“In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3:6
This is the favored verse of an ex drug addict, alcoholic, hustler, womanizer, liar, cheat, and thief. It’s amazing how God can use a shot to the face to change a life.
I met Ervin when we began our ministry here back in 2013. He came regularly to the Celebrate Recovery meetings at the church. At the time, the program was there just to minister to men who were addicts and alcoholics. Ervin was way into his recovery at that point. Being very fresh with the language, I found it difficult to understand most of the things he said. I felt bad when he would talk to me directly because I would have to ask someone else to “translate” for me. His nasal cavity is collapsed and he is missing a handful of teeth. One thing was clear to me in that moment however: he referenced the bible a lot. While I couldn’t understand what he was saying to me, I picked up on the many times he would pause to give me the bible reference to what he was about to say. As I began to get used to his speech and gain a better command of the language, I was able to understand more and more of what he was saying. One day, he asked me if I was curious as to how he ended up in “his current situation”. He indicated what he meant by pointing to his face and then holding up his little pouch he always carries around from which a rubber tube protrudes and then disappears under his shirt. His previous life of substance abuse has left him with a permanent catheter.
“Sure,” I replied, hoping I wouldn’t miss the important stuff. Over time I have heard parts of the story again so I have been able to piece together how the Lord has radically changed this man’s life and today (with his permission) I would love to share with you this testimony of God’s power, love, and grace.
“I was a terrible person, one chasing after whatever I wanted and didn’t care about anything or anyone else,” he explains. For as long as he can remember, he was “stuck in the world.” He used crack, cocaine, marijuana, pills, huffed solvents, and drank alcohol excessively. “Whatever I could get my hands on, I did and used it,” he recalls. To feed his addictions he would deceive others and rob and steal when necessary. He “had a woman” as they say here in Guatemala which refers to living and having relations with someone as if they are married but without the godly commitment of marriage. “I cheated on her whenever I wanted to,” he tells. Together they conceived 2 children. For many years he has not had any contact with them. His family all but abandoned him or have since passed away, although he has one brother that lives close by that he sees occasionally but does not have much of a relationship with him. “My lifestyle was not very conducive to raising a family,” he admits, “so I don’t blame them for leaving me. I didn’t deserve a family. And now that I am changed, because of my current physical condition, I am not very desirable to anyone. “But glory be to God, amen hallelujah.”
I love how whenever Ervin talks about the hardships of life, especially his own, he immediately defaults to giving glory to God and referring to the joy of the Lord. It really makes me ponder my own perspective when things don’t go my way or are difficult or sad.
“One day,” he tells, “I was trying to rob someone so I could get a little money to buy some crack. That person didn’t want to be robbed that day, so they pulled out a gun and shot me in the face. I should be dead. There is no reason for me to be alive today,” he reflects.
“But for the grace of God…” I add. “Exactly,” he concurs. “Glory be to God.”
Ervin woke up in the hospital. He is not sure how much time passed between when he was shot and when he woke up in the hospital. He was coming down from a high when he got shot so he didn’t even really know what day it was. His time spent in the hospital helped cleanse his body and sober up. “I can’t live like this anymore,” he realized. “Something has to change.” He lost an eye, some teeth, shattered some bone structure in his face, and gained a bullet fragment, which is too close to his brain to remove, on the side of his face where his eye is missing. “It’s incredible that I’m even alive today. I thank God every day for the gift of life He has given me. Each day is a blessing to me. We never know when today will be our last.”
I write this with tears in my eyes wondering what it would take for me to appreciate each day as a gift just as Ervin does. We can recognize that each day is a gift but do we live it as such? I digress…I will save the sermon for another day and just allow Ervin’s story to teach us.
After his time in the hospital, he recognized the need to change but simply couldn’t do it on his own. “I wanted to change but had no power to do so.” Even though he had experienced God’s saving grace by preserving his life, he struggled against the chains that bound him in addiction. “I was a slave to my vices. I realized they were bad for me. I knew I couldn’t live like that anymore, but my flesh was beating me.” Not too long after returning from the hospital, Ervin began using drugs again. To his family, his words became untrustworthy and they surmised he would never change and they couldn’t live like that anymore. He hasn’t heard from them since.
“I made a commitment,” he says. I couldn’t get out of this on my own. I was deep in it for 24 years. I spent various visits in the hospital, I was in jail 13 times, none of it changed me. Only Christ could.” When asking about his own salvation, he simply responds “I work out my salvation every day because I made a commitment to God and I intend to keep it. It’s the least I could do for Him. I swore I would never go back.” I tried multiple times for him to tell me his “salvation story.” That’s what we like to hear about, right? Was it at a camp revival, one solemn morning in church, a friend who prayed over him, a powerful dream? We probably won’t know because his humility prevents him from making it seem anything like it is something he did on his own. As I ponder this I realize, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how he got saved, who spoke to him, how he prayed, or what the exact conditions surrounding him were in that moment. What matters is that Jesus overcame his life of worldliness and vices (as he explains it). What matters is that this man’s heart was radically changed by the love and power of God and his life is fully devoted to serving Him and loving others. Recently in one of my devotional times I read a quote from Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion that perfectly describes Ervin’s salvation:
Only now and then comes a man or woman who … is willing to be utterly obedient … to follow God’s faintest whisper. But when such a commitment comes in a human life, God breaks through, miracles are wrought, world renewing divine forces are released, history changes … The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness … And it is a life and power that can break forth in this tottering Western culture and return the Church to its rightful life as a fellowship of creative, heaven-led souls.
Ervin currently lives in a room in a house where someone lets him stay. His lack of education doesn’t allow him to obtain a high paying or steady job, but God has always provided him a roof over his head and clothes on his back and “a little food to keep my belly full.” When we met him, he was staying in a room at the church but after a while they decided it would be a good idea for him to try to live on his own again. He cares for the pets of the owner of the house where he lives and in return, she gives him shelter rent free. “I like to learn,” he says. “I like to be useful, so I am constantly trying to learn new things.” Some of the new things he has recently learned is how to sharpen and rebuild tools as well as how to fix furniture. His “specialty” however is shoes. He shines and repairs shoes for people in the community. He also picks up odd jobs like carrying firewood and helping others for little pay.
Ervin is referred to by some and known by many as “the man who speaks the bible.” He has dedicated his life to learning more of God’s word every day and applying it to his life. “It’s not just something I want, it’s something I need. Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life,’ so I must eat this bread to be satisfied.” When someone mentions his constant quoting of the bible he humbly says, “God says, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways my ways’ (Isaiah 55:8) so better for me to focus and speak of God’s thoughts than my own because without Him, I am nothing.”
We have an opportunity to spend about 20 minutes with Ervin every Sunday we go to church. He doesn’t walk very well and where he lives is over a huge hill in the neighborhood. He also gets chicken and cabbage scraps donated from people who know him in the community so he can feed the animals. We take him around to get these things in our car and then take him home. “If it weren’t for your help, I would take all afternoon to get this stuff and bring it home.” Right next to the church is someone who sells food as their business and every day they have lunch ready for him and refuse to take payment. “I feel bad because everyone gives me things out of my necessity but I struggle to find ways to pay them back. I am just a poor man and have nothing much to give back” He often offers to buy us a soda or some kinds of snacks as we take him around on Sundays. “Ervin, your friendship and fervent prayers for us is more than enough payment,” I tell him. “But I want to give more,” he exclaims. How can a man who has nothing want to give more? Why is it so difficult for us to give out of excess yet this man yearns (almost demands, some days) to give out of nothing?
He gives out of his heart, not out of obligation. He shares his many talents with others not just in physical labor but in telling his story. Not just in repeating memorized verses of the bible but it’s innate truth and necessity to apply it. Not just in his honesty but in his humility. Not just in sharing his story but glorifying God through it. These are the things that have inspired me to share Ervin’s story with you. I appreciate the time you have taken to read it but do not let it end there! Let us all learn from him that each day is a gift, that God is the one who saves and restores us, and that we can always give a little more even if we have nothing.