Hello People of Grace

By Rev. Eric Blachford

My name is Pastor Eric Blachford and it is a joy to be appointed as part of the pastoral staff here at Grace UMC. Becky, Isaac (11), Luke (9), Kate (6), and I are beginning to feel at home here in Naperville now that we are all moved in and settled into the beautiful parsonage. We’re enjoying exploring all the area has to offer. Now that we are entering August, Becky and the kids are becoming excited about the new schools they’ll be joining soon. Becky will be teaching 8th-grade math at Humphrey Middle School and the kids will be going to Madison Jr. High and Scott Elementary.

As I promised in my first sermon on July 11th, I’m going to share a little of my story with you in this article to help you get to know me a little bit. I’m also going to ask for your help by providing you a way to share a bit about yourself with me too (details at the end of this article). In the previous bio that was sent out when I was appointed here, you can find details about my 18 years of ministry experience, my educational background, information about a few hobbies my family and I enjoy, and other things. That’s all interesting information and I could expand on those things, but what I decided would be best to share with you as one of your pastors is a bit about my calling and relationship with God. I hope that sharing with you how God has worked in my life, it might help you reflect on how God has worked in yours as well.

My relationship with God began before I was even born. Before my mom had any children, she prayed that her future children would know, love, and serve God. For as long as I can remember (and still today) she has always done everything in her power to make me aware of the presence of God in my life.

My own first experience of God’s presence was when I was 5 years old, during Holy Communion at First UMC in Belvidere, IL. My parents worked hard to teach me that Communion wasn’t just “snack time” after the sermon, but that Communion was an opportunity to encounter the forgiving grace and love of God. After I received it for the first time and returned to the pew, God’s presence was real to me and as tangible as the thick humidity of that August day’s air. I knew God loved me, that Jesus died to forgive my sins, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life getting to know the God I experienced that day.

By 8 years old, I began to feel called into ministry. I didn’t think of it in those terms but when other kids at school started talking about what they wanted to be when they were older, I began envisioning myself as a pastor. This especially came into focus after being asked to be a liturgist when I was 8. That night I had a dream that I was a pastor, but I didn’t share that dream or the feelings of my “call” with anyone at the time. 

At this point in my life whenever I wasn’t in school, I was either at church or playing sports. These things were the most important parts of my life and I was equally passionate about each. However, with each passing year, the importance of and time dedicated to sports grew. By the time I was in Middle School, sports had become the most important part of my life and I was no longer as passionate about my faith. 

My relationship with God remained stagnant and less important to me than sports and other typical teenage concerns until my junior year of High School. That year my parents divorced. That event shook the foundation of my world. Rather than turn to my faith or God during this difficult time, I poured all my energy into sports. I more or less quit church. 
The only thing that made me feel better about life was winning. When I competed and won, I felt great about myself and life so I did everything I could to feed the idol of winning to avoid the depression that followed losing.

That all changed during the winter of my junior year when a basketball injury landed me in the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down. As I lay in a hospital bed unable to move with nothing to do but think and pray, I realized how backward I had been living. I repented for turning sports into an idol. I repented for abandoning God. I didn’t do this thinking that God would heal me if I did. Rather, I wanted a fresh start with God whenever I would finally leave the hospital. As I had this honest “come to Jesus” moment, I had a real sense of God’s love, grace, and presence in that it was as real to me again as it was on that day I received Communion for the first time. Thankfully, several days later more than just my soul was healed. I left the hospital with a new life and purpose. I returned to praying and worshiping with passion and conviction. A few months later while attending a youth group event, I felt and heard the call of God into ministry again and this time I answered yes. 

Upon completing college I began working as a Youth Director for a local church. Within weeks of my starting, a major controversy broke out in the congregation. It erupted in worship one morning as people on opposite sides of the issue began screaming and swearing at one another during joys and concerns. The church eventually split, but even after the split occurred, the fighting, backstabbing, and arguing didn’t stop. I stayed for a couple of years but eventually decided that if this is what life in a professional role in the church was going to be, I wanted nothing to do with it.

I quit my job and planned to quit ministry. I very quickly found another job using some certifications in finance I gained while working during college to get a job in that field. I was promoted twice very quickly and within a few months,  my employer began recruiting me to manage a new office opening in Chicago. The job would have come with great pay and incredible perks like access to the company’s season tickets to the Cubs, Bulls, and Bears. The only problem was that I wasn’t at peace in this job and I couldn’t figure out why this perfect opportunity that fell in my lap wasn’t fixing my discontent. 

The reason of course was because I still had a sense of being called into ministry. As the decision of whether to accept the promotion at my current job drew closer, Becky and I prayed that the Holy Spirit would make the next steps of our journey clear. Within two weeks of praying daily for the Spirit’s leading, I received a letter in the mail from the pastor who Confirmed me in 8th grade. We hadn’t spoken in a long time. He had no idea what was happening in Becky’s and my life. Yet in his letter, he wrote that the Holy Spirit had laid it upon his heart that God was calling me to be his associate pastor and that he already had the approval of the District Superintendent to ask me to do so as long as I completed licensing school that summer.

When Becky and I read that letter, we broke out in tears. God, through this pastor, had answered our prayers. I had no idea what that would mean or where entering ministry would take me. I was only 22 at the time. But now, 17 years later, I can say I’ve been given the privilege of following Jesus on the adventure of a lifetime that has led me to Grace UMC.

I could go on for pages but I won’t. I hope that sharing this story of God’s call on my life, it helps you to know me a bit better and makes you think about where God has worked in your life as well. I’d love it if you’d be willing to share some of the stories  of how God has worked in your life as well. You don’t have to write as much as I have. Even a few sentences would be great. But would you be willing to tell me some of your stories?

To help you with this, I’ve created a form for you to fill out. You can access the form at peopleofgrace.org/hello-questions.

You’ll find a place to put your name, contact info, and some background info about who you are if you choose. Or if you want to remain anonymous for some reason (and I hope you don’t), you can skip those questions. But I’d like everyone to try answering these three for sure: First, why God? In other words, why do you believe in God or why is your faith important to you? The second question is why church? Especially after a year of not being able to be physically together because of the pandemic, why  does faith expressing itself through the local church matter? Finally, why this (Grace UMC) church? Why, given that there are hundreds of churches within driving distance, do you choose to express your faith through Grace UMC? What is it about this place, the ministries, the mission, etc. that you connect to?

We all have answers to those questions but it may have been a while since we’ve tried to articulate them. Doing so will not only be good for you, but it will go a long way towards helping me in getting to know you and the church better. Of course, I’m always happy to meet with you in person or over Zoom as well. If you’d like to do that just shoot me an email or give me a call. Thank you in advance for all you will share. I can’t wait to read your stories and experiences and be moved to praise God for God’s faithfulness in all our lives and our church!