Friday, October 07, 2005

Death to Sin

(This is my conversion story for the Faith in Fiction short story contest. Let me know what you think.)

Facing our mortality wasn’t something I wanted to do, but Deon was getting impatient. “Man, let’s get in there,” he said. “Visiting hours is almost over.”

I just sat in the driver’s seat, unable to move. I was filled with mixed emotions, unsure if I wanted to pay my last respects to Stevie Warren, a former high school teammate. He was a year younger than Deon and me, but he was the starting point guard.

He wasn’t really a friend, and I wouldn’t say that I necessarily liked him. Basketball was the only thing we had in common. And despite our differences, going to the funeral home was the right thing to do.

“There goes Bridget Covey,” Deon said with a gasp. We’ve been out of high school for five years and he still can’t say Bridget’s name without gasping. She was the most beautiful girl in school. The problem was that after junior high she knew it and didn’t bother to talk to the guys her own age. She only dated upper classmen, then college boys. She was too good for us.

“All right,” I said, stepping out of the car. “Let’s go.” I straightened my suit jacket and checked my zipper.

“Oh, I see how it is,” Deon said, laughing but covering up his mouth with his fist. “Bridget Covey shows up and you’re ready to go in.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “No. She won’t even remember us.”

“Are you kidding? We were basketball stars. Every girl knew who we were.”

“Not Bridget.” I lowered my voice as we neared the entrance. “And we weren’t stars. We never even had a winning season.”

Deon opened the door and waited for me. “But when you’ve got even a little game, that makes you a play-er.” That was a reason why Deon had gotten along with Stevie better than I did. They were both partiers and girl crazy.

When we reached the sign-in book we both dropped the banter and took on a more somber appearance. Perhaps the banter was just a way of dealing with our own immortality, of seeing a peer dead before his time. We were too young to think about death; we still had our entire lives ahead of us. But in one bad turn, we were facing the reality of our mortality.

We stepped into the chapel. The casket sat at the end of a long isle. A few people were gathered around the casket. Others sat in the chairs and talked quietly. Every once in a while a wail filled the room, but no one looked or stared at the person wailing. Everyone was respectful.

“You guys okay?” asked Brother Davis, a youth pastor at the Methodist Church and an assistant coach when we played. He shook each of our hands and smiled. “I’m sure the family will be glad to see you guys.”

As we walked down the isle, I tried to remember his family, but I couldn’t. They didn’t sit with the other parents and Stevie always bummed a ride home after practice, at least until he got his license.

We stood silently in line, each of us with our own thoughts. I tried to think of something good about Stevie and our years together on the team, but I couldn’t. We were completely different people. He drank a lot and partied. He went out with girls for only one reason and kept them around as long as they were amicable. I didn’t drink, only went to parties thrown by my Christian friends and did a lot with my church youth group. He sometimes dated a girl from my youth group, but he never came to church with her. That would have broken the cool image that he tried so hard to maintain.

The group around the casket broke up and Bridget Long turned and walked out. She wiped a tear in the corner of her eye. “Hi, Jay. Deon,” she whispered as she passed.

“Hey, Bridget,” Deon replied.

I was able to throw up my hand, but that was it. I was too stunned. In four years of high school I’d never heard Bridget say my name or even look my way. I watched her walk out of the room before realizing I was doing so. I just shook my head. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong about someone.

We stepped up to the casket and I shook hands with Stevie’s mother. There was no father, at least not one at the casket. “He was such a good boy,” she wept. She wrapped an arm around me and one around Deon. “He was so full of life.”

I looked down at his body. The make-up on his face was dark, to try and keep the dark tone of his tanning-bed body. He wore a gray suit and tie. Obviously there were no signs of the bullet hole in his chest, but I still thought about it, picturing him on the sidewalk, a slug shattering his chest and piercing his heart. They said he fell back into his girlfriend’s arms and she watched him die. They said it was a drug deal gone bad. There was no mention of that in the papers, but there were plenty of whispers. The young adults knew the truth, even if the adults were in denial.

His mother sighed. “At least he’s in a better place.”

Better place? Stevie split hell wide open.

Then it hit me. It was a Saturday morning practice, late in the season. We came out to shoot around before practice and noticed a tall black guy putting on a dunking exhibition. We were told to sit in a semi-circle along the top of the key. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but he was from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Ball State University. For ten minutes he put on a dunking display. Then he stopped and asked if he could talk about something. Of course, he had our full attention. He went on to talk about God and our life on earth. He compared life to a football game and how we are fumbled into the world. We are automatically picked up and head the wrong direction, toward Satan’s goal. If we don’t get turned around, at the end of life Satan has won. But if we turn our lives around and go toward God’s goal, we will spend eternity in Heaven. Then he talked about Nicodemus asking about being born again and Jesus explaining a spiritual rebirth. He offered that spiritual rebirth to us. I remember his speech well because I used it myself when I later spoke at a youth rally. He had us bow our heads and repeat after him. I sat quietly because I was already saved, but there were a few voices praying after him. And the one voice that I recognized above all others was Stevie’s. I was amazed. Of all the people on the team, I thought he was the one who would make fun of the whole presentation and make sarcastic remarks to those of us who were Christians. But there he was, bowing his head and praying the sinner’s prayer.

Deon left us and went to talk to some of the family. I stayed there with Mrs. Warren, my arm around her shoulders, my eyes staring at the person I knew.

“He sure loved playing ball with you boys,” she whispered.

After that day at practice, I guess I expected Stevie to completely change, but he didn’t. He continued to cuss and womanize and party, but he did start going to church with Brother Davis. He became an active part of their youth group on Sundays, even if he was drunk the night before. I wish I could say we became friends, but we didn’t. We were still worlds apart. But standing there at his casket, his mother’s arm around me, I wondered how far apart we really were. Yes, I had my own sins and vices, which maybe weren’t as outwardly destructive as Stevie’s sins, but they were there just the same.

And I remembered the words repeated so often in church, “Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” I heard Stevie call upon the name of the Lord. I heard him asking for forgiveness of his sins, for Jesus to come into his heart and life. Was Stevie now in a better place? Who am I to decide? I’ll find out soon enough.