God Had To Break My Hard Heart
If you had known me a few years ago, when I was a wild, drunk, popular entertainer in various bars, and then knew me now, you would insist you had met two different men. That is the difference that Christ can make in one’s life. My story demonstrates the great mercy and love of God to reach into the depths of hell to save a wretch as undeserving as I. Christ had to break my hard heart with the gospel. My name is Dale Stengele, and this is my story.
My childhood was very traumatic. My father was physically abusive to us as children. He and my mother divorced when I was young and my brothers and I lived with mom. One day when I was in second grade, my brother – who was a year older than I – was leaving for school with my kindergarten-age brother. I wasn’t done eating breakfast, so I told them to go on without me. Later in the day, I was taken to identify bloody shoes and clothing as belonging to my brothers. They had decided to play hooky from school that day and had gotten trapped in a shed, knocked over a kerosene lamp, and set the shed on fire. Both of my brothers died in that fire. My mother was later found in a bar and was told the devastating news.
“I could not understand why I was still alive and had not died with them.”
God miraculously spared my life another time while I was serving in Vietnam in the late 1960’s. In one case, our ship had fired upon a Vietcong vessel, and I was sent in a small boat to take five of the men as prisoners of war. I could have easily been overpowered as I was outnumbered, but the capture was completed without incident. Another time we were involved in heavy artillery firing all night. A small crew of us was manning one gun, loading and firing high explosive rounds that are designed to detonate on impact. We were firing so fast that mistakes were almost inevitable. One round rammed, ricocheted off the breach block and landed on the deck – but miraculously didn’t explode. I was the lucky guy who had to pick it up and dispose of it. I carefully picked it up and threw it overboard where it exploded violently as soon as it impacted the water. A little later that same night the gun was loaded wrong and the powder keg and explosive round rolled out the back of the gun and slammed into a pile of hot empty powder kegs that were just fired – but miraculously again did not explode. Once more, I realized how close to death I had come, but wondered why God had spared my life.
I finished two tours of duty in Vietnam without an injury, and returned to Virginia where I married my wife, Ginny. I worked as a corrections officer for the state. One day, I was on my way to pick up my wife from work on my motorcycle. As I approached a sharp turn, I noticed that the oncoming car was not going to make the curve, but it was too late. The next thing I knew my bike collided head-on with the car and I flew through the air. For a time I felt as though I was separate from my body and could see my body hurtling through the air. Then my body slammed into me, it seemed, and the pain was excruciating. At the hospital they told my wife that there was a 90% chance I would lose my leg even with the reconstructive surgery. Now I look back and realize that God mercifully and miraculously brought me through the recovery.
“All the time I was in the Marine Corps and living in Virginia, I was smoking and drinking and getting deeper and deeper into sin.”
Because of my injuries, I had to find a new line of work. I started my own band. We played everything from polkas and Bar Mitzvahs to country and rock and roll. Our “Eastbound Express” group became quite popular in the bar circuits and later the military circuit. When the group eventually disbanded, I became a disc jockey. At the bars and clubs where I entertained, I included in my fee all the free beer that I could drink. The more I drank, the wilder I became, and the more the crowds loved it. But the alcohol became a serious problem. I went from drinking cases of beer to kegs. I was either drunk or suffering from a hang-over all the time. I loved to drink and drive and smoke at the same time. Sadly, I often hurt my wife and family while drunk, and almost killed my wife on a couple of occasions in a drunken stupor.
I continued to sink lower. When my step-father had a heart attack, we moved back to Pennsylvania to be closer to him. I started entertaining in go-go-girls clubs and bars in the Lehigh Valley with the stage name, Disco-Dale, later changing to Tricky Banana. My popular gigs included raunchy jokes that rivaled Howard Stern, and the most vile music imaginable. And, of course, I still was drinking beer constantly. There seemed to be no stopping the alcohol.
When I got a side job as a bar bouncer, I found myself in many fights and sometimes encountered knives and weapons. A friend introduced me to karate at a health club, and I fell in love with the sport and saw its usefulness for self-defense. I began to train and work out for eight hours a day and before long had become a fifth degree black belt master with a reputation for travelling anywhere in the state for a good fight or tournament.
But one night, God worked another miracle in my life to keep me alive – he took away completely my desire for alcohol. I woke up the next morning dry and without side-effects and haven’t touched a drop since. I really believe this is another evidence of God’s mercy keeping me alive. Off and on during this time I was attending churches. I noticed that they were preaching one thing, but the Bible was saying something else.
“I became very disillusioned with church and just wanted to find “truth” which I believed would be in the Bible.”
One day I had to have my son’s car towed home, and I struck up a conversation with the mechanic about spiritual things. He invited me to his church – Lehigh Valley Baptist Church. I had seen the church before, but was afraid to visit. Now that I had an invitation and knew someone there, my wife and I attended the next Sunday. We were impressed by the sincerity of the members and the fact that everyone was following along with the pastor in their own Bibles, looking up verses, and even agreeing with the pastor out loud. It seemed like the preaching was directed right at me. The assistant pastor of the church came over for a visit one day, and I literally dragged him into our house. I was so excited to start a Bible study and find the answers to life’s questions.
After a year of visiting the church and studying the Bible, God finally broke through my hard heart. On a Sunday morning in February, 1998, I saw myself the way that God saw me, as a wretched sinner. I surrendered right then and there to be sold out to Christ. I went down the aisle at the invitation with happiness and joy and a smile on my face, knowing that Christ had loved, accepted and saved me in spite of myself. I was humbled that He would save a sinner such as I.
Within a short time, dramatic changes were taking place in my life. The Holy Spirit was making me into a new creature. I gave up my smoking habit of 4-6 packs a day. My wife accepted Christ as her Savior a few weeks later. To see me now you may find it hard to believe where I came from. But when God saves us, we become “trophies of His grace” – “That in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:7-9)
I haven’t shared all these things to brag on them in any way, but to help you see the gutter from which God saved me. The complete difference seen in my life is a great illustration of the love, mercy, and grace of God and His power to change a life.
Before I was saved I was a drunk, a worldly entertainer, and a fighter. “But I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying – Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.” (I Timothy 1:13-17)