LIFE at Wheaton Bible Church

Home of Wheaton Bible Church's Quarterly Magazine

Never Too Old…to Discover God’s Transforming Grace!


It was that simple request that introduced a whole new chapter in the life of then-79-year-old Don Ortberg.

Paul Sweas chats with Don Ortberg on a recent Sunday morning.

Paul Sweas chats with Don Ortberg on a recent Sunday morning.

Before that day, prayer was—to say the least—not a part of Don’s vocabulary. The child of alcoholics, with an abusive father, Don describes his early life in rural Iowa as “tough.” Put into the Army Air Corps by his parents as an underage recruit, Don completed his tour of duty at the age of 17, went to school and married at 18, and was a father before he was 20. With a family to support, Don dropped out of school and went into manufacturing—a world where he found significant success—in spite of his hard-drinking, hard-partying lifestyle.

When his first marriage ended in divorce, he quickly remarried—and divorced again. Eventually he met and married Jan, his present wife of 34 years, who spurred him to make some changes in his drinking habits. Attacking that problem like any business challenge, Don sought professional help and got his alcohol abuse under control.

A self-made man in the classic sense, Don was determined to take on the toughest jobs and put in the time and effort to succeed. Through those years, he worked in companies such as Whirlpool and J. I. Case, later ending up in Chicago in the plastics injection-molding business, where he spent the next 27 years.

“I worked myself up from a machine operator to president of a company,” Don said. Though a business success, Don admits that he was not a nice person but rather an aggressive bully with a big ego, who ran over people who got in his way.

It was a failed investment that brought Don and Jan to see their financial advisor, Paul Sweas, in August of 2009. An oil company in which Don was heavily invested had gone into bankruptcy, and they were concerned about how that significant investment loss would impact their retirement income. Paul, a member of Wheaton Bible Church, was able to reassure the retirees that no lifestyle adjustments would be necessary.

“When we got all finished,” Don recalls, “he surprised me when he said, ‘Could I say a prayer for you?’ Without thinking, I said yes. “I was pretty impressed because the prayer was very appropriate for the situation we were in. And after that, Paul gave me this little booklet to read, called Steps to Peace with God.” As he recently told that story, Don pulled the booklet out of his wallet.

When the two men met again several weeks later over a specific financial concern, the conversation again ended in a brief prayer, the gift of another little booklet—and an invitation.

“Don,” Paul asked, “would you be interested in going to a Bible class?” A man who loved reading and loved history, Don paused for only a moment and then agreed to go.

“Paul said, ‘We’ll be happy to pick you up. I’ll go to the class with you, and I’ll bring you home.’ He knew I don’t drive.” That Bible class was WBC’s Alpha course, and not only did Don agree to join Paul for the class, but he kept coming back.

“Don had so many questions about the Bible, that I picked him up an hour early each week—just so we could discuss his questions,” Paul adds. “We spent a lot of time on repentance and forgiveness.”

“I met some very nice people in the Alpha class. And I enjoyed it immensely. After about 10 weeks, I had to admit it: there was a God. And there was a man named Jesus Christ, who lived on the earth for thirty-three years. I had read and studied enough by then that I was absolutely convinced that, yes, there was a God.

“I went for a few more weeks, and one day I decided that I was going to repent. I was going to tell God all
the sins that I could think of that I had done. It took a long time. I had lots of sins that I told God,” Don recalls. “And the strangest thing happened, because after I had done that, I got a very warm feeling in my whole body. I was euphoric, delighted. I was happy. I had never felt that kind of happiness before.”

Along with the Alpha class, Don was also becoming an eager student of the Bible. “By that time, I had probably read most of the New Testament—I told you, I really like to read.” Although his vision is poor—“I’m going blind,” he explains—Don put his Bible on a Kindle, where he could increase the size of the print.

Paul Sweas commented, “For a guy that was going blind, he really had God open his eyes (physically and spiritually) to read and study God’s Word!”

Today, Don reports that he’s read the New Testament two-and-a-half times and says he’s “about seventy-percent of the way through the Old Testament.” He’s read Revelation four times. “I have a tendency, if I get a little confused, to go back and reread something,” Don explains.

He also sought insight from others, including Paul’s son, along with several friends he met at his fitness center—a group that included a missionary, a Lutheran pastor, and WBC members Lon and Marie Allison, who also exercise there. “If I have a question about something I’m reading, I have no reluctance whatsoever to ask them questions. ‘What about this? What does this really mean?’”

“Don has a great smile,” Marie says. “When he talks about the Lord, his face radiates with joy. He says he is not the same person anymore, that he is happier and more content than he has ever been, and he has more peace.”

Another friend at the fitness center, Roger Rinke, talked to Don about some struggles he was going through. “Roger was telling me about some things, and I was telling him about how I was at peace after going to Alpha. I said, ‘If you want to go to Alpha, I’ll go with you.’ So I’d go sit with him at Alpha, until things got started, then I would get up and go to the After Alpha Bible study.”

“After two or three weeks, Roger suggested that we go to Sunday service,” Don recalls. “I wasn’t really sure I was ready, but I decided to try it.

Paul remembers that early on at Alpha, when another leader asked Don to come to church on Sunday, he said absolutely not!

Roger Rinke and Don head for Connections Adult Class

Once Roger asked him and he agreed to go, Don says, “We chose the 8:15 traditional service. Pastor Rob gave an excellent Gospel reading, and I enjoyed the total service very much.” “Now we go to church together every Sunday,” he added. Don and Roger also attend men’s Bible studies and are part of the Connections Adult Class.

“I have never met people like I’ve met here at this church,” Don adds. “And I’m very comfortable. I look forward to coming to church.”

And more than Don’s reading and church attendance has dramatically changed. “My old attitude was, Anything you’re going to get, you’re going to have to fight for. If store clerks waiting on me made a mistake, I’d bring them down for it. If I was in a restaurant and I thought they were being inefficient, I’d let them know.” But today, this self-professed former bully is a new man. “I used to fight my afflictions—diabetes, heart issues, ruptured disc in my back, losing my sight—and every day I was griping and complaining about my health.

“I don’t complain about it anymore. I’m at peace now. I have no idea how much time God put on my clock, but whatever time He put on there, I’m going to enjoy myself. I’m going to enjoy today. Now whatever I get, I’m thankful for. I don’t have to fight anymore.”

Data from the Barna research group indicates that fewer than 25 percent of those who accept Christ as their Savior do so after the age of 21. But thank God that 40-, 60-, even 80-year-olds are discovering God’s peace, forgiveness, and grace—and contentment like they’ve never experienced it before— when they hear and respond to His voice.

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