Today I will give my final lecture as a college professor, symbolizing the end of fifteen years in Christian college ministry.
Sometime late in the afternoon, I’ll finish a lecture like I’ve done many times before. But this time will be different. I’ll close my white teaching binder for the last time, corral my personal white board markers, overstuff my Southern Seminary bag, and shake hands with the handful of students who will wait to exchange final pleasantries. Then it will be just me, in an empty, silent classroom in Rankin Hall, taking it all in and feeling whatever a man feels when he walks away from something he loves because God is clearly calling him to another field of harvest, as unknown as it is ripe.
All I know is this: No matter what else happens in my life from here on out, I have already been blessed beyond all reason.
Every day this week, and almost every day this semester, I’ve been asked how I feel about our upcoming move to pastoral ministry in Houston, Texas. Every day I’ve been asked if I’m ready to go. And every day I’ve said basically the same thing: I’m ready to go, but not ready to leave. I’ve loved teaching, and I could love it for several more decades if that were God’s clear calling on my life.
So having a full spring semester to rev the academic engines one last time, giving a final semester of students all I have left, has been a singular privilege. As the semester has wound to a close, my walks across campus have grown sweeter. I literally walk more slowly. I breathe more deeply. I look around more, feeling the same stirring sentiments I felt seven years ago when I first walked this stunning, historic campus, glorying in all that I anticipated God might do.
I didn’t know the half of it. I couldn’t have known.
But now I know, and the eager anticipations of an incoming PhD student have ripened into the rich and textured memories of a no-longer-young man who’s been forever changed because I got to study and grow and work and teach at a God-favored institution whose legacy has left its indelible mark on yet another life.
And each day as I walk this campus and count down the days, I see it all again, like it’s brand new.
The striking red brick. The brilliant white clock towers. The hundreds of windows lining the emblazoned buildings. The rich green grass, always freshly mown. The imposing pillars guarding the James P. Boyce library, signaling the unspeakable riches that lie within, like wisdom crying out in the open square, “Enter here!”
I sense the history. I feel the pain and euphoria of important theological battles won and lost. I see with my own eyes the hopes and dreams of the still-young men and women who long for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and who long to marshall all their strength to help his kingdom come.
This is why I came here. This is why I’m indescribably thankful as I prepare to leave. And this is why everything means just a bit more these days: every prayer to open a class, every stimulating question that sends the mind racing, every song sung together in chapel, every campus tradition coming and going in perfect calendared rhythm, every smile offered by a passing student or administrator or professor, all of whom have become like family at this place that’s become like home.
I could say that it’s all happened so fast. I could bemoan how “time flies!” But that’s not the main thing I feel. I’m just thankful God brought me here at this time, to this place, with these people, for this mission.
At the same time, time does do its thing. The clock keeps ticking, students keep graduating, and the pages keep turning.
I saw some young children running around on the seminary lawn this week, and I was struck by how little they were. I still have a photo of my own little Judah, who’s not little anymore, running across that massive lawn, with all the unfettered joy of a five-year-old boy in an endless field.
But Judah’s not five anymore. He’s a strapping eleven-year-old, moving inexorably into the early stages of adolescence, trying to keep in step with the fresh ink of God’s trailblazing providence in his life.
I, too, am trying to keep up, moving into new territory of my own, trying to learn how to move when God says move and stay when God says stay, trying to stay focused not on the blank page before me but the author whose heart I know and whose invisible hand I’ve seen write beautiful things across all the prior chapters of my life.
From ages 17 to 36, I’ve spent my life on Christian college and seminary campuses. From California to Kentucky, from 1998 to 2017, God has given me this unspeakable honor: to live and grow and train and teach in vibrant greenhouses of Christian growth, surrounded by the fresh faith and bright hopes of young saplings who dream of being oaks one day, young men and women whose futures are as bright as the rising sun.
I was one of them. I got to grow with them. I had a front row seat. And I will miss it.
I’ll miss the freewheeling classroom discussions that no one can plan or predict. I’ll miss the penetrating questions that poke through the narrow borders of my knowledge. I’ll miss watching students’ eyes sparkle as they hear something they’ve never heard before or grasp something they’ve never grasped before, like watching someone finally see a constellation when all they’d seen before was a smattering of stars. I’ll miss watching students’ shoulders broaden as they become consciously responsible for things they never realized were theirs to steward. I’ll miss watching exhausted students finish well, rising to the occasion and sprinting across the line and leaning into the tape. I’ll miss entering a surprisingly good grade for a student whose family fell apart halfway through the semester, or who dealt with chronic pain all year, or who bravely (and privately) faced unique challenges no other student had to face. I’ll miss the hidden talent that explodes from a written page as a quiet, unassuming student submits a paper marked with such sharp insight and rhetorical force that you can never look at that shy, uncertain student the same way again. I’ll miss watching students struggle with the same weaknesses I struggled with when I was in college, and I’ll miss telling them I’ve been there, too, and that they’re going to grow, because God’s promised.
I’ll miss these people, and this place, and this glorious task of teaching.
But even more than missing it, I’m just so thankful for it. It was such a big deal to leave Oklahoma for California at 17, such a big deal to leave California for Kentucky at 29, and now such a big deal to leave Kentucky for Texas at 36, with five precious people coming with me. But the really big deal is simply this: As I look back, I join with the summer and winter and springtime and harvest, with the sun, moon, and stars in their courses above, testifying with all nature in manifold witness, to God’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love.
His faithfulness truly reaches to the heavens. I am a witness.