I've always been found solace in stories like that of Paul. He started out hating Christians... hunting them down and persecuting them... yet even he couldn't resist God's call. God used a terrible sinner like Saul (who would later be known as Paul) to ultimately become one of God's greatest evangelists! It always gives me comfort to think of stories like Paul's, because they're proof that no matter how great our sins, God is quick to forgive those who seek His forgiveness, through His Son, Jesus. God could've chosen any one of a million people to spread His Gospel, but he chose Saul to show us that His love is available to any one of us, regardless of our past sins. I didn't hunt down Christians, but the first half of my life was about as far from God's will as one can get.
I guess it really all went downhill when I was about 15. I wish I could blame it on a bad upbringing, or a troubled childhood, but I can't. I was raised by two loving grandparents with old-fashioned values. My grandfather was a former minister, as was my grandmother's father... so I was raised in a decent environment, and taught to love God from the time I could speak. However, somewhere along the line things went south in a big way. It started when I went to visit my mother in Boston. I hadn't seen her since I was a baby, and the thought of finally escaping from a small-town and living in a big-city appealed greatly to me. So I packed up and moved to Boston, unsure of how long I'd stay. I figured I'd play it by ear.
Well, it took about a day for the culture-shock to hit me. My mother grew marijuana in the window sill of her bedroom. She drank heavily. She was an ultra-liberal. Quite a change from the conservative Christian grandparents I'd been raised by. I quickly adapted though. Within a month, I was hanging around the wilder crowd at school, listening to "The Doors" and "Pink Floyd", and getting my ear pierced with a safetypin. I became involved with a girl I met in school, and was soon experimenting with LSD and hanging out with a rock band. It was like a whirlwind; everything happened so fast I'm not sure I can even explain how I got pulled into such a radically different lifestyle so quickly. I grew my hair out in an attempt to emulate my new hero, Jim Morrison. I began drinking vodka, and experimenting with drugs. My visit to Boston culminated with a bizarre night in which I stole a collection of antique jewelry, dove into a swimming pool fully clothed, and nearly broke my hand punching a tree, all while on LSD. I then skipped town, selling the jewelry at various pawn shops as I traveled back home to my small town.
Even on the bus-ride home, I managed to find trouble. I met a girl at a bus station in Philadelphia, and ended up convincing her to run away from home, and travel the remaining distance across the country with me.
Unfortunately, the trouble didn't end when I returned home. Over the next 3 years, I managed to get thrown into a rehabilitation center for fighting with a cop, got arrested 3 times, and attempted suicide. I found myself in many ugly situations during those years, like the time a guy tried to drive off with my girlfriend and I pulled a gun on him and forced him out of the car. I also returned to Boston three times. Once I was even threatened at knifepoint in the so-called "Combat Zone" after I'd tried to buy some drugs from a guy in the projects.
But wait, remember Saul? He wasn't a very nice guy either, and look at how God used him! And there was King David! Didn't that sweet little boy who defeated Goliath send a guy to his death so he could have his wife? There's still hope for this testimonial, so give me a chance and read on...
Okay, so I'm about 18 now. I'd met a girl named Stacey in rehab, and started hanging out with her. She always knew where the parties were, and always seemed to have a single friend who was interested in me. So one day she introduced me to a friend of hers, and before I knew it, I'd run away with the girl she'd introduced me to, and a friend of hers. They were both 16, and somehow we got it in our heads that it would be fun to drive to Canada. We picked up another guy, so it would be like a double-date, and then took off on what we fancied to be a sort of Bonnie-and-Clyde adventure. It all came to an abrupt end a few days later though. I got arrested for transporting juveniles across state lines, and endangering their welfare.
So then I found myself in jail. Because I lived in a small town at that time, it made big news. There I was, all over the front page of my hometown paper. (Remember, up until a couple of years before this, I was one of the "good kids". I hung with a good crowd, and was top of my class). Now suddenly, I was faced with he humiliation of my arrest being on the front page of a paper read by 5,000 of my teachers, friends, church members, and friends' parents. I knew I had 7 charges hanging over me, so I decided to take the easy way out: I tried to kill myself. I took a blanket and tore it into strips, and braided them into a noose. I came pretty close to hanging myself from a vent in the jail's ceiling, but then I saw the light. No, not the inspirational light... (at least not yet. ) No, I saw a bare lightbulb and decided it would do a good job of cutting my wrist. So I broke the bulb, and slashed both of my arms. I did a really good job of it, too. I lay in bed, as blood sprayed out freely. It was very dark in my cell, and the jailers rarely checked on us, so I knew I'd succeed.
It was the loneliest night of my life. I laid in bed, growing colder and colder. I began shaking uncontrollably as I went into shock. It was around midnight when I started to get dizzy and vomit. My legs went numb, and when I tried to sit up, I blacked out. I knew I was dying. I'd scribbled out a small, apologetic note to my grandparents, and went to sleep, knowing I wouldn't wake up.
...but i did. I woke up at about 6am, when the jailer brought me my breakfast. They found me lying in a puddle of blood which covered the entire floor of my cell. I was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, and told that I may have to be flown by helicopter to the city trauma center. When they asked me what time I'd cut my arms, they said it was impossible, and that I would've been dead if it had happened any earlier than 5:45 or so. They insisted that I couldn't have lain there any longer than 10 or 15 minutes.
So from there I went to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation, before being taken back to jail a few weeks later. Soon, my public defender approached me and said that the best he could do was convince the prosecutor to offer me a plea bargain of 10 years. He said that my prior convictions plus the sheer number of charges against me were my undoing. They'd also found stolen merchandise in the car, and one of the girls had tested positive for drugs. I told him I'd sign the agreement, but asked him to try one last time to bring the prosecutor down to 5 years. So he agreed and left.
The next morning, I was visited by a private attorney. He informed me that some people from the church I'd grown up in had contacted him, and asked him to look into my case. The group of people from my church had given him a $5,000 retainer fee, just to examine my case! Almost instantly, the prosecutor dropped several of the charges, and lowered his offer to 5 years. Many months went by, while we argued things out in court.
Finally, my lawyer approached me and told me we were at a crossroads. He said, "I think I can beat this thing completely, but it will take a few more months. Otherwise, we can accept a plea bargain for 120 days." I didn't want to cost those people helping me any more money, and I'd already spent nearly a year in jail, so I gladly accepted the 120-day plea agreement. I was told that I would officially be given probation, although I would have to serve another 120 days of "shock" detention.
Ironically, in the end I took a plea agreement for the only charge I was innocent of: "Hindering Prosecution". They accused me of trying to warn a friend about an investigation against her in which she was suspected of stealing a VCR from the school where her father worked. I hadn't tried to warn her, and really knew nothing about the VCR... but I still happily grabbed the plea-agreement, as an alternative to the other 7 charges they had originally threatened me with.
So I got shipped off to prison for my "shock sentence". It really wasn't bad, actually. Compared to the 10 months I'd spent in jail, while we hashed-out the case in the courts, prison was a vacation. Jail was essentially solitary confinement. I was in a tiny cell with no real windows, no fresh air, and no sunlight; but prison had plenty of outdoors, libraries, and cable TV... (Yes, the stories are true; They even have Nintendo systems, and other luxuries which I don't personally feel have any place in a prison.) I got along well with everyone there, and even knew a couple of people from my hometown.
Then God reached out to me.
I still get goosebumps when I write this, or tell it. I'm always very skeptical of people's dreams. It's not that I don't believe God occasionally speaks through dreams, but I think many people place far too much emphasis on dreams. All I can say from the experience I'm about to share is, if God speaks to you, you'll know it. If you have to ask, "Do you think this dream means anything?" then it doesn't. I don't believe God will allow any ambiguity if and when He speaks. At least, He didn't in my case.
A couple of weeks before I was due to be released, I had a dream in which I was standing in a large church. The congregation was singing a hymn, and I struggled to sing along. I felt very self-conscious, as I was the only one in the room who didn't know the words and wasn't able to sing along. A loud voice in my mind said, "If you went to church more, you'd know these words." All I could do was hang my head in shame.
So then the congregation stopped singing, and they all opened their Bibles and began reading a verse. I opened mine, but couldn't find the verse. I flipped through the pages, looking for the passage they were reading. It was vaguely familiar, yet I had no idea where to find it. The voice in my mind said, "If you read my Word more, you'd know what verse they're reading."
Then the crowd smiled and turned to face a bright beam of light which was coming from the ceiling. It was a beautiful beam of light, and they all approached it. In an instant they were gone. I found myself frightened and completely alone. The voice in my mind said, "If you loved me and obeyed me, you would be with them now, together with me."
In a panic, I reached out for the beam of light, wishing to join those who'd been there a moment earlier. I wanted so badly to be a part of them... away from the filth of the prison, and the sinfulness of the people I'd spent the last 3 years of my life hanging around. I wanted to be pure... forgiven.... free.
I touched the beam of light and awoke with a jolt that was so powerful I can't describe it. Tears were streaming down my face and I simply muttered, "I touched God. I felt Him. " over and over. It was the most powerful sensation I'd ever felt... so much so that now, twelve years later, I still can't write or recount this without crying and getting goosebumps.
Well, the rest is a story of redemption and rebuilding. I called on Jesus to forgive me, and to give me the wisdom and obedience to repair the damage I'd done to my life. I spent my short remaining time in prison hanging around the chapel, and reading my Bible. When I got out, I moved, joined a church, and made every effort to put bad influences behind me. Something in me had truly changed. I found that I hated sin. I would turn on the TV and grow sick at what I saw. I would hear my old friends telling dirty jokes, and I would walk away from the conversation. I would think back to things I'd done, and grow remorseful. Thinking about my past was like looking into a stranger's life; I couldn't believe I ever held those values.
Don't get me wrong... I was far from perfect, even after the dream... but I'd become a "new creature" ( 2 Cr 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. ) It was like I was suddenly seeing sin though new eyes, and finding myself convicted of things I'd previously not given a second thought over. I still made occasional mistakes but unlike before, I felt true remorse when I did sin.
Over the next decade, I found it easier and easier to resist sin. I realize I'll never be perfect, but the differences in my life now are profound. When I think back to the things I'd done, it makes me ill. I'm deeply ashamed of actions which I use to be proud of. Yet as ashamed as I am for my sins, I know God doesn't hold them against me any more than he held Paul's sins against him. If He can forgive Paul for helping to persecute and kill Christians, how much easier can He forgive me?
I'm now a Paramedic. I'm happily married to a girl I'd met way back in high school, and we have 2 wonderful kids. We've been married for about 10 years now. I completely disclosed my background when I applied for my paramedic licenses, but because of my age when they occurred, and because of the ultimate disposition of the sentence (probation with a suspended sentence), they didn't hold it against me. I even testify as an expert witness in criminal cases from time-to-time. I'm very involved in my church, and have had a strong interest in eschatology for 12 years now (ever since the dream). Working on an ambulance gives me many unique opportunities to tell others about Jesus. I often find myself at their deathbed, as they're breathing their last breaths, or comforting families who've lost loved ones. A few months ago I even had the opportunity to help a well-known Christian author, who'd become sick. We had a wonderful conversation, and he invited me to attend a prophecy conference which he later hosted.
Whenever I feel myself drifting from God, and growing slack in my focus, I recall the dream and it sets me straight. Throughout the past 12 years, it's served as a sort of compass, to keep me on track.
Go to Church.
Read the Bible.
Love me and Obey Me.
.... how basic were those simple instructions? Yet how profound has their impact been on my life!