30 Reflections on 30 Years of Life

May 6, 2022, marks three decades of being alive. It’s hard to believe. In 30 years I have moved across the country more times than I can count. Made countless friends. Moved from Texas to Indiana on my own when I was 19 (long story). Started in full-time ministry when I was 20. Got married when I was 21. Moved into ten different homes in my adult life—five since being married. Joined a new church three times. Held around five different positions at two churches. Owned three pets. And have one child (with another on the way!).

I’ve learned a lot in 30 years and have so much to learn. But in honor of this significant milestone in my life, here are 30 reflections on 30 years of life.

1. God has been really good to me. When I look at my life at large over the last 30 years, it’s not hard to see the countless ways God has been sustaining, helping, and providing for me—even in the hard times. I don’t deserve to have the life I’m living, but man, am I thankful for it!

2. Life is much harder than I ever thought it would be. Call it ignorance, call it youthful bliss, call it whatever you’d like. I used to think life was relatively easy. But I’ve learned, especially over the past three years, that life in this world is truly broken. Even the best of things don’t work the way they should. I’m only beginning to realize how much sin has tainted everything. I don’t feel like a cynic, but more so just accepting life as it is—all of its roses and thorns.

3. Marrying someone who loves Jesus, loves me, and is committed to our relationship has made life really sweet and memorable. The best years of my life have been the years I’ve been married to Clarissa Ruth Paulson. March 1, 2014, is a sacred day for me. Thank you for continuing to give me a place of belonging in your heart after the countless ways I’ve hurt you. You have all of me.

4. I love being a Dad. Like, a lot. I so look forward to coming home every day to hang out with Haddon and invest in his life. It’s a sacred privilege.

5. I wouldn’t be where I am without my friends. My friends have changed through the years. The people I did life with ten years ago aren’t even people I talk to anymore. And yet, God has used every person I’ve had the chance to be friends with to change me and make me a healthier, more life-giving person. Specifically, I want to honor the following people:

  • Taylor Frank — we’ve been friends for longer than I can remember. Thank you for leading me to Jesus, befriending me, and helping me eat way too many Filet-O-Fish meals. Some of my sweetest memories in life are with you. I’m indebted to you, brother.
  • RT Stringer — who would have guessed that all the years after sleeping on your couch in Swayzee, Indiana we’d still be friends? Your comradery and partnership in the gospel are treasured by me. Thank you for pursuing me as your friend.
  • Geoff Cocanower — I’m so glad we met years ago. It’s been so fun to “grow up” together. You are one of the most enjoyable people I’ve ever been around. I’m so grateful for you.
  • Jeff Ballard — I couldn’t be more thankful for our friendship. Our spontaneous lunch outings have brought me so much encouragement—including eating “A Whole Sandwich.” You’re a great colleague and an even better friend.
  • Mark Riner — Man, we’ve been doing life together for so long. It’s so sweet to be in a season where we are doing what we dreamed of doing years ago—together! You are a friend that sticks closer than a brother.
  • Todd Wilson — I love that you are both a Father-like-figure in my life and a close friend. I both enjoy spending time with you and know that if the bottom falls out of my life, you’ll always pick up the phone. Thank you for giving me a spot in your busy life. You’ve changed my life in more ways than you know. I’m indebted to you, brother.

6. I am a better man because of spending time with older, mature people who chose to invest in me. There are so many people that come to mind, but I do want to name a few who have made a significant difference in my life. Chas Singer. Terry Bishir. Dale Schuiteman. Ryan Frank. Jonathan Kierman. Walter & Julie Scase. R.T. Stringer. Pete & Sunnie Frank. Barry Earley. Andy Rickner. John Rickner. Mark Vroegop. David Michael. Joe Bartemus. Don Whitney. Ray Ortlund. Todd & Katie Wilson. Aaron & Jennifer Pettersen. Bruce Smith. Paul Spilker. Nate Irwin. Barry & Janet Earley. Dale Shaw. Andrew Rogers. Ed Welch. Stephen & Shari Gray. Don & Betty Quass. Each of you has made my life more beautiful and lovely. Thank you.

7. I wish I would have received counseling & therapy sooner. The last two years of my life have been the hardest, most stretching years of my life. Meeting every week with a trained therapist has opened my eyes to the beauty and horror of being me. My only regret is not doing it sooner so the people around me could benefit from my growth.

8. I am so thankful for the changes I’ve been making in my physical health. About a year ago I started tracking my calories (2,000 a day!), working out at least 30 minutes a day, and set a goal of burning 750 active calories on my Apple Watch. The self-control I’ve been able to have has surprised me—I’ve never dieted nor have I had an active lifestyle. I feel more in control over my appetite and actually feel like I can say ‘no’ to things I just don’t need with relative ease. To date, I’ve lost 20 pounds and plan to lose ten more this year. If you feel like you are stuck in a cycle of bad eating and no activity, hear me: you can change. Get a plan. Stick to the plan no matter how you feel. And you’ll see results. I remind myself nearly every day that time + consistency = results. Always.

9. With each passing year I grow increasingly grateful for the home I grew up in. Being a pastor gives me a front-row seat to the beauty and brokenness of people’s lives. I hear stories of traumatic upbringing, abusive parents, and unstable homes. These stories have a generational impact on people’s lives. Some will recover. Most will not. As I look back at my childhood, I’m grateful I grew up in a stable home. My parents always had food on the table. I never experienced the pains of divorce as a child. I lived in modest, but nice homes for 18 years of my life without even tasting poverty. My upbringing wasn’t perfect. Most of my therapy work over the past two years has been unraveling the good and bad ways my upbringing has formed me, but I didn’t grow up in a home that was filled with instability and vitriol. For that, I’m grateful.

10. Working at Liberty Baptist Church was, and will always be, one of the highlights of my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I began at LBC as a part-time Pastoral Intern, my life was about to change. Drastically. I met some of my dearest friends. I met, dated, and married my wife. My theological and philosophical understanding of God, the Church, and the world were stretched and changed. But it’s not just the shifts of thinking I remember with fondness. It’s the people. I remember sitting at Burger King with Chas Singer as he opened his Bible and shared how Psalm 15 was impacting him (he titled Psalm 15, “Who gets to hang out with God?”). I remember sitting in Pastor Bishir’s office as he would scribble down things he wanted to be done on his signature yellow legal pad. I remember going to staff lunch with Mike Click, Chris Sargent, John Slater, Lori Glass, Chas Singer, Terry Bishir, RT Stringer, Megan Hollars, Barry Earley, Josh Collins, Austin Fairchild, and Ryan Koehlinger. I remember teaching The Community: College Ministry on Sunday mornings (for those who attended, sorry my teaching was so bad. I owe you one). I remember going to men’s prayer every Saturday morning at 8:00am to eat a donut and go down to the youth room to laugh and pray with the same men every week. Gosh, I miss it. I’m so grateful for my time there. I think about it every week when I look at my ordination plaque and a picture of Pastors Chas and Bishir praying for Clarissa and me on our last Sunday. Liberty, I owe you a debt I cannot repay. You put up with me, encouraged me, and helped me grow as a young man. Pastor Bishir, you gave me my first start in ministry. You took a chance on me. I’ve never forgotten that. Thank you.

11. I don’t know where I would be without books. Seriously. I grew up a reader. I think I was around 12 years old when I picked up a copy of Captain Underpants. From that point on, I was hooked on reading. I mostly read fiction, but as I grew older I began expanding my reading. When I became a Christian and started meeting with a mentor (Walter Scase, who is still a dear friend to this day), I fell in love with reading non-fiction. Walter was a vicarious reader. Still is. And his love for reading was so contagious, I couldn’t resist. I remember reading Desiring God by John Piper and The Cross-Centered Life by CJ Mahaney and feeling like I had experienced a sort of rebirth. I had new categories for God I didn’t have before. I saw myself differently. I saw the world differently. Since then I’ve read hundreds of books. Literally. For several years I would read around 60-70 books in a calendar year. Even still, I find so much rest, rejuvenation, and renewal from sitting down with my Kindle Oasis (I’ve been converted…) and reading a book. I’m indebted to so many authors—many of which I’ll never meet. But to all of them, I simply say, thank you. You changed my life. Your hard work translated into transformation and renewal for me. Your work was not in vain.

12. I’m thankful for all of the jobs I’ve had throughout the years. My first job was at the Big Dipper in Converse, Indiana scooping ice cream. I was probably a terrible worker, but I learned a lot working there. Like not to work at any place with fried fish on the menu (if you know, you know). Since working at the Big Dipper, I’ve worked at Subway, an after-school program, JuJu Berry, Walgreens (for a day), Steve’s Car Wash, Liberty Baptist Church, and now, College Park Church. Each place taught me something unique and gave me a broader experience of humanity. I can still make a cold-cut sandwich with the best of them.

13. I’ve learned how to teach and preach the Bible from some gifted people. Specifically, I want to thank Walter Scase, RT Stringer, Mike Click, Chas Singer, Andy Rickner, Ryan Frank, Terry Bishir, Mark Vroegop, Nate Irwin, Gregg Allison, Jonathan Pennington, Ray Ortlund, Don Whitney, James MacDonald, Eric Mason, Alastair Begg, Erwin Lutzer, Kevin DeYoung, Ed Welch, Mark Dever, Charlie Dates, Jen Wilkin, Matt Chandler, David Platt, Steve Snyder, John Piper, and CJ Mahaney for helping me see what good teaching/preaching looks like. You gave me a vision for how to help people see, feel, and hear things in the Bible through clear and compelling communication. Your influence still ripples through my life today.

14. I’m especially grateful for the people who took the time to meet with me on a regular basis for mentoring. Similar to #6, I’m thankful for all of the people who have invested in me. But I’m especially thankful for the men who took on the role of ‘mentor’ in my life to meet with me on a regular basis. Specifically, I want to thank Walter Scase, RT Stringer, Chas Singer, Ryan Frank, Jonathan Kierman, Mark Vroegop, David Michael, Andy Miller, Aaron Pettersen, and Todd Wilson. Thank you for giving up your time to meet with me. I had little to nothing to offer you, but you still showed up. I honor you today.

15. I am so blessed to be part of Clarissa’s family tree. Marrying into another family is hard. Clarissa’s family has traditions I didn’t have. They do things differently. There are people in the family I wouldn’t spend time with if I didn’t have to. But the feeling goes both ways. Her family had no choice but to receive a driven, hot-headed, broken sinner into their lives. They’ve had to put up with me (for the most part) for eight, going on nine years now. But as I look back over the last decade of getting to know them, I’m so thankful to be part of Clarissa’s family. They have accepted me as their own. And now as I start to have kids, I see their love for me on full display with how they care for my son and make him feel a sense of belonging within the family. I’m a blessed man.

16. I specifically want to say how thankful I am for Carol Kirk. Carol was my friend before she was my Mother-in-Law (or as I liked to say after my wisdom teeth were removed: my Mother-in-Love. Long story…). I remember sitting down with her at Tree of Life in Marion, Indiana eating lunch, talking about life, and truly enjoying one another. I still remember seeing her face as I walked back inside her house after a Sunday lunch where, unbeknownst to me, my girlfriend at the time—who also happened to be her daughter—notified Jeff and Carol of her plans to break up with me the same evening. Carol’s face was a mix of stunned, sad, and amused. We still laugh about that one. As the years went by I grew to not only enjoy Carol as a friend but to respect her as a person. I still remember preaching a sermon at LBC one Thursday night on Acts 9 where Dorcas was healed by Peter. But before she was healed, she died. And when she died, the text says “all the widows stood weeping and showing tunics and other garments Dorcas made while she was with them.” Dorcas was a woman marked by hidden service to the least of these. Carol is a modern-day Dorcas. She cares for the people around her (and the Merchant family most of all) with hidden service. She doesn’t know it yet, but if I outlive her, I’m going to preach Acts 9 at her funeral (she won’t have a choice!). Carol’s life has marked me in ways I’m sure I won’t be aware of until she’s gone. But on this day, I honor her for her love for me and her impact on my family.

17 & 18. I owe so much to Mark Vroegop and College Park Church. I met Mark after reaching out to him while I was a pastor at LBC. I was listening to his sermon series on Romans and marveled at his ability to be both deeply theological and practically helpful in his sermons. He was like a combination of John Piper and a seasoned counselor. His sermons captivated me. So, I found his email address online, told him how much his preaching had blessed me, and told him I’d love to get together to learn from him if he ever had the time. He promptly emailed me back and set up a time to meet. We met in Kokomo, Indiana at the Half Moon Brewery. I don’t remember anything we talked about that day, but I do remember being grateful for a Lead Pastor of a megachurch taking the time to meet with a young, rural pastor like me. Fast forward a month and Clarissa and I found ourselves at College Park Church—the host of that year’s ACBC conference. Mark was speaking at a 9Marks pre-conference Clarissa and I attended. We spoke briefly afterward, but I didn’t think anything of it. I certainly didn’t think I would qualify for any role at CPC. In fact, a buddy and I used to quip that the only way CPC would hire me is if they needed a third shift janitorial worker. But fast forward a little and I was offered a Lead Pastor Residency role at CPC. I began serving there in January of 2017. I still remember sitting in Mark’s office for our first one-on-one meeting as a new staff member. He took out a file folder with my name on it and in his usual baritone voice, began telling me things he’d like for me to do. I had one thought going through my mind: I’m totally screwed. I felt like a small fish in a really big pond. But for the entire first year at CPC, I prayed for God to give me favor. To help me do what I cannot. To give me the skills necessary to be a blessing to Mark, the staff, and the entire church. And boy, did God answer that prayer. Clarissa and I still feel like College Park is one of the greatest blessings in our lives. And while there are many reasons for feeling this way, Mark Vroegop is near the top of the list. Mark took a chance on a young, independent fundamentalist pastor and gave me ample opportunities to preach, teach, and lead. I failed a lot, but he never let me know it. He kept encouraging me, cheering me on and adopted me as his own. Honestly, it’s hard for me to think of Mark as my boss. I think of him as a Dad. When Clarissa had severe PPD and I was consumed with depression, Mark was there. When I felt suicidal and wanted to quit the ministry, Mark was there. When Clarissa gave birth to our first child, Mark was there. So much of my life has been marked by Mark. I suspect 30 years from now I’ll find myself in a really difficult situation at a church or at home and I’ll hear that deep, baritone voice in the back of my head guiding me, encouraging me, and reminding me to not give up. Mark, thank you. I love you deeply, brother.

19. God has been so gracious to provide for me to go to school and graduate with multiple degrees. I grew up in a family with no college graduates. I grew up thinking college was for really smart people. So much in fact I never planned to go to college after High School, but after my parents pressed me, I enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College. My work ethic was so bad I had to drop out after a year. I couldn’t do it. I assumed college wasn’t for me. But after I became a Christian and was encouraged by my boss, now friend, RT Stringer, I knew I needed to receive some kind of education for the sake of my work life. With Clarissa’s help, I took out a student loan and enrolled at Crossroads Bible College online while working at LBC. I finished the four-year program in three years (safe to say I was determined to get it done!). I always wanted to attend seminary, but Clarissa and I had no way to pay for it. Taking out another student loan didn’t seem wise and we knew of no one who could help us. But after moving to Indianapolis, Clarissa prompted us to pray. One night as we lay in bed, Clarissa encouraged us to pray for God to supernaturally prompt someone to pay for my seminary education. Part of me was encouraged, the other part of me thought she was nuts. Who in the world has the money to fund my seminary education? And more importantly, who would want to? The very next day I had a meeting with a man from CPC who (long story) offered to pay for my entire seminary education. I was floored. I still remember calling Clarissa while driving back to church to tell her the news. And even now, as I enter into the last phase (probably?) of my educational life, I am seeing God provide for us so I can pursue a doctorate. God has and continues to provide for me to accomplish more than I could ever imagine. If you would have told the 18-year-old me that I would receive a BA, MA, and would enroll in a doctoral program before the age of 30, I would have thought you were nuts. But God. I’m so thankful.

20. The Residency Program at College Park Church was formative as both a participant and a leader. I think I am the only Resident in the history of the Residency Program at College Park Church to come in as a resident without any formal degree (I was still pursuing my Bachelor’s degree as a resident). I came in with experience as a local church pastor, but very little understanding of what it took to lead within a megachurch. The Residency Program helped me to learn what I was good and bad at. It gave me a broad experience of ministry and enabled me to meet so many people. Rubbing shoulders with fellow Residents like Tim Whitney, Luke Jones, Luke Humphrey, and Pastor Joe Bartemus shaped me in incalculable ways. I still think about our weekly book discussion times with fondness. After graduating from the Residency, I was brought on staff as the Assistant Pastor of Multiplication (better than being called the Pastor of Division!). Eventually, I took over the Residency Program—a responsibility I still have today. Throughout the years I’ve been able to work with so many gifted men and women within the program. Mitchell McIntyre. Paul Nystedt. Taylor Frank. Kevin Myers. Kasey Clark. Jeff Brown. Evan Collister. Matt Mugumya. Cameron Bass. Isa O’Mara. Chris O’Mara. Marla Vroegop. Zac Griffith. Mark Riner. Each of you has contributed something meaningful to my life. Thank you for allowing me to have a small part in your journey.

21. One of the most enduring friendships Clarissa and I have enjoyed has been with Mark and Brittany Riner. We have all been friends, individually, for over ten years. Mark and Clarissa were friends in high school. Britt and I have been friends ever since I met her family while I was in high school. Clarissa and I started dating and not long after, thanks to a little romantic assist (long story), Mark and Britt started dating. We all got married around the same time and celebrated one another in those sweet seasons. We served in the same church and did ministry together for years. One of our favorite traditions over the years has been to spend New Year’s Eve together—playing games, eating great food, reflecting on the year behind, and dreaming about the year ahead. Now as we serve in the same church (again) and get to see our kids grow up together, my heart is overjoyed. Mark and Britt, thank you for valuing our friendship over the years. It’s been a joy to do life together. Let’s do it for another 50 years.

22. I love all the offices I’ve been able to work in over the years. This probably sounds weird to most people, but for a guy who loves work spaces and aesthetics, offices are important to me. The first office I had was at Liberty Baptist Church in the basement. It was a makeshift spot, but I loved it. I still remember walking down the steps to my “office” and feeling like I had finally arrived. “I have an office!” After doing my time as a bottom dweller (three years, to be exact), I got a corner office at LBC. To date, it is my favorite office space. I had three windows. Fresh paint on the walls. New carpet installed. A big closet for storage. I loved it. I still get nostalgic whenever I walk in there to visit the current LBC staff guys. The next office I had was in the corner of the Executive Suite at College Park Church. It wasn’t much of an office (since it had no door or privacy), but it was a nice workspace. It was hard to transition from a big corner office to a small desk in the corner of a room, but I was so overjoyed to be working at CPC that I got over it pretty quick. About a year later I moved offices to a legit office. It wasn’t big by any means, but it was a nice space to work. It had a large electrical closet that took up an entire wall and I couldn’t fit more than two bookshelves in it (a huge problem for a vicarious reader). A year later I moved to a very nice office on the other side of the office space. It was a nice office with one significant problem—no windows. I felt like I was working from a cave half the time, but I chose to make it as welcoming of a space as I could. I loved working there. Another year went by and I moved offices again. This time to Joe Bartemus’ old office. This won’t mean much to you if you’re not from CPC, but for the CPCers reading this, you know how significant Joe’s office is. I still remember interviewing with Joe for the Residency Program in his office and marveling at all of the books he had. And now, I’m writing this post from the confines of that very office. I love working in this office not because of its specifications, but because of what it represents. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t walk into this office and think to myself, “I’m carrying on the legacy of a faithful pastor. This week matters.” So, thank you LBC and CPC for giving me office spaces to work in. They have all been special to me in different ways.

23. I’m grateful for well-composed, well-written music. Though my taste of music has changed throughout the last three decades, my love for it has not. I’m grateful for all of the musical artists who have helped me “get away” through beautiful melodies and captivating lyrics. John Mayer. Shawn McDonald. Jeremy Camp. Nickelback (stop judging me). Chris Daughtry. Lecrae. NF. Jay-Z. NEEDTOBREATHE. Switchfoot. Jon Foreman. Adele. Rascal Flatts. Kenny Chesney. Anthony Evans. Hillsong. Norton Hall Band. Coldplay. Page CXVI. Phil Wickham. The Gettys. And more than I can remember. I honor each of you today.

24. I’m thankful for the three cars I’ve owned over the last 10+ years. Most notably, my 1999 Dodge Intrepid (including the peeling paint on the hood), 2009 Sebring Convertible (man, I miss that car), and my 2014 Chevy Malibu. Each car marked a season of my life with special memories being found in each one.

25. I love all of the amazing food I’ve enjoyed over the last three decades. From Mcdonald’s to Ruth’s Chris, I’ve experienced the best and worst of the American culinary landscape. And I’ve loved it all. I’ve especially enjoyed all of the steakhouses I’ve been able to enjoy with Clarissa. Harry & Izzy’s. Ocean Prime. Eddie Merlots. Ruth’s Chris (multiple locations). St. Elmo. An amazing place in San Diego. And others I can’t remember right now. Thank you, Lord, for food (and help me to stop eating so much of it).

26. It’s been a joy to lead and work with different people over the years. At LBC, I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to oversee the Pastoral Internship Program. I enjoyed working with Josh Collins, Austin Fairchild, Ryan Koehlinger, and the many practicum students from IWU I had the privilege of leading. I loved our times together and the many memories we made serving Jesus in Sweetser, Indiana. At CPC, I’m thankful for the time I had with Evan Collister, Kasey Clark, Mark Riner, Zac Griffith, and Chris O’Mara. Each of you shaped and stretched in ways I needed. Thank you.

27. I had so many formative experiences and influential friends in high school who shaped me into the person I am today. Many people look back at their HS careers with dread. I look back at mine with fondness. I loved being in HS. I had a ton of friends, learned so much about myself & people, and had so much fun. Specifically, I want to thank Courtney Moses for her impact on my life. It was her drive for success and humility that made Christianity more alluring to me. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I would have had any interest in Jesus. To all of the other friends I had in HS, thank you for allowing me to be your friend. I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have and for that, I’m sorry. I’m grateful for your influence on me and your efforts in helping me belong. Hope to see you at our 20th reunion!

28. Haddon Christopher Merchant has had a significant impact on my life. Knowing him, caring for him, and watching him develop have been some of the most joyful things I’ve ever done. And as he gets older and our relationship deepens, I’m committed to being the healthiest version of me I can be so he can benefit from my life. The after-work wrestles, Coldplay “Paradise” jam sessions, and story time on the potty gatherings all fill my life with so much meaning and purpose. I honor you today, buddy.

29. I’m thankful for the people who have pushed me to write through the years. Don Whitney was the first person who told me I should work on being a good writer. So I started a blog, began writing (poorly) every week, and slowly but surely began to grow as a writer. Somewhere along the way, I was asked to put a short conference talk I gave on mentoring into a book. Warner Press, a small family ministry publisher, sent me a contract and I began writing my first book(let). Mentoring Like Jesus was so fun to work on. I still feel proud and embarrassed when I see it on my shelf. I still have a long way to go to become an effective writer, but I’m grateful for the ability to use platforms like this one to grow in my skill. Thanks for sticking with me, reader!

30. Most of all, I’m grateful for the Father, Son, and Spirit. I am a child of God, an heir of eternal bliss, a blood-bought sinner. I couldn’t be more thankful for the grace God has shown me through the last 30 years. He’s been so faithful to be with me in the highs and lows of life. So, on this day, as I celebrate 30 years of life, I say “to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17).

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