The first thing that I would like to do is share with you some of my past, in order for you to understand the things that led up to my conversion to Christ. I would like to preface all of my statements about my past, with this statement: I am extremely embarrassed and ashamed of the direction that my life took when I was 14 years old. I was not ashamed of it then, if anything I was rather proud and arrogant about it. But I have had a lot of years to think about how my earlier years contributed to my overall demise, as well as the demise of others. Because, in my pursuit of a good time, good feelings, notoriety, and fast money, I have left a lot of people damaged in the wake of my life. Some of those people have been damaged irreparably, by that I mean there are people suffering today and will suffer all the days of their lives, because they have had the unfortunate luck of running into me during their lifetime. Where I have been able to make amends, I have. Where I have been able to make restitution, I have. If I knew to do anymore, I would. But, like a lot of things in life, no matter how badly you would like to undo them, you can not. Its like ringing a bell, once it has been rung, you can never un-ring it. At this point, you can only do two things. First, you try and learn to live with it, and by the mercy and grace of God, I have been able to. Secondly, you try to redeem it. By that, I mean you allow God to bring something good out of something so bad. This article is an expression of that. At first I did not know if God could, or would, do that in my situation. I knew that He redeemed me from my past, but I was not sure that He could use my past to bring redemption to others. But over the years, in schools, in prisons and in churches, I have seen Him to do just that. And it is my prayer, that He will do it for you, as I share my past with you.
FAILING AT LIFE
I was born on August 15, 1950, in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was born into a lower middle class family. My father loaded trucks for the Sears & Roebucks Company, and my mother worked as an office worker. I have three brothers; one who is two years older, one who is one year older, and one who is two years younger. Though we always had enough to eat, clothes to wear and a roof over our heads, we did not have much else.
My parents were not Christians, therefore we never went to church. As a result, I grew up completely ignorant of anything spiritual. Though they were not Christians, they were moral people, hard working people, and people who wanted the best for their children. My mother instilled in me a love for academics. She told me that if I excelled in academics, I could write my own ticket in life. My father instilled in me a love for athletics. He too, told me that if I excelled in any one given sport, I could also write my own ticket in life. At a early age, I sought to excel in both of these. So much so, that by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was an honor roll student and excelled in basketball. I was also college bound, in that I had hoped to get a scholarship for playing basketball and study to become a lawyer.
At the same time this was happening, our society was going through some major upheavals. It was the mid 1960's and a lot of things were changing. President Kennedy had been assassinated, the Vietnam war was beginning, and the civil rights movement was growing. But of all the changes that happened during that era, the one that affected me the most was the change in music. Rock and Roll music went from an Elvis Presley style, of an individual musician and singer, to a Beatles style of a band. Like a lot of people of my time, I got caught up in this new style of music. Not only did I enjoy the music, I wanted to emulate the lifestyles of the musicians, which included both the abuse and use of drugs and alcohol. At first, I used drugs and alcohol in moderation, but after awhile, they began to take over my life. By that I mean, that getting high and having fun became my sole preoccupation in life. Everything took a back seat to this new passion of my life, including my family, my education, and my basketball playing. This caused my life, which was on an upward spiral, to begin a downward spiral, so much so, that 8 years later I had failed at every venue in life. I failed as a son, in that I broke my mothers heart to the extent that four years later, when she was diagnosed with cancer, she had no will to fight it and died a year later. It also took me 15 years to get my father to speak to me again. I do not judge him for that, because he learned early that the best way to deal with me was from a distance. Any time he allowed his fatherly compassion to kick in, and he did allow that to happen on several occasions, I would come in and reek havoc, not only on his life, but on the life of my brothers as well. I failed as a sibling, in that it took 18 years to get my brother, who is two years older, to speak to me; it took me 19 years to get my brother, who is one year older, to speak to me; and it took over 25 years to get my brother, who is two years younger, to speak to me.
I failed as a student, in that I was expelled from high school in my senior year. What started out to be my first big victory in life, ended up being my first big failure. I had already been suspended for minor infractions of school rules. But one day in November of my senior year, I came to school a little hung over and in a bad mood. A particular teacher who took it upon himself to harass me on a daily basis, harassed me one too many times, and I assaulted him. As a result, I was expelled. I thought this teacher harassed me because he did not like me, I later found out, much too late, that he actually harassed me because he thought the world of me. He remembered how I was as a sophomore and freshman, he thought maybe a strong stance would bring me back to the potential I had once shown.
My expulsion brought my parents to their wits end. Not knowing what to do with me, they began to strongly encourage me to join the army. They were hoping the army would succeed where they felt they had failed. Maybe the regiment and discipline of army life would bring me back to my senses, and I could recapture the promise of my youth. But because I did not think I had a problem, I proceeded to fail as a soldier, in that I went AWOL several times, received numerous Article 15's, one Battalion Article 15, one Summary Court Martial, one Special Court Martial and was eventually Undesirably Discharged. But in my warped perspective, I held my discharge up much like I had my expulsion, almost as a badge of honor. To me it signified that my parents could not break me, school officials could not break me and now the army could not break me. What I did not know was that I was breaking myself.
During this time my drug and alcohol usage was steadily increasing. Since I did not like to work, I turn to crime in order to pay for my addiction. As a result, I have failed as a criminal in that I have been apprehended by the authorities on 30 different occasions, resulting in several arrests. Most of my arrests were for possession of drugs, sales of drugs or criminal activity to get drugs. I have been arrested for robbing drug stores in South Carolina; I have been arrested for possession of 8 lbs of marijuana in Georgia; I have been arrested for 200 tabs of LSD in Florida; and I have been arrested for possession of heroin and heroin paraphernalia in Pennsylvania, just to name a few.
Finally, I made the ultimate failure in a moment that I will never be able to get back, a moment that I will regret for the rest of my life, I failed as a human being, in that I was responsible for someone dying. Now if anyone would have ever told me when I was 14, smoking my first joint, that I would be responsible for taking somebodys life 8 years later, I would have told them they were crazy. When I did this crime, something snapped on the inside of me that is hard to describe. I was surprised at how deeply I felt the guilt and torment of my actions. For up until this time, I had become a case study of what a sociopath is, in that I acted without conscience. I could bankrupt my own dad when I was a heroin addict, and did, and think nothing of it. I could allow my own little brother to go to jail for something that I did, and feel nothing over it. But when I took someones life, it was like all the remorse that I should have been feeling all along came flooding in on me all at one time, and the pain that I was feeling was more than I could bare. There is a scripture that describes what I was going through, I did not know it then, I later discovered it as I read the Bible. It is found in Proverbs 28:17, the New American Standard Bible translates it this way, "A man who is laden with the guilt of human blood will be a fugitive until death; let no one support him." The Living Bible says it more clearly, "A murderer's conscience will drive him into hell. Don't stop him!"
FINDING THE LORD
During that day, I tried all my crutches to numb myself to this pain, but to no avail. I tried getting stoned, but all it did was amplify the pain. I tried getting drunk, but all that did was intensify the pain. Somewhere in the midst of these attempts, it dawned on me that the only way I was going to get relief from what I was feeling, and I was being driven to get relief, was if my life stopped. I had never been suicidal before, but I longed for death, if death would stop this pain.
At the time, I remember being struck by the sheer irony of my situation. I initially did drugs in order to feel good, I was now doing them so that I would not feel so bad. I initially did drugs because they sharpened my senses, but now I was doing them in order to dull my senses. I initially did drugs to feel better about myself, but now because of them I hated myself to the point of suicide. And I initially did drugs because I thought they would help me be the person I always wanted to be, ultimately they caused me to become what I hated most, a murderer.
Two other things contributed to my self-loathing. The first was the person who died was someone I was close to, nobody knew that I was responsible, but I knew it and the knowledge of it was eating me alive. The second was that the wake was being held at my house, because my house was the only house big enough to accommodate the crowd. The only positive aspect of this for me was that during the wake, there would be a lot of drugs present. This knowledge helped me formulate the plan of my suicide. I decided that since I lived by drugs, I was going to die by drugs. So, my plan was that during the wake, I would just keep ingesting drugs until I overdosed.
But for some reason, God had a different plan for me. It was not that I hit bottom and looked up; like always when I hit bottom, I was not looking for a way up, I was looking for a way out. But in my looking for a way out, God went out of His way to provide a way up for me. Different people were calling me during the course of the day, saying they had heard about what happened, and could they come to the wake. One particular girl, by the name of Lynn, called up and asked if she could come over, which I responded with a yes. The only reason I said yes was the fact that the last time I had seen her, which was about 4 months earlier, I had sold her a fairly large quantity of drugs. Thinking she was still in the same life-style as I was, I said yes. Had I known that she had become a Christian since the last time I had seen her, I would have never let her into my house.
A couple of hours later, Lynn arrived at my house armed with a smile that would not quit, and an industrial sized Bible. She came walking up to me and said ""Praise God." My initial thoughts were, "great, just when I thought things could not get any worse, a Jesus Freak shows up at my door; I already feel terrible about myself, and she is going to just make me feel worse." In anger, I told my live-in girlfriend to take her inside to talk with her for a few minutes, then get rid of her. My girlfriend at that time was as hard and cold as I was, and I was confident that she could get rid of her, even if she had to be rude and profane. But more than an hour later, the two of them were still inside the house. In the mean time, several other people had showed up for the wake, most of them were drug dealers like I was. I was keeping them outside until the "Jesus Freak" left. Sensing there must be a problem, I called in and asked my girlfriend to come out for a moment. When I asked her why she had not gotten rid of the "Jesus Freak"" yet, she responded by telling me that Lynn refuge to leave until she had a chance to talk to me, because she said that God had sent her. At this point, I am angry and determined to get her out of my house. I told the people that had arrived what was happening
and told them the best way to get her to leave would be to go inside and start taking the drugs that everyone had brought. I especially was anxious to get on with the plan that I had formulate earlier, the sooner I could end my life and stop this pain, the better.
As we went into the house, I let the others, about 14 of them, go in first. Everybody avoided sitting next to the "Jesus Freak," to the point that all the other seats were taken except the one right next to Lynn. My pride would not let me sit on the floor, besides this was my house and I am not going to allow this girl to intimidate me. Sitting next to her was all the inducement she needed to start preaching to me about God. She had that industrial size Bible in one hand, and was pointing her finger at me with the other hand. All this did was confirm my feelings about Christians, and cause me to get angrier. As she quoted scriptures to me, I responded with vulgar and profane language. For the next 20 minutes, I battled to get her out of my house and she battled to get something into my heart. After these 20 minutes she began to realize that the approach she was taking was not working, so all of a sudden she stopped talking, bowed her head, and began praying. After what seemed like to me an hour, she lifted her head, and I could see that she had been crying. With as much compassion as I have ever seen in the eyes of another person she said to me, "Jim, you do not have to die for the pain to stop, somebody has already died for you and His name is Jesus Christ." What struck me about her words was, how did she know? Nobody in that room knew the pain I was in, and nobody knew that I was contemplating suicide. And even though I did not believe in God, the only conclusion that I could come up with was that this God that had sent her, must have told her.
All of a sudden, it dawned on me that she was offering me another solution other than suicide. This possibility caused faith to enter into my heart, and moved me from hopelessness to hope. My next comment to her was, "what do I have to do?" She took my hand, and led me out of the living room into the dinning room. I had to step over many of my friends, who were inquiring of me what I was doing, but I was completely oblivious to them; my only concern was finding this God who had spoken so kindly to me. In the dining room, Lynn had me get down on my knees, and then she simply led me through the sinners prayer. When I got to the part where I asked "Jesus to forgive me of my sins, come into my heart and change my life," immediately the burden that was crushing my soul was lifted, and in its place I was filled with a joy and a peace that I had never known. I began to cry, first for the wretchedness of my sins, and then for the joy of my salvation. I immediately jumped to my feet, and turned to my friends to share with them what had just happened to me. I do not know what my friends saw when I prayed, but whatever they saw spooked them, because they were stumbling over one another trying to get out the door. My best friend at that time, Terry Lee was the last one out the door, and I yelled to him "Terry where are you going." He looked at me with a look of horror and said, "Jim, we will come back when you âre feeling better." I yelled to him, as he was going out the door, that "I have never felt better!"
Lynn stayed and talked with me for a little while, and encouraged me to get a Bible and begin to read it. That night, when I went to bed, my mind was being bombarded with thoughts like, "do you really believe that a Holy and just God could forgive you for all the things that you have done to others?" Not knowing about spiritual warfare, and that I had an enemy of my soul, that would love to see me lose in doubt what I had gained in faith, I did not know how to combat what I was thinking. I did know that the sense of confidence that I had earlier was beginning to wane. I had to do something, so I began to say over and over again, "I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus." As I did this, peace returned to my heart, and I fell asleep.
FOLLOWING HIS LEADING
The next morning I woke up at 7:00 am, which was the first miracle of my Christian life; it had been years since I had seen 7:00 AM unless I stayed up that late. I also awoke with a clear head and a hungry heart. I made a cup of coffee, and sat on my back porch. The newness of life was overwhelming. As I sat there, the sky was bluer; the clouds were whiter, I could smell the fragrance of flowers; and I could hear the birds chirping in the background. I felt more alive at that moment, than at any other time in my life. I remember thinking to myself that it was as if I had been "born again." Though Biblically that was what had happened to me, I did not realize that until later on, when I began to read the Bible. The only terminology that I knew at that time was that, "I was saved."
As I was sitting there, reveling in my new found life, a thought came into my mind, that I later discovered as I began to grow as a Christian, was the still small voice of the Lord. The thought went something like this, "Son, if you surrendered your life to Me, you need to surrender your life to the authorities." Normally this would have been a very foreign thought for someone like me. All of my life, I made it an art form to escaping anything difficult. When my home life got tough, I ran away; when school got tough, I cut class; when the army got tough, I went AWOL; and when life got tough, I smoke something, I swallowed something, I drank something, I snorted something, or I injected something, but I always escaped. Now, I am facing the most difficult thing in my life, and there is something in me that wants to do the right thing. This thought not only guided me in what I should do, it also imparted the faith and peace that I needed to be able to do it.
As a result, me and another person drove up to the Sheriffs Department, for the purpose of turning ourselves in. As I enter the County Sheriffs Office, I approached an officer sitting behind a counter. I recognized this officer as he did me. He looked surprised, because normally I do not walk in the front door on my own, but dragged through the side door against my will. As a result, he was immediately guarded and asked me what I was doing there. I told him that I was there to turn myself in for a crime I was responsible for. He did not believe me and told me to sit in the lobby until he checked my story out. After waiting two hours, I was arrested. I then confessed to the crime that I was responsible for and made a confession. The other person that I was with was arrested as well. We both were charged with involuntary manslaughter due to culpable negligence. Before I was able to plead guilty to that, I was told that I was now being charged with 2nd degree murder. I did not believe at the time that I was guilty of that, so I pled not guilty to that charge. During my trial the prosecuting attorney in trying to convince the jury that I was guilty, convinced me. What convinced me was the definition that he gave for 2nd degree murder. A person for this charge is someone who is of a depraved mind and has no regard for human life. Since I was that kind of a person, I changed my plea from not guilty to guilty.
Three weeks later, I stand before the judge for sentencing. I am confident that the Lord is going to help me, that He is going to do good for me. At that time I did not realize that God does not use my definition of what is good, that He has one of His own. At the time, I thought probation or the minimum sentence would be good for me. But the Lord did not see it that way. After the Judge came out and sat down, he looked at me and smiled. I mistook his smile for a sign that the Holy Spirit had soften his heart, and that I was going to get a light sentence. In reality he was smiling because he was about to give out a sentence that he is really going to enjoy giving. Here I stand a man expelled from high school, undesirably discharged from the army, with a record as long as my arm, I had pled guilty without making a deal, so what he could not give to others, because of legal restraints, he can give to me. And he said to me "young man I sentence you to the maximum sentence allowed by law, if I could give you more I would, 30 years."
I was not prepared for this sentence, I had been confident that God was going to help me. After all I surrendered my life to Him, then at His leading I surrendered to the authorities. I confessed, eventually pled guilty, and I even quit smoking three days before my sentencing to prove to God that I was worthy of any mercy He would bestow on my behalf and this is my reward, 30 years. I was angry, disappointed and disillusioned. On the van ride back to the county jail, I smoked five cigarettes at once, just for spite. How could God allow this to happen, I did everything that I sensed He wanted me to do. I had a crisis of faith and had every intention of turning my back on the Lord. My plan was to go back to my cell, get my Bible and then tear out one page at a time and flush it down the toilet. But before I could tear out the first page, I had another thought, much like the one that led me to turn myself in. The thought went something like this, "Dummy, now is not the time to throw the book with all the answers away, you are going to prison for 30 years, you are going to need this book now more than ever." This thought made sense to me, which caused me to settle down. I then decided that I had already come too far with the Lord to turn back now. And though I did not know what my future held, I did know who held my future.
Though in the natural, this would seem like the worse thing that could happen to me, it was in fact one the best things that had ever happened to me. Incarceration was one of Gods ways that was designed to produce in me and for me many of His acts. For it was in the darkness of my prison sentence that I discovered many of the treasures that I impart to people all over this country.
My life is about all the great things that have happened to me, in me, and through me, since I made those two great decisions in July of 1972. The first was to surrender my life to Christ, and the second to surrender my life to the authorities. It was those two decisions, which helped me realize that you can not put something behind you until you face it. Though God forgave me of the sin of murder, I still had to face the consequences of that sin. Therefore, as I faced the consequences of my actions with faith in God, He was able to do two things in those consequences. He was able to minimize the damage, and maximize the good. I came to realize that God allowed my 30 year sentence not to hurt me, or punish me, but to help me and train me. Therefore I see my 30 year sentence as a provision of my salvation, and not a penalty for my sin.
One of the greatest expressions of love that God ever demonstrated on my behalf was to allow me to be sentenced to prison for 30 years. Had I received probation or a light sentence, I would have gotten out of jail prior to my ability to handle freedom in the midst of my new found faith. I am convinced that the enemy would have exploited my weaknesses and I would be dead today. As it was, after I was paroled 8 years later, I almost did not make it. I then realized that part of Gods provision of protection for me was prison. I now tell everyone that I was not arrested but rescued.
After 8 years in prison, I was paroled. They gave me the remainder of my sentence, 22 years, on parole. I spent 10 years on parole, and in 1990 my parole was terminated. When I got out of prison, I attended a two year Bible School of Ministry in Gainesville, Florida. While I was going through the school, I became a youth pastor for the Church that sponsored the school. Two years later, in March 1982, I took an Associate Pastor position at another church in Inverness, Florida. While I was there, I met and married my wife Diane. In September of 1983, Diane and I relocated to Orlando, Florida, where I started Rivers Of Living Water Ministries. In 1986, I started Covenant Church Of Orlando. In 1992, my family and I relocated to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to start a Northeast branch of Rivers Of Living Water. While in Lancaster, I helped plant Faith Covenant Church. In August of 2003, my family and I relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, to start a new ministry called Outward Focused.
One of the best decisions that I ever made when I first met the Lord was to follow His leadings. God is supernatural and He often does intervene in our lives using supernatural means. His interventions, though, are usually limited to leading us, protecting us or supplying our needs. Proverbs 3:5,6 says, ""Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths." When you fully commit a situation to God, He will take the initiative to fulfill His will in your life. Fully committing a situation to God does not insure that you will know the solution; it just promises God will lead you. You may or may not be consciously aware of His leading. The next time you are faced with a decision, commit it to God. He may give you the wisdom to make the right choice. If He does not, you can still be assured God will successfully direct your life. Even if you make the wrong choice, God will still work all things together for your good.