By Ronald L. Nickelson
The year was probably 1982. I was age 27, and I was bored. I could have been good at the job I held as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, but I wasn’t—and my performance evaluations fairly reflected that fact. The job fit my college major just fine, but for some reason it didn’t fit me.
Then one day a man by the name of Jack Cottrell from Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary showed up at my church in Fairborn, Ohio. He had come to teach a Wednesday-night series on the Holy Spirit. Professor Cottrell announced that attendees could take the six-week class for either college or seminary credit, so I gave the latter a try. I was startled a couple of months later to receive back my research paper emblazoned with the grade of A-.
That fired my imagination. I knew little about the Bible at the time; I had rarely cracked it open since having been baptized into Christ some 17 years prior. And yet Jack Cottrell planted a seed that made me realize that there was something more important to pursue than anything else: theology—the study of God.
So, I quit the Air Force and, with the support of an understanding wife, enrolled full-time in Cincinnati Christian Seminary in the fall of 1984. Years later, I would characterize those six Wednesday night studies under Professor Cottrell’s tutelage as the “Macedonian turning point” in my life, with allusion to Paul’s experience in Acts 16:6-10.
And what a turning point it was! I began to devour the Bible as I read it cover to cover every year for at least a dozen years. Whenever I sat in one of Professor Cottrell’s classes, I felt as if we were in one of those “Vulcan mind melds”—his wavelength was mine as well. Graduation in 1987 was followed by a pulpit ministry, and then completion of another degree program. I also entered the Air Force Reserve as a chaplain and taught at a Bible college for three years.
What followed was a 20-year ministry as editor and then senior editor of the Standard Lesson Commentary. Each transition was firmly rooted in that first encounter with Jack Cottrell when he set aside personal comfort to drive 140 miles round trip for six Wednesday nights to teach a class on the Holy Spirit at a small church. Only eternity will reveal the full impact of Jack Cottrell’s decision in this regard.
But there’s a footnote I can’t resist adding. After the preacher at my church (Ned Noble) had had the foresight to arrange the Wednesday-night series, I overheard a deacon question why the church should pay this extra expense when we were already paying for preaching services. If only that deacon could have foreseen the “Macedonian turning point” to come! But then again, none of us are so privileged to know such things, are we? That’s where faith comes in—the faith that Jack Cottrell had in 1982.
Ronald L. Nickelson is senior editor emeritus of the Standard Lesson Commentary.
(Jack Cottrell died on Friday, Sept. 16. Visitation and a Celebration of Life service for Dr. Cottrell will take place next Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 26 and 27, at Bright [Ind.] Christian Church. A complete obituary is available here.)