I still remember the first time I visited you. You were all seated in what is now the library. And there, I heard the exposition of one of my favorite psalms:
“Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.” (Psalm 113:5-8)
You were basically a few families, and a few university students. You didn’t have much diversity, but I loved your careful, thorough, verse-by-verse handling of God’s Word. I loved how you genuinely approached my friends and me after service. I loved how you all immediately opened your homes and your lives to me. I loved how your pastor asked us if we had questions about the sermon, and how he quickly and humbly admitted that he is fallible, and open to being challenged concerning both his doctrine and his lifestyle. I love how this same pastor was the one I met on campus a year before. He was handing out cold water and gospel tracts. I loved how he invited us over to his house for fellowship around his wooden, dining room table, where we shared our testimonies and how the Lord brought us to you, my church.
And now, six years later, having moved into a larger room; having grown into a multi-cultural, multi-generational congregation; having witnessed many come to faith and many endure unspeakable trials; having had funerals and pot lucks, disagreements and reconciliation; having had births, miscarriages, and an adoption; having sent a family of eight as missionaries to Taiwan, and another to Mexico; having continued in the Lord’s Supper, the exposition of Scripture, much fellowship, and much prayer; having increasingly, corporately grown into the likeness of Christ through all seasons, I have come to love you, my church, more and more.
I have said this many times before: “The only thing that would take me away from this church is my leaving for overseas missions, or getting married to someone outside of this church. ” The latter has now come. The fact that I will be leaving to join my fiancé’s church has been the single most difficult reality for me to grasp in my relationship with him. This is the hardest step I’ve ever had to take as a believer. And for more reasons than I can express or even fully appreciate now, I’m so glad that it is this difficult. You are an exemplary church family. Your men have shown me what to look for in a husband. Your women have taught me who to strive to be as a soon-to-be wife. Your marriages, your friendships, your childrearing, and your lifestyles have challenged, convicted, and spurred me to grow in Christ.
I remember my first summer with you. I went to serve as a camp counselor at a Christian camp. I was specifically praying that my church would grow in transparency, so that we could more explicitly pray for and encourage one another in the gospel. While at camp, I began struggling with thoughts of a grievous and embarrassing sin I had been entangled in before. Desperate for help, I wrote my pastor’s wife a long letter explaining my engagement in this sin in the past, and my present struggle to want to return. It turns out that God wanted me to live out the transparency I was praying for in you. I asked her to pray for me and to help me when I came back to Tampa. Little did I know that the older women of my church had just been exhorted to more intentionally live out the call of Titus 2:3-5. My pastor’s wife had already been praying about meeting with me to disciple me. My letter of spiritual desperation confirmed her prayers.
After camp, I had one week to spend in Orlando before I embarked on my first overseas missions trip to Honduras. My pastor and his wife packed their children in their van and drove from Tampa to Orlando—an hour and a half drive—just to visit me, hear my confessions of sin, encourage me with the gospel, and begin walking with me in discipleship before I left for Honduras. If I didn’t already know prior to that moment, I certainly realized then I was a part of a church that genuinely, sacrificially loves one another. I could share tons more testimonies of love and care I’ve experienced since then, and I know you all could share even more stories of grace you’ve experienced.
I want to encourage you, Grace Bible of Tampa, to regularly stop and consider the grace of God being displayed in your life in this church. Forget not all of his benefits, his innumerable grace-gifts, poured out on you each week within this fellowship. You have elders and deacons who love you enough to pray fervently for you, to teach you God’s Word verse-by-verse, to instruct you in studying God’s Word yourself, to share their lives and the gospel with you, to walk with you through your sin struggles and through your incredible trials.
You have biblical counselors who are teaching you what it means to be true disciples of Christ and how to make more true disciples. You have each other: saints in the same eternal saga, serving one another in the gospel, so that you might all grow to full maturity in Christ. You are a part of a beautiful church. And you, much like me, don’t deserve it for one moment. It’s all grace to you from our incredibly kind God.
I now have the wonderful privilege of becoming a member at the church of my soon-to-be husband, Jonathan. I know that though different in many respects, this new church family will share the same love of Christ that you have shown me for six years.
Please pray I will pour out my heart and my life for them in service and love, as you have faithfully done so for me. Who am I that God thinks of me, has sought me, saved me, and placed me in such an amazing family as his Church? “Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.” (Psalm 116:7). And you, my church, have been the greatest evidence that he has dealt so bountifully with me. With six years now behind me, and with all eternity with you ahead, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,” (Philippians 1:3-4).
I love you.