I’m going to tell you a true story of a strange, but unforgettable night back in 1983. I was a senior in high school, and I still had that new Christian smell that we have right out of the factory. I had scored a couple tickets to a weeknight baseball game, so I took my girlfriend at the time to a San Francisco Giants game at what was then their home, Candlestick Park.
As was common for those days, the stadium which seated over 62,000 people, only had about 10,000 on this night. It was almost as if everyone had their own row, and some, their own sections. My girlfriend and I took our seats in the upper deck, down the 3rd base line. Two rows in front of us sat a man who was a rather unpleasant distraction from the game. In those days, it was permissible to smoke in the stadium, so the fact that he lit a new cigarette with the one he was finishing was absolutely fine. Add to that the number of beers he was consuming and his colorful language, I had an unholy trinity of behavioral issues sitting just feet from us.
About 4 innings into the game, the man turned to me and asked if I could give him a ride home in downtown San Francisco. Of course I had absolutely no intention or desire to pile this foul man into my car, particularly with my girlfriend sharing the ride. But rather than simply saying no, I set for him what I figured was an impossible challenge. I told him I’d give him a ride if he quit smoking, quit drinking, and ended the foul mouthed tirades. I figured he would answer me with one such tirade, but he agreed to my terms.
I had no expectations that he would honor the terms, but sure enough, he was doing so with each inning that had passed. The game continued for nearly two more hours, and he was behaving like a gentleman. At one point, he did slip up and use a four letter word, but he caught himself and sheepishly apologized as if he were a child caught by his mom with his hand in the cookie jar.
Finally, the game ended. He had honored his word, so I had no choice but to do the same. My girlfriend gave me the thumbs up, so I at least had her consent to add to our car pool.
We left the stadium and made our way to my car. The only item the man carried was a cardboard tray one would use to carry their stadium food from the concession stand to their seat. In the tray was a carton of cigarettes. Not a pack. A carton.
He gave me directions to his neighborhood, which was a pretty scary place to be at any time of day, much less after 10 PM. He directed me to pull in a parking spot behind a pickup truck. I did as he instructed. He sat in the back seat of my two door sedan, so I got out of my seat, pulled it forward, and helped him out. He thanked me for the ride, and I wished him luck. He was actually quite pleasant by this point. I think I even found myself a little emotionally attached. As he made his way down the sidewalk, he reached the back of the pickup which was in front of us. He stopped for a moment, looked at his tray of cigarettes, then tossed them in the back of the pickup and continued on down the street.
By this point, I was weeping openly.
I circled the block, returning to the place where I had dropped him off. He was gone. Nowhere to be seen. It took me a few minutes to absorb all that had happened. I wasn’t sure why his walking away from the cigarettes had such a profound impact on me.
I think of how powerful it is when we walk away from things which are not good for us. Things which shackle us and keep us from being who God intended us to be.
“let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”
I was a brand new Christian, so it was years before I was able to piece together the meaning of this experience. I have thought of it many, many times in the ensuing 26 years. Each time I have thought of this man, I have ushered a little prayer for that man that somehow God would reveal Himself to this man, and that he would walk away from his sin, and run the race God marked out for him.
I doubt he is still alive to this day. He very well may be. Maybe he has told his side to this very same story about how some teenager challenged him to refrain from his nasty habits, if only for a couple hours. Maybe those couple hours led to a lifetime, even an eternal commitment. I have no idea. I didn’t say a single word about God that night, but I have prayed that God would use the events of that night to show this man that God had His hand on him. God preserved him. And God was speaking to him.
Right behind the reward of entering into my own rest at the feet of Jesus in Heaven, being reunited with my mom and other loved ones who have, or will have gone before me, the next face I would want to see is this man’s. I’ve been thinking of him and praying for him for 26 years, not knowing his name or if he’s even still alive.
When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.
When we all see Jesus, and sing and shout the victory!