a sad reminder

"He provided redemption for His people; He ordained His covenant forever -- Holy and awesome is His name."
(Psalm 111:9)

I saw myself last week, lying in a pool of blood just past midnight.

I saw my picture in the newspaper -- the reporter talked to a co-worker, who said "everyone is just shocked."

I saw my friends and family file into the funeral home. I saw them crying. My dad had to hold my mother up -- then take her home when she couldn't stand being there anymore.

Or maybe not. Maybe I saw myself two days ago, running my hands nervously through my disheveled hair. I'd run into an old friend, maybe, and was trying to explain why, at 30 years of age, I was still living in run-down apartments, still living on pizza and beer, still being the person I was. And knew I shouldn't be.

I shuffled my feet, avoided his eyes, maybe. I needed a shave.

"Yeah, just working," maybe I said. Maybe I was skinny -- too skinny -- and maybe I told the story of a mutual friend, now in prison for cooking meth.

But I was neither of those things last week -- or two days ago.

No, I'm married. And you should see my daughter -- oh, she's so beautiful. I'm healthy, happy ... a homeowner, for crying out loud (leaky basement and all!)

I want to tell you who I was.

I want to tell you who I am.

Last week, a young man was leaving his job as a bartender at a local restaurant. He worked there to provide for his live-in girlfriend, who is pregnant with the couple's first child. It was late -- just past midnight. A group of youths approached him, demanding his wallet. One of them had a gun. When he fought his attackers, he was shot in the head. He died almost instantly at the hands of a boy police say is just 16 years old.

I used to work at that same restaurant as a bartender a few years ago. I was about his age, and often parked my car in the same parking lot where he was killed. Why that parking lot in particular? Because it's free -- and I needed the money. Not only that, but I often carried a knife in my hand in case someone tried to rob me. When you are working a late bartending shift, you carry a lot of cash on the way home, see?

Then, just two days later, while shopping with my wife and daughter at Target, I ran into a friend from my restaurant days. He looked much the same as he did some six or seven years ago, when he was part of a group of friends to which I belonged. Drinking and drugs were the norm.

For anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant, you know it is a culture unto itself, full of its own rules and social norms. I was wrapped up in that culture for more than five years, and they had a devastating impact on my relationship to God. I'm overcome with emotion writing about it, really. I wasted so many years of my life chasing the sins of the flesh that it has, in many ways, left an indelible mark on the person that I am.

Of course, I'm free from all of that. The bondage of sin and death to which I was born -- and to which I most freely relished in those days -- has been loosed by the power of Christ in me. After knowing Him as a child, I strayed from His direction for my life for more than 10 years after graduating high school. Jesus welcomed me with open arms after I finally repented of the life I'd led -- he put on me the best robes He could find, and celebrated my return with a spiritual feast that has enveloped my life for the past few years (click here to read a similar story). Oh, how joyful a life He has given me!

But although that stain is gone from God's eyes, memories of who I was is painful. I hate that I was once innocent and now am "street smart." Some may think it a useful skill. I don't.

I hate that I know how to roll a joint. I hate knowing what certain drugs smell like when smoked. I hate knowing the difference between blended scotch and single malt.

I hate my past. I'm ashamed of it.

But here's the thing: it doesn't exist. Those things I once did? Gone. Literally gone. It's a Christian idea we refer to as "the sea of forgetfulness." Imagine your sins, everything you've ever done, completely drowned in the utter vastness of the ocean. And this is an ocean as deep and as wide as you've never seen.

I'm overjoyed at knowing that Christ's sacrifice on the cross has bridged the gap between my imperfection and the perfect love of God. Christ's love is so vast, it pours out into this great ocean, swallowing up everything I've ever done.

John Wesley wrote of the concept of "prevenient grace," that unmerited favor of God that pursues us throughout our lives, seeking to restore us into a right relationship with Him. All of our lives, He engineers circumstances in the world around us to reveal His perfect will for us. A preacher friend of mine likened it to the children's book "The Runaway Bunny."

"If you run away ... I will come after you, for you are my little bunny."

I ran and I ran and I ran. Christ not only came after me when I was mired in the muck of sin, but He also watched over me and protected me while I was there.

Because, really, I had two choices: I could have stayed there and died quickly -- like the young man at the hands of a teenager's bullet -- or died slowly -- like the friend of mine who lives where I once hung my hat.

I saw myself this morning, lying fully engulfed in the grace of my God.

(copyright 2006, andrew j. beckner)