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Confessions of faith: J. White

A man discovers grace through faith, Martin Luther, and the promise of heaven.

James White

The neighborhood I grew up in was an old, working-class, ethnic settlement on a busy street. As a young child, I entertained myself in the backyard playing everything from frontier army scout to excavation contractor with toy trucks and earth movers. Playmates were scarce, and I was left mostly to my own devices and imagination. I had no siblings.

Sometimes I could hear the bell ringing vociferously from the Wesleyan church down the street. Something about the sound of it enchanted me. My parents and I did not attend church, but I looked forward to hearing the distinct peal as I reloaded my musket on quiet Sunday mornings, ready for imaginary threats.

The closest church to my house was St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic church. It was only about six city blocks away, easily navigable for an experienced army man and frontiersman. I convinced my parents to let me walk there for Sunday services. The Mass was celebrated in Latin, and it was the most beautiful thing I ever heard. I had no idea what the priest was saying, but the lyrical cadence of the chants was mesmerizing.

The ancient church was appointed with large statues of the saints, one of the virgin Mary, and a huge crucifix above the altar. The Lord hung on it in perpetual agony. There were Stations of the Cross, incense, and even something they called holy water.

The next move in my “walk,” a term I learned watching TV preachers when the weather was too bad to walk to church (or more likely I overslept), was to successfully lobby my parents to let me switch from public school to St. Vincent de Paul in the fifth grade. It was grand. At one point, I’d even considered the priesthood. Repetition and recitation of directives and church laws were etched in my mind, and I developed an unshakable faith. I don’t recall studying much Scripture, though.

Once, in early spring, I came home from school starving, as most teenaged boys are apt to do. I spotted a hunk of Italian salami in the refrigerator, a delicacy recently discovered at a friend’s house. It made a glorious sandwich and I began to devour it. Suddenly my blood ran cold, and my soul went dark. It was a Friday in Lent, and I had a mouthful of salami. When I opened my eyes again, things thankfully seemed as they were. No fiery cherubs came to remove me to a warmer environment.

Soon after, I met a girl who worked at the local pizza parlor. She was a nice girl from a good family. There was only one hitch to the budding relationship. She and her family attended a Protestant church, a place I learned never to set foot in if I didn’t want celestial forces to immediately carry me off to the pit. Predictably, I was eventually invited to Sunday service with them at St. Andrew’s Lutheran. They never knew what courage it took for me to accept the invitation.

The church interior looked like any other, but with far fewer adornments, and instead of a crucifix above the altar, there hung an empty cross. Great, I mused, even Jesus doesn’t want to come here. I followed the family to a pew, sat, and waited for the earthquake. Perhaps the roof would cave in. To my immense relief, nothing happened, but I had no idea what the sermon was about.

I heard the minister preach something about grace through faith and then speak of the Reformation and Martin Luther. I was under the impression that Martin Luther was some sort of religious criminal and the Reformation was an illegal uprising of heretics against the holy church. Who but a trouble maker would have the audacity to nail a list of complaints to his church right on the front door? But a tiny notion was forming as my mind wandered back to when I first heard that Sunday bell. Could there possibly be truth here in the Lutheran church?

It could be a reasonable possibility that instead of angry angels ever at the ready to cast me into judgment, the Holy Spirit was quietly guiding me to a new path bereft of peril and fear. Secretly, I figured I wasn’t going to be saved come judgment day anyway; too many sins needed penance. I just kept mentally hearing the words of that Lutheran minister over and over—grace through faith, grace through faith—verify everything in Scripture. This beauty-in-simplicity was something definitely worth pondering.

I began to ask questions. I began to understand and like the answers. The teachings and admonishments of Martin Luther struck a chord within me as nothing before ever could. This opened up a new world for me, and before I knew it, I was enrolled in adult catechism. I found out what God’s grace really was, and was so thankful that not only were prescribed penances unnecessary, but they were fruitless. My question became: Just who was Martin Luther exactly? I intended to find out.

I eventually became a teamster driving long distances. At one point I became the owner of an iPhone with downloadable MP3 capability, and the selection of audiobooks was endless. I wondered whether iTunes had any books by and about Martin Luther.

To my surprise, there were plenty. I downloaded many and listened. Some were published directly by Luther himself. Slowly I got to know Martin Luther, the man.

Luther had grown on me to the point that I could easily regard him as Uncle Marty. I learned every aspect of his life from start to finish, but what stood out the most was that he seemed to be a regular guy. He had no qualms about having a beer or a couple glasses of wine with the boys, always in strict moderation. In Here I Stand, he displayed an appreciable sense of humor about married life and the compromises and sacrifices required. He married a woman, Katie, an apostate nun, and together they had six children—three boys and three girls. He enjoyed gardening, wine making, and a form of lawn bowling. And, as with most men, his wife’s insistence on constantly changing the bedsheets became an irritant.

The more I got to know him, the more I truly enjoyed his company. He was the kind of man with whom you could strike up a conversation in the market square about practically anything—and not be nervous. He taught students at supper seminars in his home about faith. Little did he know, but 500 years after the Reformation, he was still helping people—me. He escorted this old teamster to find his way to grace in a way no one else could.

Now it’s years later. I still have the original girlfriend—she’s now my wife—and together we brought up four children in the faith. From time to time I encounter old classmates from the elementary school, and there’s no animosity. Someone may invariably ask about how and why I made the decision to leave the former faith. I just politely but firmly respond, “Here I stand.”


James White is a member at Grace, Tecumseh, Michigan.


 

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Author: James White
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Gruber

After a couple rejects religion, two postcards serve as their call to Christ.

Gabriella Moline

Preparing for retirement, Joanne, also known as Joni, and Bob Gruber moved to Madison, Alabama. After settling into their new home, they received a postcard from Lamb of God Lutheran Church inviting them to come to worship. The Grubers agreed that they didn’t need to waste their Sundays by going to church, but Joni didn’t toss the card. Instead, the card sat on her desk for nearly a year. Finally, when tidying up a bit, Joni threw it away.

But the day after Joni threw it away, a new card appeared in the mail. It seemed to the Grubers like a good time to change directions. Because of that card, Joni and her husband started on a new path of faith.

No need for organized religion

Joni was raised in a devout Catholic household, attending Catholic school in Wausau, Wisconsin. In high school, she told her parents that she didn’t want to attend Catholic school anymore, because she didn’t believe in the Catholic religion. To Joni, there were fundamental things wrong in the church; the leaders allowed bad things to happen without making corrections. After a little discussion, her parents allowed her to go to the public high school. “If I didn’t believe in the Catholic religion, they didn’t see the point in spending the money for it,” Joni says.

In 1966, Joni married her husband, Bob, at a Lutheran church in Chicago. Although they were married in a church, both already had made the decision not to join a church or attend worship. Joni and Bob agreed that they didn’t believe in religion. They thought that religion caused the major wars and turmoil in the world. “Religion seemed to be disappointing to us,” Joni says. “Religion as we knew it was not as important as they were trying to say that it was.” Their lives continued without Catholicism, Lutheranism, or any other faith. Although they still prayed to God and trusted in him, they believed that religion was something human-made and it was used to suit the needs of humans. Their lives seemed to be fine without organized religion.

New connections

It wasn’t until after Joni and Bob received the second postcard from Lamb of God that they changed their minds about religion. They discussed the idea of going to church and decided it wouldn’t hurt to attend just one Sunday.

When they arrived at Lamb of God for the first time, their experience was a lot different than they both expected. “There were greeters at the door, and they were very nice,” Joni recalls. “Everybody was very interested in talking with us, which was very welcoming.”

After that day, Joni and Bob regularly attended services at Lamb of God, and the pastor led the couple through Bible classes. “He answered every question we had, and, of course, we had lots of questions,” Joni remembers. It wasn’t long, though, before the pastor took a call to the state of Washington.

About the same time, Joni officially retired from her business and decided she needed to fill her time with something new. She thought that being a church secretary would be a perfect fit for her, but with the pastor leaving, she found it unlikely that an opportunity would arise. Still, she prayed to God, asking him to guide her.

Soon another pastor accepted the call to serve Lamb of God. As he began his new work in Alabama, he asked the church to budget for a part-time administrative assistant. The church agreed to hire a secretary and put an ad in the weekly bulletin. That Sunday, as Joni sat in her pew and read the bulletin, she was stunned to see the ad for the position. It was exactly what she was praying for. She nudged Bob and showed him the ad, and he encouraged her to look into the job. She thought about it for two weeks until she finally put in her resumé for consideration. She got the job. “We were both very happy with my opportunity,” Joni says.

Valuable ministry partners

Joni met the new pastor, John Roebke, on her first day of work, starting a friendship that continues today. She says she enjoyed working with him all the years she was there. He helped train her the first year, including teaching her about computers and how to create bulletins. Roebke says Joni had a willingness to learn and be trained, asking important questions and always troubleshooting problems. “She was a very valuable ministry partner,” he says. “God certainly got the right person in the right place at the right time.”

The job came with some unexpected important benefits. Joni learned new information about the Bible. One of her favorite parts of the job was finding Bible passages and information to incorporate into the church bulletin. She found ways to integrate the Bible into her daily activities. “I got the best part of the deal because not only did I come to church, but I got to see my friends, and I learned more about my religion than I probably would’ve learned otherwise,” Joni says.

Her pastor became much more than just a boss to Joni. He also provided the support of a friend. When Bob was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Roebke became the couple’s spiritual shepherd and offered them counsel. Trouble and trial drove them both to the promises of God. From those promises, their faith grew stronger. Roebke remembers, “That is definitely what I saw with Joni. I’ve really seen her faith mature.” When Bob passed away, Roebke answered Joni’s call at two in the morning, offering words of encouragement that her husband was with his Savior.

Joni worked at Lamb of God for several years, even after she had a stroke. As her mind was healing, Roebke was there, patiently helping Joni relearn certain tasks. “I give her credit because she didn’t quit. She kept it up,” he says. She eventually started a card playing group to help with her memory. That also had some unexpected benefits—it grew into a strong fellowship group.

Joni retired from her church work a year ago but still maintains her church relationships and volunteers when she can. She hopes that her story inspires others to keep their hearts open. “Keep yourself open to different things in life because you never know when the best is going to come,” Joni says.


Gabriella Moline is a member of Zion, Crete, Illinois.


 

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Author: Gabriella Moline
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: R. Baker

A man lives on overtime after God uses a brush with death to make his life-saving message known.

Amanda M. Klemp

Randy Baker says that he’s living on overtime. He’s been saying this for 30 years.

He confesses, “God uses extreme circumstances for extreme people, so he used a two-by-four to get my attention and then once he had my attention, he had me.”

Going his own way

Baker grew up in California. When he was eight, his parents divorced. While he went to church a few times with his grandparents, his parents didn’t put a priority on a church life. The divorce was amicable, to the point that both sides got together for holidays and special events. But, Baker says, this was almost more confusing to a child because it seemed like his parents separated for no obvious reasons.

This family instability affected his own views of what family should be and what commitment means. “I got into things that were definitively not Christian,” says Baker. “It went on for a while until I met my wife, and then we ended up living together and not getting married because both of us came from dysfunctional families.”

He continues, “We didn’t see any functionality in the families that were supposedly Christian-based to begin with, so we were kind of trying it our own way.”

It was when they started to talk about having a family that Baker and his wife, Gail, got married. They were married in 1977, and their first son was born in 1980. This was when Gail, who was raised WELS but wasn’t attending church as an adult, felt the pull to go back.

“It was shortly after our oldest son was born that Gail started to feel the heartstrings tugging her back to church. So she started going without me and inviting me,” says Baker. He went occasionally, but often made other plans and found reasons not to go. Their second son was born in 1983, and all the while Gail made sure the children were baptized and going to church.

In general, the Bakers represented the all-American family—two small children with two stable parents who loved each other and a father who supported the household working in the construction business.

Changing his attitude

But God had other plans for Randy and needed to get his attention. In 1985, he came face to face with God’s two-by-four.

He was diagnosed with melanoma. It was stage five and had metastasized.

The only treatment available at the time was dangerous, and Baker didn’t have insurance because he was self-employed. He was given a 20 percent chance that he would live two years. He underwent surgery to remove the melanoma from his back, but the doctors said it would certainly return after three months.

“Now, God had my attention,” says Baker. With a cancer diagnosis, he says, “The rug gets torn up from underneath you by the world. I was facing my demise. We had two children at the time, and Gail was being faced with being a widow in her 30s.”

Facing death, Baker started going to church. He started attending Bible class, reading God’s Word, and praying. In 1986, he was baptized and confirmed at Shepherd of the Hills, La Mesa, Calif., where he and his wife are still members.

“It was dark days, and it took a while to get out of that from a worldly standpoint. But from the standpoint of going to Bible class and becoming confirmed and learning more about the Christian faith and how it should work, it changed my attitude quickly,” remembers Baker. “But I was still faced with not surviving. During that two-year period that I was supposed to be perishing, our daughter was born, so obviously God had something different in mind.”

Baker started spending more time thinking about God’s Word and praying for guidance and healing. He wanted to see his kids grow up. It was after his confirmation that he felt he could face his illness and impending death. But, he says, there’s never really a sensation of “all clear” as a cancer survivor; every little ache or pain or weird malady makes you wonder if it’s back. The difference now is that he felt he could face it.

He says, “As time goes on, you’re able to see the next day, the next week, and finally starting to be able to look further down the road. It was certainly meditating on God’s Word and getting introduced to the truth that changed my attitude, and I was able to look forward and get a smile back.”

After the surgery, he was expecting the cancer to return. By all medical accounts, it should have come back. But it didn’t.

“Basically, it went away, and they don’t know why it went away,” says Baker. “I think it was God, because nobody knows.” And it hasn’t come back in 30 years. “From a medical standpoint, it’s a miracle, plain and simple.”

Now, he has three children, a new faith in God, and no signs of cancer.

Baker says, “I had a new attitude and a whole new outlook on life. I was going to church regularly, going to Bible classes. The day I got confirmed, I was added to the church council and board of trustees.”

Working on overtime

It was at this time that he started tapping into his construction experience to work on building the church . . . literally. It started with pouring a foundation for a school. Then he worked on or helped build several WELS churches in his area of southern California. From there, he went with a crew to Antigua in 1995 to help with relief work there. The projects kept coming, and his hand was always raised.

When Christian Aid and Relief started relief work in New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, Baker was one of the first to go and last to leave. He spent the better part of three years overseeing construction work on behalf of WELS organizations.

“When I had the opportunity, it was an easy move to make,” he says. “It was work, and not always for pay, but it was an easy decision for me to give thanks back. This whole time, I’m in overtime. Every day is overtime, every month is overtime, every year is overtime. When I got asked to be involved with these projects, I couldn’t say no.”

He’s even brought his children to help with some the projects, modeling and teaching service to the Lord. One of his sons even met his spouse volunteering with his dad.

Baker says he comes into contact with a lot of people who say they want to do similar volunteer work someday. His advice is always, “Don’t wait. Make plans now, because we don’t know where we’re going to be tomorrow or in ten years.”

Baker is quick to say that none of this is actually about him. “It’s about God’s people sharing the light that’s presented through our actions.”


Amanda Klemp is a member at Gethsemane, Davenport, Iowa.


 

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Author: Amanda M. Klemp
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Hunt

Believers in Christ have a deep peace, but living as a Christian in this world is a struggle.

Donald A. Patterson

When Paul and Barnabas passed back through Asia Minor where they had spread the gospel in their first missionary journey, they reminded the new Christians, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Surely becoming a Christian is a great joy. For the first time in your life you feel loved, forgiven, and right with God through the grace of your Savior. Nothing can compare with the freedom of faith! But the apostles were telling these new Christians that becoming a Christian in a world led by Satan puts us at war with him on several fronts.

When I think of this truth it reminds me of a dear Christian friend, Denise Hunt. She is a beautiful Jamaican woman whom the Lord moved to the neighborhood next to our church.

Denise is extremely extroverted, energetic, infectious, and downright charming. On the island of Jamaica, she is a celebrity. You can google her name and read all about her. But before she visited our church, she did not have the peace of Christ that passes understanding. For her, all faith—even the Christian faith—was a work of her own heart. She struggled; she wanted to be worthy. She had been taught a lot of good Christian moralism but very little grace.

But she came to church, and she listened. She studied, prayed, and strained to understand. Hours of discussion with our pastoral team eventually paid off. One day, when she was praying, she realized deep in her soul that Jesus really did love her, that he alone died for her, and that there was nothing she could do to earn such love or deserve it. She trusted God’s promises in the gospel. It has changed her life for an eternity.

Now this ambassador of Jamaican fitness and entertainment is also an ambassador of the gospel. She wants everyone to know the peace of Christ right here and right now. She began to take territory from Satan as she shared Jesus with family and friends. That’s when life got a little tougher. Her struggle to believe morphed into a struggle to share the faith.

We’ve all been there. We live on the island of faith where Jesus feeds and waters our soul in his oasis of love and truth. And we see restless souls passing our island like dark, pirate ships filled with people trying to pillage the world for treasure that cannot satisfy the soul’s craving. So, we beg them to come and taste the gospel with us. Not everyone takes us up on it. Instead, they even might argue with us, reject us, or insult our sincere trust in a God who both confronts and forgives at the same time.

Denise has religious friends who challenge her about the idea that Baptism saves or that Christ’s body and blood for forgiveness are really present in the Lord’s Supper. For her, Baptism seals her identity as a forgiven child of God. She knows all of her sins are washed away. She won’t let the devil guilt her. When she goes to the Lord’s Supper she knows she touches Jesus in a miraculous way. She attributes her overall wellness to the Lord’s Supper as much as to her exercise and diet. She has unbelieving friends who snicker at her vehement testimony about Christ and his sacraments. They are people she cares about, and it hurts that they reject the love of Christ. In addition, she faces the daily attraction to return to the world where she was very good at getting attention, praise, and admiration. Sound familiar? Her struggle is our struggle.

Recently, Denise joined us at the WELS South Central District Grow Conference, a conference that brings together pastors, teachers, and lay leaders to grow in God’s Word and in their various roles within the church. There she had more epiphanies. She gained new spiritual ammo to defend herself against the temptation to envy others and their lot in life. She still talks about how Jesus has custom-made her cross to bear for his name. As Denise will tell you, the cross every Christian has is unique to them. While our crosses are all different, they come from our faith in what Christ has done on his cross. By his sacrifice we are freed from guilt and fear; we have forgiveness, life, and salvation. Trusting in his cross we take up our own crosses and endure ridicule and hardship.

Denise is not just defending herself with the gospel. She is using it to claim territory that Satan once ruled. Through the Holy Spirit, her mother, Angela, and her sister Sasha have come to faith in Christ, trusting God’s pure grace. It’s fun to watch Jesus pluck people out of the devil’s grasp and firmly establish them in his body.

Denise and her family are changing the congregation too. They are boldly different than our monocultural heritage. They challenge our thinking, awaken excitement in our Sunday morning worship and Bible class, and push us to challenge all of our assumptions about people and culture. As a pastor, I am deeply refreshed and happily improved by their presence.

When Paul and Barnabas told those baby Christians in Asia Minor that they would have struggles as they entered the kingdom, they weren’t talking specifically about struggles in the church. But becoming part of a church that originated in a different culture is a big struggle for Denise. She will often say, “I just don’t get it! Uhhhhhh!” And she asks, “Why can’t we do that?” or “Why does this church stand for this or that?” My old filters for discussing truth and practice are shattered as I struggle to see the world from her perspective and learn what she thinks, feels, and understands. It’s a great adventure. God is using Denise and her family to change us just as he used us to change them. Jesus works that way. As members of the body of Christ hang in there with each other with durable love and grace, we morph into a something new and better without giving up any truth. But it’s a struggle. Jesus helps us with that too.

When I see Denise, I think of Paul’s words in Philippians: “You will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life” (2:15,16). For years Denise Hunt was just a star on the silver screen on the island of Jamaica. Now she is a star that shines on God’s screen for the world to see.


Donald Patterson, president of the South Central District, is pastor at Holy Word, Austin, Texas.


 

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Author: Donald A. Patterson
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Phetsanghane

God’s arm is not to short to save. He can reach around the world to rescue sinners and make them part of his people.

Souksamay K. Phetsanghane

Imagine someone born into a Buddhist family, in a communist country, where there were few Christians and fewer Lutherans. What would be the chances that person would come to faith in the Lord? Improbable? Impossible?

God works in difficult situations

My parents were born in Laos in southeast Asia. Laos is almost exactly halfway around the world from Wisconsin. I was born in 1982 into a country that is two-thirds Buddhist. That religion shapes Laos’ culture and landscape. Seven years before I was born, Laos fell to Communism. Christianity became more often persecuted than permitted. Today Christians number approximately 150,000 of the 7 million people in Laos. No one had ever heard of Lutheranism and certainly had no knowledge of WELS. What would be the chances I would ever hear the gospel? Slim to none, right?

But as in all our lives, our Lord stepped in to make us his own. In communist Laos, my parents knew that there was no future for their son and soon-to-be-born second son. So in 1984, they decided to flee to Thailand, a country separated from Laos only by the Mekong River. When crossing that river, my parents left Laos with only the clothes on their backs and the items they could carry. My mother was pregnant with my brother; I was a two-year-old. They left behind all they knew and entered one of the many refugee camps in Thailand. Still, there was little chance of hearing the gospel.

But our Lord stepped in. In 1975, the United States had passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. This helped families like ours immigrate to the United States. We spent one year in a Thai refugee camp. Then we spent another in the Philippines, awaiting approval for our U.S. immigration. Through this act, the United States only allowed a few thousand people to immigrate each year. In addition to approval, a refugee family also needed a U.S. person or group “to sponsor” them. Refugee sponsors agreed to help the refugees acclimate to life in the States. Hearing the gospel became a little more realistic but still not much of a chance.

Our Lord stepped in again. Lutheran Social Services (LSS), an arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, helped my family find a sponsor. Our sponsor was a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation in Springfield, Illinois. Finally, my parents, my two-year-old brother and I, almost four years old now, were on our way to the United States. However, the LCMS congregation backed out, without warning or explanation. If there was no sponsor for my family, we would have to remain in the Philippines. Hopes faded.

Our Lord stepped in one more time. The LSS ended up calling a WELS congregation, Peace, Granger, Ind. The LSS talked to Peace’s pastor at the time, Michael Hintz. He had the impression that the LSS was just calling churches out of a phone book; the congregation had never previously sponsored a refugee family. After the call, Pastor Hintz discussed it with Peace’s members. One member is remembered to have responded, “We can do something about this; we can help this family.” In about an hour, Peace had decided to get into an unknown situation sponsoring an unknown family. The Lord changed the gap between the impossible and improbable to reality.

God works through his people

On Nov. 13, 1986, about 10:45 p.m., my family and I arrived at the little airport in South Bend, Indiana. Total strangers were there to meet us. People we met for the first time. People who would eventually become family and even closer. Peace’s members faithfully carried out their responsibilities as our refugee sponsors. They taught my parents where to go for doctor’s appointment, where to buy groceries, how to drive a car, and a lot more.

Of the entire congregation that helped, two people stick out in my mind: Bob and June Koester. Here are some reasons why. I was a four-year-old who had never known snow. Now I was in northern Indiana right before winter. So Bob and June Koester got me my first snowsuit—it was bright red. Red is still my favorite color. I remember them throwing me my first birthday party in America and introducing me to American food.

I specifically also remember them—and the entire Peace congregation—sharing their faith with us. Not just with words, but by the mere act of sponsoring a refugee family. Certainly, they shared with us how to live in America. Most important, they shared with us their Lord, the reason for all they did for us.

Pastor Hintz would spend the better part of two years taking my parents through a Bible Information Class. The length was due to the language barrier. I remember being baptized on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1988. The Koesters were my sponsors and godparents. I remember my parents getting confirmed on March 5, 1989. As June Koester recalled, “There was not a dry eye in the congregation.” I remember the examples of Christian love and service from Peace’s members.

Fast-forward to the present, I now serve our Lord as a pastor in his kingdom. My family lives in Florida. My sister is named after June Koester. Peace Lutheran is still spreading the gospel. Bob and June Koester are now among the saints triumphant.

God works out of love and grace

I am often asked: Was it difficult converting from Buddhism to Lutheranism? Conversion is all our Lord’s work, so in that sense, it was easy. However, it was also easy in another sense. How I lived as a Buddhist is basically how I live as a Lutheran: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

Between the two religions, the actions may look the same, but the motivation is vastly different. The motivation in Buddhism is to earn your way into Nirvana, the Buddhist version of heaven. If you do not do enough good deeds in this life, then you get reincarnated to try again in a new life. This cycle repeats until you have done enough good deeds to reach Nirvana. For us as Lutherans, we “do to others . . .” because of what our Lord has first done for us. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Our good deeds are our thanks for all our Lord has done.

So what happened, and why am I here? It’s grace—God’s undeserved love to me and my family. That is the sole reason why any of us are a part of God’s family! Indeed, we all have an amazing account of our Lord’s love and grace to us. It always his grace that brings us into his family. God used his faithful people who share the gospel to make it happen. It may not be as dramatic as my story, but it just as amazing. We all thankfully remember, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:16).


Souksamay Phetsanghane, a professor at Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wisconsin, is a member at St. John, Watertown.


 

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Author: Souksamay K. Phetsanghane
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Confessions of faith: Woods

A woman discovers the Lord’s guidance along an often difficult road.

Ann M. Ponath and Vanessa Woods

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

Vanessa Woods’ favorite section of Scripture is Psalm 23.* As she considers her life’s journey, the words of verse 3 are especially meaningful: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” As Woods puts it, her life has been “a long road behind.”

Following other paths

Woods was born in Santa Rosa, California, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area until she was six. Her family eventually settled in Redding, California, where her parents continue to live. Woods was a baptized and confirmed member of the Church of Christ. The church only allowed unaccompanied singing in their services. Woods plays guitar and a little piano but was not allowed to play during services.

Fast forward several years. Woods married. Her husband was also a Church of Christ member, and “things were fine until, after many years of physical and mental abuse, I had to leave him,” says Woods.

Woods took a job as a live-in nanny with a man who had custody of his developmentally disabled daughter but worked full time. The church told Woods that this was a sinful situation and “ordered me to go back to my abusive husband or face excommunication.” Woods refused and was banned from the church. “I vowed never to go to church again and for years questioned the existence of God at all,” says Woods. “I followed other paths.”

One of these paths was called Red Path. Woods is Native American of Chockta and Cherokee descent. Woods says Red Path is “Native American spiritualism, a very nature-based belief system that is based on a great spirit who made and owns everything. It allowed me to see God in everything and to be closer to God than I had ever felt.” Woods was part of Red Path for 15 years. “I felt satisfied in the presence of God. I began to believe he was real again, without the confines of church-based rules and ceremonies,” she says. But she was still missing something.

Seeing God’s care

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Things got very difficult. Woods moved to Oregon and says she lost connection with those of Native American descent and floundered, although she kept praying. “As things unfolded in my life, it got hard,” she says. She was plagued with arthritis and bursitis in hips and shoulders, and depression, among other things. She had remarried, and her new husband took care of household expenses, but Woods was a smoker. She tried quitting “but to no avail.” They had no money to spend on her habit, so she decided to collect cans to make money, but because of her disabilities, she could not physically do the collecting. “I got a little cart, put a sign on it that read: ‘Clean out your cars. Give me your cans and bottles,’ and sat in a small shopping center,” says Woods.

It was a hard time, but Woods started reading the Bible again while sitting by her cart for hours. Daily she prayed.  Every day she made enough to get the things she needed. Woods says, “I realized God was listening to me, knew what I needed, and made sure it was there. I quit worrying about my day-to-day existence. . . . I may have forgotten about God for a time, but the Father did not forget me.”

Finding a church

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

After three years, Woods was able to stop collecting cans. “I had made a promise to God that when things got better, I would go in search of a place of worship,” she says. “Problem was, I was picky. Finding a church that was Bible-based was difficult.”

Woods’ youngest brother was actually married for a time. Woods and her former sister-in-law, Laura, remained friends. For years, Laura had been asking Woods to go to church, and, finally, around Christmas, Woods attended Mount Calvary, Redding, Calif., with Laura. “The message was full of hope, not the gloom and doom that I had always encountered before,” says Woods. “Here was a place that followed what the Bible taught and focused on Christ’s love and forgiveness for all.”

After the service, Woods was “so impressed with the message” that she asked the pastor if there was a WELS church near her home in Oregon. He gave her the address. She began regularly attending Trinity in Eugene, Oregon; took Bible information classes; and, less than a year later, became a confirmed member. “I am happy in my new home. God is a central part of my life, and I keep seeing his influence,” says Woods. “Even though I had no church, he watched over me, taught me, comforted me all along the way. I have been blessed.”

Encouraging others

Woods’ long road has also been a blessing to others. Even during her tough years in the shopping center, Woods says she got to know many homeless people and grew to understand them. “Just because someone is dressed shabby and dirty—they have souls too,” she says. “I met some very intelligent people and made friends with many of them. I started preaching God to them too.”

Another person blessed by Woods’ faith is her young pastor. Ben Zuberbier was installed as Trinity’s pastor just weeks after Woods’ confirmation. He says, “It’s a blessing to have Vanessa in our Sunday morning Bible study. She has a good working knowledge of the Word. Not only is she well-versed in the pages of Scripture, but through these God has worked a faith in her Savior that has carried her through many difficult times. As a young pastor who’s been out of the seminary less than two years, I’ve learned what sections of Scripture you can use to comfort people who are facing different types of adversity. When I talk to Vanessa, she shares exactly how those sections of Scripture have given her comfort and hope through the years. What an encouragement that is to me and the members of Trinity! It regularly reminds us that the Word God gives us is living and active, powerful and efficacious. It gives new life and new hope. Praise God that he has promised to preserve it for us into eternity.”

Woods encourages all Christians when she says, “Never give up. Learn something new about the Lord every day, and be glad that someday we will all meet in heaven.”

The psalmist puts it this way: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Ann Ponath is a member at Christ, North Saint Paul, Minnesota. Vanessa Woods is a member at Trinity, Eugene, Oregon.

*Verses from Psalm 23 are using the English Standard Version translation.


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Author: Ann Ponath
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Confessions of faith: Katie Erb

A church’s child care center offers the opportunity to reach out to not only its students but also to its workers.

Ann Ponath

On April 20, 2014, Deb Burgess posted the following message on her Facebook page: Today, a very special child of God became a member of St. Peter. Congratulations, Katie! Welcome to our church family! I look forward to worshiping, praising, and serving our God together!

What an exciting post, but who is this Katie? Who is Deb? And how did they meet? There’s more to this story than a simple Facebook friendship, and it all, strangely, begins in a child care center.

An opportunity

Katie Erb, now 23, was a student at Northcentral Technical College (NTC) in the early childhood education program. In the fall of 2012, NTC assigned Erb to Key to Life Childcare Center, a ministry of St. Peter, Schofield, Wis., for her practicum experience. Erb had had only brief encounters with Christianity and had stopped attending church due to the busyness of school work and her waitressing job. But while fulfilling her 108 hours of observation, Erb overheard the director saying more help was needed in the school-age room, and Erb jumped at the opportunity. Soon she was working part time and then full time at Key to Life in the toddler room and fitting college in online, at night, and on the weekends.

Erb’s first impressions of Key to Life were positive. “The teachers were really nice,” she says. She found Bible time, her first exposure to some of these stories, to be interesting. “I was intrigued,” she says.

Deb Burgess, meanwhile, began working part time at the center. She and Erb worked together periodically in different classrooms. Erb and Burgess both agree that they immediately “hit it off” and worked well together. “We talked A LOT. We talked in the classroom, on the playground, on long walks with the children,” says Burgess. “Katie is especially bubbly and out-going, and we got to know one another very well. Katie began to see that Christ and our church played a major role in my life, and I learned that neither Katie nor her family was attending a church and hadn’t for a long time. I also learned that Katie had experienced many struggles growing up. I kept Katie in my prayers and knew that I had to share the hope of Christ with her.”

An invitation

Erb remembers Burgess’ invitations to join her and her family for Sunday worship. For three months, Erb’s response was “No, thanks.” However, according to Erb, Burgess was “very persistent, but she never judged me, just loved me for who I was.”

Burgess recalls worrying that she would offend Erb. “I felt I just had to take the risk,” she says, “because I cared too deeply about Katie not to try to expose her to what she was missing by not having Christ in her life. I recall questioning some of her behavior and later learning I was the only one who stepped forward and that she was glad I cared enough to take that risk. I couldn’t give up. I felt God was calling me to be there for Katie.”

Finally, Erb said she would join Burgess’ family at church. Burgess says, “I had tears as I showed her where we were in the service. I tried

to quietly explain what was going on.” In subsequent weeks, Burgess con-tinued to encourage Erb to join her family at church, saying, “You always have a spot in the pew with us.”

Erb enjoyed the services. She says, “They focused on a relationship with God.” She also speaks highly of the friendly members and the pastor who always shook her hand. “It was somewhere that could be my home,” she says.

After about a month of attending services and many conversations with her friend, Erb still had lots of questions. “Sometimes I didn’t really even know how to answer,” says Burgess. She recommended that Erb attend Bible information class. It turns out that the pastor also had invited Erb to the classes. “I could tell the Holy Spirit was working on her heart in a big way!” says Jeff Mahnke, pastor at St. Peter.

With the Holy Spirit’s working, the pastor’s instruction, and Burgess’ encouragements, Erb faithfully completed the class and was welcomed as a member on Easter Sunday. “How fitting!” says Burgess. “Our church was celebrating that Christ died for our sins and had risen from the dead and Katie was confessing this to be true. To God be the glory!”

A reminder

Once Erb became a member, Burgess continued to encourage and invite her to attend Bible class and consider other opportunities to get involved. Currently, Erb teaches Sunday school and vacation Bible school and assists with the youth group, even chaperoning at this summer’s youth rally in Colorado. “She’s on fire for her Savior, and it’s so awesome to see that!” says Mahnke.

Burgess says, “[Katie is] now often my encourager. I never thought I would still be working at Key to Life for almost three years, but it’s become one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever held. I can’t thank God enough for bringing me here and for bringing Katie and me together.”

Burgess and Erb no longer work in the same classroom, but Burgess says she’s observed “renewed hope and confidence in Katie since she’s come to know Jesus as her Savior. She lets her Christian light shine. . . . She often refers to me as her second mom, and she will always hold a special spot in my heart.”

Kate Shambeau, Key to Life’s director, was also instrumental in inviting Erb to church activities and speaks highly of her: “Katie is a perfect example of the outreach opportunities present in our child care center not only with the families we serve but with our staff as well. She is a constant reminder that it is solely by the grace of God that we have faith. Over the past couple of years, it has been a pleasure to see Katie become more and more involved at church. She truly is an inspiration to me and those around her!”

Mahnke agrees, “It’s amazing how . . . God opened the door for us for sharing the gospel with one of our staff members. How cool is that!”

Erb is forever grateful for all the people at Key to Life and St. Peter’s. “God was shining his light through them,” she says. “[It’s] all about having faith. Jesus died on the cross. The rest of life is just details.”

Ann Ponath is a member at Christ, North Saint Paul, Minnesota.

 


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Author: Ann Ponath
Volume 104, Number 1
Issue: January 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Confessions of faith: Baker

After attending Mornings with Mommy sessions, a family finds joining a church body to be a smooth transition.

Rachel Hartman

“Just being a part of a church family is a blessing in and of itself,” notes Kim Baker, who joined the Lutheran church several years ago with her family.

Kim, along with her husband, Chris, had grown up attending a church, but they had not found a place to call home for their family after getting married.

That changed after Kim attended Mornings with Mommy sessions at a nearby Lutheran church. Now the family appreciates having a place to worship and the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a church body.

Different backgrounds

Both Chris and Kim were born and raised in Missouri. As a child, Chris attended the Catholic church, while Kim went to a Baptist church with her family. “I grew up in a small town and went to services with my grandparents,” she recalls. “I would even take my great-grandma to church.”

When Christ and Kim got married, the wedding ceremony was held in a Baptist church. During their first years of marriage, however, they realized it would be difficult to find a church home. When they discussed their backgrounds, they noted the Catholic and Baptist churches had stark differences. At one point, they decided to try attending the Baptist church together. “It just didn’t work,” says Kim.

As a result, the couple drifted away from services and from a congregation. “We spent a number of years in our early marriage not going to church,” Kim explains.

One reason involved the idea of a separate place for kids to worship, away from the parents. Chris and Kim were blessed with three children, and with Kim’s background in the Baptist church, she was accustomed to seeing children attend a kids’ church while the adults went to a different area. “The kids were young,” she says. “I wasn’t comfortable going and dropping them off at a place away from me.”

Mornings with Mommy

Several years later, while their children were still young, the Baker family moved near Myrtle Beach, S.C. As they settled in, Kim heard from an acquaintance about a program being offered at a nearby Lutheran church called “Mornings with Mommy.”

Kim decided to try it and attended a session with her youngest daughter. At the time, the program was held in a temporary space, as the congregation worked on constructing a new building.

The Mornings with Mommy program offered both structured and play environments. Parents were invited to attend with their child and to enjoy a variety of activities together. The sessions often involved arts and crafts, play time at a sensory table, flannel stories, and a snack. Mothers could mingle with each other during the activities. “It’s a great resource for moms to come in and meet other moms,” Kim explains.

Kim continued to attend Mornings with Mommy for about a year. Then her youngest started preschool, so they stopping going to the sessions. When her daughter had a day off of preschool, however, they went back.

When they returned, Kim noted that the location had moved. The program was no longer offered at a temporary space; it was in a new church building. The pastor’s wife was the director of the program.

Kim enjoyed the program and found it to be a welcoming way to learn more about the church. She mentioned to Chris that the church would be a good place for their family.

The first Sunday the family walked into the church, one of the members greeted Kim with a big hug. “My kids said, ‘Why is he doing that?’ ” None of the family knew the person.

“I said, ‘He’s just welcoming us to church,’ ” remembers Kim.

The Baker’s youngest child was four when the family first attended worship. At the time, Kim was nervous about how her daughter would act. She was pleasantly surprised to find that no one judged them. In fact, children were encouraged to sit with their families. “They want [kids] there,” says Kim.

After their initial visit to church, the pastor paid a visit to Kim and Chris at their home. “I talked to him about how the kids and I had not been baptized before,” recalls Kim.

There was a reason for this. “With the Baptist faith you have to have this saving-faith moment to be ready to be baptized,” notes Kim. Since the event seemed to require a certain time and emotion, she had never been baptized. And her children hadn’t either.

The pastor came back another night to talk about what the Bible says about Jesus, forgiveness, and Baptism. “The pastor told me, ‘If you want to be baptized, you don’t have to wait until you’re a member,’ ” recalls Kim. “The kids and I were baptized pretty much immediately after that.”

Chris and Kim began attending worship on Sundays on a regular basis. They also completed a Bible information class. When they finished with the instructions, they were confirmed as members.

Serving as a bridge

Kim is thankful for the chance she had to learn more about the church and to become familiar with the environment through the Mornings with Mommy program. “Without the program, we probably wouldn’t be going there,” she notes. “It helps you to get comfortable and is a good tool to get people in the church.”

She has appreciated the chance to let God’s Word speak to her. “It’s a blessing to delve into the Bible and realize, yes, I’m a sinner and God still loves me.” She values the certainty that comes from God’s forgiveness.

As a teacher, Kim has been able to serve at church as well. In addition to teaching Sunday school during the year and vacation Bible school in the summer, she also helps organize a regular basketball camp. She was part of a group that initiated plans to add a preschool to the church. The preschool opened in the fall of 2016.

Chris has managerial experience that he has been able to apply in various ways. He serves as an elder in the church and is part of the executive committee for the preschool.

Living in South Carolina puts the Bakers far away from the rest of their relatives. “Being part of that church family is such a blessing, especially when our family lives a thousand miles away,” notes Kim.

Furthermore, going to church as a family has aided the Bakers in setting the tone for their life at home. “It has helped center and focus our family,” notes Kim. “We’ll have conversations in the car and at the dinner table about the sermon and how we can apply it to our lives.”

Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in Leon, Mexico.


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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Confessions of faith: Miller/Cares

After being raised in the Baptist church, a man finds comfort in the answers the Bible provides to life’s questions.

Rachel Hartman

Wayne Miller is familiar with churches: He spent nearly his entire career as a church musician in Baptist and Methodist congregations.

Today, however, he regularly attends just one: a Lutheran church. “I love being Lutheran,” he notes. While he is familiar with other religions, especially the teachings of the Baptist church, he treasures where he is at now in life.

Growing up

Miller was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up attending a Baptist church. “I came to know the Lord at nine years old during vacation Bible school,” he explains. “I was baptized in that church, and I surrendered to the ministry when I was 16 years old. At the time, I felt a call from the Lord to be involved in the ministry.”

When Miller was in junior high, his family moved to Texas. There they attended a small Baptist church in the area. Around that time, Miller became involved in church work. As a young teenager, “I started an adult choir at the congregation,” he recalls.

Miller enrolled in Wayland Baptist University for his college years. There he majored in education. “As time progressed, I realized my calling was to be in full-time music,” he notes.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Miller accepted an offer to teach at a high school in Plainview, Texas. He taught for two years, and during that time, he also attended a Baptist church every Sunday.

As he got ready for church on Sundays, he often listened to a Lutheran show on the radio. The sermons and theology taught intrigued him. “I got to thinking, ‘If I wasn’t Baptist, I would be a Lutheran.’ ”

After teaching for two years, Miller was offered a position as a full-time church musician in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He moved to Albuquerque, and he became involved with music education and youth ministry at the church.

As time went on, Miller moved to different places and held a variety of positions in churches. Most of these were Baptist churches. Miller also got married during the time, but his first wife passed away. Miller married again. The two continued to move from place to place, as Miller worked in different churches.

A whirl of change

“Being raised in the Baptist church I knew nothing else—that was just the thing to be,” notes Miller. “When I surrendered into the ministry, I started questioning things. I asked those questions all through my adult life, even though I was working at the Baptist church.”

One of the questions Miller asked time and again involved communion. He says, “In some Baptist churches, there is open communion,” a practice in which anyone can receive communion. “On the other end of the spectrum is closed communion.” In this method, only members of the congregation are able to participate in communion.

In 2008, Miller received a master’s degree in Christian ministry from Wayland Baptist University. “I studied theology as part of the master’s program,” he explains.

“The last church I had was a Methodist church in Cyprus, Texas,” notes Miller. He stayed there for six and half years.

Then he went through a difficult family situation. He got divorced and resigned his position at the church. He decided to head back to Lubbock, Texas, where he had lived for a time and still had family members.

“On the same day I decided to leave and turned in my resignation, I got a phone call that my mother had died,” he recalls. “Ten days later I had a heart attack.” The attack was mild, and Miller recovered. As a result of his mother’s death, he bought her estate and lived there for the next two years.

Her house was directly across the street from a Lutheran church. One day Miller was outside talking to a neighbor. He noticed Jeremy Cares, pastor at that church, walking by with his family. “I said, ‘Hey, aren’t you in the Lutheran church?’ ”

Cares invited Miller to an upcoming block party the congregation was going to hold. “He came to the block party and stayed there the whole time,” recalls Cares.

Miller came to worship the following Sunday and continued to come every week. “I’ve been going there ever since,” he notes.

Settling in

Cares took Miller through a Christian Foundation course. “We did it one on one at my house,” explains Miller. “I fixed breakfast every Monday, and we’d have breakfast and study.”

Partially due to Miller’s background, these study sessions often led into in-depth discussions on theology and church practices. When the subject of Holy Communion came up, Miller brought up the idea of the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood. “I understood the real presence before we talked about being a Lutheran,” notes Miller. “That is how I had understood it.”

Cares explained the church’s stance on close communion, in which all those who share the same beliefs come to the Lord’s Supper together.

Infant baptism was another discussion. In the Baptist church, Miller had learned that in order to have faith, a person needed to understand what he or she believed. For this reason, baptisms were carried out later in a person’s life. The Lutheran church teaches that baptism is God’s act of washing away sin. God’s Word and promise are important, rather than the faith of the baptized. But children also can believe. At one point in the discussion, Cares pointed to the story of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb. “[Wayne] stuck his hands in the air and said ‘Hallelujah,’ ” says Cares. Miller finally could see in Scripture that children can believe.

Miller became a member of the church and continues to study on a weekly basis with Cares. “I appreciate that when we have a biblical or theological question, the first place we turn to is the Bible,” says Miller. “We look at the Word—that means more to me than anything.”

While attending the Lutheran church, Miller met a member who had been married previously but had been through a divorce as well. The two got to know each other and started dating. Then they got engaged and married.

Miller is now retired, but he enjoys serving on the outreach committee and the fellowship committee at church. “I’m very happy where I am,” he notes.

When the congregation in Lubbock reworked its mission statement, Miller helped craft the new one. It now reads, “A neighborhood church who worships, works for, and witnesses Jesus.” “To me, if you confess the Lord as your Savior—that’s the bottom line,” says Miller. “That’s the whole basis for Scripture: that you know the Lord as your Savior and you believe in the triune God.”


Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in Leon, Mexico.


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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Confessions of faith: Bernabe

A woman finds safety and comfort in the gospel message.

Julie K. Wietzke

The world is a dangerous place—for the body and the soul. Ivette Bernabe from Queens, New York, knows that firsthand.

Bernabe, like all of us, want to feel safe from the bad things of this world—whether it be drugs, abuse, hunger, or poverty.

Sure Foundation, the WELS congregation in that neighborhood, is working to protect people from the spiritual hazards of the devil, the world, and sinful flesh.

Sometimes those worlds collide. Now Bernabe truly has met the One who can shield her from all real harm and danger.

“She is in a safe place for her soul,” says Tim Bourman, pastor at Sure Foundation.

Bernabe has been in New York City since she was five years old. Her dad moved her there from Puerto Rico when her parents split up. Her mom soon followed, moving to the United States to get custody of Ivette and her sisters and brothers.

Her mom brought them up as Catholic, but she didn’t have time to take them to church regularly. “She was raising us alone,” says Bernabe. “She was working two or three jobs to raise us.” She says the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to their apartment to hold Bible classes. The family lived in the Bronx until her mom remarried when Bernabe was 13 years old, and they settled in Long Island.

Life went on. Bernabe got married and soon after had a baby girl. Her marriage ended, however, when her husband brought drugs into the home. She decided to visit her brother and sisters who had moved back to Puerto Rico. It was there she met Luna, who taught her how to read tarot cards. “You literally felt a presence. This is a spirit,” says Bernabe. “I was young. It was so interesting. How can some cards tell somebody’s whole life?”

Bernabe says she was raised knowing she shouldn’t be doing this, but she couldn’t stop herself. She continued reading the cards for fun until they “told” her that her then seven-year-old daughter was in danger. It was then that she realized the cards weren’t helping her, and she decided to stop. “We need to pray to God for protection,” she says. “The devil won’t protect you.”

Bernabe spent most of her young working life selling wares on the street and in markets to make money. She did quite well and eventually made enough to buy a four-apartment home in Queens. She tried many religions—Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna—to see what they were like, but “it never did nothing for me,” she says. “But I didn’t know this until I went to the Lutheran church.”

Bernabe met Dan Olson, a pastor at Sure Foundation, at a street fair where the congregation set up a booth to meet local residents. She says she was drawn to his beautiful little girls who were with him. They talked and exchanged contact information, but Bernabe wasn’t ready. She had been attending a Jehovah’s Witness church and wasn’t looking for another congregation.

Olson kept her phone number and called her once or twice a year to see how she was doing. Seven years after they first met, the timing was right. “I don’t get rid of people’s contact information because you never know what issues God is putting in their lives when it’s the perfect time for you to call,” says Olson. “She was so thankful I called.”

Bernabe started coming to church—and also asked lots of questions. “Pastor Dan made me understand so many things. I felt so comfortable. How could I not want to stay there?” she says. “It was different [from other religions].”

Olson says Bernabe thought that to get close to God, you had to be a good person. “One of the main things she struggled with was how you can have salvation completely free without having to earn it,” he says. “It’s the typical non-Christian idea of how to get to heaven.” He says Bernabe would ask him to pray for her because she thought that since he was a pastor he was closer to God. “I told her, ‘You can pray too. Your prayers are just as powerful as mine.’ ”

He said that after years of teaching and patiently answering her questions, she finally understood that she—like all of us—was a sinner but that forgiveness was hers through Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection.

“I wish everyone would know of God like I know,” she says. “It’s such a good feeling.”

It’s a message that Bernabe can’t keep to herself. “She’s very excited about the gospel. She’s one of the best listeners, and she leaves as a different person every week,” says Bourman.

“In her whole spiritual history she never has been engaged with the gospel the way she is now. She knows it, and she wants her friends and family to know about it.”

Bourman says that’s common in the neighborhood. Many live their entire life in the area and make lifelong friends. They want to share what they discover—especially the message of hope the gospel brings. Bernabe already has brought her close friend to church. Her friend was confirmed, and her friend’s immediate family was baptized. Bourman says they now are talking to her friend’s brothers and sisters. Bernabe also shares the Word with her children and grandchildren. She’s in church every week, and she appreciates the lessons she learns in the sermons and the Bible classes that further help her understand the sermon message.

Bernabe’s life isn’t perfect. She says she still is trying to learn how to forgive. She is going through a messy divorce. She has had health issues (but she says, “Thanks to God, all is good”). Money struggles still happen. But now she knows the One who can keep her safe. “What do I have to worry about?” she says. “God will protect me.”

Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ magazine.

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Falcon

A woman who felt empty most of her life finds a lasting peace and now is sharing it with others.

Rachel Hartman

Sylvia Falcon has traveled to India and Nepal to reach more lost souls with the gospel message. She is on a continual quest to share the peace she has found from studying the Bible. She wants others who feel empty to learn about God’s full forgiveness and sure promise of heaven.

Before reading the Bible, Falcon spent years of her life searching for an answer to her spiritual questions. “I’d always known there was something; I just didn’t know what it was or where it was,” she explains.

The search begins

Falcon was born in El Paso, Texas, the fourth of six children. She spent the first ten years of her life, however, directly across the border in Juarez, Mexico.

Falcon grew up in a home that had some Catholic influence. While Falcon’s mother had been a Catholic all her life, her father didn’t share the same faith. “My father was a non-believing person but wanted us to grow up Catholic,” recalls Falcon. “He felt that was the right way.”

In addition, Falcon’s grandmother was a devout Catholic. Along with attending church, her grandmother and mother held to many of the traditions that are tied to the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Even during her early years, Falcon found it difficult to find a sure peace through going to church. “I had a hard time believing in heaven and hell,” she recalls. “I couldn’t find anyone to explain it to me. If I asked the priests about it, they would say to read about it in the Bible.”

When she brought up the idea of reading the Bible to others, such as her mother and grandmother, Falcon learned they felt reading the Bible was an activity only for those who were worthy enough, such as priests.

When she was ten years old, Falcon moved with her family back to El Paso. She joined the Air Force at the age of 20. She also married an atheist who at one time had been a Catholic. During her marriage, Falcon was discouraged from going to church.

The marriage ended, however, and Falcon started looking for a church. She tried going back to the Catholic Church but also spent time in the Mormon church, the Presbyterian church, a Nazarene church, and with a Seventh Day Adventist group. But she couldn’t find anything that offered lasting peace.

“All the bishops and clergy were the same,” she explains. “I had questions, and they didn’t provide answers.”

A trial run

While she was in her 30s, Falcon worked at a VA clinic in El Paso. One day, “a lady passed out in front of me,” Falcon recalls. Falcon was so shocked at the sight that she didn’t attempt to help. She watched doctors and nurses tend to the woman.

The incident stayed with Falcon, who felt that with her military background she should have helped. When she later came across the woman in the hallway of the clinic, Falcon approached her. “I wanted to apologize,” says Falcon. “The woman said, ‘If you want to make it up, come to church with me.’ ”

At the time, Falcon was discouraged at not being able to find answers in any church, so she passed on the invitation. But the woman continued to encourage Falcon to come. “Finally, after about six months, I said, ‘Fine, if I go to church will you stop inviting me?’ ” The lady agreed, and the two set a date.

The woman was a member at Christ Our Redeemer in El Paso. The first time Falcon went to church with her, they attended an Easter service. “I remember the sermon was very peaceful,” she notes. “It wasn’t like the sermons I had heard before that focused on condemnation.”

But Falcon was ready to be finished with the bargain. The lady, who was now becoming a friend, asked her to come again to church. On the following weekends, Falcon wasn’t in the area due to her military duties, but on the third Sunday after Easter, she came to the same church. Again, the sermon caught her attention. “It was a different kind of message,” she says.

The third time she came to church, it was on her own accord. This time, she spoke to the pastor and agreed on a time to talk some more.

“The first time we sat down together, we talked for about two and a half hours,” says Falcon. “I asked the same questions I had always asked. He had the answers and reached over to the Bible and showed me. He said, ‘Here, read this.’ ”

Falcon was deeply moved, because she had never been able to find answers to her spiritual questions. Now someone was showing her what she had craved for so long. She still had questions, so she agreed to come and talk more. “I have a very scientific mind and like to have proof,” explains Falcon.

At one point in their discussions, the pastor gave her a challenge. “He said, ‘What if?’ ” recalls Falcon. “He challenged me to give it a chance, to see if it was the truth. I said I’d give the church a trial period, for six months to a year, as I had done with the other churches.”

After about two years of going through more questions and digging into God’s Word further, Falcon decided to take membership classes and was then confirmed.

Sharing with others

Thinking about the time before she learned of God’s immense love and forgiveness, “I had so much darkness and sadness,” says Falcon. “It’s hard to explain the emptiness I had.”

Learning about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of heaven changed Falcon. “I went from being very angry and self-destructive to being a very happy and thankful person,” she says.

After becoming a member at Christ our Redeemer, Falcon was asked to join the team at WELS Multi-Language Publications, which produces materials with the gospel message for countries around the world. Thinking of the chance to help more people learn what she had discovered, Falcon agreed. “I was extremely lost most of my life, and it makes me wonder how many people out there are like me,” she says.

Today, Falcon serves as the digital publications coordinator at Multi-Language Publications. She helps with the operations of AcademiaCristo.com, a site that offers free Christian resources in Spanish. She also works on other projects related to translating Christian materials into Spanish.

Knowing and remembering what it was like to feel so empty, dark, and negative inside drives Falcon to put every effort into her projects. “Many times it’s after hours and I am still working,” she notes. “If I can help reach more with the gospel, then I’ll happily work the extra hours. Those lost souls are my motivation.”

Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in Leon, Mexico.

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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 103, Number 9
Issue: September 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Presley

A man rediscovers the truths he learned years ago at a WELS Lutheran elementary school.

Ann M. Ponath

God tells us that his Word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). As Christians we want to see results, but God reminds us that we are simply to proclaim the gospel. We do not always see the results of that work, and we may wonder if the Word had any impact at all. But sometimes it just takes time to see the fruit of the sowing.

Planting the seed

Quinton Presley was born and raised in Milwaukee, the third of four children. When he was ten, Presley and his siblings were enrolled at Mount Lebanon Lutheran School and soon afterward became members of the church. Presley says that this was “a beneficial opportunity for me. It helped my faith become stronger.” He recalls participating in Bible study every morning and in prayers throughout the school day. “I really enjoyed the stories from the Bible when I was younger. It helped me gain a great moral understanding of how I should lead my life,” he says. “During those times, learning about Christ and showing appreciation for what he had done for us was the norm.” Extracurricular activities like basketball and track taught Presley “to be a team player and develop good sportsmanship,” and “Christmas and Easter plays and events brought great excitement, as we would prepare for weeks to present in front of all of our families and friends.”

Although things were going well at school, when Presley was 12, “things at home, unfortunately, began to fall apart with my parents.” After just two years at Mt. Lebanon, the Presley children were transferred to Young Leaders Academy, a local YMCA school. The school environment changed significantly. The biggest setback was the division of church and religion from academics. “Though the learning environment was not the same, my background from Mt. Lebanon allowed me to adapt to the changes,” says Presley.

At Young Leaders Academy, Presley learned “more about his heritage and ancestral background, which was also priceless to me.” He says, looking back, “I was blessed to learn and get mentoring from teachers who influenced me positively. There was limitless guidance it seemed to me in the world, and I have always loved to learn.”

Presley graduated from high school and continued his education in the field of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Harvesting the fruit

But Presley’s story is not over yet. In his junior year of college—“due to stress from a combination of working full time, third shift at a local casino, family issues, and school work overload”—Presley developed alopecia, a type of hair loss. “One day I woke up with just one patch in my hair, the next with another, until eventually ninety percent of my hair had fallen out. This was very tough,” he says.

At the age of 22, Presley completely lost all of his hair. Multiple doctors could find no cure, which caused Presley more stress. But it was a blessing in disguise: “During my early period of losing my hair I realized my approach to handling my problems was completely flawed,” he says. “I had succumbed to the ways of the world and not the ways of God.”

Through all of this, Presley was dating a woman who was at the time Muslim. “Though my girlfriend and I were of different religions, we shared all the same moral values . . . the only separation was my love for Christ. So, with our shared passion for learning and myself mentally fighting alopecia, we were directed to Siloah Lutheran Church through a mutual acquaintance.” It was Presley’s girlfriend who added his name to the prayer list. “This was something I was deeply embarrassed about, but at the same time, I knew through my religious background that prayer is the way to overcome my mental struggles,” he says.

He continues, “I had the opportunity to present myself to Pastor Tulberg within the first couple of months, and I gained a great appreciation for his structure of prayers, service, and loving support. My girlfriend and I had visited churches prior to coming to Siloah, but immediately she and I were attracted to Siloah and felt a bond.” Eventually, Presley and his girlfriend became members.

Enjoying the harvest

But another chapter soon unfolded. Presley moved to Phoenix to find a job and within a month “was blessed to receive a position as an electrical design engineer.” He has begun to attend two WELS churches in the Phoenix area regularly, although he “still has yet to decide which one I will set as my church home.” Presley says, “What I enjoy most is that the WELS churches are consistent. The churches have been extremely warm and friendly, providing the same structure.”

Presley says he appreciates what he learned at a WELS school. “Mount Lebanon had a significant impact on my early years of life because I was introduced to Christ at an early age and, therefore, was taught how to live according to the Bible. I always stressed that my morals and ethics were a direct reflection from learning the stories of the Bible and what God commanded of us. I have received many blessings such as being able to complete college as a first-generation member in my family, having multiple job opportunities, and meeting my best friend who became my girlfriend.”

He continues, “I would like readers to know that I have learned that we are all part of God’s family and no matter what your background is, you can find the foundation and the path of your life through Christ.”

Presley still has alopecia. “It’s something I continue to pray about, but I am very healthy physically and I appreciate what I do have more than what I don’t have,” he says. Perhaps this continuing trial fits under Presley’s favorite Bible theme: perseverance. “I believe in the darkest days of my life that through my trust in God and following his ways, I have been able to persevere through many obstacles and achieve my goals,” he says.

Back in Milwaukee, Presley’s former teacher, Roger Kramp, was excited to hear about his past student. “Hearing Quinton’s story brings me great joy. As Lutheran educators, often the faith we see growing in young people becomes routine. We don’t always get to see the fruits of faith produced from the seed that has been sown in the hearts of those children who don’t sit beside us in the church pews every Sunday. Mostly, though, it is a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word. From simple childhood truths, Bible passages, and hymn verses to faith in an adult—what a miracle of God!” Yes, God’s miracle comes through the Word. It is the means through which God keeps us faithful to Jesus.

God’s Word will not return empty. He has promised. May he continue to bless Presley and all in whom his Word has been sown.

Ann Ponath is a member at Christ, North Saint Paul, Minnesota.

 

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Author: Ann M. Ponath
Volume 103, Number 8
Issue: August 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Skene

An ex-football player learns that God is in control of all things—whether good or bad.

Alicia A. Neumann

“I was so naïve and arrogant to complain about only getting to play in the NFL for a couple of seasons—many people never get that opportunity,” says Doug Skene, reminiscing about his years playing professional football. But little did he know that the end of his football career would eventually lead him to a newfound relationship with God.

The early years

Looking back on his childhood, Skene describes his relationship with God’s Word “loose at best.” He was raised in the Methodist church, but his family moved to Texas when he was 10 and never found a new church home. “In my adolescent years, there was no relationship with God,” he says. “We weren’t going to church on a regular basis.”

In middle school, Skene started playing football. “I had the God-given size to be good at it,” he recalls. “I was much taller and bigger than the other kids, so football came easy to me. It became a large portion of my identity—and looking back at it, an unhealthy proportion of my identity.”

He finished high school as one of the higher rated players at that time and went on to play football at the University of Michigan. “I had a challenging experience, but it was great that I had a chance to do that,” he says. During this time, he says his faith life hadn’t changed. He didn’t have much of a relationship with God, and he only attended church on Easter and Christmas. “When a family member or friend was in an accident or there was an illness, then there was a prayer or two at those times,” he says. “But there was no regular relationship, talking or praying to God. I was a college guy getting a chance to play football, and I was enjoying it. I didn’t think I had a need for God.”

A dream come true

After college, Skene got a chance to play in the NFL. First he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, then he was picked up by the New England Patriots, where he became a starter. “I was a starting player in the NFL; I had made it!” he says. “I wasn’t a

highly paid player—I was making the league minimum—but I was playing with the expectation that I’d sign a contract and start making good money. All I had to do was make it to the end of the season.”

But that never happened. He ended up injuring his leg and was unable to play for the rest of the season. He was eventually cut from the team and missed out on signing his big contract. His plans and expectations took a dramatic turn. “I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me,” he says.

Another struggle

Shortly after Skene’s injury, his sister—who was married with three small children—was diagnosed with cancer. “It was a pretty difficult year,” he says. “My relationship with God became contentious at best.” Why was God sending all this trouble?

Two years later, his sister passed away. “Those were the dark days,” he says. “It was a crushing blow for me to lose a sibling. For a family that wasn’t religious, there were a few of us who had a harbored anger and hostility toward God. I was one of them.”

During this time, Doug got married. Although his wife, Tracy, had been raised in an active Catholic family, she and Doug hadn’t been attending church. But when Tracy got pregnant, they both knew their child would need a relationship with God, and that pushed them to start looking for a church home.

“A lot of that energy came from her,” says Skene. “I told Tracy, ‘You’re right. We should have a spiritual home, a church home.’ I had issues with God, but there was this underlying feeling—I think it was the Holy Spirit working in me, nudging me. I knew it was time.”

Finding a church home

The Skenes were living in a small town in Michigan. They weren’t sure where to start their search for a church, since neither of them wanted to join the denomination the other was raised in. Then Skene’s cousin, who lived in the same town, called Skene up one day and invited the family to visit his church.

“I was hesitant to go, but the pastor’s sermon that day hit me like a ton of bricks. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” says Skene. “It was like God finally had enough of my complaining and said, ‘Who do you think you are? Stop feeling sorry for yourself and understand that I am your God.’ I sat up in that pew and listened like I hadn’t ever listened before.”

Skene says he felt like the answers he was looking for were right there. “This stereotypical light had gone off,” he says. “I knew this is where I belonged.” He and his wife joined, and Skene says it was enlightening for both of them. “Tracy learned about her religious upbringing, and it helped me finally deal with the frustration of what I thought was so bad.”

Because of his new relationship with God, Skene says now it’s easier to deal with challenges that come his way—whether it’s related to work, relationships, or dealing with illness. And that’s the message he shared when he was asked to present at a WELS men’s rally last fall in Bay City, Mich. “I was able to use my football experiences to communicate how things won’t always work out the way you think they are going to and you’re not always going to win. And that’s okay.” God is in control and loves us more than we deserve. He works to bring us to our senses so we can grasp the depth of his love for us and the treasures we have because of Jesus.

Skene says that knowledge and understanding would have been helpful for him as a young man. “There are regrets along the way, but we can’t go back and change,” he says. “For whatever reason, my path led me to have this religious reawakening in Tawas City. And now I have this home, and friends, and family—I have a great deal of gratitude for all of it, including the hard parts.”

Alicia Neumann is a member at Resurrection, Rochester, Minnesota.

 

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Author: Alicia A. Neumann
Volume 103, Number 7
Issue: July 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Scarano

An accident that nearly killed a man ended up saving his life.

Pamela Holz

Theirs was a love story out of a movie. Two kids from New York who met in Virginia Beach while on vacation. She was mortified about the smell of the new perm she had just gotten and refused to make eye contact with anyone. He saw her and was determined he was going to see her again.

Later that week, they were both at a popular Virginia Beach destination. The crowd parted, and their eyes met . . . and it was like the rest of the world melted away. They spent the rest of the evening walking along the beach and talking, and when she got home from the vacation, there were flowers waiting for her. By August they were dating, and by Christmas, they were engaged. A big Catholic wedding came the following August, and their fairy tale romance was complete.

Then the practicalities of life set in. Ed was determined to take good care of this amazing woman JoAnn, who was now his wife. He was working hard as a New York City police officer. JoAnn was working for Gulf Industries. Every Sunday, JoAnn attended Mass, as she had done her entire life. Ed kept working. Raised with the perspective that one only had to go to church until one was confirmed, Ed had a skewed view of the church and of God. On the job, he saw so many things that made him question God. Church was fine for JoAnn, but Ed had no need for it.

Time passed, and their perfect family grew by first one and then a second little girl. Ed worked harder than ever to make sure that his girls lacked for nothing. He would stop in between jobs to change a shirt and grab lunch. JoAnn and the girls continued attending the Catholic Church. Ed kept working, switching to a Long Island police department.

Ironically, it was a Sunday morning when Ed and JoAnn’s life would change forever. Ed was on the side of the road, assisting a motorist whose car had broken down, when he was hit by a Volkswagen that strayed off onto the shoulder. Ed crashed into the windshield of the VW and then was thrown 30 feet from the car. He slid another 30 feet before crumpling on the ground. While he remembers nothing of the incident, eyewitnesses told of the horrific sight as the emergency crews hurried to save one of their own.

Blissfully unaware of the situation, JoAnn was enjoying lunch out with a friend. Frantic to find her—these were the days before everyone had a cell phone—another friend called every restaurant in the area to locate her. Moments after finding her, a police officer met JoAnn at the restaurant and hurried her to his vehicle. Despite her many questions, he remained silent as they sped to the hospital.

JoAnn arrived to find Ed alive, but broken. His left leg was crushed right below the knee; his right knee was dislocated to the point that it was dangling by a thread. His shoulder blade was broken, and he had suffered a T-10 vertebrae fracture in his spinal column. Monday’s surgery was able to repair the damage to the right knee but put Ed in a full to the hip cast. His right shoulder was restricted to a sling, and would be completely non-weight bearing for the next four months.

One of the first things that Ed asked was to see a priest. He remembers thinking that if God had allowed him to live through such a death-defying ordeal, there must be a reason for it. He had a strong sense that he needed to talk about God.

Over the course of the next year and a half, JoAnn struggled with the intense task of in-home care for her husband. A petite woman, JoAnn somehow managed to take care of Ed on a day-to-day basis, tending to his every need in addition to continuing to raise their two girls, now six and three.

As he began to get out, Ed started attending the Catholic Church with JoAnn and the girls but found himself frustrated with the message he was hearing. He knew he needed to find something else, but he wasn’t sure what that was.

In the midst of his search, their daughter, Jennifer, became quite ill. A neighbor came over and prayed with JoAnn, telling her words from the Bible to comfort her. JoAnn was amazed and dismayed to learn that after all of her years attending Catholic school and faithfully attending Catholic Church, she didn’t have any idea of what the Bible taught. The neighbor invited the family to attend her church, but Ed and JoAnn were not comfortable with the tambourines and dancing. They knew they needed to keep looking.

Invited to attend a Lutheran church, Ed and JoAnn found themselves in a setting that was more comfortable. They attended the adult orientation class. The more JoAnn learned, the angrier she became. She was angry that she didn’t know any of the things she was being taught from the Bible. She was angry with herself for never questioning how she was raised. The pastor comforted her by telling her that she had a childlike faith, and those words gave JoAnn a sense of peace.

Ed, meanwhile, found himself wanting to know why about everything. It wasn’t until he read a Bible verse that spoke of man’s inability to understand the ways of God that he finally found peace.

They continued at this Lutheran church for two years, until they decided to move to Tennessee. They knew no one there, but every door that needed to open happened at just the right time. Trusting that this was the right place for them, they confidently moved away from their families and all that was familiar.

They found a Lutheran church nearby. Eager to continue their walk in a Bible-teaching church, Ed and JoAnn got involved. As time went on, Ed grew increasingly uncomfortable. The church was making decisions on which parts of Scripture to follow and which ones not to follow. Ed questioned that decision. He wondered how error-filled men knew which parts to keep and which parts to discard.

Feeling that they were not yet in the best place for their family, Ed and JoAnn moved to Clarksville, Tennessee. But another Lutheran church also made them uncomfortable. They looked again and found Beautiful Savior.

At once they knew they had finally found their home. They heard God’s Word preached from the pulpit and spoken throughout the service. They became active in Bible study, and it was in a Bible class one evening that Ed, that tough New York City police officer who kept his feelings close to the vest, opened up and shared his story. Laughing sheepishly, he said, “Who would have thought that God would use a VW to get my attention? I am so glad that he did, because that accident saved my life.”

Pamela Holz is a member at Beautiful Savior, Clarksville, Tennessee.

 

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Author: Pamela Holz
Volume 103, Number 6
Issue: June 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Scott

Our plans are actually God’s plans, and he guides events to purify and strengthen our faith.

Barb Scott

My biggest aspiration in life lately is to “have the faith of a child.” It sounds so comforting . . . to believe and know, without question, that you are loved, cared for, and saved.

The child whose faith I strive to emulate isn’t so young—she’s almost 34 years old, as a matter of fact. She’s my daughter. At the most needed and opportune times, she speaks words of comfort and wisdom that amaze and astound me.

I was raised Catholic—strict Catholic, strict Baltimore Catholic! I went to parochial grade and high school, taught CCD classes, was a reader at Mass. I went to confession and communion regularly like any good Catholic would. I couldn’t imagine anything else.

Then I met my would-be husband, who was not Catholic, but Lutheran! (Insert gasp here if you are Catholic!) He was divorced. I remember finding out we could not get married in the Catholic Church unless we were willing to go through months of waiting for annulment proceedings. I informed my mother that I wasn’t willing to do this. I can still hear her plea for me to get married at the courthouse instead of a Lutheran church. She hoped we would reconsider (a.k.a. come to our senses!) eventually and be able to have our union blessed in the Catholic Church.

We did marry at the courthouse, and a few years later I became pregnant with our daughter. Funny how carrying a child encourages you to reevaluate a faith you thought you could put on hold indefinitely. Baptism and a church home were non-negotiable for both of us, so we joined a Lutheran church. Mom had given up on her hope of us “coming around.” I think she had softened a bit and wanted her first grandchild to become a baptized child of God. She even said—albeit grudgingly—that it could occur in the Lutheran church.

We had a comfortable church life, though not particularly regular or too involved. We met some new friends through boating, which was a big part of our social life at that time. Our daughter was almost ready for school, and we were struggling with where to send her. Our friends invited us to their WELS church, which had a school. It seemed like a fine church, but the deciding factor for us joining was that they had a bus that picked students up—a real perk as we both worked full time! So we joined the WELS church, signed her up for school, and were all set.

Then, a couple weeks before the first day of kindergarten, we were notified that the bus needed repairs. The church could not justify the expense and canceled the bussing. Since we had so little time before school started, we decided we would figure out transportation for that year and reevaluate as we went along.

Looking back it amazes me that I don’t ever remember feeling the hand of God in my life then. Now I can’t help but shake my head at the timing of numerous events. A new friend, a conversation, a carpool, the daughters of the principal that became babysitters and a second family to our little girl. Then I thought it was just luck; now I see it is crazy to think of something as precious as life happenings as “luck.”

One year at school turned to three, five, then confirmation and eighth-grade graduation. The nice people we met at church and school became friends, and then I learned what a church “family” really meant. I was comfortable in a way and depth I never knew growing up in the Catholic Church. We had never been encouraged to read the Bible. It needed to be taught lest we “misinterpret” what God wanted us to learn.

I remember being in a Bible class once. I rarely spoke because I felt ignorant compared to everyone else, most of whom were lifelong Lutherans. But this particular class I did speak . . . we were talking about differences in religions. I shared that I had been raised Catholic and that I was so appreciative of the WELS faith and the “black and whiteness” of it. For any question or concern I may have there was a concrete biblical answer, not a “maybe” or gray one. It gave me comfort to know it never changed like so many aspects of the Catholic faith I’d known had changed. After class, a pastor from our congregation came up to me and thanked me for my comment and the beauty and simplicity of describing my faith. It meant a lot to me that day and still does.

I digress . . . our daughter grew up. She was outgoing, a trusted friend to many, and an unbelievably talented musician. I never have figured out where the genes came from for that. I guess the Lord just wanted to bless us with the joy of listening to her play her favorite hymns for hour upon hour on the piano, flute, and finally organ.

Oh, I think I forgot to mention she ended up going to a WELS high school. We weren’t sure how we would swing it financially—it wouldn’t be easy—but we had also been seeing that we always seemed to have enough, somehow. Eventually, our daughter became a teacher . . . yes, a WELS teacher! She had a special love of little ones, and when I visited her classroom I often heard her effortlessly talk to them of Jesus’ love for them. She shared with me incidents with parents that troubled her and conversations she had with them, always pointing them back to our Lord. She took her call very seriously. Some of her happiest times were calling her pastor to ask him to visit one of her unchurched families!

She has faced some pretty trying times for someone her age, and my heart ached for her during those rough patches as any mother does for a child. But she had faith in the Lord. When I was wondering where God was for her, she would share that she knew Jesus stood at her side! I became stronger though her witness.

She is married now with two beautiful boys. I love to hear my oldest grandson tell me some of the Bible stories he is learning. My heart could burst because I am so happy to see him growing in the faith his mother knows so well.

Today when I look back on my life I am awestruck at the many ways God has always cared for me. I used to think I was the ultimate planner—that if I planned enough I would be able to handle whatever came my way. I see now that the plans were never mine to make, but his: “For I know the plans I have for you” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Yes, God has taken care of me. The child he planned for and allowed me to bring into this world has become my path to grow in my faith—the faith of a child.

Barb Scott is a member at Redeemer, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Barb Scott
Volume 103, Number 5
Issue: May 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Hughes

Weighed down by the law, a man discovers true freedom in the gospel.

Julie K. Wietzke

Brandon Hughes is no stranger to religion and different religious teachings.

“What I’ve been used to for 30 years of my life are the drastic highs and lows of the American evangelical experience. I had the worst of everything from Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, mysticism, and the law-based American evangelicalism,” he says.

But through all that, he never found the peace given through the saving message of the gospel. Instead he felt pressure to live a perfect life—something he knew he was incapable of doing.

Then he discovered Lutheranism. “I went to a Lutheran church where they just preach God’s Word and people just live their lives,” he says. “When they speak about the gospel, when they speak about church or the Bible, none of it is forced—it is who they are.”

That gospel message ended his harried search for a way to gain salvation.

He continues, “It’s really wonderful having that peace and being able to rest.”

WEIGHED DOWN BY THE LAW

Hughes was raised as a Southern Baptist in Austin, Tex. “It was very law heavy and performance based,” he says.

He discovered the same heavy emphasis at the popular nondenominational church he started attending when he was in college.

After working a few years in the oil business, he had the opportunity to live overseas in Indonesia. Although he was nervous about how the largest Muslim country in the world was going to react to practicing Christians, he discovered that the city he lived in was open to all types of religious beliefs. He ended up joining a Charismatic church. “I was pretty freaked out the first few times I saw people get hit on the head, fall over, and start doing the flop,” he says. “Without a firm biblical foundation, I had no idea what to think about that. Is this real? Am I a doubting Thomas? Am I not opening myself up to this?”

Hughes says it wasn’t that he was unfamiliar with the Bible—he had read it cover to cover as a teenager. But he said he always was focusing on himself while he read. “Was it Luther who said, ‘If you don’t understand the distinction between law and gospel, the Bible is a closed book’?” he says. “It was very closed to me because I was looking in the Scriptures for myself.”

Not completely happy with his church, Hughes began downloading sermons from popular pastors in the United States. Some were Baptist, and some were Calvinistic. “I would listen to four or five sermons a day,” he says. “I was kind of overdosing in these law-based, performance-based teachings mixed in with the worst of Calvinism and double predestination.”

His failures began to drive him away from the Bible and religion. “I would do well for a while and then I would fall into whatever sin,” he says. “And after repeatedly being faced with my sin, I started doubting my salvation because I didn’t see this gradual improvement in my life. I came to the very difficult conclusion that I was one of the non-elect—I was predestined to hell.”

He says he began to despair. He would read the Bible but would hate what he read. “I was in the process of walking away from Christianity,” he says.

FUELED BY THE GOSPEL

But God had other plans. Though Hughes had never met a Lutheran or been in a Lutheran church before, he—“by the grace of God,” he says—stumbled on a Lutheran podcast about a liberal religious book he had just read. “[The pastor] presented the gospel in all its sweetness, and it’s the first time I can remember in my life hearing the gospel and believing,” says Hughes. “I wasn’t left with something to do. It rocked my world.”

Hughes began downloading Lutheran books and podcasts. He also began reading the Bible again. “Now that I understood law and gospel, it was a completely new book for me,” he says.

While he was thrilled about the new teachings he was discovering, he was also angry and confused because he felt betrayed by pastors and teachers whom he had trusted for years. “All the beliefs that I’ve held in my life—that I had been taught—were crumbling before my eyes.”

He continued reading, buying stacks of Lutheran books when he returned to the United States for his yearly visit. He left the Charismatic church and began holding Bible studies in his home to share his newfound discovery of the gospel with his friends.

His friends noticed the difference in him, and they didn’t like it. After he shared what he had been learning about the gospel, they not only rejected the teachings but also told him he needed to go back to being the person he was before. Hughes began having doubts.

The next time he returned to the United States, he decided to visit a Lutheran church for the first time to make sure he was headed down the right track. “I can’t describe what I felt when I stood among the other believers and sang hymns to God,” he says. “It was a true fellowship with believers—I had never experienced that before.”

Feeling lonely and ostracized by his old friends in Indonesia, Hughes decided it was time to return permanently to the United States. Although he had never heard of WELS, he found Faith, West Newton, Pa., online and began listening to sermons posted on the congregation’s website. He decided to visit.

It was not what he was expecting. “I was still in that evangelical sermon mode and looking for an engaging lecture,” Hughes says. “When I visited the church for the first time I thought a) That was really short and b) That wasn’t exciting.”

He began visiting other denominations closer to where he lived, but he kept finding that old self-help message from his past. He decided to return to Faith, the church that gave him the message of the gospel.

“What I absolutely love—it sounds silly—is that Pastor preaches what the Bible says,”—a practice Hughes wasn’t used to. He says he appreciates it when pastors go through Scripture verse by verse in their sermons instead of using the text as a springboard into popular contemporary issues.

Hughes started taking Bible information class at Faith and was confirmed in 2013.

“The thing that struck me the most is how normal everyone was in church,” he says. “It’s just normal people living normal lives, fueled by the gospel.”

Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ magazine.

 

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Confessions of faith: Young

A man who helps share the gospel around the world started with his own journey of faith.

Julie K. Wietzke

Sean Young says he’s not much of an adventurer. He doesn’t even really like to travel.

Yet since he took the job as director of missions operations for WELS in 2012, he has been to the jungles outside Kumba, Cameroon; to Red Dirt Village in the mountains of Thailand; and to Kiev, the largest city in Ukraine—all to help plan how to spread God’s Word around the world. “It’s crazy that the Lord saw fit to put me here to help with that,” he says.

But Young will be the first to say that going to these exotic locales hasn’t been his greatest journey. His greatest journey has been one of faith—a trip that gave him true freedom through the gospel.

Growing up in an Irish family in Milwaukee, Young was raised in the Catholic Church, which included going to confession, serving as an altar boy, and being a Christian Youth Organization representative on the church council.

It was during a church council meeting that he started questioning the congregation’s priorities. The group was discussing an annulment request that came with a monetary gift—a request that came from the parents of one of Young’s friends. When the council began talking about how to use the money, Young raised the question, “Shouldn’t we be talking about the marriage?” His question was ignored and when he brought it up again, he was asked by the priest to step out into the hallway. When he told the priest that he couldn’t go to a church like this, the priest said, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn the ways of the church.”

“I left and never went back,” says Young. He was 18 years old.

Even though he left the Catholic Church, Young wasn’t giving up on religion. He began attending worship on Sunday at other denominations—United Methodist, Presbyterian and the Free Church. “Eventually when you’re church shopping, you end up sitting in the back so you can get an easy exit in case something goes wrong,” says Young. “I wasn’t finding truth anywhere.”

During the week, Young had to travel cross town by bus to get to his high school. One day he was heading home from school and stopped outside St. Lucas to look at the church service times. “I thought, This looks like a big old Catholic church—I should try this,” says Young. “I had no idea what Lutheran was, much less WELS.”

As he was looking at the times, a hand came down on his shoulder. “I heard someone say, ‘Looking for a church, son?’ ” says Young. “[The pastor] started talking to me and invited me inside. I asked him all sorts of questions, and before I knew it, three hours had gone by.”

That Sunday Young took the bus to St. Lucas to attend worship. As in the past, he sat down and had his exit strategy ready when in walked the girl he was dating and her family. They sat right in front of Young. After some initial confusion, Young sat with his girlfriend and her family for the service.

At this church, Young found what he was looking for. “My perception was that in the Catholic Church, the priest was telling you what the Bible said. Here the priest—I didn’t know he was called a pastor—was reading from the Bible,” he says.

“The sermon blew my socks off. It scared the snot out of me. He had me going to hell the one minute, and the next minute he told me why I had eternal salvation. It was the best sermon I ever heard,” says Young. “In 20 minutes, he opened my eyes. I was blown away. I thought, I have to get more of that.

After the service, the pastor invited Young to Bible information class (BIC). Young agreed, and his girlfriend, Kirsten, offered to go with him.

Two years later, Young became a member. “I went from a two-time BICer to a confirmed adult,” he says. “I went twice not because I was a slow learner but because my commitment to my faith was huge and I didn’t want to go through what I just went through at [my old church].”

Young’s becoming a Lutheran didn’t sit well with his family. His mom, a strong Irish Catholic, had him excommunicated from the Catholic Church, kicked him out of the house, and didn’t talk to him for close to three years. “If you’re brought up Catholic, anything other than Catholicism is considered a cult,” Young explains. “She wanted me to be a priest.”

His grandmother finally helped convince his mom to rekindle the relationship—about five months before his wedding to Kirsten.

After that Young shared his faith often with his mom before her death. “Our first conversation was about having to go to confession,” he says. “Growing up a Catholic kid, you dreaded going into the box. I was telling her that this isn’t something she needs to do. The Lord is not asking this of her—for her to demonstrate her faith. That [discussion] went on for years.” He continues to witness to his brothers and sisters, who still don’t all know the truth. “I know their eternal salvation depends on it, but all I can do is plant the seed and leave it up to the Lord.”

His family aren’t the only people whom Young has told about the gospel’s saving message. “I’ve been on the evangelism committee of every church I’ve ever been at because we have to share this,” he says. “Growing up Catholic, I didn’t have this kind of faith. I didn’t have this kind of relief. I didn’t have this kind of joy in my faith. It was all the black marks on the soul. It was all the heavy lifting you had to do to stay ahead of it. And you just can’t do it. Here it’s just the truth; it’s just the gospel.”

Being part of WELS Missions is giving him an opportunity to spread that good news even further—though he didn’t immediately apply for the job. At the time, he was running a construction company and doing quite well. “I was making money. My plan was all set—here I am, still thinking it was my plan!” he says.

Several pastors kept encouraging him to apply. “Two and a half months later [my family] took a big step off the cliff, not knowing, and God instantly caught us and kept providing for us,” says Young. “It was like a rebirth. [Before] I was living for the dollar; I wasn’t living for my family or for my faith. This was a nice way for God to slap me upside the head and say, ‘Hey, let’s get back to doing what you love.’ ”

Doing what he loves means sharing the freedom the gospel provides by helping plan mission opportunities around the United States and the world and helping administer the gifts the Lord has provided for outreach. It’s a fitting next leg in his journey of faith.

And though we can’t all be part of the day-to-day work of WELS Missions, Young reminds us that we all have mission work to do. “We have to stay vigilant,” he says. “We have to make sure that we don’t just rest on the Word and be comfortable with it. We have to understand that our purpose is to share that gospel message with folks because there’s not a lot of time left.”

Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ magazine.

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Unexpected Love: Part: 3

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

—John 12:1-8

Jesus defends an extravagant gift of devotion.

Theodore J. Hartwig

This dinner in honor of Jesus happened six days before the Passover, and, as Matthew reports in his gospel (26:6-13), the host was Simon the Leper. Undoubtedly, Jesus had healed Simon of a disease that had made him a social outcast for many years. So it is not unusual that “leper” became fixed to his name, an enduring reminder of his gift from Jesus. This dinner was a special occasion for Simon, a way to show his gratitude to Jesus and to invite others not only to share in his joy but also to show Jesus honor and praise themselves.

MARY’S SPECIAL GIFT

Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, was a guest at the meal. The previous chapter recorded the astonishing miracle of his return to life after being dead four days. We know nothing about the state of his existence during his four-day sleep in the tomb. As might be expected, Martha was busy at her specialty of preparing and serving the meal. It was a chastened Martha. We hear not a word of criticism that Mary was not helping her. Jesus was the focus of attention at the banquet. His disciples as well as other guests were also there for this dinner in honor of Jesus.

With her expression of loving devotion for Jesus, Mary unexpectedly became the center of everyone’s attention. The perfume she poured on his feet was generous, an entire pint. It was also of highest quality. That its fragrance penetrated the room evidences its high value. It was derived from nard or spikenard, a bush native to the far-away Himalayas. Mary spent a great deal of money for this special gift for Jesus.

Then we come to Judas Iscariot, the villain of the story. Supported by the other disciples in Matthew’s account, he criticized Mary for what they called her prodigal use of costly perfume. Judas was from the town of Kerioth in Judea and may have been the only non-Galilean of the Twelve. He may also have been the most educated, which could account for his having been entrusted with keeping the common purse used for the gifts gathered from Jesus’ admirers. Judas certainly seems knowledgeable about the value of the perfume, which was worth a year’s wages. But his concern for the poor was sham talk. His fingers dipped habitually into the purse, not to cover the cost of expenses but to line his own pocket. It seems that the disciples were not yet aware of it, and though Jesus knew “what was in each person” (John 2:25), he did not use his authority to veto Judas’s office. Let the disciples discover this mundane truth at its own good time.

We feel the full impact of Judas’s fault-finding when we put ourselves into Mary’s place. When criticized by Judas and the others, she must have wanted to crawl into a hole. At huge cost to herself, she had shopped for a gift that would express the dimensions of her gratitude to this man who was her Savior. He deserved the very best from her. And, throwing all Jewish conventions to the wind, she let down her hair in public to dry the feet she had anointed. Yet what reward had come of it from the bystanders? Grating on her ears and sensibilities, Mary was crushed by the critical voice of Judas and seconded by the other disciples. More than everyone else in that dining room, these men should have known better.

JESUS’ IMPORTANT MESSAGE

In the highly charged atmosphere around the table, it was vital that Jesus come to Mary’s rescue. Judas had rendered a judgment that for the practical-minded guests must have seemed common sense. Jesus might have scored Judas for his accusation. He might have said to Judas as he said to Peter for contradicting Jesus’ prediction of his death, “Get behind me, Satan” or, in this context, “Get behind Mary, Satan.”

But Jesus spoke on a far higher plane than defending Mary for her human devotion. Of course the poor for whom Judas seemed so sympathetic needed the service of others, and poor people are always present to be helped. But Jesus will not always be at hand. On its higher spiritual plane, Mary’s perfume anointed Jesus’ body for burial.

Such words, however, ran counter to the hopes and aspirations of most guests at the table. True to human nature, their minds were set on earthly things, not on things above. They expected Jesus to liberate them from their Roman masters and, like David, to establish another glorious Jewish kingdom on earth. At least they wanted him to be always with them to speak of God’s grace and to perform miracles like the one performed for Simon. They did not want to hear Jesus speak about his burial.

In the face of this negativity, Jesus kept to his message and mission. He did not flinch from his Father’s assignment. Of this determination, Isaiah writes of Jesus in his prophecy: “I have set my face like flint.” (50:7). Despite all the wrong ideas about his mission harbored by friends and followers, Jesus remained faithful to the mission he had come to complete. He was determined to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, be buried, but also to rise again. In Matthew’s account of Mary’s devotion, Jesus enhances his defense of Mary with this forecast: “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (26:13).

Commendation does not come any higher. And it remains as Jesus said: This episode still holds a high place among the four gems from John.

Theodore Hartwig, professor emeritus at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

This is the third article in a four-part series on the gems of John.

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Author: Theodore J. Hartwig
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Confessions of faith: Thibodeaux

A passage from God’s Word brought some sobering thoughts and started a dramatic change.

Alicia A. Neumann

Charles and Jamie Thibodeaux, members at St. Paul’s, Menomonie, Wis., regularly attend church. They have family devotions. Their son attends Lutheran elementary school.

But it wasn’t always this way; in fact, Charles says, “If you would have said to me five years ago that I’d eventually become a member of a church, especially a Lutheran church, I would’ve said no way.” At that time, he and Jamie weren’t attending church at all—and, as a result, they say their marriage started to suffer.

Then God’s Word entered their lives, and everything changed.

MEETING EACH OTHER

Charles and Jamie started dating while they were attending college in Kansas. They were both far from home on sports scholarships: Charles, originally from Alabama, was there to play football. Jamie, originally from Wisconsin, was playing softball.

After college they moved in together, then they got engaged. Looking back, Jamie said she never felt good about their living situation. “I lied to my parents about moving in with Charles; I just never felt right about it,” says Jamie, who was raised WELS. Charles, on the other hand, says at that time he didn’t think it was a big deal to live together. “I was baptized Catholic and had some exposure to church—mostly Pentecostal churches—but I wasn’t active at all,” he says. “I didn’t have any background or biblical teaching in my family to tell me that living together is not right and that’s not how a man should act. But we weren’t living right, and things weren’t working out.”

CHALLENGES IN THEIR RELATIONSHIP

They started having fights, so Jamie moved back to Wisconsin for a while. Charles moved to Wisconsin too, and they decided to get married. Although Charles was opposed to organized religion, he consented to having the wedding at the WELS church Jamie grew up in. He even went through pre-marital counseling—but after they were married, Jamie says he rarely attended church. “Charles really was just not into the organized religion thing,” she says. “He didn’t like it. He would go to appease me, but we weren’t praying together or doing devotions together in our marriage.” They had two children, Jaylyn and Layla, and both were baptized—but Charles said at that point he still was just going through the motions. “I believed in God, but I had no idea what baptism or any of that stuff meant,” he says.

Soon they were having marital issues. “We were starting to talk about divorce,” says Charles. “I wanted to go back to Alabama. I just didn’t want to be here anymore.” Jamie and Charles went to talk to the pastor who married them, and he recommended they do a special five-week class with another pastor in their area. “He said I at least need to know where Jamie is coming from with her faith and what she believes,” says Charles. “So I agreed to that, reluctantly.”

FINDING DIRECTION FROM GOD’S WORD

“All the pastor did is started preaching the Word of God to us,” says Charles. “He told us what a marriage looks like and what men and women are supposed to be doing. There were even some things Jamie didn’t know or realize, even though she went to a Lutheran school when she was little.”

During that Bible lesson, Charles says something clicked for him. “I remember the exact moment: Pastor was talking about the Bible passage where husbands should instruct their children in the way of the Lord. At that moment, I realized that I had not been doing my job as a father and a husband.”

He says it became clear that what he said and did—especially his decisions about attending church or studying God’s Word—directly impacted his kids and their spiritual well-being. “It was such a scary and humbling situation; it changed my life,” says Charles. “I knew it was God talking through the pastor, saying, ‘You need to get yourself together. Your children are going to grow up and they won’t go to church and won’t be Christians because you’re not doing your job. And your wife is suffering because you’re not doing the job I gave you.’ Literally that one passage changed my outlook.”

Soon the Thibodeauxes were going to church at St. Paul’s every Sunday, and Charles took confirmation classes. “Jamie went to the classes with me, and there were a lot of things she had forgotten!” says Charles. “We learned so much. We became members of St. Paul’s and haven’t looked back since.”

SEEING THE IMPACT OF GOD’S WORD

Charles says he’s still amazed by the huge switch in their lives. “God’s Word is just so powerful,” he says. “He tells you what you need to be doing and to get your head on straight. I was never planning on going to Bible classes or being a member. But after that day, it was completely clear to me. The direction of our marriage started going better. I’m not going to say our marriage is perfect; there are always struggles. But we keep going back to the question, ‘Is this Christ-pleasing?’ That’s the blueprint we follow.”

Studying God’s Word is also helping them as a family. Jamie says they work hard to do devotions every day. “You have to continually go back to the Word,” she says. “When we do devotions together, we’re a better, stronger family.” Charles agrees: “We’re a young family with young kids, and we’re trying to listen to what God wants us to do. I know we fail, but thankfully we’ve got God’s grace and forgiveness along the way.”

When their son was old enough to start school, Charles and Jamie were originally considering sending him to public school—but then their pastor started talking to them about St. Paul’s School. Charles says, “I think that was God’s way of saying, ‘Hey, you should put him in that school. I’ll make sure you find a way to pay for it. Put him in that school and let him learn about the Word of God.’ ”

The Thibodeauxes say these changes in their lives wouldn’t have been possible without God’s intervention. “It had nothing to do with us,” says Charles. “God moved us. He opened up his arms and said, ‘Yes I still want you.’ ”

Looking back, Jamie says it’s easy to see God working in their lives, as they went from not attending church at all to actively studying the Word together. “Before, I would catch Charles playing video games and now I catch him reading the Bible,” she says. “Where we are now as a family—it’s only because of Christ.”

Alicia Neumann is a member at Resurrection, Rochester, Minnesota.

 

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Author: Alicia A. Neumann
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Miller

A ticket to a “wayward pastor” by a game warden opened doors and hearts.

Joseph J. Fricke

Learning how to witness in the classroom can’t prepare you for everything. Sometimes lessons are best learned by messing things up. Boy, did I ever get my chance on a sunny Saturday in late February.

THE SET-UP

“Hey, Blacky! Let’s go fishin’.” I had no idea of the impact that invitation would have on my life and the lives of two people I was going to meet.

“Yeah! Let’s go!” said Blacky, my brother-in-law.

We gathered our gear and left. Our only fishing option that day was the Snake River.

I called Bill Blatt, a gentleman from our congregation. He managed a restaurant and took care of some cabins for a sportsman’s club that had exclusive rights to fish a short stretch of the Snake River. He assured me that we were welcome to come down and go fishing. He said he’d leave a permission card since he wouldn’t be around, letting others know we had permission to go fishing as his guests. As we pulled out of the driveway, evangelism was the last thing on my mind.

We arrived at the river and started fishing. After a few hours we had caught three trout and were ready to head home for supper. On the way back to our car, a gentleman stopped us and asked to see our “membership cards.” A little curious at the request, I said, “We’re here fishing as guests of Mr. Blatt.”

“Then I need to see your driver’s license,” the stranger replied. I obliged, and he wrote down my information. We headed home, and I didn’t give it a second thought until the next day.

FIRST CHANCE

The following morning, I was out in the garage, when a tall, young man in a uniform approached me and asked for Joe Fricke. I replied, “I’m Pastor Fricke. How can I help you?”

Frank, the game warden, said, “I understand you were fishing without permission at Snake Falls yesterday . . . and you caught a few fish.”

You can imagine what Frank was thinking: “This guy’s a pastor. He ought to be doing the right thing.” After all, it is important for people in positions of trust, especially pastors, to obey the laws of the land.

I explained that I had permission from the caretaker to fish as his guest. It had never been a problem before.

Frank replied, “The caretaker does not have authority to give you permission. You have to get permission from the sportsman’s club. However, in my business one learns quickly how to spot a liar, and I can tell you aren’t. I won’t ticket you for taking the fish, but the sportsman’s club does want to press charges, so I have to give you and your brother-in-law a ticket.”

I was embarrassed, frustrated, and angry. The ticket was $75! Worse yet, “Pastor Caught Fishing Without Permission!” is not the kind of headline you want to see in the local paper. Blacky had to pay the fine right then or go to jail. We chatted awhile as my sister-in-law went fishing in her purse for the cash to pay the ticket.

When Blacky’s ticket was paid, Frank left. My gut was telling me, “Always be prepared . . .”. Did I just miss a chance to witness and share? Yes, I missed a chance! “Lord, please give me a second chance!”

SECOND CHANCE

I called the caretaker right away and left a panicked message. He wasn’t due home until later that night, so I did my best to forget about it and went about preparing for our Friendship Sunday the next day.

Later that night, as I was trying to relax in the living room, the doorbell rang. It was Frank! We invited him in. He told us he had called the president of the sportsman’s club and explained what happened. They were dropping the charges. Phew! Ticket forgiveness is awesome!

Two prayers answered! No fine, and I got my second chance! The voice in my head was shouting, “Always be prepared to give an answer . . . ”. Frank was not leaving my house without an invitation this time.

We chatted awhile, laughing about the situation. As Frank was about to leave, I invited him to our Friendship Sunday service the next morning. He thanked me and left.

Sunday came and church started, but no Frank. The invitation had been extended. However, more regret. “Always be prepared to give an answer . . . and don’t forget to get their contact information.” I didn’t want to have to go fishing without permission to get the chance to talk to Frank again.

THIRD CHANCE

Fast forward to Easter Sunday. God gave me a third chance. As I was greeting people at the door, who shows up? It was Frank and his fiancée Dana. An invitation extended and accepted weeks later! God is good. After church, I arranged a time to meet them. This time, I got their contact information and went to visit.

At that visit I learned that Frank and Dana had some church background but had strayed from church. When I asked how they were getting to heaven, they replied, “We’re not sure. We were just raised to believe we were going.”

God has an answer for that, and I was prepared! This time I got to offer forgiveness—total unconditional forgiveness with the Lord. I shared the gospel, and I invited them to begin a Bible information class. On the Sunday after Christmas, Frank and Dana were confirmed.

Frank and Dana are still laughing about the day we met. “The chance encounter with the ‘wayward’ pastor from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church brought us closer to God,” says Dana. “We were looking for a place to start our new lives together and a church that was focused on the truths of the Bible. Pastor Fricke’s invitation was the beginning of that journey. The forgiveness brought to Frank and I through Christ’s death on the cross has been such a gift, and having a church to reinforce those truths is wonderful. Having that steady rock to turn to in times of personal and professional challenges has made it feasible to continue to grow in our relationship with the Lord and together. We often reminisce about our chance encounter and how one simple act can impact your lives—and the lives of children who weren’t even born yet—for a lifetime.”

Total fish caught that February day? Five! Three trout, plus Frank and Dana. A few lessons were learned as well. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). You never know when the chance to tell someone about Jesus will present itself. If you blow it, pray for a second chance. God may give you one or three or more.

Finally, if you are ever in north central Nebraska, meet Frank and Dana in church. If you meet them while they are at work, they won’t hesitate to give you a ticket.

Joseph Fricke is pastor at St. Paul, Mauston/St. Paul, Adams, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Joseph J. Fricke
Volume 103, Number 1
Issue: January 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of Faith: Ralston

An atheist who disregarded the Bible discovers the saving message of the Scriptures.

Amanda Klemp

Brian Ralston went in ready for a fight he was confident he’d win. But when he started posing his surefire talking points, the pastor always had a Scripture-based response.

“I thought the perfect argument was ‘you have to believe every single word in that book is true, because if you don’t believe every single word is true, then you can’t tell me who is smart enough to say what is right or wrong,’ ” says Ralston, remembering his skepticism before that first meeting. “I thought I’d just cross my arms and wait for him to question his whole philosophy on life.”

But that was before he really heard and studied the Word of God at St. Paul, Muskego, Wis.

ZERO INTEREST IN CHURCH

Ralston grew up with a father who is a confirmed atheist and a mother who took her husband’s lead regarding religion, or lack thereof, in the home. God and church were not part of Ralston’s life.

Ralston says, “My dad is to this date a confirmed atheist. He has zero interest and thinks anything church-related is about the want of your money rather than concern about your salvation.” Ralston followed in his father’s footsteps in these beliefs.

When he was younger, Ralston pursued an education in science and was convinced his understanding of the natural world through evolution trumped everything the Bible says about our world and lives.

He was in his twenties when he met Jennifer, his wife of ten years. Jennifer wasn’t raised going to church either, and religion was not part of their life together. After the wedding came two children, a son, Jacob, now 8, and a daughter, Madelyn, 7.

A DIFFERENT LOOK AT SCRIPTURE

It wasn’t until Ralston started to think about school for his small children that he even stepped foot into St. Paul a little over five years ago. A friend suggested to Ralston that St. Paul’s School was the best in the area and he should look at it for his own children entering preschool. That interest in his children’s academic education eventually led to his own spiritual education.

Ralston and his wife ultimately decided they wanted to send their children to St. Paul’s School. They also knew that if they joined the church, they’d get a break on tuition. In what, he admits, was initially a purely financial decision, they set up their first meeting with the pastor at St. Paul.

At the time Ralston considered himself an atheist, and he thought he was going to turn this pastor’s world upside down with his arguments.

Ralston says, “In my pre-Christian days I would use what were man-made mistakes to disregard the Bible because people couldn’t agree.

“That’s what I used to reinforce my own thinking,” he explains. “They can’t even agree what’s in [the Bible]; how am I supposed to live my life following the principles they can’t even come to consensus on as Christians and people who have studied the Bible their entire life?

“I used that as a lot of justification for disregarding [the Bible], and it took the cycle of events and the providence of God that brought me here before I understood that I was collateral damage of all those people who didn’t understand and that I blamed the Word of God, not the people who are misunderstanding it,” says Ralston. “Then my eyes were opened to sit down and look at it more in depth.”

Ralston has since studied the Scriptures and has a goal to read the entire Bible. He finds himself particularly drawn to Jesus’ parables. “The relevance of Scripture today, despite its age, reinforces that it is timeless,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s antiquated and old fashioned. It’s more current every day than it was the day before, in my opinion.”

Ralston doesn’t report a “life-changing” moment, trauma, or tragedy in his life that prompted him to look at Scripture. He’s a typical law-abiding family man who grew up in a typical home. But now he knows that he’s a saved child of God. He has something more than he had before. He knows it happened because the Holy Spirit worked in his heart through the message of the Scriptures. God’s providence brought him and the Bible together. When he began to look through the Scriptures, things changed.

From the first one-hour meeting with the pastor to the required membership class, all the time the Holy Spirit was working in Ralston’s heart. After completing the membership class, he had his children baptized. But he and Jennifer did not get baptized right away because he wanted to be sure he approached his baptism with the appropriate reverence. Eventually, in a conversation with his wife, Ralston said if his birthday landed on a Sunday that particular year, he would get baptized. It did, so he and his wife were both baptized on his birthday a few years ago.

A NEW INTEREST IN OUTREACH

Ralston says he doesn’t necessarily feel like his life as a husband, father, and employee changed outwardly, but “it has changed the way I view my place in the world more so than it has changed how I view myself.” He explains that he’s noticed a bigger capacity for forgiveness, patience, and recognizing the plank in his own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else’s. He tries to take on a “what would Jesus do” attitude in all he does.

“Once I realized the expectations that as a Christian you should try to be Christlike—you should want to live your life in a way that reflects Christ—I knew there’s no way I can live that. But that’s why I need Jesus,” says Ralston. Forgiven by Jesus, he can forgive. Loved by Jesus, he can love selflessly. He’s motivated by Christ to be Christlike.

Since Ralston and his family joined St. Paul, they have shared the saving message with his wife’s parents, who have also joined the church. His parents have not reached that point yet, but he says that he, along with his wife and children, continue to share the good news with them. He prays that one day his parents might know their Savior as well.

He says, “I literally thank God every day for St. Paul’s and the understanding and trueness of what they teach—it aligns perfectly with Scripture.”

Amanda Klemp, WELS web content manager, is a member at Living Word, Waukesha, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Amanda Klemp
Volume 102, Number 12
Issue: December 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Bennington

After growing up with a vague sense of church, a man is encouraged by his wife to learn about God’s steadfastness and forgiveness.

Rachel Hartman

Jim Bennington didn’t grow up in a religious household. “Religion was present to a degree,” he recalls. Bennington was born and spent his early years in the city of Pontiac, Michigan, about 30 miles north of Detroit.

The family relocated frequently. “Sometimes we moved two or three times in a school year,” he says. The moves didn’t take the family too far, however. “It was always around the county.”

With so many changes, the family attended many different types of religious services, usually one that was close to where they were staying. And while they went to a variety of places, including a Catholic church and Spanish services, they never attended the same church on a consistent basis.

“You live the life your parents lead,” says Bennington. “I had a lot of different exposures to religion. We got into a kind of religious roulette. I knew God was out there; I just didn’t know how to make a connection.”

LEARNING MORE

As an adult, Bennington worked as a radio DJ and moved around quite a bit with the job. Then he started working for an entertainment company. While there, he met another employee named Amy.

It was through her that Bennington grew to learn about WELS. Amy had been born and raised in a WELS church. What’s more, her parents and grandparents had also attended Lutheran churches. Being in God’s Word was important to Amy, and her commitment did not go unnoticed.

When the two began their courtship, Amy introduced Bennington to a WELS church. But Bennington didn’t find the experience to be a smooth one. “I was always lost,” he recalls. He tried to follow along with the bulletin and also the hymnal but found it difficult to sort out the hymn numbers from the different pages of worship in the book. At certain times, he wondered why others were talking while he tried to sing.

As he continued going to church on Sundays, however, Bennington found it easier to follow along with the order of service. He also began tuning in to the Scripture readings and the teachings addressed during worship.

With Amy’s encouragement, Bennington took Bible information classes. He was baptized and confirmed after finishing the classes.

Gaining an understanding of Baptism left a solid impression on Bennington. “That’s something you witness in different formats in churches,” he explains. He had seen it displayed as an act that simply happens.

But Bennington grasped a fuller concept of Baptism after learning about it in God’s Word. Studying about the washing away of sins through Baptism was very meaningful for him. And he found getting ready for it to be effective. “Preparing for that moment in my life was very reflective,” he remembers.

He also was drawn to the ease of communication he found when studying the Bible. You just ask questions and look for answers. “The dialogue of God’s Word is easy to understand. You’re welcome to ask questions and educate yourself further—it’s not intimidating,” he says.

And Bennington is glad to see that anyone can start studying God’s Word, regardless of where they stand in the walk of life. “You don’t have to be a theologian the first time you sit down in the pew,” he says. “You can find opportunities to broaden your knowledge base. It’s a good way to live your life.”

DIGGING DEEPER

Bennington and Amy got married and continued attending church services. Then their family moved from Michigan to Renton, Washington, for work-related reasons. Since then, they have attended a WELS church in this suburb of Seattle.

This summer, Bennington had the opportunity to attend the WELS synod convention as a delegate. Right from the start, the experience made a strong impression on him. “It was awe-inspiring to walk in and see all of these men and attendees committed to one effort,” he says.

He also appreciated the chance to learn how the synod operates. “I sit through board meetings on a professional side, and I can relate to that on the organization of the church,” Bennington explains.

Another aspect of the convention that caught Bennington’s attention were the presentations on mission efforts in various places throughout the world. He could relate to the strategies of finding opportunities for further mission work and then striving to support the ongoing missions while maintaining an overall balance. “As a laymen that’s a challenge I experience,” he notes. He found the emphasis on practicing good stewardship to be a key component to church planning.

ON THE ROAD, COMMITTED TO GOD

Bennington continues to work in the entertainment industry, designing and building arcades for a living. “It puts me in the heart of the real world and in a business that impacts people’s lives,” he explains.

His current job frequently takes him on the road. But when it comes to the beginning of the week, he says it’s key to enter the church doors. “It’s the best way to begin your week,” he says. “It starts with Sunday morning.”

He also finds being in the Word to be a grounding experience. “You don’t have to move backwards or be stuck in guilt or unfulfilled commitments,” he explains. “You can start where you’re at and move forward.”

Bennington has three children; in addition, his niece who currently lives with his family in Washington is going through confirmation classes.

Attending church services on a regular basis has made it easy for the entire family to follow along during worship. On Sunday mornings, “I’m really proud that my 12-year-old sits down and instantly organizes his hymnal,” says Bennington.

In the industry Bennington works in, there are often ups and downs, highs and lows, and swift changes. He recognizes the need for dedication when raising children to be centered in God’s Word. “We pray for God’s guidance,” he says. “It’s a burden we don’t take lightly.”

Amy leads the family’s homeschooling efforts, and they often seek ways to provide education in a variety of life’s settings. Sometimes the family travels with Bennington when he is on the road. During those trips, he often looks for time to take off of work to be with his family.

In everything he does, Bennington strives to keep a balance between his career and family, always keeping God as the focus. He credits this attitude to his wife, Amy. “I’m grateful for my wife’s commitment to her faith and helping me build my commitment,” says Bennington. “She’s the person who started it all, and this is the place to be.”

Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in León, Mexico.

 

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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 102, Number 11
Issue: November 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Stair

The Holy Spirit through the Word changed a man’s life and his eternal future.

Julie K. Wietzke

“I love talking about my faith.”

Mark Stair, a delegate representing St. John, Oak Creek, Wis., at the 2015 synod convention, has come a long way from the boy who skipped catechism class so many times he never was confirmed. “[My Sunday school teachers] didn’t get through to me,” he says. “It just didn’t interest me.”

Fifty years later, he jumped at the chance to learn more about his synod and help shape its direction. “My pastor said the opening service is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he wasn’t kidding,” says Stair. “It’s humbling and hard to believe that I’m sitting among so many pastors and missionaries.”

The Holy Spirit through the Word, he says, changed the way he thought about everything—and changed how he lives his life.

CHANGED HEARTS

Stair was baptized and grew up as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. His parents sent him to Sunday school and his mom attended church, but his dad “was kind of a wedding and funeral guy,” he says.

As Stair grew older, he stopped going to church. “I didn’t know anything about Jesus. I remember the Sunday school stories about Palm Sunday but I didn’t know why he was here,” Stair says. “I never put it together—that he was here to pay for our sins.”

Fast forward 35 years. Stair’s second wife, Jackie, who also had fallen away from the Lutheran church, was interested in going back to church. Stair had no problem with that, but he wasn’t planning on going with her—until he ended up in the hospital with pancreatitis.

“They didn’t know what caused it, so I was going through all these tests,” he says. “Right away you think it’s cancer or a tumor or something like that.”

So Stair prayed. “But I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, “so I tried to make a deal. I prayed, If they don’t find anything and I come out of this okay, I’m going to start going to church.”

Looking back, Stair says he knows now that you don’t make deals with God, “but I know a lot more now than I did then,” he says, chuckling.

Stair did get better and told his wife he wanted to look for a church because he felt he owed that to God. “It just about floored her,” he says.

Though the plan was to visit many churches to determine which one they liked best, Stair and his wife only visited one—St. John, Oak Creek. A woman with whom his wife worked was a member there and invited them to worship. “We went to church there three or four times and the next thing I know, Pastor was in our living room and we started going to Bible information class,” he says.

As a truck driver, Stair says he had a lot of time to think about what he was learning. “I had a lot of complicated questions, and Pastor always had some pretty simple answers,” he says. After about ten weeks, Stair says everything just came together for him. In 1997, he and his wife were confirmed and joined the church.

CHANGED LIVES

After retiring early due to medical issues, Stair says he became even more active in church, including going to Bible classes, ushering, and serving on the church council. “I’m getting closer and closer to my Savior—just by hearing the Word,” he says.

That’s a big change from his earlier life. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his children weren’t raised in the church. Stair says sometimes he reflects on how his life would have been different if he had been a believer. “There are a lot of things I’ve done that I’m not proud of and I can’t go back and change them,” he says. “But it’s such a great feeling to know that you’re forgiven. It’s amazing!”

He continues, “Before I came to faith, I thought that I had a great life. Now I look back on it and it wasn’t that great. I wanted to have a purpose and something to put my trust in.”

Having a Savior in whom he can put his trust has helped him and his wife live their lives for the Lord—even through hardships. “It changes everything, even the way you think,” he says. He shared how in 2009, he was dealing with heart problems, and his wife was going through chemotherapy to combat breast cancer. “She never even cried a tear,” he says. “We just had faith.”

The Lord took care of Stair and his wife. “It’s one of those stories that changes someone,” says Stair. “But I feel like we were already changed before it happened.

“I feel sorry for people who don’t have faith that have to go through this; they’re basically alone. But when you have your God to lean on and your Christian friends and church members, it’s amazing.”

CHANGED PRIORITIES

Now instead of dwelling on the past, Stair looks to the future and how he can share his faith with others.

At church, he is the chairman of the Board for Spiritual Life. He leads services at a local nursing home, something he never expected he would do. “Now it’s one of my favorite things,” he says. “They need to hear the Word too.”

Stair also is reaching out in his personal life. “I worked with truck drivers. At first I didn’t tell them [when I started going to church] because I didn’t want to be made fun of,” he says. “Eventually that changed. I know what the truth is, and maybe I can help some of those guys.” Stair is trying to get in touch with one of his past truck driver friends who is sick to share the hope of salvation.

He is most concerned, however, about his adult children. “One of the things that I pray about the most is that they all come to faith,” he says. Stair shares his faith with his children in both his words and his actions. He also is writing a book that relates how he came to faith and looks at his past experiences through his new spiritual sight. “If one of my kids reads what I have written, it might make a difference,” he says. “I know it’s up to God and his grace, but I feel like I would really have done something if it affects just one person—especially one of my own kids.”

He continues, “God uses people where he can use them. Maybe all my life experiences before will come in handy as I try to spread the Word.”

Because Stair knows, the Word works and does make a difference.

Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ.

 

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 102, Number 10
Issue: October 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of Faith: Robbins

Conversations between friends lead to a life-changing experience.

Alicia A. Neumann

“I thought they were restrictive and that the people were stuffy and cliquey.”

That’s how Kelsey Robbins, member at Cross of Christ, Boise, Idaho, said she previously felt about churches. Growing up, she says she didn’t have much of a church background. She attended a Methodist church with her family on major holidays and remembers completing a three-day confirmation class. “But I hadn’t really picked up a Bible after that,” she says. “I guess I was just very hostile toward church.” But that all changed when Robbins moved with her family to Boise, where she met Kristie Breckon.

THE REASON FOR THE HOPE THAT YOU HAVE

Breckon had recently moved to the area and had a young daughter. Robbins says they became great friends and talked about everything. Oftentimes discussions on current events would turn to religion. “Her security in life didn’t come from money or from her husband’s job or her house; she had a sense of security I didn’t have,” says Robbins. “At that point, I had a small child and an uncertain future, and I started to become interested in why she felt that she’d be okay. It piqued my interest.”

Robbins said it was great having someone who would listen to her and ask her questions. “Kristie never tried to convince me. She just gently told me what she believed,” says Robbins. “It can be intimidating to have conversations like that with someone who doesn’t believe what you do, and sometimes it’s just easier to stay silent—but she didn’t. And I’m so thankful for that.”

Breckon eventually invited Robbins to a women’s retreat and then told her about the preschool at Cross of Christ. Robbins says she wasn’t sure she agreed with the church’s teachings, but the preschool was nearby and it was affordable. So she and her husband, Donovan, enrolled their oldest daughter, Chloe.

A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE

Robbins says she felt Chloe was getting a great education, but she still wasn’t sure about the church. “I remember attending a 15-minute chapel service for the preschoolers, and Pastor told the kids that ‘Jesus washes the naughties away.’ I was offended that someone would tell my child that she was naughty. I thought maybe I didn’t want her to go there anymore. But it made me think, and we stuck with it,” she says. Not long after, Breckon invited the Robbins family to the kids’ Christmas service, and then later to the summer picnic. “My husband was so impressed by how relaxed and nice everybody was; it wasn’t what we thought a congregation would be like,” says Robbins.

They started attending worship services, where they saw an invitation to Bible information classes. Robbins was interested in being in a group with other people who wanted to ask questions. “We started going to that, and it was a life-changing experience,” says Robbins. “It was never presented as ‘We want to convert you’ or ‘This is why you are wrong.’ It was an open discussion about the Bible.”

She says she appreciated being able to ask all of her questions—from dinosaurs to evolution—and having them answered in an open, honest way. But the biggest “aha” moment for her was understanding that no one can be perfect. “My idea of what it meant to be a Christian was that you were required to do selfless good works to earn a spot in heaven and that the goal of your life was to become as good and perfect as possible,” says Robbins. “Hearing that God himself declares, ‘No one is righteous, no not one’ lifted an enormous burden from me. I didn’t have to try to be perfect for myself, or others, or God. I couldn’t be. The good news that I was already perfect because Jesus did it for me—that changed the way I thought about everything.”

Robbins says after the class on Baptism, she and her husband had both of their daughters baptized right away. “Even before the Bible information class was done, I just knew this was going to be the place for us,” she says.

COUNTING HER BLESSINGS

After becoming a member, Robbins served for four years on the preschool board. While in that role, she told many other parents about the preschool. “It was great because my friends had kids that were preschool age, and I could tell them about our excellent program and get them the information they needed,” she says. “It was very gratifying to work for the ministry that got our foot in the door.”

She and her husband have also been involved with vacation Bible school and worship services—Kelsey is in the choir and Donovan works in the sound room. “When I need to be at church early in the morning for a music rehearsal, Donovan makes sure the girls get ready and are on time,” she says. “I love to see him be active and involved. It’s a huge benefit for our two girls to see a man who loves God and has felt the forgiveness of Christ in his life.”

Robbins says she’s also thankful for the network of Christian friends they’ve made. “I’ve leaned a lot on the support of Christian friends who were patient and kind enough to encourage me to rely fully on God,” she says. “I think it is so important not just to hear the Word, but for other people to remind you of it and lift you up with it and share their own experiences. It’s been such a gift finding this church and this group of people.”

And the greatest gift of all? “Faith,” she says. “I didn’t have that before; it didn’t exist. Now I have something black and white, something to get me through the hard times—faith in a living God.”

Alicia Neumann is a member at Resurrection, Rochester, Minnesota.

 

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Author: Alicia A. Neumann
Volume 102, Number 9
Issue: September 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of Faith: Acosta

After grasping the life-changing message of the Bible, a man originally from Colombia studies to be a pastor and shares the gospel with Latinos in the United States.

Rachel Hartman

What’s it like growing up in Latin America as a Catholic?

“I was baptized when I was about one year old,” explains Luis Acosta, a WELS pastor currently serving in Milwaukee.

Acosta was raised in what he refers to as a traditional family. Born in Colombia and raised Catholic, he says that the church did not play a big role in his early years. He recalls a little preparation for first communion.

Overall, however, he says his memories of religion are “kind of vague.”

His situation is pretty typical in areas south of the U.S. border. In Latin America, 84 percent of adults report they were raised Catholic, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. It’s important to understand the Catholic church in this region takes on a different form than in other places, such as the United States, explains Acosta. “What we have in Latin America is very shallow.”

For instance, growing up, Acosta remembers having a strong interest in knowing God. At the same time, he always felt God was a distant figure.

CHANGING PLACES

As a child, Acosta moved with this family to Venezuela. There he continued his education, eventually finishing high school and then studying engineering at a university.

While in Venezuela, he got in touch with a group of Presbyterians, which renewed his desire to learn about God. He even enrolled in a setup similar to a long-distance seminary. “I took theology classes, and it was interesting. It was a very liberal theology,” he says.

He also started working in advertising at a liquor company and received ongoing promotions, eventually becoming a regional manager for one of the brands. “I was doing really well,” he says.

As the 1990s drew to a close, Acosta moved to Miami with his family. There he worked in advertising and traveled extensively. “I was in Miami about 50 percent of the time and in Latin America about 50 percent,” he explains.

While living in Miami, Carolina, Acosta’s wife, started looking for a church. She came across a WELS church in the area, and the two of them attended a service there. The focus on God’s Word really struck Carolina. “She was so satisfied and filled with the message,” Acosta recalls.

Acosta, however, wasn’t as sure and talked to the pastor about some theology concerns. Some of the teachings at the WELS church didn’t coincide with the messages that had been taught in the previous theology courses he had taken. “I found myself defending my position based on what I think and what I say,” he says.

These differences led Acosta to evaluate what he had learned in South America. He found himself looking into God’s Word on his own to justify what he had been taught. However, he often couldn’t find Bible passages to back up the beliefs that had been outlined in previous theology classes. “I realized I didn’t know my Bible as I should,” he says. Being in the Word, however, helped him grow.

In addition to studying the Bible, Acosta continued attending the WELS church. “The pastor was honest, and everything that he said he was able to defend with the Bible,” he recalls. “I couldn’t deny it.”

Over time, Acosta found himself deeply drawn to the Bible and its teachings. “It was just amazing,” he says. “The Holy Spirit was doing his job, making me come back and learn more and more.”

CHANGING LIVES

Acosta and Carolina, a mental health counselor, became members of the church. As they grew more involved in the congregation, Acosta found a new sense of stability. “The security and peace in your heart is awesome, and it’s a joy to live that way,” he says.

After being active in the church for some time, Acosta started studying at the Institute Cristo Palabra de Vida. He completed the congregational assistant program and became a staff minister at Divine Savior, Doral, Fla., in 2004. He also quit his other job. “From that point I was serving the Hispanic community in Miami,” he explains.

In order to continue his studies, Acosta faced a couple of options. One was to study through the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI), which helps non-traditional students train to be WELS pastors. The other option was to move to Wisconsin and attend Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.

Acosta decided to head to the seminary in Mequon, where he completed his studies and graduated in 2013. While at the seminary, he helped at a couple of area churches.

Looking back on this time of his life, Acosta notes that being in the ministry full time wasn’t a clear vision he had. “The idea of becoming a pastor wasn’t there,” he says. “I wanted to know God.”

Today, he serves at Risen Savior in Milwaukee. He appreciates and marvels at the journey God has led him on. “It is impossible to put the pieces together yourself.”

CHANGING THE FUTURE

Acosta and Carolina have been blessed with two children. Acosta is grateful for the chance his children have had to learn about God and his Word from early on. He especially loves hearing them learn their memory work. “What a blessing it is to be able to grow in faith from day one,” he says.

In addition, referring to his children, Acosta says, “They are an important part of the ministry. The Lord has blessed them with a very active faith.”

Carolina is involved too. She currently is a licensed professional counselor and is part of WLCFS-Christian Family Solutions. “Today we work together,” notes Acosta. “My wife is an extremely important part of my ministry.”

As a bilingual counselor working mostly with Hispanic children and families, Carolina counsels families who have undergone different types of trauma. “There are a lot of things that need professional care,” explains Acosta. But oftentimes when people seek counseling, they learn after looking at the situation that they need something more. “They realize the real problem is a spiritual one,” he says.

Looking back on his past, especially regarding some of the early theology classes he took while living in Venezuela, Acosta reflects, “God allowed that for the sake of the future. I now know where people come from and understand other people’s point of view.”

And he is eager to move forward. “One of the benefits not only for a pastor but anyone who takes on the Great Commission is to be able to see, firsthand, the spark of life that comes to people when they come to appreciate the gospel,” he says. “It’s my biggest reward.”

He is also committed to the church’s focus on Christ’s saving work. “It’s fine to see what others are doing with music and technology, but never ever rely too much on that. Those should come second place, and [we should] serve the only one thing that works: the gospel.”

He continues, “In our church the treasure is that the Word of God is the center of worship. That is amazing.”

Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in León, Mexico.

 

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Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 102, Number 08
Issue: August 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us