January 9, 2008

Truth Is Better Than Fiction

2008 1501 page22 capIKE EATING A BOWL OF CANDY before dinner, relative prosperity seems to destroy the appetite for spiritual things. For those who struggle to bring the gospel feast before the overfed, it’s helpful to remember that more than a century ago Ellen White wrote that throughout the world, “prayers and tears and inquiries [are going] up from souls longing for light, for grace, for the Holy Spirit” and “many are on the verge of the kingdom, waiting only to be gathered in” (Conflict and Courage, p. 332).
Two such wistful souls—Nancy Zuccaro and Jim Willis—who at first were strangers but are now friends, live in Philadelphia. The story of how their lives intersected to the glory of God unfolds like the convoluted plot line of a carefully written novel. But the novel isn’t fiction. It’s better than fiction—it’s truth.
Nancy’s husband, Tony, was her perfect complement. She was serious, shy, and quiet; he was jovial, outgoing, and talkative. And after 43 years of happy union, he was dying of cancer. Two surgeries, two rounds of chemotherapy, and 70 radiation treatments left him bald and depleted, but Tony was still cracking jokes and playing games. One game involved a wireless doorbell that Nancy had bought so Tony could ring her when he needed something. Tony occasionally rang the bell, bringing Nancy running. She’d arrive breathless, asking, “What’s wrong?”
“I just wanted to say ‘Hi!’” he’d laugh.
2008 1501 page22After a year-and-a-half struggle with cancer, Tony went to his rest. Things were quiet in the house as Nancy grieved the death of her beloved husband and wondered what the rest of her life would hold.
Each day passed by uneventfully until Nancy’s doorbell stopped working after three weeks of rain. She thought nothing of it until one night when her neighbor Judy invited her to a party down the street. She attended the party, returning early. But when she stepped on the bottom stair of the house, the doorbell rang eight times as if to greet her.
Maybe the doorbell spontaneously fixed itself, Nancy thought. She pushed the button to see if it would ring, but was met with silence. A sense of shock shot up her spine, propelling her back to Judy’s house.
“The door chime rang!” she told Judy, shuddering. Judy wondered what Nancy was talking about, but comforted her as best she could. What was it that frightened Nancy? The fact that she felt as if Tony were trying to communicate with her.
The door chimes continued to “talk.” When Nancy couldn’t sleep one night, she got up to take the wallpaper off the bathroom walls in preparation to paint. Struggling with the paper, she said,
“Now I know why Tony didn’t like to do this!” Immediately the chimes rang, as if her beloved late husband was watching and laughing from some unseen stratosphere. Later, as she tried to hang wallpaper in the kitchen, she blurted out, “This is harder than it looks!” The chimes rang again, as if to agree.
One day Nancy threw a little party for her grandson’s birthday. When the boy and his mother arrived at the house and opened the door, the chimes rang as if to say “Happy birthday!”

Nancy was starting to ask the obvious questions: Where is my husband now? Is he watching me and trying to communicate with me? What happens to people after they die? She was puttering around her house one day, pondering these things, when her friend Regina called. While they chatted, the chimes rang.
“I heard that!” Regina said. “It’s Tony trying to talk to you!”
“Do you really think so?” Nancy asked, with a mixture of fear and fascination.
“Yes! In fact, I have just the book for you. It’s called Crossing Over. The author says he can actually talk to dead people, because they aren’t really dead!”
By this time, Nancy was telling whoever would listen about the mysterious doorbell. She was as a woman obsessed, but deep down she groped for clear answers. Is he looking over my shoulder, beside me every moment, trying to cross over? she wondered.
An answer came in the form of a postcard. “Prophecy Seminar,” it read, “Featuring Lynnwood Spangler and Dr. John Peters.” Nancy’s interest was piqued. It’s being held right near my house! Nancy noticed. Maybe God is answering my prayers.
Nancy was present at the first class, and attended the meetings each night thereafter. Then at the first opportunity, she drew aside the presenters and pointedly asked, “Where is Tony?”
“What do you mean?” Peters and Spangler asked in bafflement. The story of her deceased husband and the door chimes came spilling out, and the two men knew just how to comfort her. They assured her with scripture after scripture that her beloved Tony was resting in the grave. Nancy had cried out for light, and now it broke over her soul like a sunrise on a bleak landscape.
“What religion are you?” she asked the two.
“We’re Seventh-day Adventists,” they replied.
Nancy believes God led her to Seventh-day Adventists because through them she learned the truth about life after death. Following the sermon, she began attending the Adventist church in Chestnut Hill, where she worships to this day.
We could say “the end” right now and we would have a great story. But truth is better than fiction, and the story is even better than a woman being saved from the grip of spiritualism. Like a robin heralding the sunrise, Nancy felt compelled to sing out her newfound faith. “But no one wanted to hear it!” she says. “That’s why I prayed, ‘God, please let me make an impact on at least one person’s life!’”
God sent her that one person. Jim Willis was the regional vice president of Kaehall Estate Planning Coordinators. Nancy had responded to another card in the mail, a promotional piece, sent by Kaehall. Now that Tony was gone, she felt she needed to get her personal affairs in order. Jim was the person the company sent to talk with her.
As Jim and Nancy visited that day, she shared the story of Tony’s death, the mysterious doorbell, and her discoveries in the Bible. Jim seemed interested enough, so Nancy showed him a set of Evangelist Doug Batchelor’s Millennium of Prophecy videos, which she had bought.
“Would you like to take one home and watch it?” she asked Jim.
“Sure!” he said, smiling. Today he admits that he wasn’t the least bit interested, but took the video because he didn’t want Nancy to become offended and cancel the sale.
Jim had a history with Christianity, albeit an inconsistent one. During a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy in London, England, Jim met some Americans who invited him to church, and he accepted out of sheer loneliness. He ended up teaching Sunday school. Then while traveling as a tourist in the Holy Land, Jim experienced the thrill of climbing Mount Sinai and was baptized by a minister of his church in the Jordan River. Shortly after meeting his soon-to-be wife, Lisbeth, the two attended church a few times in London. But after their return to the U.S. and their marriage in 1988, the interest dwindled. In Jim’s words, “We backslid, then backjumped—or at least backhopped.”
Twelve years later, after meeting Nancy, Jim found a religious video in his hands. “I watched the video . . . [and] I thought it wasn’t half bad.”
Jim ordered the entire set of videos from Amazing Facts. “I don’t know why I did this,” he says, “but I ordered them, and promptly put them in a box where they stayed for 50 months.”
In February 2005 Jim’s wife went on a three-week business trip to South America. While she was gone, “the Holy Spirit moved on me to watch the videos,” Jim says. After two hours of rummaging around, Jim found where he had stored the videos and told himself, “I’ll just watch one before I go to bed.” He felt compelled, however, to watch one more, and then another. He finally quit about 4:00 a.m., but says he was soaking up truth.
“I didn’t go to work the next day at all,” he says. “I was on a roll and didn’t want to break the momentum.”
Jim was no stranger to the addictions of alcohol and nicotine. “I was even arrested on one occasion for getting into a fight, which was caused by my drunkenness,” he says. “And although I was never arrested for drunk driving, I should have been. But since that first night watching the Millennium of Prophecy tapes, I have never touched a drop of alcohol or smoked even a single cigarette. In the process, I have saved money, saved people’s lives, and saved my marriage.”
The Final Chapter
Now here’s the serendipitous final chapter of the story.
Jim soon finished the entire course of videos and e-mailed Amazing Facts for a referral to a Seventh-day Adventist church in his area. This placed him in the pews of the Chestnut Hill Adventist Church on February 26, 2005. Little did he know that only minutes before, Nancy Zuccaro had spoken to that church’s pastor, J. P. O’Connor, about a man named Jim Willis. She gave him Jim’s cell phone number and urged him to call. But after meeting Jim following the service, Pastor O’Connor realized this was the man whose cell phone number was scribbled on a scrap of paper in his pocket. “I have your cell phone number,” the pastor said. “Nancy Zuccaro gave it to me!”
“What?” Jim cried. “When did she do that?”
“This morning, just before the service,” he said. “She was sitting right in front of you the entire time!”
Nancy and Jim have both been worshipping at Chestnut Hill ever since. They have much in common—their eager search for spiritual answers, their discovery of those truths through strange and unpredicted circumstances, their sense of having found a spiritual home in Adventism. But the two of them are a study of unity in diversity, because of the sharp contrast between their two personalities. Nancy is quiet and socially reserved. Jim never met a stranger, and witnesses compulsively to everyone who will listen and some who won’t. In the first few months Jim attended church, even before he was baptized, he brought more guests to church than the rest of the members combined. Every casual conversation with Jim yields a story of someone he met in a diner, at a party, on the street. But all his vibrant sharing of the gospel with others is because a quiet, reserved Nancy Zuccaro shared it with him first.
Evangelism is indeed challenging, but there are Nancys and Jims in the world ready to be gathered in. Long ago the Author of the Great Commission implied that the fields were riper than His disciples thought they were. Perhaps we’re missing something today. Perhaps we should lift up our eyes and look on the cities, towns, and villages, on the Nancys and Jims, and see “that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35, NASB).*

*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.


Jennifer Jill Schwirzer loves all the hats she wears—writer, speaker, singer/songwriter, and founder of Michael Ministries, a company that proclaims the gospel message through word and song. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two college-age daughters.