Friday, October 26, 2007

My Testimony

The following is an excerpt from my book, Take Up The Shield.

I graduated from the sheriff’s academy on September 18, 1987. My first assignment was a medium-security jail facility. What a culture shock! I had led a pretty sheltered life up to that point. Nothing in my experience, or during my time in the academy for that matter, could have prepared me for life inside the jail. I quickly learned that the rules there were similar to the animal kingdom. It was survival of the fittest with the strong preying upon the weak.

I worked very hard in the jail to prove myself as a competent deputy. In a month’s time, I often made more than twenty felony arrests of inmates for weapons and drug charges. Remember, these are people who are already incarcerated. I was told that there were a couple of months in which I made more arrests than entire shifts at some of the slower patrol stations. I was completely consumed by my work. I lived it. I breathed it. I looked at each day in the jail as my preparation for the day I would work the streets. That was my ultimate goal—to be the best street cop in the department. And the inmates I guarded served as a means to that end. My only concern for them was how they could provide me with my next arrest stat, or what they could tell me about life on the streets.

A sergeant, who had been one of my firearms instructors in the academy, took me under his wing. He soon made me a training officer for newly assigned deputies, so I thought his interest in me was strictly professional. He was considered a “cop’s cop” who had “been there, done that,” having worked some of the toughest streets in the county. Known for his no-nonsense approach to police work, he had the stories to back it up. He was “old school,” and that impressed me. However, the sergeant was concerned with more than just my career path. He was concerned about where I would spend eternity. Eternity was a subject I hadn’t thought much about.

My early years were spent in one of many small steel-mill towns in western Pennsylvania where the predominant religion was Roman Catholicism. The predominant ethnicity of the area was eastern European (Czech, Polish, etc.). Being of Italian extraction, my family attended the Roman Catholic Church downtown with other Italians, instead of one of the several parishes that dotted the hillsides surrounding our home.

I dreaded going to church, especially catechism classes. The nuns were unfriendly. The priests were intimidating and unapproachable, and they often spoke in a language I didn’t understand. Sunday, as far as I was concerned, was a day God created so that kids like me could play baseball. In fact, the other six days of the week were made for the same activity. As James Earl Jones said, while playing the role of a blind former Negro League baseball great in The Sandlot, “Baseball was life. And I was good at it.” But as an Italian kid growing up in western Pennsylvania, you went to church, like it or not.

I grew up believing what I had been taught: that Jesus was the Son of God, that He came to earth and was born of a virgin, that He died on the cross, and that He rose from the dead. But I also grew up believing all Italians went to heaven.

I believed that heaven was a real place. I believed that hell was a real place (which was any place not within walking distance of a baseball field). I believed that if I did more good than bad in my life, when the time came, I would be able to talk God into letting me into heaven. After all, God must be a reasonable guy. But what I thought of God as a “person” soon soured.

When I was about nine or ten years old, my younger sister was very ill and missed her first confession. In the Catholic Church, confession was an important and necessary step toward receiving her first communion. In order for her to advance with the rest of her catechism class, she needed to go to confession before her first communion. For whatever reason, we were unable to go to our parish. My mom dressed my sister in her pretty communion dress and told me to walk her down the hill to a nearby parish so that the priest could hear her first confession.

That was the last thing I wanted to do. The priest at the parish down the hill was a scary guy. For some reason, he didn’t approve of my friends and me playing baseball in the vacant lot adjacent to the church. (It probably had something to do with the stained glass windows we broke from time to time with our deep drives to center field.) In any case, the last thing I wanted to do was come face to face with that parish priest.

But, being a young man of courage, I did what I had to do. I took my sister by the hand and walked her down the hill to the church. That’s where my courage stopped. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and told my sister to walk up and knock on the door of the church. I had knocked on the door and run too many times before to knock on the door and actually wait for someone to answer. “Ding-dong Ditch” was another popular game among the kids in my town.

My sister made her way up the stairs. The doors looked even bigger with my little sister walking toward them. I told her to hurry up and that I would be waiting for her outside when she was done. My sister knocked on the door. I hoped against hope that no one would answer. My hopes were dashed when I heard the door creak and I watched, petrified, as it slowly opened.

My sister looked up at the priest who stuck his head out the door. She told him that she was there to have him hear her first confession. He looked at her with no love or compassion in his eyes, and he said, “Go away. Your kind is not welcome here.” He closed the door leaving my little sister standing alone at the top of the stairs.

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I remember thinking, What kind of God has a guy like that working for Him? I walked my dejected little sister home. That baseball season, I swung for those stained glass windows with a little more determination. I never wanted to go to church again. As far as I was concerned, God was like that old priest—mean and unapproachable. But, believing He was still God, I tried not to tick Him off too much.

My family soon moved away from Pennsylvania. Within a couple of years, my mom and dad divorced. I was beginning to doubt if God had any control whatsoever over what happens on earth. And I was mad at Him. What did I ever do to Him? I thought. So I stopped thinking about Him altogether.

Instead, I found a new god—sports. After my parents divorced and things were tough at home (and they often were), I escaped into sports. When I was sad or lonely, I found comfort in sports. When I needed encouragement or clarity of mind, I found it in sports. When I needed to hear how good I was, I heard it from those who watched me play sports.

But by the time I turned 15, I no longer found myself at the front of the pack, at the top of the heap of my sports world. Other kids, the really good athletes, were passing me by. The recognition I once received was now going to others. My god was turning its back on me, the same way God had turned His back on me so many times (so I believed).

So, I gave up on sports, just like I gave up on God.

For the next several years, I tried to fill the void that the absence of sports left in my life with other things and with other people—namely people of the opposite sex. Along the way, I thought about giving God “another shot,” but quickly dismissed such ideas as foolishness.

Then I met the woman who would become my wife. Besides being beautiful and kind, she didn’t expect me to spend my entire paycheck (such as it was) on her. She genuinely seemed more concerned about what she could do for me than about what I would do for her. That was a switch. That kind of relationship was new to me.

She was also very committed to her church. She considered the people in her church to be an extension of her own family. That too seemed novel to me. Being curious, and wanting to get the girl, I agreed to go to church with her. I found that the people were friendly enough. The pastor was friendly enough. After awhile, I even started singing in the choir. I wore a robe with a big cross on the front. God had to appreciate that. Maybe this would be my ticket back into God’s good graces.

Three years later, my wife and I were married. Like singing in the choir, I thought for sure that marrying a churchgoing woman would bring me closer to God. I thought that God would use her to fill the void in my heart. And, for the better part of a year, it seemed like this would be the case. But, once the newness of married life started to wear off, I began to sense that familiar emptiness returning to my heart and mind.

Frustrated with myself and with God, I thought, All right. If going to church and singing in the choir aren’t enough, if marrying a wonderful woman isn’t enough, then maybe I need to get a better job. I saw a recruitment ad in the local newspaper for the sheriff ’s department. I had never considered being a cop before I saw that ad. I thought, What better way to get God’s approval than working in a profession in which I get to fight evil and save the world? My wife did not share my enthusiasm. I applied anyway.

During the application process, we learned that my wife was pregnant. I was hired by the Sheriff’s Department, and was ready to begin my academy training. I thought for sure that God was smiling on me now. Six days later, on March 17, our first child, was born.

I had a beautiful wife. I belonged to a church. I was beginning a great career. And now I had a new baby. What more could God expect of me? I was doing everything I had been told a good person does. He had to approve of me now. I was beginning to see God as good and loving for the first time in many years. Unfortunately, this view would be short-lived.

My daughter was born in the evening. I remember showing her to my dad and hearing him say that he was proud of me. Once I made sure that my wife and baby were okay, I had a little dinner and went home. Needless to say, I was a bit excited. I couldn’t sit still, let alone go to sleep. So, around midnight, I called the hospital to check on my family. My family. Boy, did that have a great ring to it.

When a nurse answered the phone, I proudly introduced myself as my little girl’s daddy. She asked me to wait a minute and put me on hold. Another nurse picked up the line a minute or two later. “We think you should come back down to the hospital. Your daughter isn’t doing well. We’re not sure what’s wrong with her. And your wife is very sick. You should get here as soon as you can.”

To this day, it brings tears to my eyes as I remember the myriad thoughts that went through my mind as I hung up the phone. One thing I recall very clearly is looking up, raising a clenched fist toward the ceiling, and yelling, “Where are You now, God? Do You hate me so much that You’re going to hurt my family?”

My daughter spent the first two weeks of her life in the intensive care unit. The list of her medical problems seemed endless, and included a heart murmur, jaundice, underdeveloped kidneys, a curvature of the spine, and several other medical issues. This precious little girl who, just hours before, was declared to be perfectly healthy, was now fighting for her life. And my wife was suffering from a very high fever and dangerously high blood pressure.

I spent every free moment at the hospital. Since the academy had not yet started, the Sheriff ’s Department was understanding and gave me the time off I needed. I remember sitting in a rocking chair next to my daughter’s bed. I held her in my arms, crying when she cried—wanting to make all of her fear, pain, and discomfort go away. I promised her that I would never let anyone hurt her. And when I said “anyone,” I included God.

My daughter’s health slowly improved and my little family made it through my time at the academy. But we weren’t out of the woods yet.

If work was stressful, my home life was even more so. My daughter’s medical problems seemed never ending. She was seeing specialists for almost every major organ of her body. The constant trips to doctor’s offices and hospitals—never knowing for sure what was wrong with our baby—put a great deal of strain on my relationship with my wife. We had moved so I could be closer to work, but we were now far from our families. We weren’t going to church. We had no friends. We never went out because we were constantly dealing with our daughter’s illnesses.

I think one reason I put so much effort into my work as a deputy sheriff was to dull the pain from everything else that was going on in my life. Controlling the inmates became an outlet for the lack of control I was feeling at home. My wife had no such outlet. My family was a mess. My marriage was a mess. Work was hardening me to the world and everyone around me. I was even starting to treat my wife like the inmates I loathed. Throughout it all, I was angry with God. I did everything I could to be a good person—no one could accuse me of not being a hard worker—but no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake the feeling that God had turned His back on me.

One night at work, I overheard the sergeant talking to a group of deputies about his faith. Remember, even though I was ticked off at God, I still believed in Him. I walked up to the group and added my two cents to the conversation. “I’m a Christian,” I said. “I sing in the choir.” The sergeant looked at me and said two words: “That’s nice.”

I walked away feeling like a complete hypocrite. In my heart, I knew I wasn’t really a Christian. I didn’t even know what it meant to be a real Christian, but I knew I wasn’t one. I didn’t think prayer would make me a Christian. As far as I was concerned, prayer had never accomplished anything. So, once again I poured over my mental laundry list of things I had done in an attempt to get closer to God. The only thing I could think of that I hadn’t yet tried was reading the Bible.

Not being an avid reader, I figured I could just start at the end of the book to see how it all ends. I lived on “Cliff Notes” in high school. So I opened a Bible to the Book of Revelation. I began to read about beasts coming out of the water, dragons, and bowls of judgment. I closed the book thinking, That’s the god I know—always angry about something. The next month or so was a time of deep reflection and spiritual struggle.

Finally, God brought me to the realization that there was nothing I could do to earn His love and acceptance. I could never be good enough to merit a place in heaven. And God allowed me to see that there was yet one thing I had never done in all of my feeble attempts to draw closer to Him. I had never surrendered my life to Him.

The Lord opened my eyes to see that sports had never really been my god. My attempts to fill the so-called void in my heart with my wife and child, and a career as a deputy sheriff only served to mask the truth about my heart. God showed me that I was my god. Up to that point, my interest in Him was only to the extent that it pleased me. I wrongly saw God as being responsible for serving me, for making me happy.

For the first time, I saw my behavior and my attitudes toward God and others not as shortcomings and mistakes, but for what they really were—sin. I realized that my sin—even one sin, no matter how slight in my own mind—was enough to warrant His righteous judgment and the sentence of hell for all eternity.

I thought of Jesus dying on the cross for my sin. Once I understood that “the wages of sin is death,” I saw His sacrifice in a way that I had never seen it before. His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection was now so much more than the historic event I had learned about as a child in catechism. That horrific, magnificent moment in history was now very personal. It was personal because I now realized that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, didn’t simply die on the cross. He died on the cross for me. He loved me so much that He sacrificed His perfect, innocent, sinless life in order to provide me with the only way to eternal life.

God was no longer an unknowable entity sitting in yonder heaven. He was my God. He was my heavenly Father. He loved me enough to send His Son to die on my behalf. My God was loving, holy, righteous, and just. He extended to me the free gift of eternal life through His Son Jesus Christ—not because I earned it or could ever deserve it, but because He is perfectly gracious and merciful.

On September 4, 1988, while lying alone on my bed, I cried out to God to forgive me and save me from His just and holy wrath, which is the consequence of my sins against Him. I surrendered control of my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I asked Him to change my life and show me how to live for Him, instead of for myself. And He was and is forever faithful. He heard my prayer and answered, extending to a sinner like me the free gift of eternal life—a gift that is given by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.

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