Sometimes you hear a story and it shakes you to the core. The other night I was watching Dateline (don’t judge me I love true crime) and the story they were covering was one I had heard before but had forgotten about.
It was a story, as they often are, about a love triangle. A pretty young divorced mother named Marie Carlson, and a once popular mega-church pastor named James Flanders. The pastor and his wife take the young divorced mother into their home to help her through some difficult times. The woman had shown signs of mental illness and had lost custody of her children to her ex-husband. According to Dateline, however, “she had found God” and was really turning her life around. That is until one day she came up missing. Her phone calls went unanswered, no one knew where she was, and aside from an ominous text she sent out to friends and family no one had heard from her in days. The Flanders’ insisted that she ran off to pursue some “thing she’d always wanted to do.” James Flanders was the last person to see her and said that because of her erratic behavior he was afraid that she’d flown off somewhere and that she was never coming back. He searched for her car at the airport and when he located it he brought it back to his house. After years of investigation it was discovered that Mr. Flanders was not being completely upfront with the circumstances of his relationship with Ms. Carlson. During the time that Marie was living in his home she became pregnant. The story initially was that the father was a very abusive boyfriend of Maries and that the Flanders were trying to help protect her from him. The truth was however that James was actually the father and that the Flanders had invited Marie into their home for the express purpose of carrying on a threesome and a polygamous relationship. The Flanders were unable to have children so Marie agreed to be a surrogate mother for them. All three of them admitted to as much in private conversations that came out later. While this is scandalous enough the story doesn’t end there. The details that follow are very fuzzy but according to James Flanders Marie became extremely distraught over the idea of giving up her baby and during an argument a physical altercation ensued which resulted in Marie’s death. Shocked and panicked James decided to bury Marie in his backyard and pursue a massive coverup. James only admitted to as much (which still doesn’t seem like the full truth) when he was facing a first degree murder charge and life in prison. By pleading guilty and showing law enforcement where the body was (they had not located it despite doing a search of his backyard) he received a lesser charge and 15 years in prison. Flander’s wife was not convicted of any crime and despite committing an Abraham and Sarah type sin she claims complete ignorance and innocence to the murder of Marie Carlson.
I tell this story because it’s one that when we (especially church folks) here it we are horrified and outraged that a pastor would not only compromise his marriage bed but that he would commit murder and bury a body in his backyard to cover it up.
When I first heard this story several years ago I was filled with indignation toward this fellow Christian leader who would so misrepresent our Lord and his Church. But then I was reminded of my own sin…I was reminded that while I haven’t invited another woman to share my marriage bed or physically killed anyone I have been guilty of these very things according to Jesus (Matt. 5:21ff). Furthermore I was reminded of one of my biblical heroes who was guilty of similar sins and yet is called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14, Acts 13:22). David, the king of Israel, not only selfishly took a married woman into his bed, but when he found out that she was pregnant and that her husband was away at war (pretty hard for Bathsheba to explain that to Uriah) he devised a murderous plot to rid himself of any potential fallout for his sins. David, one of the most prolific writers of Scripture, a man who loved God and was considered one of Israel’s finest kings was guilty of the very same sins and crimes as the subject of our story. Except that David did not have to run away in shame…in fact David continued on as king. David did not lose his position or have his writings removed from the canon. No, David was mightily used by the Lord after his sins, he wrote wonderful Psalms (like Ps. 51) where he tells his story of sin and redemption. This is the scandal of God’s amazing grace. While we would tell the Prodigal that he “got what he deserved”, Jesus welcomes him home with a party. While we would never trust Peter with anything ever again, Jesus makes him the leader of the early Church. While we would write King David out of the story, our God highlights him as a true discerner of His character and nature. So what do we do with James Flanders? Yes, he should pay for his crimes. But would you welcome him into your church? Would you extend the forgiveness of sins to him in the Lord’s Supper? Is there a place for a man, who has done such heinous things, in the Church of Jesus Christ? Would you trust him to lead anything in the Church ever again? I really don’t know how I would answer these questions and I certainly don’t know how you would but I do know how my Savior would respond for we see it all over the pages of Scripture and we observe it in the way Jesus responded to those who betrayed, abandoned, and murdered him…”Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Jesus’ grace runs downhill…all the way to the bottom. It reaches the people and places we’re convinced it could never find.
*Hat tip to my friend, Julian Brooks, who helped me connect the dots for this post.