S A FOURTH-GENERATION carpenter, I remodel homes and build furniture—antique reproductions and custom pieces. I’m way too A.D.D. to do any one thing for very long. One of my hobbies is making custom gunstocks. Being an avid outdoorsman and appreciating beautiful wood helped lead me there.
In summer 2008, it dawned on me that although people all over the Eastern U.S. owned my custom stocks, no one in my own family had any of my work. I called my oldest son, Chris, and asked him if he would like a new gunstock for Christmas. He jumped at the offer.
Chris and his wife, Lori, are missionaries in Brazil. They have two sons. Chris is my favorite hunting buddy, and being several thousand miles away makes it tough. But every two or three years, we get to hunt together; meanwhile, we “Skype” a lot. The burl-walnut gunstock I made turned out to be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever produced.
In fall 2010, Chris spent some time with a close friend from seminary, now a pastor in Tennessee. During his visit, one afternoon was reserved for a deer hunt. As the evening ended, I called to see how things were going.
After a deep breath and a long pause, Chris replied, “Pop, I just had one of the best and worst hunts of my life.”
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, but I dropped my rifle . . . and broke it.”
For a moment, I was stunned. “Well, Son, bring it back. I’ll fix it.”
With uncontrolled emotion, almost yelling at me, he said, “You don’t understand, Pop. It’s in two pieces. It’s not just cracked—it’s broken. I don’t think you can fix this one.”
“Well, Chris, I have not seen it, but whatever is wrong with that stock, I cannot fix it till you bring it home to me.”
A few days later, Chris and his friend came back from their trip. Sure enough, his rifle was a mess. The next week, he had a ministry appointment and would be out of town for several days. During that week, I stared at that broken stock many times on the workbench in my shop. After the third day, it dawned on me how to fix it.
When Chris came home, I showed him the makeover. He kept shaking his head as he examined the area where it had been broken.
“Is it strong? Will it hold up?” he asked with some apprehension.
“Chris, there are stainless-steel pins in there. It’s stronger now than when it was new. It may bend, but it will never break.”
February 27, 2011, was a special day for us. Chris was scheduled to present a gospel message at a wild-game dinner at a local church. That day was also the 36th birthday of my younger son, Israel.
Israel is a talented singer and writer, composing both lyrics and poetry, but he was using his talents the wrong way. He had been running away from God for 20 years as hard as he could go. His poetry was clever and insightful, but full of anger.
He had no peace within, and his music reflected that.
We were all praying for his salvation and had invited him to attend the wild-game dinner, if for no other reason than to hear his brother speak. In spite of their spiritual differences, they were very close. To everyone’s surprise, Israel agreed to come.
For six months Chris had been preparing the message for this event, and I had been called several times as a sounding board. At one point, Chris declared to me how hard it was to deliver this kind of message in one’s hometown. I told him he was in good company—Jesus had the same experience. I’d heard every part of Chris’ sermon quite a few times and was believing God would use it to win souls for His kingdom. More than anything, I was praying for Israel.
About three weeks later on a Thursday, two days before the dinner, I got a great idea and reached for the phone to call Chris; it rang as I started dialing. It was Chris. He said, “Pop, I just had the best idea for a sermon topic.”
With a little shudder, I said, “Yeah, me too. I’ll be over in a minute. Let’s talk about it.”
Two days later, as Chris walked up to the podium, there was a rifle slung over his shoulder. A bit inappropriate, except at a wild-game dinner in the South. Near the end of his sermon, Chris related the story of dropping his rifle and watching almost in slow motion as it broke, and then explained his heavy heart when he thought of telling me what had happened.
“Pop wasn’t angry when I told him. He just said, ‘Bring it home, Son.’ He didn’t scold me for being so careless or trashing his beautiful work. He didn’t even charge me to fix it. Pop made it like new just because he loves me.
“God is like that; He’s not angry at us. He just wants us to bring Him whatever is left of our lives. However damaged or hopeless it seems to us, God wants us to put it back into His hands. He made us, and He’s the only One who can fix us. And God paid the price through His own Son’s death; this gift of eternal life is free for us.
“Pop told me the broken place is actually stronger now than when it was new! Many times that’s true with our heavenly Father as well. Often He turns our weakness into our greatest strength.”
That night, 23 people gave their broken lives back to the Creator! As much as I’d like to say Israel was one of them, he was not. He got sick and left before the service started. When I found out, I felt sick, too. We had all prayed so much for that moment, and just like a vapor it was gone.
After the event was over, Chris and I were in my office. Emotions were all over the map. We were excited about people coming to know Christ; there’s no other feeling in the world like that. Yet, we were sad that another opportunity was lost for Israel. As Chris wiped down his rifle to put it away, we both knew it would be at least two years before we could hunt together again. The air was thick.
As his finger traced a path where the wood had once been severed, Chris shook his head. Then he said, “Pop, you taught me to sit in a tree stand when I was just a pup. You taught me how to tie a line onto my pack and my rifle securely, and to raise and lower my rifle safely. I sat in the darkness of early dawn and learned these things. You taught me the different knots from the Boy Scout manual that I still use today. I’ve lowered my stuff when I was happy, sad, mad, excited, half-asleep, sweaty, or half-frozen—I know how to tie a line to my gun!
“If I live to be 100, I will never understand how I dropped this rifle, but now I know why.”
Fast-forward to August 2012. On a warm Sunday evening, Israel came home from a camping/canoe trip and found his wife had cleaned out the house and left him. He was broken like I’d never seen him before. “What am I gonna do, Pop? Where can I go from here?” We stood on his front porch and I just held him.
As I was driving over to his house, I had determined in my heart not to preach, give advice, or try to fix anything, but to simply be there. But before I could stop myself, I said, “Son, you got sick and missed the story of the broken gunstock at the wild-game dinner in February, but you’re going to hear it now.”
The next Sunday, my wife and I were at a restaurant having lunch after church when Israel called. I thought I heard correctly but I handed the phone to Diane to be sure, as I choked back the tears. As the expression on her face intensified, I knew I’d heard right and felt as if I would explode! We boxed up our lunch and headed home like the barn was ablaze. Israel was standing in the driveway. If his smile had been any wider, his ears would’ve popped off! We ran to each other and hugged for a long time.
“Pop, all week I heard ringing in my head, ‘Whatever’s left, you have to bring it back home.’ This morning, I was so tired of hurting, I got dressed and walked a few miles to church and gave my heart to God!”
I called Chris in Brazil and asked, “Do you remember the story about your broken stock you used at the dinner?”
“Best sermon illustration I think I ever had. Why?”
I asked, “Do you remember how many people got saved that night?”
“Pop, you know I don’t keep up with that.”
“Well, Chris, you can add one more—your brother!”
“It is right to celebrate, for he is your brother; and he was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32 TLB).
Ron Heil lives in Cleveland, Tennessee.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Evangel.