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3 Things You Must Know to Have a Thoughtful Life

When asked what the greatest commandment (i.e. the most important commandment) in the Old Testament law was, Jesus said to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.

All the laws of the Old Testament essentially boil down to these two things: love God and love others.  

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

— Matthew 22:36-39

We are called to love God with everything, including our mind.

But how can we love God like that?

How do we live a thoughtful life?  

Here are 3 things you must know and a few resources to help you learn more.

1. Know Who You Believe In
You have to first know God as he has revealed himself in the Bible. One of the charges against many Christians today is that they simply don’t know what the Bible says. They might know a few passages because they appear on social media posts with pretty backgrounds or coffee mugs, or because those are the verses they memorized as children. But, it seems, the Christian tradition of reading and knowing the Bible is not as strong as it once was.

We believe the Bible is God’s word and that it was written by human authors, under the supernatural guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Christians have always affirmed that it is the supreme source of truth for their beliefs and living.

But the only way to discover and understand the truths God reveals in the Bible is to read it for yourself.

And if you want some added help understanding things, get an ESV Study Bible or take our How to Study the Bible class in the fall.

Better yet, don’t do it alone. Join a small group to read, discuss, and apply God’s word in community.  

To love God with your mind, you have to know God as he’s revealed himself in Scripture.

2. Know What You Believe In
You have to know what you believe and the core beliefs that Christians throughout history have stacked hands on. Studying theology can help you do that.

We’ve also posted the essential beliefs of our church on our website. Frankly, they are pretty generic essential beliefs similar to what you’d find on many church websites.

But know that those genericsounding beliefs you see on church websites have been carefully crafted, formed by Scripture, and debated at different points throughout the history of the church. 

We don’t take them for granted and neither should you.

To learn more, here are two great resources to get you started:

 

3. Know Why you Believe In It
You have to know why you believe what you believe, and, at least to some degree, be able to explain and defend what you believe. There’s actually a name for the defense of the Christian faith: apologetics.

That doesn’t mean you have to be one of those debaters who like to argue and discuss and push back. Some people are wired that way and some people aren’t. But like Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” 

Know what you believe—the hope that is in you. And know why you believe it so that you can explain it to someone else who asks why you have that hope, and why you believe what you believe.

Be prepared to address objections or concerns people might have. People have questions. You’ve probably asked some of them, even if you’re settled in your belief: 

  • How could a good God allow suffering?  
  • How can a loving God send people to hell?  
  • Hasn’t science disproven Christianity?  
  • How can you say there’s only one true faith? 
  • Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women? And condone slavery? 

Fortunately, there are good answers to these questions. Christians have applied their minds to the study of Scripture for hundreds of years to come up with satisfying, God-honoring answers to these questions. So do the work to know what those answers are. 

Here are two great resources to get you started on studying apologetics:

 

 

While Christianity is very much tied to our hearts, it requires us to use our wits, our reason, and the entirety of our minds to truly follow Christ.

Let me encourage you, don’t check your brain at the door.

Dive in, learn, and use your knowledge and reason together with your feelings and faith. And as you do, may you, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 

How to Grieve Through Forgiveness

My dad needed my help recently. He was preparing to undergo a medical procedure for his heart, so I took it upon myself to help him sort through some things he needed to do. It was fairly standard stuff. I helped him fill out a legal document and talk with his doctor about the procedure and his options. We discussed his wishes in case things went wrong during the procedure and I was left to make hard choices on his behalf. 

While I took care of these typical family duties, I chuckled to myself. Less than three years ago, I would never have imagined being in a place where I’d handle these types of things for this man. 

But there I was, discussing end-of-life scenarios with a father who had neglected, abandoned, and disappointed me more times than is fair to mention against him. 

I wasn’t able to do it because I love him so much or because he’s turned a corner or because I am such a great Christian. 

I was able to do it because I wanted something normal between us. And normal is not a thing I take for granted in the relationship I have with my father. 

It felt something like a normal relationship between a father and daughter.

Normal is something I thought I’d had to give up a long time ago — a loss I had to learn to forgive. 

And it was also something I had to grieve. 

I believe it’s true of us all that when we begin to engage in the hard task of forgiveness, we also have to face grief. But grief isn’t something we normally associate with forgiveness. Or, at least, it wasn’t for me. 

We know forgiveness doesn’t mean we “erase” the hard or evil thing that happened to us. We know we can’t forget it.

But what do we do when we arrive at the point in our journeys of forgiveness where we have to deal with the overwhelming pile of emotions at the root of our unforgiveness? 

Here’s how the process of forgiveness worked in my life. 

I felt the Lord calling me to forgive my dad, but when I would butt up against the really challenging feelings of anger or sadness, I wouldn’t quite know where to put them or how to deal with them. I was prepared to act on the task of forgiveness, but I wasn’t prepared to deal with the grief associated with admitting what I had lost.

Over time, God showed me how he intended to use my grief as one of many tools to grow my heart for forgiveness. Tapping into the sorrow over what I had lost (or never really had) helped me take all those emotions to God. 

And when I took my grieving heart to God, he was faithful to heal it. 

I began to see how grief was just part of the journey of forgiveness. An absolutely necessary part. 

We’re told in the Psalms that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted” and that “he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 34:18 and 147:3). 

If we want the kind of forgiveness the Lord offers for our broken relationships, then we must address our broken hearts. 

We must confront our grief and allow God to come near to us and heal us. That’s when he can “bind up [our] wounds” and fashion our hearts into ones that seek forgiveness. 

I love my dad, and I gladly take the normal times when they come. Forgiving him was hard. Confronting my grief over the loss of a “normal” relationship was harder. 

But God was merciful to show me that his way was better, and he gave me a new heart capable of holding both love and loss. 

He can do the same for you.


 

Is it Okay to Doubt God?

If you look around the world today, amidst the days of COVID variants, political tension, and a myriad of other stressors and struggles, it’s easy to feel some sense of doubt about God and his presence in the world. It’s easy to wonder why he isn’t doing something about it. Or if he’s even really there at all.

The truth is, even though our worries and fears carry some different names in the modern day, doubt has always existed within the Christian faith.

Even people who were with Jesus — who knew him personally — still struggled with knowing if it was all real.

So, it’s no surprise we sometimes find ourselves with similar feelings.

If there was anyone in all of history who would seem immune to doubt, it probably would’ve been the man traditionally known as John the Baptist.

His mom was the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which meant Jesus and John were kin. So that’s pretty good. Better yet, God selected and chose John to announce the way of Jesus to the people.

John was a prophet, he was a man of God, and he was a man of great faith.

He even baptized Jesus.

In Matthew 11 Jesus says:

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

– Matthew 11:11a

I mean talk about something to put on your resume, right?

Jesus called me the greatest person who’s ever lived.

When Jewish kids had posters of the rock stars of the faith on their wall, John the Baptist was right in the middle.

But, as we see earlier in Matthew 11, we observe something interesting happening.

Traditionally, the Jews thought the Messiah would come and destroy the oppressive Romans. He would be this amazing unconquerable king. He’d be a warmonger.

And not only was Jesus not like that, but things weren’t going well for John the Baptist who had just baptized Jesus and declared him the Messiah. In fact, during his ministry, John was imprisoned, and at this point in the text he’s on the docket to get executed.

So, suddenly, it seems all the questions in John’s mind about Jesus, and about his faith, and about this whole idea of Christianity began to bubble to the surface of John’s thoughts.

Here’s what he did:

Now when John heard about the deeds of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him,Are you the one who is to come? Or shall we look for another?

– Matthew 11:2-3

Stunning! Here we have the great John the Baptist struggling with doubt about Jesus.

He’s like, “Jesus, are you really the Christ? Or did I screw that whole thing up? We’ve been waiting for somebody. Are you really who you say you are?”

What I love about this, is that it tells us something very important about people who want to deal with their doubts.

If you’ve struggled with doubt or are currently struggling with it, before you do anything else, you simply must know that going through these seasons — those ones that wreck you about Jesus and God — is normal.

And not only is it normal, but it’s also necessary.

Doubts are the growing pains of the faith. It’s always been that way. They’re usually seasons of discomfort, and sometimes they bring us to tears. It’s real pain. But they’re seasons we must endure if we want to grow in our faith.

Coming to grips with the idea that doubt in your faith journey is normal and necessary — just knowing that — lowers the anxiety about it. Because doubt, though it is painful and difficult to journey through, means that at the very least you are asking big questions of a very big God.

And whatever your questions are, whatever doubts you have, the most practical first step is that you must work to find the answer.

And I specifically said “work to find it,” not just “find it,” because I can almost assure you that it’s going to take time and energy.

Go to Christian leaders that you trust. If you’re in a small group, and you’re not bringing your questions and doubts to them, you’re missing a grand opportunity to leverage good Christ-following people. Ask them! And read about the subject you’re asking about (but not just from Google).

The enemy of faith isn’t doubt, it’s apathy.

Real doubts demand real work.

There will be days you feel like you’re keeping your head above the water, and there will be days you feel like you’re drowning.

My favorite verse in all of the Bible that deals with doubt is Mark 9:24 where a guy says to Jesus, “I believe. Just help my unbelief.”

It’s one of the most honest prayers I’ve ever heard.

That’s a prayer I pray.

God, I believe. Help me in areas where I don’t believe.

And for those who struggle with doubts that’s a great prayer to pray. Run to Jesus with your doubt!

But, don’t just run to Jesus to find help from him, but run to Jesus to find help in him.

You can take all the doubts that plague you — and they can be really big — but they’re size cannot eclipse the historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Whatever doubts you have can be overwhelmed by the weightiness of who Jesus is and what he’s done.

In Matthew 11, Jesus responded to the disciples of John the Baptist like this:

Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up. And the poor have good news preached to them.

– Matthew 11:4b-5

In other words, here’s what he said, “You tell John that you can all have confidence in me by looking at what I’ve done.”

And we have it even better as Christians today, because John never got to see Jesus go to the cross and then, better yet, rise from the grave.

But we have.

Jesus’ answer is, “You have to trust me.”

And we must do the same.

Even when we can’t trust what’s happening around us.

Even when we can’t trust ourselves.

Doubts are the growing pains of faith. They’re part of the journey. And they’re serious.

But they aren’t insurmountable.

Ask questions.

Run to Jesus.

Trust God.


 

The Promises of 2022

I love a clean slate.

That first page of a new journal, starting a new book, or the first day of a new season. And, I really love the beginning of a new year. Every new year holds so much promise.

2021 started with promise. It was certainly going to be a better year than 2020; it had to be.

No more COVID, no more political division or racial divide? At least, that was the hope, right?

Well, we didn’t even make it a week into 2021 and the wheels fell off, again.

2021 felt like any other year that started with so much promise, but ended up being such a disappointment.

We can laugh it off now — we kind of have to — but the effects of the past few years are real: division, sickness, and uncertainty.

2021 broke a lot of promises.

Well, here we are again. It’s January. A clean slate. I love a new year!

But our hopes have been tempered. Everyone seems to be a little more cynical and hardened this time around. And maybe we should be. Life is hard and will continue to be hard. In fact, long before COVID-19 Jesus told his followers:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

— John 16:33

Jesus was honest about the challenges of life.

But, there is a difference between a realistic understanding of our broken world and losing hope as Christians.

So what if 2022 really does offer promise? And what if that promise will never lead to disappointment?

As we begin the new year, here are three promises we can hold on to:

1. YOU ARE NEVER ALONE

These past couple of years, we’ve experienced isolation, separation, and loneliness to a greater degree, but this is not new. Spiritually and relationally people have a tendency to feel isolated. We need to be reminded that we are never alone if we know Jesus.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

— Matthew 28:19-20

As we walk through 2022 (and whatever may come with it) we can be reminded that we have a God who is present with us always.

In fact that’s what we just celebrated at Christmas. Jesus, who is Immanuel, God with us!

And, as amazing as it is that he came to dwell with us, Jesus also came and experienced the real suffering and brokenness of our world. He knows what it’s like to be thirsty and hungry, to be tempted and rejected and abandoned.

He knows what it’s like to suffer and even to die.

He understands it all and is with us in it all. Always.

2. GOD WILL GIVE US STRENGTH

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

— Philippians 4:10-13

This is a popular verse, but so often misconstrued. Paul was not saying he could do whatever he wanted to do because God would strengthen him. He wasn’t talking about the perfect jump-shot or a six figure salary.

Paul was in the midst of the suffering and tribulation Jesus had warned about.

But, even there, Paul was content in abundance, and he was content in suffering, because Christ was present with him.

It’s not a promise of comfort or ease, but of God’s presence and power in the midst of anything we might face.

3. GOD IS WORKING ALL THINGS FOR GOOD

I know this is often a Christian cliché, but it’s also a real promise.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

— Romans 8:28

The context of this verse is, again, acknowledging the suffering in our world.

Paul was describing those who walk in the Spirit as disciples of Christ.

For us, no matter what we face, we can be sure that not only are we never alone, not only does God strengthen us along the way, but we can trust that in the end, his goodness, power, and sovereignty will work out for our good and his glory.

Let’s be clear though, this promise doesn’t mean that everything is good. There is so much in our broken hearts and our broken world that is decidedly bad, like sickness, betrayal, cancer, hurricanes, selfishness, and so much more.

But, even in the middle of all of it, we trust that God is faithful to keep his promises. And in the end, he takes even the worst of life, the brokenness of our world, and he works it for good. It is an incredible promise!

 

The “promises” of this world will always disappoint, but we can be certain in the promises of God. None of these promises guarantee an easy new year ahead, but they are true and something we can and should hold fast to no matter what 2022 brings.

God’s promises are as true today as they were last year. They will always be the same and they will always offer hope beyond today.

This is what true faith, founded in Christ, looks like.

Thanksgiving Before Christmas

If you’re like me (or Hobby Lobby), your Christmas tree goes up before the turkey is served on Thanksgiving Day.

I know, I know. So many of you are shaking your heads already.

People have big opinions on when trees, music, lights, and even coffee cups should appear for the Christmas season.

And while this topic is debated mostly in good fun, it serves as a small sample of the polarized and divided cultural climate we all seem to find ourselves in these days.

But, even though I’m on the Christmas-as-soon-as-you-want side of this debate, I’m willing to find the middle ground here and admit that Thanksgiving does not get the focus and attention it should.

Really, it’s fitting that Thanksgiving comes before Christmas — not because we need another way to decorate with pumpkins, but because the entire Christian life should be marked by giving thanks. Even, and sometimes especially, in the times before we enjoy the blessings of God’s gifts, times when we are tired and unsure, and times that are hard.

In fact, the history of the Thanksgiving holiday in our nation is instructive for how disciples of Jesus can rightly approach giving thanks to God.

The holiday of Thanksgiving has been celebrated on and off in the United States since 1789. President Abraham Lincoln made it an official national holiday in 1863, proclaiming it, “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”

If you don’t remember from history class, Lincoln was the president of the United States from 1861 to 1865 — the same years as the Civil War. In this war, 618,222 men died, which is far and away the most casualties in our nation’s history. It was undoubtedly one of the most challenging and divisive periods America has ever experienced.

And yet, in the middle of this time — before the end of the war — Lincoln asked the nation to give thanks to our good Father in heaven.

And long before Lincoln, there was the Apostle Paul.

Paul suffered for his faith in Jesus. He was beaten, persecuted, imprisoned, and eventually martyred. And yet, these are Paul’s words written to the people of the church:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

— 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus giving thanks to his Father.

He gives thanks for the bread God provides before he distributes to the hungry crowd. He gives thanks to God before the resurrection of Lazarus. He gives thanks to his Father before he breaks the bread and pours the wine that represents his broken body and his blood, fully knowing what these symbols will mean for him the next day.

He demonstrates thanksgiving for good gifts and thanksgiving in suffering.

The Greek root of Eucharist (the fancy word for “The Lord’s Supper”) can actually be translated as “thanksgiving.”

When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we are remembering God’s good gift of his son, who died for our sins and was resurrected as our king. We remember the past and give thanks. We also give thanks for the present gifts and blessings God has given us, from our daily bread to his presence among us.

So we can give thanks for the Advent of Christ — the Christmas season — resting in the truth that God can be trusted. We can give thanks, knowing full well that we, like Lincoln, like Paul, and like Christ, will experience discord and suffering in this life, but that God can be trusted through it all. And we can give thanks for the coming Advent: the return of Jesus when all things are made new.

So, this holiday season, whether we are struggling or celebrating, whether we have lots or little, whether we prefer pumpkins or trees, let’s give thanks together.

Let us be thankful for God who gifted us with his only beloved Son.

Let us be thankful for the good gifts we enjoy now.

Let us be thankful for the promise of gifts to come.

Thanksgiving before Christmas. Thanksgiving for Christmas. Thanksgiving always.


 

A Seat at the Table

You know the scene — that tumultuous environment known as the high school cafeteria.

You know the feeling of walking in to such a setting, lunch in hand, scouring the room for a place to sit.

Am I allowed to sit at that table?

What would people think if I sat there?

I can’t sit with them; they’re not my crowd.

And many of us know the feeling from the other side — the person sitting at the table, monitoring the movements of the hopeful seat hunters.

Are they going to sit here?

What would people think if they sat with us?

They aren’t one of us, I hope they don’t try it.

We call them “cliques” in high school. At that stage of life, we’re identified by what we do and who we spend time with; by the sports we play or don’t; by the grades we get (or don’t); and by our general attitude toward this building we’re required to be in.

Honestly, it’s easier to eat lunch with people who do the same things we do. It’s fun to talk about music with other people who like it. There’s camaraderie in clowning around with the other guys on the football team. And it’s motivating to sit alongside students with the same goals of getting into a good college like we want to.

The problems come when we see anyone outside this circle — anyone not at this table — as “them,” and anyone inside it — anyone sitting at the table — as “us.”

And that isn’t just a high school problem.

As college students, and young adults, and married couples, and parents, and voters, and sports fans, and co-workers, it’s common to fall into the “them” and “us” way of thinking.

Honestly, we don’t need to talk about whether this is right or wrong.

We know.

Deep down we know it’s a shallow view of life to only commune with those who look like us, or act like us, or think like us.

But, we also know it’s comfortable.

It feels good to be affirmed, to be heard, to be able to say what we really think.

And the truth is, we also know being around like-minded people holds some value.

It is a valuable thing to be able to gather with people who will listen to us, understand where we’re coming from, and who can offer specific, tailored counsel to our situation and circumstance.

So, what do we do?

Do we sit at the lunchroom table with only “our” people?

Or do we allow others who might upset the established vibe to join us?

In the Bible, we see Jesus navigate this issue with beautiful balance.

Jesus, throughout his ministry, has his guys — the disciples — with him wherever he goes. He spends a lot of time with them. In the book of Acts we come to understand that these men are leaders he’s raising up to lead the church in its infancy, but they’re also just his buddies. He eats with them, teaches them, travels with them, and works alongside them.

But, Jesus’ purpose isn’t solely focused on these men. He has other things he’s trying to accomplish as well.

We see him go out of his way to speak with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), and stay at Zacchaeus the chief tax collector’s house (Luke 19:1-10), and heal the sick like the paralyzed man (Luke 5:17-26) or the woman with the issue of bleeding (Mark 5:24-34), and love the hurting like Jairus the ruler of the synagogue and his daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43) and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (John 11:1-44).

These aren’t the people it would have been most advantageous for Jesus to be around. These were the outsiders and outcasts, the broken and the beaten-down, the desperate and the dying.

If this were the high school cafeteria, Jesus would have been working to push all the tables together, including — and maybe especially — the ones where no one else wanted to be.

Jesus made room at his table.

Just like he made room for you.

This is the beauty of the Gospel, that Jesus would invite us in, that he would offer us a place in his father’s family, by doing for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves — despite our differences and despite our disobedience.

But it doesn’t end there.

Jesus not only invites us in to salvation and grace, but he then invites us into his mission of extending that same offer to everyone in the world.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

– Matthew 28:19-20

At Clear Creek Community Church, we say we want to reach every man, woman, and child, in our geography with the gospel, and that our mission is to lead unchurched people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

There are a lot of people in this cafeteria we call the 4B Area. There are many different cliques, a variety of people groups and social statuses, and a wealth of diversity. But if we want to live out the mission of not only our church, but of Jesus, then we must be willing to do the uncomfortable, the unconventional, and maybe even the “uncool” — to ask people who don’t normally sit with us to take a seat.

Is there room at your table?


 

More Than a Meal

Growing up, food was important to my family. My parents regularly served exquisite dinners on weeknights, and really went all out on holidays. Meals were a huge part of our traditions, and so many of my deepest childhood memories take place around the dinner table.

Food was a pillar of our family culture, essential to the depth of our relationships.

But it was never really about the food. There was something bigger going on around the table.

While I have always associated meals with family traditions, food took on a deeper meaning when I found myself overwhelmed with grief over a series of deep losses.

The night I gave birth to a sweet baby boy that I would never bring home, my friend Lisa arrived with a ham. It was a gesture of support and love to our family but ended up being so much more. As she hugged me on the way out the door, she told me I felt feverish and that I should take my temperature. A short time later I was rushed to the hospital — a new, struggling life about to be born and then just as quickly, to pass.

That night, a ham was not just a ham.

During an 8-week hospital bedrest stay in Houston’s medical center, I received gourmet meals almost weekly. Each delicious dinner was accompanied by expensive plates and precious linens. Often friends would deliver the meals on the chef’s behalf with specific instructions on table setting and food presentation. These meals were more than sustenance, they were tangible reflections of love — my friend showing me I was seen, I was known, and that she cared.

When I was pregnant with my now 7-year-old, I received dinners every week, delivered in a beautiful Longaberger basket lined with a freshly pressed red gingham kitchen towel. The basket always arrived on time, and it always included warm, crusty bread that reminded me and my family that we weren’t alone on this journey.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated our house and made cooking impossible, friends delivered sack lunches and demanded I eat, even when I didn’t want to. Their love, wrapped in a paper bag, sustained me when it was hard to just stay standing.

As we rebuilt our home, we pulled tables together on our street to share a meal of spaghetti and lemonade with our neighbors who shared the same plight. We had no idea how long it would take to rebuild our homes, but we laughed, prayed, and for an hour, forgot about the harrowing journey we had ahead of us. Food brought us peace, strength, and warmth in the midst of rubble and debris.

When our adoptive son arrived a year ago, I remember the warm, fresh cookies delivered to our door and the abundance of snacks brought in bulk.

Through these experiences I learned that food brings so much more than physical nutrition or energy. Food became a comfort not just rooted in family tradition, but a symbol of love, care, and presence from those outside my family circle.

When shared with someone you love, or gifted to you by someone who cares, food is a relationship builder. It’s intimate, humbling, and communal.

Sometimes meals are memorable — the specific flavors and aromas — but more often it’s the experience of fellowship that sticks with us long after the meal is over.

Whether you make it or buy it, whether you send it, place it in a cooler on a front porch, or hand it directly into someone’s arms, the gesture shows those friends you care, you see them, and you love them. It shows them you acknowledge their pain, even if you have never experienced it yourself.

These profound experiences of receiving love in the form of food have changed me. I have learned to pay attention to the circumstances of others and when in doubt, send food.

It isn’t what you send but that you send.

As believers, our prayers and love for others should propel us to action, especially when we see others hurting and in need, but even when it’s just a simple gesture of kindness. Our friends don’t have to be in a deep pit of despair for us to send them a meal, it can just be a Thursday.

For believers, a meal is more than food. It is a symbol of God’s love and compassion for his creation, and we should share that in every possible way we can.


Blessed Are the Meek

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

— Matthew 5:5

Meekness isn’t the most valuable virtue in our day and age. In fact, we often struggle to see it as a virtue at all. Even in those who are expected to be obedient to authority – children and employees – no one is likely to list meekness as one of their strengths in a job interview. Few of us pray for children who would be described as meek. Even those who might recognize a natural bent toward compliance or quietness often strive to cast off those characteristics and assert themselves more. I’ve never seen any high school label a graduate with a “Most Likely to be Meek” award.

Meekness in our culture carries a connotation of a doormat: a person characterized by fear and timidity, noticed only for being unworthy of notice. We may picture a mouselike personality who avoids conflict at any cost or never speaks up.

So, is this what Jesus is praising in the third Beatitude?

Is he hopelessly behind the times, a throwback to when children (and women) were to be seen but not heard? Or do we need to change our modern mindset and aim for doormat status, never speaking up or standing out?

Often, when we struggle to make sense of Scripture, it’s not due to a lack of clarity in the passage itself, but rather the cloudiness of the lens though which we’re examining it. In the third beatitude, we have to make sure we’re understanding Jesus’ words with his definitions rather than those of our culture.

The word translated meek in the ESV can also be translated gentle.

Honestly, gentle doesn’t feel much better. It’s certainly a very gendered word in our culture. Even when we use the word gentleman, we tend to mean something more like cultured or well-mannered. It’s okay for our daughters to be gentle, but most of us wouldn’t be excited for a football coach to describe our son that way.

But, I think we can get a little help seeing what Jesus intends in the third Beatitude from the idea of gentleness.

It’s a little easier for us to imagine an offensive lineman gently cradling his newborn, or a well-trained Clydesdale stepping gently around a corral with a young novice rider clinging to his mane. There’s a note there of strength, rather than weakness. It’s not that the gentle man is incapable of asserting his power, but that he chooses to restrain himself to safeguard or support another.

If you continue reading the book of Matthew after the Beatitudes, you see the author frequently portraying Jesus as the demonstration of each of these blessed traits, often even using the same word.

Gentleness is no exception:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

— Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth. He holds the power of the earthquake and thunderstorm in his hands. He is the King of Kings who will come at the end of days to judge the earth and conquer his enemies.

And yet, he tells us that his heart is gentle and lowly.

Jesus has restrained his strength for the good of another. He is patient and tender toward his children. He recognizes our struggles without disappointment. He is with us in our failures without disgust. His meekness is not weakness, but a gentle lovingkindness on our behalf.

If we begin to see meekness through Jesus’ lens, we will also begin to see opportunities to emulate him. Meekness is not a lack of assertion, but assertion used to provide for the needy. Meekness is not a fear of speaking up, but a boldness to speak on behalf of the widow and the orphan. Meekness is not an avoidance of conflict, but a choice to fight for the sake of the powerless. Meekness is humbly seeking the glory of God and the good of others.

Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth, which can feel exceptionally false in our day and age, just as the idea of praising meekness at all feels farfetched in our culture. Look around you: it’s not the meek who are “winning.” Our culture fundamentally rewards arrogance, aggressiveness, and self-assertion.

But we must remember that godly inheritance is always a future promise. It’s not a gift given in the moment, but an intentional laying-aside for a time to come. And it’s coming is sure.

Our gentle and lowly Lord will come on the clouds to inherit the earth, and those who follow him in meekness will reign eternally with him.

May we spend our strength in a sacrifice of selflessness today.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

— Philippians 4:5 (NIV)

Blessed are the Pure in Heart

If you’re like me, reading through the Beatitudes can feel like a lesson in failure, none more so than when Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” (Matthew 5:8).

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

– Matthew 5:8

The greatest desire of my heart is to see God, but this same heart that so desires God, well, to say it isn’t pure is an understatement. Pure means clean, without blemish, perfect.

My heart, the innermost part of who I am, is anything but pure.

Jesus is consistently concerned, not with outward appearances, but with the condition of our hearts. A few chapters later, Jesus reminds us that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” In my life, the true condition of my heart is usually exposed first thing in the morning. My kids are late, there are 100 things to do, and my mouth quickly reveals my heart to my family and myself.

It’s not always pretty, and it certainly isn’t pure. And even when I am doing things right, the motivations of my heart are so often wrong. I give because I want to receive, I serve because I want recognition, or I take care of my kids and still resent their demands.

My heart is just not pure.

John reminds us of the vast difference between Jesus and the rest of mankind, “This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth,” (1 John 1:5-6). 

There is no darkness, no blemish, no sin in God at all. He’s perfect, but we are not. He’s pure. We are impure.

So how, then, can we ever “see God” like Jesus said the pure of heart would?

But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

– 1 John 1:7-9

Faith in Jesus leads to a pure heart that can see God. We see God, truly and only, in Christ.

The Sermon on the Mount was taught at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and announced the inauguration of the kingdom of God. This message, which includes the Beatitudes, wasn’t meant to tell everyone what their lives look like. Instead, Jesus was proclaiming what they can and will look like in his coming kingdom—if they follow the king.

I don’t know about you, but I make a lousy king.

My heart isn’t pure.

I am fearful when I should have faith.

I am selfish when I should sacrifice.

I lament when I should worship and laugh when I should mourn.

I just get it all wrong, most of the time.

But Jesus, our king — the true king — is the only one with a pure, unblemished heart. Jesus, who not only sees God, but is God himself, makes us pure through his atoning sacrifice and his living presence.

When we trust in him, we are declared pure in Christ, and we are also assured of seeing God one day.

Jesus’ promised kingdom, described in the Beatitudes, will one day be perfectly consummated. Jesus will return, and our hearts — unbelievable as it seems — will be cleansed forever and we will spend eternity in his presence.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

– 1 John 3:2-3

For disciples of Jesus, the Beatitudes shouldn’t be a list that leads to condemnation but, instead, a list that leads to hope in the eternal promises of God and the blessed life under the reign of Jesus.

Understanding our failings draw us to the feet of Jesus. Only there are we made new, whole, and pure. And only then can we see God.

Adoption and the Gospel

Adoption has been an important feature of the Church from antiquity. Throughout the centuries believers have adopted children in a variety of circumstances, and adoption has become a powerful picture of the Gospel to the world.

After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the movement of Christ-followers that became known as the Church began to spread over the known world. The dominant Roman culture of the age did not value human life in the same way as the growing Christian movement.¹

Christians understood humanity to be created in the image of God and thereby each person had value and worth, including “unwanted” children. While Roman historians differ in reasoning why Roman culture was comfortable with discarding children, historical and archeological research tells us that the Romans had no qualms about abandoning children for any reason, whether due to gender, deformity, or family situation. Unwanted children were regularly deserted outside ancient cities.

But Jesus’ followers, motivated by the doctrine of the image of God and love for people, became known for taking in these unwanted children.² From the very beginning of the movement, the Church has been known (at least in part) for the adoption of children.

But what led these believers to this kind of care for orphans?

I think there are two great answers to this question.

First, God makes it clear to us in his word that he cares for those without a family. Psalm 68:5 describes God as “Father for the fatherless and protector of widows.” The Scriptural command to care for the orphan has a rich theological foundation. God has a heart for the orphan and the Gospel — the story of Christ coming to earth to reconcile wayward people with the Father — illuminates this. Believers are referred to as co-heirs with Christ and as sons of God the Father.

The Gospel is an adoption story.

Because of Jesus’ work, believers are adopted into God’s family.

Second, as we become more like Christ, we should look more like him and reflect his heart for the orphan. James 1:27 states “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James, the brother of Jesus, explained what it looks like for Christians to hear and do what Scripture calls us to, and the example that he gave was to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction.”

As believers grow in their relationship with Christ, God’s priorities will become our priorities. Our heart should look like his, including care for orphans.

The early Church understood the doctrine of adoption as a counter-cultural phenomenon and acted on that doctrine. Adoption in Rome was typically reserved for wealthy childless couples. These families would adopt a young adult that seemed worthy of carrying on the family name. The adoptee would have to prove to be worth bringing into the family to become an heir.

The Christian doctrine of adoption completely turned this around!

Instead of the adoptee proving themselves before adoption, the Father brought in those who had proven themselves to be unworthy! The fact that the Son came to bring us into his family and make us co-heirs with him in God’s family should give us the greatest sense of joyful hope possible.

We live in a culture where adoption is a common occurrence, but the early Church changed the entire culture by demonstrating love for orphans motivated by their understanding of the Gospel.

As we help parents in the adoption process, and care for widows, the sick, and the needy, we are not only obeying the commands and model of Scripture, but we are standing with a great cloud of witnesses who came before us. 

Christians continue to lead the way in advocating for adoption, and the need to care for the orphaned is as pressing today as it was during the first century. The counter-cultural witness that early believers displayed through adoption is still available.

While Christians adopt children at double the rate of non-Christian Americans, there are still nearly half a million American children in foster care. The opportunity is great and there are several ways that believers can care for needy children directly and indirectly.

And even though not all believers are called to adopt, our care for orphans can be shown in other ways. If you are not adopting, your support of the Church, helpful nonprofits, and believers going through the adoption process is a great way to serve and offer aid.

To learn more about opportunities to be involved in caring for orphans, visit https://www.clearcreek.org/care-and-support/care-and-support-fostering-adoption


¹ Viegas, Jennifer. “Infanticide Common in Roman Empire.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 5 May 2011, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna42911813.

² A helpful resource in developing a theology of adoption is the chapter “Sons of God” in JI Packer’s book Knowing God. (Packer, J. I. Knowing God. InterVarsity Press, 1973.)


 

Podcasts

138: Legalism or Discipline?

What are spiritual disciplines?

What purpose do they serve?

On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Bruce Wesley about the spiritual disciplines that have been especially helpful in his spiritual life.

They also discuss some of the practices that don’t get mentioned as often, like fasting, meditation, and celebration.

https://youtu.be/dyqge3DAUaU

119: How to Read Revelation

Revelation is of the most popular books to read in the Bible, but it can also be the most intimidating.

Is it actually possible to understand Revelation?

Rachel Chester sits down with Jenna Kraft and Aaron Chester, teachers of How to Study the Bible, to discuss how to unlock the truth and beauty of the culmination of the entire biblical story.

Resources:

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee

Clear Creek Classes: How to Study the Bible

 

 

 

114: When Food is the Enemy

Food is a good gift from God meant to be enjoyed and shared. However, what is designed to be good can get distorted in a world of social media, negative body image, and diet culture. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with his wife, Lindsey Lehtinen — a licensed counselor — about what to do if you have a bad relationship with food.

 

113: Cigars, Grilling, and Missional Living

When Jesus commissioned his people to “Go and make disciples,” in Matthew 28:19, he was telling us to bring the gospel, not only to the ends of the earth, but also everywhere we go in our normal, everyday lives. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with campus pastors, Chris Alston and Karl Garcia, about how they intentionally and authenticity engage in relationships with people around them.

Resources:

Table Talk Series

112: Date Your Wife or Hate Your Life

Life is busy. We invest in our jobs, kids, and future, but sometimes marriage ends up on the back burner. How can we invest in the one God has given us and why does it matter? On this episode Rachel Chester sits down with Bruce and Susan Wesley as they share how they seek to know and love each other and how a strong marriage shapes the rest of life.

 

 

110: Faith and Food

Food is an essential part of our lives. From sack lunches to wedding feasts, providing and sharing meals is a fundamental part of how we interact. How can we use meals to celebrate and worship God? How can we use food to love and serve others? On this episode, Rachel Chester talks with Ryan Lehtinen and Yancey Arrington about their most memorable meals, favorite foods, and how they have seen God use the table to his purposes throughout history and in their own lives.

Resources:

Table Talk: When Faith Meets Food

 

109: Why Should I Show Up to Church?

During the series Salty: Sticking Out for the Right Reasons, we’re discussing questions related to each message on our podcast. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen, Yancey Arrington, and Aaron Lutz discuss the questions: What is the church? And why is it important for the church to regularly gather together for worship?

Resources:

Be Together – Fight Independence (sermon)

108: Living in an Age of Outrage

During the series Salty: Sticking Out for the Right Reasons, we’re discussing questions related to each message on our podcast. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen, Bruce Wesley, and Greg Poore discuss the questions: Why do people have such a difficult time having constructive relationships with people who think and behave differently than they do? And how should Christians live in an age of tribalism and outrage?

Resources:

Love the Other – Fight Tribalism (sermon)

107: Are We Raising Consumer Kids?

During the series Salty: Sticking Out for the Right Reasons, we’re discussing questions related to each message on our podcast. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen, Lance Lawson, and Aaron Lutz discuss how living in a self-absorbed culture impacts our kids. And how we can help our kids be less inwardly focused and more outwardly focused.

Resources:

Salty: Serve Others – Fight Consumerism (sermon)

106: Is Being Rich a Sin?

During the series Salty: Sticking Out for the Right Reasons, we’re discussing questions related to each message on our podcast. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen, Yancey Arrington, and Aaron Lutz discuss the questions: Is being rich a sin? What warnings are given to the rich in the Bible?

 

 

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CCStories

The Aaron Suhre Story

“We’re just this small story in the greater, bigger story of what God is doing. These are some things God has done in this life for his greater good.”   – Aaron Suhre

 

The Amy Swift Story

Amy Swift and her husband, Chris, moved to Louisiana from Texas, about a year after they were married. It was supposed to be a short-term move, but it turned into five years. And it was a long, lonely five years for Amy.

The Swifts just had their first baby, she was living in a new city where she knew no one and Chris traveled a lot for work. Which meant Amy was home with the baby most days, and she began to feel the crushing weight of isolation, separation and eventually depression.

She was tired, frustrated, anxious, and alone.

Chris & Amy thought getting back to Texas might fix everything… Texas is awesome, but Amy’s dark season wasn’t over when they moved back.

But I want you to hear how God used HIS PEOPLE to bring peace in Amy’s life. How through his people she experienced the presence of God.

Take a listen.

Serving in the Church: The Rachel Chester Story

“The thing is, even when volunteering doesn’t end up being the perfect fit, it is still a gift to serve Jesus and his people in any way. God is always, always, faithful to us when we walk through doors he opens.”

As told by Rachel Chester

Once upon a time I went to law school.

I had always known that this was the plan; this is what I was going to do. I really liked law school. I did well, and so I was recruited by some big law firms who offered some big salaries.

When I actually started practicing law, however, I realized that aptitude and vocation aren’t necessarily the same. I just didn’t feel like I was a part of something that matters. Eventually, I walked away from my legal job and decided to reevaluate my career path while my husband and I started our family.

A couple of years later, while staying home with my kids, I increasingly felt God was calling me into ministry. That felt strange to say, and sometimes still does. After all, what does that even mean? How did I know? Well, I didn’t have a lot of answers. All I knew was that the church, the body of Christ, and theology was all I thought about.

But, I am a woman, and honestly, I didn’t know what the possibilities were. I was not looking to become the next Beth Moore (as if I could), and outside of that, I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman and be in ministry.

So when I heard Bruce talking about developing a marriage and family ministry with counselors, I immediately thought, This! This is something I can do! This is a way to love and serve people and use the gifts God has given me for something that really matters.

I applied and began taking classes at Dallas Theological Seminary in the biblical counseling department. I loved every second of it. I loved learning more about theology and counseling, but the thought of actually getting my license and counseling clients all day began to make me nervous.

All the time I was surer of God’s call to be in ministry, but less sure of what exactly that was supposed to look like. The closer I got to finishing, the more frustrating this became. The truth was, I just wasn’t sure I would be good at counseling, despite my belief in the importance of Christian counseling and the insights the program was teaching me.

About a year ago, I asked one of our pastors to help me think through what ministry could look like for me. And, boy, did he! He made me list my gifts and strengths on his whiteboard and then sat down with me to discuss what this meant I should pursue. While we were talking, he described a position the church might need someone for eventually: a person who would manage content that the church was putting out. For instance, every article someone wrote for the church would go through this person. I honestly remember thinking, I hope he’s not looking at me right now because that seriously sounds like the worst. I don’t want to manage anything, but definitely not documents other people are putting together. Yuck, boring, and no. He moved on quickly and I forgot about it. It was a generous, intentional conversation and I was grateful for his time.

I thought that was that.

But it was just the beginning.

A couple of days later, I got an email from another one of our pastors saying he’d heard I might be interested in volunteering and that he had some ideas of how I could help.

So, I went in to meet with him, and he talked to me about this new ministry they were kicking off called Clear Creek Resources. Their hope was to have different types of resources available so that church at Clear Creek was more than just a conversation on Sunday; it would be a conversation that continued throughout the entire week and involved current events, deeper theological dives, marriage, family, devotionals – every aspect of our lives!

He said he needed help getting articles and podcasts going. It still seemed like a weird fit for me, more like organization (which I am terrible at), but, I said I would give it a try. I had decided a few years ago that when God opened a door, I would walk through it, regardless of whether I felt equipped for that particular door or not.

So, I did.

I did the best I could to generate ideas for podcasts and articles, to find people around the church who would lend their gifts, expertise, and stories for the benefit of the church, and to think of new ways to serve our church through this ministry. I wrote a few articles myself and was convinced to start hosting podcasts too, despite my hesitation.

It turns out, the door God opened was a really great fit. It was not easy immediately. It took patience and humility and second starts, but soon enough I realized that God had known where I was going even when I felt like I was walking blind.

So much of how God created me, the gifts he has given me, the experiences of my life, even my varied education, have equipped me for this particular ministry. Clear Creek Resources is everything I am passionate about: celebrating the beautiful diversity of Jesus’s church, collaboration and relationship between devoted believers, deep discipleship that affects every aspect of life, and compelling engagement with the world in the name of Jesus. I love that I get to work with so many people, I love encouraging others to use their gifts, and I love being a small part of something that builds the kingdom of Jesus.

I’m still learning. I’m still trying to find my way as I serve my family and our King. But serving in Clear Creek Resources is a great gift and I’m so glad I said “yes.” I am grateful to be part of this team, and even more, I am grateful for God’s abundant personal care and faithfulness in my life.

The thing is, even when volunteering doesn’t end up being the perfect fit, it is still a gift to serve Jesus and his people in any way. God is always, always, faithful to us when we walk through doors he opens.

I also serve in First Impressions – I have for many years now – and it still is not a perfect fit for me. I get nervous about meeting strangers, I’m not great at remembering names, and I’m pretty introverted. But, the people I serve with are great friends – family even – whom I treasure walking through life with. I love serving with them, and I also love that I get to see every person’s face who walks in the door to worship.

The fact that I’m not necessarily great at it?

Well, it’s just a reminder that God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness; that when I surrender to him and serve despite my shortcomings, he will use my meager offerings for his glory and the good of others, because of who he is, not because of who I am.

That’s what serving really is at the end of the day: an opportunity. An opportunity to play a small role in what he is doing; to surrender to him and then watch him work; where everything, our gifts and our weakness, are used as part of his great story.


God uses us all in different ways.

How can God use you to serve in the church?

Go to https://www.clearcreek.org/next-steps/serve/ to check out all of the serving opportunities.

You can also follow @clearcreekresources on Facebook and Instagram!

Devotion: The Jonathan Newport Story

“As I look back on who I used to be, which was angry and judgmental, selfish, and just harsh with everybody, I’m just amazed at how much God’s grown me.” – Jonathan Newport


This was a part of our online service at of Clear Creek Community Church.

For more ways to participate in our online service in this season, go to www.clearcreek.org.

Follow us on social media:
Facebook – www.facebook.com/clearcreek.org
Instagram – www.instagram.com/clearcreekcommunitychurch
Twitter – www.twitter.com/_cccc

Finding Hope

Easter 2020 will be an Easter we never forget. For most of us, we’ll remember the Coronavirus, the stay at home orders, and church buildings being closed. But for the Larson family, Easter 2020 will be remembered for a much bigger reason.

Cameron Larson, a teenager in the student ministry at the East 96 Campus, had recently come to saving faith in Jesus and been considering baptism for some time. Easter Sunday was going to be the day. His parents Craig and Kari had planned to help celebrate Cameron’s commitment at a friend’s pool. The plan was to have a small party with Cameron’s student small group and Craig and Kari’s adult small group in attendance. But because of COVID-19, the party was no longer possible. Instead, people attended via Facetime and Zoom calls to witness this public demonstration of Cameron’s saving faith in Jesus.

But one person who was able to be physically present was Cameron’s grandfather, Frank.

Frank hadn’t grown up with faith in Jesus. He attended church on occasion, mainly holidays. Five years ago, after his son Craig was baptized, Frank began to explore faith in Jesus at his own pace, asking Craig and Kari questions.

In September of 2019, Frank was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This February, he got news that the cancer had spread… the prognosis was not good.

Frank struggled to have hope in the midst of his battle with cancer, but in God’s grace, Frank began to find glimmers of hope in Jesus. Frank believed Jesus was the only one who could save him and rescue him – not just physically, but spiritually. Since that realization, Frank said, “peace has washed over me.”

So, on Easter Sunday 2020, as the family was preparing to celebrate Cameron’s baptism and proclamation of his faith in Jesus, Frank turned to his son Craig at the kitchen table and said, “I’m ready to have the Lord in my life.”

Craig waded into the pool that afternoon with his teenage son Cameron, and his cancer-fighting father. Craig dipped Cameron below the surface of the water and brought him up again, and then did the same to his dad.

Now, Frank continues to hope for his body in his battle against cancer, but he rests in the eternal hope he has for his soul.

‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

2 Corinthians 5:17

Lighthouse: Navigating the Waters of Grief Together

Their friendship began at a party. 

Meredith Harris once sold a gift-products line called Thirty-One to a house full of laughing women. The events were always upbeat, and Meredith delighted in hosting her friends for a light evening of fun. 

After one such event, Meredith was packing up and talking with an acquaintance, Allison Swenson. The two were shooting the breeze when Allison abruptly changed the direction of the conversation. 

“Allison said, ‘I haven’t really shared this with anyone, but I just had a miscarriage,’” Meredith recalled. “I remember feeling very special that [she] would share that with me. That just fast-forwarded the depth of our friendship because [she] had shared something that was very painful.”

Meredith and Allison both recognize that conversation over a decade ago as the first of many times each would walk the other through loss. 

“Allison and I’s friendship is very intertwined with grief,” said Meredith.

Allison Swenson with her husband, Brad, and their two sons, Bradley and Cole.

“So, several years ago,” said Allison, “I started a pregnancy journey that began with a miscarriage and then two live births. One little guy lived for 30 minutes and the other little guy lived for 20 days.” 

Allison, her husband, Brad, and their two young sons have experienced other losses, as well. Hurricane Harvey devastated their home, and, most recently, Allison’s father passed away. 

Meredith’s grief journey began as one grieving alongside her friends. 

“My journey [began by] walking with friends who lost two of their children to unforeseen heart issues within one year,” she said. She then walked alongside her friend Allison as she grieved the losses of her two children. 

“And then my seemingly very healthy brother died unexpectedly of a cardiac event when he happened to be at our lake house,” Meredith said. Her only brother, Bill, left behind his wife, pregnant with their second child, and a very young son. 

As these two friends have journeyed through their own losses, those of each other, and other friends, they have gained unique perspectives on navigating friendships and loss and how to hold steadfast to their faith through grief. They have waded into the challenging and overwhelming waters of grief and come out stronger. 

From left to right: Denise Ward (Meredith’s mom), Meredith, Brad and daughters, Amy Ward holding son, Bill Ward (Meredith’s brother), Dave Ward (her father).

 

 

On being the best friend you can be

Both Meredith and Allison noted the many ways friends cared for them in their grief. One friend who loved fashion hand-selected outfits for different occasions Meredith would need to attend. Allison recalled how, while she was on hospital bedrest, Meredith and another friend “drove inside the loop” every week to inject much-needed laughter in dark times. There were friends who delivered groceries and friends who cleaned their houses, only asking that they leave the door unlocked. 

And it’s here that they have advice for the person grieving: allow your friends to serve you. And to the friend: serve the way you feel led, not how you think it should look. 

“We cannot put our friends in a box of one way to love and care for us,” said Allison. “Allowing my friends to serve me and love me in their gift sets is really valuable.” 

As Meredith grieved the loss of her brother, she saw that sustaining friendship with a grieving person equates to simply being present. Meredith’s parents’ house became the hub for visitors, family staying over from out of town, and gatherings. People brought food to their home for over a month, so they kept an ice chest on the front porch for deliveries. One friend stopped by to put fresh ice in the chest every day for a month. 

“It was just the most wonderful [thing],” she said. “No words were used, but it communicated, ‘I love you. I thought about you. I took care of a need today.’” 

Ultimately, those acts of service done by people uniquely created by God to serve in specific ways helped Allison and Meredith, in their respective situations, grieve well, and it displayed the body of Christ in action. 

“If you have that calling and feel truly led, just go do it!” said Allison. “Send the card, go to the funeral, make the phone call, drop toilet paper on the front stoop… because when those things don’t happen, that’s when you feel alone, lost, and forgotten.”

Meredith added that, as a friend, your duty is to “say with your words, ‘God has not left you’ and then communicate with your life that you have not left that person either.” 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Allison and her husband were not able to get back to their home in the first few days and had to allow friends to begin the process of gutting their home and removing their possessions to curb the growth of mold. 

“During Harvey,” recalled Allison, “that’s what I felt like the Lord was screaming at me: ‘You are known, you belong, and you are okay.’ And that overshadowed every single thing we lost. Everything was out on our front lawn, but people were waiting there for us to drive up.”

 

On how to love a close friend who is grieving

Meredith and Allison both talked about a deeper kind of friendship —  “safe” friends who allowed them to be honest. These were the life-giving friendships that helped them to walk in a healthy place as they grieved. The sometimes difficult part was discovering that not all of their friends were able to give this kind of friendship.

“For me it’s just trust,” said Allison. “Without that trust, I would not be vulnerable. Vulnerability in grief and trauma is important because I need to feel safe, loved, heard, and seen in my most raw state… Having permission to be true and unashamed and allow myself to feel in front of someone else is life changing.” 

Brad and Meredith Harris, and their two daughters Charlotte and Camille.

Meredith added that she began to clearly see a distinction between “people that can handle deep pain with you and people that are not ready or have not personally experienced any deep pain.” The latter, she says, “still want to keep [deep pain] at an arm’s distance.” 

“And you have no choice when you are in the pit of grief other than to be really raw,” Meredith continued. “And so if there are people that cannot enter in with you — and that just looks like sitting with you and letting you snot cry — if they can’t handle that, it’s almost a natural thing. They kind of just stay away because it’s too much for them.”

Meredith came very close to being stunted by her fear of dealing with a friend’s immense grief. When she and her husband, Brad, arrived at a hospital to be with their friends whose son had been rushed to the ER after collapsing at soccer practice, they arrived at a scene that turned out to be much more complex and difficult than they had imagined. 

“We walk up to the hospital doors and [our friend’s father] comes out screaming to God, not screaming at God, but in a fearful way,” Meredith recalled. “And then I stopped dead in my tracks, and I said ‘I can’t do this.’ Brad had his hand on my back and said, ‘You don’t have a choice.’ And he lightly shoved me, like we’re gonna do this together.’”

Meredith looks back on that as a defining moment for the kind of friend God calls all believers to be: one who wades into the waters of grief alongside their friend. 

“God calls you to go,” said Meredith. “To make the phone call. To show up at their door. To be uncomfortable.” 

 

On pointing a grieving friend to God’s truth

Staying connected with biblical truth is absolutely essential for a grieving person, and they need friends grounded in the truth of God to help them navigate their grief.

“Before it gets to that point [of tragedy], I would encourage people to be known,” said Allison. She emphasized the importance of being connected in community no matter what is going on in your life “so when something happens you can allow yourself to be counseled.”

“You know [the truth] in your head, but there’s this incredible disconnect with your heart,” said Allison. “What’s in your head keeps you grounded. Staying connected, pursuing community, pursuing truth always – every day – can prepare us for this life-altering moment.”

Meredith agreed, “Being immersed in the truth in everyday life prior to the grief is really key. If you have this beautiful foundation when things are pretty peaceful and have this steady peace in your life… [you remember] the God who loved me in a steady time has not left me now.” 

From left to right (standing): Lindsey Lehtinen, Meredith Harris, Allison Swenson, Brigette Swafford. From left to right (seated/crouching): Nicole Haas, Erin Funke, Christie Frodge, Laura Sherman.

This concept can sometimes be fleeting, even for seasoned believers, when faced with tragedy. 

“I have one brother. We both love Jesus and are in the middle of actively trying to serve God. And God just takes him,” said Meredith. “I think there is something in us that thinks that there are some things that are off limits.”

“So you need people who are brave enough to tell you ‘That’s not true’,” said Allison. “There are so many people going through really hard things and won’t allow themselves to be vulnerable or people to know how they’re really doing. I just want to encourage that pursuit of finding that person [or] people… and not to give up when you get burned.”  

These are the friends that offer a lighthouse of guidance when those around them cannot find their way. 

 

On finding strength in grief

As Meredith and Allison have allowed God to heal them over time and allowed friends and family to speak God’s truth into their lives through serving them, they have both recognized a subtle change in the way they approach life, faith, and others. 

And that is a work of God. 

“I thought I cared well for people before Bill died, but once I experienced it for myself, I [realized] I had no idea what they were truly feeling,” said Meredith. “I wanted to care for them, but relishing in their pain with them — I had no clue.” 

Carrying the burden of another’s pain might seem weak or problematic, but it is actually a source of strength. It is a quiet strength, they now see, but it has emboldened their faith. 

“Strong is not defined by ‘I don’t hurt or have pain,’” said Allison. “Strength is not defined by how many tasks I get done or whether I can push my emotions aside. If you can survive, if you can stay present for your family, I think there’s strength in that. I think there’s strength in staying married in grief, staying in friendships, getting out of the house. All of those things are strong.”

Ultimately, only God has provided the strength Allison and Meredith have needed to endure the overbearing storms of grief. 

“Strength is continuing to have hope”, said Meredith. “I haven’t lost hope. Being rooted in hope — that’s where I have found my strength. And I have learned so much about God’s sustaining power in this. Less miraculous, flashy Jesus and more the steady hand of the Holy Spirit. He is preventing me from feeling crushed. I am broken, but I am not crushed.” 

Allison also felt God’s miraculous work in her life to bring her peace in the midst of devastation. 

“The closest I have felt to the Holy Spirit,” said Allison, “was washing [my son] William after he had passed and dressing him. And I long to feel that connection that I felt in that moment.  I should remember that as one of the most devastating moments of my life, but I remember it as this beautiful peace that I have not felt again. I think that’s the miraculous part.”

 

On their friendship

These two women have endured much devastation and loss in the first decade of their friendship. But they count all of it toward setting a firm foundation that they’ve relied upon for safety, accountability, and truth in their darkest days. 

“Allison was one of the only people I shared the depths of how ugly it really got,” said Meredith. “I was really transparent with her, and she could totally handle it. She was not freaked out by what I said. She validated my feelings, but then pointed me to truth.” 

Allison agreed. We don’t pull any punches. We can speak some pretty deep truth and trust that it’s okay.”

This is what Allison and Meredith believe is the most needed type of friend when you are going through the worst experience of your life. One who is present. One who will hold steady. And one who will point you to the only one who can truly offer hope and healing in the midst of the storms of life. 

 

Empty: The Marilyn Hester Story

“I felt like I was entering a darkness I couldn’t get out of. I’ve been in a cave before where they turn the lights out on you and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. It’s so black.

“That’s where I felt spiritually.”

 

* * *

 

Marilyn Hester’s bracelets clicked together musically as she spoke, adding expression and emphasis to her story with each hand gesture. Her bright voice, quick movements, big laugh, and sharp tongue suggested she was much younger than 76. And the joy in her smile did not convey the grief she still carried.

Marilyn became a Christian over 40 years ago. To her, God had always been her “best friend, confidant, counselor, everything.”

“He is everything to me,” she said. “I’ve always talked to him. I always had a relationship with him from the moment he revealed himself to me. He created that… He gave me an understanding of his word and the ability to remember it. And I have learning problems!”

Marilyn struggles with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. As a new believer, Marilyn asked God to help her remember Scripture, and he did. “The word came to life for me; it meant something to me,” she said. “He brought it to life as being real and truth… What’s in here,” she said, pointing to her head, “he pulls out for his purpose. He brings his word to my remembrance.”

Over the years, Marilyn realized she was gifted in remembering and using God’s words in conversations, in speaking to groups of women, in teaching, and in her fervent prayers throughout each day for her loved ones. When her husband, Ed, endured open-heart surgery and almost died, she prayed until he was well again.

And when her daughter, Kim, was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of the tongue at age 42, she planned on doing the same thing.

Around six months into her diagnosis, Kim left an abusive relationship to move in with her parents again. It was a changing of the guard at the Hester home. Their middle daughter, Carrie, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and mental retardation, had lived with Marilyn and Ed most of her life, but was on her way out of her home for surgery and rehab. Kim returned, needing her parents’ help and care once again.

But the cancer spread rapidly, weakening Kim’s body and mind with every treatment and setback.

“Kim’s suffering was before my face every minute of every day,” recalled Marilyn. “That was more than I could bear —  to see her in that kind of pain. Deep, deep, deep down, I knew she wasn’t going to make it. But I kept praying and putting [God’s] word before him.”

Just over a year into her diagnosis, Kim Hester entered the hospital for the last time. She was given just days to live, and the family was told to make final plans.

“I thought we had more time,” said Marilyn.

[Marilyn (right) with her daughter, Kim.]

“When it was time, she was just gone like a vapor,” Marilyn said with a snap of her fingers. “She took a breath and didn’t exhale. There was no struggle. There was no pain. There was no anxiety.”

Marilyn was able to take some comfort in knowing that Kim was a Christian. She believed Kim died and was immediately in the presence of Jesus. The peace of that certainty was real. But the pain of her loss was overwhelming.

“I could be in the store and would see a pair of shorts — and she loved shorts — and it would bring back memories of when she was a kid and all that, and I would have to go to the car and cry,” said Marilyn.

“The pain was horrible. It was a physical pain, and I wept deeper than I’ve ever wept in my life… It would just erupt like a volcano, and then it was over. That was at the very beginning.”

Then, still in those early days of the grieving process, Marilyn and Ed were thrown a curveball when they were made fully aware of the living conditions of their other daughter. Carrie lived in a group home which meant that Ed and Marilyn had little legal say over what happened to her there. They were beholden to the caregiver who ran the group home, but they discovered she was not taking proper care of Carrie nor was she regarding Carrie’s grief over the loss of her sister. Marilyn’s hands were tied because she and Ed had no way to properly care for her on their own, and this affected her deeply.

“I really felt like I had no more kids,” Marilyn said. “My son worked all the time and lived across town and pulled himself away from us… And I’d lost Kim. And now I’d lost Carrie. So, I began to feel like I had three children and now I had none. It took away my identity. It made me feel like I wasn’t a mother.”

“I began to realize I had put my identity and worth into how my children turned out, or how much influence I had in their lives, and then they’re gone,” she said. “So where’s my identity? Who am I? It was just another thing that was pushing me down into this quicksand of darkness, deep darkness. Because I felt like I was worth nothing.”

At some point, Marilyn’s daily time set aside to read the Bible and pray began to take a discreet turn. “I would read his word and think Okay, well you had the power to heal her but you didn’t do it. I began to center on what I wanted for Kim more than what [God] wanted for her.”

Slowly, Marilyn’s thoughts toward her beloved Lord began to change and lies took root in her mind.

“You see the pain of the memory, and then behind it is this little thinking… And you fight it for a while. It’s like [Satan] tickles your ears with a lie and truth and together they become truth to you. And you just listen. And you don’t even know you’re doing it, but you begin to believe that God was not there for you.”

Often, the lies came in the form of seemingly benign questions, like Did God really love Kim?

She began to question God and then believe things like, “God doesn’t love you God left Kim. God left you. God doesn’t care. You can’t trust his word.”

“It was like little bitty tiny bites into my heart and mind,” recalled Marilyn. “And I began to listen and think you’re right, you’re right, you’re right.”

[Kim (left) with Marylin (right).]

Finally, after a long day of trying unsuccessfully to find a new home for Carrie, Marilyn had had enough. She sent her husband into the house and stayed in the car to let God know exactly what she thought.

“I was so incredibly involved in the grief that I was not pouring it out to [God],” she said. “It was like a volcano erupting. I couldn’t control the crying. I couldn’t control the words coming out of my mouth… I was more honest with him than I think I’d ever been.”

In the midst of this crying out, Marilyn sensed a brokenness between herself and God that she had never before experienced.  “I was like a broken vessel,” she said. “And in that, he just sat there and listened. He never made me feel like he was angry with me, like he would leave me. I knew he was there. But he was so quiet. And I needed him to talk to me!”

“Very slowly I pulled away [from God] until there was nothing,” said Marilyn. “There was no comfort. There was nothing… I quit talking to him. We didn’t have anything to say to each other any more.”

 

 

* * *

 

Give ear to my prayer, O God,

and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!

Attend to me and answer me…

 

Some time later, Marilyn awoke one morning and decided to open her Bible, something she had not done in a while. She thought, “I’m going to open his word. It’s not going to mean anything anymore but I’m just going to read it.” Scripture was no longer bringing her “any comfort,” so she had set it aside. But on that morning, something prodded her to open God’s word.

As Marilyn opened to Psalm 55, she read words penned as a lament of David. The words were familiar, not only to her mind but also to her heart. She understood the anguish David experienced. She continued reading.

 

…I am restless in my complaint and I moan,

because of the noise of the enemy,

because of the oppression of the wicked…

My heart is in anguish within me; 

the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 

 

It reminded her of something from her childhood.

“I would have these nightmares all the time that someone was trying to kill me,” recalled Marilyn. “I remember thinking that I was going to die in the dream.”

 

Fear and trembling come upon me,

and horror overwhelms me.

 

“Before this person trying to kill me could touch me, I would just be lifted up above the whole thing, and I would fly,” Marilyn said. “And the ability to fly as a child just blew me away, and there was a peace. I could see the guy running after me, but he couldn’t get to me. I would soar like a bird above all of the danger and was perfectly safe in this one place. I felt at home.”

 

And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest…”

 

When she read those lines, something shifted within her. “No longer was it David… it was me,” she said. “It was like God took me back to the dream and said ‘I delivered you then. I deliver you now.’”

All at once, the memory of her childhood dream and the circumstances of her present moment collided as she read those verses, and the darkness within her broke.

“That was God when I was a little girl!” she recalled. “Oh my God, that was God! He really does care!”

“He knew me as a child,” she said. “He delivered me from my nightmares with his own peace. The word that he showed me… was the same thing that happened in that nightmare, and he delivered me. He knew me then, and he knows me now.”

 

* * *

 

Marilyn marks that moment as the time where the deep darkness left and never returned.

“I felt like I was trying to lift myself out of [the depression], and God did it,” she said. “He did for me what I could not do for myself.”

[Marylin (right) holding Kim.]

As she looks back on the darkest days, and how God pulled her up out of the pit, she thinks the experience was “about needing [God] more than it was about needing him to do something for me.”

“I missed him more than I missed my own daughter,” she said. “I missed that relationship we had before. It was a walking, talking, living relationship.”

Marilyn knows now that walking away from God was the worst thing she could have done in her grief.

She has learned a few things.

“Go to the Lord with the suffering, and be honest with him. Don’t hold anything back… If you’re just grieving and stepping away from God and not letting him heal [you], then it’s more painful because you don’t have the power to heal you.”

Marilyn still grieves, but it’s different now.

“We’re closer,” she says. “I think what God wants to do with walking through the grief process is to fill that emptiness with himself. And it takes time. Still the pain of it is there… but it’s different than it was before. It truly feels like grief; it doesn’t feel like blackness.”


 

Here For You: The Erin Contreras Story

 


“Growing up, I had a really rough childhood, the type that comes up in the news,” Erin Contreras said. “I mean, I went to 23 different elementary schools, so there was no stability or time to go to church.”

Even with so many variables in her life, Erin always felt the presence of someone there for her. She believed in God even though no one in her family was guiding her.

“[He was] who I called out to in my times of need,” Erin said.

When Erin met her husband, Eli, her thoughts of God faded into the background. Although Eli grew up with a really religious background, Erin didn’t have a foundation that stuck. In 2007, a coworker invited Erin and Eli to attend Clear Creek Community Church. Eli, with his strict traditional religious background, was skeptical upon seeing “a bunch of hippies” in jeans and flip flops, but ultimately they decided to regularly attend Sunday morning services.

“We didn’t have any community,” Erin said about their early experience at Clear Creek. “It was a very transactional relationship. We went, we punched our card, and we left.”

Just before the Conteras’ second son was born, Erin was involved in a traumatic home invasion where the intruder tried to kill her and kidnap her oldest son while she was nearly 9 months pregnant. The only reason she was able to escape at the time was because the intruder thought she was dead already.

“It just left me so broken… with such bad PTSD,” Erin said. “I had Max two weeks later and, after that incident, our marriage just fell apart.”

With the ensuing depression Erin experienced, the foundation she and Eli had as a married couple crumbled. On top of that, Eli lost his job.

“The depression cut me so deep. I lost sense of reality. I lost sense of who I was,” Erin said. “We stopped going to church because… I just felt abandoned [by God].”

After the incident, Erin sought relief from her trauma and depression through medication and therapy, but she often felt alone. It seemed impossible to find other people who could identify with what she had been through.

“There weren’t any support groups for ‘Housewives of PTSD’” Erin recalled. “Either you’re a soldier [struggling with PTSD] or you don’t have it.” She had no one else in her circles who could relate to her experience. As a couple, Erin and Eli were never comfortable talking about Erin’s feelings or how her therapy was going.

“All Eli ever wanted to know was how I was doing because he just loved me so much,” Erin said. “But I could not talk about it at all. I would become too emotional, and it was too much for me… I just held it all in, and it was like a cancer.”

No longer trusting God, Erin isolated with her kids, wrapping them up in her self-protective armor. But, Eli’s response to the home invasion was the complete opposite.

“My husband, in that tragedy, found faith and I lost it,” Erin said. “He saw that somebody was there – somebody kept me alive.”

Erin and Eli continued to struggle, leading them to separate and no longer communicate with one another. They were headed towards divorce at full speed.

“We didn’t have family support. We weren’t in a small group. So that was just the path we were going down,” Erin said. “But my husband, out of desperation, started going to church again because he didn’t know what else to do.”

This time, Eli took a step in faith and joined a men’s small group. When the men would pray at the end of every group, Eli would ask for prayer for his marriage and prayer for his wife.

“At that time, I wanted nothing to do with him,” Erin said. “But Eli kept going to small group and prayed for us.” Erin freely admits that it would have been easier for Eli to just leave her completely. But Eli’s small group encouraged him to love his wife, even at her worst. Toward the end of the life cycle of the small group, Eli was ready to get baptized.

Erin finally agreed, and at Eli’s baptism, she met his small group.

“I saw that they were all married men,” Erin said. “And it broke my heart because I saw how happy all those married couples were, and I knew that they knew my story. I knew they knew what I was going through.”

Shortly after Eli’s baptism, he asked Erin, “What do you think about maybe coming to church with me on Sunday?”

Despite her fears of something happening her kids, she took a step.

About a month later the Contreras were still going to church together every Sunday. Erin and Eli had talked about moving back in together, and six months later, they were living together again. When another GroupLink happened, Eli suggested they join a small group for married couples.

“I was like, ‘I do not want to be in a married group. First of all, we’re barely married at this point. We just started living together and… the last thing I want is some hypocritical Christian telling me what I should be doing in my marriage.”

But Erin eventually agreed because she wanted to find some sort of hobby to do with her husband, though they drove separately to group each week.

“I didn’t want to go there to make friends,” Erin said. “I [didn’t] need churchy people in my life.” Within the first few meetings, the group members were already sharing their backgrounds and stories, and when it came time for Erin to speak, she was frank.

“I was like, ‘Basically, I’m not here for you guys. I don’t want any part of this. I’m just here for [Eli].”

Erin calls it “probably the worst introduction that anybody’s ever had,” but she didn’t think her life and marriage were anybody else’s business. But, she found that the group members were willing to receive her exactly where she was at.

After a while, Erin and Eli started riding to small group in a car together, which turned out to be catalytic for their marriage.

“I never thought the car ride would be the biggest thing, but it’s really where he and I became husband and wife again.”

They would talk about their thoughts on the current small group study, and it was the first chance in a long time to connect with one another about something deep. In those moments, without their kids and without distractions, Erin and Eli began to develop a friendship again.

“It just opened up a narrative… where we couldn’t before talk about how we were doing,” Erin said. “It got to the point where we’d get home, and we wouldn’t get out of the car. We’d just sit in the car and talk more for another 15 or 20 minutes. And so, I really think that those car rides were the most special time we’ve ever had.”

After going to small group for about a year-and-a-half, Erin got severely sick one summer and had to endure seven surgeries within a single summer. It was during this time that Erin’s perception of small group took a dramatic shift.

“They just really poured into my family,” Erin said about her group members. “They brought us meals. They checked on me daily. They would check in after every surgery asking, ‘Do you need help with this? Do you need us just to run to the grocery store?  What can we do for you?’”

The Contreras’ small group community intimately entered their lives during one of the most critical times for their family.

“I had never experienced anything like this,” she said. “Even when I had both of my kids, it was just me… alone. There was nobody who came over. There was nobody who brought meals… It was a shift. I belonged.”

Something about this love in action softened her heart. Air rushed back into her lungs. She still wouldn’t describe herself as a believer at that time but just going with the flow. Then one day, something that Eli and her Navigator had both said just clicked.

If God wasn’t there, then why are you angry at him?

“I was angry because I felt abandoned,” Erin said. “Eli had tried to tell me this many times. He would say, ‘Well, how can you feel abandoned by somebody that was never there to begin with?’

It finally made sense to Erin. You can’t be mad at somebody who isn’t there.

“I mean, if I’m angry at somebody then obviously there’s somebody in my heart that’s always been there… that’s when I really started believing.”

Erin got baptized in March 2018.

“[My baptism] was just another moment where I was like, ‘I’m still doing life with these people. These people are still pouring into me. They’re still here for my children. For my husband. And it was a really beautiful thing to have my community with me.”

Another part of her recovery has to do with her current job opportunity where she teaches music at a Classical School. She has the privilege of talking about God’s beauty every day.

“My whole job is to point out what is true, good, and beautiful in this world and how that all points back to God,” Erin said. “And not being a believer, I wouldn’t have the job that I have. I wouldn’t be able to form these little lives or these connections with these kids.”

Three months after Erin’s baptism, she took a huge next step by starting to serve in the music ministry at Clear Creek. Once someone who slipped in under the balcony and out before the end of the last song, Erin now uses her gifts to play the keyboard and sing on stage.

“You have to be so vulnerable to be on stage worshiping because you’re not just putting on a show for everybody. You’re worshipping withthem.” And each time she serves, she thinks about the people who might be sitting under the balcony.

“Music is one of those things that engages everybody,” Erin said. “So I always pray before I go on stage, Use our music to touch somebodyOpen somebody up.”

Erin found, and continues to find, places where her true passion and talent can encourage others to align their hearts in worship, no matter what their own circumstances might be.

Making a Man: The Ryan Thomas Story

By Ryan Thomas (as told to the Story Team)

I grew up with a view of what a man should be that can be portrayed as Men’s Health—a magazine that advocates a man should be athletic, chiseled, well-dressed, successful, just desired by women.

And at the same time, my father was man preoccupied with athletic prowess. With that influence, I wanted to be a super athlete, successful, worshipped by women, a hero, and admired by worldly standards.

As a teenager, the disdain I had for my father and his ambivalence towards me, grew. Yet, I still followed directly in his footsteps. I pursued athletic success. And really, my primary objective was to attract women, but that ultimately led me down a path of destruction.

During my junior year in college, my father passed away. He was continuing to pursue extreme sports, and he was killed doing hill intervals on his bicycle. That really kind of rocked my world, because I realized at that time, that I was trying to earn his approval and now that he was gone, I really didn’t have that opportunity. It changed the way I thought about the pursuits that I was after. And in some ways, I really wanted to pursue a life of purpose and something that I could give back to, but at the same time, I was still a pretty broken guy and was still trying to prove myself in terms of Men’s Health magazine or the way that my father raised me.

I began to formulate the idea that I could join the military, because what’s better than the ultimate man’s profession of being in Special Ops in the military? So, I joined the Army as an officer, and became a Ranger, and was deployed several times into combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That really shaped what I felt a man should be. And that was the first step, I think, in God’s journey for me—understanding it’s not just selfish pursuits, it’s now doing something for others that, in a lot of ways, is sacrificial.

One of the other surprising things that happened while I was in the military was I met my wife Tasha. We decided to get out, and got married, and had, ironically, two little girls. I never really realized how selfish I was as a man until those three relying on me and looking to me for guidance, and just how many things I’ve screwed up in the past. God has a funny way of doing that, especially when you have two little girls. I really started to realize that it’s okay… to be more vulnerable, to know that I’m not in control—God’s in control—that God is ultimately the one who is shaping my life and shaping my family’s existence, and that I don’t have it all figured out, and that I, in a lot of ways, need to lean on him.

Accomplish: The Tasha Thomas Story

By: Tasha Thomas (as told to the Story Team)

There I was in the Middle East, wearing a camouflage uniform, carrying a 9 mm handgun—a successful U.S. Army officer whose accomplishments were pinned to her uniform.

As a young child I grew up in a home that was just broken. It was filled with domestic violence, alcohol, [and] drugs. And from an early age, I decided I wasn’t going to rely on anybody else, I didn’t need anybody else, that I could just do it on my own. You know, I went to college at first, and then I joined the Army, all to show that I didn’t need anybody else.

I really had the idea of becoming a general as my ultimate goal, because once you reach that level, I felt like you had made it. And I wanted people to go “wow, you did what?” I was really looking for that approval from others, that I was accomplished and I had done well for myself.

So, as I met my husband, Ryan, and we had begun dating, I quickly realized that I was going to have some decisions to make because he wanted a family and I knew deep down that I was never going to be able to balance both. I just knew my heart, that I was going to continue to strive at my job, and that I would probably not balance that well and my family would suffer. So, for me it was going to be a decision, and how to make that work. I kind of had this idea of motherhood that it was going to be something that I was going to accomplish and I was going to be really good at, because in my past I had always done well, I was always at the top of my peers. And so, when Everly came, it was kind of earth-shattering for me because I wasn’t—I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t meeting all of these accomplishments, or these things that people said I should be doing.

I quickly was thrown into postpartum depression, not only because kids are hard, but also because no one applauds you or gives you a gold star for being a mom. So, I struggled with that. And I found myself, at times, I would meet other people, and they’d go “oh, what do you do?” And I would say, “Oh, well I stay at home now, but I used to…” and then I’d throw in an accomplishment that I had from the Army.

Looking back at that, it really makes me sad because I wasn’t identifying as a mom; I wasn’t holding value to that.

Unfortunately, I wish I could say that this is struggle that I can say that I’m done with, but it’s not. It’s something I struggle with every day. And when I see a peer get promoted on social media, or I see photos of this life I used to lead and was very accomplished in, it’s hard. I’m angry about it, I get envious that I’m not getting to do that. Instead, I have these two little blonde girls telling me what to do. You know, it’s tough. And, I think I always have to remember that I’m not called to this job, I’m not called to that job–I’m really called to be a follower of Christ.

Making the decision to stay home versus working full-time, it made me realize that one isn’t more important than the other as I had earlier thought. Staying home doesn’t mean you’re less awesome, or you’re less important. There’s not a sliding scale of who you are as a person dependent on where you are.

For me, I’ve realized that truly my identity is in Christ, and that’s what I should focus on—to look to him for my strength, and look to him for my being accepted because he’s the one that truly loves me. My identity is truly in Christ, and not in motherhood, and not in a job, and not in the day-to-day. He’s more concerned with the way I live my life than a job that I’m holding.