May 16, 2002.
That’s the day I graduated from Welch College. I had spent four glorious years on that campus and it was time to move on. “I’m Moving On” by Rascal Flatts was popular at that time and it was like my personal anthem. Chicago was waiting for me.
But neither then nor now could I ever deny what those four years meant. My college experience in Nashville was as meaningful, memorable, formative, and downright fun as anything I’ve ever known. It’s not hyperbole or mere sentiment that compels me to write that. I can’t put into words perfectly what the school and my time there did for me. So quite imperfectly, and with twenty years of real-world perspective, I will try.
I came to (what was then) Free Will Baptist Bible College in the Fall of 1998 after two years at the big university in South Carolina. I had just gotten saved. And I was a mess of focus, direction, and worldview. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and knew very little about the Bible. Within the span of eight transcendent semesters, living and learning from and with some amazing human beings, God grew me in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ in ways I could not have imagined. And I want to express my thanks to those Welch people and events. Because after twenty years, I value them more than ever.
I am thankful for Ralph Hampton teaching me homiletics, the art of building a sermon. He taught us to ground every sermon in a two-clause proposition: “Since [this interpretation of this passage is true], then [we can apply it today this way].” I do not always write out a proposition like that but that wasn’t really the main point. The main point was that Biblical Truth is the intersection where interpretation meets application. What did it mean to the original audience and what does it mean for us today?
I am firmly convinced if you do not have both things, you are not really preaching. Because you do not have the Truth without them. Truth isn’t just “Noah built an ark before it rained”. Nor is it merely “You need to have faith in God when you can’t see what he’s doing”. It’s “Because Noah trusted God enough to build an ark before it rained, I can trust God to do what he promises to do, even when I can’t see it.” Ralph Hampton’s imprint shows up in literally every single sermon I preach.
I am thankful to Dr. Bob Woodard for teaching me the necessity of context when studying the Bible. I will never, ever forget being in his Biblical Interpretation class and him asking, “Who can quote Phillipians 4:13?” [Every hand shoots up.]. “Now, who can quote Philippians 4:12?” [One or two hands stay up.]. He did the same with Jeremiah 29:11. And he really brought it home with a quote I have often referenced for humor because of its phrasing but makes as serious a point as you’ll ever find: “We quote Jeremiah 33:3 as our life verse, but we don’t know beans about the context.”
To this day, I never study the Bible for any reason whatsoever without asking these types of questions: “What is the beginning and end of this passage (even ignoring chapter and verse divisions)? What do the surrounding verses say? What genre of writing is this? Who is the original audience?” People abuse Bible verses by quoting them and wielding them out of context. Bob Woodard at Welch College seared it into my brain to never do that.
I am thankful to Kiley Hawkins, my roommate. I had friends in high school and at USC, but never had I known friends who were like family. Kiley was like a brother to me. We were Rook partners (and we won the 2002 Bible Conference Rook Tournament!) but we were so much more than that. The late-night talks and confessions, bonding over sports and theology. Even talking about sins and weaknesses and speaking without inhibition or fear of being judged.
That is what I think Christian community truly should be. We even had a couple of fights and anyone who knows Kiley knows they were almost entirely my fault. But he always forgave. To this day Kiley and I still text on certain days of the year because of inside jokes we made as best friends in college. He and I have often joked that if those walls in Goen Hall could talk, they’d get us all in trouble. But they’d also have a billion hilarious stories.
I am thankful for Kris Yeomans. Or as the ladies called him, “Calv”. Every human being has the innate need to be seen and heard. And when I was at Bible College, no one was a better friend to me in that regard than he was. I struggled with being single, dating, and understanding women.
And he probably spent more time listening to me whine and moan than he did studying. I still can’t get over how much he sacrificed to help me when I was an emotional wreck. And our deep friendship lives on twenty years later. Outside of family, I talk to no one each week more than Yeomans. Even though he lives in a country that is hours ahead of mine. Yeomans and I have a goal to have a memory of each other pop up on Facebook for every single day of the year. I think we are at about 300 days already. Without Welch College, we’d never have met.
I am thankful for Rush Night. What a blast that was every September to kick off the year. I was mesmerized by it during my first year there. I was like, “This is like Saturday Night Live” but for Christians! The talent, the comedy, the audience interaction…it was all A+. I had no idea Bible College could be so entertaining. I thought it was all class, chapel, stuffed shirts and somber meetings. Then Joey Postlewaite hits Joel Reed in the face with a 2×4 during the Pi Gamma “Tommyboy” skit and all pretense of that was blown.
I am thankful for the Flames Games. They were bigger than sports, and wins and losses. They were community-building affairs. But the games themselves were epic at times. In my junior year, we were playing Kentucky Christian at home. They were like the Chicago Bulls in the 90s; they always won. But that night, Darin Miles made the go-ahead shot with a few seconds left and we finally defeated them. I remember the euphoria of storming the court. I remember Johnny Hollis bowing to one knee and putting his head in his hand in his own private moment of joy.
I remember the next year my best friends and me supporting our favorite player, Joey Fitzgerald, by wearing shirts with his name. We put “Walter Joseph Fitzgerald the 3rd” on the back and huge “III”s (the Roman Numeral for 3) in black electrical tape on the front. We chanted “WAL-TER JO-SEPH!!” every time he made a great play. Joey will always be my favorite Flame of all time.
I am thankful for “Christ in the Old Testament” and “Job and Ecclesiastes,” two classes taught by Dr. Garnet Reid. Both classes instilled in me a love for the book of Job that has been one of my two or three most crucial resources as a pastor. Suffering is real, and it’s intense and dark at times. People don’t need cliches or platitudes. They need presence and genuine, raw biblical theology. Job taught me that. Dr. Reid taught me Job.
I am thankful for World Lit with Dr. Holley because it was in that class I learned not only how Nietzsche probably influenced Seinfeld, but how he, Marx, Darwin, and Freud all made it popular in the English-speaking world to completely reject Genesis 1 and 2, thus giving us America as we know it today. Nearly every volatile topic we fight about–divorce, abortion, racism, human sexuality, etc.–can be traced back to these “Four Bad Boys of Postmodernism”. That class alone was worth every dime I paid to go to Welch.
I am thankful for the Forlines Lectures, Bible Conferences, Missions conferences, and the like. I sat at the feet of serious Christian thinkers like D.A. Carson and Gary Habermas and learned doctrines and apologetics from Scripture that I still teach my congregation today.
I’m thankful for alumni from before my time and after my time. Just about any alumnus from Welch will tell you it’s like joining a worldwide fraternity with an 80-year history. It doesn’t matter if I went to school with a person or not, if I meet someone who also attended, we immediately have an intimate and joyful bond. It’s a beautiful thing I do not take for granted. Welch is family for life.
And there are so many people and moments I could write about, and I have in the past. From tributes to Bert Tippett and Tom McCullough, to the story of Southtown and my memories of my mentor James Evans, I have lauded Welch College many times over already.
And I will until the day that I die. People can find fault with the school, both in my time and the present time. It has always been led and attended by sinners, after all, including myself. But today I choose to be thankful for the ways it revolutionized my testimony, ministry, and entire life.
When I was studying youth ministry as my major back then, there was a “rule” we were taught about playing games with young people: Always quit the game when the kids are having the most fun. That is how I felt about my graduation. I left the school when I was having absolutely the most fun. But also when I was thoroughly equipped with the tools and resources I needed to thrive in an ever-growing secular culture. And after 17 years in Chicago and three in Sesser, I love and appreciate Welch College more than ever.