Strength for the Journey

Editor’s Note: At this Christmas season, when the world concentrates on Santa Claus and making merry, those of us who know God concentrate on Jesus Christ, through whom we have everlasting life. Santa is a fairy tale. Jesus is real. And He does more than make a home for us in heaven. He gives us comfort, strength, hope, peace, and a reason to go on living despite the many tragedies that befall us here on Earth. He promises never to leave us or forsake us, and He tenderly wraps His loving, everlasting arms around us to help us endure hardship and glorify Him.

Here are two true stories of how knowing Jesus made a difference in lives. They are stories of tragedy, courage, faith, and hope. As you read them, consider your own relationship with God. And if you do not know Him personally, perhaps today is the day of your salvation.

The Story of Scott and Janet Willis

High school sweethearts Scott and Janet Willis married at the age of 20. Within a few years they had three children. When Scott was 27 he trusted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. Janet had trusted Christ in high school but grew little in her faith until she, too, was 27. Three years after trusting Christ, Scott was in Bible college training to be a pastor.

When Janet was 34, the unexpected happened. She had another baby. Not wanting their new boy to be raised alone, the Willises looked to God for another child. Over the next 13 years, He gave them five more. They now had three grown children and six young ones.

The Willises and their “B Team,” as Scott affectionately called them, grew into an intimate household filled with laughter, music, sports, and family activities. Janet educated their children at home, while Scott pastored the Parkwood Baptist Church in Chicago. The Word of God was central in the Willis family. Scott tried to read the entire Bible every year. Janet had Bible time with the children as part of their curriculum. Together with members of their congregation, Scott and Janet memorized Psalm 34. With the Lord as their guide, the Willises took the long view of life, measured not in days or years, but in eternity.

By helping Scott and Janet to build their lives on the rock (Mt. 7:24–25), God had prepared them for the storm that was about to strike.

On the clear, autumn morning of November 8, 1994, the Willises packed their six young children into their mini-van to visit one of their elder sons in Wisconsin. Joseph, 11; Sam, 9; Hank, 7; and Elizabeth, 3, were in the back. Ben, 13, and baby Peter, 6 weeks, were in the middle seats. Scott drove. As before all their trips, the Willises buckled their seat belts and prayed together. Once on the road, Scott mentioned to Janet how a friend of his had recently died of a heart attack and how quickly—in just a moment—a woman’s life had changed from wife to widow.

The family passed the time singing. Scott stopped to fill the gas tank and suggested that everyone get some rest. The four in the back quickly drifted off. Peter was already asleep, and Janet reclined her seat and closed her eyes. Ben, the romantic who often envisioned himself as a knight in King Arthur’s court, chose to read.

A few minutes later Scott saw the car in front of him swerve. A 90-pound mud-flap bracket that had broken off an 18-wheeler lay in the road. Making a split-second decision, Scott drove over the debris rather than risk rolling the van. The metal smashed into the vehicle, embedding itself in the gas tank. Immediately a fireball exploded through the rear floorboard and engulfed them. Flames shot up around Scott’s face and between the front bucket seats as he struggled to keep the vehicle under control.

“Get out of the car!” he yelled. He and Janet plunged their hands into the flames, released their seat belts, and fell out of the van. Ben, whose clothes had been mostly burned off, also unbuckled, then followed his mother out the door.

Someone who had stopped to help cried out to Ben who was still aflame, “Stop! Drop! Roll!” The five youngest children, still strapped in, struggled briefly but then succumbed to the flames and smoke.

Janet looked back at the inferno and began to scream, “No, no!”

Scott clutched his wife. “Janet, they’re with the Lord. It was quick. God has prepared us for this.” She knew he was right. All the years of Sunday school, all the times of sitting under the preaching of God’s Word, and all the wonderful moments of Christian fellowship had had their cumulative effect. The Lord, in His grace, had used all these godly influences and more to prepare the Willises for such a time as this.

Scott said recently, 13 years after the tragedy, “We don’t know what we’re going to need ahead of time.” But God does. And His grace is always sufficient.

As the paramedics arrived, Scott and Janet were able to spend a few minutes with their son, Ben, alongside the road. Ben had severe burns over 90 percent of his body. Scott had burns on his face and hands; and Janet, on her hands.

As Janet was taken to the ambulance, the Holy Spirit reminded Scott of the Scripture that had meant so much to them. From 30 feet away, he called out to his wife, “Psalm 34!” Scott told me, “In the midst of all of this, the one thing I needed to do was to praise God.”

Janet prayed, “God, there’s no way I can handle this. I give it all to you.” More so out of obedience to God than emotional readiness, Janet began to recite Psalm 34 aloud in the ambulance: “I will bless the Lᴏʀᴅ at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” At first she said it softly. Then, as her voice grew louder and stronger—“I will bless the Lᴏʀᴅ at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth”—she felt God strengthen her.

Shortly afterward, Scott watched his son Ben being flown away in a medical helicopter. Later that night the Willises, learned that Ben had died and, like his siblings, had passed into the very real presence of Jesus.

In a brief moment, Scott and Janet’s “B Team” was gone.

In the days following the accident, the Willises’ story made national television. Local newspapers covered it for weeks, often admiring Scott and Janet for their strong faith. But the Willises make it plain that they are no supersaints.

“I know it’s not the strength of my faith,” Scott said, “but the Person whom my faith is in that has been the key and the strength of it all.” Scott, especially, battled depression and at times thought of suicide. “It was my own self-pity mostly,” he said. There were dark days, “but God’s grace was there to bring us through.”

If you are going through trials, knowing Jesus personally can make all the difference. Stay in the Word, even when you don’t feel like it. Maintain an attitude of thankfulness. Find encouragement from friends. And look for ways to minister to others. It helped the Willises to share what God had done for them and to pray for those in need. Janet also wrote a children’s book titled A Dad’s Delight, a true story about their son Hank. (See www.adadsdelight. org.)

Scott and Janet, now 60, are grateful for their many blessings. They have three adult children and 26 grandchildren. They believe God is still working in their lives, and they know He has taught them many beneficial lessons. Scott shared, “We realized [like Job] it was possible to praise God without an explanation. God has a reason for these things. We can leave it there and trust Him.”

The Story of John Leonard

John and Bev Leonard will spend Christmas in Brazil this year. And though that may not seem like much to some people, it is actually a miracle.

John Leonard was only a toddler in 1962 when his parents left Ankeny, Iowa, and moved to Brazil, South America, as missionaries. John grew up in Brazil, learning Portuguese and acquiring a love for the people. In 1990 he returned with his own family to minister in the capital city of Maceió in Alagoas, the poorest state in the nation.

In only 15 years, God used John to plant five churches, one in a nearby fishing village and four in the city, where illiteracy, drugs, alcohol, prostitution, Satanism, and gang warfare were rampant.

But not everybody appreciated the Leonards’ ministry.

On Sunday evening, July 3, 2005, John preached a message from James 1:19–21 at the fishing-village church. As John stood at the church door greeting departing congregants, two Brazilian, hired assassins approached from outside. While one gunman stood guard, the other pulled out a .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol and began firing at John. The congregants scattered in terror. One bullet passed through John’s upper left arm, shattering the bone. Three more went into his face, tearing out teeth and parts of his right jaw. John fell forward. The gunman stood over him and, at point-blank range, fired two more shots into the back of his neck, destroying the fourth and fifth vertebrae. Then the assailants fled in a stolen car.

John was taken to the hospital an hour away; given nine units of blood; and placed in a hot, stuffy room with eight other patients. Finally, while in a coma, John was flown to the United States. He was not expected to live. But three months later, following numerous reconstructive surgeries, John was released from the hospital.

Today, at 47, he is paralyzed from his underarms down. He has some movement of his hands and arms, but no feeling or grip. He maneuvers about in a mechanized wheelchair. John’s wife, Bev, and their four children lovingly take care of his every need.

Yet John is certain God has a reason for all that has happened. “Someday I’ll know,” he said recently, without bitterness. He believes his injury has brought him closer to the Lord. “He’s always there, but feeling God’s presence, knowing that He’s there, speaking with Him more, and having closer communion with Him since my injury, I would say that I’ve grown a lot closer….I do wake up in pain at night, and I don’t always like to wake Bev up. So I pray. And I would say that one of the main benefits of this injury for me personally is my prayer life.”

Seeing her husband suffer is not easy for Bev. Yet she endures through memorized Scripture. “It was those verses in the hours of my despair that came back to me and had real, true meaning,” she said.

What would John say to other Christians who are suffering trials? “Bear it. There is a reason behind it. How we go through it is the amount of impact that it will make on others.”

The two gunmen were never brought to justice. Nevertheless, affirming Matthew 5:44, John wrote an article about his experience and had it published in a major Brazilian newspaper. In it he expressed forgiveness for the two men. “In order to make any headway at all, I had to come to the point of forgiving these men. That was, I would say, the hardest thing I ever did in all my life. But for God to use me, I had to forgive them.”

In June, John and Bev Leonard returned to Brazil and are serving the Lord in the city of São Paulo—a vivid testimony to the comforting truth that with God, nothing is impossible.

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