Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Be ready always to answer every man who asks a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15)
In the back of my mind, I had always had the secret wish of pastoring a church in a college town. The president of a national campus ministry in the downtown area of a major city visited the church in which I was preaching one Sunday. I was being considered as a candidate for the pastorate there. He and I met and chatted after the service, and he strongly urged me to accept the call, if extended. It was, with a strong 140-3 vote. Affirmation! Just to be able to mix with faculty, professors, and young students and to grapple and think through many of the major philosophical issues of the day would be both exciting and challenging.
Unbeknownst to me, the service that morning had been broadcast, and the mother of one of the deacons in my current church had heard me and phoned her son, informing him that same afternoon. He met me upon my return home, and I immediately told him and the entire board the offer the church had made me. I shared the burden of the campus ministry president and the opportunity for preaching in a church with such potential, although I wasn’t convinced that the church itself shared my vision.
After meeting individually with each member of my church board, they agreed that it would be my decision. I was amazed at their willingness to be open to that possibility since we were midway into a large building venture. That meeting was on a Wednesday night. I was a bit more uncertain, hesitant, and even traveled back to that city for some prayer time on site.
On Sunday morning after worship the board requested another meeting. . .and made an announcement to me that was not even hinted at before: “If you decide to leave, we are going to cancel the new project, call back the church bonds, sell the new property, and remain right here.” Surprise! Ouch! I had many diverse feelings: loved, a bit let down, and yet affirmed by people I had grown to love. I had no peace about leaving. It seemed there was too much on the line. I remained, and we worked well together, finished the new sanctuary at the new location, paid off the bonds we had sold, and the work prospered and grew.
One interesting insight came one night that foreshadowed the surprises that were to come. A pleasant seventyish “grandma-type” often babysat our two youngsters. She lived close by in a very small cottage. She loved Debi and Tim and enjoyed surprising them with all the things they enjoyed. Helga came from Scandinavia and appeared to have very little of this world’s goods.
One day she asked me in her Swedish accent, “Vot iss dis bonds bissness all about?” I wanted to explain as simply as I could how anyone who purchased a bond would regularly be paid interest and then, at maturity, the cash value would be returned to them in full. Meanwhile, we would build our new church. The various values of the bonds were $100, $250, $500, and $1,000. That seemed to satisfy her, and I didn’t anticipate any further thought on the subject.
And there wasn’t—except our “grandma” then looked straight at me, paused as if to make certain I was giving her my full attention, and said in her pleasant accent, “Vell, ah, vell, I tink, ah. . .I think I take vun! No. . .I take fife, fife tousand!” I was blown away! That was five percent of the entire church building. The sanctuary, basement, kitchen, and several large classrooms—all for $100,000!
Several years after my tough decision to turn down that call in the university city, I was invited to accept the pastorate of a very small group of people having just started a church in a community less than twenty minutes from, would you believe it, a college and theological seminary. The average age of the adult membership was eight to ten years my senior, but a goodly number of newcomers soon began to arrive, drawn to this developing suburb and to the nearby schools.
Faculty and students became available for supplemental leadership and invited their friends along as well. Marriages were frequent, and funerals were seldom. Two of the divinity professors who became church members were inspired to help us establish our own Institute for Biblical Studies as a means of outreach into our local community.
Teens were soon plentiful enough to warrant seeking a volunteer sponsor from the college to assist with youth ministry, while offering them practical experiences for future ministry. A young divinity school student, recently married to his California sweetheart, began to attend. A warm friendship soon developed between my wife and I and this new couple. The possibility of them helping with our high school youth excited them, and they soon were on board. Bill and Katie were loved by our people—especially, of course, the parents of the teens. There was no doubt we were all looking forward to their working with us until Bill completed his studies.
It was close to a year after they had taken on the youth activities that my wife received a call one afternoon from Katie, who also worked at the school. She called to tell Ollie that over the past three days she had been having increasingly frequent and more painful headaches. Ollie advised her to see her doctor immediately.
The diagnosis was not good, but hopeful. She was admitted to the hospital, and the many necessary tests were taken and analyzed. After conferencing, all doctors agreed that the test results left no doubt—surgery was absolutely necessary. Katie was a most delightful young person, always happy and positive; she promised us she’d be OK in a week.
Surgery was performed, and Katie was diagnosed with cancer. Katie responded with hand squeezes, indicating some conscious awareness, but doctors only hoped they had been totally successful. Bill and I were at Katie’s side almost every hour during the next three days. By this time, both sets of parents had arrived from California. With little change, the doctors had no choice but to operate a second time. This time, doctors reported that they could almost see the cancer growing. There were no more responses from Katie.
Naturally, there had not been any living will set up for this dear young lady. Nor were Bill and his family emotionally ready to make the decision to take Katie off life support. We prayed together that Thursday night that if it be God’s will, barring a miracle, that He would receive her to Himself in the next three days. It was our wish that the family would be able to avoid that hard decision. On Sunday morning, five minutes before the service was to begin, I received a call in my church study that Katie was gone.
On Tuesday morning, the chapel service in the college gymnasium was at overflow capacity for her memorial service. That evening back in our full church another memorial was held with both sets of parents present. In discussing the memorial, everyone except Katie’s father, who was not a believer at the time, agreed that if Katie had been asked how to conclude her memorial, her bright eyes and broad smile would have demanded that we go from the service with a triumphant song of praise to God with the congregation singing her favorite hymn of hope, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, Oh what a foretaste of glory divine!” She would have said, “This is what it’s all about!”
Not long after that I was at the bedside of a fellow pastor who lived in the next town. We had been in seminary together. As Ollie and I stood with his wife around the bed the night before his passing, he looked into her eyes and through his oxygen mask whispered, “Honey, the time has come for us to put our full trust in the faith we have always preached about.” He then turned to us and asked that we help watch over her and the four children, which we did with the cooperation of many people in their church membership. Ten years later, I officiated at her marriage to a fine Christian man who had lost his wife in a similar way.
Does anyone really have great pleasure in losing someone you truly love? I think not! Any such denial would question what kind of love had ever been there. But the bottom line for every child of God is the promise in our Lord’s own words: “Let not your heart be troubled. . .I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1,3). His beloved apostle John further joyously affirms, "We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” Don’t let that be a surprise! He then challenges us with, “Everyone who has this hope purifies himself” (1 John 3:2,3).
“Therefore, be ready, for the Son of Man is coming. . .at an hour when you do not expect Him” (Matthew 24:44, NKJV).