Jeffrey Ludwig has pastored a Bible believing church and preaches at churches in New York. He also taught at various colleges and in the New York public high schools. He is author of Memoir of a Jewish American Christian available at amazon.com.
Donna Fernworth and her brother, Charles, walked down the gangplank of the S.S. Norton, catching their first glimpse dockside of the town of Fabrio, Sicily. The streets were narrow with small stucco houses with narrow balconies on the second floors. The roofs were made of orange tiles as is common throughout the Mediterranean region. Donna’s husband had died of a cancerous brain tumor about two years before her trip with her brother to Italy. He was Rev. Charles Deluca, and was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Steubenville, OH. His church, through the missionaries it supported, had become partners with the Grazia Chiesa Battista (Grace Baptist Church) di Fabrio. Rev. Deluca was scheduled to preach a number of sermons at that church, and they both thought it would be a perfect time to combine a vacation with service to Jesus.
Charles and Donna would have been happy to stay at a pensione for their visit, but the pastor of Grazia Battista insisted that they stay at his home, gratis of course, as guests of the church. Each had their own room. Each room had a bureau with four drawers. The bureaus were off-white with a gold trim around each of the four drawers. The same simple desk was in each room with curved wrought iron legs with floral and leaf designs, also in black, wrapped around the legs. The queen-sized bed in Charles’ room seemed more fit for a king than for a humble servant of God. The mahogany headboard arched upwards towards a powerful centerpiece shaped like the fleur de lis. The footboard was also curved, rising in the middle to a point about a foot above the mattress, with two carved cherubs embracing, with their bows strapped across their bodies and their quiver of arrows strapped to their backs.
Donna’s bed was not as ornate, although it too was queen size. The headboard was rectangular with carvings of flowers throughout the walnut panel. The footboard extended about six inches above the mattress, but had only a slightly indented strip across the top. Donna’s bed was covered with a Maurizio Royal Trellis comforter, white and robustly plush with a white braid trimming all the edges. Two white matching pillows, also with matching braids, were plump and inviting at the base of the headboard.
Grazia Battista was the only protestant church in the town. It had been planted by an American missionary, John Tenrion, who had come to the town, called by God to witness to the people there about the saving grace of Jesus Christ when one becomes born again, and establishes a personal, living relationship with God. He came to their midst to invite the people to a different type of worship and belief system than that of the Roman Catholic Church which all in the town had grown up with, and, in fact, believed to be the only “Christianity” there was. They had heard vaguely about Protestants, mainly from friends or family who had travelled to or emigrated to the United States. Some had made Protestant friends, and a few had gone so far as to change their religion. But they still believed in Jesus, so it just made for some amusing gossip. Some even believed that the protestants were just another group of Catholics going by another name. The present pastor, Enzio Salati, was the fourth pastor that the church had had since its founding in the early 1960’s.
The church had a membership of 85, which included about 13 families and the remainder individuals who had come to faith in the Lord. There were about five regular attenders, though, who had not surrendered their lives to Christ, but liked the fellowship and felt inspired by the preaching, but did not feel ready to commit to the faith espoused by the church or to membership in the church.
Donna’s brother was planning to preach a series of sermons on Sunday and four successive evening services on the topic: “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” He brushed his teeth before dinner, combed his hair which came to an impressive widow’s peak point in the front, much the same as the 1940’s movie star, Robert Taylor, put on a fresh blue oxford shirt, and slapped a little cologne onto his face. He was looking forward to a relaxed and congenial dinner with his sister and with Enzio and his wife Sabrina.
Sabrina brought out the main dish, a delicious swordfish casserole with a wonderful linguini side dish preceded by an appetizer of prosciutto and salami. They opened a bottle of grape juice to celebrate the arrival of Charles and his sister, and shared toasts to health, to life, and to Grazia Battista.
“How was your trip?” Enzio asked. “The flight was smooth,” Donna replied. “There was no turbulence, the food on board was marvelous, and I sat next to a woman who was coming to Italy to buy fabrics designed for Versace New York. Even in the way she talked, I sensed her love of color and design. Her speech was filled with vibrant adjectives. She wore a beautiful gold lame dress with a slit halfway up her thigh. It seemed almost too elegant for riding on an airplane trip, but clearly she was a woman invested in elegance in everything she said and did. Her bag, her nails, her perfect make-up, and a perfect hairdo. This is a woman who hasn’t seen a split end in years!!”
“I enjoyed the trip too,” Charles interjected. “I was sitting across the aisle from Donna, and was delighted to see that she had seemingly made a new, charming friend in Eleanor (the impeccable lady buyer’s name was Eleanor). On my left was a fortyish man named Phil. He was going to visit his sister Elaine who now lives in Naples with her Italian husband Vincenzo. Vincenzo is a stock broker apparently, and they are quite well off. It seems they own a villa and have two cars – a Porsche and a BMW.”
“Did you discuss any spiritual matters with either of these two interesting people?” Sabrina asked. “Charles, I can’t imagine you not bringing up the Bible during an entire long flight like that from New York to Naples.”
Charles smiled, pleased that he could be eating dinner with people not threatened by his ministerial credentials or his penchant for “talking about God.” He thought of the many times he had broken bread with people who moved quickly from topic to topic, from baseball to politics to fashion to movie stars to transportation to space travel, in fact to anything except religion even though they knew that was how Charles spent his days in service to God.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I asked Phil if he went to church. He told me that he was raised as a Catholic, but had stopped attending any services years ago. He found that it didn’t help him with all the practicalities of his life, that he often was bored, and that he believed that the priests and the people he saw there took the whole matter of “church” entirely too seriously.”
“Too seriously?” I asked, “In what sense is that?”
Phil replied, “I could see that the service was intended to create a sense of drama. For example, the way the priest held up the wafer during that part of Mass. He looked at it so lovingly, and there was a long, pregnant pause before he said the prayer. It was almost as though he imagined himself an actor in a play trying to impress the audience with the monumental drama and seriousness of the occasion. Then the sermons were ….what would I say?.....’flat’….that’s it flat. There would just be a few comments on one of the Scripture readings, we would be encouraged to be more kind or more helpful or more faithful and believing. But so what? It just left me cold. I didn’t believe any more or less when I left the service than when I came in. I’m not a bad person. It seemed to me that God accepted me as I was, so I asked myself why bother with this icing on the cake. The priests weren’t telling me anything about myself I didn’t already know. My sins were mostly what the church calls ‘venial sins’ and those little sins are ones I can take care of myself. If I do something wrong, I know it; and I just decide not to do it again. So where does church come into that thinking. No. It isn’t for me….. By the way, what do you do for a living?”
Charles then told Phil that he was a Baptist minister, and that, in fact, he was going to the town of Fabrio to preach a series based on the Bible. “Imagine that,” Phil said. “I’ve been going on about my theories of religion, and I’m sitting here next to a minister! Hey, I hope I didn’t say anything that offended you. I was just being honest. I don’t want anyone to feel insulted by what I say.”
Charles assured Phil that he wasn’t offended by what Phil said, but added, “I think if you actually read different parts of the New Testament for yourself, just quietly, I think you’d find a lot more relevance in the teachings it contains than you did hearing about it or going through the rituals of the mass. Believe me, all of Christianity is not like the mass, and even though Catholics are Christian, the Christian faith taught by the Catholic faith is much different than that taught by we Baptists.”
Phil did not express any curiosity as to what those differences might be. He merely said, “I see. There’re differences.” He inhaled and slightly held his breath. He did not want the conversation to continue about religion. “Heck,” he thought, “I want to enjoy the rest of my trip to Italy, not dwell on all this religious stuff, but I don’t want Charley here to feel insulted at the same time.”
In his home church, Charles downplayed the Great Commission. He had learned over the years that there were too many people like Phil, although many were not as polite as Phil – many non-believers and/or non-churchgoers could be downright rude when the subject of faith came up. Charles had told himself long ago that some other ministers would have to carry the burden of evangelizing and dealing with rejection. When he worked in a pharmaceutical company temporarily during his college years, he remembered the national sales director telling him that to be a successful salesperson you only had to make a sale to two out of every hundred people to whom you promoted the product. That meant a 98% rejection rate, but you could still make a good living. The key was not being bothered by 98% saying no. The national sales director had said that rejection did not bother him, and that is why he had steadily moved up in sales. At the time, Charles, who already had almost decided to enter ministry, thought that that good advice would apply to ministry as well, especially evangelism. If one were not bothered by 98% of rejections and could, as the good book says, “shake the dust from your feet,” you could still consider yourself pretty successful. But at the same time, Charles knew that leading even 2% to faith in Christ seemed to be a mountainous hurdle. But if I even have a mustard seed’s worth of faith, then I can overcome this “mountain” of opposition and indifference.
However, once he began his seminary studies and later became a youth pastor, then an associate pastor, and finally a senior pastor, he found the relentless resistance to the truth of Christ to be overwhelming. It felt more and more like a colossal waste of time given the lack of results, time better spent ministering to the needs of the congregation as well as to his family and in closeted prayer. “The atheists will just have to be saved by Franklin Graham or by some televangelists on Daystar,” he would tell himself. “I do not have that gift even though I’m a pastor. If I can be an effective under-shepherd, I will have served my Lord and Savior honorably. For surely, whatever I am or am not able to do is through His grace.” And he would add thoughtfully, “Nowhere in Scripture does it say that pastors should be able to lead multitudes to faith in the risen Christ.” Rather, he saw his role as upholding true doctrine insofar as he understood true doctrine, and remain a faithful and stable example of called, Christian living.
When he began his career as a youth pastor, while he was still in his twenties, he received a call one night from Jethro, a high school student who was the son of Bro. and Sis. Turnbull. The Turnbulls were dedicated Christians who humbly sought to serve Almighty God by singing in the choir, greeting congregants on Sunday mornings, and, sometimes, Sis. Turnbull would teach and watch over the children in the nursery. They had three children – one was in middle school, their youngest, Sarah; a second was in 10th grade, Peter, who dreamed of becoming a heart surgeon; and the third, Jethro was in 11th grade and was just struggling to get through high school. He had low grades, and lived for the Spring terms when he could play on the high school baseball team.
All three of the Turnbull children attended church regularly with their parents, and participated in events geared to the teenage congregants. They seemed relatively well-adjusted and happy. But the surface happiness belied a secret angst in the heart of Jethro in particular. He was leading a double life. He secretly had begun smoking weed with some of the wilder, non-churchgoing guys in his class, and they had graduated to methamphetamines and even popped some oxycontin when they had the chance. Whether it was the drugs or Jethro’s guilty conscience, he began to feel increasingly tormented about his hidden life, hidden from his parents, his brother and sister, and from his friends in church.
Jethro had begun to develop a physical and psychological dependence on the drug, thinking he must use in order to feel “normal.” Although he sometimes experienced nausea when he took oxycontin, there were other feelings he liked such as euphoria and lightheadedness. He even delighted in the drowsiness, sometimes to the point of nodding off. When he didn’t have his fix, he would become restless, agitated and sweaty. He would suffer from muscle and bone pain, depression, diarrhea, chills, insomnia, vomiting and nausea. It was during one of those withdrawal episodes when his seller was temporarily hospitalized that he called Charles. He felt an overpowering urge to kill himself both because he couldn’t obtain the drug he longed for, and because of his deep interior shame that was sucking him down like a whirlpool.
“Pastor Charley,” he said on the phone, “I, er, just had to call you. I, er, have a problem, and er, I just don’t know who else I can speak to about it. You see….I…..if you…I mean…..”
“Yes, what is it Jethro? Just tell me, don’t be afraid, just tell me…..”
“But, er, will you tell my parents? I mean, can it just be between you and me?” he asked.
“Well Jethro, I can’t promise until I know what it is, but I’m on your side. Whatever it is, I’ll support you through it.” Charles sensed the fear and desperation in Jethro’s voice.
“Well, er, Pastor, I’ve been taking some stuff with some friends at school, and, er, now …. I mean….well, l haven’t been able to buy any for a couple of days and I feel pretty sick. Yes, pastor, I feel very sick…in fact, I think I’m going insane….I think if I can’t stop feeling like this I’m going to kill myself…yes that’s, er, it….I’m going to kill myself if I don’t get my hands on some of this stuff…but I don’t want to be like this…I don’t. Can’t you do something? Can’t you help me?”
“Where are you now Jethro? Can you get over to the church to see me? Or can I come meet you somewhere? How faraway are you?”
“Well, er, Pastor, I’m…. please don’t tell my parents….o.k.? …..I’m calling from 17th and Wingate, near the corner. I just threw up in the street, but some of the stuff got on my pants. I feel terrible. I think I’m going insane.”
“Jethro…please do not do anything rash. Stay right where you are. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Don’t go anywhere. I should be there in about ten or twelve minutes. Do you think you can hold on until I get there?”
“Yes, pastor, I think so…I’ll try….” And at that moment Pastor Charles could hear Jethro gagging and making gasping sounds.
Pastor Charles ran to his gray Chevy Malibu. He gunned the engine and set off for 17th and Wingate. But when he arrived, Jethro was nowhere in sight. Where had he gone?
Two days later, Jethro’s lifeless body was found in a clump of bushes about a mile from his home. The autopsy showed that he had the equivalent of about 50 oxycontins in his system, and had obviously overdosed, probably on purpose. His parents and brother and sister were devastated…. His mother was prescribed anti-depressants by her physician, his father looked broken and weary from that day forward, and his sister dropped out of high school the following year. Jethro’s younger brother continued on to finish high school, but his grades dropped sharply and his dreams of becoming a surgeon flew out the window. Pastor Charles learned early in his career how drugs and death have consequences that extend far beyond the affected individual. Sorrow and loss are themselves destructive of lives. They undermine our sense of well-being, our hopes for a brighter tomorrow, and infect us with a sense of personal vulnerability which makes us overly fearful.
But the family kept coming to church despite the destructive setback of their son’s suicide. They continued to have faith in their God that some redemptive good would arise from this personal tragedy, that it was not in vain. They became more prayerful and steadfast in their commitment to Christ. They took to heart the verse “all things work together for good to those who love the Lord being made conformable to the likeness of Jesus Christ.” Though their daily lives became less vibrant and successful, they were sustained by their faith. Each one assumed that as bad as they felt, and despite the obvious downturns in their personalities and successes in life, there was hope. But it was not a hope based on the externals, even the emotional dispositions they experienced every day. No. It was a hope based on a loving God who would use their loss as he would, and turn their broken hearts into useful vessels for serving Him. In short, it was a hope increasingly based on things unseen rather than upon things seen or experienced.
Pastor Charles, as a young pastor, was himself grieving over the loss of Jethro, but was buoyed by the ongoing faith of his family. Their faithfulness to the God of all creation solidified his conviction that he was on the right path of being a pastor. He could offer comfort. He could offer prayer. He could read Scripture with Jethro’s family and with other hurting youth and families. But he could not “give” faith. Faith was a sustaining gift from God. When he saw it continue unabated, in fact stronger than ever after the suicide, his own hope in Christ increased. He saw for himself a role in life as one coming alongside hurting people in their times of need, of being there for others. God was calling him to a deeper walk through the faithful example of that hurting family.
That initiation into the depths of human suffering which he experienced as a youth pastor remained with him throughout his years as a pastor as he grew step by step in maturity. Now he was called to the mission field to share the basis in experience and Scripture for his ministry of compassion. It was Christ and the Word of God that made his ministry possible. So, although he did not consider himself an evangelist, he hoped that souls in attendance, impressed with the truth and reality of his messages, would receive Christ and become children of God.
(© 2017 Jeffrey Ludwig – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)