A knock on the door starts a lifelong journey of faith.
Julie K. Wietzke
It was a night Mark Hartman says he will never forget.
It was summer 1981 in Big Spring, Texas, and Mark was relaxing in his apartment. There was a knock on his door. Mark says he can’t recall the face of the man who stood there, but he vividly remembers the question that the man asked:
“If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?”
Mark knows the answer now, but at the time he wasn’t sure. But the Holy Spirit used that question and the law and gospel presentation that followed to begin Mark’s journey of faith. “From that night on, I knew that I was going to heaven!” he says. “My only regret is that the evangelist doesn’t know the joy that he began in me and for my family.”
Discovering the truth
It wasn’t that Mark didn’t believe in God before that night. He was raised Catholic and remembers going to Mass every Sunday with his mom and his two sisters. “My dad would take us and find a place to park and read the paper until the service was over,” says Mark. But even though Mark went to Sunday school and was confirmed, he never was encouraged to read the Bible. And he didn’t know the true gospel message. “I would pray and be repentant of my sins, but I just did not have the confidence [of forgiveness], because I didn’t know what Jesus had done.”
He says his parents raised him to be gentle, responsible, and charitable. “That’s how they were—they had big hearts. But they didn’t know their Savior. They were spiritually lost.” Mark stopped going to church around the age of 12.
Mark met his wife, Phyllis, his senior year of high school, and they started dating in college. Phyllis grew up in a strong Lutheran family, but Mark doesn’t remember them talking much about faith or religion while they were dating.
Until that summer night in Big Spring.
After he was asked the question, Mark says he remembers being caught off guard and hemming and hawing over the answer. “I said, ‘I think I’m doing pretty good. I’m kind. I don’t cheat. I don’t steal. I believe in God.’ He asked me if he could show me a few Scripture verses. I said sure. He then proceeded to show me several verses that clearly say that if I believe that Jesus came into this world to die for my sins, I would have eternal life. No strings attached, no special works, no measuring stick of how good I was.”
After the evangelist left, Mark immediately called Phyllis to see if this is what she believed. “She confirmed that this was the truth, and my walk of faith had begun!” says Mark.
That fall he started taking Bible information classes at Shepherd of the Plains, a WELS church in Lubbock, Texas. “I hadn’t read the Bible much, so actually read-ing it and trying to understand what it said was perfect for the engineer in me,” he says. “It is so logical. There are no contradictions. I just soaked it up.”
Mark and Phyllis got married that December, and after moving to Houston, they joined Christ the Lord in Houston.
Sharing the message
But that isn’t the end of the story. “That night set off a series of events in my life for years to come,” says Mark.
It started with Mark and Phyllis raising their two children in the Lutheran faith, including sending them to a Lutheran elementary school.
Mark’s parents began coming to church to see the kids’ programs and special services. They got to know the principal and his family from the school. When the principal’s daughter developed a brain tumor, Mark kept his mom updated on what was happening. “The principal would send out updates on her status and always shared a tremendous gospel message at the end of each update,” says Mark. “I would forward the e-mails to my mom since she knew them.”
He continues, “It was immediately after their daughter died that my mom called me and asked me if I knew of any basic Bible classes that she could take. There is no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit was using [those messages] on her.”
That desire to share the gospel message continued through Mark and Phyllis’ daughter Sarah, who in high school had begun dating her now-husband Anar, a man from Azerbaijan who knew little about Christianity. “As their relationship grew, so did our daughter’s desire to have her boyfriend learn about Jesus,” says Mark. Anar took basic Bible classes and joined the church. Now he is the president of a new mission church that just started in Houston, of which Mark and Phyllis are part of the core group (see sidebar).
Mark’s dad still wasn’t interested, even though Mark, his mom, and especially Phyllis would present the law and gospel to him. But they continued to share the message, especially after he had a stroke that made him dependent on others for the last two years of his life. And the Holy Spirit worked through their witness. “On one of his last days, he confessed to my mom that he believed that Jesus was his Savior,” says Mark.
Mark currently serves as a layman on the Board for Home Missions. As a member of the Board for Home Missions, he gets to put his love for witnessing into action by helping make decisions on where to start new mission churches while being wise stewards of synod resources.
He shares the lifelong lesson he learned from the evangelist who knocked on his door that night: “This missionary back in 1981 cared enough about me; we should care about others in that same way. I think that’s what drives me. My message to others is to try to have as many conversations about Jesus as you can. The more you can share Jesus and what he has done, the more opportunities the Holy Spirit can use you to work. You won’t even know what God used you to do until you’re in heaven.”
Mark says he is looking forward to meeting that evangelist from his past in heaven someday. “For all he knows, our encounter was just another empty discussion. I hope that he comes up to me in heaven and says, ‘Hey, it was me!’ And I’ll just hug him.”
Hope in The Heights
Mark and Phyllis Hartman are part of a core group for a new mission in Houston, Texas, that was just approved for funding by the Board for Home Missions in spring 2019. The seven families that form the core group were from WELS churches in the area and have been meeting monthly for Bible study since 2015. The new mission is located in an urban neighborhood called The Heights that is seeing a resurgence in popularity as people strive to be closer to the city center of Houston. Andrew Nemmers, a 2019 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, was assigned to serve the group last May. Mark shares that the group is starting to reach out into the community as they prepare to launch weekly worship services in September 2020. The name of this new church? Hope Lutheran. “We’re here to offer hope in The Heights,” says Mark.
Links in a chain
Mark’s journey of faith began with a man whose name he doesn’t even know. The man stayed for less than an hour, but the impact he made lasted for a lifetime. It made an eternal difference in Mark’s life and in many other lives as Mark began sharing the peace that he discovered.
Mark says his pastor once told him it’s like links in a chain. You might be a link in someone else’s chain without even knowing it.
Who are the links in your chain? In what chains are you a link?
“The more you can share Jesus and what he has done, the more opportunities the Holy Spirit can use you to work.”
Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 107, Number 01
Issue: January 2020