A few days ago Northland, A Church Distributed, announced that Dr. Joel Hunter was stepping down as Senior Pastor. He served in that role for 32 years. For 24 of those years I have been a steady congregant. About eighty percent of what I know about being a Jesus-follower I have learned at Northland and from Dr. Hunter. His rich sermons have been incorporated into my books and blogs. Of course, I understand that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the whole deal — me showing up there to meet my friend Nancy on May 2, 1993, and hearing a sermon meant especially for me. That’s how God works — He creates hungry people and then points them towards bread.
In resigning, Dr. Joel said, “My call to the pastoral role in a church is fulfilled.” That had an odd sound to it and I kept rolling it around in my thoughts. I’d have rather heard, “I’m old, I’m tired, I don’t want to do this anymore.” His “fulfilled” statement was followed by church-speak boilerplate about being excited about new directions, etc. . . blah, blah, blah. Though I’ll miss him, I’m okay with him entering a phase of semi-retirement. He’s more than earned it. He’s been God’s chosen vehicle for changing thousands of lives. And I know that in one way or another that will continue.
Pastor Joel has been a huge part of Phases Three and Four of my life.
It was 15 years ago today, Aug. 5, 2002, that my life entered its Fourth and very likely final phase. It began with an early morning flight out of Tampa bound for LAX. No big deal save for the fact that my last prior flight had been in August, 1969 — a full 33 years earlier.
My life’s Phase One was childhood — a time of relative innocence that ended right around my 12th birthday when puberty came crashing into my body (and very unprepared psyche) with unexpected and unwelcome truculence.
Phase Two was my rather lonely, sexually preoccupied and miserable adolescence and young adulthood. The extended adolescence of my Phase Two ended around age 34 when my wife and I got together. Phase Two’s major bright spot was the five years I worked for the Illinois Dept of Mental Health. The five years I spent in Rockford gave me good friends and a meaningful career. I was 29 when I left Illinois for Florida and into a season of loneliness and heavy drinking.
Phase Three was my nine year marriage and the time of painful growth that followed. As with most marriages, mine had its ups and downs. Though it ended badly, it was a time when I finally became an adult. I grew up. I sobered up, my existential anxiety abated and I found I enjoyed living in a family. My wife came complete with horses, a dog and a nine year old son. We lived in a mobile home on five acres in a high spot in the Black Hammock swamp. In some ways the first six years of my marriage is the only time I’ve felt like a truly normal person.
Pastor Joel and Northland Church were major players in the growth part of Phases Three and Four. Of course, the Holy Spirit led me to Northland, and He directed me to various other teachers, books and mentors. The most life changing was Ruthless Trust a book by Brennan Manning that mysteriously caught my eye in a bookstore a few days before my 2002 flight to California. I had committed to a flight to visit my son and was struggling with that decision. Christian counselor/hypocrite that I am, I gave advice about trusting God but didn’t trust Him enough myself to get out of my comfort zone and on to a plane.
That Aug 5, 2002, leap-of-trust flight to California was the catalyst for Phase Four of my life. It gave me the confidence to teach classes at Northland and to publish The Unwelcome Blessing and several subsequent books. The Unwelcome Blessing was about Christians struggling with depression. It’s clinical, it’s biblical — and it is my story. Also, coming to enjoy flying again led me on mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Barcelona, and Scotland, as well as Red Cross duty in Texas after hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005. Now I look forward to flying, and if I don’t have a trip planned I’m restless and even more grumpy than usual.
Well, I was certainly blindsided into Phase Four, and who knows, maybe there’s yet another phase or two for me on this planet. God is full of surprises. He leads us on journeys both frightening and wonderful — and per the teacher of Ecclesiastes, there’s a purpose for each and every one of us under heaven. And every life we touch is in some way a holy introduction. That is one of the major lessons I’ve learned from Pastor Joel.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecc. 3:11)