Whenever you go on vacation and come back with your tan and Tommy Bahama shirt, the first question most of your friends will ask is, “So… What was the best part of your vacation?” OR “What was your favorite experience?” And then you have to share that same answer for the next 2-3 days to everyone who asks. In fact, in light of that phenomenon, one of the things we used to do with our kids on the drive home from vacation, was ask each of them to share their top 3-4 highlights from the trip – and that would serve as a kind of primer for the questions we would all be asked over the next few days.
So, when I started to thinking about what I would want to share tonight, I couldn’t help but think of this as the end of a grand adventure – and as a result, thought I’d pick out the five highlight experiences of my last 22 years at Woodcrest. These are the stories, I will be telling my kids and grandkids for years to come.
Now, I will concede that choosing just five stories out of this 22 year run was no small task. I have had so many unbelievable experiences. I have been so blessed and there are so many things that will forever fill my heart with tremendous gratitude. Which actually leads me to my first highlight:
1. I can’t believe I got here (given where I started) – as some of you have heard me share before, I was never all that successful in most of the things I tried growing up. I was always the kid with the funny last name. I was the guy who was good enough to make the baseball team, but never good enough to start. I was defeated in every student government office I ever ran for. Was never really popular with the girls. And graduated in the bottom 50% of my high school class. The only thing I was actually any good at was partying. And that wasn’t exactly going to get me on the fast track to success.
So, for me to be standing here, in a room full of people, who are the respected citizens of our community celebrating the contribution I made to a church they have loved and has actually changed their lives for good is nothing short of a real world illustration of the amazing grace of Jesus. This moment (and all that it represents) will be my most significant testimony and life highlight. God really does make something out of nothing, if we let him!
2. A very personal one to me, and its the day Chris Mitchell said “yes” to my invitation to join us on staff. One of the things that was quite clear to me from early on was that if our philosophy of ministry was ever going to work, we would need a premier (highly-skilled) creative artist/musician on our team. Two problems: (1) how would we find someone like that? (2) how would we convince that person into coming to Columbia MO?
So, when we met Chris and Lori, we couldn’t believe our good fortune, and I turned on whatever charm I could when they came to visit we prayed and prayed and they decided to join us in this grand adventure. Let me say as clearly as I know how: We would never have known the fruitfulness we experienced apart from Chris and Lori’s willingness to come and join us.
And the reason that was significant wasn’t just for what we would know under his influence. It was that his “yes” created a cascade of other “yeses” that we are experiencing the benefits of even today. Think about it – because Chris said “yes”, Kent was set up say “yes” and that led to Mat and Troy’s “yes”, which opened the door to Brad’s “yes” and James’ “yes” and we could say it contributed to drawing Theese back after her and Joe’s move to Springfield.
3. Another life highlight I will take with me from my 22 years at Woodcrest is the joy I experienced at our church-wide baptism services. There are people here tonight, who I had the privilege of baptizing. Feel so honored! I know that the Christian life is about a lot more than that decision and it is only the first step. But, without that first step, most people aren’t able/willing to take any additional steps. And personally, I think this first step may be the hardest. The decision to make that turn-around is what takes the most energy. It involves enough humility to recognize that you need to go in a new direction, and the courage to risk a new beginning.
I have celebrated hundreds of baptisms over the years (every one being special and unique) and I would say that of all the statistics that have been quoted about our church the one I am most proud of is that WC has always been in the top 10 churches in our state when it comes to number of baptisms in any given year. I will take that joy to my grave!
4. My fourth highlight involves pretty much everyone in this room. It has to do with the openness and resilience of our congregation. When our church was being recognized by the Chamber of Commerce as Small Business of the Year (in the not-for-profit sector), I was receiving a lot of applause for my “courageous and creative leadership” and every time it came up, I took the chance to talk about the entrepreneurial spirit of the congregation as a whole. Church leaders can only be as creative as the congregations they serve will allow them to do so. And over the years there have been a host of detractors – about music volume or number of Bible references, or the flashing of lights and haze.
And even if those dynamics were not “your thing” you instinctively understood that it would take new methods to reach new people. And the fact that many of you here are people who have been at Woodcrest for 7, 9, 12, 15+ years is a testament to your resilience and creativity! Any commendation I have received over the years is one you share with me, because literally without your “permission” and support, none of this would have happened! It would have shut down the moment you stopped coming and paying for it.
5. My final highlight I want to mention is the fact that I got to do all of this with a wife who has been nothing but supportive through thick and thin. Some of you know that Carol and I had a pretty rough courtship. On the night before my parents were coming to meet a Carol for the first time (because we had started talking about marriage), Carol ended up breaking up with me. And a large part of it has to do with the fact that she wasn’t sure she was cut out to be a pastor’s wife. And maybe in her more candid moments, she might have been blunt enough to say she didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife.
But, over the next few days she came to the conclusion that she loved me enough to go wherever God led us to go – and even made that part of her wedding vows.
So, after a very difficult pastorate on Pennsylvania, I dragged her here to Columbia MO. Pieter was 6, Mallory was 4, and Curran was 9 months old. She didn’t know anybody here. Her closest family was 12 hours away. And from day one church life was intense. Lots of demands. Lots of visibility and scrutiny. But, she was always ready to open our home to small groups and dinner celebrations. She dealt with the complications all the way to the end, and she never lost her heart for God or the love for her husband. And quite honestly, I don’t know how many ministry couples can say that at the end of their run they still love God, the church, and people with whom they had the chance to serve alongside. So, getting to do this with a woman like Carol has been the best highlight of all!