A Story of Tragic Loss, Amazing Recovery, and God's Incomparable Faithfulness
As the '50s and '60s passed, I had been an average guy who was well-liked in school and in our neighborhood, and who loved and excelled in sports - baseball, basketball, and especially football. I never got into any serious trouble, and like most adolescents, just trying to navigate my way into adulthood and figure out what my future would be.
That life was about to change - suddenly and dramatically.
It was in 1971, in the midst of the Jesus Movement, that I encountered the Lord Jesus in an authentic, life-altering salvation experience. As God would have it, in spite of the fact that I had been a chronic underachiever throughout my school years (largely due to my disinterest in reading and preference for sports), I was miraculously and almost immediately gifted with a hunger for the Scriptures. In the decade that followed, I read and studied with a passion for truth. I got married and was blessed with two beautiful children. My teaching gift began to develop and gain recognition. Soon, I was ordained and began serving the Lord full time as an elder and Bible teacher with a local Christian outreach. The Lord Jesus opened many doors of opportunity to speak and minister at a variety of Christian venues both in and beyond the metropolitan Detroit area.
However, over the course time, a dark cloud began to form over my seemingly perfect world. Frustration began to mount over a number of personal and ministry issues, and then, in a time of crisis, I made some regrettably poor and highly consequential choices. What followed was the unthinkable. My world, my family life, and my Christian life and ministry came crashing down into dust. The outcome of that crisis was a tragic departure from the faith that would last some 20 years. The pain, heartbreak, and utter shock to which those closest to me - my family, Christian co-workers, disciples, and friends - were indescribable. As for me, in a moment of exasperation, I had somehow stepped aboard a train that was seemingly out of my control. The weakest, darkest, and ugliest part of me was now inexplicably in charge and it had no inclination to abandon its power.
A Heartfelt Word of Advice
I would like to pause here in order to offer a valuable lesson that I had to learn the hard way. As followers of Jesus, walking in the Spirit is not an optional mode of life. When we allow ourselves to cease trusting in God and give in to our natural inclinations, we may discover capacities for ungodliness in ourselves that we never thought possible. I personally discovered that in myself there lies a capacity - not necessarily intentional, but a capacity nonetheless - to do great harm to others, regardless of how much I may care about them. I had not come to the Lord in 1971 as a drug addict, alcoholic, or ex-con. I had been an average, lower middle-class Catholic kid whose upbringing had taught him the fear of the Lord and who never departed too far from the straight and narrow. But the fact remains: flesh is flesh, and we all need to understand that, given the right circumstances, our flesh is capable of far more ungodliness than we can imagine.
Needless to say, this horrendous self-discovery stunned me to such an extent that I was entirely broken by it, both emotionally and spiritually. At that point, I began to utterly unravel.
The Difficult First Months
The initial months that followed involved an intense, protracted, and agonizing struggle with the pain of that great loss. I had attempted unsuccessfully to repair my marriage and even attempted to return to church on several occasions, but I felt nothing. My heart had turned to stone, and the heavens were as brass. I was unable to understand or cope with what had happened in my life. For weeks on end, I spent evenings in local bars trying to drown out the pain. I saw myself as a detestable, abject failure as a minister, a husband, father, and friend, and was haunted by the the fact that, having gone through the painful experience of my parents' divorce, I had sworn I would never put my children through it.
Images of the shock and hurt on the faces of those I loved imprinted themselves in my mind, haunting me as I tried to sleep at night. I knew I was responsible for my choices, yet I couldn't seem to stop making bad ones.
By the grace of God, I soon abandoned the drinking habit. I had to figure out how to find substantive employment and, most importantly, how to be a responsible, loving, albeit part-time father. I couldn't do either while full of alcohol and sobbing at the bar.
Eventually, my self-preservation instinct "kicked in," and I began to emotionally shut down the painful memories of my past. Ultimately, I fully invested my time and energy in building a new career as a business professional and pursuing other interests. My career afforded me opportunities to travel extensively, both internationally and domestically, for several prominent corporations. I was making money and used it to bury the pain, especially the pain of a failed marriage and having relegated myself to limited weekend fatherhood.
As the years passed, selfish pleasure abounded as my rule of life, but it would not continue indefinitely.
Just as. . .
Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again . . .
BUT JESUS COULD
A Sovereign, Miraculous Act of Grace
In December of 1997, a near-fatal rollover auto accident suddenly brought my life to a screeching halt. God, as it seems, was beginning to move (he has some interesting ways of getting the attention of a wayward child). The accident left me with numerous injuries, including a closed-head injury, fractured shoulder blade, numerous rib fractures, a shin fracture, a severed knee ligament, and damaged cervical discs. My personal downfall was now coming to its completion. In my years away from God, I had experienced spiritual, emotional, financial, moral, and now, physical bankruptcy. Miraculously, I had suffered no apparent vital organ damage, but had limited physical mobility for several months.
However, five more years would pass until the time arrived that God had endured enough of my foolishness.
Then, in early January of 2002, came the experience I will never forget. I was sitting in my car at a stop light one evening, on my way to hear an old friend speak at a gospel meeting. I should point out that this was purely out of a sense of loyalty to my longtime friend, as I had no "spiritual" inclinations at the time. Mind you, I have always been a "Word-oriented" person who weighs stories of spiritual experiences very carefully and with a healthy sense of skepticism (but not unbelief). But that night, as I sat at the stoplight, there, in my car, out of "nowhere," I was suddenly overwhelmed by the dramatic sense of a presence. It was as if a ceiling fan was turned on at high speed over my head.
Beloved, I'm neither making this up nor exaggerating the experience. In that moment, the light of God came on in my life as suddenly as it had gone out 20 years earlier. I knew I was "back." I can't describe the profound and overwhelming sense of feeling "clean" I experienced in that moment. It was as if the holiness of God overcame me. It was as if I were being reclothed in the righteousness of Christ. I couldn't explain it. I had done nothing to promote or encourage it. The glorious Spirit of the Lord simply came and awakened me out of my 20-year stupor. I proceeded to the gospel meeting and ecstatically told my friend what had just happened. Suffice it to say, he was stunned and overjoyed by God's grace toward me.
Soon after the experience, I contacted some old friends, many of whom were now pastoring churches, to let them know of my "return" to the Lord (not the best way to describe it). The first order of business was to reconnect with the church. I noted in my first book, After the Walls Came Down, how my return was not all fun and joy. I entered a new season, one that I characterized as a crisis of reorientation. Everything had changed over the 20 years I had been away. The church had evolved since my early years in the Jesus Movement. People had grown both physically and spiritually. Some who had been my disciples in the early years were now pastors and elders to whom I would now be accountable, which was necessary but humbling. Over time, we were able to navigate through all of that, but not without some, hmm, let's just call them growth opportunities. But he gives more grace.
After a reasonable season of repentance, re-acclimation, and preparation, I was released to once again begin serving the body of Christ. Along with being released again as a Bible instructor, I also served as a food pantry and church office administrator. I eventually became an author, having published my first book, After the Walls Came Down, in the spring of 2011. My second book, The Threshold of Exile, will be released in June 2023.
By the grace of God, there will be more to come.
Today, my loving wife Judy and I reside in Utica, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. God has blessed us with three married adult children and six beautiful grandchildren.
Looking back, I can only offer my sincere and humble gratitude to the King of Kings, the matchless and sovereign one, the Lord Jesus Christ. My life today stands as a testimony to his awesome faithfulness and restorative power. It is that of a living God, one who is ever watching over those whom he has called for himself.
That being said . . .
God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7). Grace has not nullified the principle of sowing and reaping. It is a law of God's created order. My life today is not without consequences. My choices in that fateful season brought circumstances that cannot be reversed, both in terms of ministry opportunities and other physical and emotional uphill battles. Add to that the moments of weakness when my heart moans, "Why Lord? Although my restoration is amazing, why such great loss? Why was so much pain and heartache inflicted? Why didn't you stop me, if not for my sake, then for the sake of those I hurt?"
It is then I am reminded that God is sovereign and there are questions in life for which we may never get answers. Job wanted and felt he deserved answers. He received one: God said, in effect, "Where were you when I created the universe? Did I ask your permission or advice?" Job suffered for his righteousness; I for my stupidity, but the divine response is the same. We embrace the lessons, learn to live with the consequences, and press on with our journey in Christ.
So, yes, there have been occasional pains and unpleasant consequences in reaping the harvest of a failed past, but in the midst of those comes greater grace. God is the great plowman and sower of new seed who utterly overtakes that reaping process with newly plowed soil and seeds of restoration. Today, my life, marriage, family, and modest labor in the Lord stand as vivid testimony to that grace.
Although there are certainly other perspectives on this text, some time ago I embraced the amazing and beautiful description of such restoration as described in the Book of the Prophet Amos:
"Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD,
"When the plowman will overtake the reaper
And the treader of grapes him who sows seed;
When the mountains will drip sweet wine
And all the hills will be dissolved..."
(Amos 9:13 - italics mine)
Such is the great God and Savior we serve.
Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be the Glory)
Born in 1952, I was raised along with my two brothers in a modest and loving Italian-Catholic home in suburban Detroit.
I'm the handsome one in the middle, along with Joe: left & Tony: right
Mom & Dad: Angie & Joe