The First Time
A couple of months ago, Jackie and I joined The Church of The Highlands, here in Birmingham. Highlands (for short) was the fastest growing church in the country in 2008. There is one main campus and three satellite churches, with membership totaling in the neighborhood of 12,000 people! Staggering numbers, I know. Your first thought, as was mine, may have been that with so many people, the sense of church community and fellowship would be almost nonexistent.
Nothing could be farther from the truth! You see, within those 12,000 people are over 800 small groups devoted to developing a deeper relationship in Christ through fellowship with, you guessed it, other Christians!
Never having participated in a church group, much less having hosted one, Jackie and I decided nonetheless to do exactly that this summer. Actually, it was my idea, and my dear wife graciously agreed to my notion of “diving right in” at Highlands.
For the summer session, the church was making it easy for us novices; each week’s topic for small group discussion would be based on that Sunday’s message. I figured, “How wrong could we go? The church sets the topic of the day. They give us a DVD for our group to watch along with a few suggested questions to spark conversation. Cue the DVD. Discuss it. Share ideas. What do we have to lose?”
On Tuesday, June 9th we sped home after work to prepare for our first small group meeting at 6:30. Though neither of us would admit it, Jackie and I were both a bit nervous. We were relatively new to the church, didn’t know that many people, didn’t know what we were doing, and didn’t know if anyone would show up!
That first night we there were eight of us, and it proved to be an amazing evening of sharing thoughts about friends, life, and of course, God. We’ve had three meetings since that first night, and attendance has ranged from a low of four to a high of ten. Small groups has been an unbelievable experience…
That first week’s focus was on friends, and the role that they can play in our lives. This topic really laid the groundwork for sharing in our small group, and by the end of our gathering an hour and a half later, I already felt a bond with every person in the room. I’d like to go into more detail about the evening, but I’ll save it for a later date. I want to move on to week two, which is actually the focus of this week’s post.
Week two was all about the need for us to be bold in our faith, as in sharing the news of God’s goodness and His Word with others. As you may have already guessed, this is one of my favorite topics!
There’s something that I offered to our group that night, and I want to do the same with you right now…
Sharing my faith and talking openly about God was really hard for me to do at first. I was afraid of what people would think of me, how they would react to me. I mean, how do you start a conversation about God with someone that you don’t know without sounding like a “Jesus Freak?” (Well, I am a freak for Jesus, but that’s beside the point!) I think that for some of us, even the idea of talking openly to a friend about Jesus wouldn’t be so easy to do.
I remember the first time that I shared my belief in God with someone; the first time that I gave “witness” to His goodness…
In January of 2005 Jackie and I joined a new health and wellness facility that had opened near our home. It was there that I met a young lady (I’ll call her Lauren) who was employed as a fitness counselor. Lauren was actually one of the first staff members that I met. Her outlook was always so positive and encouraging that she would make me forget about the pain I was in when I’d finished my workout! Oh, and did I mention that she always wore a smile that would light up any room? We became fast friends, and I always looked forward to seeing her two or three times a week.
Over the course of the next few months, I sensed that something was wrong with Lauren. That ever-present smile wasn’t always present, and she just didn’t exude that warmth that I had grown accustomed to.
One evening, at the risk of being too personal, I asked Lauren if she was okay, or if there was anything that I could help her with. Fighting back tears, she told me that she was going through a divorce, and she was really having a rough time. She wasn’t worried so much for herself as she was for the mental state of her two young sons. Having gone through a divorce when my sons were twelve and nine, I could identify with her concerns. As she was sharing her situation with me, confiding in me, my heart was breaking for her and I desperately searched for something, anything that would ease her mind.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m no psychologist, counselor, or authority on handling personal problems. In fact, I remember feeling uneasy that day as she was confiding in me, looking to me for help…but not for the reasons that you might think. I was humbled that this young lady would turn to me for guidance, and I was disappointed in myself that I didn’t have anything beyond “I’m sorry.” to offer in return for her trust.
…the “inner me” was screaming…at me!
I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t have the guts to say it. Putting aside my conventional ways of thinking, I looked directly in Lauren’s eyes and asked, “Do you believe in God?” Her response was short and to the point: “Yes, why?”
For the next few minutes Lauren and I were engaged in a deep conversation about God. Well, I was doing the talking, and she was doing the listening. And I have to be truthful with you; for the first few minutes I told Lauren what I thought she needed to hear.
Ask God to help you, and He will… God will give you strength… He will take care of you and your boys…God is so good; He will help you get through all of this…His love for us is unending…He is the Ultimate Father
Then I began giving Lauren a condensed version of my adult life, recalling the highs and lows of the previous three decades. And as I recounted all of the rough spots, the tough times in my life, something amazing happened.
How can I best explain this to you?
I said that at first I told Lauren what she needed to hear…all those things about God. What I didn’t tell you was that I really didn’t feel what I said about God; I was conveying things to her that had been told to me by others, like my Dad and Mom. I don’t know that I really believed what I was saying…
As I shared some of my darker hours with Lauren, I began to realize that God had been right there with me through them all…holding me up, giving me strength, filling me with enough of Him to survive. He had been, for my entire life, all that I had described to Lauren, and more. And until that particular moment in time, I had never really known it…and I had never thanked Him. Later that night I was on my knees doing exactly that.
For the next several weeks I would check on Lauren’s progress whenever I saw her. We talked about God all the time. Lauren would go on to enroll for a class that would prepare her to join the Catholic Church, which she eventually did. The last time I saw Lauren she told me that she was working at one of the Catholic schools here in Birmingham, and was blissfully happy with her new life and her relationship with God. Her boys were doing “great.” And that smile? It was back, and more beautiful than ever!
All of this happened during the first six months of 2005.
Aw, come on…you should know by now that I don’t believe in coincidences!
In August of 2005, just a couple of months after I “got it” about God, and perhaps more importantly, spoke openly about His goodness, I awoke one morning determined to change the path of my life. (See A Seed Was Planted page) Fear had been replaced by courage, indecision had been replaced by confidence, and doubt had been replaced by faith.
God smiled on me. My life has never been the same.
Be BOLD in sharing all that God had done for you and what He has been for you. Don’t think that He’s been there with you? Take a closer look; you may be surprised at what you see.
See you next Monday.