On Monday I travelled to Belfast for the funeral of an authentic Christian. Jackie Boyd, a life-long member of the Salvation Army, suffered from dementia in recent years and died last week. He was, in the Army’s terminology, “Promoted to Glory”. As is customary, the flags at his funeral were decorated with white (not black) ribbons, signifying the celebration of a life that has now transitioned into victory and homecoming.
Sitting once again in a Salvation Army service, listening to the brass band, and seeing many familiar (if older) faces brought back a flood of memories.
In February 1981, I attended my first Salvation Army service. I was 18-years old, homeless and desperate. I genuinely believed that the downward trajectory my life had taken for the last few years – characterised by alcohol and drug abuse – was going to end in an early grave. Some of my drinking buddies had started placing bets with each other on how long I would live – and none of them gave me more than a year. I was experiencing increasing blackouts, and the cuts and scrapes you pick up from life on the street were all turning septic and refusing to heal, as if the poisons I kept pumping into my body had suffocated the body’s natural healing mechanisms.
I arrived early for the service, and felt as out of place as any human being could ever feel. I looked around and felt I had made a terrible mistake. I was getting ready to leave when a guy in Salvation Army uniform came up to me, gave me a huge smile, and pulverised my hand with a bone-crushing handshake. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he boomed, “I’m so glad you decided to come tonight.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who this guy was, or why he was so glad to see me. He obviously knew me from somewhere, but I couldn’t remember ever meeting him before. Was he a friend of my family? Had I encountered him during one of the blackouts that were gaping holes in my memory? Was he a cop or a lawyer that knew me from one of my court appearances? I thought I’d better hang around and see if it came back to me.
So I stayed. And at the end of the night I responded to an offer to accept Jesus into my life. And my life was changed for ever. And after a long struggle I was free of my addictions. And I ended up going to Bible College. And I met a wonderful wife. And we had two beautiful daughters. And I served as a Salvation Army Officer, and then subsequently as a Pentecostal pastor. And I still have the incredible privilege of getting up every morning to do something I love doing – trying to help other people to have a similarly life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.
It is no exaggeration to say that Jackie Boyd’s handshake saved my life on that cold February night in East Belfast back in 1981. And guess what? It turned out he didn’t know me from Adam! He welcomed every visitor to the Salvation Army in the same way. Sometimes the other musicians would be checking their instruments were in tune, and making sure they had their music in the right order. They would be looking down at Jackie, wondering if he would make it to his place in the band in time for the opening hymn – but Jackie still took his time in enthusiastically welcoming every visitor. And I, for one, am so, so grateful that he did!