I first came to The Exchange eight years ago. I was thirty years old and my father had just recently died from a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. I’d grown up in a Christian home, and said “the prayer” when I was around 6-7 years old. If you would have asked me if I was a Christian, I would have told you yes. I knew how to blend in when I was around Christians and adjusting my personality became second nature, especially in my 20’s. I lived a life in pursuit of pleasure and the fulfillment of self until my dad died, and I had no desire to change. However, the night my dad passed away, I remember wondering to myself what the point of everything I’d lived for was.
Was life really just about accumulating wealth or possessions while trying to have the most pleasurable experiences possible until you died? For the first time in my life, it all seemed so pointless and empty. A couple of months later, I remember writing down in my notes (I still have it on my laptop) that I was experiencing an unexplainable longing to know God. I didn’t want religion, I didn’t want to follow a set of rules to appear and feel morally superior. I wanted a relationship with the living and true God, something I could experience in the depths of my soul. “I want to know that I know Him” – I wrote. A month after I wrote that, God opened my eyes for the first time to who I truly was, a sinner. It wasn’t just a word, it wasn’t just a label that religious folks used to describe “those bad people that do bad things” – no, in that moment, it was personal, it was my identity. I knew that, if I were to have died in that moment, I would be separated from God in hell for all eternity, and that I’d deserve it. I sensed a keen awareness that there was nothing I could do to change my position, and so with tears streaming down my face on my way home from work one night, I cried out for mercy. He answered my cry.
The next day I texted my big sister, who I knew was a Christian and attended a church. I told her what had happened and asked if I could start going to church with her. She excitedly told me about a new church her and her family had started going to, a church where people loved you and welcomed you in, and, she said, “the pastor wears jeans, flannels, and cowboy boots!”
My first memory of going to The Exchange was walking up to the front door when we were at Peyton’s, and Shaunda (my sister) looked at me and said, “you see that guy on the left? That’s Michael, and he’s a hugger. So, he’s probably gonna hug you.” I shrugged and laughed a little, “ok.” When we got to the front door, he did just what she said he’d do, and I still remember that hug to this day. And if you’ve ever had a Michael hug, you know what I mean. That’s a special memory for me because it’s a representation of what a sinner experiences when they come home to the Father through Jesus. A warm and welcoming embrace from a person who loves you and knows you more deeply than you can imagine. I’m still learning just how much He loves me today, eight years later.
I could write a book revisiting my memories from The Exchange, but for the sake of brevity I’ll mention one more. Joe, the lead pastor, approached me not too long after I’d started attending and asked if I would like to start meeting with him once a week. I didn’t know pastors did that. I’d never heard of a pastor doing that, and so I emphatically said “SURE!!” Over the next few years, we began meeting at a little coffee shop in Flushing called, “The Elbow Room.” I began to be known in a way I’d never experienced. I was telling this person about all my sin and selfishness, all the ugly and embarrassing details, and instead of raised eyebrows or a “I’m sorry but I can’t meet with you anymore” texts, I was loved. In fact, many of the personal things I’d shared with him and kept locked away and hidden for so long, he would say – “Yea? Me too.”
After watching a sermon by Matt Chandler on sexual sin one evening, I found myself weighed down and hopeless. Chandler talked about how sexual sin has the unique capability to damage a person’s soul each time he/she engages in it. And my entire life, from the time I was seven or eight, was dominated by it. I remember being struck with the thought, “what have I done? How much damage have I done?” During our next meeting, I told Joe about the sermon, and I asked him the question “Do you think I’ll ever be able to truly love someone again? Has the damage I’ve done ruined me?” I’ll never forget his answer. And not because it was eloquent, or profound to me at the time (in fact, I remember at first being a bit puzzled by it). But because it was sincere, and it was coming from a place of personal experience. There was also a confidence in his voice that I sensed, which comforted me. After I’d asked the question, he adjusted himself in his chair and looked as though he was giving thought to what he’d say. Then, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Brett, I believe that Jesus is remaking you into a man that is going to love others in a way you never thought possible.”
It’s been seven years since he said that to me. And as I look back, I can see that he was right. I began to know others, and I let them know me. I have had some of the greatest friendships with the most wonderful people at The Exchange. As I’ve written this testimony, I’ve had to stop multiple times to cry. I’ve felt a deep grief in the pit of my stomach that comes in waves. I’ve been surprised over the last couple of weeks, since learning about The Exchange’s closing, that the grief I’ve felt has been so strikingly similar to losing my parents. It’s occurred to me on multiple occasions that my grief is a result of something beautiful, though. I’ve loved others deeply. The tears I shed now are a clear evidence of the grace of God that has been at work within me.
Thinking back to that night on my couch when I’d jotted down in my notes that I wanted to know God, and how I’d longed to experience knowing Him, makes me smile now. I have experienced knowing Him through the preaching of His word, the friendship of other believers, and in the gathering of the Saints. The providence of God to save me when He did, and His kindness to me to bring me to The Exchange is something I won’t ever forget.
To my brothers in sisters at The Exchange, I saw your faces as I recounted the memories I have with you. Even if for a time we must go our different ways, I know someday I will see your faces again. We will be “healed and home free, complete.” I also wanted to leave you with a story that has comforted me (and made me cry) over the last couple weeks. In the book A Severe Mercy written by Sheldon about his wife, Davy, he tells a story about the last time he saw his friend, C.S. Lewis. Lewis had been a mentor to Sheldon, and was instrumental in Sheldon’s coming to know Christ. Sheldon finished his time at Oxford, and would be moving to the States to pursue a teaching career. He went to meet with Lewis at a pub for lunch. He recounts the following interaction:
“Lewis said that he hoped Davy and I would come back to England soon, for we mustn’t get out of touch. “At all events,” he said with a cheerful grin, “we’ll certainly meet again, here–or there.”
Then it was time to go, and we drained our mugs. When we emerged onto the busy highway with the traffic streaming past, we shook hands, and he said “I shan’t say goodbye. We will meet again.” Then he plunged into the traffic.
I stood there watching him. When he reached the pavement on the other side, he turned around as though we knew somehow that I would still be standing there in front of the Eastgate. Then he raised his voice in a great roar that easily overcame the noise of the cars and buses. Heads turned and at least one car swerved.
“Besides,” he bellowed with a great grin, “Christians NEVER say goodbye!”