First Free Rockford book spotlight recommendation header image

What’s that you’re reading?

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.

 

Women’s Retreat: A Closer look

First Free Rockford’s Women’s Retreat, “Closer,” starts Friday evening, Oct. 25, and ends at noon Sunday, Oct. 27. The site is Fox Valley Christian Action’s Riverwoods Family Campus near St. Charles. Register here. Registration deadline is this Sunday, Oct. 13.

We spoke with retreat coordinator Brandy Pardee.

 

What has your own spiritual journey looked like over the past few years?

I got to a point where I had been doing all the things that were recommended for a Christian to follow Jesus. Good things. Serving regularly, attending church regularly, doing a Bible study. Heck, I had my Bible degree. I married a pastor. All those things. But at the end of the day, I didn’t see lasting and real transformation.

Over a period of time … I finally just said, I’m still angry. I’m still prideful. I still go on this cycle all the time, trying to repent or do better. I get caught up in my own pride and performance and ego. There has to be a different way. If I’m supposed to do all these things, and this is how they make me feel, I don’t really want to do them.

Brandy Pardee and her family.

I also saw a disconnect among Christians. What we were supposed to act like — deeply caring for and loving one another and actually walking it out — wasn’t happening. We’d go to church and I’d come home angry and sad. I felt worse, and more shallow and unseen.

So after my oldest son, Teigen, was born, and I was changing diapers and tired all the time, I just said, God, if you are really alive and active and if you are who you say you are, you either need to show yourself or I’m ready to peace out. This isn’t worth it anymore.

 

So what happened?

A big, defining verse for me then was in Luke Chapter 1, where it says of Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Ultimately I just started to filter everything through a new lens: If he really is this, then I either choose to live this way and believe it, or not. So we just continued to press into living what we felt like were the ways of Jesus. That led me to become part of a spiritual formation community. I went on four retreats over the course of a year. Ultimately the Lord showed himself. He is alive and active, and he began to take me to those deeper places to breathe life and security in me for just being loved. I realized I don’t have to serve or do another thing for the rest of my life in order for God to love me.

 

What were those retreats like?

Ladies from First Free recently gathered to pray for the women’s retreat and practice some spiritual disciplines together.

Authentic, transparent community and mentors. We could go deep and talk about what was really going on. The retreats were about new or deeper ways of looking at who God is and what it looks like to walk that out with the Spirit. And then embracing so much more of a contemplative posture: solitude, silence, stillness.

Some of it was just practice and encouragement from people to just sit and linger. I’d pray something like, I’m just going to sit here and I’m asking you to make me more aware of your love. And maybe that was my prayer for a whole week. Over time my eyes started to adjust. I could see it. He was just moving all of that great, true, biblical head stuff into my heart.

 

What’s your hope for this upcoming Women’s Retreat?

We want it to be a time where women can come and encounter the Lord, encounter others and just have space for the weekend to be exactly what they want or need it to be. Maybe it is just a great, soaking time through worship and being in the Word.

It’s so great to get away from normal routines, habits, pressures, expectations … what we know as familiar. That might feel a little uncomfortable or even a little shaky or risky, but I think it helps open us up to being aware of things that we’re not normally aware of — like the Lord’s voice or presence.

 

What might be transformational about the weekend?

Knowing that I am not only fully known, but also fully accepted and loved. If I were just fully known, that would feel really risky and produce shame or guilt or fear. But the fact that I am fully accepted, while being fully known, grounds me in that deep place of being rooted and grounded in his love.

It’s about embracing both of those and opening yourself to God’s truth and his presence. That’s very different than just trying to attain Bible knowledge or perform as a Christian. It has allowed me to be real with my shortcomings – my ego, my pride, all of those things that I am not proud of. But it’s also allowing me to come into his gentle tenderness where he meets me and ultimately says, I love you so much right now, where you are, but I’m not going to leave you right there. We’re going to keep walking that out.

 

•••

Register for the retreat here. If cost is prohibitive, scholarships are available!

Floral illustrations by Emily Anderson, 2019.

 

Acts series: The church then … and now

Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke UranA new sermon series, focusing on the book of Acts, starts Sunday, Oct. 6. We spoke with Lead Pastor Luke Uran about this series, which will run through January 2020.

 

Why Acts? Why now?

As I was praying through the preaching calendar for the upcoming year, one of the books that kept coming to mind was Acts — the work that the Holy Spirit does through the early church, and the way that the church back then was truly a movement. It was growing and healthy and full of life. That’s not to say the church can’t be like that today. But I also look at the early church and think it looks very different than it does today.

 

Do you think today’s American church typically misses something in this book?

We tend to think, “That was the church then. Those kinds of things aren’t for the church now.” And yet the same Spirit that indwelled the church then indwells us now. The disciples preached, taught, healed and showed the love of God in schools, homes, marketplaces, roads, courtrooms, streets, hills and even on ships. Wherever God sent them, lives were changed. Now it’s our turn.

 

What do you want the takeaway value of this series to be for our congregation?

Three main things. One, to have a better understanding of the birth and the growth of the church. Two, to know that we, too, have been given a mission like the early church to go and make disciples. And three, to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in the church.

 

Luke wrote the book of Acts very methodically, and yet at the end of chapter 28 he just kind of stops in the middle of a story. What do you make of that?

We are still living between that 28th chapter and Christ’s glorious return. It’s very open-ended — almost like Luke is saying, “OK, write your own ending.” As a church, our mission is to bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ. Our vision is to go, tell and show the love of Christ in the city of Rockford and around the world. Those statements drive home that the 29th chapter of Acts is us.

 

What would you suggest as a quick way for someone to get a big-picture view of Acts?

The Bible Project has two animated videos that take you through the whole book in about 8 minutes each. We even showed these to some of our staff as we started thinking and praying through developing this series.

 

Any suggested reading to go along with this series?

There’s a seven-day Scripture reading plan from the Bible app themed around The Forgotten God by Francis Chan. We’re doing this one in our Life Group. It doesn’t focus specifically on Acts, but on the Holy Spirit.

Also, The Spirit-Filled Life by Dr. Charles F. Stanley. This is one of my recommended books available in The Scroll Resource Center.

And then of course you can read ahead for the coming Sunday’s sermon. The weekly email sent on Thursdays always contains the sermon preview and text.

Fall forests: A few places to lose yourself

A few lesser-known places in and around Rockford where you can take a quiet walk in the woods this fall:

Atwood Park

Atwood is 334 acres of forest, marsh and prairie along the Kishwaukee River near New Milford, with hiking and biking trails. The trail system eventually will grow to about 20 miles on both sides of the river. Atwood Park is also the site of the former Camp Grant artillery range.
Brian Wahl says: 
“Atwood park holds a very special place in my heart. It’s a true hidden gem in the area. I’ve been hiking out there since I was in high school, and now I take my kids there. Not only are there great hiking trails and different ecosystems to explore, but there’s also great history there with the remnants of Camp Grant, and the CCC and of course the unique Birds of Prey exhibit. If you time your visit right, you may even be lucky enough to catch a feeding.”

Severson Dells

Severson Dells Nature Center on Montague Road offers a 2.5-mile, self-guided nature trail. The 369-acre forest preserve provides habitat to more than 180 species of native and migrating birds. You can even register for a free, naturalist-guided Fall Color Walk on Oct. 24.
Jessica McDonald says:
“Severson Dells is a gift. A pocket of quiet, an oasis of calm. In a day where we live with so many dings, beeps and whistles, it’s hard to come by a place, even outside, where one can hear the birds or the rustle of leaves. Severson Dells offers that to me. The Lord’s creation speaks to me deeply and to have a place to steal away and to be able to focus my thoughts, prayers and senses deeply refreshes my whole being. Bill Watterson conveys this so perfectly through his good-natured and thoughtful character Hobbes, when he says to Calvin, “Every minute outside and awake, is a good minute.”

Nygren Wetlands

The Carl and Myrna Nyrgren Nygren Wetland Preserve, just west of Rockton, is a 721-acre floodplain near the confluence of the Rock and Pecatonica rivers. The amount of wildlife here is astounding, especially during spring and fall bird migrations. Hiking the 2.5-mile main trail you might see bald eagles, sandhill cranes, egrets, white pelicans, bluebirds, otters, beavers, muskrats, turtles, deer, foxes and minks.
Dave Hugdahl says:
“Nygren Wetlands is a great place to experience God’s wonderful world. In addition to the wildlife, there are beautiful fields of natural prairie grass and wildflowers. There are times when I have been there and not experienced much wildlife, but there is something about being surrounded by God’s glorious creation that settles the soul and draws you closer to him.”

Piscasaw Fen

Illinois once had 22 million acres of prairie full of tall grass and wildflowers. Today there’s barely any … but habitat restoration projects are happening around the state. If you want to see one up close, visit the Piscasaw Fen Conservation area east of Poplar Grove off Edson Road. Non-native plants are being systematically removed and hiking trails have been cut through the 177 acres of prairie, wetlands and oak savanna. Note: The area closes for hunting several weekends in late October and November, so check before you go.
Jim Killam says:
“My parents’ farm is adjacent to the Piscasaw Fen, so I grew up exploring this area when it was cow pasture. Today it’s a walk back in time to when most of Illinois was prairies, forests, wetlands and oak savannas. You’ll find quiet solitude here and be immersed in the restoration of creation.”

Photo: Jim Killam

Reuben Aldeen Park

Hidden in plain sight at 623 North Alpine Road, the park offers 88 acres of maple and oak woodland, prairie and creek, right in the middle of town. An extensive system of trails — some paved — winds through 40 of those acres. Be careful of flooding, especially after this fall’s rains.
Tricia Magers says:
“Almost every day I get the opportunity to hike the trails from Spectrum School to Aldeen Park with my preschool class. When I am in the woods with my littles, I am given the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Where others see a dead log, they find life.  Where others see sadness in a fallen tree, they find joy in a new place to climb. On my worst days, my heart becomes full as they show me the way the water flows under the frozen creek, or point out the way the vines grow to create a hiding place, or when they notice the flattened prairie grass where the deer have recently been sleeping. It is an incredible thing that I get the opportunity to spend my days in the park with little people who always have joy for life from the juiciest worm, the slimiest slug or the puffiest mushroom.”
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Walk in the woods

By Jessi Uran

I rummage through an old backpack in the trunk of my car. What a mess back here. Camping blankets, a few bins to take to Goodwill. Ah, there it is. I grab my fleece that was resting on a piece of “art” I purchased weeks ago at Home Goods. The red clearance sticker is still stuck in the upper right-hand corner, half peeled from when I impatiently tried to scratch it off. The quote that enticed me, centered over an image of faded trees, reads:

“Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

That’s John Muir. Naturalist and conservationist. Father of our national parks. A life devoted, as one biographer put it, to “saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.”

All a little easier said than done, John, I whisper, shoving the Home Goods bag to the side. Home Goods. A store designed to keep my attention anywhere but on the woods.

I check my wallet for some extra change. Enough for a cup of coffee later. I didn’t dare make coffee at home. The plaster walls of our “house with charm” would send the caustic whirr of grinding beans through every wooden floorboard and wake my sleeping family. It’s not that I don’t want to see or talk to them yet, I told myself. But it’s also just that I don’t want to see or talk to them yet.

I shut the trunk and fill the tank. The early hour is quiet and still but already my mind and heart are loud and harried. Any onlooker would see a middle-aged woman pumping gas. But inside? Inside is a mind marathon of Olympic proportions. Pathways and synapses have been engrained to quickfire as soon as my feet hit the floor. Such well-worn paths. Circuits paved by unbridled worry and the weighty responsibilities of all the things I feel I must DO.

Set up calendar meeting … review budget deadline … print recipe … make grocery list … set up oil change … cancel subscription … catch up on podcast … RSVP to invite … email back … text back … call back … catch up on study … look up weather.

Sixties and overcast. Good. Hiking in the heat is a discipline all its own. This morning is a welcome respite to the humid tem-

The gas pump handle pops. Tank’s full. I finish, turn the key and drive. The radio is on, but I don’t really hear it. I’m listening to something else, a station I never remember tuning to and that most days I forget to shut off. It continually emits frequencies like: thaw the chicken … dust the fans … order the checkbooks … prepare the lesson … bleach the toilet.

Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

• • • 

Twenty-five minutes later, I park … and marvel that I’ve arrived at yet another location where I don’t remember the process of getting there. While I gather my keys, I argue with myself about whether to make a veggie tray for a staff function or buy one. Which commodity is more important, time or money?

Then I open the car door.

A strong, fall breeze whips strands of hair across my face. I inhale the aroma of dirt and decaying leaves. I am snapped out of my veggie platter trance. The scent of the woods acts as a smelling salt to my psyche.

I breathe again, eyes closed. Another strong gust of wind. I zip up my fleece and the burr oaks overhead clap their leaves in rippled waves. The bending trees beckon me to the trail covered in moss and acorns and scattered leaves. I smile.

Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

• • •

The birds are wide awake this morning. They call to one another and share languages I do not know. I pick up a leaf. Veiny and battered. I think of my high school biology teacher.

Mr. Beckman always struck me as an odd sort of man, with a belly round and taut against the same style button-up oxford shirt he wore every day. Teaching at a private school was no lucrative job to be sure. And while he was constantly writing up students and sending them to after-school detention, he did possess a certain charm. He loved what he taught. And he tried to love us best by teaching us to be fellow learners.

“I’m not going to spoon feed you this information for the test,” he’d always say. “You’re going to need to glean it yourselves. Nowadays everything is spoon fed to kids. Far be it from me to do the same.”

I never took him too seriously back then. But now—36 on a fall morning and remembering things from 10th grade biology class—well, he wasn’t so odd at after all.

I walk beneath a canopy of trees and remember my old notebook, littered with countless drawings and diagrams Mr. Beckman would have us make. I see the maple leaf and remember its food-making process. How most everything the tree needs for food is made in the cells of a leaf, all of which contain chlorophyll that gives them their green pigment. My mind retrieves more old files: factors like daylight, temperature and water tell the tree winter is coming, so its leaves know to conserve their energy and stop making food. This ceasing production of chlorophyll starts showcasing other pigments within the leaf. I even recall the “leaf scar,” where each stem seals itself off from the tree and allows the leaf to drop rather than require any further nutrients.

A fellow hiker approaches. I can see from a distance that he is older. Binoculars swing from his neck and he uses a walking stick. His pace slows as he approaches, so I slow mine. We smile, say hello and exchange ritualistic pleasantries about the cooling weather. He remarks what a “fine morning we’ve been given” and tells me to look out on the trail ahead. “Lots of mud from all the rains,” he says.

All the rains. I think on this as we part.

• • •

Last week, Ellen told me about the specific types of trees here at Severson Dells. She is a strong-hearted woman, with kind eyes and silvery gray-and-white hair, most often tucked under a bandana. Ellen was the director for my daughter’s nature camp this summer. She does not know this, but because she encouraged my daughter’s imagination, taught her about plants and bugs and sent her home to me with dirt under her fingernails and waterlogged creek shoes, I harbor great love for her.

I asked her what kinds of color we would get this autumn. She wasn’t sure. She’s seen a lot of leaves simply dropping already, or turned brown. She said it had to do with the amount of stress they’ve been under this year.

Stress?

Indeed. Over the past year they’ve experienced great extremes–times of intense, dry heat and times of heavy rain that has left them waterlogged. She spoke of last year’s polar vortex and how no blanket of snow for insulation meant the roots took the brunt of the elements.

I look at the trees above me now. I see golds and reds, but also lots of browns. Dead leaves are scattered on the ground everywhere.

So often I have come here in fall, expecting golds and coppers and rubies to be thrown at my feet, a fiery splendor all for my own visual entertainment. But Ellen tells me of a barren beauty that I did not expect. The trees know they have neither the energy nor the luxury of time to end food production slowly. They know what needs to happen in order to preserve and protect. They must let go. And in so doing, they do not apologize for their barrenness or their scars.

• • • 

Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

I’ve walked the trails now for near an hour?

It is hard to say.

Time moves differently here.

I tread steadily past

Shagbark hickory, hackberry and black cherry

White oak, burr oak

Black walnut.

Lost in the poetry of their names,

I revel in their company.

I owe them nothing

other than that I am simply here.

To BE.

• • •

In this restful, breathing state, I find myself back at the car. Every hike seems to end too soon.

I hold my coffee now and sit near the espresso machine. The shop door opens often. Friends exchange hellos. A man pours over a newspaper. The drink is warm in my hand and tastes like flowers and chocolate when I sip it slowly. Why have I never noticed this before? My comings and goings here are so rushed between pick-ups, drop-offs or scheduled meetings. What else have I been missing?

I watch people come and go and feel the pull back to my own world. I cannot live in the woods like John Muir any more than I can live in coffee shops like Hemingway. But this pull is not unwelcome. I’m returning as someone different than when I set out.

My family greets me in the driveway with hugs and tales of their daddy/daughter pancake date. My leaving now and then is just as good for them as it is for me.

Before heading inside, I pop the trunk and grab the picture frame.

After a little dish soap and patience, the clearance sticker is gone.

I hang Muir’s words next to our bathroom sink.

 

I understand them a little better now.

• • •

Photos by Jim Killam


Want to take a special hike or two this fall? We have recommendations.

 

 

Life, community and … vegetables?

For Philip and Kelli Anderson, the mission field has never felt more real. A decade ago, they returned from missionary work in Africa to start Anderson Organics on Philip’s parents’ farm. It hasn’t turned out exactly as they envisioned; a 2010 tornado made sure of that, destroying the barn they had envisioned as a church. But God has still used what seemed at first like a crazy idea to build community and make disciples. To Philip and Kelli, the agricultural setting feels like it leaped off the pages of Scripture.

We visited the Andersons’ farm near Loves Park to talk about ministry, community and calling. As we recorded the interview, we all realized this was a holy moment. Watch the videos and you’ll see why. 


Anderson Organics received a Jeremiah Fund grant from First Free Rockford. Wait until you see what they bought with the money, and what an encouragement the grant was to Philip and Kelli.


What should you do when you have an outside-the-box idea for ministry? Philip and Kelli Anderson offer wise words based on their own experience.