Today marks an important anniversary for me and my family (my siblings). Today is the anniversary of my brother Tommy’s death. 34 years ago today, he died in a hang gliding accident in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Tommy and I were extremely close; of my 5 brothers & 6 sisters (12 of us in 14.5 years), he was directly behind me in the birth order – I was #3 and he was #4. He worked with me (and he also worked for me) in my electrical contracting business. And he was to be the Best Man in my wedding, which was 12 weeks away. We had lunch together the day before – it was a Friday, June 22nd 1979. I remember it so well because he didn’t show up for work that day – knowing that I was really depending on him. We had discussed it the afternoon before. We had an inspection deadline to meet and it was a time for “all hands on deck.” Anyway, he didn’t show at the jobsite that Friday morning (“Lincoln Square” at Lincoln & Magnolia in Corona, CA) until about 12:30 in the afternoon. It seems that when his alarm went off, he checked the surf report and promptly headed off to surf “Tressels” at San Onofre beach. That was just how he rolled. Anyway, when he showed up at the job a few hours later, he had already offloaded the surf board from the back of his truck and a loaded a hang glider on the roof rack. And it was no accident that he showed up in time for lunch. He planned it that way. He knew from experience that I would express my frustration with him (read that: anger toward him) and remind him that I was his boss(!!) and that I would fire him if he did it again! I remember his response to me: “Hey ‘little man’, you had better calm down before you have a stroke.” And how did I reply? I asked him if he had eaten anything. Hence, we went to lunch.
I remember the conversation we had over lunch that day. It was a very personal and heartfelt conversation about our parents. But especially, about our Dad. He was our hero. It seemed that he could do anything & everything. And he did it all well. When we were younger, he often worked two full-time jobs (sometimes as a carpenter, but most often as a machinist) and he would occasionally take on a side job building some custom cabinets or re-shingling a roof. And in addition to all of that, he dealt with all of the additional “drama” that was our family. And yet, he never seemed to miss an important event in any of our lives – and he seemed to view every event in each of our lives as important. And he was always available to help us (especially Tommy & myself) to design something, or to construct something, or to repair something… or just to ‘bail us out’ of an awful situation we had created. Consequently, our conversation that Friday at lunch was all about how we wanted to do something that would honor our Dad and let him know how much we appreciated him.
Because of the providence of God (which I knew nothing of then, but live my life in total dependence upon now) I was the last member of my family to have a conversation with my brother Tommy. And I am so grateful that our last conversation was not contentious (as they often were) and that it was not trivial (like many of those conversations tended to be). As I look back at that conversation, I marvel to this day that neither of us talked about ourselves – except for me reminding him what time he was supposed to be at my house later that afternoon (early that evening), because we were headed off to the Colorado River for a weekend of rest & relaxation and water skiing with my bride-to-be and several of our friends. Consequently, he never ‘put the tools on’ after lunch, but headed for San Bernardino to test fly the hang glider mounted to the top of his truck – something he had borrowed, broken, and just repaired. That’s why I was so surprised to see him a couple of hours later, heading west-bound on the 91 freeway near the 57 interchange. I pulled up next to him and rolled down my window (at 70 miles an hour) and asked him what was up? He told me that he arrived at the take-off point and assembled the glider, only to discover that he had forgotten some of the hardware. He told me to go on to the river without him. He would test fly the glider the first thing the next morning and see us before noon on Saturday. He didn’t show up Saturday at noon, but that was no reason for concern. That was just how he rolled.
I didn’t receive word about his crash until the following day. It was late Sunday afternoon and Kathy and I had just returned from our trip. The phone was ringing when I unlocked the door and I answered it to hear my sister Mary Ann say, “Tom went hang gliding yesterday. He is not coming back.” I was blindsided! It was if my entire world imploded and buried me deep under the rubble. I couldn’t breathe! I dropped the phone and dropped to the floor in anger and in anguish. There had to be a mistake! But there was no mistake. My two older brothers (both new “born again” believers in Jesus) had identified his body a few minutes before.
The next week was a blur. While the rest of the family prepared for his funeral, my mind raced. My thoughts – thoughts about life & death, thoughts about heaven & hell, thoughts about ‘forever’ and ‘eternity’ – engulfed me, while sleep completely escaped me. God was at work in my life, but I was oblivious to it. The truth was, I wanted answers from God, but He seemed to be anything but near by, or interested or available to me. I concluded that God was angry with me and would not have anything to say to me until after I sought out a priest, asked him to hear my confession and subsequently absolve me of my sins if/when I dutifully carried out my penance – in addition to getting myself back into church. I “checked the box” for all of the above, but God seemed as distant as ever – perhaps more.
I needed answers to some of life’s most important questions, so I sought out the parish priest that had conducted my brother’s funeral (his name was Fr. Sonny). It was quite a blow for me to discover that this undoubtedly sincere and devoted man had no substantive answers to my questions about how to find peace. Or about where to find any assurance about eternity. He suggested that perhaps I ought to pray the rosary. Or perhaps I could undertake a “novena” to St. Jude, for he was the patron saint of hope. And so it went, on and on – and the hours turned into days, and the days into weeks – but no satisfactory answers to my questions came.
In time, my question changed. I was no longer asking about ‘life after death’, I was now wondering about life in the present tense. My thoughts turned inward and became increasingly dark… and I began contemplating suicide. I did my best to keep it from everyone by going through the motions as best as I could. Our wedding was fast approaching and the business was quite demanding – but I was profoundly empty inside. By this time, six or seven weeks had passed and Kathy (and her close friends) knew that something was wrong. At least they knew that something wasn’t right. They began telling her NOT to marry me. She told them that she didn’t know how or why, but that she had a perfect peace about me and marriage.
Fast forward to a particular incident. It was the last night of our pre-marriage classes (we were about four weeks away from our wedding day) and we had the most distressing conversation (you can read that “intense argument”) between the two of us that we had ever had. Afterward, she was concerned about leaving me at my house by myself, so she asked her parents if I could spend the night in their home. They agreed. I don’t remember anything about the rest of that night, but something (I can’t remember what) happened the next morning that sent me reeling. I walked out of her house, despairing of life. I walked for blocks and blocks, wrestling with my thoughts, unable to feel anything – but desperately wanting to feel something! After several minutes, I found myself sitting atop the freeway overpass at W. Broadway and the north-bound Santa Ana freeway… trying to find the courage to jump. I couldn’t. And I was left wrestling with the thought that I was “such a looser” that I couldn’t even kill myself. Just then, I heard a voice from behind me calling to me. It was Kathy. She was pleading with me to get into her car, but I refused. I told her to drive away and not look back. And then I started walking again – my vision blurred with tears – wondering aloud why it was that others around me seemed to have made peace with God, had joy in their lives and had a purpose for living… and I did not. I didn’t know what else I could do, but (unbeknownst to me at the time) I was about to find out.
There is something that I need to add to the story here. I mentioned that two of my brothers had recently “received Christ as their saviour” – although I didn’t really understand what that meant. My oldest brother and his wife had come to Christ a few months before. My brother Danny had come to Christ a few weeks before – and both had been faithful to share their testimonies with Kathy and me. What I didn’t mention is that in addition to them, the general contractor I did the majority of my work for was a very committed Christian. He was someone who loved God, served God and followed God in every area and aspect of his life: as a husband, a father and a business man. In addition, it seemed as if all of his construction superintendents and the vast majority of the other sub-contractors that worked with him, were also committed believers. I was blind to it then, but I see it now: in the providence of God, I was surrounded by men who loved the Lord and who lived for Him unashamedly. They were already in my life, loving me and looking out for me and praying for me – even before my brother died.
Getting back to the story: that week, following the incident on the freeway overpass, the spiritual fog and the emotional funk that had engulfed my life for the previous eight weeks began to lift and things began to change. I didn’t exactly know what these men had in their lives, but I knew I wanted it – even if I still didn’t understand how desperately I needed it.
I’ll rejoin the story on Saturday, August 25th, 1979. It had been 9 weeks since my brother Tommy’s death and it was now just three weeks from our wedding day. This would be the day that my brothers (those same two who were ‘new believers’) and my brother-in-law would help me move into the little house we had rented. It was in the little cow-town of Norco. Why Norco? This was another instance where the unseen hand of Divine Providence was at work. I’ll explain. Shortly after my brother was killed – and in an effort to clear my head – Kathy and I contacted our good friends Denny & Diane Hillsabeck. Denny and I had attended high school together and we had many mutual friends. Consequently, shortly after he got out of the Army, he and I became room mates. We lived together for several years, right up to the point where he got married. He and his new bride, Diane, had moved to Norco – 35 miles miles to the east and a world away from where we grew up in north Orange County. Denny called it God’s country (Get Off Drugs country.) With our lives reeling the way that they were, we knew that we needed to change some things up. We knew that we needed God in our lives and at this point, we wanted Him in our lives – so looking for a house in Norco near our good friends Denny & Diane made perfect sense. (What we didn’t know at the time is how being in Norco would put us in such close proximity to Calvary Chapel of Riverside -later to become Harvest – the place where we would grow up as Christians and from where God would equip us for and call us to the ministry.) But getting back to the point I was making, we found that place about a month before our wedding day, and a week later I was moving in – thanks to the help of my brothers.
At the end of what had been a long, hard and hot day, they asked me if I would be willing to attend a concert with them that evening – at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa. I certainly knew all about Calvary Chapel and what the Lord had done among so many people who I went to high school with. But that had been years before, so I didn’t know what to expect. On the one hand, I loved Rock-n-Roll music! (I had been playing in bands since I was 13.) But I still felt a bit uneasy about Rock-n-Roll in a church? How legit could it be? In the end, I agreed to go with them that night – if for no other reason than I felt that I owed them. They had sacrificed their entire day to help me, so (I reasoned) I should certainly agree to go with them. We arrived before the doors opened, and there were people lined up to get inside. That was interesting to me – people waiting in line to get inside a church. The doors soon opened and we went inside, taking some seats at the very back corner of the auditorium. (I guess I wanted a way of escape if I felt the need to get out in a hurry.) Anyway, as I looked around the place, every person there (with the exception of me) seemed to have there lives totally together. I saw no torment on anyone’s face, only joy – and peace. I had an overwhelming sense of peace. I later learned that this “peace” was the Shalom of God. Not merely the cessation of strife or hostility; but everything right, as it should be. People who are right with God; People who are right with each other; People who have set things right in their own lives and affairs. Again, (and at the time) I didn’t know what these people had, but I certainly had the sense that it was what I needed, and it was certainly what I wanted.
The music eventually began, and it was good. Very good. But I was still a bit ‘weirded out’ by the fact that there was a rock-n-roll band playing loud music in a church! Wasn’t that sacrilegious? And hey… where was the Cross in this place? I didn’t see a cross on the wall, or hanging from the ceiling. Instead, there was a dove on the wall. I knew enough to know that was representative of the Holy Spirit and had something to do with Jesus getting baptized in the Jordan river – so I supposed it would be ok.
Before too long, the music was over… and out strolled this guy wearing flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt. He had a newspaper in one hand, and what I immediately recognized as a bible in the other. Nobody told me about this! I wanted to get out of there, but it felt as if I had been glued to my seat. He shared stories (current events) from the newspaper, and then he tied them to Bible prophecy. It was all pretty fascinating to me and I was intrigued… but the next thing you know, the preacher has finished and has started talking about an opportunity for people to come to Jesus, right then, right there. There was a part of me that understood what he was saying, and another part of me that didn’t really have a clue. After all, I had been going back to church faithfully for several weeks by then. I had been taking communion every Sunday at mass. In addition, after talking to my brothers and to the men I mentioned who surrounded me each day on the various construction sites, it was clear that I believed what they believed. I always had. I believed every word of the Apostle’s Creed. I believed that Jesus was the Son of God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. I believed that He was miraculously conceived by the Virgin Mary. I believed that He lived a sinless life. I believed that He died upon the Cross for the penalty of my sins, that He was buried and that He rose again from the dead on the third day. I believed that He ascended bodily into heaven and that one day, He would return to the earth to judge the living and the dead.
But as I continued to listen to the preacher that night, something deep inside of me began to stir. I was being called upon to make a decision to receive Jesus as my Saviour and to consciously choose to also make Him the Lord and the master of my life. I realized that this was something that I had never done before. Before now – including the 9 weeks that had passed since my brother Tommy had died – my relationship with God was something very impersonal; almost institutional. Indeed, I had been confirmed in my Catholic Faith (as a 7th grader, in 1965) but it became clear to me in that moment on that 25th night of August 14 years later, that I had not made a decision to follow Jesus. Instead, I had made a decision to adhere to the teachings and the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and to receive the sacraments. As the preacher continued. I found myself reasoning through these things and pondering how they related to following Jesus when something occurred me: My life was in no condition to bring it to Jesus. I had turned away from Him and I sensed that there was much more of my life that needed to be “cleaned up” before I could take such a step – especially when comparing what I knew about myself with what appeared to be the spiritual state and condition of every other person in attendance!
That is when the preacher, a man named Jimmy Kempner, said something that riveted my attention and sat me straight up in my seat. He said “some of you here tonight are thinking to yourself, ‘you don’t know about the sin I’ve committed; you don’t know about the trouble I’ve caused or the pain & misery I’ve inflicted upon others’…” I wondered to myself how could this man possibly know what I had been thinking? This is crazy! It’s as if he was inside my head!
He continued by saying, “Jesus isn’t calling you to first clean up your life and then follow Him; He is calling you to come to Him just as you are – and He will clean up your life.” And he added this, saying: “Jesus is the Divine Fisherman, and He always cleans His catch!” And then he opened his bible and quoted Jesus, (from what I now know to be Matthew 11:28-30) saying: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” When I heard those words, I immediately thought ‘Yes! That’s it! I am burdened with life and with living, and I want that rest! I need that rest!’ My eyes were now welling up with tears and I was beginning to tremble.
(the words of Jesus continued) “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me… for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” There was that word again: ‘Rest! Rest for my soul!’ At this point, I was weeping softly, but freely… as the words of Jesus concluded: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In that moment of time, God opened my understanding. I had yolked myself to the impossible task of trying to get myself – my life – to the place where I would become presentable or acceptable to God… and the burden of it all was crushing – in that I was being “crushed” by my continued failure to measure up.
I had a clear and immediate thought in that moment; It was this: ‘Lord, my life is a wreck… and I am powerless to fix it. But if You are calling, I am coming – all of me. I am holding nothing back. I am surrendering my life to You. You do with it whatever You want!’
A few moments later, the preacher asked everyone to bow their heads and to close their eyes. And he asked believers to pray as he said, “If you are here tonight and you want to receive Jesus as your Saviour, I want you to lift up your hand that I might pray for you…” and I did in a moment (although I believed it was something that was quite a private matter – between me and God). Therefore, you can imagine how relieved I was when his prayer concluded and people sat upright again. But before another moment passed he spoke again, saying something that I was totally unprepared for. He said, “Everyone that Jesus ever called, He called openly and publicly. Therefore, if you lifted your hand to receive Jesus tonight, I am going to ask that you come forward and stand in front of this platform, so that I can pray with you.” My immediate thought was ‘No Way! I am not getting out of this seat… except to go right out that side door.” But a moment later, I was in the aisle – sobbing uncontrollably and walking toward the front. And in a moment, I was jogging. When I reached the front, I pushed my way through the people gathered, bounded up the steps and was stood eye to eye with Jimmy Kempner. I reached out my hand and he shook it. (And then he directed one of the ushers to take me back down on to the floor with the others). Nevertheless, in that moment, I knew that I was going to leave that building that night a completely different person than I was when I came in a couple of hours before.
A moment or two later, I prayed along with a group of others as we were led in simple prayer of commitment. We acknowledged that we were sinners – in need of a Saviour and unable to save ourselves – and we confessed faith in the work and the person of Jesus, declaring by faith that we recognized His sacrifice upon the cross as being the payment in full for all our sins – past, present and future. We then invited Him to take complete control of our lives, and asked Him to fill us with the Holy Spirit (as He promised He would), that we might have all of the necessary unction to follow Him from that day, and forward… until the day we would stand before Him in eternity.
I meant every word of that prayer I prayed on that night, the 25th of August, 1979 – 27 days short of 34 years later. And by the grace of God, I have never looked back! As I would later learn from the scriptures, I had been Born Again; Born of the Spirit; Born from above. I was not now a child of God, having received ‘the Spirit of adoption’ whereby I could call upon God in heaven as Abba, Father.
That is why this date, June 23rd of every year, is so very important to me. Initially, it was quite dubious – fraught with uncertainty. It marked the day that my brother Tommy died, and nothing more. A very dark day, indeed. But God began a work in my life in response to a tragedy that I could make no sense of; A work that culminated 9 weeks later when I decided to place my faith and complete trust in Jesus as my Saviour, and make Him the undisputed Lord and Master of my life.
That’s is my story. I’ve taken the time to share it with anyone and everyone who might happen upon it, with the hope that it might become their story.