This is My (HIS) STORY

Providence or Coincidence?

“God doesn’t care where I choose to serve Him.” 

At least that’s what I once thought. Certainly, God was more concerned about my motives than whether I moved to Texas or Oregon. I could serve Him in Philadelphia or Portland. Even Atlanta or Albany would be okay. Or so I thought.

I knew that God had clearly directed men like Peter and Paul to minister in specific locations. Consider Philip. In the midst of a great spiritual awakening among the Samaritans, he was specifically sent to a remote desert region to evangelize one Ethiopian man, a court official of Queen Candace. After baptizing the Ethiopian, perhaps the first African convert, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away while the official, now filled with joy, continued his journey taking the gospel with him.

No doubt about it, God had a very specific plan for Philip.  But that was way back in the first century, when the gospel needed to be taken to unreached places like Africa. Right?

Does God still have a specific plan—a unique calling—for his ministers today? Or are we left to make our own choices? Is it providence or coincidence?

I can’t speak for everybody else, but I can share my story—a story of God providentially directing my life. As I reflect on my life, I see strong evidence that God has led me all the way. I am who I am today because God had a plan for me. 

That is what I want to share over the next few weeks here on the front porch swing.

Every choice we make has consequences. It’s inevitable. The result of a choice may be positive or negative, but it is never neutral. For example: I chose to wait two years after high school before attending Moody Bible Institute. Mary worked one year after high school. We ended up in the freshman class. She caught my eye, and I was on pursuit. I won her hand in marriage and my life has been forever changed. Sometimes I wonder what if I had gone straight to Moody from high school, and Mary had worked a year. There’s a good chance that I, a senior, and she, a freshman, may not have met. What if I would have surrendered to “senior panic” and found someone else?

None of my five grandchildren or two great grandchildren would exist today. I would never have attended Ohio State to finish my undergraduate work. I would never have pastored our first church in Ohio. The list of changes in my life’s story would be almost unbelievable.

So this week, I want to share how God providentially guided us to our first pastorate in Ohio.

Mary and I had been married two years when we graduated from Moody. I needed one more year of liberal arts to earn my BA degree, so we returned to her home church in Galion, Ohio where we volunteered to serve as youth directors. It was a team effort, and we enjoyed it.

Mary was pregnant. I needed a job.

One morning before I left the apartment to apply for a job at North Electric Company in Galion, Mary and I prayed for God to provide a job, and to enable me to interview well at North Electric. When I entered the personnel manager’s office, Bert enthusiastically welcomed me and noted that I had just graduated from Moody. I waited for her to begin telling me about the job at North Electric. 

She never did. Instead, she excitedly shared that she was on the pastoral search committee for a small rural church 20 or so miles to the south. They had contacted Moody that week, inquiring if there were any alumni in the area that might be seeking a pastorate. This was, in Bert’s mind, a sign from God that I was their man.

But I had other plans! I needed a paying job in Galion. I was headed to Dallas Seminary the following year, after finishing one year at Ohio State University. It wasn’t the right time to accept a pastorate. Besides all that, I was only 23 years old and had zero pastoral experience. I wasn’t ready, and to be candid, I really wasn’t interested. I was passing through Ohio on my way to Texas!

Our pastor, however, after listening to my account of the interview at North Electric, encouraged me to at least look into the offer. “Perhaps God is in it,” he said. With a great deal of skepticism and very little enthusiasm, we drove down to see Pulaskiville Community Church. (Meanwhile, Mary was home wondering why the interview was taking so long.)

I met with the search committee, and after reading their doctrinal statement, I discovered a few red flags and told them that I wasn’t interested. (What a relief!) A few months later, however, the search committee contacted me again, asking us to pray before declining again. What could I say? Of course we would pray, and we did.

I didn’t want to be another Jonah running away from God’s call, so I told the search committee that I would consider their offer on these conditions: I disagreed with their doctrinal statement and would preach what I believed the Bible said, and I was still planning on going to Dallas Seminary in a year. Assuming those reasons would finally squash their persistence; I was surprised when the congregation voted to call me as their pastor.

We moved into the parsonage with Mary six months pregnant. Pulaskiville, once a small village on a country road, consisted of a half dozen homes or single-wide trailers begging for a little TLC.

Forty or so people gathered on Sundays in an old white building seated across the road from junked cars and a pig pen. The future didn’t seem promising, but Pulaskiville was now our home.

That little church became the best seminary I could have attended at that time. Preaching Sunday morning and evening, teaching the adult class and leading the youth ministry stretched me and helped me discover that the Holy Spirit could use me. I grew deeper in my appreciation for God’s Word and in my ability to preach and teach. We grew to love the people. They were our kind of folks: farmers and laborers in factories. I sat through numerous surgeries and buried and married several people. I learned to be a shepherd.

The church began to grow numerically. Several persons responded to the gospel and invited their relatives and friends to come to hear God’s Word. One Sunday the Holy Spirit was so present and powerful that there were almost more people at the front of the church responding to the message than those who remained in the seats. This has been the closest experience we have had with revival.

Eventually 200 plus people gathered in a building built to seat 100 fairly comfortably. We began to look for property on the main highway a few miles away to build a larger facility. 

Obviously, I stayed longer than that one promised year. In fact, we enjoyed over seven wonderful years in that rural church. 

Was it coincidence that Bert, the personnel manager, served on a pulpit committee that had just contacted Moody? Perhaps, but after 50 years in the ministry I think not. In fact, God has continued opening doors even when I wasn’t seeking.  

I am convinced those years at Pulaskiville were part of God’s plan for my life; it is His story.

And the best was yet to come.

The Blessing of Doing God’s Will

Last week I shared how God has sometimes led us in a very specific way, such as calling us to serve at the Pulaskiville Community Church.

This is Pulaskiville Community Church’s building.
The addition to the left of the original building has been added since we were there.
This little church was the best seminary I could have attended at that time. So many precious memories from those seven plus years are ours to cherish because God gives the best to those who leave the choice to Him. Below is a picture of the interior of the little white church on County Road 98 in Morrow County, Ohio.

Back in 1969, there wasn’t much about Pulaskiville would attract a stranger to move there. The little village straddled County Roads 109 and 98 ten miles east of Mt. Gilead, Ohio.

     Nothing—and I do mean nothing—warranted stopping for a second look. When we accepted the call to serve as the pastor of a small community church, there were seven or eight houses, a vacant store building (more like a souvenir from decades past), and a couple of trailer homes that had seen better days. Another vacant, dilapidating church building anchored the north edge of town beside an old cemetery. Dogs or an occasional chicken meandering in the road would be the only reason to stop. There were no streets, because every home faced one of the county roads.

     When Mary and I reminisce, like old people tend to do, we both agree that some of our fondest memories are from those seven-and-a-half years in Pulaskiville. In last week’s blog I shared about the call to become the pastor of a small congregation. Freshly graduated from Moody and in our third year of marriage, we moved our few earthly possessions into the parsonage, an old farm house near the church. I was 24 years young.

     Looking at old pictures I always ask, “Why would they call me to be their pastor?” I looked like a kid. I was a kid.

     We experienced a lot of firsts in that place: our first pastorate, first parsonage, first child, first sermon, first hospital call, first funeral and first wedding. Oh, yes, also our first front porch swing.

     Saturday nights were tough. Not being an extrovert and actually hating public speaking, I would be restless and often awaken Sunday morning feeling a bit ill. I can’t describe the symptoms except they were caused by stress. Sunday nights weren’t much easier, because I would replay the mental tapes from the morning sermon and evening Bible study.

     A few Sunday mornings stand out in my memory. Once, after a difficult week and not feeling comfortable with the sermon I had prepared, I wrote an entirely different sermon Saturday night. Sunday morning, I was still in a quandary as to which message to preach. The congregation had sung hymns, and the offering had been gathered when our song leader (that’s what we called them back then.) began to sing a solo, “The Love of God,” as the special music.

     Suddenly I began to write furiously. I preached my first extemporaneous sermon from a few sketchy words on the back of the church bulletin. John 3:16 became the text for a new sermon entitled, “The Greatest Love Letter Ever Written.”

     There is another Sunday that stands head and shoulders above all the rest after seven plus years at Pulaskiville. I was presenting a series of messages about knowing our enemy, the devil. That Sunday, everything that could possibly go wrong seemed to happen. The electric organ didn’t work. The sound system went south. I felt a little sicker than usual.

     None of this should have surprised me.

     The night before I had walked to the church to review the message. It was February and a lightning storm was brewing—not the usual Ohio weather in the dead of winter. (As I write this, I feel goosebumps on my neck.) Windows in the old church building opened and closed as I stood alone in the worship center. Lights flickered on and off. There was an eerie, dark and frightening presence in the building. So much so, that I feared walking back to the parsonage in the dark.

      Preaching the sermon the following morning felt like trying to push a heavy rock up a steep hill. If ever a pastor was weak, it was me that Sunday morning. But upon closing the sermon and offering an opportunity for a response, a man stepped out into the aisle and walked forward with his wife and three teenagers trailing. Then another man followed with his wife and family. (As I type these words, tears cloud my vision.)

     Within seconds, almost half the congregation stood before the pulpit as testimony that God’s Spirit was moving among us. Mary and I both say that was the closest we have ever come to experiencing true revival.

     In hindsight, that was the beginning of the transformation of Pulaskiville Community Bible Church. Word spread throughout the region. People from surrounding areas began to drive to our little crossroad village to hear God’s Word proclaimed. Sunday nights became celebrations of what God was doing in our church. The congregation rapidly grew till attendance often topped 200.

     The youth group grew exponentially. Over a dozen young people attended various Christian colleges. Some of the guys became pastors. One girl became a missionary to the black community in Chicago.

     Two men from the congregation, Bruce Bowman and Jim Rupp, eventually served as pastors of Pulaskiville Community Bible Church.

     So, yes, I thank God for preventing me from attending Dallas Seminary like I had planned. That little white church on County Road 98 was the best seminary I could have attended at that time.

     When I finally did attend seminary ten years later, I chose Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon where God thrust me into another dying church.

      It’s all His Story.

     The rest is His Story.

I am standing behind the pulpit with Jim Rupp. Jim was saved under our ministry and years later served as pastor of the church. Shirley, Jim’s wife attended the church first. I visited their home, and after I left Jim said to Shirley, “I don’t like him..” Today we are brothers in Christ.

Meet Don and Joan Bowman. This picture was taken in their home in Kalamazoo when we visited them two years ago. Don was the first prson who responded to the invitation on that blessed Sunday. Joan and three of their children (Bruce, Sharon and Susan) followed Don to the front of the church. Bruce went on to attend Moody and also served as the pastor of Pulaskville Community Bible Church. Bruce died of a brain aneurism and today is in the presence of his lord and savior whom he served.


Meet Dan and Kathy Bowman. Dan, Don and Joan’s oldest son, was a student at Ohio State when we were at Pulaskiville. It seemed like every time we entered the front door of the Bowman’s home, Dan slipped out the back door to avoid “the preacher.” Dan became a follower of Jesus. He no longer slips out the back door. Dan and Kathy welcomed us when we visited his parents in Kalamazoo.

If you have experienced a time when God clearly led you by opening or closing doors, please share it with us. 
     Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.