Howard is the brother of a televangelist of a mega church in Florida. Over time, troubling issues accumulated until Howard had to break away from the ministry and go on a quest for answers. He was bothered by the fact that the Rapture (when Christians are taken out of this world) had not yet occurred – it was supposed to happen before the Tribulation (the time of agony and disasters), which is already underway. He didn’t realize it right away, but he is also troubled by the belief that many millions of people are destined to go to Hell (a place of punishment for unbelievers). Eventually, he meets Maranatha, who helps him find his way.
Part 1 of Howard’s story, excerpt from the book:
Howard Willoughby was the brother and partner of the great televangelist Stanley Willoughby in West Palm Beach, Florida. Their church was the Gospel Gate Center, an evangelical mega church with seating for 10,000 and a television audience of 1,000,000. Howard and Stanley were co-ministers of the church, although Stanley was the de facto minister-in-chief.
Howard was a white man in his mid-30s, tall and stocky, fair with rosy cheeks, and light brown hair. His face and hands were like a child’s, but large as a man’s. Despite his looks, there was something about Howard, an inner resolve.
He sat on a couch in the pastoral office, waiting for Stanley. He was going to tell his brother something he wouldn’t like. Howard needed a sabbatical. Such a thing was unheard of, and Stanley was sure to be angry. When he got angry, his face turned red all the way up into his scalp, which could be seen through thinning, bleached-blond hair.
Howard knew just what his brother would say. We need you Howard, we’re in a critical time. There are too many things going on. What do you need time off for? This is where the action is. Go home and take a nap. Tomorrow morning our workshop is starting on the End of Days.
The last straw had come when Howard received an anonymous letter telling him about blood diamonds. The letter told him that blood diamonds were diamonds mined in war zones under suspicious circumstances. Stanley was about to invest in the Butin diamond mines in Ivory Coast, one of the last places in Africa where blood diamonds were exported. The diamond mine investment would increase Stanley and Howard’s wealth substantially.
When Howard asked Stanley whether the Butin diamonds were blood diamonds, Stanley said that the Butin diamonds would be marked with the conflict-free logo. He showed Howard the paperwork certifying it. Howard was not convinced. And now, Stanley needed him to sign papers for the investment. The meeting was to occur in two weeks. Howard wanted to leave sooner than that, regardless of the meeting. In fact, he couldn’t imagine putting pen to paper to approve it. No, he was going to tell Stanley he had to go on sabbatical. Now—it couldn’t wait.
Stanley and his female assistants could be heard in the hall, the noise of their conversation increasing as they approached. They reached the door and burst in at high impact. Howard stood up. Stanley assailed him with a slap on the back.
‘Howard,’ he exclaimed, ‘where the heck have you been? I need you to take this package to the lawyers and explain the new deal to them. They’re waiting for it at their office. Go now. And mention to them that Butin gave us a commitment to protect our investment.’
‘Stanley, I need to talk to you alone,’ said Howard.
‘Now. It will take 15 minutes.’
‘Okay. Ladies, please wait for me in my office.’
The two well-dressed women with electronic notepads disappeared into the mahogany pastor’s suite and shut the door.
Impatiently, Stanley asked, ‘What is it, Howard?’
‘I’m taking a sabbatical,’ stated Howard.
‘A sabbatical?’ shouted Stanley. ‘What in God’s name are you thinking of? It’s almost Easter. You dedicated yourself to this ministry. There’s no time off from the Lord’s work!’
‘You can’t stop me, Stanley. You better not try. Yell all you want. I made up my mind.’
Stanley pretended to swoon.
‘I can’t believe this,’ he said. ‘Don’t you feel well, Howard? Something has come over you. I’ve noticed. What is it? Tell me now.’
‘I can’t tell you now, I have to sort it out. Things are not right. I can’t describe it.’
‘Do you really have to take time off? How much time? Take a week off, but be here for the Butin mines meeting, will you?’
‘I don’t need to agree to that investment, do I? Why don’t you get the lawyers to write up an exception?’
‘What? You’re really nuts. Why on Earth wouldn’t you agree to it? You have to, we’ve come too far to back out.’
‘I’m telling you, I don’t want to. Just get the lawyers to draw up an exception. They can do that. Nobody would ever question it except you. And you can just manage it separately.’
‘Yeah well, I don’t think it’s possible under the terms of the partnership.’ Stanley peered at him through squinted eyes. ‘Where are you going to go? Can I call you at home or what?’
Howard didn’t answer. He locked eyes with Stanley. In the moment that passed, Stanley reached the boiling point.
‘To hell with you, Howard!’ cried Stanley. He was infuriated; his face turned red all the way into his scalp. ‘To hell with you! Dammit, I’m going to cut you out.’
Howard turned and walked out of the pastoral office and down the hall. He began to feel better.
– – –
Howard went home and packed his bags. He knew Stanley would come looking for him later, after he cooled off. He would probably become anxious that Howard wasn’t going to show up for the evening broadcast. So Howard had to leave right away. He recorded a new message on his cell phone, saying he was not available and to call the church instead. Then he took the battery out of his cell phone and put it in his dresser drawer. He finished packing his bags and left.
It was his first night of freedom. He checked into a motel with cable TV. He turned on the TV to see how Stanley was going to explain his absence. A feeling of glee welled up in him. The situation reminded him of when they were young boys and Stanley would get in trouble with their father. Howard could hear their father yell at Stanley and spank him in another room of the house. Howard would be seized with laughter. But he had to keep quiet, because if Stanley junior heard him, he would beat him up.
On TV, Gospel Gate’s theme music and opening shot played as it had thousands of times before. As always, the three high-back thrones were lined up behind the podium for Stanley, Stanley’s wife, and Howard. Stanley’s wife sat in her chair as usual. Howard’s chair was empty, but in the seat was a large box wrapped in sparkly white paper with a gold ribbon. That was interesting.
Stanley approached the pulpit with a grim smile. Everyone stood when he entered the room. Howard thought sarcastically, All rise, here comes the great Gospel preacher, Stanley Willoughby! It was not something anyone would expect the brother of Stanley Willoughby to think.
But it was impossible for Howard to respect Stanley because of the mean tricks Stanley played on him when they were kids. Like the time Stanley put a chewed-up wad of gum in the ketchup bottle and watched Howard pour some on his burger and try to eat it. And the time Stanley squirted muddy water from a water gun onto the seat of Howard’s chair just as he was sitting down in the cafeteria at school. Howard ran to the bathroom and wouldn’t come out. Of course, the principal called their father, and Stanley Willoughby senior, the great evangelist, made a humiliating trip to the school. Stanley senior whipped them both until their butts were red. It was impossible to sit for two days.
On TV, Stanley was signaling for everyone to sit down. What would he say? That Howard had gone on a mission to Africa? That would be ironic, considering that Stanley wanted to invest in African diamond mines, not exactly a missionary cause. Stanley opened with his usual preamble. Then he began his explanation.
He said, ‘Howard Willoughby, my brother and my right hand, is here with us in spirit, but he will not be here with us physically tonight. For some time, he has been desirous of a leave of absence to be alone with the Lord. We decided that this was as good a time as any and that he must satisfy his desire to commune with God.
‘I recommend that all of you take time to be with the Lord, and take a leave of absence if possible. Nothing will supercharge your spirituality more. I myself would like to take a leave of absence to go to the mountaintop and recharge myself with the Spirit of God. The time is not now, however.’
Stanley paused. ‘Pray with me. Let us hold up our brother Howard Willoughby, that he may be revitalized in the Lord and return to us with the glow and the vibrancy of one who has been to the mountain to commune with God.’
Squeezing his eyes shut for prayer, he continued, ‘Lord, we thank You for the opportunity to draw closer to You each day, and we ask a special blessing for Brother Howard and for us. We trust You always. Amen.’
Stanley gestured toward Howard’s chair.
‘Brothers and sisters in the Lord, you’ll notice the present from the church to Brother Howard, which we placed in his chair. When he returns, he will open it and reveal our gift to him. In the meantime, we will wait expectantly, even as we wait expectantly for the Lord’s return.’
And that was it. Stanley continued with a hymn and a sermon as usual. He handled it very well, Howard thought. His absence was completely smoothed over. Stanley probably realized that he had better not make up some phony mission; such a thing would have been planned and announced well in advance, and there would have been a big fund-raising campaign. This way, Howard’s absence could be handled much more easily when he returned. If he returned.
The truth was, Howard was sick and tired of being tied to Stanley. He was resentful that his life was so filled with the schedule of appointments and obligations that truly, to spend some time communing with God was almost impossible. Surely, one who is in the ministry should spend at least a quarter of his time in communion with God.
At that moment, Howard felt like a caged animal that had finally found an opening to jump through. His immediate urge was to run, run, run. He prayed, Dear Lord, let this journey bring me closer to You, to greater understanding of You. Help me. And he recalled the verse, Draw nigh unto God and He will draw nigh unto thee. That was God’s promise.
The next day, Howard was on a train, going north. He decided to go to New York City, a place he always wanted to see, a place quite far from Stanley. Howard sat by the window and looked out. The train swayed along, and the scenery passed by. He saw cars lined up at railway crossings, children playing in back yards, laundry hanging from clotheslines, and smoke rising from trash burning in metal drums. Howard was fascinated by it all.
He stopped shaving. He wore a t-shirt, a polar fleece jacket, and jeans. He hoped he looked different enough not to be recognized.
He had taken the money in his own accounts and transferred it into new accounts in another bank so Stanley’s accountants couldn’t monitor them. Howard estimated that he could afford to live for a year without working, or more to the point, without having to return to Gospel Gate.
In that moment, he felt none of the pressure of having to be a Christian leader. The situation at Gospel Gate seemed more oppressive as the distance increased. It felt as though he’d been in prison all his life with Stanley standing guard to prevent him from showing any sign of independence.
He was free. Free, for example, to order milk and cookies, and read a magazine. There was no interference whatsoever. He basked in anonymity. No one was looking at him. Ordinarily, people were always looking at him, smiling at him, making pleasant small talk, and telling him their troubles. And there was always the request for prayer that was often poorly-disguised gossip. There were expectations that he would be there to lend a shoulder to cry on or an arm to support the unsteady. The Howard they thought they knew—well, he had his own problems.
Out of the train window, he glimpsed a few seconds of the lives of hundreds of people. What were their stories? Did they ever watch the Gospel Gate show on TV? Did it help them? The train was entering a small town. A revival tent caught his attention; it was set up in a grassy lot behind a church. How many revivals had passed through town? What happened in the lives of people between revivals? People always went back to their bad habits. Back and forth, like a pendulum, between revival and backsliding, repentance and sin, sincerity and cheating. Why? He wondered about that often.
He checked the map. In two hours he’d be in New York City. He thought he would walk the streets for a few days. He had a certain anticipation, that he would learn something important there.
–End of excerpt.