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Anchored: Finding Stability in the Storms

The world can be a weary place. A place that burdens each of us with concern for what others think of us, concern for how we take care of our families, concern for the evil we see in the world. Those burdens make us feel lost, broken and helpless. But, if the anchor in your world is rooted in the transformative love of Jesus and the healing power of authentic community, those burdens become light as a feather.

At least that’s what the James family has been learning these past few years. Zach, Mary Beth and their three children Michael, London and Hannah, have been part of the McFarlin community for over a year now. They first visited McFarlin last year for the outdoor Modern worship Easter service, but their search for authentic community began long before that.

Zach, a native of Oklahoma, was raised in the Methodist church. As a child, church was much more of a social occasion than a place for serious spiritual growth, especially since he also experienced church in Episcopal grade school and Catholic high school. It wasn’t until he involved in United Methodist district camps as a teenager that he really began to see a deeper side to church and found that this was the spiritual foundation he wanted to build for his life.

Mary Beth grew up in Iowa going to a Baptist Evangelical-free church with her parents and older siblings. Being the youngest of five children, the foundational priority of church was instilled in her and her siblings at a young age. As she became more engaged in camps and other church programs, she would often experience moments of reflection about her life and her relationship with Jesus. Recognizing how important her faith was to her, she made a commitment to herself that she would continue to deepen her faith throughout her life.

Fast forward several years, and what happens to many young adults happened to Zach and Mary Beth: they drifted. Drifted out of the habit of church community and out of regularly practicing their faith. It wasn’t intentional; they just didn’t prioritize or spend time cultivating it. It wasn’t until they had their first child at age 22 that they realized how far away they were from the faith they had as teenagers.

“The biggest change to our faith journey was Michael. We had a kid at 22 and the world seemed gigantic and our eyes felt huge,” Zach recalled. “It was the most wonderful thing to happen to us, but we quickly realized we needed that moral compass, that centering.”

Zach remembered as a child how it felt to belong somewhere and growing up and there was nowhere Zach felt more like he belonged than at church. Unlike his experience with the rest of the world, church was a place for him to let his guard down and be his authentic self without fear of judgement. Years later, when Zach and Mary Beth were dating, they had discussed a mutual desire to provide the same spiritual foundation for their kids that they had growing up. After Michael was born, they began attending a United Methodist church, hoping to find a place to grow in their faith and raise their child. The years went by, and their family grew with the birth of London. As life took them to different parts of central Oklahoma they continued their faith journey, seeking out churches with Jesus-centered relationships and places for them to serve in Children’s ministry. Sometimes they found it, sometimes they didn’t. But they never stopped looking.

“The church keeps us centered, right? Even when the world is going in all sorts of directions.

Right as they were welcoming the birth of their third child, Hannah, whispers of a pandemic began to overwhelm every bit of life as they knew it. On top of the burden of an unknown virus, Hannah had been born with a cleft lip, which would require multiple corrective surgeries and thousands of dollars in financial burden they weren’t prepared for.

A few weeks later, after Hannah’s first surgery, Zach and Mary Beth received a call that the jobs they held at the same company for over 15 years were not needed: they were being let go. The weight of these burdens seemed like too much to bear. They knew they needed to make a change, find a reset button and clear the chaos so they could find a path forward.

Their reset button came in the form of moving boxes that brought them to Norman, Oklahoma. Moving brought its own challenges of finding a house during the pandemic, moving a week before schools began a hybrid form of learning and looking for jobs. The one silver lining came in the form of a severance package they received after losing their jobs. This allowed Zach to be the stay-at-home parent while Mary Beth found work as a TA for one of Norman’s schools. But the reset wasn’t complete. Life had settled into some sort of new routine, but the absence of church in that routine was something they still longed for.

“The church keeps us centered, right?” Zach says. “Even when the world is going in all sorts of directions.” Mary Beth continues that thought saying, “It was a priority for us to find a church, because amid all the chaos there were things that were constant that we could count on in the church—even if we didn’t know anyone yet, we knew the hymns, we knew the affirmations of faith, the Lord’s prayer—those constant reminders of the faith that we have in Jesus provides stability amidst the storms.”

After a recommendation from a fellow TA, Mary Beth mentioned to Zach that they should check out McFarlin UMC. The first Sunday may have felt different with an outdoor service and everyone in masks. But the smiles and warm welcomes they received radiated past the masks, and they knew this was a community worth checking out. After attending worship as a family for a couple months, Zach began volunteering in Children’s Sunday school as McFarlin began having in-person Sunday school for the first time in over a year.

“Coming here, even after that first Easter Sunday, I realized this was a warm place,” Zach said, “so when they started having Sunday school for the kids, I reached out to Sandy to find a place to volunteer and it was wonderful. It jumpstarted life for me and helped get me back into the person I need to be.”

As the family began cultivating a weekly routine of church and volunteering, something happened. Shoulders relieved of the burden of the unknown began to relax. Minds relieved of the burden of instability found rest. And souls weary for worship, community and service found renewed joy. The intentional engagement the James family has in the life of McFarlin’s faith community has allowed each member of the family to flourish in their own unique way.

We want to make sure that there are places for our children to feel the way they feel. It’s important for them to know that the church is a safe place for them to be, even if the world isn’t so safe.

London joined the 3rd grade Bible class last fall and has seen how relationships can deepen her faith. “Church is for learning about God,” London says, “but it’s also about learning what other people think about God. You can think about God in different ways and you can see that everyone has a different personality and perspective.”

When their oldest son, Michael stepped into the Sanctuary for the first time and sang a hymn he loved when he was younger, it sparked a little flame in his heart. The pandemic took a toll on his faith, but coming back to those foundational elements has helped him engage in a real way. One of his favorite things to do on Sunday mornings is sit at a table in the Atrium and invite parishioners to sit down and connect through donuts, coffee and conversation.

Mary Beth and Zach have found joy in seeing how their family has come alive again after such a long, burdensome season of uncertainty. They also understand their role as a family in making sure any family that steps into this building has that same experience. “We want to make sure that there are places for our children to feel how their feeling. It’s to ensure that McFarlin is here for children. We can’t just ignore them because they are our future and it’s important for them to know that church is a safe place for them to be, even if the world isn’t so safe.”

“This building, this community allows our family to be authentic,” Zach shares earnestly. “It allows us to have a place. These children are the most important things to Mary Beth and I and McFarlin is a place where we feel comfortable and makes us happy.”