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Confessions of faith: Asongo

Songs come from the hearts of African immigrants who love Jesus. 

Daniel J. Laitinen 

On a typical Saturday afternoon when most people are doing chores, watching TV, or just checking out after a long work week, you will find African native Israel Asongo making music at his church in Austin, Texas.  

Israel and his pastor have gathered a group of African immigrants from the area who meet every week to learn Bible stories, practice English, pray, eat, and sing together for the entire afternoon. With every Bible story comes a new sense of awe about God’s rich love for them. Scribbling down a weekly Bible passage in English, they are eager to practice their pronunciation.  

Then Israel plugs in his keyboard, turns up the speakers, and cues his choir. His bright demeanor is enough to fill the space. When the music begins, you are transported to a country and culture far away from a little church in central Texas. “It’s not like the music you’re used to in church,” Israel says with a smile. They worship all afternoon using every vocal chord and muscle: singing and swaying for Jesus. The music is unlike anything this church is used to.  

God’s grace in Africa 

So how did God bring about this opportunity to bless both immigrants in the Austin area and Holy Word Lutheran Church? 

Born in the Congo, Africa, Israel has had an incredible journey. His father was a Christian preacher, his mother a full-time parent of 11. His first memories of the gospel and music were with his family in the home. They would sing traditional African hymns and songs late into the evening.  

Israel’s love for sharing the gospel is inspiring. He once went into the African bush to share the gospel with a primitive—and sometimes suspicious and violent—pygmy tribe. Israel says, “If you want to share the gospel with them, you must first find a translator from their tribe willing to accompany you. Then, before you go, you must dress like them. I had to change out of my clothes and put on basically leaves you find along the way. Otherwise you are a threat and they will not speak with you. Then you must eat whatever they put before you. They roasted a small animal on a stick over a fire and told me to eat it like they do. Then, once they saw me eat it, they were pleased and said, ‘Okay. Now give us your message.’ You cannot start by just telling them about Jesus. You must start with who God is because they do not know. I told them, ‘The rocks and trees and river, these are not gods, but there is a God who created it all.’ It all takes time to teach them what they never knew.”  

Life in the Congo can be dangerous for Christians like Israel. His father was persecuted and killed for his faith. “Some of my family, I don’t know today whether they are alive or not,” he says. Faced with persecution himself, Israel made a daring escape. “Many people wanted to kill us Christians. They gathered hundreds of us in a stadium to be executed. As the executioner was on his way, we ran for the exits—some of us this way, some of us that. They began shooting. By God’s grace, I escaped.”  

After living in the bush for ten days surviving on only sugar cane, Israel crossed two countries and could have been deported back to Congo. Finally he arrived at a refugee camp in Kenya. “All by God’s grace,” he says. 

Life in the refugee camp wasn’t easy either. Divisions between religious groups, poor shelter, sickness, and persecution continued. However, Israel met his wife, began a family, and shared the gospel even in this harsh environment. Speaking six languages and understanding ten, he became a teacher and interpreter for the United Nations.  

Finally, one day he and his family were selected by lottery to be relocated in the United States. His son was very ill at the time, and the news came as a huge relief. “It was an answer to prayer!” Israel says. 

God’s grace in America 

Today Israel lives in Austin, Texas, with his family. Life in America was another major adjustment. He recalls one summer evening in his new home when he heard what seemed to be gunshots, bombs, and explosions outside. Remembering similar violence in Africa, he feared for his family’s life. He assumed that death was imminent. He gathered his wife and children into the corner of their apartment. He prayed to God to spare them. The next morning they woke up, alive. He went outside. To his amazement there was no damage or injury to people or property. It was the morning of July 5!  

One day Israel was at a store when he heard a man singing a Christian song one aisle over. Israel began singing along. The two voices found each other at the end of the aisle. They laughed and introduced themselves.  

“Do you have a church home?” Israel’s new friend Stacy asked.  

Israel said he did not.  

“You do now!” Stacy said, inviting him to his church, Holy Word.   

Months passed, but Stacy still hadn’t seen Israel in church. When they ran into each other once again, Stacy said, “Israel, come home.”  

Israel smiled and said, “I like that!”  

From then on Israel began attending Holy Word. I invited him to Bible information class. As we studied the Word together Israel soon knew he had found a home.  

“Why did you choose our church?” I asked.  

He replied, “Because you teach us about the Bible: sin and Jesus. Not every church does that.” 

One Sunday Israel approached me with a request: “I want to share what I learned here with more people like me. Can I invite some immigrant friends in Austin to meet here, sing, and learn God’s Word with you?” Within a month Israel’s Saturday group was studying God’s Word, praying, and singing. After several months, the group performed an African music concert for the congregation that drew in many visitors and other immigrants to Holy Word.  

Israel’s choir has changed the perspective of Holy Word members as well. Lynn, a weekly volunteer who brings food for the group, says, “Israel’s group is such an encouragement to my faith. Most of the choir members are older teens and young adults, and it is so inspiring to experience their joy as they worship the Lord. In their young lives they have undergone trials and poverty that I as an American cannot really imagine, yet they are filled with thanksgiving for what they have. Their joy and love for Jesus shines in their faces and through their voices. It is a blessing for our church to be able to connect with brothers and sisters from across the world, and they remind us of how much we too have to be thankful for.”  

One Saturday evening on the car ride home, a choir member asked Israel, “Why is this church doing this for us? What have we done to deserve food and kind treatment?”  

Israel replied, “Because they have Jesus in their heart.”  


Dan Laitinen is pastor at Holy Word, Austin, Texas.


Check out a short video of the African music concert at Holy Word, Austin, Texas, at https://vimeo.com/300502188 


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Author: Dan Laitinen
Volume 105, Number 12
Issue: December 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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Confessions of faith: Johnston

A man learns that salvation is easy because Jesus has done it all, but that it cost Jesus, the Son of God, his holy precious blood. 

Wade R. Johnston 

“That’s too easy.” That was a refrain throughout my instruction in the Lutheran faith.  

I’d been kicked out of the group class. I think Pastor Karl Vertz could tell I might take a little longer and need more back-and-forth. Those who know me can understand.  

I will be forever thankful for that class. And, yet, as I studied and went through it, That’s too easy was a thought that often came to mind, if not out of my mouth.  

My Catholic upbringing 

I was raised in a good Christian home. If you’d have asked me when I was younger if I were a Christian, I probably would have said, “No, I’m Catholic,” but that would have been ignorance, not truth. I know the Roman Catholic Church in America has had its scandals, with shocking revelations coming from Pennsylvania as I write, but I had good priests. Fr. John and Fr. Joe were faithful, at least so far as I experienced.  

I was an altar boy, and I enjoyed it. It was fun being a part of the conduct of the Mass, and it drew me deeper into what the Roman Catholic Church believed and what life and death in it looked like. I was often dismissed from school to serve for a funeral. I learned the hard way not to let the incense burn me. I served for weddings when asked. I came to know the holy days and why they mattered. And, I can say, I’m glad for it. God fed me, even if the fare wasn’t as rich as what I’d later be served. And God prepared me; I was being readied for the message of unconditional grace.  

I went to parochial school until eighth grade: St. Robert Bellarmine, named after a Jesuit theologian known for his opposition to Lutheranism. My parents sacrificed for me to have the opportunity to study there. I had good teachers. I made great friends. When I was young, Bishop Moses Anderson, the first black bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, put his cap on me and told my family I’d be a priest someday. I have the picture to prove it.  

I went to a large public high school, once again, a good school. I was able to take a lot of advanced placement classes and other courses that challenged me to read. I really enjoyed reading about religion and religions. Later in high school I got a job dispatching semis on the weekend. I had a huge cell phone (this was well before iPhones). It made making it to church not the easiest, but my parents rightly expected me to make church a priority.  

My introduction to Lutheranism 

Here perhaps a tangent might be helpful. My mother had been raised Lutheran. She never officially became Roman Catholic. My grandparents on her side were still Lutheran, although I didn’t know much about what Lutherans were, what they believed, and what their churches were like. As I got older, I started to learn more.  

I don’t remember how I ended up going at Peace Lutheran in Livonia, Mich., for sure, but I’m guessing my mom or Grandma suggested it. Pastor Vertz didn’t mind if I brought my dispatching stuff. I also was intrigued. Peace had a nice area behind the sanctuary where I could sit and not disturb the service if I had to cut out to take a call. Those two things kept me coming back and led to me taking a class. 

I would love to say I took quickly to Lutheranism, but that wouldn’t be true. I resolved to do a thorough investigation. I had a notebook and drew two columns on page after page. I read church history and wrote notes in the “RC” and the “Luth” columns. I read the Bible and did the same. The book of Romans, which I now teach, was a mess of highlighting in that Bible. When all was said and done, I had some real thinking to do. 

My parents were amazingly understanding and patient. They were supportive of whatever I decided—whether it was remaining in the Roman Catholic Church or joining the Lutheran church. My maternal grandparents were happy but never pushed me. I grew a lot closer to Grandpa Pitts during this time. He was sick with cancer but clearly excited to see me taking such an interest in the classes. He died Dec. 21, 1995. It was the first deathbed of many at which I’d held a hand and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I was confirmed Dec. 31, 1995. I never got to commune with him, but I rejoice to know that we are of the same communion of saints and that I share the same confidence he had in a righteousness that was not his own, but freely declared his own in Christ. I still have his Bible, also marked up.  

My allegiance to Christ 

Why did I become Lutheran? When I honestly examined myself, when I thought long and hard about what the Bible, Pastor Vertz, and human experience teach about human nature after the fall, I couldn’t get around the fact that salvation was beyond my reach. We are beggars, not negotiators, before God. When sin sank in, grace made sense. I appreciated the fact that the Lutheran church was plain on the law where the Bible gave law, but refused to come up with its own excuses or laws—whether to ease up God’s demands or to exaggerate them. I was comforted by the fact that the church doesn’t have spiritual classes, that one need not forsake the world to serve God but rather God uses us when and where he places us in the world. I came to realize that justification by grace through faith isn’t too easy at all. It came at the price of God’s own blood. It involves our own death and resurrection, as the law does its work, accusing and killing, and as the Spirit does his, raising and renewing through the gospel.  

I found it freeing to know that true Lutheranism calls us to allegiance, not to an institution or to the decrees and statements of men, well-intentioned and sound as they may be or have been for their time, but to Christ himself, who is our hope and song and sermon.  

I’ve had my ups and downs, for sure, and Jesus and I have had our moments. At the end of the day, though, I find that my ministry and I both have been served best when what brought me into Lutheranism puts me in my place again—when God in his grace strips me of my pride and self-delusion and leaves me only Christ to lean on and proclaim. My hope and prayer are that the same is true for all of us and that the same will be true for the Lutheran church as well as we press forward in a world that needs nothing more and nothing less than the same, Jesus Christ.  


Wade Johnston, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Nain, West Allis, Wisconsin. 


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Author: Wade R. Johnston
Volume 105, Number 11
Issue: November 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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Confessions of faith: Stevens

A man watches his children being baptized and eventually wants to be baptized too. 

Debbie K. Dietrich, as told to her by Brandon Stevens 

Mom and Dad didn’t really have a specific church. We weren’t into traditional religion either. We just lived life. I maybe went in a church with an auntie, but never a Lutheran church, and I certainly wasn’t a Christian.  

I grew up the oldest of five kids in the Seven Mile District of San Carlos on the Apache Reservation. I graduated as co-valedictorian, granting me a four-year scholarship to Arizona State University. You’d think that would be a great part of life, and it was at the time. But then that’s pretty much when life fell apart. I lost my scholarship due to too much drinking. I dropped out of school and had no direction in life. With nowhere to turn, I went home to live with Mom and Dad again. I knew this wasn’t the life I wanted to live. I wanted a better life, but I didn’t know how to get there.  

Children and baptisms 

My sister, Ornida, introduced me to her friend, Cortney. WOW! Cortney wasn’t just pretty, sweet, and kind. She also didn’t drink, she went to church, and she actually believed what the church taught. That was amazing to me. We got together, and before you knew it Brandon Jr was born. Cortney wanted to get our baby baptized. That’s when I first stepped into a Lutheran church, Peridot Lutheran. It was pretty cool to see the baptism. I had heard about Baptism and that people should be baptized. I wondered if I should be baptized . . . but life got busy. I thought we’d probably have more children, so that meant more baptisms.  

We started going to church more because the pastor said you really should not just baptize a baby and let it go at that. He said we should keep coming to hear more about God. That made sense, so we tried to go as often as we could. Soon baby #2 came along, and again Cortney wanted that baby baptized. Then baby #3, and another baptism.  Baby #4: baptized; baby #5: baptized, and finally #6, Devon, was born. When baby #6 came along, I thought, That’s it. I really think I should be baptized too. I asked Cortney about it because she sure liked baptizing our babies, and she agreed! 

Pastor said he thought we should both take a class to learn more about what the Bible said—and about Baptism too. By then I really did want to learn more. Cortney wanted me to know more too. She said she felt like I was always left out. The first two kids were in school and Sunday school now. They were learning Bible stories, but I didn’t know these stories and didn’t really have faith or trust like Cortney and the kids.  

There was a lot of information I never ever knew in those classes. I sort of wish I knew all this stuff when I was growing up and I was going through good and, especially, bad times. I started brushing up on learning a bunch of Bible verses. They meant so much to me. Most surprising to me was that undeserved love from God. That just got to me. He sent Jesus to die for me to forgive all the bad stuff I had done. WOW! Now I felt like I belonged here in this church. I was forgiven. 

I knew what was coming up soon. We’d want to get Devon baptized, and now, during these Bible information classes, I too really wanted to get baptized. Pastor thought I should be too. So on July 5, 2015, both my baby son Devon and I were baptized in front of the entire church! It was a pretty big deal for my wife’s side of the family. Her mom even took us all out to eat at a restaurant and paid for all the food for all of us because she was so happy! 

Confirmation 

Cortney and I kept taking classes. Even though Cortney had gone through eighth grade at the Peridot mission school, there wasn’t proof she’d gotten confirmed, so she was going to get confirmed with me. On Aug. 9, 2015, both she and I stood in front of the entire church and said that we did agree with what the Bible teaches. What I remember most is the whole entire church answering that they accepted me. I was a part of this Christian family and church. I was so happy to be included, accepted, forgiven, and part of a church that I knew believed what the Bible taught.  

I’m especially glad because my children are able to attend the same Our Savior’s mission school in Peridot where Cortney went. The scholarship makes it possible for us to send our children. The kids get to grow in faith daily. And the teachers? They are all strong in believing what the Bible teaches too. I love that.  

Growing in faith 

I also want to grow in faith. It’s been three years, and I constantly want to know more and grow in faith and in daily living the way God desires of me. One time a buddy of mine showed me this Lutheran magazine. It had a story about other fathers raising Christian families, taking their kids to church, and so on. I was impressed and thought, That’s what I want to do too! 

I think one of the coolest things I’ve learned from Jesus is about power and being strong. It’s not being a bully or having power over someone at all; it’s about trusting God and resisting doing wrong in a humble, quiet way, knowing and trusting God will lead me in the right way, at work, at home, as a father. He’ll make it all work out. That’s real “strength” that you only see in Christians.  

My wife, Cortney, has this to say, “It’s a neat thing, because with baby #9, I was so tired sometimes. Brandon would get the kids ready and take them to church himself! It’s just faith. Brandon has faith and is living it. Pastor had always told me that life is easier and better if you both can share the Christian faith. Well, he was right about that. Life is way better now. I feel like Brandon and I are on the same page in all of life’s issues because we have this shared Christian faith. 

“My Grandma, Dolly Dude, pushed her kids to learn about Jesus. My mom pushed us all to get a Lutheran education and know how much God loves us. And now, it’s not just me and my daughters. It’s my Christian husband keeping us all learning the love of Jesus and passing that on to our sons and daughters. I’m really happy.”  

I have changed a lot, and I thank God for my wife, Cortney, and for bringing me to church through the baptism of our children. I’m really happy I’m baptized too. 

Now to get two-week-old Brielle, #9, baptized is the next thing we’re going to do. 


Debbie Dietrich is the Native American mission communication coordinator. Brandon Stevens is a member at Peridot, Peridot, Arizona. 


The Native American mission field is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a special celebration weekend this month. Go to nativechristians.org to learn more. 


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Author: Debbie K. Dietrich
Volume 105, Number 10
Issue: October 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Nielsen

When attending a worship service with a high school girlfriend, Carter Nielsen was challenged to have a more active relationship with Christ. 

Dayton Hamann 

Carter Nielsen adores the mountains. As an environmental consultant in Buffalo, Wyoming, Nielsen shows oil companies, gas companies, and other natural resource businesses how to interact with the land safely. When out working in those peaks and valleys, he keeps his heavenly Father at the front of his mind. 

“Sometimes, I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God than in church thinking about the mountains,” Nielsen says, chuckling. 

Currently a member at Living Shepherd, Laramie, Wyo., Nielsen and his fiancé are leading a project to establish a secondary site for Living Shepherd in Buffalo. 

Nielsen’s commitment to Christ stems from the lessons of his childhood and the events of his senior year in high school. 

The bigger picture 

Nielsen estimates he attended worship four times before he turned 18. He usually made these visits with friends, though his parents occasionally attended church for major holiday services. He was neither appalled nor captivated by the ideas of church and faith. 

“It was something to do,” he recalls. “It was never pushed on me during those times. I didn’t think about it too much.” 

Nielsen’s mother wasn’t raised religiously, but his father—a hunting guide—was. Though they attended church infrequently, Nielsen’s father planted and nurtured the idea that the world was a created place worth revering. 

“As a hunting guide, my father instilled in me a deep sense of respect and understanding for ‘God’s country’ and all living things in it,” Nielsen says. Though his knowledge of God’s Word was limited, Nielsen began to see his heavenly Father’s fingerprints in the fields, forests, and mountains that he loved so much. 

He explains his childhood and first years of faith by saying, “I always knew God was up there, but I didn’t yet know what he had done for me. It is surprising how much I missed.” 

New relationships 

During his senior year of high school, Nielsen was invited by his then-girlfriend’s family to the Easter Sunday church service. Nielsen acknowledges that he had some hesitations. “I was selfish. I like Sundays to myself. I was a bit scared I wouldn’t have time to go to the mountains anymore or otherwise enjoy my weekends.” 

But, having no qualms with the church beyond his potential scheduling conflicts, he ultimately agreed to attend. Recalling the worship service, Nielsen pinpoints a moment of intense clarity: “The pastor bluntly said, ‘If you only attend church on Easter Sunday and Christmas, you may have to examine your faith.’ ” 

Though Nielsen’s relationship with this girl eventually came to a close, the Holy Spirit had inspired him to give more focused and more intentional thought to his relationship with Christ. That same year, Nielsen’s parents divorced. Though he was understandably distressed, his newfound belief supported him. He recalls feeling empowered, more confident he would persevere this change in his family. 

This faith-forged courage stayed with him as he began college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie in 2012. A few weeks into his first semester, the mother of Nielsen’s former girlfriend mentioned to him that they knew a pastor in Laramie: Pete Zaferos of Living Shepherd. During that same week, Nielsen was eating lunch with his neighbor from the college dormitory. This classmate also knew Zaferos. He told Nielsen that Zaferos had asked about him. God was giving Nielsen a clear opportunity. 

“I went to Living Shepherd that weekend,” Nielsen explains. “And from there, I was hooked. Pastor and all the welcoming members made me feel part of the group.” As a younger minister, Zaferos’ sensibilities resonated with Nielsen. They formed a friendship, occasionally hunting and ice fishing together. 

Nielsen attended Living Shepherd regularly throughout the rest of 2012 and 2013. After completing basic Bible instruction courses, he was confirmed into the church on Dec. 8, 2013. 

Around this time, Nielsen also reconnected with a girl named Emily. They had been acquaintances for a few years, running into one another at statewide FFA events during high school and then at the Wyoming State Fair in 2009. There, they had bonded over Nielsen’s show pig. 

“My pig would always lay down and roll over if you scratched her belly,” Nielsen explains. “Emily—being the animal lover that she is—did just that, and then proceeded to lay with her in the grass and talk to me. I had always had a crush on Emily, and I knew from that moment she would be important to me.” 

After the fair they had lost touch, but they reconnected again over social media and began to see one another. Soon, they also began to attend church together. 

Building a family of believers 

Nielsen and Emily are now engaged. Though it is about a four-hour trip from Buffalo, where they currently reside, they still attend Living Shepherd in Laramie as often as possible. 

Still, because of this long drive to Laramie, Nielsen and Emily are developing an alternative. With the help of Zaferos, they are starting a new site for Living Shepherd. This site will join two other locations—one in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and one in Rock Springs, Wyoming. All sites are connected, with Zaferos coming in person for some worship services or serving via worship streamed live online.  

Nielsen and Emily first watched the livestream of the Living Shepherd service at his home on Sundays. A friend or two would join them occasionally, but they began to think bigger. 

Emily’s brother owns a small brewery in Buffalo with a large pub space perfectly suited for group gatherings. Nielsen and Emily plan to set out chairs and watch the worship service on a large screen via a projector there. Nielsen says they also hope to add a speaker system and then advertise their worship schedule across the city. 

Nielsen hopes to draw in local young people like him and his fiancé. “If we can get even five more people to join us, that would be fantastic. We need the people, and the rest will come from there,” Nielsen says. 

“A change for the better” 

Nielsen notes how his perception of other believers has changed over the years: “When I was a kid, I thought they were a whole different tier of person. I didn’t understand what it meant to be Christian. Now I see that Christians are humble and they want to help you. I hope I am turning into a person like that.” 

Those who have seen Nielsen’s devotion to spreading God’s Word would assure him of that hope, but he remains modest, saying, “After 18 years, I just made a change for the better.” 


Dayton Hamann, a staff writer for Forward in Christ magazine, is a member at St. Matthew, Marathon, Wisconsin.


To stay up-to-date on the progress of Living Shepherd’s new sites—including the one in Buffalo—and to watch its livestreamed worship services, visit livingshepherd.com. 


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Author: Dayton Hamann
Volume 105, Number 9
Issue: September 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Zhang

Curiosity and a long journey brought a woman to the Bible and changed her life. 

Yi Zhang 

I was raised up in a northwest city of China in a non-religious environment. My parents were loving, caring, and hardworking people who struggled to put enough food on the table every day. They insisted on sending my sister and me to school, provided financial support to my grandparents who lived in another city far away, and did everything to raise up their children physically healthy and happy. 

Curiosity 

My first experience with a church goes back to when I was a first-year university student in China. My university was located in Tianjin, a historical city of China. The city was colonized from 1858 to 1930 by Europeans living in China. They left behind buildings, including beautiful Catholic churches. Whenever I passed by those beautiful church buildings, I always felt that some myth or mystery existed behind the walls, and I was curious to find out what it was.  

One Sunday morning, I was finally brave enough to push the carved doors open. I saw hundreds of people kneeling down with the voice of a priest echoing in the air. An old slim usher, in a low but firm tone, suggested I kneel down too. Being a bit unprepared and confused, I quietly withdrew and stepped outside.  

For some reason, the usher’s emotionless face and voice dampened my curiosity, until I witnessed some unbelievable changes in Auntie Zhao. 

One changed life 

Auntie Zhao is the mom of my closest friend in high school. Whenever I went to her house, Auntie Zhao always sat at the other side of the table, looking at us with quiet smiles. I liked her gentle eyes and soft voice. One day, my friend was not around, and Auntie Zhao started telling me her own story. I don’t remember how we started the conversation nor the details of her story. All that I remember is those pieces of scenes that tore her life apart and her tears.   

After that conversation, every time I went to my friend’s home, I always tried to find a way to chat with Auntie Zhao for a moment. Quite often, the only thing I could do was to be a listener to different stories of the journey of her life. The tears often streamed out of her gentle eyes down her cheeks. 

When I went on to the university in Tianjin, over 1,000 km. away from my hometown, I only got to visit Auntie Zhao two times a year. Each time I went there, the heaviness and struggling behind the quiet and gentle smiles were still lingering. 

During winter break of 1996, when I stepped into my friend’s house, I heard Auntie Zhao singing for the first time. I saw her laughing over the dinner table for the first time. Unbelievably, she turned into a completely different person, a newly created person! She told me that she was so happy to find her dear Father in heaven. She was so happy to be a Christian! I wondered, What is a Christian? What kind of power removes an old cumbersome shell that had been covering her for over 30 years just within a year?  

A long journey and curiosity again 

I left China three years later.  But before I left for Canada, Auntie Zhao gave me two tiny pocket books in Chinese—a Holy Bible and a hymnal—and a piece of paper with her handwriting of the Lord’s Prayer. She told me whenever I felt sad or frustrated, I could read aloud this prayer, and then my spirit would be cheered up. This was the first time I opened a Bible. But after flipping a few pages, I found the sentences were written in those Chinese characters that I seldom used in my daily life. The sentences or paragraphs just appeared too complicated for me to understand. So everything was still a mystery to me. 

In Ottawa, there were two beautiful church buildings five or six blocks away from my new home. Every time I went grocery shopping, I passed by the buildings. The image of Auntie Zhao and the curiosity filled my mind again. Finally, one afternoon of a sunny day in summer, I decided to hold my breath and approached one church building. Suddenly, I saw a homeless man standing in the backyard of the church, staring at me without any emotion. I remembered the face of the old usher in the Catholic church of Tianjin. I paused, turned away, and walked toward the next church down the road, St. Paul’s.  

Gently knocking on the side door, I heard footsteps approaching the door. The door open, and a peaceful face with a quiet smile and beautiful sky-blue eyes was right in front me. “Hi!” she said. I smiled back, and in my stumbled English, I asked “Can I borrow a Bible?”  

A little surprise was on her face, “Sure, just a minute.” She went back up into her office and came back with a Holy Bible in her hand. “By the way, if you’re interested, we have a Bible information class for students on each Sunday. You are more than welcome to join us!”  

A few weeks later, I sat in a room with a group of other international students and started the Bible study.   

Honestly, my initial intention was to improve my English and to continue seeking that mysterious magic power that had changed Auntie Zhao. In the beginning of the class, despite the fact that the leader explained each verse patiently, slowly, and cheerfully, I was nervous, shy, and struggling with the meaning and pronunciation of some English words. But the urge to find that magnificent power became stronger and stronger. Over time, the stories and messages became clearer; they were no longer just a story or a fairy tale. They started touching my real life.  

Over the years, I had been constantly looking for the magic power that touched Auntie Zhao. I was lost, confused, and covered by various sins that I never realized. Then the Bible gently tapped my soul, woke up my curiosity, and slowly pulled me closer and closer to him and granted me a spiritual introduction to Jesus Christ. I used to think that coming to Canada was just to seek a new adventure. Now I know that the Lord guided me to come to Canada to know more about him and to be his dear child.  

There are moments that I feel worried and stressed. But, I know, there’s always a place and a hand there where I can cast all my worries. Every single day, I’m constantly wrestling and distracted by the earthly routines. But I know the Eyes from the Above are watching me, the Hands from Above are holding me, and I pray for the Spirit from the Above to guide me through the daily activities in honoring his name. Under his grace, I pray that I will continuously grow in faith and I will never be lost.   


Yi Zhang is a member at St. Paul, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. 


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Author: Yi Zhang
Volume 105, Number 8
Issue: August 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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Confessions of faith: La Salle

In our troubles and challenges, God sends us people who help us grow in our faith and live as his children.

Dawn E. Schulz

Every once in a while, God brings someone into our lives who changes us because of how they’ve been changed by him. They wrap their arms around our shoulders, redirect us to Jesus, and walk with us through the tough times. Through encouragement and consistent reminders to stay focused on Jesus, they help us get a firm footing on God’s promises. When we reflect on God’s goodness through them, we realize the best way to say thanks is by doing the same for others.

Anne La Salle would say that person was her mother-in-law, Viola La Salle. Viola saw Anne through many difficult times with a loving, encouraging, and generous spirit that always pointed to Jesus.

Help in difficult times

Anne’s parents emigrated from Scotland when she was a baby and settled in the greater Toronto, Ontario, area. Although Anne’s mother grew up in the Catholic Church, her husband was an agnostic. So the family did not attend church.

This didn’t stop Anne. From the age of seven, she remembers having an interest in church. She joined a nearby Anglican church and attended off and on throughout her teenage years. Unfortunately, a Christian lifestyle was difficult to maintain without supportive parents. By the time she went away to a university in Ottawa, she was spiritually drifting.

But while at the university, Anne met her husband, Charles. He was a member of St. Paul in Ottawa. Anne soon became a member and developed a relationship with her mother-in-law, Viola.

From the early days of their relationship Anne says that Viola saw her through the “curves and bumps” in life and was there to “steer her in the right direction and cheer her on.”

What Anne was so graciously referring to are the difficult circumstances she experienced as she entered her adult years. Anne’s unbelieving father was a difficult man to live with, and eventually her parents divorced. There was no one in her family to guide her through life’s challenges.

While Anne was pregnant with her first child, her brother died. Emotional turmoil continued for Anne as she aged. Her marriage suffered under the stress. Anne considers it one of the most difficult periods of her life.

These devastating heartbreaks can leave a person flat, without hope or direction. Only those experiencing these things know the hard questions and faith-challenging uncertainties that relentlessly attack a soul.

Only that person and God.

Viola was God’s blessing to Anne at just the right time. Viola helped to ground Anne. As a young woman dealing with these difficulties, Anne needed purposeful words that pointed to Jesus and gave peace.

Then her life became even more complicated. Anne became a single working mom with three young children. Viola was there to help with these curves and bumps too. She didn’t take sides or judge but instead gave meaningful and authentic support. She shared God’s words and encouraged Anne not to dwell on the grief, remorse, or guilt that comes with loss and difficulty. Instead, she helped Anne see it wasn’t about her at all. It wasn’t even about the other person. It was about God. “All of life points to Jesus and is part of God’s plan.”

Encouragement in daily life

Viola encouraged more people than just Anne. Viola lived her Christian life in a career in health care, but more important was her role as a child of God, then wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. Even if Viola and her husband had done nothing else, their presence in church at every worship opportunity alone was a fine example. There was never a complaint about aches and pains or weather. You could tell that they concurred with David, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD’ ” (Psalm 122:1).

Viola found opportunities to encourage her church family, both locally and abroad. She served on the altar guild and was president of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society (LWMS) and Ladies Aid organizations. She was always a hard worker, often toiling behind the scenes. But even more, she shared her life. She always had time for a conversation or an open invitation for Christmas dinner. She always had the words to weekly encourage a missionary through handwritten letters.

Anne tells the story of Viola’s intervention in the domestic issues of a neighbor. The husband across the street was abusing his wife. One day, seeing the neighbor beating his wife on the front lawn, Viola called the police, even though it would have been easier to close the curtains and look the other way. Viola expected the man to be angry.

Instead, the husband was appreciative and brought gifts to show this. Over time Viola was able to be a Christian role model to their family.

Inspiration for humble service

About six years ago Anne was diagnosed with an immune disorder called sarcoidoisis and was hospitalized. The disease and a subsequent heart attack damaged her heart, leaving her with a chronic condition that needs constant monitoring. Anne had to change her lifestyle and diet to avoid further damage. At the time, Viola was in a senior home, living with her own heart failure. As often as she could, Anne would visit Viola, and they would share a diet-controlled meal and talk. Discussing heart health issues, they spoke about the new “normal” they were both living.

Viola encouraged Anne to share open and honest statements of how she was feeling and the fears of uncertainty that plagued her. Anne says that Viola helped her “get a grip on everything and see my life’s not over. I’m not going to die today. And even if I do, my Savior is going to take care of me.’”

Knowing that she could do little to care for Viola’s earthly needs, Anne decided to follow the path her mentor had laid out so many years ago and give to others. Anne got involved with the women’s group at St. Paul’s and the LWMS. She currently spends time volunteering at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, counseling and supporting women dealing with the effects of heart disease. And she tries to be a role model to her children, who know how important her church family is to her.

This is the impact Jesus intends when he said, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Viola agreed. She told Anne repeatedly, “You are here to give glory to God. You should remember that in everything you do. Everything you do. As much as you can. And when you fall away, you can repent and come back because you’re saved. It’s all a good story—it’s all good news.”

On Oct. 25, 2013, Viola went to heaven. Anne, family, friends, and members of St. Paul miss her dearly. However, her memory continues to encourage a focus on Jesus. Her stories continue to inspire humble service. And the thought that Viola is perfectly giving glory to God in heaven continues to bring a smile.


Dawn Schulz is a member at Divine Savior, Delray Beach, Florida.


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Author: Dawn E. Schulz
Volume 105, Number 7
Issue: July 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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Confessions of faith: Heerema

A family finds faith, forgiveness, and their church home. 

Julie K. Wietzke 

They hadn’t lost their faith, but the light of the gospel had grown dim in their hearts. 

“We were just stumbling along,” says Tracy Heerema, of her and her husband, Daniel. 

But they regained their footing—and the light burned brighter—when they started attending a small church right in their neighborhood that has a big heart and a big message of Christ’s love and forgiveness for all sinners.  

“It just felt like home,” says Tracy about Prince of Peace, Flower Mound, Tex.  

And it became their home. 

Shopping for churches 

Lutheran teachings were nothing new to Tracy; she was raised in the Lutheran church until the age of 11. But then her parents switched religions to Mormonism, and Tracy says she stopped going to church after her father died when she was 15 years old. 

“I don’t think I ever truly didn’t believe in my heart that Christ was my Savior,” she says, “but I wasn’t interested in organized religion.” 

When she and her husband got married and started having children, they realized that the spiritual part of their marriage was missing. “We felt like church was important,” she says, “so we bounced around from church to church to church.” 

But something was always lacking in the churches they visited. “I just never felt like I belonged,” says Tracy. “When they say that everything is bigger in Texas, they’re not lying. Most of the churches are huge and overwhelming; to me it felt like it was all about money and show as compared to real community.”  

Daniel had grown up jumping from church to church while his parents searched for a congregation they liked. He didn’t want that for his family, especially when their church searching wasn’t going well. 

So they stopped looking. “We were burnt out,” says Tracy. “We just didn’t make it a huge priority.” For the most part, religion was reduced to a mention of Jesus at Easter and Christmas. 

Making a connection 

When their oldest child was 7, Tracy noticed that Prince of Peace, a church she walked by frequently in her neighborhood, was offering vacation Bible school for the community. “I remembered how much fun I used to have a VBS during the summer when I was growing up,” says Tracy. She and Daniel decided to send their son. “That was when I was first introduced to Prince of Peace,” she remembers. 

A short time later she met Brad Taylor, pastor at Prince of Peace, and his wife, Molly, socially at the school their children all attended. Tracy had just had her second child, and Molly invited her to attend Mornings with Mommy, an outreach program that offers activities for young children to do with their parents, at the church. Tracy started attending the program. 

After she had her third child, Prince of Peace began offering Power Hour as well. This program focused more on sharing God’s Word to parents and their children through Bible studies and activities. Parents were also invited to a parenting class offered by Pastor Taylor. Tracy naturally transitioned into attending Power Hour with her children along with the Mornings with Mommy sessions. 

“During Power 4 Parenting, the 30-minute Bible class that Pastor has, his message and the way he presented everything was so a-ha, so natural,” says Tracy. “It wasn’t like anything else I had heard in any of the other churches my husband and I had tried.” 

Tracy says that during that time she and Daniel were struggling with some marital problems. The messages she was hearing at the parenting class really began to resonate with her. 

“One day, I just said, ‘I am going to try Sunday services,’ ” says Tracy.  

She continues, “When I got to Prince of Peace and started hearing the message, it was like a light bulb went off. I thought, Hey, I know this. I remember this. That was what was missing going to all those other churches—the message didn’t resonate. It was too watered down, too taken out of context. I didn’t feel like it was right.” 

Tracy says that after she and the kids attended services at Prince of Peace for a couple of weeks, her husband noticed a change in her—a change that sparked his interest. He decided to go too. 

“Once he heard Pastor’s sermons, that was it,” says Tracy. “It was just so true; there was no crazy fluff. It felt like home. It was not a big, huge megachurch. It was traditional hymns and the reading of the Scriptures. . . . It didn’t need any of the pomp and circumstance because it was just the truth. My husband had the same reaction to it. He couldn’t wait for the next Sunday.” 

The Heeremas started Foundations of Faith classes and were confirmed in May 2017. Now they are volunteering at the same community events that first introduced them to Prince of Peace. 

Finding forgiveness 

Tracy says she notices many positive changes since their family started attending Prince of Peace. Their marriage is getting stronger, and the family now talks about their Savior on a regular basis. “With the kids, we can definitely help them to understand what it means to be a child of God,” she says. 

She continues, “This has been a huge blessing to our marriage for the two of us to go through this journey together. We both know we’re going to stumble; we’re going to fall. But as long as we continue to remember that Jesus died for all our sins, we can wake up tomorrow and try a little harder.” 

Having that message of forgiveness back in the forefront—a message she had learned long ago in her youth—is something that Tracy cherishes. “I just remember feeling a great sense of comfort knowing that I was flawed and that it is okay to be flawed because Jesus died to wash away all my sins. 

“It’s been a blessing. It made me feel like everything has come full circle.” 

They found their home. 


Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ. 


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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 105, Number 6
Issue: June 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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Confessions of faith: Ally

After worrying for years that she was carrying sins from her family’s past, a woman learns of God’s full and free forgiveness.

Rachel Hartman

Anny Ally spent some of her early years in an orphanage in Rwanda. Today she lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, but she has also had another drastic change in her life. After being born into a Muslim family, Ally is now a Christian who clings to the comfort found in Jesus’ words. She says “For some reason, God has given me a different life, and I don’t want to take that life for granted. I just want to serve him.”

Starting out in Africa

“I grew up in Rwanda, and I lived with my mom and dad,” Ally recalls. Both of her parents, as well as her surrounding family members, were Muslim.

In 1994, when Ally was still a young girl, about 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a span of one hundred days. Both of Ally’s parents died during the genocide. “I ended up going to the orphanage home,” says Ally. The place was called Noel de Nyundo.

Ally stayed at the orphanage until she was ten years old. Then she left with a woman who took her to the neighboring country of Uganda, where she ended up in a refugee camp.

“I grew up considering myself Muslim,” she says. She read the Koran and studied Islam since her parents had been Muslim and she felt she should learn about it.

Ally also visited churches while in Uganda. At one, she found people inside praying for others. “The pastor said everyone had a problem, and they could pray for you—if you have a problem, that’s going to solve it,” she remembers. “I was 14, and the pastor started praying for me. Everyone went down to pray, and he reached for me and pushed my head forward. He told me I had demons.”

The incident left Ally wondering why she had demons inside of her. Familiar with a common teaching that children can end up paying for the wrongs of their parents, Ally worried about her family’s past. “In Africa they say if parents do something, it comes back through the children,” Ally says. “My parents died when I was young, so I didn’t know what they had done.”

Another church she attended had members who appeared to speak in tongues. It seemed everyone there had something special, except Ally. “I said, ‘Okay, maybe God doesn’t like me. Everyone has a gift—some had a gift of a spirit, others can talk in tongues—and I have nothing at all.”

The event left her anxious. “When I was in Africa, I thought that sins were not the same,” she says. “There were some that God forgives and some that God cannot forgive.” She was taught that seemingly small sins, such as lying, could be forgiven. More serious sins, such as murder, were said to be unforgivable.

That teaching coupled with the idea of children paying for the wrongs of the parents left Ally wondering if there was something in her, or her past, that God couldn’t forgive. “I thought, ‘Has my family done something that is coming back to me?’

These experiences left her feeling alone and helpless. “I quit going to church,” she says. “I was kind of lost.”

Living in Canada

A private sponsorship made it possible for Ally to move to Canada at the age of 17. She settled in Ottawa and had two daughters. But it was hard to go to church. “I tried to go to the mosque to pray, but I would just sit there,” she says. “Then I decided I would stay in my house with my kids and thought if God can hear, he’ll hear me at my house.”

One day, shortly after her second daughter was born, it was really cold outside and Ally felt depressed. To cheer up, she took her girls for a walk. While out, she passed St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which was across from her house.

Out of curiosity, Ally went inside. The service had ended, but a woman still there. She told Ally to go downstairs for coffee. “I thought, Why am I going here? I was just taking a walk,” says Ally.

She headed downstairs and sat down with her girls. “A lady came next to me and she didn’t move; she just asked my name.” says Ally. “Then she told me, ‘I think you should come to church and see how we are. How about you come next week?’ ”

The lady took Ally’s phone number and called her. “She talked to me like she knew me a long time ago,” recalls Ally. She asked Ally if she was planning to come to church on Sunday, and Ally said yes.

Ally went to worship that week, but she wanted to know about the church before continuing much further. She started studying the Bible with one of the pastors

What she found was a message of comfort. “When it comes to the Word of God, it assured me that God died for all our sins. We are human and not perfect; we do sin, but that doesn’t mean God is angry with us. He always loves us,” says Ally. “Since Jesus died for me and my sin, I shouldn’t worry. Now I get to serve him.”

A part of God’s family

Ally now looks forward to going to church on Sunday, and so do her girls. In addition to hearing God’s Word, Ally treasures the community she’s found there. “Everyone is welcoming—it doesn’t matter who you are, everyone is so nice,” says Ally. “It makes you feel that you are a part of something, like you belong.”

She has grown especially close to the woman who first invited her to church. “She calls me her daughter and has become like a grandmother to my two girls. God put her into our lives.”

And while Ally is thankful to be where she is today, she has not forgotten her past. She takes trips back to Africa and uses the opportunity to help others in need. She always takes something to hand out at a camp or orphanage that is low on supplies.

At the end of 2017, St. Paul helped pay for her to visit a refugee camp in Uganda. She went to a place called Imvepi, which has been receiving refugees from Sudan. “Before it used to be a few children, but people are coming from Sudan so there are a lot of kids,” explains Ally.

While there, she handed out Christian material from WELS Multi-Language Publications, toothbrushes, and soap. She also held a Christmas party. “I was able to feed seven hundred children,” she says. “Everyone was so happy and loved the gifts. It made me very happy that I was able to do that. I remember being in the orphanage and wanting someone to give me something.”

Ally also met a girl who had walked three hours to the camp to pick up food and take it back to her home. Says Ally, “I helped her to her house. I visited with her family and told them how I found Jesus.”


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


Did you know that “Confessions of faith” has been a series in Forward in Christ for ten years? Started in April 2008 to share stories of peoples’ journeys of faith, this series also helps teach the differences between the teachings of WELS and other religions and gives us all the opportunity to rejoice in the work of the Holy Spirit. What do you appreciate most about this series? Any favorite stories? Share your thoughts with us at fic@wels.net.


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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 105, Number 5
Issue: May 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Steinhorst

After trying to find answers on his own, a man discovers God’s answers to life’s important questions.

Gabriella Moline

“Figure it out for yourself.”

Don Steinhorst heard those words any time he asked his parents questions while growing up. And as a child, Steinhorst had a lot of questions, many regarding how he came to earth and what God’s purpose in his life was. Those questions are difficult for some parents to answer, and it’s not surprising that their answer to his questions was not really an answer.

Finding his own answers

Steinhorst turned to reading the Bible. After reading Genesis and the creation of Adam, Steinhorst concluded that God had created him in the same way as the first man was created. He believed God formed him with clay and breathed the breath of life into him from heaven, with no parents involved.

He came across a magazine one day with a picture of a nursery in a hospital. For him, that was the final piece of the puzzle regarding his birth. Until the age of 13, Steinhorst concluded God had placed him in the nursery at birth for his parents to pick up and take home.

Steinhorst had one Lutheran parent and one Catholic parent and was raised in the Catholic faith. He attended catechism class every Friday and learned the church’s teachings, but he never opened a Bible.

His parents also did not take him to church to learn more. The reason was simple: his little brother often made noise and disrupted the service. In catechism class, Steinhorst learned that if you do not attend church, then you are going to hell, unless you attend confession with the priest.

“To me, going to confession was a nightmare,” says Steinhorst. “I figured back then that I was the most sinful human being who ever walked the face of the earth. I assumed every other family went to church on Sunday, except us.”

When his family casually discussed church and religion, Steinhorst was perplexed that they were not more concerned about going to hell.

So, like the other mysteries in his young life, he came to his own conclusion. Steinhorst decided that his family must be secretly going to church each Sunday and that it was all a test from God. But by these standards, he had failed, because he himself missed church each week. He was miserable because he had was not part of his family’s secret attendance and he did not make the effort to go himself.

The thought of going to hell tormented Steinhorst. The catechism instructor told Steinhorst’s class that anyone carrying a mortal sin would not have their prayers heard by God, so Steinhorst stopped praying altogether.

He also cut himself off from people. He did not want anyone to know his secret—that he was going to hell. It weighed on his heart heavily. At school, he did not talk to any of the other students. He hid and avoided any conversations. The only friends he had were his cousins. “It got to the point where it was literally almost making me sick,” Steinhorst says. “Every time I went to religion class, it made me feel more and more guilty all the time.”

When he was 20 years old, his whole worldview changed. Steinhorst discovered that his whole belief in God was wrapped up in how he figured things out for himself. But that was all wrong. After making this realization, he immediately became an atheist.

Finding God’s answers

Steinhorst and his cousins went to see a movie called The Late, Great Planet Earth. They expected it to be a horror movie, but they found it made a deeper impression on them than they expected.

The 1979 movie, narrated by Orson Welles, is based on the book of Revelation and its descriptions of the end times. Steinhorst had never heard of this book of the Bible before and found himself both fascinated and terrified by the content of the movie.

In those catechism classes at the Catholic church, the priest said there was no reason for him to have a Bible. Steinhorst had never explored the biblical texts himself; he only read Genesis and absorbed what he heard from his instructors.

After seeing The Late, Great Planet Earth, Steinhorst decided to buy the book of Revelation at a local bookstore. The cashier told him, though, that he could not just buy one book of the Bible but would have to buy the entire Bible. Steinhorst left the store that day with a Bible. “That was the first Bible I ever owned,” Steinhorst says.

Steinhorst began a journey exploring the Christian faith. He started listening to Christian radio programs. He looked up Bible passages that were mentioned in the shows. His faith and life began to grow.

Steinhorst eventually joined a Christian church near his home. He was not completely happy with some of its beliefs, so five years ago, he visited St. John, Fox Lake, Wis.

David Nottling, pastor at St. John, says that Steinhorst just showed up in church one day and has been coming ever since. “He would even sometimes let me know if he was going to miss church or couldn’t come one week,” says Nottling. “I couldn’t get him to take the classes at first, but he kept coming to worship.”

After a major surgery, Steinhorst knew he would be out of work for several weeks. So he decided that it would be the perfect time to take the courses with Nottling and become an member of the church.

“I can remember in class one time that we were talking about Martin Luther, and Don borrowed my book on him,” Nottling says. “Don told me that he experienced what Luther went through, how he was afraid of God.”

As a member of St. John, Steinhorst feels a sense of peace and comfort in knowing that Jesus has suffered and died for his sins. He also has developed new relationships and friendships. Last spring, he sponsored a trip to the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter for a group of children and adults from the congregation. This was the first time he traveled out of the state of Wisconsin.

“I did a complete 180 compared to where I was before,” Steinhorst says. “I’m so happy now.”

Today, Steinhorst goes to church and Bible study every week, not for fear of going to hell if he misses but because of his deep love for Christ.


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


Did you know that “Confessions of faith” has been a series in Forward in Christ for ten years? Started in April 2008 to share stories of peoples’ journeys of faith, this series also helps teach the differences between the teachings of WELS and other religions and gives us all the opportunity to rejoice in the work of the Holy Spirit. What do you appreciate most about this series? Any favorite stories? Share your thoughts with us at fic@wels.net.


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Author: Gabriella Moline
Volume 105, Number 4
Issue: April 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Zak

A family finds joy when they discover the truth of God’s Word. 

John A. Braun 

“When we got married, we decided to find a church where we could worship together,” Kimberly begins. That search came to an end when Chris and Kimberly Zak joined a nearby Lutheran church. “It was comfortable. We made a good connection with the pastor, and they had a strong children’s ministry,” she says. The church was not a conservative confessional church, however.  

For 12 years they made friends and were active in the church. The congregation was large, and it took over one hundred volunteers doing various tasks each weekend to ensure the services ran smoothly. Eventually Kimberly became the coordinator of those volunteers. “It was a tight fit for us for 12 years,” she says. They felt comfortable with their choice. Soon Chris and Kimberly added a son, Adam, and a daughter, Kate, to their family. 

The year of politics 

But things changed for them in 2016. They call that year “the year of politics.” The political divide was evident then as it still is today. We may all have memories of the division and rhetoric of the campaigns. For the Zaks, politics invaded their church. Sermons became political. “The weekly sermon at our previous church touched on social and political issues often. This was disturbing to us,” says Chris. “We wanted to hear about the Word and the amazing gift we have been given by Jesus, not lectures on how social and political issues fit into our Christian lives.”  

Kimberly agrees: “We wanted to grow in our faith. We did not want to hear politics in the pulpit.” 

They had already noticed the messages they heard in Bible class were not clear. That year of politics brought those disturbing messages into focus. “We were frustrated with our Bible study, because there were never any real answers,” says Kimberly. “The Bible was always a matter of interpretation.”  

Chris agrees, “We had numerous experiences in Bible studies where the consensus of the group was that you can take part of the Bible literally and then, at your convenience, take other parts of the Bible figuratively. Whenever you personally didn’t like what the Bible passage conveyed, you could just wash it away by saying, ‘Well, that didn’t really happen’ or ‘That was just a figure of speech.’ ” 

When they talked with others in the church, “there was a consensus that some of the Bible was true, but it was all a matter of interpretation,” says Kimberly. They were confused instead of satisfied. Exactly what did the Word of God say? The answer often was vague and unclear. It seemed that it was all part of the approach in their previous church. 

An eternity of joy 

The Zaks decided it was time to search for a new church home. That meant researching other Lutheran churches. Kimberly did the research, finding a couple of more conservative Lutheran churches in the area.  

This search for a church home ended suddenly when they stepped through the doors of Resurrection, Verona, Wis. It was the first church on the list. Kimberly says that it was “like a light bulb went off.” The message they heard was different from what they had heard for 12 years. “We heard the Word of God, not interpretation,” she says.  

The entire family was amazed. Kimberly said, “This is where we belong. But we should check out the other churches on our list.” Chris, Adam, and Kate all disagreed and said they did not need to look any further. They had found the pearl of great value (Matthew 13:15,16)—the Word of God, the gospel of Jesus. It brought them joy. They had found their new church home. 

They met with Nathan Strutz, pastor at Resurrection, who assured them that the Bible is the true Word of God. Together with Strutz, the Zaks began a Bible information course. For three months he met with them once a week in their home to share the truths of the Bible. Kimberly comments, “We talked about Jesus, sin, grace, faith, works, the Bible, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and all the important topics.”  

The light bulb that had been ignited on that first visit grew brighter. Kimberly says, “We learned more in those three months than we did in 12 years at the previous church. We heard the Word of God.”  

Chris adds, “We were dead in sin, but because of God’s grace, through faith in Jesus, we are saved. The message is steadfast and clear, without social and political commentary.”  

The assurance of heaven is especially important. Kimberly shares that lesson: “I’m going to heaven. Period! In those Bible classes, Pastor Strutz would regularly ask if we knew we are going to heaven. The answer is yes, and the reason is Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose. It’s amazing. It’s that simple.” 

Their joy in finding the truth of God’s Word brings them to church every Sunday, “Now attending Resurrection Lutheran, the message every Sunday is very clear,” says Kimberly. They are growing in their faith and continuing to learn about God and what Jesus has done for them.  

They still miss the people they grew to know during the 12 years they were members of their previous church. But now they have found the peace, joy, and comfort of God’s love. “Now it is unbelievably awesome. Every Sunday is exactly what we need to hear,” they say.  

Every Sunday! What an important reminder for all of us. We all have the opportunity to hear the gospel every Sunday. The place and the pastor may be different, but the gospel is the pearl of great value that fills us all with joy and peace. The example of the Zaks can encourage us all to walk through the doors of our congregations and hear such great news every week. How thankful we are to the Holy Spirit who continues to work through the gospel. 

When I asked the Zaks what they would like to tell others about their journey, they both agree: “We are blessed that God has shown us the truth of his Word at Resurrection and that he has led us to our new church home.” 


John Braun is executive editor of Forward in Christ. 


 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 105, Number 3
Issue: March 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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Confessions of faith: Indest

A man who grew up in legalism and fear discovers the peace and love of Christ through the gospel. 

Julie K. Wietzke 

All Mike Indest was looking for was peace. 

But after growing up steeped in legalism, afraid of the Rapture, and confused by conflicting beliefs, peace was hard to come by. 

“Without being taught the idea of where faith really comes from—that it comes from God and it’s nothing we do at all—it’s just a terrifying way to live,” Indest says. 

But Indest saw and experienced Christ’s love and the peace of the gospel at Crown of Life, New Orleans, La., and is sharing that message with others.                      

Finding no peace 

Indest spent his early childhood in a Catholic charismatic church, a mix between a Catholic and Pentecostal church, in New Orleans. “It was not a weird thing for me to hear priests speaking in tongues,” Indest says. 

His family left that church when Indest was eight years old, mainly, he thinks, because they recognized differences between Catholic theology and what the Bible taught. 

Instead they joined a charismatic denomination, which brought its own list of doctrinal difficulties. 

Indest says he struggled most with the idea of decision theology—Christians have to make a decision to follow Christ in order to be saved. “People would go to the altar to make a decision for Christ, but there was no assurance of salvation,” he says. “Salvation was based on your decision, but because it was something you did . . . then the problem is how do you know you did it with good intentions?”  

He continues, “To me, even as a kid, it became like works because it was something you were doing—it was initiated by you.” 

The church’s end times teachings—which were a literal view of the book of Revelation, including a Rapture of all believers—also incited fear, rather than hope. 

“It was those two things combined—there was no peace of God there,” Indest says. 

Discovering God’s love 

In high school, Indest became more vocal about his doubts on his church’s teachings, to a point where he ended up attending L’abri, a Swiss religious study center for those with faith questions, for nine months immediately after high school. “At the time, that was what I needed,” he says. “I was taught to think there and not just to accept [what I was being taught].” 

But when he returned to New Orleans, he couldn’t find a church to attend. “I asked way too many questions,” he says. “I visited every denomination, and there was no fit.”  

A move to Nashville, Tennessee, didn’t help him find a church home. “I read a lot, I prayed a lot, I wrote a lot of songs,” he says. “I basically was a Lone Ranger Christian for many years.” 

Indest’s beliefs continued to change as he read and learned more about doctrine and the Bible, though he says he struggled with what to believe about the sacraments. After moving back to New Orleans, he even began taking seminary courses online through several different denominations. But he still couldn’t find a church he wanted to attend. 

Indest first met David Sternhagen, pastor at Crown of Life, New Orleans, and several Crown of Life members at the Christian radio station where he worked. Sternhagen had a weekly radio show there. “When I would engineer the show, I would hear some theology,” says Indest.  

Indest agreed with what he was hearing from Sternhagen—and also appreciated the manner in which Sternhagen shared the message. “He wasn’t combative. He was very nice,” says Indest. “There was a lot of grace and kindness there that I never experienced before. No legalism, just the love of Christ.” 

It still took years before Indest set foot into Crown of Life. During that time, he watched Sternhagen and his members live their faith and talked to them about their beliefs. “The kindness of Christ was exhibited in a way I have never seen before,” he says.  

He finally was ready to take the next step when he became serious with his girlfriend, Diana. “I thought it was time to start again in a church when I started my new life,” he says. He and Diana went through Bible information class, joined Crown of Life in 2011, and were married in 2012. 

Continually growing in the Word 

Indest’s thirst for knowledge continued after he joined Crown of Life. He first decided to go through the Congregational Assistant Program offered by Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn., with four other members of Crown of Life. “It really helped me solidify what we believe,” he says. 

Then he enrolled in the Chaplain Certification program, which prepares pastors and laypeople to serve people in special circumstances, for example, those in prison, nursing homes, hospitals, or the military. He graduated in 2017. “I can’t tell you the amount of healing I got just going through the counseling classes,” he says, referring to difficulties he experienced following Hurricane Katrina. 

Indest is putting his new knowledge to good use. He and his wife now run a youth outreach program at Crown of Life that serves neighborhood children.  

The kids, ranging in age from 8 to 15, started showing up at Crown of Life a few years ago, looking for something to do. The church got them involved in Sunday school classes but knew there was a bigger opportunity. Soon the congregation began offering Sunday afternoon activities like basketball and crafts, also including a meal and devotion time. The program has now expanded to include homework help and a meal and devotion on Tuesday afternoons as well. 

Indest says his chaplaincy training has given him a lot of confidence as he shares Christ’s love and peace with the youth—both in words and actions. “Last year, I clearly presented the gospel to at least 40 kids,” he says. 

Those opportunities to plant the gospel message and show Christ’s love will continue to grow as Indest keeps looking for new ways to share the peace he discovered. “There’s grace and there’s forgiveness!” 


Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ. 


 

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 105, Number 2
Issue: February 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Porter

Through questions and the Word, one man finds his final church home. 

Gabriella Moline 

Sept. 11 is a somber day for many people in the United States. But Sept. 11, 2016, gave Greg Porter something to celebrate. He describes this date as one of the happiest days of his life. On that day Porter officially became a member of Abiding Grace in Covington, Ga., the place where he finally ended his search for peace and truth. 

Asking questions  

For the first 45 years of his life, Porter was a member of the Baptist church. He grew up in a house with strong Christian ideals and actively participated in his congregation. But after studying certain passages in the Bible, Porter saw some issues with the doctrine being taught in the Baptist church.  

One of its central teachings is that if a person was baptized as a baby or was not fully submerged during his or her baptism, then the person must be re-baptized. That troubled Porter. He turned to the Bible for answers. When he read Ephesians 4:5, he discovered that Paul says there is only “one baptism.” Then looking at Matthew 28:19, he found that Jesus said that we should baptize all nations. That includes babies.  

In addition to the teachings on Baptism, Porter also found issues with the Baptist teaching on Holy Communion. For the Baptist church, the bread and wine are only symbols of the body and blood of Christ. They are not truly the body and blood of Christ.  

Porter wanted to find a church that addressed his questions and taught what the Bible taught. He looked at Lutheran churches, but he was not sure about the theological differences between the many different denominations. At first he avoided Lutheran churches. But he saw that Catholicism only had one branch. There were no different denominations, so Porter started attending a Catholic church. 

He said it “started off well,” but over time he developed new questions about some of the Roman Catholic teachings. These included the Catholic church’s stance on divorce, as well as certain rules on Holy Communion. Porter attended the church for eight years but could not reconcile these issues. In addition, he felt uneasy that the Catholic church made salvation so difficult. Instead of saying that Jesus paid for all sins on the cross, Catholics still had to do things to undo their sins and failings.  

Finding answers 

Over the years, Porter received cards in the mail from Abiding Grace Lutheran Church, inviting him and his family to attend its Fall Festival, an annual event featuring lunch, games, and a worship concert. In 2015, he finally decided to attend the event. 

“I always thought, These look like nice people,” Porter says. “So I thought I would go and check it out. There would be other people there so they wouldn’t know I was visiting.” 

During the worship portion, Porter filled out the church’s friendship register, where he checked off that he would not be interested in a visit from the pastor.  

“He didn’t listen,” Porter shares with a laugh. “He came to the house to visit anyway.” 

But Porter is glad that Jonathan Scharf, pastor at Abiding Grace, ignored the card. This visit began Porter’s journey in the Lutheran faith. He soon began attending weekly Bible information classes with Scharf to learn more about Lutheran doctrine. Porter found that there was not enough time in the classes for all his questions. He wanted to speak more with Scharf, so he asked to meet with him outside of class. 

“I wanted to make sure that when I made this change that it would be the last change that I ever made,” he says.  

So Porter meet with Scharf before class each week at the Waffle House for breakfast to privately discuss more about the Bible. Porter had a hunger to learn, reading about the congregation and its teachings on its website. Scharf answered any of his questions that came up, giving him more materials and passages to read. Their discussions ranged from creation versus evolution to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  

“He had a lot of questions, realizing that a lot of the different teachings he had heard in his previous churches weren’t lining up with Scripture,” Scharf says.  

Porter says Scharf was extremely patient in answering all his questions. “He has a way of explaining the Bible in a way that no one else has been able to.” 

During one of their breakfast sessions, Scharf loaned Porter his Lutheran Confessions, a collection of confessions written by Marin Luther and others during the time of the Reformation. The collection is not a small pamphlet, but a large heavy textbook. Within the week, Porter had read the entire book and had passages picked out that he wanted to talk about. Scharf was amazed at Porter’s passion and devotion for God’s Word, even while balancing a full-time job and a family.  

“He has this insatiable desire to keep learning and is excited to have an opportunity to learn and grow in God’s Word,” says Scharf. 

Before joining Abiding Grace, Porter took several months to think and pray about becoming an official member. He had a lot to consider. He had to think through his early Baptist background and his current Roman Catholic membership. Was he sure he wanted to turn his life in a new direction? When Sept. 11 finally came, Porter was ready to make his final change and become a Lutheran.  

Still learning today 

Today, Porter still has his enthusiastic drive to learn more about the Bible. In addition to attending church on Sundays, he also listens to sermons from other WELS pastors and reads Meditations and Time of Grace devotions. 

Scharf and Porter still meet regularly, never running out of new topics to discuss. They also attended the National Worship Conference in Kenosha, Wis., together this past summer. Porter is heavily involved in Abiding Grace, volunteering to help whenever he can and participating in Bible studies and choir.  

“He has really jumped in anywhere there has been a request or opportunity,” Scharf says.  

Porter reflects that becoming a Lutheran and finding answers through the Bible has been a great comfort in his life. He knows that the Bible is the final authority, providing clarity to all of life’s questions.  

“It gives me a type of freedom knowing that you don’t have to jump through any hoops,” he says. “You’re free in the truth that Jesus gave us.” 


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


 

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Author: Gabriella Moline
Volume 105, Number 1
Issue: January 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Medina

After growing up with the idea that God seeks to punish believers, a woman finds solace in full forgiveness through Jesus. 

Rachel Hartman 

Juana Medina was born south of the border, in the central city of León, Mexico. She grew up in a strong Catholic family. “We were Catholics—we had always been Catholics,” she recalls. “We always went to church.” 

Catholicism is predominant in Mexico. Other religions, when Medina was growing up, were few and far between. “I only knew there were two types of religious people: Catholics and Protestants,” she notes. “As for Protestants—well, my family didn’t even go close to homes where they knew Protestants lived.”  

Beliefs in Mexico 

“Mexican Catholicism is more closely related to Catholicism at the time of Luther than it is to American Catholicism today,” explains Mike Hartman, a missionary who serves in Latin America. “The idea that God is stern and wants to punish you is at the heart of it.” 

This is one of the main reasons typically given in Mexican Catholicism for approaching Mary, adds Hartman. “Mothers are kind and gracious. Fathers are stern and macho. They often say, ‘If you want something, you ask Mom, not Dad.’ ” 

Throughout Latin America, the thread of Catholicism runs prevalent in the culture. This means other religions or beliefs are often shunned. To explain this phenomenon, Juan Ricardo Díaz, a WELS member who works for Wisconsin Lutheran Child and Family Services, wrote a book titled Soy Católico, no Cristiano (I am Catholic, not Christian).  

“A typical Catholic in central Mexico will be insulted if you call them a Christian,” notes Hartman. 

debilitating illness 

When Medina got married, she continued to live in León and attend the Catholic church. She and her husband started a family and got together regularly with relatives in the area, who were also Catholic. 

As her children grew, however, Medina became ill. Her conditions worsened, and doctors couldn’t find a cure. “All of my bones hurt,” she says. “I couldn’t move anything except my mouth. I was a complete invalid.” 

For three years, family members took her to doctor after doctor, without finding a cure. “Some doctors thought I had problems with my kidneys or liver, but I wasn’t convinced. I had different aches and pains each day.” Medina’s disease continued at a debilitating rate. It got to the point where she no longer wanted to live. “Doctors would prescribe medicine and I refused to take it. I just wanted to die,” she says. 

Her mother encouraged her to seek treatment elsewhere. One of Medina’s brothers lived in California, and the family sent her there to get help. “I thought they were all tired of dealing with me and just wanted me out of their lives,” she recalls. “I figured I would head there and die.” Weak and sick, Medina arrived at her brother’s home in California. Shortly after, she was admitted to a nearby hospital. 

Medina remained in the hospital for three months. When she was released, she felt only somewhat better. “I did recover but never regained full health,” she notes. “No one determined what I had. In hindsight, though, I know part of it was depression.” 

After she was released from the hospital, Medina’s husband, Marcelo, decided to come to California and join her. He brought their children, as well as a sister and her baby. All of them stayed with relatives for a time. Then Medina received a housing option through the government, and the family moved there. 

Learning about other religions 

During her stay at the hospital, one of the nurses told Medina of a place to go for help. While the doctors couldn’t identify what exactly was wrong with her body, the nurse suggested a spot that could provide some aid. “It sounded like an odd place—I was sure it was full of witches,” recalls Medina. 

Desperate for answers, when she left the hospital Medina went to the address with her sister. “It was a Christian church, which I hadn’t understood before I got there. I liked it, and it was there that I started learning Jesus loves me just how I am,” she says. Medina attended the church for a while, but she also grew involved in a nearby Catholic church.  

A move away from violence 

The family settled in to live in California. Medina and her husband had four daughters and four sons. The neighborhood they lived in was a rough and dangerous place, full of gangs and frequent fights. “When my oldest daughter was about to turn 15 years old, we started planning her party,” remembers Medina. In Mexico, families often hold a quinceñera, or special party, for a daughter’s 15th birthday. The daughter usually wears a formal dress, is accompanied by attendants, and receives a service and celebration in her honor.   

Medina’s daughter never attended the party. “Two months before the big day, she was murdered,” explains Medina. The event sent shock waves through the family. Medina and her husband worried that when the other children grew older, they would get involved in the neighborhood’s violent atmosphere—or worse, try to carry out revenge on their sister’s murderer. 

The family looked for a new, quieter place to live. After sorting through the options, they decided to move to Edna, Texas. There they found a calm atmosphere and lifestyle. After settling in, Medina noticed a Lutheran church was offering English classes. She signed up and started attending the courses. Bible classes were offered as well. “I started going to Bible study there, but I was still active in the Catholic church,” recalls Medina. 

Clinging to the Bible 

After attending Bible studies for several months, Medina grew to appreciate the detailed teachings of the Bible. “I started realizing that God doesn’t hold my sins against me. Before I was always living in sin and tormented by my bad deeds,” she says. Later the congregation started offering Spanish services. “When the pastor told me they were going to start having worship in Spanish, I said it probably wouldn’t work too well and that not many people would come,” she remembers.   

Worried about low attendance, Medina called her family and relatives in the area and encouraged them to go. “I told them to go so that at least some people would be there,” she says. Marcelo agreed hesitantly to go to the service. On the way home from Spanish worship, he said to Medina, “It can’t be that easy. We must have to do something. God can’t just forgive our sins like that.” 

Medina explained to her husband what she had learned from the Bible and that God really does wash all sin away. Medina and Marcelo took classes to become members and were then confirmed.  

Now both are active and involved in the church. “Whenever something comes up in which I can help, I always do,” notes Medina. “My husband is a painter and fixes things around the church and property.” 

She also looks for ways to continually invite her children and family members to attend a church where full peace is offered on Jesus’ behalf. “Before I always had an image of a God who wanted to punish me,” she says. “At the Lutheran church I learned about his love.” 


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


 

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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Moseley

A couple travels down different paths to discover the truth: Salvation is God’s gift to us through his Son. 

Julie K. Wietzke 

David and Meredith Moseley came from different ends of the religious spectrum—she from a strict Roman Catholic upbringing and he from the charismatic Assemblies of God. She grew up with the rosary, praying to the saints, and being “all about Mary.” His church emphasized the gifts of the Spirit, the laying on of hands, millennialism, and speaking in tongues. 

Both denominations lacked the distinctly Lutheran message: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, in Christ alone. 

“Although [our religious upbringings] might be different on the outside, in the end it’s the same bag of tricks,” says Meredith. “It’s all in the end a works-based religion.” 

David and Meredith traveled down different paths to discover the truth: Salvation is God’s gift to us through his Son. 

Meredith’s journey to Lutheranism didn’t start until she went to college. She grew up in a devout Catholic family, attended Catholic high school, and served as a cantor for the weekly mass at church.  

It wasn’t until she met a friend at UW–La Crosse that she stepped back to look at what she really believed. “My friend was an evangelical, born-again believer type and she was really outspoken about her faith,” says Meredith. “It made me think about myself and where I was in my beliefs.” 

She says her friend encouraged her to read the Bible—something she hadn’t done much in the past. So Meredith started casually reading the Bible, and the Holy Spirit begin his work.  

After finding a book about the virgin Mary at home and reading it, Meredith began questioning her upbringing even more. “The book was saying the secret to heaven is to become a slave of Mary,” she says. “I had the weirdest feeling that this isn’t right; this isn’t what the Bible is telling me.”  

This became a turning point for her. “I realized I always just accepted what the Catholic church said as true, but if they’re accepting these teachings that aren’t right, it had me questioning everything they teach,” she says.  

She began visiting other churches and more regularly attending an Evangelical Free church, although she wasn’t always comfortable with the more contemporary worship. A WELS friend invited her to his church, and she decided to take the Bible information class to learn more about Lutheranism. “It was a good representation of what the Bible teaches,” she says. Being a musician, she also appreciated the historical liturgy and reading the music directly from the hymnal. She joined Immanuel, La Crosse, Wis., in 2009. 

Now came the hard part—telling her parents. She wrote them a letter and gave it to them when she was home for Christmas vacation. “I put all the Scripture verses and reasons why I chose not to be Catholic anymore,” she says. “I felt like [my parents] were put off by the Scriptures; I guess the Word is offensive to people.” 

But for Meredith, the Word brought the true meaning of grace—not by works, but through faith in her Savior from sin. 

David grew up in an Assembly of God church. The largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, the Assemblies of God emphasize speaking in tongues, the laying on of hands for healing, millennialism, and the need to accept Jesus as your Savior. 

Being moved by the Spirit was common in worship services David attended in Tomah, Wis., while growing up. He says often someone spoke in tongues during worship and people were “slain by the Spirit,” in which they would fall to the ground after the laying on of hands for healing. “The whole emphasis on worship is to let the Spirit move so the emotions of people were affected,” he says. David says he was zealous for the faith as a teen, even being part of the worship team.  

But the congregation had internal problems, and his father, a former Lutheran, began to question the charismatic gifts emphasized at the church.  

The Lord also placed other influences in David’s religious life. His dad’s parents were WELS, and his grandmother introduced him to a WELS pastor’s wife who gave him piano lessons. This gave David a chance to know someone who was Lutheran besides his grandparents. “She was very vocal about her faith,” he says. 

David joined the army in 2006 and before leaving for basic training, he decided he wanted to attend a service at St. Paul, Tomah, with his grandma and grandpa. “I was getting curious,” he says. He attended a Christmas Eve candlelight service when he returned after basic training and Ash Wednesday church when he was back on leave.  

Then, while serving at Fort Eustis in Virginia, getting to an Assembly of God church for church was difficult, so he began attending the chapel at the fort. “I discovered you don’t have to be Assembly of God,” he says. “There were wonderful believers here at the chapel.” He also began listening to a confessional online Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod radio program, which helped him understand how Lutherans viewed the sacraments. “It took care of a lot of issues for me because it pointed me back to Scripture,” he says. He began reading and learning more. 

When David returned to Tomah in 2010 after he completed his active duty, he started visiting St. Paul more regularly. But he also still kept attending the Assembly of God church—partly because his parents were still members and he was living at home and partly because “I was not ready to say that it was heretical,” he says. 

In 2011 he met his wife, Meredith, who then was a member at another WELS church in town. She and David began attending St. Paul’s together and she decided to become a member there. They got engaged, and David started taking Bible information class.  

The class further clarified his understanding of the Lutheran faith, including the definitions of words like faith and grace. “Most American evangelicals view faith as something I drum up in my heart instead of being the gift of the Holy Spirit to us,” David says. “It’s about having to look inside me and I can make the decision—I can believe in Jesus—vs. it’s the Holy Spirit through the Word that causes us to believe.” 

In June 2013, David was finally ready to make a complete break from the church of his childhood and join St. Paul. It wasn’t easy—David says his mom, though she accepted it, never really got over it.  

David and Meredith continue to be faithful members of St. Paul and participate in the music ministry of the congregation. David also served as a delegate to this summer’s synod convention. With raising one daughter and another child on the way, they say that sometimes it is difficult not to have a close family heritage with the confessional Lutheran church and its teachings. But, according to Meredith, their broader understanding of what other denominations teach helps them appreciate the distinct Lutheran truths of Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, in Christ alone all the more. 

Says David, “We have our salvation—it’s all God’s gift to us. . . . Just go back to the Word of God—that’s all you need.”  


Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ magazine. 


 

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 104, Number 11
Issue: November 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Hometown: Eisleben

A German from communist-controlled Eisleben becomes a Lutheran in British Columbia. 

Ann M. Ponath 

“In spite of the countless times I have transgressed against my holy God, he assures me time and again that I am his forgiven child. Nothing and nobody bars my way to heaven! Now it is safe for me to die.”  

Earlier this year, Forward in Christ asked readers what it means to be Lutheran (see insert). This inspiring quote arrived from Canada. Even more interesting—the writer, Monika Weihmann—grew up in Eisleben, Luther’s hometown. She commented: “Martin Luther was a real Mensch; he had his faults and limitations, yet the Lord used him so greatly. What a blessing he has been to all of us.”   

Just how did a German from communist-controlled Eisleben end up as a Lutheran in British Columbia? Monika explains: “I was born in Eisleben when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. Growing up under the communist regime, I was anything but [Lutheran]. Yet the Lord had plans and has been an everyday part of [my life] for 54 years now.”  

Growing up in East Germany 

Monika was born just two weeks after the end of WWII in May 1945. Her father, who had been in the German Navy during the war, did not return home to his family after the war. Her parents divorced, and Monika’s father eventually immigrated to Canada. 

Monika says, “My mother had to fend for herself and two girls in post-war East Germany. Life was tough.” Her mother worked at a grocery store while the landlady “made sure my older sister, Erika, and I didn’t get into too much trouble.” Food stamps, stamps for coal, and supplies were often gone before you got to the end of long lines. “Everyone we knew was equally poor, but we all survived,” says Monika. “In retrospect, I can apply Matthew 6:26 to our situation, but no one in our world considered God at all.” 

Under Communism, “religion was definitely not part of the ideology, but our family was never religious,” says Monika. “Church was for Christmas Eve, weddings, baptisms, and funerals.” As for Luther, Monika says everyone knew of him and the bronze statue in front of the church where he preached his last sermon. But she says, “In the East German version of history, Luther was the great ‘social reformer’ who went against the church and the corruption that was so prevalent.”  

Monika was baptized in the Lutheran church “because that’s what one did then.” But things changed quickly. “By the time this first post-war generation reached the age of confirmation, the communist regime had devised a substitute in the form of ‘Jugendweihe,’ a so-called ‘youth dedication,’ where we dressed in formal clothing—exactly as if we were to be confirmed,” she says. “We had a convocation and promised to be true to our State as long as we lived.” Following the ceremony, there was a big family gathering, including Monika’s godparents. She says there were Christians in East Germany, “but not in my little world.” 

Monika’s world changed when her mother took a job some distance away and left Monika with her grandparents for three years. “My grandmother became the dearest person in my life,” she says. Because she was living with her father’s parents, there was some contact with her father in Canada. Eventually the family planned that Monika would join her father after she finished primary school.   

But there was another step along the way. Monika was reunited with her mother and sister in 1959. Then all three of them fled East Germany via train through the western sector of Berlin. They lived in several refugee camps until her mother and Erika relocated to central Germany. Monika worked as a live-in maid in Hamburg, waiting for funds to join her father in Canada. 

Discovering her Savior in Canada 

Monika’s adventure in Canada began in 1962. “My father had a new family there, including a half-brother and sister. There was a homestead with some animals and there was snow up to the roof which lasted until May,” she says. “My brother and I hunted rabbits in the bush behind the homestead, and we rode old Goldie bareback, because there was no saddle and only a rope for a bridle.” 

Monika’s father also had a young neighbor, Fred, who “was like a son to him.” Fred was working in a gold mine in Yellow Knife when Monika first arrived, but once they met, “there was no doubt in our minds that we would marry,” says Monika. Fred’s Lutheran family “gently nudged” Monika to take classes at their church. “So this little communist was enrolled in confirmation instruction, and the Holy Spirit continued the work he had begun,” she says. 

In 1963, Fred and Monika were married, and by 1971 they had been blessed with four children: Ingrid, Stephanie, Donovan, and Byron. “Although we had our babies baptized, it wasn’t until a concerned neighbor asked us to bring our children to Sunday school that we began attending a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod church in our small town,” says Monika. They quickly got involved in church—Fred becoming a church council member and Monika a Sunday school teacher—and it became an integral part of the family’s life. 

Monika recounts, “God blessed us so richly. We were able to purchase a fuel agency, worked hard, and were involved in our community and church. Our children grew up in the relative safety of a small village. [We had] a large family and good friends.” 

In 1982, they pursued an opportunity to serve a Lutheran mission in Ghana, West Africa, leaving two of their older children behind. At the end of 1989 they returned and settled in British Columbia. The Weihmanns’ children who had remained in Alberta had families of their own and were introduced to a WELS church. “Because they could not agree with the other synod’s practices, they all became WELS members,” Monika says. Monika and Fred were also compelled to leave their church as “the church situation deteriorated more and more” and joined WELS in 1994.  

The closest WELS church is in Washington, two and a half hours away, but the Weihmanns are members at St. Peter, St. Albert, Alberta, where their family lives. “Every Sunday we join them via livestreaming, and at Christmas and Easter we drive the thousand kilometers to be together,” says Monika. “It is not an ideal situation for us here. We do miss the fellowship of believers, but all of our unchurched friends give us the opportunity to practice Christian charity and love as well as serious witnessing during our home devotions and conversations.”  

A family favorite Bible passage is this: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). As Monika reflects on God’s guidance in her life and considers the Reformation’s anniversary from her unique perspective, she says, “God’s Word in its truth and purity has survived these many years and will continue until the Lord puts an end to this world. There may never be another Luther, but thank God there are still many Lutherans!”  


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


 

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Author: Ann Ponath
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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Confessions of faith: Singh Family

A couple who grew up in a mix of religions now knows the one true God.

Julie K. Wietzke

Deo and Juliet Singh found the church pretty easily—it was right by the hotel they were staying at until their house was built.

That short walk across the parking lot started their journey to understanding sin and grace and to finding everlasting hope through their Savior.

The Singhs were not strangers to religion. Religion was part of their lives. Yet they didn’t really know or understand their Savior.

Deo and Juliet grew up living three miles apart in Guyana, South America, in the 1940s and 50s. At that time, Guyana was a British colony and, as Deo explains, had a mix of religions—mainly Hinduism and Christianity. The older people who migrated from India practiced Hinduism in a broken Hindi language, while the children grew up speaking English and attended Christians schools. At these schools, they sang hymns, prayed, and learned basic Christian principles.

Both Deo and Juliet grew up practicing both religions but not really understanding either one. They participated in the Hindu rituals with their parents but didn’t understand Hinduism because they didn’t know the language of their parents. “The Hindu priest would come to bless the house and do prayers, but we didn’t understand unless he explained in English,” says Deo. At the same time, they attended Christian schools, and Juliet remembers going to Sunday school and lighting candles at the weekly Catholic Mass. Their lives were a mix of both religions, and they weren’t sure what was really true. “We only keep following what we see our parents do,” says Deo. A Savior from sin and death was missing in their lives.

Juliet left school at the age of 11 to care for her ill mother. Deo attended secondary school through the age of 15 when he had to quit to find work. He worked several odd jobs and then got a job at a large company, where he slowly worked himself up the ranks.

The lives of Deo and Juliet came together when their families arranged for their marriage. “I was tending sheep and I say to my mother, ‘Look, some guy is coming and he’s well dressed.’ She said, ‘Leave the sheep and come get some clothes,’ ” Juliet remembers. “I went upstairs . . . and my aunt said, ‘Look through that window. You see that guy; you’re going to get married to him.’ And that was it!” They have been married for 55 years.

They left Guyana in 1985 for New York City, where Deo started working at a warehouse at John F. Kennedy airport. Juliet had several jobs—often working over 60 hours a week. They said there was no time for church. “My work week started on Sunday,” says Juliet. “There was no time for nothing but work.”

That changed when Deo retired in 2008, and the Singhs decided to move with one of their daughters to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Amazing Grace was located in a strip mall across the parking lot from the hotel Deo and Juliet were staying in while their new house was being constructed.

“We were anxious to start getting into prayers,” says Deo. “So I was walking around [by the hotel] and saw the church.

Deo stopped to talk to the pastor of Amazing Grace. “From the time we met one another, that was it,” says Deo. “We fell in love with him.” That meeting started the Singhs’ journey to truly understanding what their Savior did for them.

Pastor Ben Zahn began Bible information classes with the Singhs at their home. “I gave them a feast for their souls, and Juliet always had a feast for me,” he says, chuckling.

The Holy Spirit began working through the feast of the gospel. Zahn says he remembers two specific instances when he saw the Word in action in the Singhs’ lives.

When they first met, Deo told Pastor Zahn that he was afraid to die because he was uncertain of what would happen next. Zahn says as the instruction classes continued, they were talking about sin and grace and were looking at Hebrews 2:14,15: “[Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

“I said that the devil’s power had been destroyed and we don’t have to be afraid,” says Zahn. “Deo stopped me right after I read the passage and said, ‘Pastor, I have to tell you something. . . . I’m no longer afraid to die.’ I asked him why not. He said, ‘Jesus is my Savior.’ ”

Prayer by the Singhs in Guyana had offered no comfort. “Juliet said that when she was growing up in Hinduism, she was frustrated about praying,” says Zahn.

“[In Hinduism,] we had so many gods to pray to—lots and lots,” says Juliet. Deo agrees. “It was conflicting in so many ways with different deities responsible for the sun, the rain, and this and that.”

But when they talked about who the true God is and being able to pray to him in Jesus’ name, Zahn remembers that it was like a light suddenly going on for the Singhs.

Juliet says that after learning more about God and the Bible, she feels differently. “Now you pray, and the Lord answers prayers,” she says. “And it’s true. He does answer prayer.”

Deo and Juliet were baptized in 2009, confirmed in ??, and are regular attenders at Amazing Grace. “We can’t wait to get to church on Sunday,” says Deo, who Zahn says is the congregation’s resident “church hugger.”

The sacraments hold special meaning for them. “One day we were looking for our Baptism certificates, and I couldn’t find them, and I got scared,” says Deo. But the fear disappeared in the reality of their Baptism. He continues, “When we take Communion, I always try to concentrate on Jesus shading the blood on the cross, and it makes me feel good.”

Juliet says that now she understands more about the Bible teachings and it makes her happy. “I love the Bible, and I love Pastor reading on Sunday,” says Juliet. “We feel different. We learn more about God; we learn more about the Bible; we learn about Jesus.”


Julie Wietzke is the managing editor of Forward in Christ.


 

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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

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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 © 2018
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

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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 © 2018
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

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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 © 2018
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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 © 2018
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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 © 2018
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

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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 © 2018
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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 © 2018
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

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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 © 2018
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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 © 2018
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

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