The absolute worst day of my life was August 29, 1984. Ironically, one of the best days of my life was the very next day, for on that day I was given the greatest gift one could ever receive.

It was the first week of my junior year in high school, and I’d worked hard to memorize my locker combination, my class schedule, and my new pep squad routines. On Wednesday morning of that week, I even remembered to put my seatbelt on before driving to school -- something I wasn’t in the habit of doing every time I got behind the wheel of my little brown Plymouth Champ. Driving down the farm-to-market highway, I remembered that I still needed to put lipstick on. One moment, I was adjusting my rearview mirror for a quick application. The next moment, I was slamming on the breaks after feeling my car jolt suddenly. Running back to see what I had hit, I was shocked to discover a curly-headed woman laying facedown in the grass, with a mangled bicycle next to her.

I ran to a neighboring house to call for an ambulance, which took forty-five minutes to arrive. All the while I was hoping and praying that the woman would survive, but my hopes were shattered when the ambulance driver coldly announced that we’d have to call a funeral home ambulance instead. I left the scene of the accident wondering how I would ever face this woman’s family. I considered suicide to be the lesser of the two evils.

Within a few hours, I received a phone call from a man named Jerry Speight, who claimed to be the neighbor of the woman I’d hit. He told me her name was Marjorie Jarstfer, and that he and his pastor had driven to McKinney, Texas to tell her husband, Gary, that his wife had been killed.

Jerry said, “Shannon, Gary’s first response was, ‘How is the girl? Was she hurt? Does she know it’s not her fault?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! How could this man’s first concern be for me, the one responsible for his pain and loss? Jerry also said that Gary wanted to invite me to his home the next night so that we could meet before the funeral – an invitation I wanted to decline, but knew that I couldn’t.

As I approached the front door of Gary’s home the next night, I felt as if I was about to face the firing squad. I figured surely he’d come to his senses over the past 24 hours and realized how deserving I was of punishment. After all, I thought,I should have been the one killed, not her. As soon as Gary saw me approaching, he came toward me, but not with the animosity in his eyes that I’d been expecting. Rather, he approached me with his arms open wide! He scooped me up in a warm embrace, and my tears of anguish flowed freely onto his flannel shirt as I kept repeating, “I’m so sorry!”

We entered his living room, where Gary sat me down in a bay window. He said, “Shannon, I invited you over here because I want you to know about Marjorie’s life. We’ve served with Wycliffe Bible Translators for many years, and there was no limit to how much Marjorie loved the Lord. She had such an intimate walk with God that she actually believed He’d be calling her home soon.”

I wondered how a human being could be so close to God that they’d know when their time on earth was about to expire, but the thought was more than my sixteen-year-old mind could fathom. Gary went on to explain that Marjorie had recently taken out additional life insurance and shared her testimony at church about how she was ready to go to heaven any day. He said, “Shannon, this accident may have taken us all by surprise, but it was no surprise to God. He was ready to take Marjorie home, and He chose you to carry out her fate because He knew you would be strong enough to handle this. That’s your responsibility, Shannon. You can’t let this ruin your life. God wants to use you for His glory. As a matter of fact, I’m passing Marjorie’s legacy of being a godly woman on to you. I want you to love Jesus without limits, just like Marjorie did.”

I went to the Jarstfer home expecting blame, not blessing! But Gary later told me that God spoke very clearly to him in the hours that followed the news of his wife’s death, saying, “The words you speak to this girl can either make or break the rest of her life. Choose your words wisely and let them reflect my heart for her.” God impressed Matthew 18 upon his mind, reminding him that it’s only as we forgive others that God is able to forgive us. In those moments, Gary determined to give the gift that he sensed both God and Marjorie wanted him to give – the gift of complete forgiveness and unconditional love.

Over the past 23 years since that accident, there’ve been many times that I’ve wondered how God feels about me. Growing up, I always saw God as a distant disciplinarian ready to strike me down if I committed one sin too many. But after meeting Gary Jarstfer the day after that accident, I came to view God through a completely different lens. I began recognizing my Savior as a man of tenderness and compassion, ready to receive me into His loving arms, even when I’ve caused Him great pain. To know that God always welcomes me into His presence with His arms wide open, just as Gary’s arms were so open to me that day, is by far the greatest gift I could have ever received.

If one human being can love another as completely and unconditionally as Gary Jarstfer has loved me, how much more must our Creator God love us—in spite of the mistakes we make in life! Therefore, I urge you to unwrap God’s extravagant gift of forgiveness, then offer the same gift to those around you.

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