From the moment I arrived in 2013, a strange but beautiful dichotomy began to unfold. The seven years we were called together brought some of my greatest joys and deepest hurts. For several years now, I have resonated with Charles Dickens’ words from A Tale of Two Cities, words that often helped me make sense of the madness at times, while also providing some necessary means of hope and encouragement. The novel opens with a fitting line…
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
While this may forever summarize our time together, at least for me, this should in no way cause you to doubt my love for you. In fact, it was following the first weekend spent preaching here as a guest and seriously imagining life with you that I knew one thing was real; I had already fallen in love with you. And before I was called to serve as a pastor of one of your local churches, I knew I was called to you.
Reflecting on it now, things couldn’t have been more confusing and complicated from the start. Although I seldom doubted my place in Salisbury, I struggled with my place in a church that seemed to be fracturing before my very eyes. And so, I gave myself to the only work I knew to do at the time -bridge-building – in hopes that we might somehow redeem both the timeless purpose of our local church to the community, along with my own vocational calling as a pastor who was called to serve the city to which the church had been called.
And so I gave myself fully to you (Salisbury) in this way. I gave you my heart, knowing full well that anytime we do so, it comes with the risk of heartbreak. While I was fairly convinced our love affair would only last for a season or two before either you or I eventually felt convinced it was time to move on to something new, it was not long after that my perspective began to shift. Hopes and ambitions for new places or greater opportunities quickly began to fade in the growing intensity of my love for you. My nomadic heart had seemed to find a home, and all of a sudden, I found myself alive and thriving, even in the midst of some pretty bizarre and unimaginable difficulties. It seemed we were destined for each other, and our reciprocal love served as an anchor through the breaking apart and the re-formation of the church that had brought me to you. In fact, it was the church, reimagined as a church that would #LoveSalisbury, and plant its missional flag in this community, that only served to further weave us together.
And so, we ran.
And oh, how affirming, how lovely, how inexpressively beautiful the journey was.
And I will always love you for it.
You gave me confidence as a pastor; you seasoned me as a teacher, a preacher, a theologian, a missionary, a leader, a change-agent.
You gave me room to struggle and to fail…and fail I did, and often. And while you were a little harsh at times, you somehow managed to help me back up, unwilling to quit on me, especially all those Sunday afternoons I felt ready to quit on you.
Among my many learning’s, you gave me perhaps my greatest education in the realities of racial inequalities and injustice, completing the circle for me in both the complicity (historically and now) and the change to which the church in Salisbury and around the world, has been inevitably called to accept responsibility and lead in the work of Gospel-centric reconciliation. My perspectives and philosophies, my life and my ministry, will never be the same.
In giving you my all, I gave you my heart, my mind, my soul and my body, because “that’s what you do when someone has made you feel as alive as you’ve made me feel.” 1 While all of this brought my strengths, my gifts and my developing-abilities, bringing all of myself also brought my weaknesses, my struggles and loads of brokenness, the greatest of which seemed to be my physiological, psychological, and subsequently, all my relational brokenness. Although I never tried to hide these from you, and while I did my best at times to manage these as best as possible without allowing them to get in the way, including bringing these under the care of both safe friendships and trained professionals, it seemed my life-long struggles with depression, anxiety, and the resulting loneliness and distrust in myself and others, eventually contributed to the derailing of our love.
I wanted so desperately to help you understand my complexities, and to accept me fully; not just the more presentable parts of me you seemed to so easily embrace. In my crying-out in pain, I was eventually given some time away; given time to reflect, to be still, to refresh and to heal. But it was the unresolved pain and hurt in the relationships I had temporarily left behind that festered both around me and within me, to the point that I lost sight of any healthy path forward. What began as a temporary parting seemed to so quickly turn into the death of some of the most cherished friendships and relationships I had every known, friendships and relationships that you had given me. I was angered by the thought that my weaknesses had become weaponized against me by those I deeply loved, but who in their own hurt and disappointments with me, seemed to no longer be interested in understanding me and my struggles.
Once more, I felt confused. I despaired of hope, not knowing how or if things could ever be reconciled, which I desperately longed for.
And so, I ran…
Or at least, I tried.
Not knowing what to do at the time, and with a bleeding heart, I desperately tried to leave. I didn’t know how our relationship could continue apart from the pastoral calling to the local church that had brought me here. But where else could I go? Being there meant I would be here, and I could not fathom that reality. I busied myself trying to find you somewhere else, frantically searching for a place that could somehow replace you. And so, we tried to leave you, only to find our hearts further wrenched, eventually accepting that God had not called us to go anywhere else but here. And so, through yet another set of complicated circumstances, that led to even more hurts, we resolved to stay-put, filled with hope that relationships would soon be reconciled, and our purposes for continuing on together would soon be restored.
And for a brief time, they were.
Even with the shadows of the loss, pain and brokenness continuing to hang over us, we forged on with new purpose, this time, to consolidate and restore the work of the local church collaboratively to Salisbury among the poor and most vulnerable. And it seemed to work for a short season.
But eventually, I just couldn’t seem to shake the pain I continued to carry around with me. At almost every turn, you continued to bring heavy reminders of what was, what we had lost, and what would never be again. No matter how hard I tried, now matter how courageous I felt at times, I just couldn’t seem to hide, nor could I hide the pain I was constantly carrying around.
Ultimately, I chose to stay to give the wound a chance to heal. But it seemed to keep bleeding all over the place. And after a while, I realized I was getting blood on almost everything I touched. I just couldn’t seem to heal. My heart felt stuck and unable to move-on.
Eventually you needed to know where all this was going. I suppose we both did. And while the doors remained open to stay, the potential for starting over elsewhere began to emerge as a reasonable and understandable possibility.
You gave us room to explore. And the exploring brought a refreshing sense of excitement. But it doesn’t take long before love begins to feel betrayed in our looking elsewhere. All of a sudden, our new purpose came to a screeching halt, and once more, I felt pushed-out, unwanted and unloved. The freedom you had given me to search out a new future in a new place seemed to give rise to a doubt in the genuineness of my love for you. And so, you felt justified to force the decision. And as much as that hurt, I understand. I really do.
But through it all, you continued to love me, continued to surround me with love, though parts of you certainly felt like they were only tolerating me at times. I suppose I eventually grew somewhat used to it. And as much as that still hurts, it’s okay.
Our last year together, ironically, parallels our first year. Confusing and complicated. I’ve been deeply disappointed, hoping and praying that God might redeem all He has allowed. And yet, despite the many ways my family and I have experienced redemption over the past year, there is so much that has yet to be redeemed and reconciled. As much as I haven’t wanted to carry with me the hurts and disappointments to the next place, I’ve started to accept the likelihood that there are some things that may never be restored, some things that may never resolve. To say so isn’t some fatalistic sentiment of hopelessness, but a reality with which so many people live in this “already, but not yet” world in which we find ourselves…the moment in time between the redemption of the Cross and the full consumption of the Kingdom of Heaven reigning on earth, at which time all things will be restored as they were meant to be.
And so, today, with moving vans in front of the home I had imagined my kids finishing their growing-up in, nestled in the city that I had committed myself to, if necessary, til death do us part, the finality has further settled-in.
I have to let you go, and honestly, I’m still not quite sure I’m ready.
I wonder if I’ll ever love somewhere else the way I’ve loved you, but I suppose that would be impossible in many ways, and perhaps even a betrayal to the genuineness of my love for you. But if for nothing else, you have taught me how to love with abandon the city to which the local church as been called, and for that, I will ever be grateful.
Eventually, I no longer saw the end of the tunnel; I only saw us running out of the tunnel together to take on the challenge of changing the world from Salisbury.
As many times as you’ve broken my heart over the years, and as much as my heart is breaking today, especially, in writing this, you have made me better. There is no question.
We both know that no matter what I do next, you (Salisbury) will always hold a special place in my heart. Eventually it will become easier to drive through on I-85, or come back to meet with friends. And as hard as it’s been, especially this last year, I’m also convinced that eventually, the fond memories, the beautiful moments we’ve spent, and the years we labored and worked together to keep building on the foundations already laid, while building toward a City of God on earth, will emerge most often and more immediately to the surface.
Of course, I hope I’ve played some small part in making you better along the way, contributing to the God-given vision that has continued to compel so many hearts to their own deep love-affair with you.
If I could offer at least one critique in our time together, it would be your heart for the outsider. When you look at the systems in place, it is astounding the stranglehold of influence held by those presumably on the inside, most of whom live as if there is limited room for outside perspectives. Many of these decision-makers, or “stakeholders” as they like to call themselves, like to project themselves as change-agents; but isn’t it interesting to consider the changes that Rowan County as a whole has yet to experience under their leadership? New wine needs new wineskins, and the old ones simply can’t hold the new wine.
But I digress.
While I wouldn’t presume nor dare to have inspired many original thoughts during my time with you, I suppose one you might attribute to me is my beloved missional message to others that has deeply compelled my own heart over the years:
And, of course, I always will.
I realize the writing of a letter of this nature to the noun of a place may come across compulsive and a little over-the-top. So be it.
With that said, I conclude with some of the closing lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, dramatic words for sure, but appropriate words nonetheless for where my heart finds itself on such a heavy occasion…
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from the abyss.
I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.
I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants generations hence.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done;
it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
 A direct quote from Dear Basketball, by Kobe Bryant. This short-film inspired a great deal of this letter.