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S  T  O  R  Y
BY KATTY MARTIN

T ALL BEGAN AT A HORSE show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. With my two daughters, Brooklynn and Blair, I was helping our friend, Kathleen Ojala, show her Arabian mare. It was a fall day in 1990. That was the first time we met Connie Sweitzer and her daughter Angie Grosso. They came rushing from the show arena to the stall where Kathleen had taken her horse after her event. I have to smile as I reflect on that introduction; the most significant detail I recall was that Connie and Angie, who had driven up from Maryland, appeared far more interested in the horse than in the humans.

Getting Acquainted
Six months later our paths crossed again, this time on a pristine Sunday morning in Maryland when the girls and I decided we just had to get out, take in the beauty of the spring, and visit Kathleen and Ken and their horses one more time before we moved north to Pennsylvania. That morning, pulling in beside us, was a car with Pennsylvania tags. In the car was Connie, the same woman we had met at the horse show, and her husband, Ernie.

“Where in Pennsylvania do you live?” I inquired after introductions.

“Oh, we just moved to a little town you’ve never heard of,” Ernie responded.

“Try me,” I said.

“Mifflintown” was his response.

I was astonished. My husband, Dale, had just accepted a call to pastoral ministry, and Mifflintown was one of the churches in our three-church district. Ernie didn’t seem to catch my enthusiasm as I wrote down their phone number and address.

After we left, Connie and Ernie stayed well past midnight discussing end-time events with Kathleen and Ken. Even though Kathleen needed to sell horses, she was excited that this couple really seemed more interested in those eternal, existential questions that the gospel speaks so well to: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?

Once we became somewhat settled in Pennsylvania, I called Connie and Ernie. I took them a loaf of homemade bread and discovered that Connie was a vegetarian, so I gave her and Ernie a copy of the book Living Well: Eight Fundamental Principles for Developing a Healthy Lifestyle. They seemed unimpressed. I recall thinking, Do these people get excited about anything?

I began trying to find a time when we could invite Connie and Ernie over. That was easier said than done. Connie seemed indifferent and Ernie almost reluctant. I learned that Ernie didn’t like to go to someone’s home for dinner if meat wouldn’t be on the menu.

Again the Lord worked through horses. Ernie was developing a real attachment to our younger daughter, Blair, then 5 years old. He promised he would come see her new pony.

I remember just three things about the meal we ate when they finally accepted our invitation to visit: I served taco salad; and after we ate, Ernie told me that he was still hungry and that he was going to have to stop on the way home for a “real meal.” I’m glad God gave me the gift of laughter.

In the meantime Connie began reading Clifford Goldstein’s book Pause for Peace, sent to her by Kathleen. She accepted an invitation to accompany me to Maryland for a weekend to stay with Kathleen and to attend the church where I had been invited to speak. Connie began attending my women’s Bible study/vegetarian cooking classes in State College en route to her weekly square dancing lessons.

Then three and a half years after we moved to that district we accepted a call to Mississippi. I’ll never forget the goodbye session with our two Mifflin-town friends. The usually unflappable Ernie said, “Hug us and get out of here before we get too emotional.”

We left them standing there in front of their barn holding our gift of the book The Great Controversy, and knowing Connie already held in her heart the conviction that the seventh day is the Lord’s day. In fact, her emphatic description to Ernie of the fourth commandment will stay with me forever: “Well, Ernie,” she challenged, “if it’s not important, why do you think God wrote it in stone?”

As we climbed into our car I recall making a rather incredulous statement: “You haven’t seen the last of us. We’ll be back.”

A Friendship Grows
We stayed in contact with this special couple by phone. I was in the middle of my teachers’ retreat the following summer when Dale called to tell me about the fire. I’ll never forget Connie’s words when I got through to her: “The whole house—everything in it—I can live without. It’s just my cats. I would give anything to have them back again.” Kitties were another bond we shared with our Pennsylvania friends.

I don’t think Connie and I ever prayed as intensely as we did over those long-distance wires that sad day their house burned.

In January of 1996, four and a half years since our first encounter and just six months since the fire, I received another phone call from Connie. She and Ernie had been living in a trailer behind their house while rebuilding their house.

“Daisy’s OK,” she first assured me, referring to her new kitty. “We got an A+ in flood control, but we flunked fire prevention.” Connie then went on to explain, “The river flooded, and overturned our propane tank, causing it to explode. Our trailer’s burned to the ground.”

I was speechless. Two homes burned to ashes in less than six months. Everything that didn’t burn in the first fire was consumed by the second. The only encouragement I could offer was that we were moving back to Pennsylvania—to Reading—a drive of about an hour and 45 minutes from Mifflintown. But it seemed little consolation in light of the repeated tragedy Connie and Ernie had been called to endure.

How easy to find ourselves disappointed and even discouraged by all the distractions the devil heaps onto the lives of those who have heard and believed the good news but have yet to take that final step of faith in the truth as it is in Jesus.

During their first visit to our new home outside Reading several months after our move Connie mentioned the book we had given them when we moved to Mississippi. “You know, that Ellen White book burned in the first fire,” she said. “I was about a third of the way through it.” We sent them another copy.

Connie called again. “Kathleen sent us a book by Mark Finley. Ernie finished it in an evening. He’s convicted on the Sabbath, and now he’s hot on me to finish The Great Controversy so he can read it. This thing’s not an easy read, you know.”

One week later another call from Connie: “I’m whipped. I finally finished it at 4:00 this morning. Ernie’s already started it.”

Then Ernie called a few days later: “I just finished The Great Controversy. This is one powerful book.” A little chuckle. “Tell Dale I hold him directly responsible for the first fire.”

Ernie then went on to describe how their other books that were by the chair when the first fire started were burned but recognizable. But there wasn’t an ash remaining where Connie had laid the first copy of The Great Controversy that fateful morning. “The devil knew she was a third of the way into it,” Ernie said with serious conviction in his voice, “and he determined to destroy it and discourage us.”

More Opportunities, More Obstacles
Connie and Ernie began attending the Mifflintown church, bringing much life and excitement to the tiny congregation. Their presence was a direct answer to the prayers we had been sending to the Lord for six eventful years.

Yet they were in no hurry for baptism: There would be a new crisis through which God was going to work.

One day Connie called with news about their daughter and son-in-law. “Angie and Paul are pregnant, and they want to get out of New Jersey, move to Mifflintown, and have the baby baptized in a Christian church,” Connie told me. “‘But not that strange seventh-day church, Mom. I hope you’re not getting hooked up with that.’” The phone lines clearly carried Connie’s anxiety. Again we prayed, asking for a miracle.

C. S. Lewis has said, “God whispers to us in our prosperity, He speaks to us in our ordinariness, but He shouts at us in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Our friends’ next encounter with tragedy was heartrending. Extended testing revealed that Angie’s baby had an extra set of chromosomes. Her doctors questioned whether she could even survive the pregnancy, and they began pressing her to have the baby taken immediately. She refused. As Angie’s own health began to be compromised, Connie begged Dale to talk with their daughter.

After much prayer and more sickness, Angie agreed to go through with the procedure. But she requested a final ultrasound just as she was being wheeled into surgery. Little Hanna, as Angie and Paul had named their unborn baby, had died just minutes before the tragic procedure was to begin.

During the private memorial service for this precious child, Dale shared the meaning of her name: “God has heard me.”

During these intense months we learned that our dear friend, Kathleen Ojala, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. With Connie and Ernie, Dale and I made four trips to Maryland to visit and pray with Kathleen and Ken. At the last, just before Kathleen died, Ernie knelt beside the couch she was lying on, and holding her hand, promised to carry on the torch for truth. Barely a week after little Hanna’s memorial service, Connie and Ernie joined us for the sad trip to Maryland to attend our dear friend’s untimely funeral.

As we drove home from the service, Ernie stated his incredulousness at the influence of Kathleen’s life and the magnitude of his promise to her before God. Yet the Lord had given him this conviction and ministry, both in his family and in his own town.

The Ever-widening Circle
The Holy Spirit wasn’t working with Connie and Ernie alone. Soon they were sharing their books and beliefs with their children, Angie and Paul, and countless friends and neighbors in their community. And what an exciting event when the two couples asked for a baptismal date—almost seven years to the date from the time the girls and I met Connie and Angie at that horse show long ago.

Angie and Paul, having been married in a civil ceremony, requested a private Christian marriage before their baptism, which Dale laughingly referred to as a “shotgun” wedding, since a new baby was on the way. But our Father, who placed us all in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), had yet another surprise: Angie and Paul were having twins.

As Angie recounted in her own words her fervent prayers for not just one baby but two—together—to comfort her and Paul, she rejoiced, “God has heard me. He has paid me back twice!”

While we can’t know what tomorrow will bring, let alone next week or next month, we worship a God whose ultimate purposes know no haste and no delay. His perfect will is always accomplished in His own time.

That’s why we have come to love the promise: “The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt” (Jer. 31:3, 4, NIV).

_________________________
Kathy Martin is an educator, author, and lecturer who lives in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. She enjoys sharing in the pastoral ministry of her husband, Dale.

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