The Little Brown Church In The Vale

I was called to be the pastor of Lifegate Baptist Church in Wildwood, MO in October of 2021. My history with this church is lifelong. As a point of fact, my Dad started Lifegate Baptist Church right after he finished Bible College in 1975; the story of how God brought him and my mother here is exciting by itself – but that is for another time. My older brother, Nathan, was born the week before my parents moved to the St. Louis area to start this church; I was born one year after in July of 1976 and attended this church until 1986 when God moved my Dad to another place of ministry. I came to faith in Christ and was baptized in this church as a boy. My younger brother, Stephen, and my sister, Naomi, where also born in St. Louis and spent their early adolescent years in this city and church. My younger brother, Daniel, was born in St. Louis one week before we moved to the Detroit area in 1986. After we moved away, Dad and Mom stayed in touch with many of the folks here and we would visit on occasions when we were passing through. Most of our family was able to reunite here in 2015 for the church’s 40th anniversary. We were able to re-connect with many people that we had known over those years at Lifegate – and social media helped too.

When my family and I were leaving St. Louis after attending the 40th anniversary celebration of Lifegate Baptist Church, I told Carol, “if I ever lived in a large city, I would want it to be St. Louis. I’ve always loved this city.” I’m definitely a Missourian! Often when we would cross the Mississippi on the way to see my parents, Carol would look at me in the vehicle and see my involuntary smile and say knowingly, “you love Missouri, don’t you?!” However, in 2015, I had been pastoring in rural, east-central Illinois for 10 years. Grace Baptist Church in Paxton was were God had called me to pastor and I was completely satisfied and focused on the work there. I fully expected to pastor in Paxton for my entire ministerial life – I believe very strongly in the value of a long-term pastorate. The Lord blessed our time in Illinois; I spent more than a third of my life pastoring in Paxton. The emotions are still very close to the surface in my heart and mind. I love – and always will – the people of Grace Baptist Church in Paxton, IL. I love the community of Paxton, IL. I loved so many things about that place and that time in our lives. However in 2020, there came a point in our family, where it was obvious that there were areas of change that needed to take place in our family and those changes couldn’t be made in Paxton. So, in July of 2020, we made the hardest decision of our lives, to leave our beloved church family at Grace Baptist Church, and many lifelong friends in Paxton.

The next 15 months were guided by Providence. We moved to NC where I worked in carpentry with my younger brother, Daniel, and helped in the ministry of Crossroads Baptist Church with my older brother, Nathan. I led the choir and the music in the church as well as preached often and taught the adult Sunday school class. We began homeschooling our children again. During that time, we went through the heart wrenching loss of Nathan’s wife, Jenny, to cancer. Our oldest son joined the marines. Our daughter met her future husband. We sold our house in Illinois. But, even though I loved Crossroads Baptist Church and working in the ministry there, the desire of my heart to pastor not only never abated, but actually increased.

Once Carol and I were convinced that God was ready to move us back into vocational ministry and I began talking to a few people, we were suddenly overwhelmed by suggestions of dozens of churches from all over the country which were in need of a pastor. (I’m deeply burdened by the shortage of men available to pastor N.T. churches). Carol and I – and our children – talked and prayed long and hard about what our direction would be. I wanted my kids (the ones still at home) to be satisfied with where we might go to minister. Carol and I thought seriously about inquiring at a couple of different churches, but never felt much peace about most of them, so we waited. My younger brother, Michael, and I were talking one day and he encouraged me to consider Lifegate in St. Louis (my hometown and church); their pastor had recently left and since Michael was home from the Solomon Islands because of Covid restrictions, he had been available to fill the pulpit for them on several occasions. I had heard several months earlier that Lifegate was without a pastor, but had not really given it much thought. But now that I was actively looking to begin pastoring again, I decided to go ahead and put out some feelers. So, I contacted Pastor Squires, one of Lifegate’s former pastors who had come back to function as an interim pastor for a few months. He and I talked on the phone and he then sent me the church’s doctrinal statement and pastoral questionnaire, and asked for my doctrinal statement. I filled everything out and returned it to him and he passed it all on to the pulpit committee.

The next few weeks passed quickly. The church did want me to come and preach, and then they would decide if they wanted me to come and candidate. Carol and I made a trip to St. Louis where I preached and met with the pulpit committee for questioning. Three of the men on that committee had been members of the church when my Dad was pastoring there; he had either led them to Christ or discipled them when they were young in the faith. We obviously had an instant connection and camaraderie. We had a very good visit and they invited us back to candidate. However, we still had some questions as did some of the people at the church, especially some who had not known me as a kid, or perhaps had come after my Dad pastored there.

When we returned a couple of weeks later to candidate, we brought our children with us and I had decided that if the church voted “yes” to invite us to move there to Pastor, that I would wait to answer until we had been able to spend some time with the kids to get their feelings for it.

I preached the morning service and the church then had a public question and answer time after which they dismissed us to go have lunch and then they would vote. While we were eating lunch at Cracker Barrel, one of the men called to tell us that the church had voted to extend the invitation to come and pastor Lifegate Baptist Church.

It may have seemed like an obvious “yes” from our point, but there were still several unresolved concerns in both me and Carol. The church had been through a difficult time the previous year and there would be some healing and rebuilding to do. I wanted some assurance sure that my children wanted to be there. Most importantly, I wanted to make sure that Carol was at peace that St. Louis was where God wanted us.

So the question was, “is this the will of God for us?” I believe that the will of God is not pursuing a mystical course designed for me before the world began, but rather making Biblical and Spirit-led decisions in every situation set before me. We had a situation before us in which we needed to make a Biblically based decision. We had many good reasons to go to St. Louis, but there were also reasons which could have caused us to doubt or question whether we should. There wasn’t a passage of Scripture which would jump out and say, “Go!” or “Don’t go!” We were dependent upon the Spirit of God to lead us to a heart of peace – and He did!

Here is how it happened. First, understand that I’m a Cessationist (meaning that I believe God’s special revelation has ceased), but I do believe that God can still guide us through circumstances and by giving peace or a lack thereof. As Carol and I were in the hotel room on that Sunday afternoon after Lifegate had voted to call us, we were openly discussing what we should do. I had just finished teaching through the book of Colossians at our church in NC in which Paul addresses the Colossians as “the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colossae.” Carol quoted that to me, and said “these people are the saints of God and they need a pastor.” Her point was that as the saints of God, it was His will for them to have a pastor. The question was whether it was to be me or someone else? I responded by saying with a little levity, “yes, only these are the saints in St. Louis.” Then, my perpetual need to be completely accurate with my words jumped in and I laughed and said, “well actually they are the saints in Wildwood!” (Technically, Lifegate Baptist Church in the city limits of Wildwood, MO, a suburb of St. Louis.) All of the sudden Carol and I looked at each other and we both remembered the old song and almost said in unison “The Church In The Wildwood.” Then as we chuckled about that memory, I subconsciously began singing the words to the song (Thanks to L.D. Christy for singing it often for congregational music when I was teen). When I came to the words “no spot is so dear to my childhood as the little brown church in the vale” – I couldn’t hold back the tears and neither could Carol. This was in fact “the spot so dear to my childhood.” I had learned some of my first lessons about God in that very building. It was as though the Lord had graciously directed our minds, our memories, and our hearts to that song as an almost tangible seal of peace upon our decision. As a point of extreme interest, Lifegate Baptist Church is a brown building and does in reality sit in a beautiful little valley of a couple acres, it is idyllic! To show you, you can watch our introductory church video at

I’ve since looked up the history of the song The Church In The Wildwood; the story with a picture is at the top of the page, and the words of the song on there for you to see (they are from Charles Johnson’s book One Hundred And One Famous Hymns). I listen to the song about once a week on a particular recording. Every time I listen to it, I’m reminded of how the God of heaven and earth works to direct our steps. When I was born when Lifegate Baptist Church was only a year old, God knew I would pastor here. When we moved away in 1986, He knew I would be back 35 years later to pastor His people here. He has been preparing me and my family to bring us to St. Louis. There is no peace or confidence like that which is found when you are exactly where God wants you!

Letting Go

This year, I have faced the most difficult emotional transition that I have faced to this point in my life. It was quite unexpected. I’m middle aged, but this wasn’t a mid-life crisis; it had nothing to do with moving one third of the way across the country for the second time in less than two years. It wasn’t because I began pastoring again after almost a year and a half out of pastoral ministry. No, the upheaval in my heart came because my oldest daughter, Laura, got married. To be clear, I’m thrilled with where she is in life; I’m more than pleased with her choices and I love and respect her new husband. In fact, Jeb – though we didn’t know his name, his personality, or what he looked like – has been in our prayers as her future husband since she was born. She is now living the life for which God designed her and for which her mother and I did our best to prepare her. Everything has worked out in her life according to God’s design, her desires, and our prayers – but it was (and is) still excruciatingly hard for me.

You see, Laura and I have an uncommon relationship (every Daddy probably feels that way). From the time that Laura’s intelligence began to manifest itself, we have talked openly about everything. I have never had to worry about her lying to me (a character trait for which Jeb should be very grateful). Even if she did something wrong, she never tried to lie her way out of it. She is one of the most honest people that I know. Because of that, we could have utterly candid conversations about anything. One of my fondest memories of her is when she told me very frankly, “Daddy, when you preach, I always learn something from you, but I’m not really inspired by it.” Coming from her though, it wasn’t painful, it was helpful – I knew that I needed to work a little on my passion and application from the pulpit. We could talk about finances, philosophies, religion, politics, humanity, and even some of those things which some parents find awkward were not awkward for us. I loved every minute when she was with me.

Let me tell you a bit about Laura’s relationship with Jeb. We had moved to North Carolina after 15 years in Illinois. For several months I had been making regular trips back to Illinois to finish getting our house ready to sell. On one of those trips, Laura went along to spend a week helping me paint the inside of the house. While in the truck, she broached the subject of Jeb. Before this trip and conversation, I had noticed on a couple of occasions that she and Jeb had an out of the ordinary camaraderie. He liked to tease her and according to her – he annoyed her. Her brothers would tease her about Jeb and she would get quite feisty and snap at them and then implore me to make them stop. I’m convinced that there was a God-ordained spark that she was feeling, but it caught her off guard and she wasn’t ready for it – especially as one who is a planner and this was sooner than she expected. There were several times Jeb and I had a little interaction regarding Laura that caught my attention. After one particular brief conversation with him, I told Carol, “he really likes her!”

Laura is not an ordinary girl – and I’m not an ordinary Dad. Once she told me in the truck that she thought she had feelings for Jeb, I told her that I didn’t believe in the “he loves me, he loves me not” daisy petal plucking and waiting around to see what might happen. I told her she should put out some feelers and see if the observations that I had were rooted in reality. Not too surprisingly for me, but I think shockingly to him, in her “grab the bull by the horns” approach to life, she just texted him the next day and asked if they could talk (without telling me that she was going to do it). He told me later that he was laying concrete with his Dad and asked him, “what should I do?” His Dad said, “call her!” So he did. I sit here and laugh at my understanding of how the conversation went:

Jeb: “Hey, what’s up?”

Laura: “Dad and I are working on the house here in Illinois and we have spent a lot of time talking on the way out here and while we’ve been working. And … I’m calling because I just need to know… Do you have feelings for me? Because if you don’t, I need to know so that I can start trying to make sure that I can adjust my emotions and my feelings. And if you do, then good, because I have feelings for you!”

Jeb: “Uhmmmm. Well actually, yes… But this is kind of a surprise.”

While this conversation was taking place, I had gotten the sense that she was on the phone with Jeb, and after what seemed like a half an hour, Laura came back down stairs where I was painting and she had a big smile on her face. I asked her if she talked to Jeb and how it went. Yes, she had and it went very well, she told me.

The next morning he called me and asked if it was okay if he and Laura began pursuing a relationship. I told him yes, but that my philosophy – which I believe is Biblical – is that “relationships are started with the goal of marriage” – he and his parents have the same philosophy and so we started off on the same page.

I want to interject that this approach saved both Jeb and Laura what I believe to be several months of their early adult lives. They could easily have spent much time and emotions wondering if anything was going to happen between them, “he loves me, he loves me not…”

I relate all of this because it reveals what kind of personality my daughter possesses. Any of you who know her well, know this is all true of her. You can also understand then why she and I have what I considered to be an extraordinary relationship. She was never “my little girl” in the traditional “Daddy daughter date” kind of relationship. She was my friend. She was a conversationalist. She would challenge my thinking and my philosophies. Amazingly, she had the ability to disagree with me respectfully and yet submit to my leadership and authority in the home. She would challenge me on something – often quite doggedly, until I said “no.” Then she would say, “yes sir” and that was it. I summarize by asserting that she is strong-willed, opinionated, and submissive. She is confident, competent, and dependent. She is not a paradox, she is balanced.

When she was young, I wasn’t ever really worried about who she would marry, because I figured she was quite capable of picking out a good man – and she did. But, up until this point, I was her confidant. I was the one that she asked advice. I was the one with whom she shared her heart, her feelings, her concerns, her dreams, her wishes. I was the one whose word overruled anything that she heard from someone else – whether a preacher, a teacher, a politician, a boss, or a friend.

My difficult transition was to begin to transfer – and rightly so – that relationship to Jeb. I believe, teach, and preach the “leave and cleave” principle which God ordained from the founding of the first home in the Scriptures. I know that she was designed by God to partner with Jeb. I know that God never intended for her to be in my home forever. I knew that she would leave us and cling to Jeb – and that is right, it is what we all wanted – but it was much harder to let her go than I thought it would be.

I decided that I would start that transition long before the marriage day. There were days when she and Jeb would start talking about what they were going to do in their family – sometimes with a bit of a different philosophical application than I possessed. I could see her beginning to shift her loyalties to Jeb, she was adopting his thinking and his philosophies or ideas. It hurt to be replaced. The conundrum was that I wanted her to embrace him. I wanted him to have her as a wife that was loyal to him above all others.

I had to start biting my tongue. Not because they were making wrong decisions, but they were making different decisions – of which I was not a part. I think both Jeb and Laura sensed that I was struggling. I hope that Jeb wasn’t thinking I was going to be one of those fathers-in-law who made life miserable on the new couple because he either manipulated his will on the couple, or forced the daughter to either choose between her dad or her husband.

One day, a friend of mine sent me Elliot Park’s song “I Loved Her First.” I don’t like the title since it seems to set up a competition between the father and the son-in-law. But the text started me thinking on various things regarding a father letting go. Then, for some reason, I started thinking of my own father-in-law and what an example he had set for me of not only letting go, but of active support.

My father-in-law has never, and I repeat, never, undermined me in our home. He has never demanded that we be there for certain holidays. He has never complained that we spend more time with my parents than with them. He has never criticized me before Carol. He has treated me with more respect than I deserve. He has encouraged Carol in her relationship with me. He has never sown any discord between me and my kids, but constantly encouraged them to listen and learn from me. He has told them that they are fortunate to have me and Carol as their parents. Twice in 23 years of marriage, we have lived within a mile of them and twice we have moved away out of state for ministerial purposes, yet he has always encouraged me to do what is right for our family. The second time that we moved was after their retirement and they had moved down to where we lived so that they could be near us – and then we moved away. If any father-in-law has a reason to be frustrated by the decisions of his son-in-law, it is mine. But he still supports me.

After considering how my father-in-law had made the “leave and cleave” principle possible for me and Carol, I realized that I had some work to do in my mind and heart. I began praying for grace to let go. I began withdrawing from conversations that would spark a bit of jealousy or conflict. I began giving Laura to Jeb. I had to face the reality that things were changing of necessity, and rightly so. I would never again be her confidant. She would not be at liberty to tell me her deepest struggles – her heart would now belong to her husband. I would not be at liberty to advise and direct her as I had done for the last 21 years.

The Lord is giving me grace. I love Laura with immensity and intensity – and I’m certain she does me. But, I have to find contentment in seeing her love and support and depend upon her husband. I find joy in knowing that Jeb has an exceptional wife, partner and supporter – because I know what kind of young woman and daughter she is. I find satisfaction in knowing that as he drives down the road with her sitting next to him, holding his hand, that he is thinking, “I can hardly believe I have such an amazing woman!” My greatest joy though, is in knowing that they both – as one – make God smile as He looks down on their union and sees His plan in action – a plan which he used me and Carol to help bring to fruition.