March 19, 2005
We noticed last weekend in its coverage of the escaped prisoner in Atlanta that the New York Times originally glossed over the story of Ashley Smith, the Georgia woman who calmly prevailed as Brian Nichols held her hostage. Reflecting growing interest, articles appeared this week here, here, and here about the young widow who has fascinated the nation by her equanimity and confidence under such conditions. The Times likes to assign the power of the exchange to the sorrows of the past, or the book she was reading.
Charles Colson in The Wall Street Journal (subscription only) comments on her ordeal in somewhat more basic terms, and relates it to a similar story.
Twenty-three years ago, a young Texas woman whose story has dramatic parallels to Ashley Smith's, also learned the power of faith over fear when she entered into the suffering of a dangerous man. Margaret Mayfield was shopping at a San Antonio store when a gun-wielding man suddenly confronted her. "I'm the man who killed the woman at the restaurant last night," he announced, "and I'm going to kill you if you make one move."
Ms. Mayfield had just been abducted by mass murderer Stephen Peter Morin. Terrified, she began praying aloud. Instead of ordering her to drive away, Morin began to sob and talk about his unhappy childhood. Ms. Mayfield told him: "It's not coincidence you're here. God brought you to this car. You think the hell you're going through is bad; it's nothing compared to the hell you're going to. Even though you have committed some horrible things, God still loves you."
Morin forced Ms. Mayfield to start driving, and as she drove, she continued telling him about the love of Christ and began playing evangelistic tapes. Morin pulled off the road and began to pray. "Jesus, I am sorry for everything I have ever done. Please save me." Morin then picked up his pistol, opened the chamber and dumped the bullets into Ms. Mayfield's hands. "I knew I was witnessing a miracle," Ms. Mayfield would later say.
Morin decided to go to Fort Worth to meet with evangelist Kenneth Copeland, whose tapes Ms. Mayfield had played. When police picked him up hours later, Morin surrendered quietly. "This morning I would have got up and shot the gun," he told the officers. "But I met this lady today, and now I'm different."
During Morin's incarceration in Bexar County Jail, a Prison Fellowship volunteer picked up where Ms. Mayfield left off, witnessing to Morin until he was transferred elsewhere. Years later, as Morin was about to be executed for his crimes, his last words were: "Heavenly Father, I give thanks for...the time that we have been together....Allow your holy spirit to flow as I know your love has been showered upon me....Lord Jesus, I commit my soul to you, I praise you, and I thank you."
The Biblical injunction to "fear not" is often taken to be part of, ho-hum, yeah, yeah, we know, there is cosmic good news and we don't need to be afraid. We brush it off, we think we know. Yet a brain scan randomly applied to the population, or a microphone at the inner monologue, would most often disclose a litany of regret, resentment, trouble-borrowing at high interest rates, rehearsing for an anticipated disastrous future, entertaining -- throwing a rent party for -- anxiety and distrust.
Unpacking "fear not" means first and foremost, a practiced and eventually successful campaign of self-awareness and intention, clearing out the clutter and dust of worry and smug predictions of disaster.
The stories of Margaret Mayfield and Stephen Morin, and of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols, illustrate the truth of the message Pope John Paul II has preached for nearly three decades: Fear not.
In our experience here, this is not drooling Pollyanna-ism, cliche, or vague encouragement. It is as intelligible and as possible as "walk one block east to the convenience store and buy a Coca-Cola." And far more rewarding.
These women knew to love, and knew how to love, and were free to love. We firmly believe that if fear had gained the upper hand, it would have scuttled their enterprise. And that it frequently does so for most of us. We are of the minority conviction that fear is not wholesome and natural. It is not realism. It is caricature and deception, a negative invocation against Hope, constraining our creativity and paralyzing our innovative, expansive, effective love and joy.
Kenneth Copeland, Mrs. Mayfield's mentor, is among the more interesting and substantial of the often-scorned public, including television, evangelists. Untutored and unconventional, he has nevertheless harvested and expounded astonishing practical insights via the sola scriptura culture, with, at times, a near-Kabbalistic depth, if you listen v-e-r-y carefully. Although tarred with the Prosperity Gospel label, his priority sermon topic for years has been
"Fear not. No exceptions."
Maybe there are some pros who can feign such things, but I doubt it. It's even hard to imagine anyone telling the story in such beautiful sentences as those in the Smith transcript...
Ann is also gratified, as we were, to discover that Mrs. Smith has the prudence to have a lawyer to represent her and protect her interests.