooked timber of human failure. That was an exceptional moment of redemption . . . 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 life, when I thought, as we all sometimes do, that I couldn’t see how good could come out of the wreck 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.’”