Monday, April 2, 2012

Offering a Future Hope

To God and God alone be all the praise, honor and glory. For He alone is worthy. May the story that follows draw the reader's attention to Jesus Christ the Lord.

The family and I were heading home from our weekly Life Group meeting. It's the time of week when we get to study the Word of God with members of our church family and develop deeper relationships with them. Mahria was driving, so I took the time to check emails in my ministry account.

My attention was immediately drawn to an email from an old and dear friend. The subject line: "I don't know if you can do this."

We first met about twenty-three years ago. We were both deputy sheriffs. He had a few years seniority on me. When we met, I had been a Christian for less than a year, and he was a worldly and cynical "Jack Mormon." In spite of the fact that he thought it was sporting fun to challenge my Christian beliefs on a daily basis, it didn't take long for us to find common ground and a friendship was born.

My friend, by the sovereign grace and will of God, would come to genuine repentance and faith in Jesus Christ--in spite of what I'm sure was a weak gospel presentation on my part. My theological inadequacies as a babe-in-the-faith just go to show that salvation is of the Lord, and not something that can be manipulated or screwed up by man.

My friend would remarry his wife, and I had the privilege of standing as his Best Man. We would attend seminary together. We both retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to pursue full-time ministerial service. He graduated and became the associate pastor of a fine church.

The email from my friend was urgent. His dad, himself a retired deputy sheriff, is dying of cancer. The day of the email was a particularly bad day for my friend's dad--so bad that the family thought he might only have days to live. My friend made a simple and terrifying request in his email.
He is no longer in ICU. They moved him out yesterday. However, he seems to have lost his will to live since they moved him. Now, could I (and my Mom) be wrong? Yes. But, if there is anyone willing to preach the Gospel to him one last time, I would be so thankful. I know it’s a long drive. If you can’t do it, I completely understand. It could be the most miserable and brief experience of your life even if you went up there. I just can’t stop thinking about Dad spending eternity in hell. If he had any idea what that transformation will be like, he would be fighting with all of his officer safety mindset to not die.
The simple request: share the gospel with my friend's dad. The terrifying request: share the gospel with my friend's dad.

I've shared the gospel with deputies in patrol cars. I've shared the gospel with people handcuffed in the backseat of my patrol car. I've shared the gospel with an LAPD officer who had me handcuffed. I've shared the gospel with the loved ones of slain officers--inside and outside of hospital settings. I've shared the gospel with the dying mother-in-law of a former gang unit partners and friend.

But this was different. For me, this was the evangelistic perfect storm.

My friend's dad had been a respected member of the sheriff's department. He was instrumental in the formation of our department's Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB), which is referred to as SWAT on other departments. He was, as I was told, an angry atheist. He was a dying man. He had no idea who I was. And he had no idea I might be coming to see him.

I have received several requests like the one I received from my friend--to visit a friend or loved one in the hospital, with the expressed purpose of sharing the gospel with them. More often than not, the requests come from well-intentioned brothers and sisters in Christ who wanted me to do what they were unwilling (too fearful) to do themselves. They were unwilling to get on a plane, get in a car, or get on the computer to send an email to share the gospel with their ill, injured, or dying friend or loved one.

While it may seem unusual, even cold to some, I do not fulfill such requests. I gently but firmly let the requesting person know it is their responsibility, as a follower of Christ, to share the gospel with their friends and loved ones. It is disobedient to Christ and bordering on cowardice to ask someone else to follow the command Christ has given to every Christian--to go and make disciples of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20).

My friend's request, however, was not this kind of request. He had shared the gospel with his dad on more than one occasion. My friend's request was not made with the intent to disobey Christ or to pass off to someone else what he himself was unwilling to do. He knew his dad was going to die--maybe soon. He knew what would happen to his dad if he died. He knew he would spend eternity in Hell, as the just punishment for his sins against God. And he knew he might not get to his dad before his dad past from here to eternity.

My friend asked me to go share the gospel with his dad because he loves his dad and he loves his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

So, Friday afternoon I left Living Waters and made the long drive to the hospital. The drive gave me plenty of time to pray, worship and praise, and plan.

I pulled into the hospital parking lot. There I sat for what seemed like several minutes, praying more and working up the courage to get out of the car and enter the hospital. As I stepped out of the car, I decided to grab a Bible out of the trunk. I added an inscription that read:
Jim (not his real name),
Your son loves you.
Tony
I placed one of my business cards inside the Bible where the inscription was written to make sure Jim would see it when he opened the Bible to remove the business card.

I walked into the hospital and made my way up to Jim's room. I walked toward the open door of Jim's room and made an immediate right turn down the hall, walking away from the room. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I had seen several people in the room as I walked by, including a couple of children. "Was I going into a possible evangelistic firefight with kids in the room?" I thought. "Not good."

I waited for about fifteen minutes, hoping the other people (presumably family members) would leave the room. They didn't leave.

Then it dawned on me. There were two beds in the room. I asked a nurse in which bed was Jim. She indicated Jim's bed was the one nearest the window, which was not the one around which the people in the room were gathered.

It was now or never.

I made my way into the room and around the curtain that separated the two beds. Jim was awake and sitting up in his bed. His chin was against his chest and his breathing seemed a bit labored. Without raising his chin from his chest, he looked up at me.

I introduced myself, explained to Jim my connection with his son, and handed him the Bible.

"I would like to give this to you, on behalf of your son."

He opened the Bible at the page where I placed my business card and read the inscription. "That's really nice. Thank you."

"My pleasure."

There were a couple moments of awkward silence.

"Your son tells me that you are not very fond of that book." I said.

"Nah. I'm an atheist."

Another couple moments of awkward silence.

"Can I ask you a question?" I asked.

"Sure."

"Let's say you were my FTO (Field Training Officer). And I was your boot (slang for a patrol trainee). And I'm one of those boots who thinks he has it all figured out."

An almost sarcastic smile appeared on Jim's face. Seeing Jim's smile, I said, "Yeah, you know the kind of trainee I'm talking about." I continued. "Let's say you decide I'm far enough along in my training to let me drive. You decide that we are going to pull-over a car. You know, with certainty, the driver of the car is armed. Since I'm driving, I'm going to approach the driver. Would you let me approach the car not knowing the driver is armed? Or would you warn me of the danger?"

"Well, if I didn't like you..." Jim said with a chuckle.

"I know what you did in your career. I think you were too professional to let your partner walk into danger. Even if you didn't like me, I'm still a brother behind the badge."

"Yeah. Yeah. You're right."

"So, you would warn me of the danger, right?"

"Right."

I pointed at the Bible now on Jim's lap and said, "And that's why I'm here, today. I know you and your son have talked about these things before. But your son loves you and so he asked me to come and talk to you."

I asked Jim why he didn't believe in God. He told me that if someone could prove to him that God exists, then he would believe. While on some level Jim may have believed what he was saying, I knew it wasn't true. I knew proving the existence of God to Jim would not cause him to repent and believe. No one comes to the Christ unless God the Father draws the person to Himself (John 6:44). His mere intellectual assent to the truth of God's existence would not cause Him to be born again (James 2:19). I also knew there was absolutely no need to prove the existence of God to Jim because he already knew in both his mind and heart God exists (Romans 1:18-23).

With the above in mind, I wanted to see Jim's reaction. So I said, "I believe I can prove to you God exists." 

Jim smiled. "Go ahead."

"Jim, how do you know someone built this hospital? After all, you didn't see it built?"

"Oh, this part of the hospital was built in 1910!" A nurse excitedly volunteered.

"See, Jim. It was built before either one of us was born." I said. "Do you think the glass, metal, brink and mortar, paint and steel evolved over millions of years into this hospital?"

"No."

"Do you think the smile of the Mona Lisa evolved over millions of years? Do you think the paint threw itself up on the canvas to form one of the world's most famous paintings?"

"No."

"Jim, all you have to do is look at creation to know there is a Creator. But Jim, I believe you already know that. Does that make sense?"

"I guess so."

Jim tried to hide his concession to the truth behind a doubtful and stubborn facade. But I think he and I both knew it wasn't working.

I had to fight back a chuckle as I saw the family members of the other patient in Jim's room slowly move away from the patient's bed so they could get a better look at and listen to my conversation with Jim. The scene was becoming a mini open-air.

"Jim, do you question God's existence because of all the evil in the world, because of all the evil you have seen man commit against his fellow man?"

He nodded his head.

"If God exists (and I know that, and I understand that you don't believe that)--if God exists, do you think he should punish murderers, rapists, and pedophiles?"

"Yes."

"I agree. But God is not going to stop there, Jim. God is also going to punish the liar, and the thief, and the adulterer, and the blasphemer. Because is perfect, holy, righteous, and just He is going to punish all sin; not just the ones we don't like."

I let Jim think about that for a minute.

"Jim, it's almost 5 o'clock. If God were to rid the world of all evil at 5:01, where would that leave you?"

Jim didn't answer.

"Jim, have you ever been sued for something you did on the job?"

"Nope."

"Not once?"

"Nope?"

"Wow, I thought for sure working SEB for ten years would have resulted in at least a couple of lawsuits. I was sued six times during my time on the department. None of the suits amounted to anything. Only one actually made it to court, and the department won the case.

"Thinking back to those lawsuits, it reminds me of the one place deputy sheriffs never want to find themselves--sitting at the defense table. We're used to sitting at the prosecution table, trying to put a knucklehead in jail. But the last place we want to be is at the defense table, waiting to be judged by twelve people who were not smart enough to get out of jury duty."

Jim nodded his head and smiled.

I explained to Jim that it is appointed for a man to die once, and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). I explained to him the standard by which God, the supreme Judge of the Universe, will judge--His moral law.

"Jim, like me, you probably spent a lot of time in court."

Jim nodded.

"Maybe you heard this saying in the courts. 'Any man who goes into court to defend himself has a fool for a client.'"

Jim nodded again.

"Jim, the same is true when we stand before God. Any man who stands before God and thinks he is going to argue a case for his own goodness has a fool for a client. Jim, when a judge hands down a sentence in a court of law, does it matter at all what the guilty criminal thinks about the judge or the law?"

"No."

"That's right. It doesn't matter what the criminal thinks about the judge or the law. What matters is what the judge thinks about the criminal."

In order to transition to the gospel, I put Jim in a courtroom scenario, in which he was a deputy sheriff accused of breaking the law who now found himself sitting at the defense table. From there I shared the gospel with him. I told him about the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ--the God Man. I explained to him the judicial nature of God's justification of sinners, the propitiation of Jesus Christ, repentance and faith, and the forgiveness of sin through Christ's death on the cross and His resurrection. 

"Jim, I was the on-scene chaplain for ten of the line-of-duty deaths, on our department. One was Jake Kuredjian. I worked with Jake at Santa Clarity Valley Station. After Jake's death, our station decided to build a memorial garden behind the station, in honor of Jake's sacrifice and in his memory. The brass asked me to come up with a verse to place on the memorial plaque. I chose John 15:13. It says, 'Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.'

"Jake's sacrifice is an illustration of what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross. But Jesus did not only die for his friends. He also died for His enemies--for those who hate Him."

I let Jim think about that for a moment.

My friend had told me he believed the hardness of his dad's heart was due, in part, to what he suspected was his dad's belief that his life of sin was too great, too terrible to forgive.

"Jim, do you realize there is nothing you have done in this life that God cannot forgive? Some people have asked, 'How can the sacrifice of one Man forgive the sins of so many?' The answer is simple. That one Man, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is infinitely more precious, more valuable than all of mankind--past, present, and future--put together. Jesus Christ will forgive you, Jim, if you repent and receive Him as your Lord and Savior."

It was at that moment I thought I saw tears in Jim's eyes.

"Will you at least think about what I've shared with you?" I asked.

"Yeah." Jim said with a smile. "But it won't do any good."

"I have more hope than that, Jim."

We spent a few more minutes "talking shop."

As I said goodbye, I took Jim's hand and held it. I told him that I loved his son, so that meant I loved him, too. I told him I would be praying for him. Jim thanked me for coming to visit him.

I left Jim's room doing everything I could not to burst into loud praise and worship to my great God and King. I waited until I got in the car to do that. It was a wonderful drive home.

I could have told Jim that God has a wonderful plan for his life. I could have told Jim that God wanted him to have and live his best life now or to treat every day as if it were Friday. I could have promised Jim health, wealth, and prosperity. I could have promised Jim signs and wonders. I could have tried to lead Jim in a sinner's prayer.

Of course, I didn't do any of those things. Why? None of them are biblical. And these empty and unbiblical offers would have been utter foolishness to a man who was about to die, maybe in days.

What I did offer Jim was real hope, the only hope that mattered. I offered Jim a future hope--one that can only be found by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. I offered Jim that which only Christ can give--forgiveness of his sins and eternal life with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit--the one true God.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. ~ 1 Peter 1:3-9
Join me in praying for Jim's salvation.

3 comments:

  1. Very powerful, my brother. May God the eyes of Jim his heart today!

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  2. Amen brother, SDG! This was my favorite part:
    "...Some people have asked, 'How can the sacrifice of one Man forgive the sins of so many?' The answer is simple. That one Man, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is infinitely more precious, more valuable than all of mankind--past, present, and future--put together. Jesus Christ will forgive you, Jim, if you repent and receive Him as your Lord and Savior."

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  3. Tony, thank you for sharing a fuller version of this trip and witness. What a wonderful sharing of the gospel as well as your vulnerability. You are a faithful witness to me. I am praying for Jim.

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