Speeding, tickets and grace


I was traveling to Charleston for a wedding rehearsal. Traffic was heavy on the interstate, which slowed no one down. I was going faster than the speed limit, mostly to keep from being run over by the Friday afternoon traffic, but also because I was a little concerned I would be late for the rehearsal. Knowing the streets around my hotel would be clogged, I decided to loop around and come in from the Ashley River side of the city.

Ever notice when you get off the interstate, your body's sense of motion doesn't slow down? Your body is still tense from rapid movement, and your foot still wants to depress the accelerator. I slowed down to what I thought was a reasonable speed as I merged into traffic. I came over the top of the Highway 7 bridge, and I saw a Charleston policeman sitting at the bottom. Of course, I slammed on the brakes - isn't that what everyone does?

The policeman pulled out into traffic. He was ahead of me, so I figured as long as I stayed behind him, I was safe. Then he motioned through his rolled down window to pass him. I was determined to stay under the speed limit, as soon as I could find out what it was. Thirty-five seemed safe.

The police car changed lanes and fell in behind me. Not a good sign. Still, no lights, no siren. We traveled another mile to get off the causeway. He was still back there. The highway widened to accommodate a middle turn lane; then he cut on the siren and his lights.

The familiar sinking feeling in my stomach hit. I know the drill all too well. Get out your driver's license, registration and proof of insurance. I pulled over. The officer approached, cautious, though I didn't think I looked particularly dangerous. He asked for my items, looked them over, and then came the familiar question, "Mr. Smith, did you know you were doing 63 in a 50 mile-an-hour zone?" One thing I've learned through the years: Never argue with a policeman who has a radar gun.

I answered honestly, "Officer, I did not know I was going that fast." Officer: "Mr. Smith, do you have any reason for going that fast?"

This is always the embarrassing moment. I would have to tell the man I was a pastor, on my way to a wedding rehearsal, and I thought I was late. I told him the story and he said, "OK, Mr. Smith, I'll be right back." I knew what that meant: a moving violation, two to four points, and a hefty fine.

The officer came back after a couple of minutes with my ticket printed out. He reduced my ticket to two points and a $76 fine, which was gracious of him. I thanked him, signaled carefully and pulled back out into traffic, now really late.

I admit I was a little bitter. It was a Friday. Everyone was going faster than 50. Why me? Why did he have to write me a ticket for going 13 miles over the speed limit? Sure, I deserved it, but how about a break? Funny how we trivialize breaking the law.

The next day, I had to run out to the nearest grocery store to get some allergy medicine. I talked to my brother as I drove. There are no short conversations with my brother. After we get past the five minutes or so of brotherly insults, he spends another five minutes filling me in on all the news of home and trying to remember why he called me. It finally hit him why he called; he needed to ask me a question our wives had already processed and made a decision about. He simply wasn't in the loop yet.

By now, I'm parked at the grocery store, ready to wind up this conversation. We trade another brotherly insult or two, then hang up. Now I'm out of the truck, walking up to the store.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a Charleston policeman walking into the store. He looks vaguely familiar, and then it hits me: It's the same officer who wrote me a ticket the day before.

"Hello Mr. Smith. How was the wedding rehearsal yesterday?" he asked. "It went really well," I stammered. "I can't believe you remember me and remembered I was going to a wedding rehearsal!"

"Well," he said, "you were the last person I dealt with before I called it a day, and I guess you stuck in my mind." He paused, and then he said, "I tell you what Mr. Smith, don't worry about that ticket. I'll tear it up."

I was shocked. "Thank you, but you really don't have to do that." I meant the thanks and didn't mean the part about not doing that. "Don't worry about it, Mr. Smith, I'll take care of it," he said. "Enjoy Charleston." Then he walked away.

There was no doubt I deserved the ticket; I broke the law, even though I never saw a speed limit sign. There was also no doubt the officer showed me great grace. He took away the punishment I deserved. What I can't get over is the timing. One more minute on the phone with my brother, and I would have missed the officer. One less minute on the phone (highly unlikely) with my brother, and I would have missed the officer. The timing was perfect.

It was small act of grace, a micro-miracle. I don't believe in luck; I believe in grace. I think God sent this small act of grace from a Charleston police officer to remind me of his big act of grace. I'm not just guilty of exceeding the speed limit; I'm guilty of every sin I've ever committed. I deserve punishment. I should have to pay the fine. Jesus did not tear up the ticket, the fine for my sin. He died on a cross to pay my debt. I will not have to appear before the judge and declare my spiritual bankruptcy. God has taken care of my ticket for me. He'll take care of yours too, if you accept his gift of grace.

Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.