Picture of the crashed plane in Mexico, 1986

March 22, 2020

Return Flight

A pastor completes MDiv degree at Andrews University after 30 years

When I arrived at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary as an Oregon Conference intern in the fall of 1985, I would never have imagined that it would take me 30 years to complete a Masters of Divinity degree. In March of 1986 as part of my student pastoring assignment, I organized a group of four eighth-grade students from Ruth Murdoch Elementary School and Mike McKenzie, Pioneer Memorial Church youth pastor, to travel with a student missions team from Pacific Union College to Colotlán, Jalisco, Mexico, to build a church and conduct a dental clinic in an Huichol Indian village located in the surrounding mountains.

On March 26, four of our team, including myself, were to fly to the Huichol village and Mike was to be dropped off at the airport in Zacatecas so he could fly home early for an appointment. I was sitting in the back seat of the Piper Cherokee Six plane as we took off from the dirt runway. As we began to gain altitude, suddenly the engine began to sputter and cough. After trying to adjust the throttle for several minutes, we came crashing to the ground. I will never forget the words of co-pilot Roberto Henriquez telling us to tighten our seatbelts as we were about to crash.  My first thought was, “We can’t crash!  I don’t know anybody who has ever crashed in an airplane! That happens to other people!” But, clearly, it was happening to us! Suddenly a sense of peace and comfort flooded my heart like I cannot describe. Clearly, it was the presence of the Holy Spirit with an unspoken reassuring message that I would not die. From that moment on, my life and the lives of the other four in that plane would change forever.

I praise the Lord there was no explosion or fire and that all five of us survived but, from that moment on, my life turned from a young 24-year-old seminary student to a partial paraplegic who was told I would never walk again. Air Evac plane rescue, surgery, two months of in-house rehab, followed by two-and-a-half years of outpatient rehab, brain tumor detection, brain surgery in the brain stem region, radiation therapy, etc., my life went through a series of trials and learning daily to place my trust in the hands of the Lord.

Through God’s grace, I re-entered ministry as a youth pastor in May of 1989, although using a wheelchair. Through his continued grace, I met Debbie Jackson of Coloma, Michigan, and we married in 1990. With the assistance of forearm crutches, I was able to walk and stand for our ceremony. For the next 22 years, we served together in pastoral ministry for the Oregon Conference. The Lord blessed us with three wonderful children, Michael, Matthew and Meleah. After serving in our last church for 13 years, I decided to relocate to the Berrien Springs area and complete my degree. One of the motivating reasons for returning to Andrews was so our sons could be home to finish academy and experience the international flavor of Adventism. I also was ready for a break and an academic rejuvenation which was available with the fairly recent remodeled Seminary building now having an elevator.

In the fall of 2012, twenty-six years after the plane crash, I began studies again. Imagine having to retake Hebrew and Greek after a thirty-year absence on top of having a mild form of dyslexia as a result of the brain tumor. Yet, the Lord was faithful and studying the Bible in the original languages was some of the best brain therapy I’ve ever experienced. There is something about studying the Word of God which has power to bring healing to the mind and soul of a person.

One of the greatest blessings about returning to the Seminary was to discover how much stronger and more complete is the Adventist education taking place on our campus. Rumors continually float around in the field of the “liberal” influence of biblical scholarship at our Adventist institutions and some of my parishioners were concerned I might become tainted.  What I was to discover, however, was amazing.

As I began my stud,y I was granted credit for the classes I had taken in the 1980s with one exception — the class on the Sanctuary. I objected since I had taken a course in the Sanctuary in 1986 from Richard Davidson, but it was to no avail. I had to retake the class. What a blessing! When I attended Andrews during the 1985-1986 school years, our denomination was still reeling from the crisis over the Sanctuary doctrine from the questions raised by Desmond Ford. I had just graduated from Pacific Union College where Ford had taught before he was let go.  The controversial meetings at Glacier View, Colorado, had taken place and the Daniel and Revelation Committee was doing extensive research. Hundreds of ministers left the church and untold members had followed after them.

So, 26 years later, I was introduced to the increased knowledge we had gained as a church under the work of William Shea, Richard Davidson, Gerhard Hasel, Niels-Erik Andreasen, and continued by Roy Gane, Jacques Doukhan, Felix Cortez and others.  Roy’s book, Altar Call, is a beautiful study of the Sanctuary and an answer to the questions and attacks raised by Desmond Ford and Dale Ratzlaff. Although it is a scholarly study, it is written in the language of lay people and is a reaffirmation of the ministry taking place currently in the Heavenly Sanctuary by our High Priest and Savior Jesus Christ.

Continuing in this excellent research and teaching is the work of Felix Cortez and his study of the book of Hebrews and the discovery that the focus of that great epistle is not on the Day of Atonement, but on Christ’s inauguration as our High Priest. Felix is in process of writing his studies into a book form, which I believe will be a great companion to Roy Gane’s book.

My recent experience at Andrews has been life-changing. Having studied under the direction of solid Adventist scholars and graduating alongside these young seminarians gives me greater hope and courage for the Adventist message. These young seminarians, many of whom I’m old enough to be their father, have been prepared to be strong and credible Seventh-day Adventist pastors and chaplains for a continued proclamation of the Three Angels’ messages in power and dedication.

In just a short time, story author Kay Rizzo and I will begin co-writing this story of transition into a book. It will tell of the Lord’s marvelous grace in my life and in the life of his church — a church that has been given a message like no other, a message so desperately needed by the world today.