Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ilario Pantano's touching and riveting Christian testimony at Grace Baptist Church

Verne Strickland Blogmaster   July 5, 2011

Ilario Pantano described his Christian pilgrimage from Hell’s Kitchen to God before a spellbound congregation at Grace Baptist Church on a recent Sunday.

There many unforgettable detours along the way on this remarkable journey – Wall Street, Ground Zero, the first Gulf War, Iraq, a bogus murder charge debunked, the crucible of political battle, surviving life beyond the chaos of combat, withering assaults by personal and spiritual demons. 

He might have lost the last one, except for a fateful rendezvous with Jesus Christ, through the prayerful assistance and encouragement of clergy at the Wilmington Church.

Pantano’s account of his Christian evolution was told in an intense, touching, and at times emotional thirty minutes during which he was forced to pause occasionally to collect himself. His wife Jill, and a sanctuary crowded with friends and congregants, looked on. 

The former Marine officer who had killed those who would kill him was moved to tears as he relived the hell of war, and his struggle back from a broken spirit through the grace of God.

There is no way this writer can replicate the emotional impact of his testimony that morning. But these are excerpts from Ilario Pantano’s extraordinary Christian witness July 3, 2011, at Grace Baptist Church. For brevity, some of these transcribed comments have been condensed or revised.


Ilario Pantano's Christian testimony

A Navy corpsman during the Vietnam War was assigned to a group of Marines. They were on a patrol going through the jungle, and a grenade was thrown, and this man through his body on that grenade. And it didn’t go off. He said God has a sense of humor. He lived to tell the story about this experience, which earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

I want you to think about the action he took, because it’s really the root of why we’re here today. We’re celebrating our Lord and Savior, as we do in our hearts everyday. It really starts with John 15:13, which is exemplified by what this corpsman did: Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his brother.

My poor testimony wouldn’t be possible without God’s grace, and the intervention of a brother from Grace Baptist Church to follow the Great Commission, which is John 15:12 – This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

This brother from Grace saw a Marine with tattoos and bad language who had killed all kinds of people in faraway lands, and he said, “God has laid it on my heart to reach out to you.”
I didn’t know God until my brother in this church made a decision to reach out to me. I thought I did. But I didn’t.

We are in spiritual warfare now. That’s very clear to me because I’ve been saved for two years. I was baptized here in May of 2009. But before that I had come from the world. I grew up in a culture that denies God, attacks God, attacks our faith. In giving you my story I’m hopeful that God will lay it on your heart to reach out, take the chance, have the courage to act on the Great Commission. 

I had a God-shaped hole in my heart, as we all do before we’re saved, but as a boy, I thought service was going to solve that. So at 17 I joined the Marines the first time, fought in the first Gulf War, and was a sniper after that, involved in peace-keeping operations off the coast of Yugoslavia. 

I thought I had a sense of what it meant to be a good person. But at that time, after seeing the horrors of the war, I didn’t believe there was a God. There couldn’t be a God when a sheik in the desert would sell his daughter for a box of mortar rounds. There couldn’t be a God in a world that terrible filled with flame and smoke and death – hell on earth.

I didn’t know God was working on my heart, but on September 11th, about a mile away from where I stood on a New York City street, I looked up and saw the World Trade Towers burning. I came home with my head shaved and told Jill I was going to war. We didn’t know with whom. We just knew someone out there was trying to kill us

I have been to war. Not once but three times. One of the worst fates you can suffer is when you love your country and you have a sense of military honor but that sense of honor and duty is threatened and challenged, and you actually face the death penalty for killing terrorists in defense of your own life. 

That’s what I went through. God had a plan for me. I was exonerated, was able to go back and take command of my old unit. But back home my family was receiving death threats from Pakistan. We learned from the FBI that a terror cell in Ohio has information on your mother and your wife. I was directed to come back home to comfort and assist my family. But I had a great need to be back in the war.

I started to crumble. I would be on my way to a funeral for one of my men who died in combat, and get a call that another of my Marines had been killed, so that I would be going to another funeral in two weeks. 

When I would watch little boys receiving folded American flags, while their mothers cried, I said terrible things to God. I wanted to be in that box in place of my men. Everyone who has ever come back from mortal combat deals with this confusion and guilt. Some hide it. They live among us but we don’t know them. Some finally die by their own hand because of it. All these things were going on in and around me. God was a witness. His hand was on me. I was too numb to feel it.

My insufficiency was made  clear to me when I spoke at a Gold Star Family event in Amarillo, Texas. These are families that have lost a loved one in service to our country. There were dozens of them, and I was there trying to console them. But I didn’t know Christ, so I thought I was strong enough to say meaningful things to these grieving families, but I wasn’t. I was empty and had no answers. I was still living in a world of rage, fury, death. And I was crumbling inside.

The suicides during that time were the most devastating of all. I couldn’t offer anything. And the weight of my sinful guilt, like the weight of snow can crush the limbs of a tree, was starting to crush me, starting to turn off my lights. I was withdrawing from the world. After burying one of these men who had taken his own life, my wife, who stood by me, feeling all my pain and knowing what was going on inside me, wanted so much to help. But no one on this earth could do that. And I couldn’t turn to God. I didn’t know Him.

A brother in this church had it on his heart to reach out. And he started to mentor me and visit with me. We went and sat and we would talk about faith. And God began to open the window for me so that the Gospel could shine in. In a series of events, I was convicted, and it culminated in my saying to him, “Let’s go meet your pastor right now.” I knew then that I had been led by God to this place, and the Holy Spirit was working in me. I accepted that sin was real, and I accepted that Christ paid for it in my behalf, because nothing I could do would ever wash it away. It was a defining moment in my life.

I went back to the same Armed Forces Day celebration two years later – a Christian whose life was renewed, whose finally had thankfully had begun. This time I understood the transforming work of Jesus Christ as I met families who had been crushed by the loss of their loved ones, and I was able to revive their hope and joy through the tender loving guidance of our Lord.

Now I have a need – a need to win souls for Christ. I have a need to reach our for men and women in uniform who are more broken than you can imagine because of the things their country has asked them to do – which are righteous things, but they can’t reconcile themselves to that without God. That is a duty I have been commanded to take up. With God’s grace, I have been able to take what I know now, and share that with men and women who needed that message so much. 

I continue to receive phone calls from some of my men who have called from jail, or were contemplating suicide. I am now armed with the Gospel, and have on the armor of God, and the Lord works through me to reach these desperate men and bring them back from the brink of death. It’s not about how we can put them in a program and get them some medication. It’s about Jesus Christ, and how He saves lives and souls through the transforming power of grace.

Folks, the Gospel has the power to transform lives and to save lives. Not just in eternity, but here and now. And my life, as my wife will tell you, has been transformed, through the outreach of brothers and sisters in this church. Like me, Jill has come to know Jesus Christ, my children have come to know Jesus Christ. 

We need to know how our walk with God influences those around us, those close to us. I was blessed on this past Father’s Day to receive a card from one of our boys, our nine-year-old. And it said, “To a man who is worthwhile, PLUS who loves the Marines (and he had drawn a little sword and a little gun) PLUS who loves God (and he had drawn a big cross there) EQUALS YOU."

Share such things. Live your faith. Our Lord asks us to, if we will listen. Amen. And thank you.