The Difference A Year Makes

by Brandon Stephens


In her 1970 hit single, "Big Yellow Taxi," singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell proclaimed to the world, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone..." While many of you are finishing Joni's classic lyric in your heads, my reflection upon the events of the past twelve months has got me thinking, "When it comes to life and life abundant, you don't know what you're missing 'til you get it!"

Who could complain? With the wreckage of over a decade's worth of substance abuse all but cleared away, my loving wife and two beautiful children and I secured a mortgage in a 2 bedroom/2 bathroom condo in the historic town of Smithville, NJ where town is spelled with an "e" at the end. Life was good. Or so I thought.

In comparison to the first 5 years of our relationship, Andrea and I were experiencing periodic bouts of stability and normalcy. Gone were the sleepless nights of her wondering if I’d make it home from Atlantic City. A successful working man is at the beck and call of his employer. Addiction was my full-time job and when the boss man called, I came a' running.

But now drugs are no longer my god. In 2009, a brief stint in rehab allowed my borrowed faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior to become my own. After attending a Bible study one evening, I discovered the Addict's Transitive Property of Christianity and had a breakthrough: if sin equals death, and addiction equals death, then sin must equal addiction!

Through this lens, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross became personal. The person I was as an active addict died with Him on the cross. My sins were covered with His righteousness and washed with His blood. I shared in His resurrection and received a new life freed from the bondage of addiction.

Andrea's faith journey began in 2009 to appease the post-rehab religious zealot that I had become. Initially my weekly church attendance with my then fifteen month old son, Oliver, gave Andrea an opportunity to have two hours alone in a quiet house without a whiny child or a Bible-thumping husband to interrupt her thoughts.

Raised by her non-practicing, Jewish mother and her Iranian-born, Armenian father (who is Christian by nationality more than belief), Andrea grew up with no concept of God, no exposure to prayer, and no experience with the Bible.

I was so excited about my new found faith and I was incessant at evangelizing Andrea but it was less than transformative. Slowly but surely she began to attend church with Oliver and I on a routine basis. Emphasis on ROUTINE.

Fortune literally found us in Smithville, that’s where we bought a house and settled down after Andrea's mom hit the jackpot in an Atlantic City casino and gave us the money for the down payment on our home. We began attending a small, local church, filled a pew, and routinely volunteered in the children's ministry. Emphasis once more on ROUTINE.

Venturing home one Sunday morning after church, Andrea and I experienced a distinct sense that something in our walk was missing, we realized our Christianity was compartmentalized and stored in a bin labeled, "Sunday Morning."

Last April, a string of God-ordained interactions and events found my two kids and I at an Easter Egg Hunt on the front lawn of Buff and Cissy McNickle. The family at Grace Falls Church made us feel welcome and immediately at home like a member of the family. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and joy emanating from everyone that I interacted with.

Racing home and busting through the door, I took Andrea's ear hostage and spouted off about how great a time we had and how nice everyone I met was. My bubble burst as Andrea stated emphatically, "We are not switching churches."

Down but not defeated, I joined a "Real Life Discipleship" study at Grace Falls and went back to the drawing board. Knowing if I could just get Andrea in the same room with my new friends, she would experience the same love I had felt at the egg hunt. Opportunity and desire collided on Good Friday last year when Buff and Cissy's invitation to a local restaurant resulted in my wife's attendance at her first Grace Falls event.

Volumes could be written about the events and interactions that have taken place over the past twelve months. We've come to know God as our Provider. We've seen Him at work in the lives of those around us. A young man I was fortunate enough to pour into gave His life to Christ. The ripples of his decision are still reverberating through his family as the Kingdom continues to be built.

Our knowledge of God's story and recognition of our place within it becomes clearer every day. We've taken our faith out of the box labeled, "Sunday Morning." We've come to find our place in a family of servants who are on mission for God. Realizing that we were saved from the penalty of sin, are being saved from bondage of sin, and will one day be saved from the presence of sin, we've learned to rest in His grace and stop trying to prove ourselves.

Today, we're interested in how we can serve others and be Good News to those in our community. We've come to know that "church" is not a building but a Body. We are the church. Today, our lives are anything but ROUTINE. We have life and life abundant. What a difference a year makes.