A Gangster for Christ – Part 1

In August of 1944 POWER magazine, distributed as a Sunday School take-home paper, published the following testimony of George Mensik. George was a deacon in my dad’s church, Marquette Manor Baptist, when we arrived in Chicago in 1954. As a 13 year old kid this amazing man made a powerful impact on my life. Here is George’s testimony.

This story will be shared on gracejourney.blog as a two-part series. The second part will include an audio recording of George’s testimony given during a preaching occasion.

When POWER heard the remarkable story of George Mensik’s conversion we knew at once that it would be of intense interest to all our readers. But POWER well understands and thoroughly sympathizes with George Mensik’s desire to keep his past in the past. There is only one reason now why he permits the story to be published here; that it might help some teen-ager turn to his Saviour.

Danny Stanton, notorious big-time gangster in the Chicago area for a number of years, had been filled with shotgun slugs and the police were on the prowl to pick up the most likely assassin. They were sure they saw one in the person of George J. Mensik as he drove his along Washington Boulevard that Saturday afternoon on his way to the Fisherman’s Club in Cicero.

Actual Chicago Trib front-page headline from May 6, 1943

The police forced him the curb, asked what he knew of Danny Stanton.

“Haven’t seen Stanton for six years,” responded Mensik.

“Where ya’ goin’?” they demanded.

“To the Fisherman’s Club in Cicero,” Mensik replied.

“Likely story,” said the officer, “There are no fishermen out there! They’re down in the lake.”

“These fishermen are Christians who call themselves ‘fishers of other men,” explained Mensik.

By this time Mensik had been frisked for concealed weapons. One of his pockets yielded his Bible, another a package of tracts. At the police station he was plied with more questions because it was known by headquarters that at one time he was a Danny Stanton henchman – before he had taken Christ as his Savior. Mensik urged the officers to phone the Fisherman’s Club at the Cicero Bible Church and check up on him. They did, and E.F. Gibbs, business manager of the church, picked up the phone.

“Why, yes, we know George Mensik,” said Gibbs. “He comes here nearly every Saturday afternoon for a meeting of the Fisherman’s Club. Its members are men who have been saved from sin by…” The officer hung up. He had heard enough. Mensik was released immediately. But before he left he had given his stern captors a straight-from-the-shoulder testimony as to why he left the underworld and became a Christian.

He began a life of crime at the ripe age of nine. George came from “back o’ the yards” in Chicago, which meant a very tough neighborhood. He was one of 12 children. He knew nothing of the Bible; in fact, hadn’t looked within its pages. Wasn’t his religion to take him to Heaven? George thought so!

From nine to eighteen George developed big-time technique. He organized his own gang and was in and out of reform schools like jack-the-box. During prohibition days he turned to beer running, driving a truck for a notorious bootleg character.

There was a string of burglaries to the gang’s charge. Ransacking homes became routine, stealing cars simply a change to break monotony. He and his gang were picked up periodically, but the police couldn’t prove anything. There always was a lawyer smart enough to get them off, one who knew how to “get to the judge.” The cost was heavy, of course, but it was a lot better than serving time.

A payroll stick-up was one job on his gang’s schedule. They carried machine guns neatly wrapped in newspapers laid across their laps as they drove to the scene. Their plans miscarried, however, for the truck bearing the money failed to show up.

The notorious Al Capone – Mugshot from the Chicago Police archives

On another occasion George drove the car which carried a contemporary gangster on what was to be his last ride. The body was dumped off right in front of the hospital. The intended victim lived. Some six months later, as George and another underworld character who was primarily responsible for the attempted bump-off, stood together is a saloon, the now recovered “corpse” walked in. George’s companion and the newcomer saw each other at the same instant, drew their weapons, and a few minutes later both lay dead on the floor. By the time the police arrived the “evidence” had vanished – mysteriously.

George Mensik lived with his wife and five year-year-old daughter on the south side. Mrs. Mensik was not well and in 1935 faced a serious operation. At the hospital a few days before the operation she began to tap the ether waves, via her radio, for a program offering help and comfort. She brought in the noonday broadcast of the Christian Business Men’s Committee from a downtown Chicago theater. The Gospel message touched her and she accepted Christ as her Savior a few hours before being wheeled in the operating room.

Six months later little Shirley, seated at the radio listening to the KYB broadcast by Aunt Theresa over WMBI, also opened her heart top Christ. That made two Christians in George Mensik’s home to pray earnestly for his salvation.

George saw a change in his family. Something had taken place. One day he came upon his own little girl praying.

Fearful, lest he would be angry, she timidly explained, “I’m praying for you, Daddy.”

Surprised, he asked, in a less harsh tone, “Why are you praying for me?”

“Well,” she said, “I love you, and Jesus love you, and we want you to be saved.”

Deeply touched, the hardened father stammered, “You just keep on praying for Daddy.” Every time he recalls that scene today, tears fill his eyes.

Evangelist George Mensik – Missionary to the Prisons of America

Part 2 will finish the story of George’s thrilling and life transforming testimony.

I wrote earlier about George Mensik at: https://gracejourney.blog/2019/04/20/grace-walk-becomes-a-grace-journey/

Come and Dine

Recently I read a blog post that drew me to an old song we sang in the youth group many years ago. I can almost hear Youth Pastor Don Nelson fingerpicking the melody as the group would sing…”’Come and dine,’ the Master calleth, ‘Come and dine’, You may feast at Jesus’ table all the time. He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine, To the hungry calleth now, ‘Come and dine.’” The song comes from John 21:12 as recorded in the venerable King James Version.

“Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord.” John 21:12

The writer of the blog quoted a Bible version that follows most of the contemporary translations which render “Come and Dine” with an understandable “Come and eat breakfast,” or Come and have breakfast in the passage. Charles Spurgeon in his devotional book Morning and Evening explained this passage by saying the phrase meant, “Come and break your fast” as an invitation to the tired and struggling disciples to take the next step in their faith journey to follow Christ.

Spurgeon wrote, “On your part, now is the time for the exercise of faith. And on His part, now is the season for the display of His power.” Truly the Lord had shown His power in conquering death and rising from the grave. But now Jesus is stooped by the shore of the Sea of Galilee preparing a simple meal for the beleaguered band of disciples. He was providing basic sustenance. Profound!

Think of it. The disciples must have been confused and dejected that the anticipated establishment of the kingdom had not materialized. Instead, their miracle working leader seemed to crash and burn. So they fled on a five to six days journey back to the anonymity of their fishing boats; and this is over 100 miles away from the vicinity of Jerusalem, the place of the crucifixion and the location of Jesus’ first appearances to his followers. And yet, here, Jesus appears on the shore cooking a meal featuring fish that He miraculously obtains for the bewildered lot. This had to be overwhelming and perplexing.

Jesus had just performed another miracle moments before by commanding them to cast their nets a few feet away from their fruitless efforts of all night fishing without catching a thing. But then the Savior invites these weary and defeated disciples to breakfast – simply to reemphasize again that He and He alone would care for them. They unwaveringly needed to “feast at Jesus’ table all the time” as the songwriter Charles B. Widmeyer wrote in 1906.

The resurrection provided an invitation to intimacy with Jesus unlike any other experience man could imagine. The provision and power continues on today. There is always abundant grace from our Lord that is enough for the journey.  

Jesus has a table spread
Where the saints of God are fed,
He invites His chosen people, "Come and dine"
With His manna He doth feed
And supplies our every need:
Oh, 'tis sweet to sup with Jesus all the time!
"Come and dine," the Master calleth, "Come and dine"
You may feast at Jesus' table all the time;
He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine,
To the hungry calleth now, "Come and dine."
 
The disciples came to land,
Thus obeying Christ's command,
For the Master called unto them, "Come and dine"
There they found their heart's desire,
Bread and fish upon the fire;
Thus He satisfies the hungry every time
"Come and dine," the Master calleth, "Come and dine"
You may feast at Jesus' table all the time;
He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine,
To the hungry calleth now, "Come and dine."
 
Soon the Lamb will take His bride
To be ever at His side,
All the host of heaven will assembled be;
Oh, 'twill be a glorious sight,
All the saints in spotless white;
And with Jesus they will feast eternally.
"Come and dine," the Master calleth, "Come and dine"
You may feast at Jesus' table all the time;
He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine,
To the hungry calleth now, "Come and dine."

 

It started with a question…

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “God moves in mysterious ways.” But that is not exactly how William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) wrote the line. Cowper, who was a friend and collaborator with John Newton the famed author of the song Amazing Grace, penned the words in a more personal way. He wrote, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.” This famous poem and hymn from the 18th Century came from the heart of a soul who had traversed the dark places of dread.

In the second stanza this most influential English poet of his time expressed his personal testimony that in facing “the clouds that you dread” you can trust God’s grace because “behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” He knew this through periods of deep depression and what we today call acute mental health episodes.

We may not have traveled through those extreme dark valleys, but we’ve all faced the circumstances that stress us beyond our capabilities. It is usually only in looking back that we see the grace of God leading, guiding and protecting us. My dear friend Frank Hamrick says, “Study what God has done, and what He is doing.” Many times looking back in thankfulness we can see seemingly obscure crossroads, or perplexing decision points, that God used to set us on His path in a special way.

Recently I talked with an old friend and rehearsed with him a conversation from many years ago. I said, “It all started with a question that I asked you…,”and he knew exactly what I was talking about. In early 1976 I asked Wes Budke a question that I wrote about in a previous Grace Journey post entitled Political Grace. That question was, “Do you know a Christian in the Minnesota legislature?” Wes was a college friend and, at that time, a church member where I was pastor. It was a simple question fueled by my desire to fulfill a responsibility that I had accepted for the fledgling small Christian school organization just founded in Minnesota. But unknown to me at the time it was a life changing question.

The answer to that question led me to meet two Christian legislators and subsequently was drawn into the world of politics, and in turn the Lord thrust me into a ministry in Christian education. Initially it was a step that was for a local ministry purpose, but God meant it to be a small step toward a path that became a long and winding road. It is that road that I now call our Grace Journey.  

Several years later Wes asked me to have lunch with him, and he posed a serious question about his future. He had been a state trooper assigned as the main security person for the Governor of Minnesota. From that position he was given the opportunity to move into a new and challenging area of law enforcement. He already had a family and many obligations, but he wondered if he should go back to Bible school and go into the ministry.

Wes had a heart for ministry, but the Lord had given him a developing career in law enforcement, plus he was serving very effectively in our local church. He wanted to know what he should do. I knew his sincerity and desire, and I also knew about the valuable experience and respect that he had gained in his position at that time. I believe God led me to say, “Wes, I believe you have a unique opportunity to serve the Lord in a very strategic field. You will gain experience and opportunities that the Lord may use in a remarkable way.”

I don’t believe I saw myself as someone with a prophetic gift, but my limited perception turned out to be amazingly true. It is not possible to relate all that God led Wes to do, but the Lord literally took him around the world numerous times into places and experiences that have been amazing. Still, throughout his whole career Wes and his wife Dianne have been faithful servants in the various churches where God placed them. In fact, ten years after I posed that initial question to Wes, Dianne, worked with Connie and me in the newly opened office of the American Association of Christian Schools in the Washington, D.C. area.

Because of my simple question to Wes in 1976 God led me, and our family, down an unusual ministry road in Christian education and Christian publishing. Now that ministry journey continues into our retirement years, my present work at Maranatha Village, and my personal blog. And God keeps moving in interesting and blessed ways. In the last few months I have been able to join a virtual prayer group led by Mike Menning, one of those two former Minnesota politicians. Mike is a retired pastor who is giving leadership to a missionary effort to reach people trapped in the polygamist colonies of Utah and other western states. Yes, God is still moving, working, and leading.

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”
by William Cowper
 
God moves in a mysterious way,
    His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
    And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
    And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
    The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
    In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
    He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
    Unfolding ev'ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flow'r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
    And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
    And he will make it plain.

The Road to St. Paul

Generally, the Road to St. Paul, Minnesota, does not run through Colorado, but for our family it did. In the summer of 1969 I led the youth group from Normal, Illinois, back to Colorado for our third western camping trip. We joined several other youth groups and embarked on an ambitious trek that took the entire entourage of over 100 across the Rockies to the Colorado National Monument and down to the Four Corners Area.

I did not know at the time that I would return to that area a few months later to candidate at a church in Durango, Colorado. That church owned a parsonage with a picture window that perfectly framed the LaPlata Peak, a snow-capped mountain to the north. It was a beautiful spot. During our stay to candidate for the pastorate I spent a day on horseback with a church member to check his large herd of cattle grazing on 4,000 acres of land leased from the U.S. Government. I relished the idea of becoming a preacher in authentic cowboy country.

But it was not to be. After spending five days there, and preaching five times, the church became embroiled in a controversy after we left. The result was a closed door for us, and a disappointment at the time. However, one year later, while on vacation in Minnesota, I was asked to speak at Faith Baptist, in St. Paul. This time the Lord’s leading and timing was clear. We accepted a call to Faith, and arrived in St. Paul in early November 1970, to begin a blessed eight year ministry.

Not surprisingly, St. Paul was definitely different than the growing Bloomington-Normal community, amidst the flat farmland of Central Illinois, or the picturesque mountain setting of Southwestern Colorado. St. Paul was a classic blue-collar, Democratic Party controlled city, and the church location was surrounded by government housing projects. It was a unique contrast from my youth pastor days, but it presented an exciting challenge.

The church was an inner-city work that started ten years earlier because three single-parent ladies were praying for a church to be started in their area. God led Pastor Larry Johnson to meet them, and he began Bible studies in the Community Center of what was known as the McDonough Project in those days. When we arrived the church was reaching out to three housing projects and bringing children to Sunday School via a rusty old school bus and an unreliable van.

Over the succeeding years the Lord blessed the bus ministry with growth to three routes with more than 100 riders weekly. This ministry not only reached school aged children, but teenagers, and a number of parents too. Today, 45-50 years later, we still have contact with many who came to Christ, or were discipled through the Sunday School, youth group and adult ministries. As the outreach to the public housing areas grew, God sent us many choice servants from outlying areas to reach, teach and lead in the ministry. The challenge of serving the Lord in the city became a motivation to a number of families and young couples

McDonough Homes circa 1970s

The ministry grew and a new building addition was constructed that doubled our building capacity, and ultimately allowed the church to establish a Christian school in 1976. God gave us several fine assistant pastors, Max Day, Wayne Vawter, and Mike Kleeberger, plus a host of church leaders, talented servants, and workers. I would be remiss if I tried to list names, and left someone out because of faulty memory.  But one name stands out as an example of the dedicated individuals who served faithfully. Everyone knew Charlie Reed, and the unwavering testimony that he consistently manifested.

Charlie was a character. He was a former prize-fighter, and a strong patriot. But, most of all, Charlie loved to tell the story of how Christ saved him as a young, pugnacious man. Many times I sat with him in someone’s living room, and heard him tell his conversion testimony to a needy person. I can repeat certain parts of his testimony word-for-word to this day. He wasn’t the only one – but, he was a leader, an example, and an inspiration to many during those days of hard work and blessing.

We reached out to all people. While thinking about the recent tension and riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul I recalled an experience I had with a large black family. The mother and her bunch of kids came regularly to our services. They were in the welfare system at the time, and the husband was a day laborer who had a drinking problem. I developed a relationship with Billy, although he did not come to church. I visited the home, and at times he would pick up the family after services and I would talk with him.

Once he showed up after a Sunday evening service to apologize to the wife after sobering up from a drunken bender. I admonished him for his behavior and encouraged him to be a responsible dad for his kids. He showed sincere contrition and vowed to do better. My heart went out to him.

Following that incident I was invited to a meeting of a dozen social workers to discuss the perils of this struggling family. After some discussion I remember all the social service professionals turned to me and said, “Reverend, it looks like you are the only one here who has a relationship with Billy.” Sad, but true. Not long after that we were called to leave Faith for my new ministry, and within six months I was sent a report that Billy got in a fight and killed a man while drunk. That was Eastside St. Paul ministry. Often tragic; but always rewarding.

After being in St. Paul several years I learned that the notorious Chicago gangsters would hide out there during the bootlegging days of the Prohibition Era and Great Depression. The remnants of that ungodly influence were still in evidence during the 1970s, but God’s grace was sufficient to do a work of grace in many lives during our years of ministry in St. Paul. We are so thankful to be a part of that grace journey.    

The Road Home

Going home can be such a blessing. At this stage in our life Connie and I greatly enjoy the tranquil home we have in our small central Florida Christian retirement community. Every time we travel to the beautiful, but congested, costal beach areas, or the traffic gridlock of Orlando, we are so thankful to return to our safe and comfortable community and home. 

Home is so important because it is often where love is; or where security is, or where precious memories linger, or where the simple necessities of life are readily at hand. Sometimes we think of home as where we now live, but at other times the thought of home goes back to our childhood residence. 

But in our transient and mobile society many of us do not have a “old home” that still exists where we grew up. A house may be there — but it is not the same place any longer. It is where we played, grew, and learned life’s most important foundational lessons —but it is not home anymore.

What a joy to look forward to a new home someday; a heavenly home. We know that Paul says in 2 Cor. 5 “…that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord… We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” That home will be great because our Lord will be there. 

C.S. Lewis, in his book Pilgrim’s Regress, muses: “One road leads home and a thousand lead into the wilderness.” Even though one may not have had a joyous home growing up, or that old home no longer remains where family shared blessed times — the Lord Jesus has prepared a place. We need not wander in the wilderness when we can be sure of our eternal home.

James M. Gray, president of Moody Bible Institute, penned this gospel song during the onset of the Great Depression. The Road Leads Home

O pilgrim, as you journey, 
Do you ever gladly say, 
In spite of heavy weather 
And roughness of the way, 
That it really does not matter, 
All the strange and bitter stress – 
Heat and cold, and toil and sorrow, – 
Will be healed with blessed-ness!

O safe and blessed shelter, 
Heavenly mansions of content! 
There are the holy kindred 
From our hearthstone’s early rent; 
And our precious, loving Saviour, 
Who our sins on Calv’ry bore – 
Who would ever mind the journey, 
With such blessed-ness in store?

There’s comfort on the journey, 
There is also guide and chart; 
There’s wisdom for the asking, 
And there’s solace for the heart; 
And there is no need of turning 
To the left or to the right, 
And no fear need stir the bosom 
At the coming of the night.

For the road leads home, 
Sweet, sweet home! 
O who would mind the journey 
When the road leads home? 
For the road leads home, 
Sweet, sweet home! 
O who would mind the journey 
When the road leads home?

The Unwanted Road

Back on September 1, 2019 I told the story of my quintuple bypass in 2003 in a blog post on Grace Journey. In that post I recounted my testimony of how the Lord provided an ambulance at the right time to take me from Nash County Hospital in Rock Mount to the Heart Center at Wake Med in Raleigh, North Carolina. Here is that account:

One of my colleagues at Positive Action later said, “Why in the world was there an ambulance from Wake delivering a patient to Nash General?   No patient is ever sent from Wake Med to Rocky Mount.”  Well, the Lord, and the Wake County Sheriff Department, transported an incarcerated patient to the Nash County jurisdiction just so that the high-tech medical limo (staffed with a cardiac team) would be there for me.  And would you believe that one of the EMT’s on that ambulance was a wonderful Christian (from England, no less) and we had great fellowship all the way to Raleigh.  My Lord is a great God!! https://gracejourney.blog/2019/09/01/my-2003-heart-journey/

At that time, I must confess, that was an unwanted trip. But now many years later I realize how strategic it was — a trip of a lifetime! That trip began a journey of learning, growing and trusting. It was unwanted at the time…but life saving. It is hard to believe that was almost 17 years ago. Truly, the Lord is good.

Currently, we are in the midst of the frightening and frustrating Coronavirus Pandemic. It has been over four weeks now and all of society is uncertain about the extent of the present and future threat of this yet elusive enemy. And citizens are becoming restless, impatient, and, in some cases, restive about the restrictions of stay-at-home living. This state of affairs runs totally counter to our instant culture that thrives on at-a-glance and one-touch technology.

But consider our present condition in contrast to the four years plus of World War II. The citizens of our country endured long years of restrictions and social discomfort. And they did not have smart phones for instant communication, or large screen home entertainment systems with a veritable mountain of binge-watching digital options. They did all of this without drive-up fast food emporiums, big box warehouse stores for “necessary” products, or climate controlled comfortable living spaces.

They stood in long lines just to get “Ration Books” to buy truly essential products. If they were privileged to own an automobile they were subjected to long lines at the gas pump to purchase a rationed amount of fuel.

It was a long and grueling period of sacrifice and restriction. There was a massive appeal by the government for citizens to work together for the common cause of national security and continued freedom.

Truly many in our society today are suffering greatly. Too many are dying in hospitals without the benefit of family members at their bedside. Many others have gone through very dark valleys fighting back to regain their health. This has been a time for believers to, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” as the Apostle Paul enjoined us to do in ‭‭Galatians‬ ‭6:2‬. But it is difficult to help others when we are restrained by social distancing.

But it has been a good time to get alone with God and his word, and to read, think, and meditate about God and his truth. During this period of time I have been privileged to read John Piper’s words from his hastily written helpful book Coronavirus and Christ. He gives the following thoughts that are convicting and challenging:

The coronavirus pandemic is where I live. Where we all live. And if it weren’t the coronavirus, it would be the cancer just waiting to recur. Or the unprovoked pulmonary embolism from 2014 just waiting to break off and go to my brain and turn me into a mindless man who will never write another sentence. Or a hundred other unforeseen calamities that could take me—and you—down at any moment. 

The Rock I am talking about is under my feet now. I could say that the Rock is under my feet now just because hope beyond the grave is present hope. The object of hope is future. The experience of hope is present. And that present experience is powerful. 

https://www.desiringgod.org/books/coronavirus-and-christ

The book is free by clicking on the link above and downloading to your computer or device in several optional formats. It will be a blessing.

The Unexpected Road

An unexpected crisis, a frustrating detour, or a messy stumbling block, can send us into a tailspin. Things like pandemics really play havoc with our 21st Century sensibilities. Our autonomous lifestyle rebels and shouts that this should not be happening to us. The present Coronavirus intrusion bedevils the pop philosophy that tells us we should live in the moment. But society is crying out, “This is not the moment we want to live!’

Just now we are doing that very thing; we are living in an unwanted moment, and we have no choice. Nature has intruded into our personal space and we don’t like it. But we are all helpless to escape. The invisible and mysterious enemy called Covid-19 parks it’s inconvenient realities right in our face—literally. Even in this age of marvelous technological wizardry, we are forced to face ourselves and acknowledge we are boxed in by our own personal and societal limitations. 

When I first began to write this post I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, observing obligatory social distances. No, not because of the Coronavirus, but for an unrelated follow up needing medical attention.  Trying to use a touch screen device with gloves on  makes it difficult. Even the helpful stylus has its limitations. Endeavoring to be healthful is hard work, and it doesn’t easily fit with a snappy “you deserve a break today” bromide. 

I’ve run into other unexpected roads in life. I learned to drive a car on an unexpected road with my dad being my teacher. I remember that first experience was on an isolated country road in northern Wisconsin after a Sunday morning church service. Dad took me with him when he preached at a tiny rural church way out in the boonies. On that gravel road, with no one in sight, he turned the steering wheel over to me for my maiden voyage. I drove for about a mile, and then turned around to return and was greatly embarrassed as I saw my erratic tire tracks in the soft gravel roadbed. Unexpected roads can be daunting and humbling. 

Sometime later, about a month after obtaining my driver’s license, the Lord called our dad out of this life. I was left to be the family chauffeur at the ripe age of 16. That was an unexpected road for me to travel — whether I was ready or not.  A few years later I was driving a school bus, and then various other vehicles while serving in youth ministry during my college days. Eventually I learned to navigate mountain roads in Wyoming and Colorado as a leader on youth camping trips. Those were challenging and formative days, and yet a great God has been an ever faithful guide on everyone of those roads. 

But the darkest and most difficult journeys are not caused by disease or inexperience. They flow from the struggles of the heart. They come from our innermost being when we realize our limitations. It is here where we encounter our need for rescue, guidance, and peace during fearful moments. Just like the deadly Coronavirus teaches us; we need help from outside of ourselves to meet the challenges of the unexpected, as well as the difficult experiences of life. 

The powerful and gifted personality, the Apostle Paul, confessed personal self limitation when he recorded the Savior’s words to him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9. Because of the Savior’s redeeming work on the cross, we are all able to receive the grace and power of Christ for our journey. 

We have a great privilege to look past ourselves and to focus on those who need the message of hope. This song came from the WW II era and was composed by a pastor in India. It was sung by believers living with the uncertanities of war in Burma and northern India.

The Road to Marble

In 2000 I wrote the following article in remembrance of a distinctively unique experience in my life and the lessons that I learned from that experience.

Thinking about…Vietnam, mistakes, and ministry

In the summer of 1968 I was a youth pastor and had taken my youth group on our second annual Western Camping trip to the mountains of Colorado.  We were camped near the ghost town of Marble, which is approximately twenty miles across the mountains (as the eagle flies) from Aspen.  On a warm afternoon the group, which included teens from several churches, was rappelling on the cliffs surrounding the marble quarries a mile or so above the old town.  From these huge quarries had come the marble used to construct the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and other famous structures in our nation’s Capitol.

The Group in 1968 at the Yule Quarry, above Marble, Colorado. Elevation: 7,992 ft.

I had taken a small group on an errand back to the campsite.  We were slowly driving a four-wheel vehicle back up the steep trail when we came upon a couple hiking up the mountain.  As they stopped to let us pass, we recognized that it was former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had only a few months before he resigned from President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet amid the growing controversy swirling around the unpopular Vietnam war.  For the next couple of hours our combined youth groups played host to this famous couple, demonstrating our daring exploits on the cliffs.   

A camper demonstrating rappelling down the 100+ ft. opening.

The fact that is significant about this encounter is that at the moment we were entertaining Secretary McNamara, the infamous Democratic National Convention of 1968 was being held in Chicago.  And at the very time we were showing off to the man known as “The Architect of the Vietnam War,” protesting students and police were waging a bloody battle on Chicago’s streets.  From then on the national turmoil over Vietnam worsened until the war was finally stopped in 1973.  Actually the distress of that conflict still lingers today in our country. 

The Yule Quarry was reopened for mining in 2011.

Recently, I’ve read two books that McNamara has written during the last five years: In Retrospect (1995) and Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (1999).  In the first book Mr. McNamara attempts to take responsibility for and explain the mistakes that he made, as well as those made by President Johnson and the other top advisors who led our country at that time.  Not everyone agrees with his assessments, and further controversy has resulted from this book.  The second book is actually a collection of thoughts from former U.S. leaders, scholars, and even representatives of the enemy nations.  Truly, the title accurately represents the contents of the book, and it typifies the disagreement that still exists about this troubled era of our history.

There are three openings, or quarries, in the mountain.

I’ve wondered several times over the past 30 years, “Why was McNamara hiking in the mountain wilderness when his political party and his former boss, President Johnson, were struggling in a battle of such strategic importance?” I don’t know, and these books don’t give me answers to that question.  But that experience of many years ago has given me pause to ponder.  Perhaps he was just trying to get away from it all.  Perhaps he was weary of the battle.  The irony was – we were in the mountains trying to prepare young people for battle.   We were trying to prepare them to avoid costly mistakes caused by a failure to implement God’s strategic battle plan.   We were engaged in youth ministry, and our mission was to prepare teenagers to develop purpose, focus, and integrity in their lives. 

When you read the books and articles about Vietnam, you find a rather uncanny accord among the disagreeing commentators.   The quarreling parties find common agreement that the worsening situation stemmed from a lack of clear purpose, a decidedly wrong focus, and a resultant loss of integrity.  Even though the leaders stridently disagree about the reasons for these failures – and the solutions that should have been invoked – agreement nevertheless exists that the great nation of the USA failed in purpose, focus, and integrity.

Today, bloody battles and conflicts continue to plague our world.  Vietnam has faded, but Kuwait, Somalia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and many other hot spots have emerged to trouble our great nation, and world.  Mistakes are still being made – and human suffering continues to persist as a result.

But I feel that the battle for the lives and minds of young people is really the most important battle being waged today.  Those of us in ministry best be warned that we dare not fail in our PURPOSE, FOCUS, INTEGRITY.  In our ministries, in our lives and in the legacy we leave for our youth – we must strive to achieve God’s purpose, focus and integrity.

This was the 1967 group that also camped at Marble, and blazed the trail for the 1968 trip.

“…but this one thing I do…I press toward the mark for the prize of God in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 3:13-14

The Road to Normal

On a cold Minnesota February day in 1966 — 54 years ago — I found a letter in my seminary mailbox that shaped my life, and the course of our family. The letter was an invitation from Bud Weniger to consider being his youth pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Normal, Illinois. I said to myself, “ Boy, I’d like to do that!” But how could it be possible? I was not slated to graduate that spring, but I was intrigued by the idea of going to Normal.

I began to research seminaries relatively close to Central Illinois where I could earn credits that could be transferred back to Central seminary in Minneapolis for my degree completion. This was obviously in pre-internet days, but at that time Christianity Today magazine published classified ads that included summer studies in theology. Two schools were advertised: Winona Lake School of Theology in Indiana, and Temple Baptist Seminary in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Winona Lake did not offer what I needed, but Temple did. So, in early June I drove our new Ford Galaxy 500 Coupe all the way down the old two-lane U.S. 41 to Chattanooga, and Connie followed two weeks later on the train after fulfilling her teaching contract. We had no idea that 30 years later our not yet born daughter would become a life-long resident of that beautiful city on the Tennessee River. But God was leading and directing our journey.

Those were the hay days of the legendary Highland Park Baptist Church, and Tennessee Temple Schools, led by the dynamic Dr. Lee Roberson. We became exposed to a whole different cultural world from our Minneapolis and Chicago backgrounds. That summer we explored the history rich area and spent many hours studying and hanging out in the school’s air conditioned library, because our rental house had no cooling, except for a box window fan. It was an experience.

Student Body @ Tennessee Temple Schools in Chaucey-Goode Auditorium, Highland Park Baptist Church, Chattanooga

Then at the end of August we took up residency in Normal and began four years of fruitful ministry. Actually, it was an amazing ministry experience. When we arrived, the church was running a little over 200 in attendance, and four years later it was averaging 600. We started with a very young youth group, because seven young people from the church had just graduated with most going off to Bible college. Four years later the youth group had grown tremendously with often 75-100 teens attending our youth activities. It was an exciting time.

Calvary Baptist Church after first Educational Wing completed

Those years in Normal were truly unusual, and not normal at all. The growth and spiritual development of Calvary Baptist during those years was truly remarkable. Many adults, university students, teenagers, and children came to Christ during those years and following. The church was thriving with activity and outreach. We led the youth group on four adventurous Colorado Camping trips that were spiritual mountain top experiences. It was a blessed time of God’s grace in our lives.

Calvary Youth Group on a Colorado Camping Trip

At the same time, Calvary attracted many people who had been faithful members at a number of area churches that were slipping into theological liberalism. A robust and growing economy, plus expanding employment opportunities, brought new move-ins to the area. Several of these folks, although from varied church backgrounds, found Calvary to be a welcoming environment for their biblical convictions. The church grew numerically and spiritually.

Pastor Weniger was a tireless worker, and he drew people in with forceful preaching and exposition, but he also recruited and motivated members to put their hands to the plow and work to build the church. Thousands of dollars were saved on building expansion projects through volunteer work days and nights. Additionally, those work projects brought the people together in purpose, and fellowship.

They were great days of working, learning, growing, and serving. Looking back now I realize what a great privilege it was to be part of a not-so-normal ministry experience. Our participation in the church and youth ministry at Calvary was a crucial step in God’s leading down the Grace Journey road that we have been traveling all our life. What a privilege!

The Story of a Nail

During my senior year in high school I attended a youth retreat at Cedar Lake Conference grounds in northern Indiana. At that retreat I heard missionary-evangelist Hubert Mitchell speak and I have never forgotten the impact of his ministry on my life. God is truly gracious to give us these experiences and encounters with choice servants of His during our personal grace journeys.

Hubert Mitchell and his wife were missionaries in Indonesia. They had 4 children when his wife died. Annie Flint’s poem “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater” brought comfort to his heart and the Lord inspired him to write music for it.

Story by Hubert Mitchell, and relayed by Linda Morken

The Story of a Nail is the singular account of one missionary’s encounter with the miraculous. The setting of the story is the central area of Sumatra, Indonesia. The time is 1937. The players are an aboriginal tribe called the Rawas Kubus and a missionary from America by the name of Hubert Mitchell.

Most of the other native tribes of Sumatra were of the Islamic religion, but the Rawas Kubus held to no religion, worshipping only nature. Thus, they were a people despised by the other inhabitants of Sumatra. They were also a people who had never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hubert Mitchell begins his tale with his entrance into Sumatra in 1934 with his wife and his two year old son. After three years of tramping the jungle trails ministering to this people, he desired to reach yet another more secluded Kubus tribe in the Jambi Kubus area.

With guides and machetes hacking through the almost impenetrable forest he finally found himself face to face with the tribes people, he with Bible and they with blow-pipes and poison darts in hand. His guide explained to the chief that Mitchell had come to tell them the story of “the Great Chief” who had died for their sins. The following morning all were gathered to hear this tale.

After having explained the life of Jesus and having begun the tale of the crucifixion, Mitchell realized he was beginning to lose their interest. The concept of a cross and of a nail held no meaning to them; they had never seen either one. His efforts at explanation seemed to bring no understanding and the impact of the story was lost. His audience finally began chatting among themselves and drifting away.

Discouraged, he decided to take a lunch break and pray for God’s help. A well-known poem came to mind: “For want of a nail a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.” And he added in his mind that for want of a nail it was possible that a whole tribe would be lost.

He sorted through his backpack hoping to find some kind of a nail to show them. Neither he nor his guides could find any nail at all. Discouraged, he sat down by a stream and opened a can of mandarin oranges he had bought in Japan.

After emptying the contents, he started to toss the can but stopped short, hearing a clinking sound in the can. Examining it, he found to his amazement and joy a three-inch nail in it!

Quickly he explained to the people what it was and told them that he had never heard of a nail getting into canned food. Believing him, they responded to this God who wanted them to know about Jesus and had helped them, and the whole tribe was converted. This story is told often in our family gatherings, for Hubert Mitchell was our uncle.

Below are some resources about Hubert Mitchell and this true story.

A fuller telling of the story, with complete illustrations, is available through the Billy Graham Center archives at Wheaton College. Click on link below. The video is an oral retelling of the story by his son.

https://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/bulletin/bu1303.htm