A Great Partner isn’t Enough for a Great Life

Second in a series on why to join a small group

In 1994, the year after we got married, my husband and I started a Christian small group. We’re still in the same group. Here’s why:

Years later, we still need our small group!

I was 32 when we decided to invite some friends to a weekly evening gathering, where we’d do a Bible study and pray for one another. I’d like to say my motivation was an abundance of holiness, but no, it was more – neediness.

I’d been married for a year, after more than ten years of wanting to be married, seeking and hoping and praying to be married. But after a year of being married, to the best of men, I was surprised to find myself lonely. All those rom coms had oversold romantic love. A husband wasn’t enough. A husband and God weren’t even enough. We needed something else.

We both had good families, and good jobs. We belonged to a strong church, had friends and hobbies. We traveled, we volunteered. Life was full, but we needed something else.

I found myself wanting my living room to be full of people who were walking the same path as Bill and I. People who were followers of Jesus, trying to be like Him in a culture that was pulling us towards selfishness, busyness and status. I wanted a large enough group to expand our perspectives, but small enough that we could tell each other about the junk in our lives and help each other with it.

We started with a couple we were good friends with, invited another couple who had just moved into town, and were soon joined by others.

I remember one of our first meetings, in the small apartment of the couple who had just moved into town. They’d come to Cincinnati to lead a campus ministry, which sounded cool to me, until I saw the plastic taped to their windows, and the government-donated cheese in their fridge. Not a lucrative field, campus ministry.

While the rest of us made more money than they did (we did end up among their financial supporters, by the way) we all had our own equally urgent needs of other kinds. It only took a few meetings to scratch through the veneer and start being real with each other.

We prayed together, for more money, more peace, more health, less fear, deeper understanding, greater love. We wrestled with Bible passages, seeing so many more facets of truth than we would have found on our own. Just talking about the things that were weighing us down lightened the loads.

The conclusion I’ve come to, after 29 years of marriage and 28 years of being in a small group, is that God is experienced in different ways when we’re alone, when we’re with a partner, when we’re with a small group, and when we’re part of a larger community. We need them all.

After our small group started, I knew I’d found what I needed. I wasn’t lonely any more. I had God, I had my husband and our full life but now I also had a safe group of people who would help us stay on the path we longed to walk.

Question for Reflection: What are some of your best group experiences, from any time of your life, in any type of group? What did it feel like?

Ten Ways Small Groups Can Save You

Churches are always trying to get people to join groups of eight to twelve people who meet regularly.

They call them ‘small groups’ or ‘growth groups’ or ‘house groups’. One church called them ‘lambs groups’, which I get the biblical symbolism of, but I can’t imagine guys who ride motorcycles or pump iron joining a ‘lambs group’. I would steer away from that one.

Church leaders know that if people just show up to services, or even volunteer, but don’t belong to a smaller friend group, they may not stick with their faith. These groups meet a number of needs – people get to know each other and develop friendships. They learn more about the Bible. They learn how to pray for each other, then seeing the prayers get answered draws them closer to God. They live out what they believe in good, supportive company.

Anyone who really believes in Jesus is swimming upstream in American culture. That’s just how it is, especially if you’re younger. Little in mainstream mass media, art or academia supports the truth of the Christian faith. No major network or streaming platform is putting money into stories told from a Christian world view. Even saying we believe anything is absolutely true makes us suspect – puts us in company with unhinged preachers and terrorists and people who preserve tons of peaches in preparation for the apocalypse.

So, if we’re going to stick it out as followers of Christ, we need authentic community. We need to be family for each other, minus the weird dynamics. On the path where Jesus is leading us, we need fellow travelers to urge us on, tell us good stories, share their trail mix, and pull us away from cliff edges.

Even when you’ve come to a careful, studied conclusion about what you believe, it’s hard to hang onto it unless the people around you believe it too. My small group, just by gathering together in Jesus’ name, reminds me of the reality that God is really with us. We share what we’re learning, how we’re changing, how prayers are being answered, and I leave bouyant. This is not how I would feel if I stayed home and watched “Fresh Fried and Crispy”.

I’ve had the honor of being in one of these groups for 28 years. I’m writing a series of ten posts on how it’s changed the course of my life, and what we do to help one another. I’ll also talk about some of our terrible mistakes, so you can avoid those. I’m hoping something I write will urge you towards joining or starting your own. Just don’t call it a lamb’s group.

Question for the Comments: Do you meet regularly with a group of people you really trust? If not, does that seem attractive, or not so much?

INSPIRING PEOPLE: Mitch Teemley

Mitch Teemley brings talent, goodness and integrity to the movie business. Our character comes through our creative work, and Mitch’s shimmers with faith and love. mitch-headshot

I knew the first time I spoke with him, years ago when he was hired to head up worship and arts at our church, that we were going to be blessed and changed by his decision to move with his family to Cincinnati from L.A.

We have been. Music, film, drama and visual art flourished under his leadership at College Hill Presbyterian church. When the recession hit our church and we had to cut staff, he stayed on as a member, which takes a largeness of heart! He went on to grow his production company, Moriah Media, making wonderful short films for church services and events.

 

Then, still in Cincinnati, he made the faith-based feature, Healing River, a gutsy story of forgiveness and redemption set in Cincinnati’s historic Over the Rhine district. It is now available on Amazon. Mitch and his wife Trudy promoted the film at  independent film festivals, where it won several awards.

His next feature, Notzilla, a Godzilla spoof, premiered in Cincinnati in January and is awaiting release.

All along his creative journey, in writing, composing, performing, teaching, and directing, Mitch has helped other people. This is clear when you read his terrific blog, “The Power of Story”; he often uses his large platform to promote other bloggers.

I know Mitch best as the leader of our College Hill Writers group. I have always admired how respectfully he gives feedback, never condescending no matter how flawed a piece of writing may be. One of my favorite memories is of a day when a lady visited the group and read a piece that only named objects. Most of us had no idea how to react, but Mitch, without missing a beat, said encouragingly, “Well, it sounds like what you have now is basically a list. If you want to turn it into a story, you’ll need to give it a beginning, a middle and an end.”

On the other hand, he gave others in the group much more challenging feedback, pushing them to up the stakes, make every sentence count, show not tell. He has great feedback for every skill level, kindly delivered.

I owe Mitch a large debt of gratitude. If it weren’t for his affirmation and guidance I may not have had the guts to write my first novel. My guess is there are many people who have known him who can make similar statements about how Mitch has challenged, encouraged and inspired them.

INSPIRING PEOPLE: Claire Snyder

It takes a while to realize how impressive Claire Snyder is because she does not draw attention to herself. This is so rare that I find it as inspiring as all the other cool things she does.

These include working as a dialysis img_20200128_175202nurse, mentoring and tutoring kids in a struggling school, running marathons, and going on medical mission trips. Every strength she has is poured out for other people.

The tenacity she gained from running is imparted to women recovering from addictions as she coaches them to run their first race. She is as happy with their victories as she is with her own.

 

img_20200508_111834She shares her lovely house and good cooking freely – taking meals to people who are sick, taking in an exchange student, hosting countless holidays and celebrations with a quiet, under-the-radar efficiency.

I am blessed to be her friend and the regular beneficiary of her noticing kindness. A few weeks ago when she was handing out food at our local school, she heard me telling someone I couldn’t find a mask, and my bandana kept slipping. The next time I saw her, she presented me with a beautiful mask she had sewn, in my favorite colors, reinforced with a little strip of metal that keeps it in place!img_20200421_093514

 

Claire is not adventurous for adventure’s sake. She has to overcome her own fears and self-doubts to do the brave things she does. But that is what is so inspiring – she pushes through those feelings, prays for power and follows Jesus into suffering and need. She brings wisdom, compassion, humor and healing, day after day.

I cannot tell you everything she does because no one knows! I usually find out from other people. Suffice to say that Claire embodies the care of God, with a constant stream of empathic, humble, focused service. Claire is the hidden treasure of her church and her community.

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Claire with her beautiful daughters, Elizabeth and Rebecca. Claire and her husband, Dave, lived in China for a year when the girls were little so they would understand the culture of the country where their daughters were born.

INSPIRING PEOPLE: Joe Brooks

Joe Brooks inspires me because he reminds me of Jesus. Not just because he has a beard. Not even because he was always the guy leading the resistant donkey down the ceter aisle of church on Palm Sunday.

Joe reminds me of Jesus because he has been following Jesus for a long time, and we begin to resemble those we love and imitate.

One of the main reasons Joe started coming to our church, College Hill Presbyterian, was that he and his wife Helen had a sense of call to racial reconciliation. When they first came, our church was almost entirely white.

Soon after Joe began attending many years ago, he had some tough experiences – like the time he put his hand out to the greeter at the door, and the guy would not shake hands with him. He turned away. That would have been the end of it for me, but Joe stayed because he knew God wanted him to stay. That’s another thing that makes Joe like Jesus; he forgives people when they’re mean and racist.

He has given so much to our church community – teaching, tutoring, leading men’s groups, helping with kids’ worship dance, serving twice as a deacon and as an elder, not to mention unofficial security guard whenever the situation calls for it! I’m so grateful for all he has been for us, and all he has done for us.

The family and friends of Joe and Helen Brooks have added considerably to the size of our church. I cannot imagine the place without them. They have eighteen grandchildren!

The other reason Joe reminds me of Jesus is how much he loves God. The love and truth of God is on his mind and on his heart, and he always eager to talk about God in a way that makes sense to his listener. If you ever get a chance to talk with him (when he doesn’t have a group of kids flocking around him) ask him what God is doing in his life, then get ready to hear something good!

INSPIRING PEOPLE – Bill Scheid

Living through a pandemic that has killed 25,000 so far with no end in sight makes you appreciate people. So for such a time as this, a series on people who inspire me seems like a good idea. I’ll start with someone close to home. At home, actually:
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It’s hard to find someone who just keeps getting up and doing the right thing every day. That’s what inspires me about Bill Scheid.

For thirty-two years he has put in tenacious workdays as an IT manager for Procter and Gamble problem solving how humans and technology best interact to keep his corner of a global business thriving.

For twenty-seven years he has stayed married to the same person (me, actually) with unwavering loyalty and devotion. Whatever it takeswhatever our differences, he is all in.fb_img_1524665630011

For twenty three years he has poured his energy into the well being of his three sons, taking them on wonderful vacations, coaching teams, helping with homework, teaching them skill after skill and always coming up with the next fun thing to do.

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So many people benefit from knowing Bill. He lets his faith in Jesus influence every area of his life. At our church,College Hill Presbyterian, he teaches Sunday School, runs a men’s group, takes kids to camp.

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His friendships have endured through decades. He faithfully visits his family and his in-laws. (Only Bill could have persuaded my mother to join him in dressing as a hockey player for her nursing home’s Halloween party!)

Bill is one of those people who walks into a room and can see right away what practical thing needs to be done to help. He’s the guy who puts the last chair away. He’s the guy talking to the quiet person at the party. He’s the guy bringing in donuts on Friday morning to cheer everyone up. Bill exemplifies a long, steady journey in the right direction, and does it with a good humor that inspires the same.

Free Christmas Story

final cover     This is one  of twelve short stories from my book, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon. I wrote it for adults, but most of the stories are good material for families. One fourth grader borrowed it from me and read the whole thing to his five year old sister! It’s set in College Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, so it has an added appeal to locals. Here’s the cover story:

                        THE BALLOON
The day before Christmas, three year old Damon sat up in his new big-boy bed, which was shaped like a red fire truck. He climbed onto its roof, about four feet from the ground, and did a flying dive onto a mattress, which his dad had put on the bedroom floor “for a few days”, when he had bought a replacement for it. That was a year ago, and Damon had safely mastered quite a few acrobatic moves because of it. It had been a fixture for so long, this queen-sized cushion for heroism, that he couldn’t remember living without it. When he visited his aunt on Thanksgiving, he had stared at the bare floor of his cousin’s room bewildered, and asked, “Where’s your mattress?”
Damon rolled around for a while, then somersaulted off the mattress and ran into the room of his sleeping parents. He scrambled onto their bed and jumped up and down until he tripped on his dad’s leg and fell in between his parents, who would have liked to sleep a little longer.
“Are you ‘wake, Dad?”
“Yeah, buddy. You’ve made that happen.”
“Can we go for pancakes now?”
His dad was going to take care of him all day long while his mom cooked for Christmas. They would go to the restaurant with the smiley-faced pancakes, followed by
riding the little train at the mall, and other fun things. They would do all these fun things one after the other, not like with his mom, who always had other things to do in between
the fun.
Damon’s dad, Will, stroked the little boy’s spikey hair, pulled him down on the bed and blew on his belly until the shrieking made his mom groan and cover her head with a
pillow.
“Come on, we’ll let Mommy sleep more,” Will said, and carried Damon out of the room. He was a hefty little kid, not fat but strong and muscled, with a round belly still, and soft chubby cheeks. Will loved how steadily cheerful he was,how ready to talk, learn and play at every moment. He might be obstinate or bossy sometimes, but he never
whined. In his monotone, matter-of-fact voice, he was always asking questions about how things worked. He had an enormous vocabulary, and an answer for everything.
When his preschool teacher asked him to do crafts, which he hated, he would say things such as, “I’d like to, but I just got my fingernails cut so my hands don’t work very well.”
Will took him to the pancake house, then up to a nearby funeral home that had a live nativity. They fed carrots to the donkey. Will told Damon that baby Jesus had been born in a place like this, out where the animals lived.
Damon stuck his hand into the greasy wool of a sheep as it stood by the fence. He examined his fingers, rubbing them together. Will assumed he had not been listening, but Damon asked, “Why didn’t they go to the hospital?”
“There wasn’t one back then. Babies were born at home, but Mary was far away from home in a crowded place and there wasn’t even room in the hotel.”
Damon peered in the shed where statues of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and baby glowed under spotlights.
“That’s not a real baby,” Damon observed. He stuck his lanolin-greased thumb in his mouth, but Will pulled it out. “Keep your hands out of your mouth, Damon, you’ve
got animal germs on them. You’re right, it’s not a real baby. Jesus was a baby a long time ago. He’s still here, but he’s…invisible now. We can’t see him.”
“Why doesn’t he ever show up? Santa does.”
Will thought fast, as he often had to with Damon’s incessant curiosity.
“The Bible says Jesus is always with us, forever and ever.”
“Well, I never see him anywhere.”
Will did not answer. He suddenly remembered having the very same thought as a child. He recalled the empty disappointment when he understood that no one ever
actually saw God. He didn’t know what to say to his son. “Should we go get a present for your mom now?”
When they finished their stop at the dollar store, where Damon had picked out a pair of pink socks with silver bells on them, (“Because mom’s a girl and girls like pink,”) and a
large plastic angel so luminous it possibly glowed in the dark (“Because Grandma likes pretty things and this is just beautiful,”) they went home for a nap. They laid together on
the couch by the Christmas tree. Damon smiled, settled in with his head on Will’s chest, and stuck his now-washed thumb into his mouth.
Will thought he was asleep, but then he opened his eyes, pulled out his thumb and said, “I still wish I could see the real Jesus like the shepherds did.”
“You’re still thinking about that?”
“Yeah.”
Will started to formulate a response about having to wait for the next life for that, puzzling over how to make this palatable to a three year old, then, on a better hunch, he
just said, “Me too.” Then he smiled and asked, “So if Jesus wasn’t invisible and you could see him, what would you do?”
Confidently, Damon answered, “We’d wrestle, and ride a swan.”
“A swan?” He guessed Damon was remembering a fall walk in a nearby cemetery where white swans glided around a lake.
“Yeah. In heaven there’s lakes with big swans, and Jesus could ask them to give us a ride.”
“So what else is in heaven?”
He shrugged with a frustrated frown. “I don’t know. I can’t get up there.”
Will went up on an elbow so he could see Damon’s face.
“I know what you mean. Sometimes I just want to go right up to Jesus and talk to him. I wish I could see into his eyes.”
“He should show up. Then we could give him a present.”
“Well, when you give other people presents, like Mom and Grandma, it’s kind of like you’re giving them to Jesus. He really likes it when you do that.”
The boy’s head shook back and forth patiently. “It’s not the same thing, Dad.” He snuggled against Will’s chest and fell asleep.
When Damon woke up, he lifted one of his father’s still-closed eyelids.
“I have an idea,” he whispered, his face a few inches away.
“Why are you whispering? You woke me up.”
Much louder, he said, “We could get him a balloon!”
Will rubbed his eyes. “Who?”
“Jesus! It’s his birthday and no one ever gets him anything. If we get a balloon, and let it go up in the sky, he can catch it.”
Will grabbed him, lifted him high and brought him back for a hug. “That’s a great idea, buddy.”
Right away, before the stores closed, Will dressed Dammon in his red coat and drove him to a party store that made helium balloons. They got a red one that said, “Happy
Birthday” on it. Will wrapped it several times around Damon’s hands and tied it.
“We’ll save it for tomorrow morning.”
Christmas morning, Damon had his parents up as early as they had feared.
They would not let him open his stocking or any presents until they had made coffee.
Damon said, “Well, then, I’m getting my coat on and my boots on and I’m giving Jesus his balloon.”
His mom deferred making coffee to throw on a coat and join him. Will hastily followed, grabbing his camera. He handed Damon the balloon, which was still tight and
buoyant, pressed against the ceiling. Will prayed that it would rise in the cold outside.
Will got the picture just as Damon let go of the string, the crimson coat and balloon against the green of juniper bushes. Damon’s eyes were wide and shining.
“Say something to Jesus,” his mom urged.
As the balloon rose and diminished in the cold clear sky, Damon yelled, “Jesus – get that balloon!”
They sang happy birthday as it disappeared.
Will took Damon’s hand. “He’s got it. He got your present.”
“Yeah,” Damon nodded with satisfaction. “Now, he won’t feel left out.”

 

Cooperative Preschools Build Community

(Seventh in a series of articles on reaching out to city kids.)

download (1)I have so many good memories of taking my kids to pre-school. They attended 3Cs Nursery School, a Christian cooperative at College Hill Presbyterian Church that focuses on building a supportive environment for families.

I was often scheduled to work at the same time as a young dad, a big, muscled African American guy who looked terribly uncomfortable on the tiny classroom chairs, his knees up to his ears. My son loved him.

He was a kid who hated crafts and wanted to play with blocks. The kids were supposed to finish their ‘small motor activity’ before they were allowed free play. This dad would  only require the bare minimum before he cut him loose. “Me and Daniel, we got an understanding,” he said, winking at Daniel as he hastily scribbled a picture and took off.

Several good things are happening at once at a cooperative pre-school. Children are learning from the teacher and from socializing with others. The parents are helping the teachers so kids get more attention.  The parents are probably learning most of all – both from the gentle, patient teachers, and from watching how their kids interact with others. They’re also saving money because cooperatives require less paid staff. In addition, they are forming relationships with other parents and grandparents who have kids the same age.

Even though I didn’t always feel like dealing with a bunch of three or four year olds, it was very good for me to do so. I learned what was developmentally appropriate for my kids at that age – especially helpful with my first child. I observed that he was way ahead of kids in some areas, lagging in others, and I adjusted how I worked with him accordingly.

I also saw how he related with other kids. At one point he was under the influence of a child with a strong personality, and was getting into trouble under that kid’s direction. I may not have picked up on what was going on if I were not there. Because I was there, I could coach him on how to say no or switch activities to break the pattern.

Not everyone in our neighborhood can afford to pay for pre-school, so 3Cs  has several fundraisers to raise scholarship money. Staff and volunteers run a resale store for children’s clothing and toys, Sonshine House.  They also host Gingerbread Shoppe, an enormous craft show that fills every corner of the church and raises around $8,000.

3C’s current director, Shannon Caton, has worked hard to make the preschool accessible to everyone.  The seventy children now attending are racially and economically diverse.

“It’s been challenging to reach beyond the middle and upper classes to make it a place where everyone can benefit, but that’s what we need to be doing.

She said about half the families are receiving some amount of scholarship money, or working extra time beyond their coop commitment. Some families may only be paying $5 a month, but she has found that it is important to require people to contribute something.

Another way the program has changed to accommodate families with single parents or two working parents is to reduce the coop commitment to once a month, and offer a four-hour preschool as well as the former two and a half hours.

“That gives part time workers time to work a whole morning, and gives grandparents who are taking care of grandchildren more time to rest,” Shannon said.

3Cs has been part of our community since 1968, and because it has adapted to meet the needs of our neighborhood, it will probably remain for years to come.