July 01, 1916 – November 03, 2009
The first verse of the Avis Christiansen song, “Only One Life to Offer”, contains a beautiful description of John’s long life of service to his Lord. “Only one heart’s devotion” is a word picture of this life well spent in ministry. That one life began when Lester John Miles was born on July 1, 1916 to Lester Daniel Miles and Susie (Truax) Miles in Michigan. John (he preferred that name over Lester) graduated from High School in 1934 and went one year to Hope College. He then transferred to Taylor University, and it was there that he was led to faith in Christ through his older brother George. After his undergraduate degree was completed at Taylor, he applied to and was accepted at the fledgling Dallas Theological Seminary in 1938. Ministry officially began the summer after his sophomore year when he rode a train one hour west of the city each weekend to preach at a small country church. That pastorate continued through graduation in 1942. The following year John and another graduate began a Christian Servicemen’s Center near Battle Creek, Michigan to reach young men serving in World War II. After that ministry was turned over to Detroit businessmen, John returned to his home town of Wayland, Michigan and was asked to pastor the Methodist church. He enjoyed that work immensely, and there came a point when many in the congregation asked him to help them leave the denomination and initiate a Bible church across town. Calvary Church of Wayland was formed.
In 1948, just three years after marrying Evelyn Nysewander, his lifelong ministry partner, he joined a local pastor, Dr. Malcolm Cronk, in starting the Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music. He served as an instructor and administrator for two years while pastoring his church. When Dr. Cronk moved to California to pastor a church, John became the President of the School and served in that capacity for another 38 years. Throughout those years, his “one life” was used in incredibly productive ways. He taught such courses as Freshman Doctrine and Pastoral Theology for Seniors. He traveled extensively around the United States and Canada with music groups from the School and in meetings in various churches, conferences and camps. He had numerous opportunities to travel and speak in foreign countries like Australia and New Zealand, and in other places where GRSBM graduates served. He taught weekly Bible classes all over Grand Rapids. He taught the Word weekly on the School’s radio station, WGRS, for years. He also served as interim pastor in churches in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Muskegon during that long tenure, often returning to the same church in between pastors. He was never idle, and was regularly on the phone counseling pastors, especially graduates of the School. He preached wherever he was invited. In the span of 1968 to 1988, when he kept accurate record in a little red book, he preached close to 10,000 sermons! It is likely that in his 69 years of ministry he preached close to 40,000 sermons, and he loved every minute of preparation and delivery! Many lives were impacted through his ministry in the Word of God.
In 1985, when his oldest son Tim and his young family made a move to St. George, Utah to plant a church, he felt led, along with Dick Manion, to begin Tentmakers Bible Mission as a vehicle for missionaries to get to the field faster using any tentmaking skill they had to provide income for a family along with missionary support. John and Dick were on the original board of the Mission. TBM has grown tremendously over the past 25 years but has continued the church planting passion that was in the heart of both of these men. Still at the School, John gave as much time as he could to encouraging the first few couples who joined the mission. His experience in pastoral ministry, along with Dick’s, was invaluable to those early church planters.
After his “retirement” from the School in 1988, he was invited to return to his former church in Wayland for another term of eight years as Senior Pastor. Then he and Evelyn moved to St. George, Utah. But he didn’t sit around soaking up the sun in that warm climate. He got involved in teaching Sunday School at Southland Bible Church, conducting Bible classes and engaging in personal evangelism. Throughout his lifetime as a Christian his heart was to share the Good News with anyone and everyone. He always carried Gospel tracks with him and handed them out, but never without a challenge to be sure to read it and to contact him if the recipient had questions.
When Frontier School of the Bible in Wyoming began growing exponentially and more staff was needed, John responded. He and Evelyn moved to LaGrange in 1999 and then began another eight year ministry to students and faculty alike. He loved teaching and particularly cherished interacting with students. He connected with young people well because of his humor and his obvious interest in their personal lives. Near the end of his teaching time at FSB he began pastoring the Hull Methodist Church just outside of town and thoroughly enjoyed that local church connection again. When he physically could no longer travel the distance to the church, the church family graciously consented to have church in his home because they enjoyed his messages from the Word and knew he cared about them.
When his health required a change of venue to his daughter’s (Gloria Bagley) home in Idaho, he was no longer involved in ministry in the traditional sense, but he still fielded phone calls and dispensed godly wisdom. He and Evelyn continued a powerful prayer ministry. Even in the last week of his life, confined to a hospital bed, his mind not always clear and his words often jumbled, he commented one night—“I just want to know what God wants me to do for Him now!” That was the essence of his life- simple obedience to His Lord. From his salvation at age 19 to the end of his life at age 93, he just wanted to do what God wanted him to do. May all of us have that same attitude of total surrender to God’s will! The final verse of the song that began this article is the best way to end it, confident that this was John’s prayer:
Only one life to offer- take it, dear Lord, I pray!
Nothing from Thee withholding- Thy will I now obey!
Thou who hast freely given Thine all in all for me-
claim this life for Thine own, to be used, my Savior, every moment for Thee!
And God answered that prayer in amazing ways through this one life well spent! His home-going was November 3rd, 2009, but though his body is laid to rest in a little cemetery near Bill and Gloria’s home in Idaho, he is with the Lord enjoying the “pleasures forever more” at his Savior’s side. We all miss him and will see him again someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future!