Saturday, September 15, 2012

Freed and Forgiven

But with you there is forgiveness, 
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

-- Psalm 130:4 

"I never thought I'd be wearing this striped suit," admitted the young man as he addressed the crowded Naples, Fla. high school gymnasium. "I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof."

The speaker was Eric Smallridge. But for the last 10 years, he's been known as Inmate P22679.

In May 2002, Eric drove drunk, lost control of his vehicle and collided with another vehicle driven by 20-year-old Meagan Napier. Meagan and her passenger, Lisa Dickson, were killed instantly. And Eric was convicted of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Renee Napier--Meagan's mother--was devastated by the tragedy that had instantly changed her entire existence and outlook on life. She described her tortured emotional state as "the wailing and crying that comes from the depths of your soul." To render some good from such a seemingly senseless incident, Renee founded The Meagan Napier Foundation, where she has so far educated more than 100,000 people about the dangers of drunk driving. Her audiences include high-schoolers, church groups, college students, military personnel...and DUI offenders.

Her presentations were riveting. But Renee still felt that something--or perhaps someone--was missing. And that someone was Inmate Eric Smallridge.

"I knew from the beginning that if I could have Eric with me, that would be very powerful," she explained to ABC News. And in 2010, Eric was given permission to accompany Renee during her presentations. A stipulation was that he had to wear his prison shackles and jumpsuit.

Today, more than 10 years after the accident, Renee still can't forget when she heard the awful news about her child's death. But she has been able to forgive. In fact, she's grown to love Eric and his family. And she even lobbied to have Eric's sentence cut in half to help prevent him from leaving prison with a hardened soul and a criminal mind.
"I could be very angry, hateful and bitter," Renee said in a recent interview. "But I didn't want to live my life that way. There was no way I could move on and live a happy life without forgiving Eric."
Eric, however, says he's not sure he can ever forgive himself. In fact, the memory of his self-described selfishness may well keep him in emotional bondage long after his scheduled November 2012 release from incarceration.

Ironically, we're often the ones who can find ourselves in chains when we need to forgive those who've offended us. It's in Matthew's Gospel that we read Jesus' parable about a man who received forgiveness for his own large debt, but was still stuck in a prison of anger. His wounded soul could not heal...and he was unable to release another's relatively small debt to him. As Christ-followers, we've all been forgiven of a lifetime-worth of sin and shortcomings. So when we're hurt by others, let's seek Him for the Power to move us toward the freedom found only through a forgiven--and forgiving--heart.

"Make it a point not to be this guy," said Inmate P22679, referring to himself. "Don't reduce your life to shackles and chains."   

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