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Tragic Suicide Further Embitters Grandfather . . . Until God

Could God possibly overcome the pain, anger, and bitterness this grieving grandfather felt, especially when much of it was directed at Him?

Sonny Finkenbinder was not a pleasant man. Some would say he was an angry and mean man. Oh, he used to attend church regularly as a teen, but that was around 60 years ago and back then he made a decision to follow his own path to . . . happiness.

But on Oct. 25, 2018, Finkenbinder’s world went from acidic and overcast to one of blinding and bitter rage. His grandson, 15-year-old Britt, who had always treated him with kindness and caring, inexplicably committed suicide.

“From the time he was born until he was deceased, he never raised his voice to me,” says Finkenbinder, who is 74. “I blamed everybody for his death — I blamed the devil and I even blamed God. I couldn’t get it into my head. What would cause him to take his life?

His grandson’s suicide ripped at Finkenbinder’s inner-most being. Already known for his anger issues, his raw pain and rage now seethed just below the surface. Just the slightest of life’s tremors caused him to erupt and verbally strike out at anyone unfortunate enough to be around him.

Chuck Kish, the lead pastor of Bethel Assembly of God in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, never met Finkenbinder prior to Oct. 25. But Kish, who is convinced that it’s vital for the Church to make itself available at “points of pain” in the community through chaplaincy, was called upon as a chaplain with the Cumberland Goodwill EMS.

Kish, an endorsed chaplain through U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries, couldn’t help but notice the anger that boiled over in Finkenbinder, who was among several family members called to the scene. Kish did his best to comfort the inconsolable and simply be present as emotions poured out.

His presence and selfless acts didn’t go unnoticed.

“Several weeks later, I get a call from the grandfather, Sonny,” Kish says. “He wants to know if we can meet. I agree to meet with him at the Panera I visit each morning.”

Kish wasn’t sure what was in store for him. Finkenbinder was far from a “warm fuzzy” and he had weeks for his rage and bitterness to fester. It was Dec. 13 when Finkenbinder approached the booth Kish was sitting in. This wasn’t going to be fun.

“I didn’t know Sonny that well, but I could tell by his countenance he was really upset. It seemed like this [the suicide] validated why he walked away from God in the first place,” Kish recalls. “He sat down and I was thinking that I would break the ice and talk about fishing . . . , but suddenly, everything changed.”

As Kish looked on in wonder, Finkenbinder’s face began to change. The grim set of his lips softened, the grip of his hands relaxed, and the seething anger in his eyes was replaced by a look of confusion and surprise.

It wasn’t a heart attack — it was more like a heart transplant!

“Pastor Chuck, he was just talking and one thing led to another and the next thing you know, this power came over me, grabbed me on the inside, and took everything [the anger, pain, and bitterness] out of the top of my head,” Finkenbinder says. “I knew this was Jesus; I knew it was the Holy Ghost, I knew that’s what happened.”

The Holy Spirit then gave Kish the right words to say: “Sonny, would you like to rededicate your life to Lord right now?”

Yes! He did! Right there in booth one at the Panera restaurant.

Dealing with all the new emotions and the absence of so many of the old emotions, Finkenbinder unexpectedly got up, excused himself, and headed home.

“I knew about God, I just didn’t pay any attention to Him,” Finkenbinder explains. “And something wonderful had just come over me!”

“And I was left sitting there thinking, What just happened?” Kish laughs.

When Finkenbinder arrived home, Karen, 70, his enduring wife of nearly 50 years, greeted him. She soon realized something was off . . .

“He was smiling!” Karen recalls.

Shortly afterwards, Eileen, Britt’s mother, stopped by the house. When she left, she left more than a bit bewildered.

“Eileen then stopped by Penny Feeser’s house, Penny attends Bethel,” Kish says. “Penny texts me, wanting to know what happened — Eileen is saying Sonny is a changed man!”

Since that day, Sonny’s renewed commitment to Christ hasn’t faded, and he and Karen are faithful attenders at Bethel. But he is quick to point out that he’s far from perfect and makes plenty of mistakes, but God has removed the grief from his heart and replaced it with an unexplainable joy.

“One time when I called Sonny, I got Karen on the phone,” Kish says. “She told me that earlier she and Sonny had a bit of a spat and he left. But then, he called her and apologized. ‘He doesn’t do that!’ she told me. But now he does.”

Karen says that she really likes to be around Sonny now — he doesn’t get upset over small things, he helps without being asked, and he’s a happier person.

“I’ve always been a believer, always had Christ in my life, always prayed, but now that we’re going to church regularly, it’s an easier going life,” Karen says. “Everything is good — it’s not that life is entirely a bed of roses, life is just much better with Christ Jesus in our home . . . it’s three-sided now, my husband and me and the Lord. I don’t know how else to say it, it’s just nice.”

When looking at what happened in Sonny’s life, Kish says scripturally it begs the question, Why did God do something like this for someone who wasn’t serving Him and didn’t love Him?

“I believe it was the power of prayer,” Kish says. “For decades, Joyce Smith, Sonny’s sister-in-law, has been praying for Sonny, that he would come to serve the Lord. God answered those years of prayer!”

Kish says that Britt’s suicide was not of God or condoned by God, but He took Satan’s deception and the resulting pain to open a pathway to Sonny’s heart, as bitter and hardened as it was.

“This is just another example of why I believe it’s vital for the Church to make itself available at points of pain through chaplaincy,” says Kish, who has trained multiple members of his congregation to serve as chaplains in their community. “Being at the right place at the right time, that gives people hope . . . and as I’ve seen with Sonny and in scores of others’ lives, God can flip things in a moment!”

As for Sonny, he’s eager to tell anyone who will listen what God has done for him. “I’m hoping that my story will bring two million people closer to God,” he says.


PHOTO: Sonny Finkenbinder (right) with pastor Chuck Kish

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.