All eyes were on Mark Roessler. "The Lord is my Shepherd," the 17-year-old murmured. Swish! "I shall not want." Swish! Two free throws dopped through the net like stones sinking in the nearby Mississippi River.
The psalmist's words were powerful, but Roessler was using them as a rabbit's foot. "They calmed me, but I really didn't know the Shepherd," he now recalls.
The crowd roared. Roessler was leading his 1966 Clarksdale, Mississippi, Big 8 high school basketball team to another victory.
This was vintage early-Roessler, mixing a wisp of religion into his otherwise self-confident, seemingly self-sustainable life. "Religion was always a part of my life," Roessler muses today "But, again, I didn't understand salvation.
"When I hunted turkeys, I'd go out in the morning on this island in the Mississippi River and very often I remember having an awareness that God was there."
But the exchange between God and Roessler was never one of equal parts. God listened; Mark prayed. Everybody listened when Mark spoke. He was attractive, articulate, athletic, and intelligent.
"In fact," recalls his life-long friend, Dudley Barnes, "when Mark would be ill in junior high and high school, he would stay home and memorize pages in the dictionary. And then he would come to school and stump people."
Barnes was the only "card-carrying Christian" Roessler knew as a boy. "Mark was very much an athlete," says Barnes, "very much a lady's man, but he was also smart. He was very competitive in high school." Everything changed the day Mark Roessler truly met Jesus Christ. On that day, he met his match.
Today Roessler - who pastors the rapidly growing Catalina Foothills Church, a Presbyterian Church in America plant in Tucson, Arizona - is quick to say that holding on to anything but Jesus is like having "just enough Christianity to make me miserable."
Life seemed too good to really need Jesus. Roessler grew up on his grandfather's old cotton plantation, LeFlore Plantation - named for the great Choctaw Indian, Greenwood LeFlore.
Everything in Mark's life seemed easy: he would attend an excellent college, do some time on Wall Street, return to the Mississippi Delta and run an agri-business, go to Ole Miss football games, hunt wild turkeys, and "drink mint juleps on off weekends," he quips.
"I just sort of had my whole life planned out."
The plan appeared to be unfolding with precision. Roessler, in 1966, entered the University of North Carolina, pledged a popular fraternity, played intramural sports and generally enjoyed Big-Man-on-Campus status. He dated a homecoming queen.
Four years later; Roessler attended the prestigious Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he eventually earned an MBA in Finance. Life just couldn't go any better.
Then came Vietnam.
"When I heard about the lottery system, I thought, 'No problem. I'll just get a high lottery number.' But I got number 123 - as in 'Hut,Two! Three! You're done!' "
Engaged to be married and educated for success, Roessler entered the army reserves and, for the first time, considered the prospects of death. Then, suddenly, the grandfather he cherished got multiple myelonoma of the bone marrow. Roessler hurried home in time to watch "the most significant person in my life," a "very kind, gentle, loving man," "disintegrate in a hospital bed."
"Mr. Ham, are you okay?" asked a nurse.
"Dear Lord," he replied, "Please bless my grandchildren that I love so much." Then he smiled, reached up out of bed as if to touch someone, and died.
When Mark received the news, he stepped outside. "Every star that had ever been created was visible, and I just had this overwhelming feeling that my granddaddy was in heaven. The problem was, I just wasn't sure if I was going to make the trip."
Was the Lord really his shepherd after all?
The next three years rapidly unwound Mark's tidy life. He finished at Wharton, but endured a painful break-up with his fiancee. His parents divorced after 28 years of marriage. Mark got pleurisy working in a cotton gin.
"Everything seemed empty and meaningless." Mark started reading his Bible in a different way. Somehow, he heard of Tenth Presbyterian Church, and began hearing Dr. James Montgomery Boice preach. "I had never heard anybody preach the Word like that."
While sitting in the snack bar at Wharton one day, two guys walked up and nervously showed Mark a little yellow booklet. "Have you ever heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?" they asked.
"Well, they got down to Law Four and asked me which circle represented my life - the one with Christ on the outside or the one with Christ on the inside. I had to admit to them that it was the one with Christ on the outside."
Then they asked which circle Mark would like to represent his life.
"Well," Mark replied, "I have really enjoyed talking with you," and he bolted.
Just a few hours later; however, Mark was invited to hear Arthur S. DeMoss of the DeMoss Foundation speak on "The Role of Christianity in the Business World."
DeMoss spoke with passion, not just some manufactured enthusiasm. He asked if anyone would like to "accept Christ." Roessler was stunned. It was the second time in one day he'd been asked this question. Mark prayed with him, but no bells sounded in his heart.
A few months later; however; while listening to black evangelist Tom Skinner at a tiny church in West Philadelphia Mark gave up. "I was an Episcopalian, white, honkey in an all-black church with gang leaders," he recalls. When the altar call was given, every bit of his "old social pride" protested.
Still, Mark walked to the front of the church. "God, forgive me," he cried, as an "overwhelming sense of God's love came into my heart and life."
Mark completed Wharton. It seemed a waste at the time. He headed straight to nearby Westminster Theological Seminary, where he received a master's degree in religion. He was still hedging, hoping to "cut a deal with God." He'd still get to Wall Street, make lots of money, and support lots of missionaries. That's how he'd serve God.
Upon graduation, Mark returned to Mississippi, still wrangling over his call. He entered Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. He hunted turkeys and ducks on Saturdays and Mondays (RTS didn't have Monday classes at the time), and preached in little country churches on Sunday
Back in Clarksdale, the town was buzzing. Roessler was an altogether different guy Barnes recalls Mark would preach to anyone, anywhere, anytime. "He came to this party," Barnes recalls, "and he was a walking maniac for Jesus. He basically just blew people away. They couldn't believe it. They didn't have a category for it."
Mark received his Master of Divinity degree from RTS in 1979. "I packed up my earthly possessions in a little 1970 Chevy Malibu that had 129,000 miles on it and I drove to Miami, Florida for my first call."
He had given up Wall Street. Now he said good-bye to Mississippi. "Some might not be able to understand how hard this was for Mark," says Barnes, "but he is one of those Delta boys who loved it with all his heart - and still does. He loved the land. He loved his family. He loved the African American friends he'd grown up with on the old plantation. One was named Solomon, and Mark learned more wisdom from that old Christian man. God was just taking everything Mark ever held dear away from him."
The Lord was Mark's Shepherd now, and He wanted Mark to want only Him.
How is it that God can get his man and the man still think he can "get one over" on God?
These qualities quickly brought Mark to D. James Kennedy's attention. After two years at Kendall Presbyterian, Mark was called to Coral Ridge Presbyterian in 1981, to head up their rapidly growing Evangelism Explosion ministry.
God introduced Mark to The Philippines shortly after the Marcos regime was ousted in 1986. Mark traveled to Romania when Ciacesku was executed. As the head of Evangelism Explosion, Roessler took the gospel message worldwide. God blessed his preaching in ways he'd never imagined possible.
Mark also was training local Miami believers to give the gospel. One couple. Paavo and Marguerite Ensio, learned EE under Mark. They became close. "We got down on our knees on their kitchen floor in Boca one day and just prayed together that, if God ever wanted us to do ministry together; that we'd be open to do it. I don't know quite why we felt led to pray that."
There was a root at the bottom of his ministry, however, that God wanted weeded out. "I was a single pastor for all those years and I would work sometimes seventy-five hour weeks, flying all over the world. And I really kind of bought into a brand of performance Christianity that I refer to as the John Wayne theology - "the tougher it gets, the tougher I like it."
A string of painful incidents - several friends' fatal car accidents - plus his unyielding schedule piled on Mark. Clinical depression set in. "I just went through burnout. I hit the bottom. All of a sudden I began to question God."
Mark took some time off. He studied some of the greats of the faith, such as G. Campbell Morgan, who said that "invariably there's coming a time in every Christian's journey when he or she is going to come to a place in life where nothing really makes sense: God doesn't make sense; your journey doesn't make sense. And the question is: What are you going to do when that happens?"
Roessler believes that "God's omnipotent hand was just taking my little, puny life and just squeezing me like a little grape. It's called brokenness."
Hope was on the horizon. While on a trip home to Clarksdale, he met Norma Maynard, another Clarksdale native. The two married in July of 1986. Mark was 37.
With time, the Roesslers took a call to Briarwood Presbyterian Church, which he still calls the "Camelot" of PCA churches. God used the ministry of Senior Pastor Frank Barker to restore Mark's understanding of gospel ministry.
In 1987, while speaking at Memphis's Second Presbyterian Church, Mark witnessed God save his dad. Not long after, the two sang hymns on his dad's deathbed. Incredibly, just thirty days later, Norma's father died. For the second time in a month the couple returned to Clarksdale, picked out the same type of casket, the same funeral home, and met with the same people who came to comfort them.
"I remember about a week after Norma's father died we were lying in bed one night and Norma started crying and I was crying... .The truth of the matter is, God was breaking us-again."
The Roesslers had kept up with the Ensios ever since the two couples moved from Florida. The Ensios now lived in Tucson, Arizona, and they began praying Mark and Norma would plant a PCA church there.
Mark often quipped to the Ensios "I don't do work west of the Mississippi River."
In reality, another pivotal moment had come. Norma had a great job in Birmingham. They had a new house, great friends, and the best of churches. They had two children, they were "back in the Deep South," and "everything looked good."
"God really started convicting me of how comfortable I was, that I wasn't really trusting Him, that I could just go through the motions. I sensed that God was calling me to get out of the boat and come on the water towards Him, just like Jesus did Peter. It was like, 'Mark, are you really going to trust Me and get out of your comfort zone and really step out in faith?'"
The Roesslers moved to Tucson, where they knew a grand total of two people.
On August 1, 1994, the Roesslers arrived. Roessler recalls his early church planting efforts; "I went around and knocked on a bunch of doors, a couple of thousand doors."
Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church's first official worship service was held that September in a local high school auditorium with about 130 people.
By September of 1999, the church had built a $4 million multi-purpose facility with a 65O-seat auditorium. Today Catalina Foothills has about 1,200 worshipers attending its 8, 9:30, and 11 a.m. services.
Roessler emphasizes lay evangelism. Members are trained in Evangelism Explosion.
Evangelism teams canvas the city on Wednesday evenings. RTS graduate Phil Kruis already has planted a daughter church on Tucson's east side, with 200 attending.
The church has a kindergarten to twelfth-grade school that Norma has thrown herself into. The Roesslers two daughters, Neely 9, and Caroline, 7, attend there.
"Cornerstone Christian Academy is a part of something significant - the reclamation of the Christian mind and the recovery of a great intellectual and cultural heritage," says Norma.
As God has blessed Roessler's ministry in Arizona, his ministry back in Mississippi also has increased.
The two reminisced. Then Mark asked Vaught about something more important than his backswing - whether Vaught was converted or not. "You know; Mark, it's funny you would ask that," answered Vaught. "I've really been trying to do that. I want to, but I just don't know how."
"Coach," replied Mark, "would you like to receive that gift?"
Vaught looked him straight in the eye. "Let's do it," the coach said, sort of like he might once have crowed, "Let's go for two!" recalls Mark.
Then and there, Roessler and Vaught got down their knees. God changed Vaught's heart, and since that time Mark and Vaught have shared the coach's testimony in several venues. "He isn't ashamed of it at all," says Roessler.
"God brought Mark into my life at just the right time, and I want others to have the same peace that I now have," says Vaught.
Mississippi writer Willie Mortis wrote a highly acclaimed book entitled North Towards Home detailing his adult life in New York City and his eventual return to his beloved Deep South. In somewhat similar fashion, God has brought Roessler "West Towards Home."
Surrendering to God's call has given Mark a life of true joy in service to God. Today when all eyes are on Mark, he might be heard quoting the 23rd Psalm "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want." Now; however; there's more at stake than a high school basketball game. Mark Roessler isn't merely chanting those words - he's living them.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2/3