gunther stahlke.

The news hit like whistling wind through a window crack, numbing all sound and sense.

Blue. Red. Flashing.

“Gunther. It’s your son … he’s … gone.”

Suicide. The word ricocheted through our shocked heads as we raced in disbelief to confirm it with our eyes.

We got to the scene and the EMTs and cop cars had their deafening lights flashing. I had to see my son. I had to see my son. There is no way this is real.

Blue. Red. Flashing.

There he lay, limp and pale in a field.

I have an active imagination.  At least that’s what I thought when I was 18-years-old. I think my circumstance fostered creativity, I was on my own. Figuring out life as I went, an inexperienced sojourner determined to provide for myself.

I left my family’s home in Brazil at 15-years-old. My dad and I butted heads and my mom even thought it would be a good idea to leave. He was too worried about money to spend time with me. I didn’t understand the pressure he felt as a man. I decided to withdraw from school to go to one about six hours away from where we lived on the southern tip of south America’s wonder.

I’ll never be financially dependent on anyone and I’ll never love money more than living life, I vowed.

This is the first instance when things started to get real in my life.

I enrolled in a private school, got a job at its TV/radio station and became a regular member of a church close by. Most of the church’s members were part of the school and I thought that was cool. They were so friendly to outsiders. They welcomed me as their own.

This is fun.

Shortly after making my move to the school, Jesus warmly entered into my life through a friendship with one of the youth pastors. This Jesus became my compatriot, my fellow sojourner. From then on I recognized the fact that he navigated. Before that, I thought I was in charge of my own destiny. But when he entered into my heart, he opened by mind to see that he had guided me whether I knew it and liked it or not.

His warmth guides me to this day.

During my senior year, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. In order to get in to med-school, I needed to score above average on a test and stand out among the 860 candidates; only 40 could get in.

Every day I attended bible school, went to work, regular school and studied medicine. But I spent 40 minutes in prayer in an isolated field during my lunch break everyday. I learned to recognize the warmth of the Holy Spirit. I learned the sound of his whisper. As this relationship with the warmth grew, I imagined my future wife — in school, at home, with friends, eating lunch.


[Yellow, wind-sifted hair, small hands whisk through the wheat grass. A whisper as her head swivels to face me — and nothing, just warmth.]


Without knowing it, I developed a profile of her: what she looked like, how she acted in situations, how she sounded when she sung to the Lord, her hair, her laugh, her smile. I did this everyday for a year.

I didn’t make it into med school. I placed 54th, still not good enough. Time for the next move.

America. 

I knew some folks in Ohio through my family’s ties. So I got all my necessary paperwork signed and notarized, packed up a bag and said an indefinite ‘chau’ to the country I love.

My room and board was free under certain conditions: follow the curfew, clean your room, go to church.

The church was musty, filled with old people. Not progressive, stuck in their ways. But the warmth — it was there, so I embraced it; it was all I had. From time to time I let my anger cool the warmth. I came to America seeking an adventure with my Jesus … but the adventure wasn’t as fun as I had hoped it to be.

Another condition: go to church camp. I didn’t mind this one. I wanted to meet new people, learn the language, make friends. One night at camp, during a sermon, the pastor called up some missionaries from Papua New Guinea. A beautiful woman stepped onto the stage.

The familiar warmth swept over me. That’s her. That’s her — that’s her! God, is this real?

I had to talk to her. I made it my mission to talk with her as soon as the message was done.

Three conversations later, Jayne and I were engaged to marry.

We have a good life together. She’s my best friend and I’m more in love with her than I ever thought possible.

We married in the basement of the musty, old church. And we were members there for many years as we started a life. Jayne gave birth to four sons; Andrew, Samuel, Nathaniel and Zachary.

I love my sons. I’d do anything for them.

As they grew, I got a janitorial job at an inner city school and saved up enough to go to college to get a teaching degree. Then I applied for the next teaching job available at the same school; I got it. During that time I thought it would be good to get into real estate. There are lots of homes that need fixed up, filled. So I became a landlord and I was good at it. I bought a house. I bought a cottage up on the lake. And some cars and a boat. I got busy.

I love my sons. I’d do anything for them.

I love my sons.

Right away, Jayne let loose a shout from deep within, declaring war against the enemy who tricked our youngest son into thinking the bullet was his savior.

“Enough is enough! God take over, this was a lie from the enemy and I’m not putting up with this.” She yelled — groaned — from the pit of her stomach as I kneeled next to my lifeless 18-year-old son. I silently sobbed, eyes shut so tight my cheeks hurt, my arms wrapped around my dead son — knuckles white. I could still smell the gun powder, I could still sense the warmth of his body but it was quickly slipping away.

We had to pick the largest church in town for his funeral. One of my sons formed a band and they played worship songs during the service until their voices left. Many people, friends of Zach and their parents, recommitted their lives to Christ that day. Jayne and I had hope Zach would be raised to life. God could do it. He was powerful enough, surely he could give us our son again. Surely that’s what He wanted to do for us.

But it didn’t happen.

I was depressed for a year straight. I lost interest in my landlord business, teaching, everything. I was duking it out with God because I needed to know why. I didn’t sleep either — my mind was too loud but the only word it screamed was that nagging, three letter word.

Why.

Night. After night. The blackness of the ceiling provided a canvas for the word like wood in a furnace invites fire. I was cold and I welcomed the quickened burn.

Why did he do that? Why didn’t I spend more time with him? Why did God let that happen? Why didn’t he try and talk to me and his mother? Why wasn’t I a better father to him?

But then one night the prayer changed. I don’t know why, maybe it was because I was tired of not having the answers.

God, please, do something. 

I was tired of being tired. I was tired of not caring about life anymore. I was tired of seeking an unknowable answer.

God, please, do something. 

I thought back to the shouts Jayne groaned on that day. On that day, I felt her pain. But as I lay in bed praying that different prayer, I felt her commitment to fighting this … enemy. I felt her spirit calling unto His.

God, please, do something. 

I thought back to the night Zach died and how friends and family rushed over to our house to worship and dance. It was Jayne’s idea for the vigil but I wasn’t all there. The pain was too fresh.

God, please, do something. 

Then, a different phrase. One that changed our lives as we knew it. The why faded, I was almost sleeping. As I slipped into sleep I felt this presence and I felt paralyzed — I couldn’t move. It was like I was in the bottom of a pond and a weight kept pushing me down into the muck. The water closed in on every side and it was alive, eking into my veins and electrifying me. And it was boiling but strangely cool. I couldn’t move and there was no darkness, even in my unlit room.

I love you Jesus. 

The silent phrase woke me, I sprung from my bed, loudly leaping onto the creaky bedroom floor. The phrase freed me from the paralysis. I started dancing and singing “I love you Jesus.” At this point Jayne was fully awake. She started dancing too. Tears splashed onto the wooden floor and we danced in the puddles.

I had finally snapped out of it. I finally knew what it was like to have peace and joy. It wasn’t as I had expected, I didn’t even notice it until others did and they pointed it out.

War was waged that night and we’ve been loving the hell out of minds ever since.

Before that epiphany, my love for others was bound by walls I hand crafted. My desire to provide for my family was motivated out of a fear that I couldn’t fulfill my part of the vow I took when I was 15-years-old, after I left home.

When I said “I love you Jesus,” I was agreeing with His spirit deep within that has always loved everyone, unconditionally. It was a new vow:

I will love — as Jesus loves — all people, no matter the circumstances.

And it was a spark of a passion that helped articulate a new vision for Jayne and my life:

To inspire our Father’s children to be fearless and to overcome their youthful woes by demonstrating His ravishing ways.


Author’s note: 

Gunther and Jayne Stahlke live in Mansfield, Ohio. Their youngest son, Zachary, took his own life in February 2009. In 2013, they bought a humble house in Ontario of 800 square-feet. Gunther fixed it up, slowly, when funds and weekends were available. During this process, they rubbed shoulders with the area’s younger generation and started a fire. Every Saturday night, the Stahlke’s have faithfully invited the multiplying crowd of hungry young [and old] people. They call it the Freedom Experiment, and now it’s drawn such a large and faithful crowd that they felt led to merge with the local Life Vineyard Church and purchased a vacant building on Park Avenue in the heart of downtown Mansfield. It is there they continue to live out God’s vision for their lives.

“I can’t wait to experience what God has in store,” Gunther said.

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One thought on “gunther stahlke.

  1. Gunther, thank you for sharing your story. It moved me. I have often thought of you and Jayne and the terrible pain you must have experienced. I have prayed for you and your family. I am glad that Romans 8:28 is being lived out in your life …

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