Born into a loving Christian family in New Zealand in 1988, Richard was always ‘the black sheep of the family’ – the one to push all the boundaries. With three sisters and two brothers, he was nearly always the one who got into trouble. He describes himself as “the outdoor type, never indoors.” His story is one of rebellion, immense pain, depression, separation, illegal drugs, being close to death on three occasions, a visit from an angel, and a supernatural freedom that can only come from heaven!
Hurting the family
The real story starts when Richard was fifteen and at the peak of his rebellion. A series of catastrophic events were to change his life forever. Richard takes up the story,
“For many teenagers life at fifteen is a joyful adventure. Mine was escape. But what was I escaping? I didn’t like what I had become. The person I was needed to fit in with the crowd of drugs, girls, stealing, lying, hurting people and very much a destructive one.”
Richards’s greatest regret was what he was doing to his family. They were being torn apart by his actions, but they still loved him and he knew it. He says:
“I know that seeing a strong family man like my Dad crying over what his son was doing is not right. I will never forget it. He is the hardest working family man I know. He survived three heart attacks and the surgery that followed, but he was heart-broken at his son’s actions. My Dad still loved and trusted God though it all.”
The ‘death crash’
Meanwhile Richard was craving attention from all the wrong sources. The tenth of February was just a normal day for him in many ways, but it was the day that would change his life completely and forever. He stole a car with some other guys and they were all high on drugs and alcohol. But at eleven in the evening as they were speeding down the road out of Paeroa at over 180 kilometres per hour, he knew that something was very, very wrong. Richard says,
“There was a corner ahead of us. I said, ‘slow down, we are going to crash’, but they just told me to shut up. These guys were gang members, all older than me. I later found out that they were actually trying to kill me.”
The car skidded and hit a power pole so hard that it broke in two. Richard blacked out. The car was a write-off. He came around briefly in the operating theatre with his father by his side. His back was broken, a number of ribs were broken, he had a punctured lung together with other complications. Richard thought he was going to die. The doctor had to cut two holes in his side to put a drain in, but they couldn’t use anaesthetic as it could have killed the young Richard in this delicate state.
He woke up three days later in the high dependency ward. His mother and father then told him what had happened the night of the car crash. Before the crash, neither of them could get to sleep. It was as if they knew that Richard was in trouble. Richard’s Dad decided to get up and shave because he had an important meeting at work the next day. He had started to shave when the lights and power went out as the car Richard was in hit the power pole. Richard says,
“You know people say that they know when their kids are up to no good? Well it must have registered ten on the ‘Richter Scale’ of knowing something wasn’t right that evening. It was two o’clock in the morning when they got the call saying their son had been in a major road crash and he was in a critical condition, close to death.”
Three days, four major operations, and total darkness
Richard woke up three days later hooked up to a life-support machine and surrounded by his family. He couldn’t move his legs. He was still in a critical condition and had spent a further two months in ICU. He says;
“People claim to have seen bright lights when close to death, but for me it was only darkness. I can remember a split second before the moment it happened and then only darkness.”
Surgeons performed four major operations on Richard, screwing titanium plates into his broken spine. His head was so swollen that people said ‘it looked like he had a rugby ball sticking out of the side of his head!’ Miraculously there was no brain damage.
Death threats from Gang members
One evening after his family had gone, some gang members came into Richard’s side room at the hospital. Rather than showing any sympathy, they threatened to kill him if he didn’t say that he was the driver of the car! They also threatened his family. A nurse overheard them and from that day on Richard’s family stayed every night until visiting time had ended. The police would never have believed such a story anyway. The firemen had cut Richard out of the rear seat of the car and the authorities knew very well that he could not have been driving from the back seat!
After three months in Waikato Hospital, Richard was flown down to Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch. It was his first trip on a plane and he couldn’t even see out of the window as he had to lay down on a stretcher. Things didn’t go to plan in Christchurch. Richard was very ill and unable to eat or drink. A large, life-threatening haematoma (blood clot) developed on his spine and the medical staff had to rush him back to the hospital for emergency surgery again.
The staff at Burwood taught Richard how to use a wheelchair and after a while he had gained enough strength to be able to lift himself up into a sitting position using his arms. He was even able to move his feet a little.
Angry with God
Although Richard’s brothers and sisters treated him no differently, the outside world did. He realised that being in a wheelchair would be difficult physically, mentally and spiritually. Sinking into a deep depression, Richard returned to illicit drugs in an attempt to ease his mental anguish. He would take heavy doses, blacking out for hours on end and sometimes for a whole day at a time.
The stress on the family was colossal, so Richard left the family home. Now living away from them he took even more drugs in an attempt to bury his pain and depression, but it didn’t help. He says,
“I was living in a place away from town. This increased my drug habit and my cycle of depression. I was really at rock bottom. I had no money and no true friends. Living from ‘the bottle’ to drugs my pay check came in and everything went out the same day.”
But he soon realised that when he woke up, the depression was still there, as bad as ever or even worse. Drugs were not the answer. The worst thing of all for Richard was knowing how destructive his drug habit was and knowing how much he had hurt his family.
“Wanting to be angry at someone I chose God. I didn’t know that I was blinded, deceived.”
The stress of the situation took its toll on Richard’s parents and they separated. Richard and his father argued and in exasperation Richard told his father that he didn’t want him around anymore. His father answered in a way that began to break the ‘spell’ that drugs had over his son,
“Son, these words will haunt you one day. I’m tied to you so even if you hate me I will still love you and I will carry you till my last breath.”
The voice of an angel, “Jesus is Crying For You!”
Well, those words did haunt Richard. On just another day, a day when he went to get his drugs for the next fix, selling all he had left to buy them, something amazing happened. As he pushed home from getting his synthetic cannabis, he says,
“Approaching the last corner to my house in Hamilton, the world seemed to stop. All the cars stopped and it went silent. This hand touched my shoulder and in a split second I turned around. Looking at me was this lady who had the whitest blonde hair, blue eyes of the greatest gems, pure white robe shining like the moon! She was crying, but it was a happy cry.
The ‘lady’ spoke to Richard in a voice which he says could only be the voice of an angel. She said,
“I’ve been sent to tell you that Jesus is crying for you. He loves you like a son, and much more, he sees your pain, your feelings of emptiness and needs you back. Come back!’”
In that moment the angel turned him around so that he faced home. Richard turned to look at her, but she was gone! She had vanished in an instant. The cars started to move again and everything looked normal. But Richard realised that something amazing and supernatural had just taken place.
He went home, still intending to take the drugs despite what had just happened. But when Richard tried to light up, nothing happened. The brand new lighter would not light. Then, in an instant, he was no longer looking through his own eyes. Instead, he was looking at himself as a baby through the eyes of his father.
A supernatural vision, “Choose life!”
“It was like I was taken from my body and put in my father’s body. I saw myself as a young baby with Dad holding me and crying with tears of happiness. I continued seeing moments of my life that had made him happy. Then I saw the moments of sorrow as I saw the times I had done bad things to the extent that I was calling out, ‘why God, why?’ Then I was suddenly back in the room with these drugs, about to light them. The lighter went ‘flick, flick. flick’. The third one took me out again, into my Mum’s eyes, seeing the joy of myself being a baby and her holding me, crying with joy. Then I saw the bad things, breaking her heart, filling her with sorrow. Then I was back in the room again.”
Richard was shocked at what he had just witnessed. He began to cry like a baby. He cried tears of shame. He decided to flush the drugs down the toilet, but on the way there he took a look at the drugs in his hand, and had another vision.
“My hand turned black – it looked old and death-like. Then I looked at my other hand. It grew strong and healthy and looked perfect. There was a voice in my head saying, ‘Choose. Do you want life or do you want death?’”
Richard let go of the drugs and at that moment his good friend Matthew rang him. As Richard answered, Matthew said, “God told me to say that He loves you Bro and this verse is for you.”
It was Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for good and not for bad, plans to give you hope and a future.” Richard says,
“This was it! I knew one hundred percent that I needed to stop what I had been doing. I have relapsed a few times, falling back on drugs and alcohol, but each time I have had horrible visions of death and sorrow, so it wasn’t worth it!”
Dealing with temptation
Richard found a way to deal with the temptations. He realised that when he reads his Bible and goes down to the riverside to look at the beauty of creation, he is in communion with God,
“By the river, I find that God speaks to me — what I need to do. Most of the time He says, ‘Trust Me!’ And I say, ‘Yes Lord, I do’. Then He will lead me and guide me. Sometimes He leads me to people I can talk to and tell them what God has done for me. My heart belongs to Christ now and I thank Him for finding a way where there appeared to be no way and no hope.”
Life has changed dramatically for Richard since he became a Christian. He knows that God can do anything. He can change the worst life around and he knows that nobody is beyond reach of God’s love. Richard still has some bad days, but he has discovered that this is just part of the human experience. Living in a fallen, broken world filled with broken people, we experience that brokenness ourselves. Brokenness is a part of life and we will often best identify with others who are lost and broken when we are suffering too.
Life and death
As someone who has escaped physical death, Richard knows that he has been given another chance at life. Nearly losing his own physical life helped him to see that he was spiritually ‘dead’ and needed Jesus to replace his deadness with life. The hospital visit from callous gang members, who had already tried to kill him once, opened Richard’s eyes to spiritual darkness and light. He had thought that stealing cars, taking illegal drugs, and riding around with gang members would be fun, but the reality was that these things lead to pain and death. This episode showed him the absolute truth of what Jesus had told his followers two thousand years ago,
“The thief [the devil] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
The Bible verses Richard had been taught since childhood all began to make sense as he pieced them all together to make a full picture. Jesus had said to the broken and lost Samaritan woman,
“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water,” (John 4:10)
The water here is symbolic. Jesus is using the water in the well in front of them to explain the emptiness of mankind and the need to believe in and accept Christ if we are to ‘pass from death to life.’ Christ told his disciples,
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
And, Jesus said to Nicodemus, who was a teacher,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18)
Richard realised that God did not ‘commission’ these terrible events. He did not make the crash happen, that was the result of human foolishness, but he used these things to get through to him.
He realised the irony of the situation that whilst he had nearly died and the gang members had survived physically unscathed, the reality now was that they were ‘dead’ in the spiritual sense while Richard was ‘alive’ forever!
He had woken up to mankind’s great spiritual needs when he almost died. Richard leaves us all with a powerful challenge to our hearts,
“Please ask God to help you no matter how small or how big the problem is. In this fallen and falling world we need Jesus. We need his love and his forgiveness in our lives personally. He is here right now with you. Step out! Trust Him. What do you have to lose?”
Story by Ralph Burden
Photo of ‘Richy’ with his Mum Tracey. Photo supplied by Richard Rutherford.