By Jeff Vines
On the surface, it seemed as though Bill McCarthy had it all: a beautiful and talented wife, two exceptional daughters, and a prominent career in broadcasting. His career spanned more than 50 years, taking him from sports anchor to newsreader to a renowned producer and director. He anchored coverage of the 1974 British Commonwealth Games and produced broadcasts for the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Yet, despite all of his achievements, Bill could not fill the unexplainable void in his life, and like most Kiwis (as the people of New Zealand are called), he never even considered God or church. Such things are for the weak-willed and weak-minded. After all, after having been abandoned by his parents, it was the “religious” people operating the orphanage who convinced Bill he was insignificant and “would never amount to anything.”
In 1997, Bill finally caved and accepted a close friend’s invitation to attend a new church in Auckland, New Zealand. Bill listened intently as the American preacher with a rich Southern accent delivered a message of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Something in that message resonated with Bill and compelled him to keep coming back every Sunday.
As you might have guessed, I was the American preacher to whom Bill was drawn. Week after week, Bill would show up late, sit in the back row, and sneak out just before closing prayer. Due to his strategic departure, I found it difficult to speak with him; that is, until I decided to do a little “sneaking” myself. One Sunday during the closing prayer I slipped out the back door behind the stage and stood by the only path leading to the parking lot. Bill looked stunned to see me. I shook his hand, extended a warm welcome, and invited him to have coffee with me.
“Why do you want to have coffee with me?” he asked.
“I have heard so much about you and was wondering if you could teach me the history of New Zealand and its people.” I struck a nerve. Bill loved talking about the history and cultural practices of his homeland.
We began having coffee together every Wednesday at a place called Pickles on Pickering, which served the most exquisite flat white and latte I have ever experienced. I kept learning about New Zealand, and Bill kept coming to church in search of the one thing he wanted most: peace. I knew it. He knew it too, though he never would have admitted it at the time.
Even though Bill went to church every Sunday, he made it clear he wasn’t interested in “this Jesus stuff.” Instead, he often questioned why I was willing to spend so much time with him. But neither of us could help ourselves—we had so much in common. Bill loved basketball, and I had been a small college All-American. Bill loved boats, and I loved being out on the water. Bill loved golf, and I needed a golfing partner. Bill and I talked about everything except the one topic I really wanted to discuss: the gospel.
Our friendship continued in this way for years until one morning over coffee, Bill expressed a desire to film and broadcast my messages throughout the country—at no cost to me or my church. The only catch: he wanted to tutor me in the art of communication.
As a result, Bill would listen to my messages over and over again to cut them down to 28 minutes without losing the meat of the message.
That he was listening to my messages numerous times while remaining seemingly unmoved really began to annoy me. Still, I felt as though our friendship had a divine purpose.
On Good Friday 2004, Bill booked me on Newstalk ZB, New Zealand’s nationwide talk radio program. For three hours I defended the resurrection of Jesus Christ while Tim Douer (the unsympathetic host) and the rest of New Zealand took shots at me. As the hours passed, I noticed Bill’s demeanor change from behind the soundproof glass.
It wasn’t until after the program concluded that I was able to ask if he was OK.
“Not really,” he answered. Then, after seven years of friendship, Bill finally uttered the words I had longed to hear, “Jeff, I think it’s time for me to cross over.” (“Cross over” was a term we often used at our church to describe conversion to Jesus Christ and the subsequent move from death to life.)
I offered to baptize Bill that Sunday, but he was having none of that. He wanted to be baptized immediately. Later that day, Bill stepped into his hot tub and reiterated the gospel message he had heard about 20 times a week for seven years. Upon his confession of faith, I baptized Bill in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bill’s wife, two daughters, and son-in-law melted at the sight of a broken and humbled man.
Having seen her father bend his knee to Jesus, Bill’s youngest daughter jumped into the water proclaiming, “I want to be a Christ follower too! What do I need to do?” I explained the gospel again, then baptized her as Bill and his wife, Rae, shed tears of joy. With three people in the hot tub built for two, things started to get rather crowded. Then Bill’s oldest daughter joined the festivities and asked to receive Jesus as her personal savior.
Bill’s wife, Rae, felt faint at the sight of her entire family coming to Jesus all in one miraculous evening. The only Christ follower in the family, Rae had been praying for this night for more than 25 years. Now, her prayers were being answered right in front of her eyes. Indeed, she thought, Jesus is able to do more than we could ever hope or imagine.
Then, as if the night had not been thrilling enough with four people in the already-crowded hot tub, Bill’s son-in-law stepped into the water and asked what he needed to do to be right with God. A part of me wanted to say, “Dude, have you not been listening?” Instead, I carefully explained the gospel again, and then young Geoffrey joined a family far greater and larger than he could ever dream.
There are few events in my life whose details remain crystal clear. The night my friend Bill gave his life to Jesus is one such event.
A man who once believed that peace would come only after proving to the world that he mattered, at last discovered the real source of peace. God got hold of him and began to write a narrative that no one could deny is, indeed, a better story.
Jeff Vines serves as lead pastor with Christ’s Church of the Valley, San Dimas, California.