Here’s how God changed my life this year. It’s almost like He had it all planned…

We all have our “church friends,” right? They are the people we look for across the patio and rush to catch for a few minutes of laughter before everyone disperses on Sunday mornings. Maybe they are the people we bump into at dinner and introduce to others as our “friends from church.” Have you ever wondered how to transform your church friends into real-life friends?

My church friends include some very cool people —nice women I always look forward to seeing on Sundays. After church, we linger on the patio as long as our kids will let us, and then we talk and laugh all the way to our cars in the parking lot. At some point last fall, God showed me I was at my happiest when I was with these women. I didn’t see them as a group at first because they didn’t all know each other. But they were at the heart of the joy I feel when I am at Covenant. Throughout the months, I watched these women, and I saw them lift up people around them in big and small ways. And I wished that I had more time with them.

So I mentioned to one of them, Amy Skaggs, that I wished there was a way to gather these women together outside of church. Amy, with her trademark eye twinkle, said she’d heard there would be an opportunity to form “small groups.” See what God did there? He had been working on this project from a completely different angle. I had no idea what an “official” small group would look like, but I was excited about spending more time with these women.

When the call went out in January 2016 to start forming Lenten small groups, I was ready. I sent a request to six women—Amy Skaggs, Veronica Divine, Kathryn Sedberry, Sarah McCracken, Emily McGuiness and Christian Meyer. They all said yes. In emails shared those first days, it was clear how excited and ready we each were. We wrote about “helping each other fill our buckets spiritually and supportively,” and the opportunity for “deeper relationships” and “more intentional, supportive friendships.” I know now that God had been stirring up this need in each one of us.

We were seven very busy, fairly successful women who spent jam-packed days juggling husbands and kids, parents, jobs, commitments, concerns, etc. We had plenty of social events on our calendars. Yet we each carried the same undeniable awareness that things could be even better. We knew we needed a different kind of friendship circle. We agreed to call our group “Lift” because we felt a lift each time we saw each other at church and because we planned to lift up each other during our time together.

The small group curriculum was perfect. The very short reading assignments and questions for thought were just enough to give us a solid topic for discussion but not so deep that we’d be lost if we didn’t prepare ahead of time. The goal for each group was to create a “Rule of Life,” a guide for providing support, intention and structure so our spiritual life would flourish in an orderly fashion. That was the intent. We ultimately turned out not to be very orderly.

We met for the first time at a restaurant on Ash Wednesday. That meeting was even better than I had hoped. We thoroughly introduced ourselves and tried valiantly to stick to the curriculum. But it was just so easy to laugh together, and our conversation quickly took a warm, personal turn. We were friends instantly. I know beyond a shadow of doubt the Holy Spirit was with us that night—we all felt His presence. We ended the night by saying out loud that we would pray for each other throughout the week, and that felt just exactly right.

Here’s the other thing God was doing at the same time to change my life. Six days before our first Lift meeting, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the many frustrating things about this disease is that after the initial bad news, no one can tell you how serious your case is until a full pathology is completed. This can take several grueling weeks. It is hard to stay positive during these long days, especially when the initial biopsy indicates a very aggressive cancer, as in my case. Hearing these women say they would pray for me was incredibly meaningful. And important.

In an effort to prevent our group from becoming all cancery, I waited until our second meeting to tell about my diagnosis. They responded just exactly as you’d think—concern, compassion and just the right amount of humor. I had named my tumor “Bernice,” so humor was in order and greatly appreciated.

In the weeks that followed, our group continued to meet on Wednesdays and grew closer. We always spent a few minutes discussing the curriculum, and we started to rely on our time together. I think we knew something special was happening. Each of us went to great lengths to make it to those Wednesday meetings. We came to need that time when we were laughing together and lifting each other up.

A lot happened! In those short six weeks of Lent, we faced two surgeries, kids’ broken bones, sick husbands, employment concerns and one huge international work event. It was a very busy time with lots of opportunities to grow together.

Shortly after our first meeting, someone had the great idea that our husbands should form their own small group. It took a few weeks to get them off and running, but they started meeting on Sunday nights at various establishments of imbibement. Seeing some of them begin to rely on each other and look forward to their time together was one of the greatest and most unexpected joys of this small group experience.

In March, I began six weeks of daily radiation as part of my cancer treatment. My Lift friends responded with the perfect plan. Each week, one of them would take me to radiation and also to lunch or shopping or on a little outing. They called this plan “Driving Ms. DeDe.” See how clever they are? These were some of my very favorite days ever—and that’s saying quite a lot since these days also included being blasted with radiation from a linear accelerator.

These Covenant Groups were designed to last for the six weeks of Lent. When Easter arrived, our group had a discussion about whether we should continue. It wasn’t really a discussion—it was more of a quick, firm acknowledgement that we would of course continue to gather.

As my last day of radiation approached in early May, there was no question about who would be there to celebrate. These six women had traveled through the entire journey with me, and I really wanted them there to take the final step. There was a lot of joy among us that afternoon. I’m not sure that Texas Oncology really appreciated the raucous nature of our group; they didn’t seem overly impressed with the “Bye Bye Bernice” tiaras and glow in the dark necklaces, the loud whoops and big hugs! But for me, it was one of the most memorable days of my life.

The Season of Lent, as I understand it, is intended to be a time when we prepare ourselves and find ways to draw closer to God. I have no doubt that God brought our group together to serve His purpose. I think He loves hearing our laughter and feeling our genuine compassion for each other. I think He always intended for us to find each other and lift each other up in His name. He’s like that, isn’t He?

By DeDe Church