Last week three young friends, former college students with bright hopes for the future, stood in federal court in Birmingham, Ala., to plead guilty to setting a series of church fires last February.

They were told to expect a minimum sentence of seven years in federal prison. After that state courts in five counties could extend their time in prison. By the time they are sentenced next March, they will have already spent a year in jail.

Perhaps at the sentencing hearing the young men will have opportunity to express remorse and repentance and give some explanation for their actions. I know that pastors and members of the nine churches which were set on fire will attend and express their forgiveness of them while asking for justice tempered with mercy.

They will present a challenging testimony to and for the core of the gospel. I hope the courts and the officers of the courts will listen to the victims and their request that justice be well tempered with mercy.

By March of 2007 most of the church buildings will have been restored or rebuilt. And the ones which have not will be well on the way to having new and improved places of worship. Most of the congregations will be empowered with a new vision of their role in their community. Each will be strengthened by new members who have been drawn to the church by its faithfulness to its work. Many will have made new Christian friends from across Alabama and the nation as men and women have come to work with and to provide resources for the resurrection of their churches.

Several of the congregations have relocated to more visible settings. They and others have erected facilities that will enable them to change from being a traditional rural church with little more than weekly or bi-weekly worship to being a church with a much more active ministry–what Lyle Schaller has described as a “seven day a week” church.

The set of pastors and leaders will have grown more effective, bolder and deeper spiritually as they have responded to the opportunities and challenges which the fires brought. Mostly men with little formal training, they have given great testimonies and demonstrated wisdom as they served as spokesmen and provided leadership in their congregations.

Certainly, each of the churches has either learned or been forcefully reminded that God can bring blessing out of tragedy. They will recall, as other issues come, the centrality of forgiveness, mercy and justice in the Christian faith. Several also plan to form mission groups which will travel to other churches to assist in building projects just as they have been assisted. As the objects of blessing, they long to be blessings to others.

Yes, it appears that a bright future awaits the churches, but what about the three former college students? Their career plans seem to be delayed for a decade or two. The one who was on his way to being a physician will probably never be able to achieve this. I wonder if their fellow inmates will prove to be as forgiving and nurturing as the members of the burned churches? Will the young men respond to God’s Holy Spirit and become transformed persons, persons with a witness for God?

Will the general public think that the punishment given to the arsonists is too severe and does not fit the crime? Will it deter other “youngbloods” from burning other churches? Will we all pause and consider the deep ethical issues related to balancing, or tempering justice, with mercy?

My prayer is that God will work through all of this to change the young men, to change their fellow inmates and to change the general public. Certainly, we need to be grateful for our legal system. We need to be grateful for the fact that punishment is being given to those who violate the law. We need to be grateful when justice is equitable. Yet, our attention needs to be upon the redemption of those who confessed to the crime.

I have seen God do so much in all of this. I cannot but believe that he has some more surprises and victories ahead as these events unfold. I will keep praying, watching and praising. I hope that you will do the same.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.

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