Build on the Rock
In January of 2011, I was rushed to an intensive care unit in a Pretoria, South Africa, hospital. This was shortly after the United Church of God had suffered a major breakaway. Then-President Denny Luker and others felt it was important that I visit our South Central African congregations in Malawi and Zambia where Bev and I had previously worked, as well as South Africa. We were well-known there and trusted. Brethren, especially those in remote rural areas, wanted to be reassured that the United Church of God was doctrinally sound and would continue in its biblical mission.
It was a successful—but long—trip and I was looking forward to getting home. But, as I was leaving Zambia, I accidentally fell on slippery tiles and broke two ribs. Bev was not with me on this journey.
On the first flight from Zambia to South Africa, I complicated the injury by puncturing a lung while lifting my carry-on suitcase into the overhead bin. In severe pain upon arriving in South Africa, my driver, Monique Webster, took me to a local hospital. My condition worsened through the day as my lungs filled with fluid. I was then transferred to another hospital by ambulance. I was informed that I was now in a life-threatening state.
Those were long, lonely hours in a hospital intensive care unit far away from home. I thought about my life, my relationship with God, my ministry, my family and friends. Bev later, thank God, was able to make the exceptionally long flight from Indianapolis, where we then lived, to South Africa. I spent a week in the hospital, and then about two more weeks of enforced rest before I recovered sufficiently to make the long flight back to the United States.
Why is any of this relevant to today? At the time, like many other points in my life, I was completely satisfied with the challenging work I was doing. I have had the privilege of serving in or overseeing churches in South Dakota, Minnesota, Kentucky, Indiana, Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere. When I was injured, I was serving as Operation Manager for Ministerial and Member Services. Bev and I had previously started a humanitarian organization called LifeNets International, which provided helpful support for Church members and congregations around the world. We started by helping children who were victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the organization grew from there. I had no further aspirations or ambitions, apart from continuing to serve in the ministry where I was.
Then, unexpectedly, Denny Luker, a good friend, mentor and a proven spiritual servant whom I believed God called to effectively lead the Church through a turbulent time, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Everyone was shocked. Denny and his wife, LeeAnn, were not only good friends, but they were also integral to our lives and to the leadership of the Church.
Mr. Luker died a brief time afterward. I was asked to deliver his eulogy in Seattle, and I spoke of the quiet but firm faith he often displayed and his unwavering commitment to love one another, to fulfill the direct commandment from Jesus (John 13:34). He believed fervently that Jesus Christ was indeed the living Head of the Church and he sought to follow that lead. Mr. Luker, working side-by-side with LeeAnn, was a great spiritual example for all.
Suddenly, and pretty much unexpectedly, in two years after I had come face-to-face with a life-threatening situation multiple thousands of miles away from home, I was named President of the United Church of God, an International Association, by the Council of Elders. From my days as a student at the Ambassador College campus in Bricket Wood, England, I can safely say that I had never dreamed that I would one day be holding this position.
What point am I making? There are actually two. One, if we have truly accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, believing in Him (John 6:29) and have truly repented and humbly surrendered our lives to learning and doing His will (Acts 2:38, Romans 12:1-2), seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) God can use any of us in unexpected ways for His service.
Two, as we commit to the cost of becoming a disciple (Luke 14:26-33), God emphatically wants us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). In this growing process, we will face trials and challenges to build sterling righteous character and faith (James 1:2-4). Even in trials, we must not break faith, but remain faithful, ever being doers of the Word of God and not falling into deception (James 1:22).
As Jesus instructs us: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25, English Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).
Related to this, in my years as President and as a pastor, I have learned the rock-solid truth of what David wrote: “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the LORD guards the city, the watchmen stay awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1). The verse rings true across the entire spectrum from our individual acts to the strategic plan for the Church!
Now, after an amazing and event-packed three terms and nine years, those days of presidential service are coming to an end. This is a bittersweet time for Bev and me. We will miss the fast pace and the opportunities for service, and we will greatly miss regularly meeting and visiting with members all over the world. We leave behind a great and dedicated team at the home office and will always cherish working together with people like Peter Eddington, Mark Welch, Aaron Dean, Chris Rowland, Jorge de Campos, Steve Myers, Richard Kennebeck (including their wives) and many more. We will keep all in our prayers and I hope you will also, praying always for the gospel to be preached.
God willing, Bev and I plan to remain active in the ministry, as well as our work in Ukraine and elsewhere through LifeNets. I plan to continue podcasting, writing and teaching. So this is not “goodbye.”
This world is growing darker (Matthew 24). But that darkness will only help us stand out more brilliantly as positive lights, reflecting our relationship with God and our good works that are inspired by Him and our Elder Brother (Matthew 5:14-16).
Remember that God is love! (1 John 4:16) Paul instructs us “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love” (Ephesians 5:1-2, New International Version).
As this chapter of Bev’s and my life closes and a new one begins, allow me to offer a blessing. Here is how Moses instructed God’s servants to bless the people of God, whom you are:
“The LORD bless you and keep you;the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26, NIV).