Tonight our family was in the van driving over to some friends house when a thought hit me. I said to them, "30 years ago today, I was sentenced and went to prison." Actually, I went to the county jail and stayed there until December 31, and was transferred to Menard Penitentiary on New Years Eve, 1981. Ironically, it was exactly one year and one day before when I had been arrested. That year in between was a whirlwind of events that in some ways I'd like to forget happened, but then again no. I was in trouble... serious trouble, and the likely end result was going to be prison. My life, at the age of 21 was unraveling and coming apart in pieces. I was an alcoholic and was addicted to drugs. My addictions and anger issues had led me down a path to where I had stolen from people I loved and who loved me. People who had been friends were avoiding me because frankly, I scared them with my insane behavior. I turned my back on family, cheated and stole from them, and basically had used people until very few really wanted to be around me anymore. When I was arrested, my bail was set at $300,000, and I spent almost a month in jail before family was able to bail me out. When I came home, the vast majority of my friends were no where to be found, except for the very closest ones, and even they were distant. I can't blame them. When I was first arrested, it was thought that I had brutally murdered an elderly woman. Although I was eventually cleared of the murder, no one knew what to believe at that point. Alone, unemployed, facing prison and strung out, I did not see any hope, and I tried to kill myself. When the first attempt failed, I tried again, and again. On my 22nd birthday, I took a massive overdose of pills, mixing all types of drugs so that nothing they could give me could counteract what I had done. I planned it out to be that day, because my birthday was on a Sunday, and I knew my entire family would be in church and there would be no one around to find me until it was too late. To this day, I cannot explain what happened next, but to say that God was watching over me. The last thing I remembered was downing several handfuls of pills with a Fifth of Southern Comfort, and then I remember my Brother in-law reaching into my car to shut the engine off. I somehow had driven to the church and was in the parking lot, getting ready to pull back out onto the highway, with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake and I was passed out. The tires were squealing and smoking and someone in the church heard the noise and when they saw me they went in and got him. I woke up a couple of days later in ICU with my oldest brother staring at me and saying, "we thought we lost you this time."
The next few months were in and out of hospitals from drug overdoses and suicide attempts. Life continued that way until June 15 of that year. I had actually planned to kill myself that week. My family was gone for a week long church camp meeting, and I figured I was going to drink and do cocaine until I died. But God intervened again. Long story, and I won't go into it all right now, but a young lady who I had wanted to go out with, called and asked me out. The catch was, I had to go to church with her that night first, and she would go out with me after the service. I agreed and we sat in the very back row of this big auditorium, close to the door, so I could make may escape. I had smoked a couple of joints and popped a couple of Darvon before I got there, so I figured I could get through it. But that night, as the preacher spoke, it felt like there was no one in the huge auditorium but me and him. His words pierced my shell that I had wrapped myself in, and as I listened to him, literally squeezing the chair in front of me until my fingers were numb, I instantly sobered and I heard God speak so clearly to me, saying that this was the night I chose my eternal destiny. I literally ran to the altar and that night God saved my soul and called me to preach. Just a few days later I was miraculously delivered from alcohol and my addictions and I preached my first sermon just a few days after that. God radically transformed my life that summer. Still, I had a price to pay in mans eyes... and as we fast forward to December 18, 1981... I plead guilty in court and was sentenced to two six year terms in prison. That morning of December 18, 1981 I hugged my family... and walked off to prison, not knowing what awaited me, but knowing that I was not going alone. They took me to the same holding cell which I had been in the year before when I was arrested, and I knew this time I would not see home for a long time. But I was OK... there was a peace within. Little did I know that it was there in prison that God was going to train me for the ministry in which he would use me for the rest of my life.
So, tonight I look back. Yes, regretting the decisions and foolish living that took me to that place 30 years ago tonight... yet so ever thankful for a God who is full of love and mercy, who took the tattered fragments of my life and has built something that I never dreamed I could ever have. I shutter to even think about where I would be today if I had said no to God that Monday night in June. I'm just glad that He loved me so much that He never gave up on me.