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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.




Wrestling with a masterpiece

A writer crumples under the weight of Handel’s Messiah, until …

By Jessi Uran 

What on earth was I thinking? I can’t write this.

I stared at the computer screen for what seemed like the 50th time in three weeks. I’d scribbled research notes on three different pages and formed five different outlines, only to fill a garbage can with what I emphatically told my husband was “mediocre rubbish, not worthy of a garbage can.” (Dramatic much?)

Writer’s block is not uncommon for me. But this was different. It was less of a block and more of an unscalable, cement wall. The task was simple, really: Write about Handel’s Messiah. I could take it any direction I wanted and write in whatever form. There were no expectations, no criteria. Just a deadline.

Autographed composition draft of ‘Amen Chorus’ from British Library Treasures

Not only did my father used to play Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season on our family’s living room stereo, but I also had heard it performed live last year, in the annual concert by the Rockford Choral Union. Listening to the product of their countless hours of practice and dedication had left an indelible mark. To begin, there seemed no more festive way to usher in the season of Advent than in the reverent architecture of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Experiencing history in this way, with people young and old, and hearing the scriptural account in such grandeur was awe-inspiring.

The concert left me with a conviction: In a somewhat disciplinary way, I need to carve time to sit, listen and behold the wonder of Immanuel. At Christmas, ironically, the act of sitting and listening often gets lost in all the things there are to do. Deep joy came from spending an afternoon doing nothing other than marveling corporately at the story of the Savior.

And then a moment of … what?! During a Part 2 tenor solo from Lamentations — “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow” — a woman up the aisle from me decided to clip all 10 fingernails. At the same instant, a man four rows up raised his hands in complete rapture. I judged Madame Fingernails immediately, but days later I began to wonder: How many awe-deserving things do I treat just as flippantly?

All of this musing swirled uncategorized for the past year, until at our writers meeting a few weeks ago we tossed around the idea of a Thanksgiving-week piece about George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. My reaction was the equivalent of a grade school, “Ooh, me! Ooh, pick me, pick me!”

When they did, I had already started formulating it.

“Fantastic! There are a couple of different directions I might go. I’m so excited!”

• • •

Weeks later, nothing. I walked away from the computer and put on another pot of coffee. As if caffeine will make the writing flow. If that were the case, I’d have written an entire issue of The New Yorker by now. I could still hear my writing mentor’s words over the phone when I expressed the nervousness taking over: “Don’t freak out about this. You don’t have to actually write Handel’s Messiah. You are just going to write about it. Don’t overthink it.”

Wise words. Deaf ears. Seven drafts and two weeks later, there I sat. Freaking out and overthinking were about the only things I was accomplishing. The more I tried to convey the glory of the piece … the more I tried to attain the level of sanctity or the loftiness of topics like art and beauty … the further paralyzed I became.

Handel wrote the entire oratorio in 24 days. 24 DAYS! You’ve been at one article longer than that! What is WRONG with you?!

I glanced at my notes, hoping maybe to catch a spark, anything that could produce the spectacle I had built in my mind. The top page of my research, in bold letters, expressed Handel’s description of his artistic process in 1741.

“I felt as though I saw all of heaven opened up before me.”

I threw my pen down.

Good for you, Handel. Good. For. You. Because I’ve shown up here every day and have done the work but all I see opened before me is a blank Word document with a blinking cursor and a pile of dishes in the sink.

• • • 

“Looks like you’re being too hard on yourself.”

My husband kissed my furrowed brow and carried our daughter upstairs to bed. He was right, of course. My 4-year-old never has thoughts that she isn’t hitting the mark. In fact, days before she had run to me with a drawing of a rainbow and flowers and proclaimed, “Look! It’s my masterpiece!”

I grabbed a fifth-grade level library book titled, The Life of Handel. I had checked it out with my daughter in a last-ditch effort for inspiration. As I turned each page and read about Handel’s childhood, his schooling, relationships and work, the realization hit me.

He was just a man.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

He was just a man! True, he was prolific and talented, but in my mind’s eye I had built him up as a saint, an artist who heard directly from the pipeline of heaven. My writing would need to emulate this, I thought. But in these pages of his everyday life? Not everything he touched turned to gold. So, if Handel didn’t put the Midas pressure on himself … why should I?

As this realization sunk deeper into my mind that night, pieces began to move. Words started to form. Light began to shine. So I typed the first thing I didn’t feel like throwing away all month. Just a few phrases, really, not nearly enough for an article. But it was a start.

Oh Lord. This I see.

Your Holiness desired to dwell amidst our sinfulness.

Perfect amidst the imperfect.

Whole amidst the broken.

We could not pave the way for you with any merit of our own. But nothing kept you at arm’s length, waiting until we attained something. You came down because you knew we could attain nothing.

This is what we celebrate and this why over all the world choirs sing.

Because on our own, we are just men and women.

But under the banner of risen Messiah …

We are pure as gold.

• • •

I closed the computer and went to bed. The next morning, my deadline still waited. But it seemed less weighty.

I know I am not alone in this battle of letting perfect be the enemy of good. It’s especially easy to succumb to worldly pressures at Christmas season: “Bring your best or bring it not at all!” But in the face of that, the true story of the redeemed is the opposite kind of cry. We hear the heart of our Savior call:

Bring me what you have and worry not about the rest.

So I did the work of editing and rewriting, but now with less self-loathing —entrusting the author and perfector of my faith to take what I had, and do with it what he wanted.

Handel said of Messiah, “I do not wish to entertain them, but to make them better.”

Two hundred seventy-eight years later, with dishes still in the sink, a writer wrestled with it all and was made better in a way she did not expect.

• • •

The Rockford Choral Union will perform Handel’s Messiah Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Six people from First Free are taking part. Here’s a closer look, and our interview with Conductor Michael Beert.

Featured image illustration by Nathan McDonald, based on painting by Philip Mercier.


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


Neighbor Songs: stirring stories of grace in community

I recently celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary with my wife, Jessica. We asked a friend who’s a chef to prepare a private meal for us. I also contributed by preparing a fantastic… mix tape. OK, OK. I’m not that cool. It was a Spotify playlist, and good thing it was. I had over 100 songs queued up to serenade us during the meal! But it was more than creating a mood to enhance our candle-lit evening. Each song marked a specific season or experience in our relationship, and stirred us to retell every story as they played.

Album cover for Neighbor Songs by The Porter's Gate

Album cover for Neighbor Songs

The Porter’s Gate worship project, founded by Isaac and Megan Wardell, seeks to do that for the church: write songs that connect with our life experiences and communities, and stir up our stories as God’s family. In 2017, they released a collaborative album titled Work Songs that focuses on worship and vocation. Last month, they released their second project titled Neighbor Songs—another collection of songs focused on loving our neighbor as ourselves.


Songs for a troubled world

When age-old questions like what does it means to love my neighbor? and who is my neighbor? have made frequent appearances in our sermons, studies and conversations, Neighbor Songs marks this important time and invites us back into the scriptures and teachings of Jesus on these matters.

The opening track, Blessed are the Merciful, sets the stage with portions of the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer that lifts into a soaring petition for God’s mercy on us and through us. Following is Nothing to Fear, a beautiful duet by Audrey Assad and Paul Zach that carries Jesus’ promise to never leave us nor forsake us as we seek to follow him and make him known in our troubled world.


An unexpected diversity

As the album plays on, you quickly notice the diversity of artists and musical styles. The writing and arrangements express a variety of genres: traditional folk, Americana, indie-pop and Gospel—as well as some unexpected styles like neoclassical and ranchera. The musicians range from established artists such as Leslie Jordan (All Sons & Daughters), Josh Garrels and Audrey Assad to emerging artists like Casey J and Diana Gameros, who sings two of the songs in Spanish.

This diversity goes even deeper. Neighbor Songs was the result of an ecumenical gathering of songwriters, theologians, pastors and music professionals. The same happened for their freshman project Work Songs. It speaks to The Porter’s Gate’s effort to bring diverse voices and perspectives to the same table centered around the good news of Jesus Christ.

When so much of modern worship music is driven by the pursuit of the next congregational hit, centered on one particular artist, worship style or megachurch brand, the community-driven approach of The Porter’s Gate is both refreshing and needed. It serves as a subversive model for our creative endeavors in the church to help cut through our tendency to get stuck in one narrative stream. It begins with a posture of listening, of learning.


Teach us your ways

Maybe this is part of how we answer the question about loving our neighbor: it is the result of practicing it among ourselves. We come to our Lord’s table as sisters and brothers to listen and to learn. The song that struck me the most from Neighbor Songs was the simplest on the album. Here’s the opening verse from Teach Us Your Ways, sung by Leslie Jordan:

Teach us Your ways, teach us Your ways
As we learn from one another
Learn to love each other
Teach us Your ways

These words and songs will serve our communities well as we learn to walk alongside each other in the way of Jesus, responding with our lives to the question what does it mean to love my neighbor? And just like my wife and I retold the stories connected to our playlist of songs, there will be a day when the eternal Song of Grace stirs up the stories of our lives and our neighbors’ lives at the banquet feast of our Lord.

Also: See our early Christmas music recommendations titled Christmas music: candy canes and lumps of coal.


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.


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.


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.


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.”