July 19, 2005 § Leave a comment

On July 9th, 2005, I spent an hour standing in my driveway talking to a 16-year-old kid named John who used to live up my street. He’d since moved to the east side of the city to be closer to the mechanic shop where he worked, living in an apartment with a friend. He was back in the neighborhood visiting his mom and grandmother. His clothes were dirty and he smelled like cigarettes. I never knew him that well, but I heard he was always getting into trouble. I would say hello and talk to him whenever I’d see him in passing.

This particular evening I waved to John as he drove down the street, and to my surprise he circled the block and pulled his rusty GMC pickup into my driveway. As we talked, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or scream as he casually unfolded his unbelievable past filled with one run-in with the law after another. His stories were so outlandish that I didn’t know whether to believe him, but some of the details led me to think at least a good portion was true.

There was a story of his family mob connections that prompted a move here from the south when John was 11. He spent time in juvi for car theft, apparently stealing a vehicle from a city pound. He described how to beat a Cobra alarm system. He talked about weapons and showed me his butterfly knife. He bragged about street fight victories, runs from the police, being able to hold his liquor, big payoffs with money from questionable sources to keep him out of jail, drug abuse, and drag races.

His truck was apparently the 3rd fastest thing on the street, and he raced nearly every night on the east side. He showed me the engine he’d built himself along with the transmission. The windows were gone because he’d shattered them by slamming the doors in a fit of rage. The truck was registered in his dad’s name in a different county. Since his dad was no longer living, that made the plates impossible to trace, so he claimed. In all this he did mention having remorse for his past, and that was the only point in the conversation where he didn’t look happy.

After all these stories, I had to ask John if he actually feared death. He said no. When I asked him if he’d wondered what might be on the other side, he claimed he’d been there once but doctors revived him after some mishap. I forget what it was.

I invited him to our church youth group on Wednesday nights, but ironically, he said he did some things with the Mormon church on Wednesdays. An elder there shook his hand firmly once and that made him want to come back. Also, the Mormons believe that once you find your true love in this life you are with them in eternity, which was nice because John had a girlfriend and they planned to get married.

My head hurt. Amy had dinner ready so I invited him in to eat, but his cell phone rang and he had somewhere to be. I shook his hand as firmly as possible and told him I would pray for him. “Yeah, I pray for myself too,” he said. I told him to stop by anytime. As he smiled and drove off, my brain was spinning as I tried to fathom this kid. I loved him. I really did, and that’s the amazing thing. It was amazing because I myself was not capable of loving him. John was a criminal, but it was Christ that enabled me to decide to love him. This was who the Savior came for. If some church leader can get a kid’s attention with a firm handshake, think of what Christ could do with the cross. I began to pray John would find Him before it was too late.

It’s now too late. Ten days later John was dead. I found out today that he wrapped his truck around a tree with two other kids with him. They survived but John was killed.

I could sit here and think of all sorts of things I could have or maybe should have said to him that night if I’d known he only had 10 more days on earth. Would he have listened? I am thinking of these words from James 4:13-17… “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” What is my life but a vapor? How do I better “redeem the time” I have left? What if we looked at every new face as if they had reached their last ten days? What is the good I ought to be doing for the lost?

That experience drove home the undeniable truth that we are all just one heartbeat away from eternity, and we are all probably within reach of someone completely unaware of how dangerously close to the fire they are playing. Hold on firmly to the next lost and dusty hand you shake. Life is truly a vapor.

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