What 40 years as a pastor have taught me: Change is a strange reality (part IV)

When Donna and I decided that it was OK for me to pass up the opportunity to finish a paid for PhD in theology and the assurance of a future position as a professor in seminary, we thought we were committing to being in Champaign-Urbana for three more years. Since our original plan had been to be here only about three years in total, this was—in our minds—a huge extension of our plans.

Both of us had grown up moving quite a lot throughout our childhoods and college years. Then we had moved six times during the first seven years of our marriage. So, being in one place for up to six years seemed like quite a commitment. And, admittedly, we soon began to feel a bit restless, like something was wrong if we weren’t preparing to move on.

This August, we began our 45th year in Urbana. But, one of the things I have learned during those years is that you do not have to move away from a moderately sized university town—nor do you have to change churches or change ministries—in order to have change in your lives. If you are alive to God, people, learning, and one another, change will come, and that is good. For people like me, it is even essential.

As I mentioned in the last post, I began this saga wanting to “know it all,” and I probably acted like it at times, too. But, God has changed all of that. I also thought I was temporarily giving up my quest to live my life in a creative theological setting, but I have found this community a place that has never quit challenging me to grow theologically and intellectually. I thought I was giving up my desire to go to Israel and see how my faith interacted with Jewish thought and culture, but I have been given many opportunities here to pursue that quest in a much deeper way than I ever imagined possible, even in Israel.

I thought New Covenant Fellowship would remain a church without a building and a place for “hippies” to feel at home, even if they were unwelcome in all the other churches in town at the time. Instead, we have gone through one metamorphosis after another as a fellowship, including now having a building that’s open daily to serve people in need of a hot meal. I hope we are still “counter-cultural” in the best sense, but we certainly do not have many hippies around anymore—in this city or in our church. I thought we would find it easy to become inter-racial and multi-cultural as a fellowship since we were so committed to this as God’s goals and God’s justice, but we have learned that though these goals are deeply rewarding, they are certainly not easy ones to achieve.

Though intellectually I always knew better, I think emotionally I always believed I would stay young—keep shooting baskets, fielding ground balls, and lifting heavy loads. But I cannot do any of these things since a life-and-death surgery 10 years ago. I thought I could handle the deep divisions among Christians over same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage in a manner that preserved the peace—and I learned the hard way that even many of my closest friends on both the left and the right would leave if they disagreed with how I was handling things on that front.

And, in all of these areas, I am still growing and changing—hopefully mostly for the good.

Of course, the cities of Champaign and Urbana as well as the University of Illinois have also changed more than I ever would have dreamed during these 44 years that I have lived here. Being visually challenged in terms of memory, I cannot even remember what the two downtowns used to look like when I first moved here, and the University campus is an entirely different world. And, during those years, thousands of people have come through New Covenant Fellowship and through my daily life and relationships, and many of them have moved on to many parts of the globe in this mobile world. A much smaller number are still around.

I am relatively certain that if someone had said to me when I was praying about perhaps staying in C-U for three more years, “If you do this, you will still be here 45 years from now,” I would have ignored God’s nudging to stay and began packing that very month. But now it’s difficult to imagine that I once thought choosing to stay put for three more years was a decision to “give up the exciting changes in life” that I had always valued. I have certainly learned that God is full of surprises. And, these surprises often contain changes that we could not even have imagined.

No wonder God does not show us much of the future. It would make many of God’s blessings impossible since we would almost totally misunderstand what we were being shown. I have learned that attempting—the best you know how—to be where God is leading you today will be good enough as a way to move toward tomorrow. I might also be more exciting than you could have imagined.


As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.   / Ron

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