Writings by Cole Huffman

I Love You, Church

I don’t tell you enough how much I appreciate you. I don’t say, “I love you, church,” as often as I should.

When I was in seminary, I listed on an index card the kind of church I hoped to pastor someday. I kept the card in my Bible and prayed through it weekly. I was taught to be ready and willing to go anywhere the Lord sent me, but I hoped to live in the Southeast. I hoped God would send me to a college town. I hoped for a church that would not fishbowl my family. I hoped for longevity in one pulpit.

In the fall of 2000, I entered a partnership to plant a church in Murfreesboro. That endeavor seemed to be “it,” concentrating in one work the hopes baked into all those prayers. God was giving me the desires of my heart, I believed. But two short years later that work was over for me and I was in transition to Memphis, a city I disparaged while a Nashvillian. I drove I-40 westbound dazed by the turn of events I’d experienced, fighting to get up from the ten-count of cynicism. Cynicism is unresolved discouragement. It doesn’t always taste sour but, like Mama’s pound cake, there’s a sad streak in it.

Having failed at church planting, I thought longevity was out of the picture. I arrived to First Evan a sad man. I was told at the end of my interview process that I’d moped my way through it. But I was thinking I would never be a franchise player. I would be a journeyman putting in four years with this church, five with that one, and then move on. I didn’t want that, but expected to be in my associate staff role here two years and then uproot to another post. It was at least a little more time in Tennessee, I thought, before we were sent somewhere truly God-forsaken like Florida.

Two years will be two decades a little on from here. I stand amazed. There are a host of factors impacting pastoral tenure, not all of which are negative when the tenure is short. It’s not like a short season at a church equals bad time and a long time equals good time. Longevity for its own sake turns into mediocrity. But the benefits in longevity are many. Chief among them is love has time to cure.

I mean “cure” in its seasoning/preserving sense. There is the healing sense of “cure” of course: I came to Memphis hurting over ministry lost, and your love helped cure me of the pain I brought with me. I found First Evan a place to heal. But as I’ve stayed in Memphis pastoring First Evan, your love has cured (seasoned/preserved) my sense of place and people.

Place matters. My appreciation for it needed curing. As Jim Elliott said, wherever you are, be all there. Years ago on a Council Retreat, we discussed a hypothetical: Where would we move if our Ridge Lake facility ever became inadequate for us? Trying to be funny, I perked up, “How about Nashville?” Nobody laughed. And that wasn’t due to the sibling rivalry between our state’s two largest cities. It was because inside my wisecrack was a thinly veiled dismissiveness. My sense of place was uncured, and the men could smell it on me. They knew I was keeping myself from becoming a naturalized citizen of their place, a place that has only welcomed me and cared for me (and endured me) and is now fully my city, my home.

Francis Schaeffer used to say there are no little people, no little places. My sense of people needed curing also. God has used First Evan for me in this also, but in a most unlikely way: I didn’t expect to lose so many friends who used to go to church here. I didn’t lose those friendships. I still have them. But a lot of people I met at First Evan and got close to are at other churches now, and I’ve felt those losses. But here’s what was unexpected: rather than wanting to follow them out the door, I got even more rooted and committed to this place and the people remaining.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I really do love you, church. Bilbo Baggins announced to the hobbits at his 111th birthday party: “I don’t know half of you as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” The church is like the Shire in that way—it takes a lot of us a lifetime to learn to love those God loves infinitely in an instant, His people.

I think of times when I get a that-was-the-worst-sermon-I’ve-ever-heard email followed by that-was-the-best-sermon-I’ve-ever-heard email. Is that crazy? No, that’s the church. Eugene Peterson said the church is equal parts mystery and mess. Count it all joy or count on not staying long anywhere, I tell younger pastors coming up behind me now. I count myself quite a blessed churchman. I have the best pastoral job in the world.

So I don’t say it often enough—and I apologize to those who don’t feel the love from me (I am sorry)—but I do love you, church. And I thank you for first loving me.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:28 PM
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