This week, my family celebrated our last Thanksgiving here in Illinois. A few weeks ago, I accepted a call to pastor a church in New Hampshire. We’ll be moving the first weekend in December, and I’ll be in the pulpit in January. I can’t begin to say how excited and grateful I am for this new adventure. It’s the fulfillment of a long-standing dream of mine, the end of a long wait.
I’ve spent half my life – my entire adulthood – in Illinois. That was something I never expected when I moved from Seattle to attend Wheaton College. I thought I – like my father and grandfather before me – would simultaneously get a bachelors degree and cease to be a bachelor, and then move on. I expected to go straight on to seminary and be serving in full-time ministry by the time I was twenty-five. I certainly didn’t plan on staying eighteen years in this mountainless, over-taxed, over-crowded place where the summers are too hot and the winters are too cold and there isn’t enough of the color green.
But God had other plans. I didn’t meet my wife while I was in college; it turned out I had more growing to do before I was ready to find her. I didn’t go straight into full-time ministry; I had a lot more to learn before I could be entrusted with the care of God’s flock. I had to learn patience. And trust. And humility. (It turns out that twenty-five-year-old me was not the answer to the problems of American Christianity.)
Along the way, I learned to love Illinois. I got used to the winters. (Which is good, because New Hampshire isn’t going to be any warmer.) I came to appreciate the expansive prairie sky. I tried to use my vote to improve the dysfunctional state government. I adapted to life in Midwestern suburbia and became part of this community.
As I get ready to leave, I am thankful for all that God has given me during my sojourn in this place. Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School enriched my mind, formed my attitudes, and connected me to life-long friends. Trader Joe’s in Glen Ellyn provided me not only with a paycheck for fourteen years, but with a community and worthwhile work everyday. I’m grateful to have spent so much of my life providing my neighbors with really great food at great prices in a genuinely fun environment. And it’s changed the way I eat. Our new home will be an hour and a half away from the nearest Trader Joe’s, but we will make that trip from time to time. (I’ll miss the 10% employee discount, though!)
The biggest blessings God has given me here in Illinois are the members of my little family. No matter where God may take us, the beginnings of our marriage and the beginnings of our children’s lives will always be wrapped up with this place. The first date. The first kiss. The first anniversary. The miscarriage. The layoff. The thesis. The graduation. Picnics, walks, late night conversations. The first apartment. The first house. Four healthy children – first breaths, first smiles, first steps, first words, first letters.
Of course, I get to take Rebecca and the kids with me to New Hampshire. Of the things I leave behind, the one I’m most grateful for is the church family that has nurtured and supported me through all but my first two years in the Midwest. College Church in Wheaton has shaped and formed me in more ways than I can count. I have been mentored and taught, encouraged and equipped, corrected and rebuked, tested and affirmed. Most of all, I have been pointed to Jesus and rooted in the Bible. I have developed deep and meaningful relationships with supervising pastors, partners in ministry, and brothers and sisters in Christ. Through all the ups and downs of college, single life, marriage, parenting, work, and ministry, this community has been with me in the fellowship of the gospel.
It’s not that College Church is perfect. Being part of this community has sometimes been uncomfortable, even excruciatingly hard. Some of my brothers and sisters have been hard for me to love. I haven’t agreed with every decision that gets made. There are things that would be different if I were in charge.
But I’m not in charge. And that’s good. This is Jesus’ church, and he has his own plans for it, and for me, which are far better than mine could ever be. And these are his people, recovering sinners just like me, adopted children of God just like me. Despite all the things that could divide us, we are united around that fundamental gospel message of God’s grace to us in Christ. And therefore we are truly, deeply, eternally united. I am grateful to have been nurtured by a church that is defined by that central gospel unity, rather than by secondary issues on which genuine Christians disagree.
And I’m grateful to be going to a church that has that same gospel focus. College Church and MillBrook Christian Fellowship certainly are very different on most external measures, like attendance (thousands vs. dozens), region (Midwest vs. New England), and community (suburban vs. rural). Those differences are real, and we will have some adjusting to do after so long in this context. (At the same time, a smaller, more rural church is just what we’ve been hoping for.) But what unites the church we’re leaving and the church we’re going to is far more important: a focus on the central, biblical message of God’s grace in Christ. We’re excited to be going to a church that has been firmly established on that foundation. And we’re grateful to be sent out from a church that has re-enforced that foundation so faithfully in our own lives.
College Church, Rebecca and I will miss you. We thank God for your partnership with us in the gospel from the first day until now. May he continue to bless both you and us as we part ways for his sake, knowing that those who are united in Christ are truly united forever, no matter how much physical distance there may be between them.
Image credit: Laura Glover, https://www.freeimages.com/photo/hand-shake-1241578