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Tuesday, April 21, 2009


J. Grant Swank, Jr.

It was 1964. I had just graduated from seminary in the Midwest.

“You will have to cancel your trip. I need you here to start pastoring this start-up congregation.”

That was a district superintendent in my denomination. He had focused on me as the minister for a suburban church in Missouri.

Yet I had already traveled to my first church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. However, this man had other ideas. He had decided that it was God’s will that I leave the Canadian west for returning to the United States. He had it all put together. I was to submit to his more mature judgment.

I was in a quandary. What should I do?

I had finished my senior class exams before my wife completed teaching in elementary grades in a nearby community. Therefore, with some time on my hands, I wrote an essay.

I had spied an announcement on the seminary bulletin board. It invited seniors from any
American Protestant seminary to write a winning essay. So I tried my best. I wrote about the evangelical witness to the gospel’s social callings.

In the 60s, there was a lot of ferment in the U.S., much of it having to do with civil rights. My wife and I had spent a summer between my first and second years in seminary working in a black church in High Point, North Carolina. We assisted the black pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church. Therefore, we were immersed in the evangelical testimony to various social issues of that time.

I had also majored in sociology while earning my liberal arts degree. I had always had a nose for social issues related to the Christian message. Therefore, in writing my essay for the contest sponsored by Winona Lake Bible Conference, I centered in on what excited me most.

After writing the piece, I slid it into an envelope, then promptly forgot about it. I had so much on my mind with graduating from seminary and then packing up for traveling a long distance from Missouri northward to Alberta..

After settling in to Calgary’s Seventeenth Avenue Church, getting to know our new
parishioners, the phone call came from Winona Lake Bible Conference. Would I appear in Indiana?

Indiana? From Calgary, Alberta?

Yes, I was supposed to appear there for a Sunday afternoon presentation. But what was the presentation? That was a secret. I would find out details when I got there.

Well, did I win first place in the essay contest? Or second place? Or third place? Or honorable mention? The caller did not tell me. I was simply to appear there for a Sunday afternoon presentation.

My wife and I boarded a train for the hundreds of miles journey. When we arrived, our luggage had not arrived. We got there Saturday afternoon with no suitcases. I therefore had no Sunday suit for the Sunday afternoon gathering of hundreds.

Therefore, off to J. C. Penney’s to buy myself a suit. As if I had extra money to buy myself a suit. After all, my first pastorate’s salary totaled $45 a week. That was it. From that, $4.50 went back to the Lord as His tithe. Then we gave an extra dollar+ for our offerings.

I bought the suit. I was ready for Sunday afternoon. When the time came for announcing the winners of the essay contest, I could hardly believe my name was mentioned as First Place Winner.

I was stunned when walking across that endless platform to shake the man’s hand. Who was he? I don’t recall. All I know was that he handed me my prize.

I was first place winner! That meant a $500 gift certificate to Moody Press and a year’s
subscription to Billy Graham’s magazine, DECISION, as well as a 21-day trip to the Middle East! Twenty-one days to the Middle East! Unbelievable.

The gift certificate to the publishing house would open up all sorts of book purchases for me as a young pastor seeking to build up my pastor’s library. And of course I was most pleased to receive the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s monthly publication.

But the journey half way around the globe was an outright impossibility — that is, unless I had won first place. And that I did indeed!

Upon returning to Calgary, the Missouri district superintendent called, informing me that he knew the will of God. It was that I was to leave Canada for the United States. And that was to happen shortly.

“But I just won a trip to the Holy Land and Egypt and Lebanon and Greece and Italy and Egypt and Jordan,” I exclaimed. Obviously that win did not mean a thing to the voice on the other end of the phone. It was accepting his offer and canceling out my win that mattered.

After all, he knew the will of God.

If I did not follow through, I would be missing out on pastoring on one of the most prestigious districts in the denomination. (Presumably he considered himself of fairly high station with the title he carried for one of the most, if not the most, prestigious districts in the denomination!)

I had always dreamt of visiting the land where Jesus walked and taught. But I never dreamt in a million years that I would ever actually be there — and in my mid-20s at that!

I discussed the dilemma with my wife. After all, the trip was scheduled for a year from my win; therefore, we could save up money to pay for her trip as well.

We concluded that the district superintendent did not know the will of God. God wanted us to stay put right where we were and then take the journey to where Jesus had lived. Therefore, the next spring we boarded the plane for the Middle East. A dream come true, surely.

That’s why I believe in miracles. And believing in them at the start of a lifelong ministry was one big assist from heaven’s grace.

Thank you, God.