Jim Killam

Christmas Traditions 2019

Christmas Traditions: Pray, serve, give

A conversation with Pastor Luke Uran

First Free’s annual Christmas Traditions event runs from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. We’ll have a petting zoo, pictures with Santa, cookie decorating, an indoor snowball fight, a stage show, carolers, a kids’ story time and more. Each activity is designed to help families create new traditions and memories while weaving the Christmas story into it all.

We spoke with Lead Pastor Luke Uran about the event, its purpose and the opportunities it presents.

 

Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke UranDo you remember how Christmas Traditions evolved into what it is now?

About three years before we started doing the event, a bunch of us were talking about what would it look like to do an outreach event well. We came up with this idea of a Christmas-themed event with different activities that could be taking place, kind of an all-hands-on-deck thing. I remember us saying, “Let’s make an event that is easy for families. So they can take part in Christmas traditions that their family already does, but let’s just make it easy for them.”

 

What traditions might not have been so easy for families then? 

We wanted to do a one-stop-shop type of thing. For example, taking pictures with Santa. A lot of families do that, but rather than go to the mall and wait in line for a couple of hours, they can come here and wait in a much shorter line and get a picture with Santa. Or, going home and decorating cookies and then after that reading the Nativity story. What if we were to do all of that under one roof?

Even though we are a church that wants to focus on “go and tell” rather than “come and see,” we did want at least one event that opened our doors to the community, where we had people on our campus.

 

That has been kind of a departure from the way things have moved in recent years. What was your thinking behind the idea that we still needed one “come and see” event?

We wanted something that would bring people into the building, where we could invite them to our Christmas Eve service and future sermon series and other things. This year, we will be telling our guests about our Christmas Eve service as well as inviting them to our parenting conference that’s coming up in February. We wanted to have that next, purposeful step.

We also really want people to see our campus, to see our kids lobby, stuff like that — to break down some walls or preconceived notions that they may have about being inside a church building.

 

And maybe at Christmas, a church feels a little more accessible?

I think at this time of year people are more willing. Even for families who don’t go to church, going to church on Christmas Eve is still a tradition. So it’s one of those things where, for people this time of year, it breaks down a lot of barriers that they would otherwise have up.

 

You said recently, “Let the invitation extend beyond the reach of your hand.” Could you expand on that a little?

What I mean by that is as we talk about “Me to We” as a church, we want to have relationships in our lives with people who do not know Jesus. We don’t want people just to stuff things in mailboxes or put it under windshield wipers in a parking lot. Because I don’t see that as something that’s effective. Sure, it’s got a broad reach. But I don’t think that’s ultimately the way Jesus modeled evangelism.

One of the things that I want our people to understand, and my heart behind it, is to say: This is a great opportunity. Jessi and I have used it as this. To say to someone, “We’ve got pizza. We’ve got Chick-fil-A. We’ve got food trucks. Let me buy your dinner. Just come hang out with our family. Our kids can play together. The parents can talk while the kids are doing activities.”

It’s just that easy on-ramp. So, to have the invitation extend beyond the reach of your hand is really focusing on that idea: Inviting someone to something like is a lot more than just giving them a card. It’s praying up to the event. Maybe afterward it’s then taking them out for coffee the next week and saying, “So what did you think? Is there anything you think the church could improve on? What did your kids like? What did you like? What did you not like?” Continuing the conversation in that way.

So again, it’s just being purposeful with it. It’s not being flippant. Like I said in church a few weeks back, it’s not just going to Woodman’s and throwing a stack of cards in the air and seeing what happens.

 

What kinds of responses have you heard over the last few years from people who have attended but weren’t part of our church family?

Everyone is always so appreciative of the way First Free has historically, and is still doing, events. That has included things like the low-cost or free concerts at Summerwood, Christmas and Easter events, the Patriotic Celebration, Trunk or Treats … and now Christmas Traditions and the excellence with which we do this. Winning people to Christ is an excellent, praiseworthy thing. We see this as an opportunity to do that.

It’s fun to go on to Facebook and see people’s comments. We’ve heard lots of encouraging things. This is one of those events where the people who are serving together here at the church have an opportunity to truly interact with those who are here. It’s not just throw a piece of candy in their bag and keep the line moving. At Christmas Traditions you can actually have a conversation and love the people of the community who are here visiting. That’s why it’s important to me.

 

What message do you have for our church leading into this? What should we be praying about and considering?

First, with us being a multigenerational church, this is an amazing event for you to serve with your kids and your family. And that’s something families do take advantage of in a big way. It’s incredible to see. So that’s the first thing: Serve with your whole family.

The second thing is, remember who we are serving. When we come here, we are serving Jesus, who says, “Whatever you have done for the least of these brothers and sisters you have done unto me.” We don’t know what people are walking through our doors with. We don’t know how big of a blessing this is to them to be able to bring their families to this.

Third, this is one of those opportunities we have. It’s the Parable of the Sower. We are sowing seeds. We are praying leading up to the event. We’re praying during the event and we’re praying after the event, that God would allow those seeds to fall on good soil. And that those seeds would take root and grow for his glory, not ours.

So ultimately those are the three primary things I would say to people who are considering serving or are on the fence about it. It’s so fun to see the community come, to be under our roof in this way, to celebrate the Christmas season. And it’s so great to come together as a community, as a church, continuing to go, tell and show the love of God here in Rockford.

 

Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger (puppet)

Why we long for Mister Rogers

A beautiful film speaks volumes to a broken culture

By Jim Killam

About halfway through A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, journalist Lloyd Vogel is interviewing Fred Rogers in a restaurant booth. It’s another in a series of conversations where, really, Mister Rogers has been interviewing Lloyd, uncovering deep pain from a torn relationship with his father.

“You love people like me,” Lloyd concedes.

“What are people like you?” Fred asks.

“Broken people.”

 

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Photo: TriStar Pictures

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod’s encounters with Mister Rogers for a 1998 Esquire magazine issue about heroes. The premise is cliché, but in this case true: a cynical journalist assigned to interview “the nicest man in the world.” And a throwaway, 400-word “fluff” assignment becomes a friendship that changes a man forever.

Junod wrote a wonderful essay for The Atlantic to coincide with the film’s opening. Lloyd Vogel’s storyline is fiction, which is why Junod asked that his and his relatives’ real names not be used. But his deep interactions with Fred Rogers were real and, he writes, reflected accurately:

“A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him.”

That thought forms the movie’s story line, which is wonderfully framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Getting there takes a few minutes, though. Tom Hanks’ singing entry made me laugh aloud. In the 1970s and ’80s, Mister Rogers might have been best known for the parodies by comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. This seemed like another of those, for about 30 seconds. Then I forgot I was watching Hanks and was absorbed into a story that centers on the kindness of a man who seemed too good to be true.

• • •

IT’S HARD TO WATCH this film and not think about the gospels’ stories of broken people encountering Jesus. How he quickly moved past cultural differences and people’s own defenses. How he made the person to whom he was speaking feel like the most important person in the world. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did,” the woman at the well told her friends.

Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Photo: TriStar Pictures

Fred Rogers was not a saint, as his wife, Joanne, reminds Lloyd in the movie. They resisted that moniker because it would imply a status that others could never attain. So what made him the way he was? Fred’s Christlike traits came certainly from the presence of the Holy Spirit, and also from practice: He read Scripture daily. He prayed for a long list of people, by name. He took time and gave people (especially children) his full attention. The story of Mister Rogers unmistakably whispers the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The film’s reception and overwhelmingly positive reviews also made me wonder: In a culture where Christians are increasingly reviled — sometimes deservedly — and where people guard themselves against any religious message, how are this film and its main character finding their way to those same hardened hearts?

Simple, honest kindness. We long for it. In Fred Rogers, we see a man who deeply loved God, loved people and reflected the character of Jesus. In The Atlantic essay, Junod writes: “He could talk to anyone, believing that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God.”

• • •

AS WE WALKED THROUGH the Showplace 16 lobby, I noticed the other movies playing there this week. Movies about crime, war, industry, a con artist, an insane clown, slavery, killer cyborgs, death, the supernatural and … ice princesses. Some of these are really good stories. Important stories. Some play to our worst appetites. Some are studio cash grabs.

Mister Rogers doesn’t fit this world. He never really did. He and his show were always a cultural oddity, but an oddity people felt unexplainably attracted to. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood moves slowly and quietly. At times, the theater walls couldn’t keep out the racket of a much louder movie playing next door.

Yet, the outside noise didn’t matter. There we all sat, transfixed by a story about a kids’ TV show aimed at 5-year-olds.

• • •

TOWARD THE END, the reality of our broken world busted in again. Four high-school aged kids bounded into the theater with their popcorn, giggling enough to be disruptive while they ran up the stairs toward the back rows. It looked like they had been at another movie and then decided to crash this one. It’s something kids do.

Still giggling, the kids found seats. A guy near the front, sitting with his date, stood and turned toward them.

“Get out. All of you. Get out now.”

The kids froze. Mr. Vigilante froze, and for a few seconds there was this tense, silent standoff. It didn’t help that the kids were black and the guy, who looked to be about 40, was white.

Finally he sat back down. The kids quieted. The pit in my stomach disappeared. On the screen, Mister Rogers continued helping a family come to grips with deep pain, grace and forgiveness.

And I thought: There it is. The tension, the fear, the incivility of our culture, juxtaposed with … Jesus. A glimpse of the upside-down kingdom, where the meek really will inherit the earth and the peacemakers will be called children of God.

The best films stick in our heads for days afterward, making us think deeply about who we are, individually and collectively. I don’t think Fred Rogers would feel very at home today in our broken, unkind culture. But I think he would like knowing that he still speaks to us, softly.

 

Angel Tree opportunity is here

Starting Sunday, Dec. 1, First Free Rockford is again participating in Angel Tree, a program sponsored by Prison Fellowship. The program delivers gifts, a gospel message and personal message of love to kids on behalf of their incarcerated parent.

This year, more than 7,000 churches and groups have committed to serve more than 300,000 kids across the country. First Free is one of five churches in Rockford, and one of eight in Winnebago County, taking part, said Angel Tree Program Specialist Danielle Kruger.

Tomah Crabb’s son, Bernard, is incarcerated in the Lincoln (Ill.) Correctional Center. For the past several years Buddy, as he’s better known, has signed his kids up for Angel Tree.

Tomah, of Rockford, takes care of Buddy’s kids.

“We’ve been through a lot since he’s been in prison,” she said. “He’s lost his dad.”

On a Saturday before Christmas, the Angel Tree gifts arrive for the kids: clothes, toys, “things that they like,” Tomah says. The gifts are already wrapped, with the kids’ names on them. Their predictable response: “Can we open them? Can we open them?”

“I love it, because it helps out a lot,” Tomah says.

The kids also know their dad had a hand in the gifts. It’s one way of making a hard situation a little better.

• • •

We spoke with Susan Schumacher, who organizes the Angel Tree effort at First Free.

What’s it like to get to be part of this program? And for you, what’s it been like to help people even realize that the need exists? 

Andrew and Susan Schumacher at last year’s Angel Tree preparation.

There is a lot of shame for children of prisoners, plus the longing and sense of loss. Children can feel forgotten and overlooked. The Angel Tree program lets them know that they are loved, and reminds them of Jesus’ love for them. Each child receives colorful materials that present the gospel in an age-appropriate way. Plus, each family can request a beautiful, free children’s Bible.

How many families is First Free helping this year?

We will be serving 56 kids in 16 families.  Also, the Angel Tree organization asked us to partner this year with Christ Tamil Church (Wheaton) to deliver their gifts in Rockford for them. They are purchasing gifts for 8 families and will bring them to us for delivery.

What are the dates people can take part?

People can select their Angel children from the tree in the lobby beginning this Sunday, Dec. 1. Gifts should be wrapped and returned to the church by Tuesday, Dec. 17.

Volunteers are needed to help pack the gifts at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18. We also need drivers to help deliver them at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 21. Interested volunteers can contact me by email : sueschu13 [at] hotmail [dot] com or call the church at 815-877-7046.

Any other long-term plans for First Free’s involvement in this?

I would like to develop some kind of an ongoing outreach program in which we continue contact with the children and invite them to youth activities at our church.

 

 

 

Handel’s Messiah: ‘Our gift back to Rockford’

Choral Union’s performances date back 74 years

Rockford Choral Union has performed Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season since 1945. This year’s choir includes 112 people. It’s open to anyone who wants to participate and commit to the rehearsals. Singers live as far away as Rochelle to the south, Janesville to the north, and the western Chicago suburbs.

“The nice thing is that we have a lot of people who have been with the group for a number of years, and now we are starting to see more and more young people singing with the group,” says second-year conductor Michael Beert. “So it becomes more of a mentor-student situation.”

Cherice Ullrich (left) and her mom, Cindy Jensen, sing during a rehearsal last year. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

Multiple churches and denominations are represented.

“It used to be just a Lutheran Choral Union and we found that we would have Catholic, we would have Missouri Synod, we would have Assembly of God, we would have pretty much any denomination joining us,” Beert says. “And so we thought, why are we calling ourselves the Lutheran Choral Union when there are fewer and fewer Lutherans? It’s great that it’s interdenominational.”

Seven people from First Free Rockford are part of this year’s choir: Lynne Berglund, Sandra Hogan, Cindy Jensen, Keith Johnson, Sasha Pogwizd, Cherice Ullrich and Art Upmann.

The choir and guest soloists are accompanied by a 15-piece chamber orchestra.

Here’s part of our conversation with Beert, who is a renowned cellist and a music professor at Rock Valley College. His wife, Rachel Handlin, is concertmistress (first-chair violinist and instrument-playing leader of the orchestra).

 

This is your second year as conductor. What was it like last year, stepping in?

“The first thing I told them was, I am not a choral person. I haven’t really sung since high school, and that was a while ago. I know the piece, but from the bass up. From the cello parts. I know how it goes, but there were a lot of words I was learning last year and I’m still learning this year.

“This is all new to me. There are so many things you have to do in a rehearsal such as working on diction, working on the duration of the notes, working on the dynamics. The three D’s as (now-retired conductor) Nat Bauer told me.”

 

Michael Beert. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

As a cellist you know Handel’s Messiah very well. What is it then like to conduct it versus playing it?

“They’re both a challenge. Because the cello part is constant. You feel like you’re strapped into your chair and you don’t get up until 2 1/2 hours later. Conducting it has a whole different set of concerns. You are always thinking, what is the next piece? What is the next tempo?

“The easiest thing for me to do would just be to sing along with them. I found, much to my chagrin, that I get carried away with the message. I get carried away with the bass part. I need to not do that.”

 

What does the work mean to you personally? Getting to conduct Handel’s Messiah has to be really special.

“It is. What I learned from Nat Bauer, the previous director, is that not only is this a great piece of music, with all these wonderful fugues and recitatives and arias, but how Handel put this together beautifully with the text, going all the way from the Old Testament book of Isaiah to Revelation. And then on top of that you have a five- or six-minute “Amen” chorus at the very end.”

 

What does it mean to you, message-wise?

“I have found a greater appreciation for Isaiah and his prophecy. It runs the gamut. Handel composed this piece in just a matter of weeks and that in itself is amazing. But for him to think, ‘What is the perfect music for what Isaiah is talking about?’ The opening tenor recitative and aria is Isaiah’s message of comfort to Israel. They’re in Samaria, in exile. He’s talking about warfare, strife, all these valleys and mountains that must be overcome, and he just gives you calmness. At the same time he is trying to tell the people of Israel, ‘Your time will come. Peace will come to you.’ Even though there is great conflict.

First Free Rockford member Sasha Pogwizd sings in Handel’s Messiah. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

“Handel does an old trick that goes back hundreds of years before, where you take a text, and you somehow try to shape that text musically. For example, ‘Every hill and mountain shall be made low.’ He has the tenor (soloist) go up and down to imitate the valleys, the hills, the mountains. He just word paints so beautifully. …

“Early on, it’s Isaiah in the prophecy. Then it’s the birth, then it’s the strife of the crucifixion, the passion. Even during that, Handel sets us up in Isaiah: Yea, even though all of this is going to happen, there is a greater promise there. And that’s there throughout the entire thing. The choruses at the passion are really strong. And then with the resurrection he gives you the Hallelujah Chorus. It’s just like the clouds have opened up.

“Following that, we get into the third section which is all from Revelation. And he gives us probably one of the most beautiful arias, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. A great message of peace again.”

 

What does it mean for the community to have a chance to come and hear a work like this every year?

“The way the Choral Union looks at it is, this is our gift back to the Rockford community. They’ve always felt strongly about that. This is our 74th year. The first performance in Rockford was in 1945, really as a way to celebrate the end of the war.

From one of last year’s performances. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

“The way I feel about it, it’s like if you had a jewel or a cello or something special. You’re only the caretaker of it and you’re going to pass it on. I don’t know how long I’m going to be there, but it’s my job, very much like the president of an organization, to make sure it continues. It’s important. This kind of tradition is not just something that ‘those old people’ do. No, it’s constantly being reborn.

“These people have devoted so much time, energy, and care. Some of them have it memorized, to perform it and to really try to minister not only to themselves and the people around them, but to the audience. We need to make sure that continues. It’s a beautiful thing.”

• • •

Performances are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 920 Third Ave. Admission is free; a free-will offering is taken during each performance.

» More information

 

vintage record player with snowflake pattern

Christmas music: candy canes and lumps of coal

Want to fill your house with great Christmas music, but maybe not the same old stuff you’ve listened to for decades? Or, do you want to know which timeless Christmas albums to avoid at all costs? Either way, we’ve got you covered.

 

The A side

Here are three newly released albums we think are worth your time.

 

Sing! An Irish Christmas – Live at the Grand Ole Opry House

Keith and Kristyn Getty

This live album’s 19 tracks radiate joy and worship. Most of the songs are familiar, but carry a fresh sound that’s part Celtic, part Nashville and part contemporary worship. (You have not heard Sleigh Ride until you’ve heard it played like a sea shanty on Celtic instruments, but also with banjos.)

The Gettys are a husband-and-wife hymn writing team who split their time between Nashville and their native Northern Ireland. This is their second live Christmas album, following 2015’s Joy — An Irish Christmas, which also became a PBS TV special.

 

 

Christmas

Sandra McCracken

One of today’s best songwriters / hymn writers turns her contemplative lyrics and storytelling to her first Christmas album. Joyful standards like Go Tell It on the Mountain and Joy to the World are here, but this album is a lot more than background music during Christmas dinner. On original songs like The Space Between, McCracken confronts loneliness and longing that can accompany the holidays.

“I hope for my music to help stir people to ask the important questions, to bring comfort and hope, and to help people sing together,” she told CCM Magazine. “A Christmas album is all the more reason to do just that.”

 

Advent

Liturgical Folk

A retired Anglican priest and a church music director have written more than 50 hymns together since meeting in 2015. Now they turn their attention to Advent music with a collection of nine new hymns.

From their website:

“Music is vital to Christian worship. It’s no wonder, then, that music is near the heart of the worship wars. The generations divide along fault lines of stylistic preference. When music is commodified to serve the people, it becomes entertainment. Music is supposed to be a service of the people, not a service to the people. This paradigm shift will help us defer our own musical tastes in worship and to consider what makes others sing. It will take a willingness for mutual appreciation, but in time our hearts will blend into one. A church may even discover its own unique musical expression!”

 

 

The B Side

Christmas music runs the gamut. For every O Holy Night, there are dogs barking Jingle Bells. So, we listened to a few ill-advised efforts so you don’t have to. These albums make excellent white-elephant gifts, but that’s about all. The Bottom Five:

 

William Shatner: Shatner-Claus

Here’s Shatner’s dramatic reading of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to a group of uncomfortable-looking kids. It soon gives way to a musical ending we can’t even begin to explain.

Roseanne Barr sings the Christmas Classics

Asking the musical question: Why?

Michael Bolton: This is the Time / The Christmas Album

Holiday stylings from the man who sings like he’s caught in a hydraulic press. We include this pick to represent every famous singer who slapped together a Christmas album to hear the ring-ting-tingling of the cash register.

Star Wars: Christmas in the Stars

Amid bizarre songs about Wookies, 18-year-old John Francis Bongiovi sings R2D2 We Wish You and Merry Christmas. The future Jon Bon Jovi was paid $180 … which was $179 too much.

Jingle Cats: Meowy Christmas

If you love cats, this should put a stop to it. Here’s not-so Silent Night.

First Free Rockford book spotlight recommendation header image

Book Spotlight: November 2019

The weather’s cold now. Darkness falls before dinner. No one’s too happy about that, but it does leave more time in the evenings to settle in with a good book. Here are recommendations from some of our church leaders. All of these books are available in The Scroll Resource Center.

 

The Spirit-Filled Life

Beloved pastor and author Charles F. Stanley turns his attention to the power, joy and meaning brought by the Holy Spirit. He also answers tough questions: who the Spirit is (and isn’t), how being filled with the Spirit works, and what the Bible teaches about spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues.

From Chapter One: “For too many believers the Christian life boils down to simply doing the best they can. There is no power or distinction that sets them apart from the way everyone else in the world exists. The good they do can be attributed to their own discipline, determination, and devotion to God, rather than His activity in their lives. … The real tragedy is that we have lost our ability to function in our society the way God originally intended.”Stanley then unpacks what the Spirit-filled life looks like, how to have it … and why so many Christians don’t.

This book is recommended as a complement to our current sermon series on the book of Acts.

Pastor Luke Uran says:

“This is the book that the Executive Elder Board is currently reading and discussing. This book was recommended to me by our church chairman, Paul Geddes. I appreciate the way in which Charles Stanley honestly and biblically assesses the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.”

Aaron Biby (one of our elders) says:

The Spirit-Filled Life is an easy read, but a challenge to process. Identifying the Holy Spirit as the person through which we are able to bear the fruit of the Spirit is a life-altering idea that can take some time to wrap your head around. The freedom comes in discovering that no matter how hard we try, we cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit out of our own strength. Rather, if we focus on nurturing our relationship with God, the Holy Spirit can and will begin to produce that fruit in us naturally.”

 

Acts 1-12 For You; Acts 13-28 For You

By R. Albert Mohler. Part of the God’s Word For You series, these guides are intended to help regular people, as the introduction states: to read, to feed and to lead. If you want to go deeper into Acts and apply the book’s truth to your life, or if you’re leading a Life Group, these books are a great resource. And you don’t need a theology degree to keep up.

Pastor Luke Uran says:

 “I found these easy-to-read commentaries as I was preparing to preach through the series in Acts. I appreciate the way that these commentaries help the reader delve deeper into the passages and make some of the understanding and application a little bit more practical in nature.”

 

Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church

Keith and Kristyn Getty  are noted hymn writers, worship leaders and they host the annual Getty Worship Conference, which several of our church staff members attended this past summer in Nashville. From the book description, here are their five key goals for readers:

  • To discover why we sing and the overwhelming joy and holy privilege that comes with singing;
  • To consider how singing impacts our hearts and minds and all of our lives;
  • To cultivate a culture of family singing in our daily home life;
  • To equip our churches for wholeheartedly singing to the Lord and one another as an expression of unity; and
  • To inspire us to see congregational singing as a radical witness to the world.

Renee Cooper, Director of Classic Worship, says:

“First of all – throughout the Bible we are commanded to sing. This book is about the importance of the congregation singing, based on Biblical principles. Worship is not a passive, spectator sport. It requires active participation. That means everyone – not just the leaders on the platform.

As a worship leader, I want to do just that: lead in worship. When we come together as God’s children, and we lift our voices in praise and worship of him, there is not a sweeter sound that can be heard! I want to hear the congregation singing!

Often we will leave a service humming one of the songs we have sung that morning. That music stays with us. So, we need to be careful to choose songs that are theologically sound. Those songs help us to remember what we believe, and to learn more about Who we are worshipping.”

 

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

From the book description: Peter Scazzero learned the hard way: You can’t be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. Even though he was pastor of a growing church, he did what most people do:

  • Avoid conflict in the name of Christianity
  • Ignore his anger, sadness, and fear
  • Use God to run from God
  • Live without boundaries

Eventually God awakened him to a biblical integration of emotional health, a relationship with Jesus, and the classic practices of contemplative spirituality. It created nothing short of a spiritual revolution, utterly transforming him and his church.

Pastor Josh Pardee says:

“In Christ we are new creations, freed captives, but the author explains that our history stays with us and impacts us unless we learn about it and learn to operate from a place of biblical awareness, in love with God and with compassion toward ourselves. This allows us to be real with our sin and actually deal with it as opposed to sweeping it under the rug.”

 

The Best Gift Ever Given

By Ronnie Martin, illustrated by Nathan Schroeder. This is a great Christmastime devotional guide for families: “A 25-day journey through Advent, from God’s good gifts to God’s great Son.” These are short, family devotionals for Dec. 1-25, and are aimed at families with kids from kindergarten to about grade four. Each day’s entry begins with a Scripture, then a short piece about the day’s topic, one or two discussion questions and a prayer.

Pastor Luke Uran says:

“We bought this book for our daughter for Advent and we are looking forward to going through it together as a family. I appreciate the way Ronnie Martin brings forth the message of Jesus on every page in a way that is understandable for young readers and listeners, and the book’s great illustrations back it up.”

 

The 11-year-olds’ guide to trick-or-treating

By Jim Killam

Not sure of your Halloween responsibilities as a neighborhood resident? We’re here to help. Over the years, and at great personal cost, we have intercepted reconnaissance from local 11-year-olds as they devise their trick-or-treat strategies. At most houses, everything goes just fine. Nothing to report.

Then there are … The Eleven. Eleven types of well-intentioned residents who get flagged by trick-or-treaters for Halloween misconduct. Read the list and make necessary adjustments. Learn from those who have gone before you. This carries the added benefit of keeping toilet paper from lodging in your trees later that evening. 

Here goes.

 

The Rationers

People who answer the door with a 55-gallon drum of candy — the good candy — but then insist that each trick-or-treater take only one measly piece. By the end of the evening, they still have a 55-gallon drum of the good candy … which you suspect was the plan all along.

 

The Generics

None of that overpriced so-called “good candy” at this house. Those plain, orange-and-black wrapped peanut butter things were good enough for these people as kids, so they’re good enough for the neighbor kids now. Best of all, one 99-cent bag gets them through the evening because the little urchins only take one each, just to be polite.

 

The writer as a zombie Abraham Lincoln

1428 Elm Street

A dad who’s just a little too enthusiastic has filled the front yard with props and scenes that would frighten a horror film director. Witches, zombies, assorted chainsaw mayhem … it’s all here to make sure every kid in the neighborhood sleeps with one eye open for the next year. And then there’s a friendly couple at the door asking little kids if they want some candy. Um, no.

 

The Granolas

Those people. The ones who make salads from fallen tree branches, mill their own flour and drink organic Kale slushies. Candy has never darkened the door of this house and it certainly would never be handed to unsuspecting young ones. The dingy green treats offered here are home-wrapped in cellophane and taste like the bottom of a lawnmower. Word gets out quickly among trick-or-treaters: Run away!

 

The Bucketeers

These busy folks can’t take time to answer their door for sniveling kids demanding candy. The ingenious solution: The honor bucket! Fill a bucket — a small bucket, probably one of those cheap plastic jack-o-lanterns — with fun-sized (microscopic) candy. Nothing really good, or some little ingrate will take it all in one swipe. They leave the bucket on the driveway, but not too close to the house. Then they peek through the drawn blinds periodically to monitor the situation. When the bucket is empty, they turn off the porch light and call it a night.

 

The Mother Lode

King-size candy bars for everyone! Someone’s either generous or clueless, but if you’re the kid holding the bag, you don’t care. This approach qualifies as Halloween misconduct only because the residents proclaim themselves superior to the rest of the neighborhood. A stop here equates in candy weight to about eight stops at the “fun size” houses. This house has been called the holy grail of Halloween. That is, unless you happen upon …

 

Bill and Melinda Gates

They hand out money. For real. Sometimes it’s pennies or nickels. But at some houses, it’s dollar bills. Word about a house like this spreads like wildfire. A line forms, and kids will trade masks in the street so they can ring this doorbell multiple times. Then the residents run out of small bills, turn off the porch light and Lord of the Flies breaks out on the sidewalk between kids who got money and kids who got bupkis.

 

The Chatties

People who want to know everything about the kids’ costumes, where they got them and the characters they’re portraying. Then they start reminiscing about the homemade costumes they wore, made out of lint and rolled-up newspaper because that was all they had back in those days but they were grateful and you kids don’t know how good you have it with your store-bought costumes and your fancy candy. Meanwhile the kids just nod and fidget because they are losing precious time with one whole side of the street to go.

 

Zero Dark Thirty

No lights on, no driveway bucket. Only the bravest kids ring this doorbell … which is one of those internet camera doorbells that the residents are monitoring from their secret lair hundreds of miles away. Don’t bother with this house.

 

The Dentist’s House

Toothbrushes. Floss. That is all we have to say about that.

 

The Forgottens

These are the people who forgot to buy candy and now are handing out anything that happens to be in their fridge or pantry: Cheez-Its. Frosted Mini-Wheats. Cottage cheese. Fish sticks. Yes, even kale. You’ll know this house because you can find these groceries discarded by trick-or-treaters on the sidewalk out front.

 

There you have it. Don’t get yourself on this list and when you wake up Nov. 1 and look out on your lawn, all should be good. Disagree? Take it up with the 11-year-olds.

 

And then the whole world changed

In Sunday’s sermon, Pastor Josh referenced YouTube videos where people who are colorblind try on EnChroma glasses and see full color for the first time. A wonderful illustration, but I sat there thinking, Why doesn’t he just show the video?

Now that I’ve watched a couple of these, I understand why not. Josh would have reduced our congregation to a quivering, sobbing mass.

Here’s one of the videos, under the heading, “Try Not to Cry Challenge.” I held it together until the 8:50 mark, when a dad puts the glasses on his colorblind son. And all I could think about was: Imagine the day when God shows us the world as it was meant to be.

I like to think I’ll do the same thing the boy in the video does.

 

 

Halloween Q&A with Pastor Luke Uran

First Free Rockford has shifted its approach over the past two years from a Trunk-or-Treat event in the church parking lot, and then at a school, to now encouraging our church family to spend Halloween evening in their own neighborhoods. We talked with Pastor Luke Uran about reasons for this change.

 

Why did First Free decide not to do Trunk-or-Treat any more?
Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke Uran

Luke Uran, Lead Pastor

We have been transitioning from a church that focused on come-and-see events to a church that is now saying let’s go, tell and show the love of God in the city of Rockford and around the world. In other words, rather than inviting people to come to the church, why don’t we just stay where we are and do it there? We aren’t telling people this is a must. But if I’m standing there with the porch light on, handing out candy and talking with parents and kids, it’s not only gospel intentionality, it’s loving the city. You know, we always pray for opportunities to evangelize, but people were coming to our doors and we weren’t home. The lights were turned off. 

Even if we don’t necessarily agree with the holiday itself, it’s a great opportunity for us to be light in darkness. It’s an opportunity for us to love the kids and families in our communities. 

 

Do you have some ideas for things people could do during trick-or-treat hours?

Be home. Hand out candy. For some, maybe they hand out cups of coffee or hot cocoa to parents walking by. I know some people who have grilled hot dogs and brats and handed them out to parents. You could even set up a game, throwing beanbags or something, and kids get candy that way. 

Or if people don’t want to do any of that at their house, they could be out on the driveway talking to people and just being present.

 

What if a Christian doesn’t want to observe Halloween at all?

As followers of Jesus, we can definitely rain on the devil’s parade. Light drives out darkness. And as we walk in the light and have the source of light, Jesus, in our lives, we will overcome darkness. The best way we can do that, of course, is by bringing people into relationship with Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing things on Halloween they feel are wrong. At the very least, maybe you take time before dinner, or during trick-or-treat hours, and pray for the city, the kids, the families, the schools. Maybe you do that in your home and your porch light is turned off. But do something that night that is intentional.

 

Meet Clayton Ganziano

Clayton Ganziano has served First Free Rockford for two years as middle school coordinator. Now he’s also coordinating Rooted, our young-adults ministry. Clayton and Hannah just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

We talked with Clayton about church youth groups, what kids are looking for … and how middle school and young adult ministries actually have a lot to do with one another.

 

What did your faith look like, growing up?

I grew up in an EV Free church. My family was very involved there. But once I was in high school, my older brother and I just didn’t connect well in the youth group. So we tried a lot of different churches, places that our friends were going or that we had heard about.

The Chapel, a multi-site church in the Chicago area, had just opened a campus at my high school, McHenry High School. We checked it out as a family and it was a place we were OK with going. My mom wanted us to get plugged into the youth group, but I didn’t want to go. That was a whole lot of new people. It was a bigger church and that youth group was going to be big and overwhelming.

The group met in Grayslake, so for the McHenry campus, the students would gather at a Burger King. Then a church bus would pick everyone up and drive them to youth group. So at my mom’s insistence, I tried it one night. As I’m sitting in Burger King, this lady walks in. And she’s like, “Hey, are you getting on the bus?” And I’m like, “Yeah … who are you?”

Clayton Ganziano with Student Ministries Director, Meredith Domanico.

Well, she was Meredith Domanico, who’s now here at First Free (director of Student Ministries). She had just become the youth pastor, and she caught me totally off guard. So in my head I’m thinking: Just go away. Just go away. C’mon, more people come in, because then she’ll go talk to you instead.

But after that first night, I felt like it was a place where I wanted to be. There was this wave of people saying, “I see you and I want to know who you are.” That was a brand-new experience for me. At our previous church, my family had grown up there, so everybody knew who I was. But a lot of people didn’t actually know me. People didn’t take the next step in trying to find out who I was. They just assumed, “Well, I know your family, so I know who you are.”

 

What changed about your faith after that?

I lived a large part of my early life thinking I needed to know all the answers. So when my friends would ask me, “How do you know God is real?” I needed to know the answer. And if I didn’t, I thought I would look like a fool and I wouldn’t win them over.

Heartbeat meets mid-week to play games, worship and study God’s Word together.

I had all the head knowledge. My church growing up emphasized knowing the Bible – and I know that’s extremely important. That’s what I’m trying to communicate to students today, how important that is. But at a point for me, I thought I knew everything, but I didn’t understand at all what it meant. I could tell you the gospel, but I didn’t know what it meant to live it out.

I don’t want to live my life like that, as if other people’s faith and eternal destination depends on whether I know all the answers. The question actually is, am I open to journey with other people? I would always ask our leaders questions and they didn’t always have the answers. I appreciated the genuineness of somebody looking at me and saying, “That’s actually a really good question. I don’t know the answer. I have my thoughts. But why don’t we together look at this? Let’s open Scripture, let’s go in prayer, and actually sit and process this question.”

 

How did that experience inform your ministry today?

Students come to me or our leaders with questions now, and a lot of times we could give them answers. That’s great, but that’s not real for me. I didn’t sit in that process of discovery and learning.

I don’t want this just to be a place where they know Bible trivia or they can recite Scripture. Those are good things. But if that is all we are going for, then what’s the point? I want them to be able to truly wrestle with: What does this look like for me? What does this look like in my life? And then to really make their faith their own.

 

Is there a main impression you want students to have when they attend Heartbeat?

I know there are so many students who go to school and they feel like nobody sees them, nobody notices them. And there is this desire to have friends and be part of a community. What does that look like for us to take intentional steps for them to do that together?

Clayton Ganziano teaches Heartbeat middle school students during their mid-week gathering.

I want every student who comes through our doors to know that they are loved. That’s a need they already know about. They want to be in places that love them and accept them. Not, We love you once you do this, or accept this, or believe this.

I want this to be an easy on-ramp for them to invite their friends from school. Not necessarily to Wednesday nights, but to their small group — for them to find a place as friends that they can actually belong, too.

And I want students to be comfortable asking questions. I tell my students every time, if there’s something I said onstage tonight that makes no sense to you, come talk to me. Or ask your leader in your small group. If a student says, “OK, you just said this and it doesn’t make sense,” that really excites me because I know they were listening.

 

What have you been tinkering with, format-wise?

Previously the kids were split up by age and gender. This year I wanted to mix it up a little. I’ve heard from past classes: “I know who the girls are, but I don’t really know them. I don’t feel comfortable talking with them.”

I want to see a group that isn’t founded on a friend group here or a friend group there, cliquing up. Like, our guys are really close together and our girls are really close together but they don’t know how to cross over. I want it to be a group that knows you can know and love somebody without it being, Oh, you’re my girlfriend if I talk to you.

Obviously there will be some topics where we do put the girls together and the guys together. We do have clear boundaries on certain things. But, looking at the rest of their lives, they’re not going to live segregated as guys and girls. There is such a bigger understanding of things.

 

OK, the predictable question here: Could this approach lead to romantic relationships that kids may not be ready for?

From my experience, I think that was even stronger when they separated the guys and girls more. The more they separated us, the more we questioned why. Who are they?

I want to get to a normal where it’s OK to go talk to a girl or a guy. You don’t just talk to a girl or a guy because you want to date them. It’s OK to have a friend of the opposite sex. Just because I go talk to you doesn’t mean I’m interested in trying to date you or marry you one day. I just want to know who you are.

And I see that in our students. Some are a little flirty and we know those kids. But for a lot of students, they just want to get to know people. I don’t want to have to be shy or weird around you because you’re a guy or a girl. I want them to get a better idea of what it looks like to respect the other. For our guys, what does it look like to actually be a friend and be a gentleman to the girls?

 

Now with some staff shuffling, you’ve taken on the Rooted ministry as well. What’s your focus there?

My hope is for our community to be a place for college-age students and young adults to come and take ownership of their faith. Many people, myself included, grew up in the church living out their family’s faith. But then in these crucial years of beginning to live on your own, you can truly learn, refine and own your faith. We want to be a space where people can come and ask real questions and then journey into those together as a community.

 

Rooted college/young-adult ministry meets every Tuesday in the lower level of the main campus.

 

What are you learning so far?

We all come in with everything we have learned from our families and home churches. We can bring these different perspectives not to change others or prove others wrong, but for better learning. I can only grow when I hear, see and experience others’ views — not just by sitting in things I already believe or by listening to people who think exactly like me.

 

Seems like you could do some easy research by asking the Rooted group what worked and didn’t work for them back in junior high.

One of my questions is always, “What was your youth group experience like? What things have you held on to, and what things do you say ‘That was just traumatizing. I’m trying to forget that’?

A lot of them have shared: The best things, biggest and fondest memories weren’t from a big event night or even retreats. It was just moments, whether scheduled or unscheduled, just being together. There was one youth pastor or one leader who was so committed, just inviting us over to their house or to do things together. And that is the picture I’m holding now in my mind of what true community looks like.

It’s not about bigger, better events. It’s not about making my teaching the most crazy with so many examples or whatever, it’s about the moments where they were affirmed, that they had friends and a place to belong. That they were seen. They were heard. Those are the things that they remember most. So then those are the things that I want to put a lot of our time into.

 

Is there a bottom line for you in ministry?

What I want for our students is to get to a point that, I know that Jesus is real. I know the things he said and the things he has done for me are real, because I have seen and experienced first-hand his followers, his people, living that same thing out to me.

I know I’m here because of people like Meredith and my other leaders back in that youth group — people who didn’t just understand this whole Jesus thing, but made it real. And they allowed me to have that same experience. They just loved me and cared for me. I know Jesus is real because I saw his disciples do that work in my life.

 

Clayton’s Favorites

Music: The Starbucks playlist on Spotify. It’s good music that you can listen to and get work done at the same time. That’s when I listen to music the most is when I’m writing or putting together a message.

Movie: Star Wars

TV show: Parks & Recreation

Food: Pizza (what else would I say as a middle school leader?)

Vacation place: Colorado. I love the mountains.