In the fall of 1979, I transferred from Youngstown State University to Grove City College to complete the last two years of my bachelor’s degree in communication arts with the goal of launching a career in journalism.
At the time I had no idea that the move to Grove City was part of God’s grand plan to begin a transformation in me that continues to this day. I’m sharing this account as part of “Go and Tell,” the 2024 word I introduced in January to Abundant Life Fellowship, where I am completing my 15th year as senior pastor. With that word is a passage from Luke 8 where Jesus sets free a man possessed by demons, after which he instructs him to “return home and tell how much God has done for you.”
This is my story.
Growing up with two older sisters in a stable, middle-class, church-going family, I lived a fairly normal life with parents who loved us, provided for us and taught us morals. I learned early the value of hard work, sticking with a job (my first one at 16 at the Dutch Pantry in Austintown lasted more than four years until I moved to Grove City) and being responsible. Because we were regular attenders of church, I grew up hearing about Jesus, though I realized later that while I knew about him, I didn’t really know him.
I’m not sure how old I was, but I recall one evening in our living room with my mom watching a Billy Graham crusade when I felt some kind of a nudge inside of me as if Jesus were trying to introduce himself to me. It was probably the start of his move on my life, though generally I went on living life as usual, not really understanding much about faith but probably acknowledging, if asked, that I had least some. I also have many fond memories of walking in Mill Creek Park as a teenager and thinking often that there was more to the beautiful creation around me than what I understood.
From my earliest recollections, I was always a thinker and a ponderer. “How do we know we’re really here?” I asked my mom one day. “Ask Mrs. Yost (my Sunday school teacher),” she advised. I’m not sure if I ever did. I’m certain there were times when I talked with God, though I never gave much consideration to whether he was listening.
An active member of our church youth group, I recall being sent twice by the church as one of two youth representatives to a weeklong Reach Out camp at Mount Union College, where I eagerly participated in everything that went on and felt different – more complete – when I was there, though I didn’t really understand why. Heck, I even spent a period of time singing in a youth gospel quartet (The Gospel Tones) with one of my sisters and two friends.
“And I thank God for the lighthouse. I owe my life to Him.
Jesus is the lighthouse and from the rocks of sin,
He has shown the light around me that I might clearly see.
If it wasn’t for the lighthouse, tell me, where would this ship be?”
I sang those words enthusiastically and frequently as part of our repertoire of songs, though I don’t recall having any authentic sense that I owed my life to God or had any particular pressing sin that I needed to address. I was a moral young man and that was enough, I thought, though again I would have occasional nudges that there was more to this than I knew or understood. I also was somewhat resistant when hearing about or encountering street evangelists in the 1970s who would ask people The Question: If you were to die today, do you know where you would spend eternity?
Even then, the thinker in me wanted a better reason to follow Jesus in this life, not just for some sense of security after death. After all, I wasn’t an addict. I wasn’t abused. I had parents who loved me. I had a sound understanding of right and wrong. I was OK just as I was.
Between freshman and sophomore years at YSU, my mom suggested we take a summer trip to Grove City College to see what educational options they might have for me in my pursuit of a journalism career. Neither YSU nor Grove City offered journalism as a major, so program strength in that specialty was strangely never a factor in my decision making. Several people from our church were attending GCC and loved it. Because of its affiliation with the Presbyterian church, faith was foundational to its existence and practices, though I don’t recall that being any factor in why we were going to visit there.
The day trip was great. Without an appointment, the admissions office staff welcomed me enthusiastically, gave us a tour of the beautiful campus, and explained the details of the very competitive application process. The experience was so positive, I wanted to apply immediately for my sophomore year. We ultimately decided for financial reasons that it would be better to stay home and spend my sophomore year at YSU and apply for the transfer beginning with my junior year. And that’s what we did. To my delight (and surprise), I was accepted.
So in the fall of 1979, I excitedly headed to my first experience living away from home and in a dorm with complete strangers. With a welcoming approach and lots of activities for new students, GCC staff made the transition very easy for me. I hit it off well with my roommate, Tim Carson, and I quickly made friends. The hardest part of the change was that I actually had to study more diligently for the first time in my life. Excellence is part of GCC’s history, and learning how to think about application of principles rather than just memorizing facts was a new and challenging experience for me, but one that I ultimately enjoyed thoroughly.
Because of the faith element at Grove City, attending a certain amount of chapel services throughout the week was a requirement, as was having a Bible with us. That was new for me. Again, though I was churched, reading and studying the Bible regularly wasn’t anything I had practiced. It didn’t take me long to realize that many of the people around me at GCC practiced faith in a way that reminded me of my two stints at youth camp, and before long I found myself attending midweek worship and fellowship nights put on by a student group that I believe was called Salt Company.
I believe through my attendance there is where I met classmates Marilyn Dawes and Lisa Smith. Going into finals week near the end of my first semester, I received a Christmas card from Marilyn and Lisa with a business-size card in it that had a scripture verse on it. For reasons I still don’t understand, I taped that little card onto the lamp on my desk in my dorm room, though I have no initial recollection of reading the verse on it or being particularly affected by it.
One evening that week as I sat alone in my dorm room studying for finals, I found myself feeling frustrated, though I don’t recall all the reasons why. I was still dating a high school girlfriend, but that relationship seemed to be going nowhere. As I sat at my desk in that frustrated state, my eyes landed on that small business card on my lamp with this passage from Proverbs 3:5-6:
“Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.”
Lean not on my own understanding? But instead trust in God? Acknowledge him in everything, and he will direct me?
This was brand new to me, and it was as if Jesus were sitting right there on my lamp inviting me to do what these words were saying. So right there, with nobody around and certainly not understanding much of what I was saying or doing, I acknowledged Jesus, throwing off my penchant to try to understand everything on my own, and then asking him to direct my steps. Somehow I knew that what I was doing was going to be a lifetime commitment and not a passing fad. In those moments, I met Jesus for the very first time. All those years of his wooing me had finally reached a place where it became real, and not just some emotional response to people around me.
Remembering that my Bible was nearby on my bookshelf, I pulled it out and read more verses in Proverbs. And I knew instantly that something was happening inside of me as the words on those long-neglected pages came alive.
Responding to a strong urge, I walked across campus to the chapel and sat there for a long time, a practice that continued frequently throughout the next three semesters at Grove City. Transformation began aggressively as I quickly developed a love for the scriptures. The very simple practices of trusting in God with all of my heart, and leaning not on my own understanding but instead acknowledging him in everything immediately became real to me and continue today as if they were still brand new to me. What freedom I was experiencing as I surrendered to the one who, yes, promised me eternal life, but who also promised to direct my steps in this current life. I had been a good and moral person who didn’t know Jesus, and because of that faced the certainty of hell at my death and likely frustration throughout my life.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3. I had heard about this born again stuff, but generally dismissed it as unnecessary for me because I grew up going to church.
But now it was starting to make sense. Oh, yes, the freedom it brought to me.
I have much more to “Go and Tell” about the many specific ways Proverbs 3:5-6 has played out in my life, but for now I’ll close with an invitation to anybody who is trapped by the lie that they must figure everything out. Or by the lie that being good and moral are enough. Or by the lie that being born again is unnecessary for churched people.
Here’s the invitation: If you don’t have a church home or if you have a need, join us Sunday at 10:30 at Abundant Life Fellowship, 46469 State Route 46, New Waterford. I’ll be referencing those verses in Proverbs in my message titled “Follow the Directions.”
Jesus has been directing me for 45 years now. And I must Go and Tell how much God has done for me.