Sunday, April 21, 2013

Annual Report 2013

My brothers and sisters in Christ,

            Our reading from Hebrews this morning says that it was “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” This verse characterizes so much of Abraham’s story. The story of Abraham is the story of a journey with God; a story of following God’s leading; trusting that God knows the way even when Abraham does not.
            Abraham’s story resonates with me tremendously because my own spiritual life has become such a journey. I have come to believe very strongly in the very simple idea that the Spirit is leading so long as I am willing to follow. That leading of the Spirit has taken me on a journey around the eastern half of our country; first from Virginia to Boston and then to Kansas City. It is that same leading which brought us here to Clinton. For 6 years, our respective journey’s, yours and my family’s, have coincided. It has truly been a blessing to walk this path with all of you for the last six years and so it is with sadness but also with trust in the Spirit’s leading that I announce to you this morning that the time for our paths to diverge has come near.
            I was recently informed that I was accepted into Boston University’s Doctor of Theology program in New Testament studies. As a result, our journey will be taking us back to the Boston area and we will be leaving Clinton some time this summer. I want to tell you a little bit about how God has led me to this point but before I do there are a few things I want you to know.
First, I want you to know how thankful I am to have been your pastor over these last six years. I feel like calling it a blessing isn’t really adequate to describe just how grateful I am to have been your pastor and how appreciative I am of the way you have cared for my family in the time that we have been here. Being your pastor has changed me. It has made me a more complete person and a more faithful follower of Jesus and for that I am eternally grateful. I will never forget that you took a chance on a 25 year old fresh out of seminary with no pastoral experience and that you were patient with me as I learned my way and discovered my own pastoral identity. You have had a tremendously significant role in the formation of that identity. Your influence on me in my time here is something that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Second, it is important to me that you know how deeply I have been committed to you. I want you to know in all the time that I have been here that I’ve never considered leaving for another church, never sent out a resume, never looked to see what else was available. I have been dedicated to being your pastor. Jess and I have always felt that it was the Spirit of God who led us here, not mere chance. We believe that same Spirit is now leading us once again.
Along those same lines, it is extremely important to me that you know that my time as your pastor was not a means to some other end. I know that pastors, myself included, are not immune to ambition and that sometimes pastors can use churches as a stepping stone to something else; a bigger church, a higher position of leadership, or whatever the case may be. Some of you have even indicated to me personally over the last several years, in the most gracious and complementary of ways, that you expected great things for me and that those things would one day lead me away from here. I imagine even now, as I am announcing to you that I will be pursuing a doctoral degree, that it may have the appearance of going on to “bigger and better things.” I want you to know that is not how I see it. I won’t deny that this is something I’ve desired for a long time and I also won’t claim that God told me this is what I had to do. I believe very strongly that God has opened this door for me but I also believe it is my decision to walk through that door. However, I will say with great confidence that my criteria for making this decision has always been about whether or not this was the best way for me to serve Christ and His kingdom. A number of things have happened over the last year which have convinced me that it is. But I want you to know that it is not as if I knew this is where I was headed all along. My time as your pastor has not been a stop on the way to something else. I have thrown myself as fully as I know how into being your pastor, given it everything I have known to give it, given you all of myself I knew how to give in the time I’ve been here. Far from being a mere stepping stone, I have regarded you as partners and co-travelers on this journey together for the last 6 years as we have sought to follow Jesus together.
With that in mind, let me share with you my own testimony this morning of how the Spirit of God has been leading me lately. As I said before, whether or not to pursue a doctorate in New Testament studies is something with which I’ve wrestled for a number of years. Ever since college, I’ve had a number of professors tell me they thought I was capable of such work and I always thought it was something I would enjoy. However, given the immense amount of time, energy, and resources it takes to complete such study, I wanted to be as certain as possible that this was my place in God’s kingdom. So even as I continued to pray and think about it, I committed myself to the task to which I knew God had called me; being your pastor.
Some of you may remember that in the fall of 2011 I went back to Kansas City for two weeks to take a class at seminary. It was around this time that I was finally beginning to give up on the idea of a doctorate. I was beginning to feel like I had been out of school too long and that the path back would be too difficult. While I was in Kansas City for that class, I spoke with one of my former professors who I knew would give me his honest opinion about whether or not this was something I should pursue. We had a lengthy conversation but what I remember most about that conversation was a sense of urgency.  My former professor reiterated to me that he was confident I had the ability to complete doctoral studies but he felt that it was important I do so sooner rather than later.  At the time, I felt that meant the decision was made; that the door was indeed closed.  I simply wasn't at a place where I was ready to leave our church. It felt as if this long-wrestled-with-decision had finally been made.
In the midst of those autumn months, in this time when I had basically given up the idea of doctoral work, I received a phone call.  It was on Halloween night of all nights and it was our District Superintendent, James Spruce.  Dr. Spruce had mentioned to me before that he thought I should keep further study open as an option and he began to reiterate that sentiment as a part of this conversation.  At first, I thought this was simply a passing comment as he was making his way onto his "real reason" for calling but I eventually realized this was the reason.  Right in this time when I thought this door was finally closed, here was my District Superintendent, who knew nothing of what I have mentioned above, calling me on a random week night to say nothing other than that it was not time for that door to close.  
This caught my attention.  It was very much like my call to ministry.  This was someone speaking directly to what I was wrestling with even though they didn't know that I was wrestling with it much as others had said to me "Have you ever thought about being a pastor?" when they had no idea that was exactly what I had been thinking about for months.
I started praying about it... a lot.  I couldn't stop thinking and praying about it...again, much like my call to ministry had completely consumed my thoughts and prayers.  And the more I prayed and thought about it the more I felt like this was the direction the Spirit was leading. I started to see my conversation with my former professor differently.  Whereas I had seen it as a "No" now I saw it as a "Hurry up and get on with it." Since that time, there have been so many little confirmations along the way. The most significant of those confirmations came just last week when I not only found that I had been accepted into Boston University’s School of Theology but that the scholarships they would be providing were far more than I had anticipated or even imagined was possible.
Last Sunday, so many of you shared how God has been faithful to you. This is my testimony to you this morning concerning God’s faithfulness. I’ve said often that when I look back over the course of my life I am nothing short of astounded at where God has brought me. I marvel at how God has taken an often shy and timid kid and made him the husband of an exceptional woman, the father of three amazing children, and the pastor of a congregation of such wonderful and faithful people.. It is far more than I could ever deserve or even have imagined. And now God is providing and promising anew. Overwhelmed is one of the few words that even approaches adequately describing how I feel.
It is for that reason that I have complete confidence that God will also remain faithful to this church; to all of you. God’s love and faithfulness is already being demonstrated in and through so many of you and I know that it will continue to be. Sunday after Sunday for nearly 6 years now, we have proclaimed together that “We are called to be a community that is a faithful image of God’s love” and I say “Thanks be to God” because there are so many ways that calling is becoming a reality among us. I believe the future of this church will be brighter than its past so long as you continue to dedicate yourselves to that calling.
In fact, I believe that the words of the prophet Haggai that we heard in our time of worship together just a few months ago are appropriate for a time such as this. “Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all the nations, so that the treasures of all the nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’”
Finally, I want to say this morning that although the day will soon be here when I will no longer be your pastor, I hope that doesn’t mean we can no longer be friends. I hope that you will give Jess or I a call from time to time or send an e-mail to let us know how God is continuing to build his kingdom among you here in Clinton. I trust that you will get on facebook to see pictures of our children as they continue to grow. Most of all, I hope that you will pray for us fervently for years to come as we will for you. The path ahead for my family and I will not be an easy one. We will covet your prayers just as we have in the time that we have been here.
It has been such a gift from God to me to be your pastor and I know that it will be just as much a gift to continue to be your friend. May the Lord bless you and keep you and cause His face to shine upon as you serve him faithfully for many years to come. 

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