Out of breath and dripping with rain, I leaned on a back alley dumpster as the man I just met in a bar aimed a heroin needle at his bulging vein. Just then a police SUV rolled around the corner and splashed to a stop before us. Wincing as the window rolled down, I braced for the interrogation. As a pastor and law enforcement chaplain, I had some radical explaining to do.

You might also be wondering what in name of God I was doing. Some background might help.

My bizarre adventure began at the Greyhound bus station in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was standing in line to buy a ticket from Canada back to the States, so I could pick up my wife and cats and bring them north to live with me for two years of doctoral studies.

My shoulder sore from lugging my laptop, I laid the carrying case at my feet where I could keep an eye on it. The line inched forward. Engrossed in a biography about the missionary William Carey, I shuffled ahead without moving the computer along with me.

What happened next is every road warrior’s nightmare. I didn’t realize it till the line moved forward again and I turned to reach for my computer. Gone! And with it the backup diskette containing a month’s worth of summer studies–including three finished papers. Not to mention my passport, student visa, plus $100 worth of textbooks.

A tsunami of panic

“Lord!” I cried, lifting my hands to heaven. Nobody around acknowledged seeing the thief vanish out the door. After racing outside to scan the perimeter, I summoned station security. “Where would someone take my computer?” They pointed north to Hastings Street six blocks away, where a seedy assortment of hotel bars and pawn shops serve as liquidation headquarters for hot property from drug addicts.

As I turned away to chase down my computer, the security chief yelled after me: “Hastings Street is dangerous! Watch who you talk to! Don’t even look anybody in the eye as you pass.”

With that discomfiting admonition, I ran up the rain-soaked sidewalk, calling on God to help me catch the guy.

I almost did. I stormed through the Savoy Hotel bar just after he had been there trying to hock my machine. They had thrown him out. Which way did he go? They had no idea. At least I got a description: Dark hair, middle-aged, medium tall, skinny, green army-type coat.

Now I could visualize my enemy. With fantasies of street justice pounding with each heartbeat, I hurried ahead, hot on his trail. I hoped for a surprise confrontation: “Stop! Give me my computer!”

If he ran, I would catch up, tackle him, and if necessary, smash him in the face. While he regained equilibrium I would grab my precious laptop and disappear around the corner, never to go near Hastings Street again.

I charged from bar to pawn shop tracking the thief. But his trail had disappeared. Word must have gotten out that somebody very big and very mad was after him and he had better take a siesta somewhere.

Meanwhile, as I intensified my hunt, God’s Spirit was working even harder to soothe my spirit. Kinder, gentler thoughts diminished my desperate rage. So this thief is an old guy my age, and where’s his life going? Into the gutter. Hitting the face of that frail man could have knocked him into the concrete curb and caused a brain hemorrhage.

I might have killed the guy! Imagine a death without Christ after a hopeless life on Hastings Street.

That thought terrified me more than anything else assaulting my emotions that afternoon. This thief’s life was a lot more important than my stolen machine. And what was I thinking, anyway! I had never punched anyone in more than a half century of interacting with all types of people.

Thank God I didn’t get to hurt that poor thief’s hopeless face. As my emotions began to settle, I began noticing the other faces around me, male and female–all hopeless, many scarred and bruised. Evidently a lot of face smashing happens on Hastings Street, whether through fights or drunken falls.

WWJD about it? No doubt He would intercede on behalf of all these broken children of God. By the time I climbed the steps of the police station to report my loss, I found myself repeating that eternally incredible prayer from the smashed face of our crucified Savior: Father forgive him, for he didn’t know what he did. Help this poor guy to know Your grace.

But I still needed my computer back! Jesus, have mercy on me!

In a bar I found one young guy who seemed streetwise and willing to help. I shoved a damp $20 bill into his grasping hand. “Let’s go! You know where these guys hide.”

As my drug-addicted deputy led me up the graffiti and condom-strewn alleys behind Hastings Street, he remarked: “Man, I sure hope we catch this guy. We can get him in a corner and really hurt the b@$*&!.”

By then my spirit had been sufficiently chastened by God’s Spirit that I was able to respond: “But wouldn’t it be even better if we gave him grace instead of pain? I need my computer back, yeah, but let’s remember that this guy’s soul is more important than my machine. So just why don’t we just get the thing and let him go. Give him grace.”

“Grace! What’s grace?” he muttered as he ducked into a doorway in that back alley. “Look, man,” he said as he pulled a needle from his pocket, “I hate to do this now but I really need a fix. Hope you don’t mind that I shoot up.”

“This is your world,” I told him. “I’m just your guest this afternoon.”

And so my deputy vigilante bared his arm and aimed the needle at a vein. I stood beside him watching in helpless horror. Just then that police SUV roared up. They had seen everything. There was no place to hide—and here I was a badge-carrying police chaplain from out of the country. In justice they might have loaded us off to jail, or at least taken me in for questioning. Instead they just smiled.

“C’mon fellas, move along.”

As we watched them drive off down the alley, I remarked to my friend: “You just asked me what grace is. Well, that’s grace.”

Our Savior is in the business of letting sinners off the hook–even self-righteous sinners like theology students chasing down computer thieves. If the Almighty did business with us based on justice, we all would die justly as the due reward of our deeds. We need a refuge, a place of grace to which we can escape.

Escaping to the sanctuary

Long ago the shepherd David, hunted for his life, lamented in total desperation: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (Psalm 55:6). Centuries later Jesus addressed that heart cry: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

But that was 2,000 years ago. What about us today?

Christianity has much to say about the historic Jesus on the streets of long-ago Galilee, and there is much anticipation of the future eternity with Him. But what about today? We really need Him now!

The Bible offers a much-overlooked solution. Between the first century Savior and the future eternal Lord, Jesus is a very present help in time of trouble: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Hebrews 4:14).

After Christ’s resurrection, He went back to heaven to serve for us in the sanctuary before God’s throne. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

This throne of grace was known in the ancient Jewish sanctuary as the “mercy seat.” It was the center of the sanctuary, or dwelling place of God with His people. Through Jesus, we may “with confidence draw near” to God’s presence. By contrast, beautiful Queen Esther ventured fearfully into the king’s throne room, not knowing whether he would welcome her visit or put her to death. “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16) she declared. We don’t have to be brave like that. God’s presence in the sanctuary is our place of refuge, not a threat.

Back during the terrible days of slavery in the United States, our northern neighbor provided a sanctuary for them via the Underground Railroad—an escape trail with safe houses that stretched all the way to safety in Canada. There the slaves found sanctuary.

Civilized society has outlawed that type of slavery, but millions in this land of the free are enslaved just the same. They suffer bondage to dysfunctional relationships, crippling disabilities, indebtedness, miserable jobs—or unemployment. Many who have managed to escape all that are bound by addiction to alcohol, narcotics, materialism, racism, chauvinism, eating disorders, pornography or gossip. Many more are enslaved to emotional distress like guilt, shame and fear.

From all of that and so much more, we need a sanctuary. Life is tough and we crave a place to hide. Sometimes we even desire a lifelong break from the people closest to us. I live in Lincoln, capitol of Nebraska, which seldom makes national news. But it did recently when state legislators here voted to allow parents of minors, under age 18, to drop off their kids at a hospital and give them up forever. No questions asked.

Three dozen parents, mostly of teenagers, drove here from as far away as California to take advantage of our “safe haven” saw. Supposedly a safe haven for kids, but in many cases it might have been the parents who needed a sanctuary from out-of-control offspring.

People everywhere were shocked that parents would do such a thing. Actually, they’ve been doing it all along with their spouses. Divorce! Driving to the courthouse and, as it were, dropping off their formerly dearest and best. And in the process, surrender custody of their kids, at least partially.

How sad when we need a sanctuary from our closest loved ones. It’s even sadder when people need refuge from the God they grew up with.

(This is the first of two parts in a series of God’s grace in heaven’s sanctuary, adapted from Martin Weber’s recent book, God Was There: True Stories of a Police Chaplain. For part two, click here.)