It’s been six years, yesterday. Six years since I wrote this piece. It’s an anniversary I’d rather not have, but those choices aren’t always ours. I can’t believe it’s been six.
I’ll Do Anything, God
My “anything” prayer happened in a credit union lobby, viewing security tapes. The image on the tape was shady, in more ways than one. He wore a hoodie pulled low over his brow, not surprising, since having anyone see his face would have been detrimental to his purpose. The tape was grainy, at best. Still, I could identify the vehicle, and its driver.
Explaining this all to the security woman at the credit union felt like an out-of-body experience. Surely, this was not my pretty, suburban Jesus life. Yes, I said. I do know who the young man in the tape is using my debit card. Yes, I do know he’s a drug addict and what he’ll do with the money. Yes, I know if I don’t press charges you won’t return the money. No, I still don’t want to press charges.
Her look called both my sanity and my intelligence into question. I just shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a pastor. It’s an occupational hazard. I can’t really explain.”
I didn’t pray “anything” intentionally. It happened to me the day Casey happened to me, and I might well have told God I had other, more pressing business had I any notion of the rough road ahead. Fortunately, God does not give us those notions. He knows my heart that would probably have embraced the fear and the comfort rather than the strange boy in my back hallway.
So I never offered God everything. But by the time he asked it of me, I could do nothing else. God knows, sometimes, that’s the way we work.
No Turning Back When You Tell God “Anything”
Fortunately for Casey, that shock of overgrown cocoa-colored bangs and those huge brown eyes beneath the ever-present hoodie endeared him to people before they knew him. At least they did to me, a sucker for shy smiles and already well aware of my daughter’s penchant for collecting what we could euphemistically term “the least of these.”
He had nowhere to go, could he maybe sleep in the basement? OK. I guessed that would be fine. For a while.
Two days later, his mom came knocking on the side door, letting us know the reason he had nowhere to go–she had a restraining order on him, because he had stolen from her, again. The same day one of our mutual friends informed us of his past in detail, containing more interactions with law enforcement than Snoop Dogg. “He’s a loser. He’ll never change. You’re out of your mind if you let him in your house. He’ll take you for everything you have.”
And he tried. I’d never been called to a bank to review security videos, never had someone steal my debit card and use it to buy gas for ten of his closest friends. Never had police bang on my door at random hours. Never sat at the hospital bed of someone who felt so little hope for life he’d OD on heroin, again.
He progressed to grand theft auto while we were on vacation. Not the video game. The rage I felt when the gift cards I’d saved points for to give our kids for Christmas turned up missing the week before—from my underwear drawer, which feels relentlessly violating—mixed with the sorrow and desolation of knowing that by this time, I loved this kid.
OK, he was no kid; he was 23. But only chronologically.
When Jesus told me to love the least of these, he wasn’t being rhetorical. He didn’t mean sending money to African orphans to satisfy my conscience or buying a pair of shoes so a needy child could have one, too. Yes, those are good things. I do those things. But until Casey, I didn’t understand that real love takes risks, gets personal, gets hideously, nakely messy. Real love looks a messed up kid in the eye and says, “I’m with you for the long haul. What do we have to do?”And sometimes the crapshot you take with love comes up bust. There is no guarantee.
Every time I thought I had had enough and was ready to turn this kid in and wash my hands, I asked God if I could. Well, I kind of begged him. There were some pretty bad days. And every single time, he said, “No. I am not done with Casey. So neither are you. Anything? Really?”
Holy Spirit Leverage
As part of our “I’m not turning you in so now I have some power over you” strategy, we “sentenced” Casey to community service at our church. He met people. They loved him, no holds barred. He came to a few services. He went forward to the altar, trying to start over and get out of the iron-bar-less prison he knew he was still in. He got better; he got worse; he got better. I felt the Spirit moving me to go back downstairs to him one night at 2am, long after I had gone to bed but not to sleep.
“Casey, what’s keeping you from turning your life over to God?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to give up the fun I’m having.”
“Really? So, this homeless, jail time, drugs gig is fun? How’s that working out for you?”
He shook his head sheepishly. “Yeah. Not so good.”
He told us no one in twenty-three years had made him feel so loved. Like the security woman, he shook his head at us and said he could not understand why.
But eventually, he got it. He got that love beyond all human ability comes from Jesus alone. A tiny bit of comprehension seeped in that, maybe, possibly, it wasn’t too late for someone like him. A God who would die for any sin on the books just because he loved us would love him, too. The Recovery Bible got a used look to it.
Eventually, I got it, too. I got that compassion means so much more than a thoughtful email, and mercy is the greatest inexplicable gift someone might get from me. I wrote my senior seminary thesis on grace. But I don’t think I knew it at all until I knew Casey. I know now how amazing grace is not just when its received but when its given. I’ve hugged Jesus in the form of a messed-up, love-bewildered kid. And I’ll never see Him the same.
Not a Fairytale
You know those stories with bittersweet endings that you hate but know are really more true than the happily ever after ones? This is that kind of story. Casey didn’t make it in this life. He tried hard. He went though recovery and was on the road. But there were too many years of pain and bad choices, and one last time on heroin, after being clean for a while, was the last. I had to find out through Facebook, not the number one choice for devastating your heart.
Sitting looking at the waves of Lake Michigan roll in that week, I cried for the man he might have been and the life that could have been his. But I also cried because I knew, absolutely knew, that at that moment, Casey was looking at Jesus through eyes free of fog. He had no pain, no past, no chains of addiction or scars of abuse. He had no tears of hopelessness or self-hatred. He was free. And I’d never been so happy for someone in my life. Or sad.
“Anything” prayers may take you no farther than your own back hallway. But they’ll take you much farther than that, once dangerous love sets in.
According to our surgeon general’s remarks when I heard him speak this spring, “This is a medical addiction issue, not a moral failure. The only way we’re going to create better opportunities for those we love is by sharing our stories and eliminating the stigma. None of us can do it alone.” Amen. The heroin epidemic is real, and it’s deadly. Someone dies every 12.5 minutes of an opioid overdose. The start of it for someone could be in your own medicine cabinet right now. Please check out some facts and know what you need to know. Don’t lose someone you love.