Our Next Chapter
A story and an open letter especially to my Oroville friends and family:
Six and a half days into our southern reconnaissance expedition, as we wind through streets we’ve never seen before, Bella leans forward from the back seat and asks “Why don’t they spell it A-R-K-A-N-S-A-W?”
It’s a legitimate question.
Never in my life have I ever dreamed of living in Arkansaw, so I’ve never looked into it.
But here we are, twenty-seven days from setting sail out east, away from sea toward the shining other sea, across the deserts and purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain. Apparently you drive till you hit mid-west and take a right. That will carry you right down to the edge of the south, a land referred to as NWA (the Ozark kind, not the Compton kind – much less parental advisory for explicit content).
One hundred eleven years ago, the first production Ford Model T rolled off the line. A lot has happened in the last century to make it possible to live and move and live and move again. Climbing into our cars and exiting Oroville was not part of the plan. But here we are embracing eastward expansion, wondering how we got here.
The story is complex and probably better shared in the waning summer heat beneath dusk soaked shade trees while sipping cold brew and basking in clouds of citronella. There are a hundred things we’d love to say to hundreds of our people who have made Oroville home for the last fifteen years, but we probably won’t be able to see or say all of those things. Leaving is hard, and this one feels a little extra.
I’ve lived in Oroville longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere my whole life.
I learned how to make friends without the foundation of high school shenanigans here. It’s hard. I had no idea how isolating being a grown-up can be. But I’ve found people. People that are honest and considerate and gracious and patient and kind and helpful and loving and present. I don’t think I knew how to be that kind of a person. I still have a lot of room to grow in these ways, but I feel like I’ve learned from experts. I’ve been held and held together by a community that loves for real.
My heart has broken for this community, been broken in it, and found more healing and care than I ever knew I needed. My heart grew up in Oroville.
I learned to preach Jesus here. I had no idea I had it in me. You all just leaned in. And all of the love and support and honesty and seeing what God will do when we allow him to love the hell out of us has been more than I could ever ask for.
We had our kids in Oroville, born amongst doctors that prayed blessings over them, held by each of you, whispering grace and singing sweetly over them. Our friends and family have watched them and taught them and encouraged them and stayed up late with them and loved them and helped us so much as life took its unexpected turns. Bella and Jace are the people they are today because of the love they’ve experienced here.
I don’t know if any place will ever feel like home the way Oroville has.
But God is doing something. Something that we didn’t expect or see coming.
We embarked on our Oroville journey following the leading of the HS the best we could sense, and that part hasn’t changed. We’re still all in on following Jesus wherever he leads.
In January there was a welling up that fueled a February shift in our spirits, leading to this exodus, this expedition, this south-eastern adventure.
When I announced my resignation at the church in December, I told everyone that we weren’t going anywhere. At the time, that was honest. What I had left out, but is hopefully implied as a follower of Jesus, is that we are going to go where the HS leads us.
What I didn’t talk about and still won’t go into details in an internet article was how difficult things had become at the church. Some of it was people. Some of it was policies. Some of it was circumstances. Some of it was me. Things had gotten very difficult. Not necessarily in the month preceding my departure; things had been difficult for at least two years, but in many ways, much longer than that.
It was no secret amongst the staff, leaders or even parishioners that something was off for a very long time, mostly because so many things felt like secrets. “This stays here” became the unhealthy mantra. Secrets keep you sick, and we were swimming in them. I still pray for light and mercy to mark the church in Oroville with a relentless bent toward honesty, transparency and humility.
As we finished up 2018 and moving into a new season, we decided to take some time away from the church and let the congregation look to the new pastor to lead them. I had been preaching most of the time for the last few years and knowing that God was calling me into an itinerate ministry, it felt right to put some distance between us and the congregation so that people wouldn’t look to me for leadership while someone else was trying to establish himself as the leader.
As we started to visit other churches, everything ached. My soul ached. My heart ached. My head ached. My family ached. I didn’t understand how much the perseverance to hold on in a hostile environment had injured us. Much of the ache came from the proximity. We were across town instead of standing with so many friends and family that we could be worshipping and praying and sharing communion with. Nothing was ever off in these worship services that would lead us to not go to church. It just wasn’t home. And home was too broken to go back right now. We needed some healing, us and them. We needed some time, and this was this welling up in January. There was this new hope that maybe someday it wouldn’t feel like this to just go to church.
In February, I was able to spend some time with Bob Goff at his Dream Big seminar in San Diego. As I stepped out into this new season, the church had helped pay for me to go and work through what it might look like to expand, enhance, and reach for the dreams God had planted in me in ways that I was never taught.
Bob has an amazing way of leading you right out into the glorious possibilities that come with following Jesus with an abundance mindset. One of the things we talked about was opportunity and capacity. He said something about how the things that you read about in his books occurred where opportunity and capacity align. These things don’t always line up, so when they do and you become aware of it, it’s probably a good idea to jump at it and see where it leads. These two things may never line up in this way again.
Capacity is the emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical, and historical ability that we possess. We can work on increasing our capacity with therapy and discipleship and education and experience and mentoring and so many other investments.
Opportunity, on the other hand, isn’t something we can work on. We don’t create opportunities, we become aware of them. We must work to become aware of opportunities that will help us get the things that we want out of life.
So I went home and started talking to Rhonda about our capacity and what kinds of opportunities might be available to us now that may never align with our capacity again.
I knew that God was leading me into this tent maker season of traveling to preach and writing books and creating resources that will help people while working a non-church job. I was blessed with a job that allows me to live anywhere that has internet access. At the same time, we had been trying to sell our house that our family had outgrown, hoping to get into a house with two bathrooms. The housing market was unreal in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, so for the first time we started looking for opportunity elsewhere.
We wanted to find a community that felt small like Oroville but was closer to an airport and has a lower cost of living with a high quality of living. We looked at a bunch of small towns within 30 minutes of Louisville, Cincinnati, Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta and Huntsville. But there was this one other city we had visited on a road trip a couple summers ago that kept calling out to us.
As we started to research the area, it was just checking all of the boxes. The whole area is called Northwest Arkansas and there is a cluster of half a dozen cities that are all close to a regional airport. So we booked some tickets to come check it out. As I would pray about whether or not we were going in the right direction, God wasn’t pushing back. There was no confirmation, but there wasn’t a stop in my spirit either.
I started to reach out to pastors in the area to talk about what God was doing in my life and our family and what we were looking for, a home base to call our church while I worked on developing a preaching and writing ministry. They were all so excited and helpful and hopeful for us.
As we explored the area, it was a bit overwhelming. There are a lot of great places to live here. We found a house in a town called Bentonville that would have sold for double it’s listing price in California, and we made an offer. They accepted it, and here we are, unsure of what it’s going to be like, but all in on the impending sense of adventure and seeing what God will do in and through us in this new place.
To celebrate not having to spend the afternoons with our realtor checking out homes, we surprised the kids with a trip to the trampoline park. While jumping and swinging and falling and laughing the afternoon away, a little grace from God showed up that reminds me that He goes before us and cares for us. We may not know for sure what we’re doing or where we’re going, but God is always looking out for us, even when it is confusing and difficult.
Jace comes running up to us, soaked in sweat, clearly enjoying his afternoon of foam pits and trampoline dodgeball. He had found a new friend that has the same insulin pump as him. He was so excited to find someone else that has type-1 diabetes. Rhonda started chatting with his mom, and she asked where the house is that we found. She wasn’t familiar with the street, but we let her know it was near an elementary school.
Turns out, her kids go to the same elementary school. This trampoline park has about a hundred random jumpers enjoying their afternoon twenty minutes from our future neighborhood and we are talking to a parent at the same school where Jace will be attending and get to find out how much support the school provides and how much they love this school.
Stop it, God; it’s too much. What are the chances?
But wait. There’s more. There’s always more.
Turns out that Jace’s new friend is going into third grade at that school, the very same grade that Jace is going into. He made a friend that understands a part of him better than I ever will without experiencing diabetes for myself. His mom shared with us about their endocrinologist that is local whom they think the world of and I feel drenched in grace.
We have no idea how this adventure is going to play out, but we know that God has gone before us and is making a way for us when it felt like there was no way.
We will be leaving Oroville with gratefulness for everything that it has taught us and the friends that have become like family. It will have all kinds of sadness and hopefulness wrapped up in it, for us and for this little town that has captured our hearts for so long.
My hope, as always, is that as heaven continues to invade earth through us, that the places that God takes us will become brighter as we carry heaven with us. I know that leaving Oroville doesn’t make space for darkness. You believers that carry heaven, keep walking it out.
We will be back to visit and will hopefully be able to stay connected through internet powered updates and conversations.
Thank you all for making Oroville home for so long.
—Pastor Kurt Libby