This story was related to me by Russ Venker during my 1997 tour of ski areas out west. Besides having a ministry to the community of June Lake, California, in which he makes good use of his counseling skills, Russ started a ministry at nearby June Mountain that soon saw him in great demand. Besides his community activities, which are many, he now leads the Mountain Learning Center, which specializes in retreat programs for clergy and their spouses who are experiencing marital or professional crises.
“I remember ‘Mr. Hard Core.’ He drank too much, fought too much, and would bite your head off if you looked at him the wrong way. Still, he always treated me with a certain respect—something I couldn’t figure out and neither could anyone else. About five years ago—out of the blue—he called me, his voice cracking with emotion. ‘I’ve got to talk with you. Can you get over here right away? My wife has left me for the second time’ He paused to regain his composure. ‘I’ve been to court-ordered anger management. . . I’ve been clean and sober for nine months. . . I want my wife back. She went back to church and isn’t willing to get back with me unless I support her by going to church with her.’
“He continued, ‘The issue isn’t joining my wife in church; the issue is between me and God.’ He broke into sobs.
“He’s now 62, but when he was 12 years old he went forward at a revival meeting and put his faith in Christ. Unfortunately, the counselor who talked with him about his decision got all over his case about something, so “Mr. Hard Core” made up his mind: No more church and no more God.
“He continued, ‘I can’t join my wife because God won’t have me. How can I receive forgiveness after I’ve given my life to Christ and then lived just the opposite all of these years?’
“So I opened up my bible to the thief on the cross, and I read it to him, asking: ‘Did the thief go to church? Was he baptized? Did he confess all of his sins? That’s how big God’s grace is.’ I told him the story of the Prodigal Son, and then continued by saying, ‘Any time there’s a difference between you and your heavenly father, all you have to do is talk to God like you’re talking to me, confess these things to him, and tell him you’ll do your best to have a relationship with him. More than anything else, that’s what he wants with you.’
“Both he and his wife are now doing great. He had already taken a permanent disability leave from a career in law enforcement that was filled with controversy.
“And I found out that God used someone else to touch his life: a police chaplain. After a critical incident stress debriefing, he was the only one who sought him out and asked, ‘How are you doing?’ That chaplain’s concern was a key transitional point for him; he went on disability shortly afterward.
“Both this man and his wife are doing great these days—he’s retired, and they’re playing a lot of golf.”