Circles are Better than Rows

In 2005 if someone would have told me the significance of being in a Small Group I would first have asked, “What’s a Small Group?” Followed by my protest question, “What do I have to do that I don’t want to do?” Truth be told, I would have asked the second question first. I am an introvert, so being in a small setting with a bunch of folks I didn’t know, where I wouldn’t go unnoticed, didn’t seem very appealing to me. However, my extrovert spouse Tim overruled any excuses I had rolling around in my head for not participating and we began “The Journey.” Thank goodness for the extroverts!

Quite honestly I wasn’t sure what “The Journey” was all about when we started, but what I did discover is that that I enjoyed being in this group of people and surprisingly found myself not wanting to miss a week. So over the course of many month we came to church once a week during the work week and gathered with exploring, new and “mature”  Christians. I will admit, because of where I was (or wasn’t) in my walk, most of what was taught seemed over my head. This was all new … small groups and studying the Bible, but community came out of these classes for me.

So significant was one Spiritual Development class within the Journey that I actually remember where I was sitting in the room. Greg Corral was teaching on the Holy Spirit and I remember thinking during that class, “Please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me.” I was participating enough in the other classes, so maybe if I didn’t make eye contact he wouldn’t call on me. Perhaps it was a prompting by the Holy Spirit because just like Greg, it was like he could read my thoughts and wanting to challenge me, proceeded to ask me what I thought the Holy Spirit was. I opened my mouth, but at first nothing came out. I paused a moment and blurted out, “I got nothing.” I was being truthful at the time. I had never really thought about the Holy Spirit. I am happy to report that during that class, I learned a lot about this very important part of the Trinity.  Personally, the Holy Spirit is my conscience. It’s what prompted me to go online and discover a teaching by Andy Stanley on Small Groups called “Preventative Circles”.

Although the Journey is just one of the Small Groups that Crossroads offers, it was a huge part of what was to come for me. I have learned since those first small group classes in 2005 that we were not designed to be alone, but rather in community with one another. If Tim hadn’t “encouraged” me to go through the Journey with him, I never would have had the opportunity to share that experience with my sister and her husband who were also new and going through the classes at the same time. I never would have met my best girlfriend (another sanguine in my life, go figure), someone who would not too long after, become like another sister to me and later yet, re-introduce me to tent camping, something I vowed 27 years ago never to do again. I never would have taken part 2 of the Journey and learned why I am the way I am through the gifting course, taught by someone who I consider my mentor and fellow melancholy sympathizer.

The Journey was not only a catalyst for me but also for my family. When we first came to Crossroads almost 12 years ago, Sunday youth group was meeting at Pastor Pat’s house. Josh, our oldest, didn’t attend that first week, but the second week came and as he started to protest going, that same sanguine from the beginning of this message, “encouraged” him to go; meaning he said, “you’re going.”  Josh would soon make friends that he is still friends with today, making new ones along the way, moving from Youth on to the Young Adults group after graduating college. Emily, our second born, would be welcomed to the Youth Group simply by the Youth leader at the time, Paul Payette, letting her come to the High School Thursday night Bible study as a middle schooler. I recall dropping them off in the front parking lot before she went the first time and her nervously asking Josh, “are you sure he said it was okay”? Well, she was hooked and would be a member of Youth Group through high school. Now graduated from college, she is married and serving in the Youth and Children’s Ministry with her new husband. She has shared that she would like to go back to Mexico as a young adult leader when Pastor Todd takes the youth back on a mission trip. Sarah and Abby are currently coming up through high school and we hope that they can have those same opportunities for friendship and community as their older siblings.

There are stories like this for each of us who have come here, joining a group not knowing what to expect, but coming out on the other side blessed beyond measure.

In this sermon I was listening to, Andy Stanley encourages children, youth, singles, marrieds, “mature” adults, etc. and explains the importance of being part of small groups (or circles) at all stages of life.  He sums it up with this …

“Let’s say that something happens to me, all the staff, and all the buildings simultaneously explode. Let’s make it worst case scenario. There’s no staff. There’s no buildings. And there’s no me. Here’s what would happen. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of the following week, thousands and thousands of adults would gather in homes all over the city and pray together, and do Bible study together and take care of whatever family members are left over and the church is going to go on.

Because at the end of the day, circles are better than rows. And from day one, we’ve been committed to creating a culture that’s all about circles and not rows. We are famous for our rows. But the strength of our churches is what happens in circles.”

We don’t have thousands of attenders or multiple churches, but those “circles” at Crossroads are pretty significant to me and my family. So thank you to Pastor Pat for standing in the field at the corner of Jamison and Girdle all those years ago and seeing the vision … the vision of rows, circles and maybe even a future Family Life Center. How exciting would that be?

I Don’t Speak Christianese

I recently finished a book called “You Lost Me” by David Kinnaman, which explores the topic of 18-29 year olds leaving the church. In the last chapter, he lists “50 Ideas to Find a Generation” and the first one hit a nerve.

“When you’re honest with your story, when you share the truth about who you are and what you struggle with, you give others a tremendous gift: the gift of going second. It’s so much harder to go first. None of the rules have been set. The boundaries have not been drawn. The borders of the land have not been clearly marked, especially when it comes to Christian circles. But that’s what we’re called to do, to throw ourselves on the honesty grenade. To share and live the truth. When we do, we give everyone the gift of going second. It’s so much easier to go second. You don’t perform or shine up your mistakes to look like a “real Christian” or a “good Christian”. The monster of pretending to be perfect has already been laid to rest.” – John Acuff

I am a Christian, but I don’t speak what I call “Christianese”; as defined by me, the lingo one may hear in church or in Christian circles. I don’t speak that way because I often find myself thinking about the person coming to church or coming to my home who doesn’t know what it means to “be in the world, not of the world” or to “die to self”. I was that person. I’m thinking about the person who may have walked away from their faith and is coming back or the one who is just exploring. I was that person. I grew up Roman Catholic, married a Lutheran and ended up in a non-denominational church.

Coming from liturgical services, those first services in a non-denominational church back in 2005 were uncomfortable. We stood for what seemed like forever singing (it was actually only 15 minutes) and the teaching was 30 minutes long (but surprisingly life-applicable). However, since it was all foreign to me, my natural response was to try and find things that might not work for us at this church. I remember telling Tim if they said “born again” or “saved” one more time I was leaving. That was almost 12 years ago.

It was like God said, “Eh, not so fast. You didn’t end up here by chance.”

When I started reading the Bible and found this bothersome-to-me “born-again” Scripture in John 3:3 (John is my favorite Gospel, but I don’t know if it’s wrong to have a favorite Gospel?), I was intrigued. The non-stop questions started and Tim happened to be on the receiving end of the barrage. Why had I never heard this Scripture in the Catholic or Lutheran Church? If the Bible is the Word of God, why was this never taught? Why did I not know what it meant? Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention? Even though it’s right there in the Bible, this one line of Scripture makes people so uncomfortable that negative connotations are given to non-denominational churches. Interestingly enough if you read 13 verses later in the same chapter, you arrive at one of the most well-known verses used in all denominations, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever should die will not perish, but have eternal life.” -John 3:16

So, on Good Friday 2006, alone in my family room, I asked Jesus into my life. What does that mean? It means I fessed up. That’s a hard thing to do when you grow up thinking you’re always right and everyone else is wrong. It means I acknowledged who Christ is and that I need Him; also a hard thing to do when you grow up thinking you don’t need anyone’s help. I don’t go around telling people that I am born-again or that I’m saved. For me, my heart change, the way I react in situations now, the way I try to live, tells my story. Just the fact that the minute I do or say something wrong and am instantly convicted, tells me that the Holy Spirit is in me; and I am convicted daily! Honestly, things that I wouldn’t have questioned 12-15 years ago, things I would have done or said, I question all the time now. When you discover that you’re a sinner, it’s overwhelming to think about. 

I don’t pretend to be versed in Scripture. I leave that to the theologians and teachers. I don’t have feel-good wisdom and words of encouragement to share. I leave that to my sanguine cohorts. It’s hard trying to keep up and I’m plain tired. After all, I’m still on the journey, stumbling and fumbling, praying that I trip less the older I get. I don’t want to be a hypocrite or a fake Christian, presenting airs of someone who has it all together, because I am flawed. My problems may be different than others, but flawed in God’s eyes, just the same. I’m just thankful He’s there with me on this journey and reminding me that He loves me in spite of my mess.

Wigwams and Muck Boots

Three years ago if you would have asked me about living anywhere but the suburbs, I would have laughed. We lived in a very nice tree-lined subdivision. Our house was manageable in size to clean, when I actually felt compelled to clean, and maintain. We had just enough lawn for me mow so I could get my yearly exercise crammed into the late spring, summer and early fall months. I could walk to the end of my driveway in my slippers to get the mail in all seasons and we were minutes away from the convenience of grocery stores, clothing stores, gas stations, big box stores, restaurants and the kids schools. For 16 of our 25 married years we dwelt in suburbia. Lancaster However, from the day we moved from our blue collar neighborhood of 1940’s cape cod houses bordering the city to our white collar, tree-lined neighborhood of late 1990’s colonial houses bordering a park, I felt unsettled. 14 years later, God pricked our hearts and we started to look for a piece of property to build a home on. This has always been a dream of my husband’s, but the older we got, the more we resigned ourselves that perhaps this wasn’t to be for our family. I thought as I wrote this about how we teach our kids that with God all things are possible, yet we resign ourselves to “not possible”? So we ventured out on weekends and looked at parcels ranging from 1 to 25+ acres. If it didn’t have trees, Tim didn’t want to look. I showed him this one particular piece of land online in July 2012 that I had been watching for some time but thought he would balk at because it was raw land and would require a well, but he agreed to go take a look. Needless to say, we were beyond overwhelmed. Trees would not be a problem and there were multiple ponds as a bonus (which my Dad, the fisherman, has already begun to stock). So we went home, prayed and began to run the numbers; a month later we became the owners, but it would be almost 2 years before any building would occur. God had plans for us, but we had to be patient. Woods One of the very first things Tim said after we bought the property was that it wasn’t going to be just for us. This house and property was meant to be a blessing for many people, people we already knew and people we have yet to meet. We weren’t going to move out there and shut ourselves off from the world. This is easy to do as you get older and comfortable with your day-to-day life, but I don’t believe that’s what God wants for us. We are relational by design. I am not a very spiritual person, but how can we be a light if we have no place or opportunity to shine and express God’s love? Over the course of the two years before the construction happened, we had brought family and friends out for tours which ended up being more like hikes … I was exhausted each time! My lawn mowing exercise was over-shadowed by these tour-hikes.  Our brother-in-law was the first family member to see the parcel outside of our kids. It was important that Tim share this with him, not only as a brother-in-law, fellow architect and hunter, but as his long-time college friend. Another hike occurred with our good friends. They were so excited and encouraging to us and would be throughout those two years. But that day they took the tour-hike, they prayed over the land. Never having been part of something like that, it was at that moment I knew we were supposed to be here. DSCN0358 We were supposed to be there, but I honestly don’t know how or why people would want to build multiple houses in their lifetimes. We only built one and I am convinced that God wanted to teach us patience and lots of grace because in the course of 7 months we designed a modest home, sold our old home, moved in with my parents for 5 months, built the new house and began our life in non-suburbia going into the long and cold winter months. Our journey to this point was not without its struggles, both in our marriage, temporarily moving back in with my parents and in the building process itself. There was more stress than I like to think about, but God who took us through … got us through all of it and did it through His grace.  Even though it wasn’t easy at times, there were so many good things that happened throughout this to-be-continued adventure that can only be explained by saying that God was totally in control of every part of it. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6 So I’ve traded my suburban mailbox slippers for Wigwams and Muck boots to begin the part of our journey in small-town USA. Pond

Giving and My Wrestling Match with God

“The world, and sometimes even the church, are impressed by people with wealth, fame, beauty, popularity and high levels of education and accomplishment. Yet, these are not the criteria God uses when He chooses people to be used by Him. He isn’t looking for flashy, charismatic, powerfully gifted, highly accomplished people to do His mighty works. Instead He is looking for simple, ordinary women and men with a passionate longing to seek His face and do whatever He asks of them.” – Ruth Johnson author of “We Have a Dream.”

I’m ordinary.  I had an ordinary childhood, was an ordinary student, athlete, daughter, wife and mother.

In the years that my family has been coming to Crossroads, I’ve heard many testimonies of what God has done in people’s lives and wondered what I was doing here.  I don’t have a testimony.  I grew up in a close-knit family with two parents who celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary this year and three sisters who I look forward to growing old with; sisters that I can disagree with without fear that grudges will be held.  God brought a man into my life 26 years ago (23 years married this year) who would give the shirt off his back to help a complete stranger, the father of our four healthy children, two who make me feel young and two who make me feel old.

At our previous church, they would have what were called “Temple Talks” once a year.  It was a time when people in the congregation would talk about how God has blessed them because they tithed.  I dreaded listening to these stories and pretty much tuned them out.  If I could have made myself disappear I would have, but they never told us ahead of time they would be having these talks, plus my father-in-law was the pastor and it was pretty much noticed if we weren’t there.  I dreaded it because they were talking about money and I thought the only reason they were speaking, was to ask for money.  I felt like they were bragging about their good fortune, when in actuality what God was doing through them, was planting a seed.  At the time, however, I felt convicted.  And no one likes to be convicted, including me, the stubborn 2nd born child of German and Polish heritage.  The folks who spoke at these “Temple Talks” were mostly “mature” of age and I thought, “Well of course these people can tithe, they’re older and have money.  I’m a young person with a young family and I have no money,” or so I thought.  So I sat through these talks year after year until I heard from a couple our own age, someone Tim had grown up with in the church.  Surely they weren’t tithers?  How could they be, they were our age.  That was when I first understood about “taking a leap of faith”.   This leap for me came soon after because around this same time the church was having a roof replacement campaign and you could “buy” a nail or shingle.  Tim said he wanted us to “buy a shingle” and a shingle was $500!  He wasn’t serious was he?  He was and I wrote the check a little begrudgingly, as I didn’t fully “get it” at this point; but the seed had been planted.

Never would I have imagined in a million years that I would share my thoughts about this topic.  God has a sense of humor that way.  Pastor Pat told me that when things come too easy for people, there tends to be less conviction and passion with the teaching.  Some of us just don’t accept and we wrestle with God.  This struggle makes our passion and conviction stronger.  I never thought of myself as wrestling with God, but I certainly know I struggled and didn’t just accept.  After all, I am a melancholy-choleric, a behind-the-scenes, just let me do my job and don’t-make-a-fuss kind of person who needs an answer for everything.  And, was about as stubborn and tight-fisted as they come.

One of the many things God blessed me with is a VERY patient husband.  Tim knew from a very young age, growing up in the church, with a father who is a pastor, what it took me decades to figure out; that what I have isn’t mine.   Every year when it came time for the stewardship program and these Temple Talks, we would disagree.  “We need to be doing this Janice,” Tim would say.  “NO,” was my response.  I clearly had submission issues as well.  Tim has always been the primary financial provider in our family even though I did work outside the home at different times.  But I was the one who wrote out the bills so of course I would know what we could afford to give to the church.  He wanted to give by faith.  I wanted to give by what I thought we could afford.  We gave, but we were not tithers because of me.  I was not a cheerful giver … I was a reluctant giver.

When we moved out to Lancaster in 1998, I went from working full-time to part-time and after our third child was born two years after living in our new house, we decided it was time for me to stay home.  How on earth were we going to do that with only one income?  You know what, we did.  It can only be by God’s grace that we were able to do that.  There is no other explanation.  I would sit there dumbfounded, trying to figure it out.  If we’re able to do this with one income, what on earth happened to the money I earned all those years?  It was, very literally, non-existent.  We never needed it to begin with because God had provided.

Something I learned from this journey so far is that holding money tight did me more harm than good.  Trying to keep up with those fictional “Joneses” was really exhausting and we weren’t getting ahead.  I was forced to look in the mirror and conclude that money was my stronghold and I was robbing God.

A short while after we were at Crossroads, Tim said he wanted to give a Christmas offering to the church.  I of course thought he was crazy when he told me the amount because I could have thought of at least ten things we could have used that money for, so you can imagine how confused I was with the feelings of peace I had after writing that check.  God however, did not think Tim was crazy, and a short while after we gave that check to the church, Tim received a bonus from his employer.  I mention this only because when we looked at what the tithe would have been on that bonus had we waited until he actually received it, it ended up being exactly what we wrote the check to the church for weeks earlier…10%.  God again had not only set me in my place, but He provided.  Sometimes I feel like the Israelites in the dessert.  All of these signs and wonders occurred, yet they (and I) still doubt.

One of the things that Crossroads does that I had not experienced previously, is allowing us  the opportunity to hear from pastors from across the world like Pastor Paul, Pastor Santhosh and Bishop Frances.  These pastors not only put things into perspective for me, but they make the needs outside of my own life more real.  This is when I became passionate about using our financial blessings not only inside, but outside the four walls of the church.

Back in 2010, our daughter Emily went on the Youth Mission Trip to Mexico.  She called us from one of the airports on the way home to check in with us and I happened to ask, jokingly, if she still had her flute with her.   She got really quiet and trying not to cry, said she lost it on the bus to Puerto Vallarta.  This was an expensive instrument, the first instrument any of our kids owned, but Tim did not want her memories of this trip to be marred by this loss.  She still had one more year of high school band, so when she got home, we called the music store thinking we would rent for the last year and just happened to ask if they had any flutes for sale.  When the woman on the other end of the phone said that one was coming in on consignment, the exact same make and model of the flute Emily had lost, I about dropped the phone.  This flute that was coming in was actually only 1 year old and played by a young lady from Iroquois.  Tim had the opportunity to speak to the mother of this young lady and told her the story of what happened to Emily’s instrument.  They sold us that flute for half of what the instrument costs new.  These kinds of things continue to happen for us, and me, needing to have an explanation for everything, have none.  When these things happen, I still catch myself saying, “Isn’t that weird how that worked out?”  My good friend Karen is right there to correct me and remind that it’s not weird, “It’s God!”  There are so many stories, like these, of provision in my life simply because I believe we are obedient.

My friend Sandy told me how giving was never something she questioned throughout her life.  Her future husband John, asked her during their courtship, if she could really afford to tithe as a single mom.  She said to him matter-of-factly, “I can’t afford not to.”  She may not think so, but her life is a true inspiration for me of grace and strength.  And I’ve never been a single mom, but just hearing that was confirmation for me of how being obedient at any point in life pours out the blessings spoken of in Malachi 3:10.

One misconception I think we have is that when we tithe, we will in-turn, be blessed financially.  The blessings our family receives are far beyond anything monetary.  Our eldest son is studying Applied Physics in college.  I honestly didn’t even know what that was before he enrolled.  I’m told it’s an engineering based physics.  He has shown interest in government, something he felt called to become involved with in college.   Our eldest daughter, who although I sometimes believe is the cause for my graying hair (refer back to lost flute) is probably the most well-rounded child I know.  She just finished up her freshman year of college and the adjustment that I worried about, went extremely well for her.   She is her father’s daughter with the same fun-loving and outgoing personality I wish I had growing up.  God is providing opportunities for our children that we would have never been able to provide on our own.  There is a 7-year gap between Emily and Sarah.  When I told Tim that we were pregnant with Sarah, his first response was to go lie down because he immediately started thinking about how old he would be when this next child would graduate from high school.  Little did we know that another one would be coming 2 years later, rounding out our table of six.  When I think about that 7-year gap and how tired I am some days, I now know that was a blessing that God gave to us.   Sarah and Abby came into our family during God’s perfect timing and purpose.  Sarah was just the happiest baby …an absolute joy.  I think God knew that we would need that at that point in our lives.  She is almost a teenager now and her smile still lights up a room, but sometimes it comes with “moods”!  Abby, our baby, is a true last born … she is a free-spirit, the life of the party.  Sometimes too much “life” but thankfully she takes everything in stride.  They are growing into everything but ordinary.

We are not financially well-off by any means; not even close.  We still have our “discussions” about money, but the disagreements are far and few between these days because I learned something, I learned that the world doesn’t revolve around me.  The world is a lot bigger than me and my problems.  God doesn’t need our money.  We give because He gave.  I learned that if my hand is tight-fisted, nothing goes out and nothing gets in.  It was a big leap of faith for me when I finally discovered that my cup truly does “runneth over”.

MALACHI  3:10

10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.