On November 22, I found myself in one of the most awe-inspiring places in the world: The Vatican. I stood among 30,000 others, waiting for a glimpse of and hoping for a word with one of the most influential men in the world: Pope Francis. My friends Mark and Luciano invited me to take this journey with them, and we were told we might have five seconds or we might have one hour with the Pope. I went with low expectations. I wanted to learn, I wanted to see, and maybe I would get a chance to talk with him.
Pope Francis serves as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, comprised of more than 1.2 billion people in the world. He chose his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, known for his love, simplicity, and practice of poverty. Like the beloved saint, Pope Francis is an advocate for love, peace, and justice in action. He is the real deal, a man after God’s heart, and I felt honored at any chance to converse with him.
As the Pope made his way closer and closer to me, I wondered what I would say, what encouragement I might give, and what wisdom I might glean, but first, I offered a gift straight from my heart and straight from our city. Something that is not likely to be found in the Vatican, but something that represented a time-splitting moment in history: a Kris Bryant Chicago Cubs jersey. I may have won him over with that!
Our brief introduction shifted to a 15-minute conversation that jumped straight to our shared passion: loving God and loving people with a heart for justice. He looked me in the eyes with a sincere smile, as if the words we exchanged were the most valuable thing in the world. He had this uncanny ability to make every person feel loved, seen, and known, just as Jesus did again and again. He was a listener, a pastor, and an encourager—the kind I strive to be.
As our time came to a close, he surprised me. He looked at me, paused, and I was taken aback. In the middle of all those people, he made me feel like I was the only one there. He then said, “Preach. Preach the Good News. The world needs better preaching. Preach. Don’t ever stop. Tell as many people as you can. Our world needs Good News. Our world needs Jesus. So preach.” And then he walked away.
I don’t know why God whispered those words to that man to share with me, but as I flew home, I took out my journal and started asking God why. Why did you tell this man to say those words to me?
When I returned home, my wife asked me what the Pope said to me. “To preach,” I responded. Then she asked me the question almost every wife would respond with, “So what are you going to do?”
That brief meeting with the Pope, a stranger to me, deeply affirmed a calling God placed on my life: to proclaim the Gospel. While we may know and trust and believe in our spiritual gifts, the encouragement of others—like you, our staff team, Bill, Heather, and even the Pope—shout from the rooftops what we believe God whispers to us in the quiet.
As we head into this new chapter in Willow’s history, I can promise you this: I will do whatever it takes to share and proclaim the Good News—at the gym, at the coffee shop, from the stage, at a hospital—anywhere and everywhere, because I believe people’s lives would be better if Jesus were at the center. I will always give it my all, and I won’t always get it right, but I will do the best that I possibly can.
Will you join me? Will you help me? Will you be willing to risk boldly to reach your friends, because who knows what God might do? This isn’t about one person, this is about the whole church, and what God wants to move forward. Let us each do our part, loving everyone, always, and trusting God will do immeasurably more in and through our church.