Celebrating Marriage, Engagement, and Singleness

I last wrote just after our annual H.I.M. Marriage Conference was held (March 3-5) and I regret not having written about the weekend then because it’s hard to do justice to it and capture the essence of it weeks later.

But it’s not that hard to reflect on how incredibly God met us!  With a packed house at the Hyatt (now Gurney’s) on Goat Island in Newport, RI, great speakers, and an alive worship team, from the moment we launched Friday night at 8 pm until we ended Sunday at 1 pm, the conference exceeded expectations.

This inter-generational event, attended by couples married less than a year to couples married over 50 years, celebrates the goodness of God’s design for marriage infused with the hope of the gospel. From young to older, from struggling to solid, from unhealthy to healthy—it’s all there in this weekend and our prayer each year is that wherever a given couple is relationally and spiritually, God will meet them and give them a vision of hope. We’ve been told many stories that demonstrate He did just that.

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace were our speakers for the weekend and they did not disappoint. Though our history with them is relatively short—we’ve had them as family camp speakers at CBS for the past two summers—our hearts for them and our connection with them is very deep and we had confidence they would have an important message for all of us. And they did. They were practical, Biblical, and relatable and provided enough “takeaways” that the impact of the conference is ongoing.

Besides the plenary sessions, seven different seminar options were offered and appreciated. Add in great worship and sweet times of fellowship, and it was a fabulous weekend overall. Following are some comments made by attendees:

"Thank you so very much for an amazing marriage retreat weekend! The speakers the food the accommodations the location-every detail- were all fabulous! We already penciled in for 2/2018. 😇 May God continue to bless you both and your much needed ministry.”

“Thought of how our adult children could benefit from this program. Enjoyed participating with other married couples of different ages and backgrounds. Would highly recommend this retreat to others. Conf exceeded out expectations. Workshops were excellent. Will do it again.”

"We were so encouraged and filled up on several levels this weekend. The schedule and breaks were well timed and kept us engaged throughout."

"Well thought out and designed. We felt God’s presence. Much love exhibited in speakers and staff who clearly care about the marriages. Great information about resources."

"Another outstanding rime of rich teaching, laugher, and time to connect. This year we had 4 newlywed couples join us—so glad for this foundational time for them and us. We thank God for H.I.M. and are praying for you."

"Awesome, uplifting experience (again). Thank you so much!!”

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace spoke for the annual H.I.M. Marriage Conference (upper right);

Paul leads the resource team in prayer as the weekend begins (lower left).

Many of the team that made the conference happen, from the stage to behind the scenes. What a privilege to be part of this group!!

The worship team, lead by Danny and Rayna Oertli, and the Graces (on the far right) led well from the front.

After a H.I.M. Board meeting and some counseling days, we headed to the west coast to speak ay Heart of the Canyon Church in Santa Clarita, CA. Long time and cherished friends, Doug and Kelly Hart, masterminded the event, as they wrap up their first year of Doug serving as Executive Pastor for this church. Though new to us, this church has had a long, faithful ministry in “Canyon Country” and we were delighted to be introduced to it. The Friday night and all-day Saturday conference was held at the church and was very creatively done all the way around. The Friday night “date night” portion began with a Taco Truck dinner, followed by two sessions by us, in between which a “make your own cookie ice cream sandwich” bar was held. Very clever and very much enjoyed.

Saturday, besides us doing 3 sessions, workshop options were offered and most gratifying to us was having Dave and Krista Hart present a session on parenting. Dave and Krista both grew up at CBS as family campers and eventually became family camp staff, which is where they discovered each other. On the final day of their serving together that summer, they met with us and announced that they would begin dating when they hit the mainland (they had honored the staff standard of no “fraternizing” during the summer) and the rest, as they say, is history. Paul married them over 10 years ago and they now have 3 littles, a thriving marriage, and growing hearts for God. So thankful for them!!

At the Heart of the Canyon Church’s marriage conference, our dear friends

Jay and Yukiko Dreves were in the audience.

Three generations of families who are grateful to be doing life together.

From the far right: Doug and Kelly Hart (executive pastor of Heart of the Canyon Church); their son David and his wife Krista with their three littles; our daughter Kari and her husband Gave and their three littles; and us.

After church on Sunday at Heart of the Canyon, the Harts (far left) and Karen Bushnell with daughters Frances and Abigail. These are beloved people in our “tribe


The response to the marriage conference was super positive and talk is underway for a repeat. We also taught at both services on Sunday and a bonus of that was having Karen, Frances, and Abigail Bushnell drive up to attend church and then have lunch together. More CBS special people, we felt very blessed by the time. We wrapped it up with a lovely breakfast with Doug and Kelly Hart Monday am and headed back to the east coast.  

The extra bonus of the weekend was being able to "camp out" at Gabe and Kari’s home and enjoy some time with them and their three littles. Never can get enough time with our kids but always so thankful when we do.

As we returned to Massachusetts, we received a call from Steven Eames that his mom, our precious 99-year-old friend/mentor/encourager Thora Eames had passed away March 12. We were exceedingly grateful that Paul had visited with her just several weeks earlier, and that her service was scheduled for Thursday, March 16—a date we were actually in town. Though seemingly coincidental to some, we feel very much that these are moments from heaven that only God could orchestrate. It was such an honor for us to be able to pay tribute to one who has meant so much to us for over 25 years now. Thora truly lived a life “to the praise of His glory” and our lives have been indelibly impacted by hers.

Thora Eames . . . a legend.

A couple of months before her passing, Thora flew to visit extended family and when the Jet Blue pilot found out he had a 99-year-old passenger, he invited her into the cockpit, snapped this photo, and sent her an autographed copy. How cool is that??

Off we drove the following morning for Mt. Bethel, PA, to speak at the Tuscarora Conference Center’s annual marriage conference for the second year in a row. We fell in love with this group last March and were so honored to be invited back. Most encouraging were the number of returning couples who testified that God had met them in their marriages over the past year. Two couples who came last year separated and on the verge of divorce were back this year, fully engaged in growing marriages . . . and two couples we had breakfast with this year let us know that they had come as a last ditch effort to salvage their marriages and were leaving with great hope. One of the couples had already drawn up divorce papers prior to the weekend, but had decided to tear them up when they got home.  

All praise is His. Only God can change hearts so dramatically. No one left believing they had found a “magic marriage wand” but with a renewed belief that their hope was in the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose great delight is in transforming us. What great news!!

Another special treat was having Matt and Beth (Hendricks) Larsen pop in for part of the weekend. Beth (and her parents, H.I.M. Board Members Richard and Kit Hendricks) have been a part of our lives since the mid-90’s and 4 years ago, Paul married them. We celebrated with them the upcoming birth of their first child in June. Such happy expectations!!

We so enjoyed partnering again with Chris Priestaf (lead pastor of Mt. Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church) and were very impressed with Tuscarora’s commitment to building into marriages.

Matt and Beth Larsen (and Baby Larsen) joined us

at the Tuscarora conference in Mt. Bethel, PA.

Dominique and Nicole gave testimony of God’s incredible work

in their lives and in their marriage.

We headed home Sunday in time to pack and head out Monday for California. If you’re keeping track, the past five weeks have included a conference in MD, three conferences in CA, a conference in PA, and two conferences in MA. And not many days at home.

The first three days of this CA trip which commenced March 20 were spent in Santa Clarita with our whole family. Facilitated by the CURE President’s weekend March 23-26, Derek and Julie and kids flew out early and we all delighted in spending 3 days together based out of Gabe and Kari’s home. A six-year-old, 2 three-year-olds, a 16-month-old, and an 8-month-old. Even with 7 adults, we felt outnumbered at moments. But overall, we just thoroughly enjoyed doing life together for a few days. No big events, no day trips . . . just trips to the park, playing in the yard, “flying” styrofoam airplanes (actually “crashing” styrofoam airplanes would be more accurate), and hanging together filled the days. Kari and Gabe arranged for childcare one night so the adults could go out for a peaceful meal and that was a very sweet time.

The Johnsons have landed in Santa Clarita! Party time!!

This is what life looks like when we get together.

All grown up . . . and continuing to bring immense delight to our hearts.

Leaving Nathan and Rachel with Lisa and the Garcias, Derek, Julie, Paul and I headed up to Half Moon Bay for the CURE President’s Weekend. This annual event is staged to share CURE’s vision for healing children physically and spiritually and to gain partners to help fulfill that vision. Creatively and excellently done, we heard stories and saw footage of the work of CURE around the world. We also thoroughly enjoyed being with numerous friends/chosen family who are also committed to the vision of CURE. It was a time of renewal and encouragement for us, even while we had opportunities for some ad hoc counseling, etc. It was a win-win. If you’re not yet convinced of the potent work of CURE, please visit their website at


At the CURE President’s weekend, with Derek and Julie

and Bill and Christi Bachman, treasured friends.

Gary and Anne Gaddini joined us for an evening at the CURE conference. So thankful they’re in our lives!!

Lisa flew up with Nathan and Rachel (yes, that is the essence of sacrificial love) to rejoin their parents and just like that, the conference ended and off we went to our respective homes.  

We returned to two weekends of H..I.M.-sponsored conferences. The first, over April Fool’s day weekend, was Engagement Matters . . . and it was lost on no one that a huge Nor’easter blasted New England on April 1. We ended up delaying the start of the conference until 2 pm Saturday (vs. 8:30 am) to allow attendees to safely travel. Only two couples from New Hampshire were unable to get through the storm, which was still raging in their part of the world. Fortunately, the couple who flew in from California and the ones from Colorado arrived before the storm hit . . . so they experienced New England in a way they didn’t expect!!

The weekend went extremely well. Hosted by Ryan and Kelly Plosker in Wenham, we were all well fed, comfortable, and warm in their lovely home which made it possible for us to deal effectively with the subject at hand: God’s design for marriage. The group of 15 couples was interactive, open, and thoughtful and our prayer for each of them is that God will guide them in their decision making.

Our two “fly in” couples were “kids” who have a lot of history at CBS and it was such a joy to have them with us for the weekend. We were SO encouraged by these two couples who are both very committed to honoring God with their lives and in their relationships.

One of the couples wrote us:  

“My fiance and I do not have the words to express eloquently enough our gratitude to you for pouring yourselves into our lives and relationship, as well as the lives of so many other couples this weekend. The conference was enlightening, practical, and inspiring. Both of you were real, authentic and what you said was so relevant to our lives. Thank you!"

Engagement Matters!!  LOVE this weekend.

Elsa Stanley and her beau, Nathan, at Engagement Matters, in from Colorado.

Rebecca Haseltine and her beau, Adam, in from California.

The next weekend was our annual “Worth It” conference. Over 350 attended the weekend, held this year at Lexington Christian Academy, and it was a very successful day. As confusion and distortions increase both inside and outside the church regarding God’s design for relationships, this day becomes all the more important as the gospel is presented in the context of purity and relationships.

It’s a message that is increasingly rare, unfortunately, because it is the pathway to genuine freedom and health in marriage.

The message was proclaimed boldly and uniquely by each of our presenters, who included Nate Parks, Jess Bousa, Kate Wylie, Lisa Friesen, Christopher and Dorothy Greco, Matthew and Shahrzad Slater, Don and Betsy Hasselbeck, and Paul Friesen. Each one conveyed parts of their own story which included the pain, brokenness, and redemption of failures, as well as the joy and delights of cooperating with God’s design. It was a rich, hope-giving day.

Though there were many highlights, having Matthew and Shahrzad Slater share their story was very powerful. Matthew, #18 New England Patriots, captain of special teams, called “Heads” in the overtime coin toss at Super Bowl Ll . . . and most importantly is a genuine, all-in man of God, who fulfilled his commitment to sexual purity.  And his beautiful bride of just over two years, Shahrzad, spoke honestly about their journey to the altar. To say they inspired would be an understatement. They were real, they were funny, they were well-spoken, they were hope-giving.

New to the program this year was a seminar led by Don and Betsy Hasselbeck, retired NFL and parents of two retired NFL stars. Don and Betsy have such a powerful testimony of God’s faithfulness in bringing them into a personal relationship with Himself while Don played in the NFL. Their great joy is having all there of their sons walking with Christ, along with their wives and kids. They gave some great parenting insights to the parents during their workshop. We loved having them on the team.

Here are some of the comments written after the conference:

“Amazing experience!”  (13-year-old male)
“Highlight of the day was having values shared with my kids in a way that we (parents) couldn’t.”  (parent)
“Highlight:  It cleared up a lot of stuff.”  (13-year-old female)
“I was reluctant to come but I’m so glad my mom made me!”
“I feel this program is wonderful and very important for young teens. In a time of societal pulls (away from God’s design) and Satan’s lies, it is vital to have programs such as these to encourage and strengthen teens to walk with Jesus.  Can’t wait for next year!!”  (parent)
“Highlight:  Relationship GOALS; it dealt with something specific I’m dealing with.”  (19-year-old. female)
“The honesty from all the speakers was important for me to hear.”  (parent)
“Hearing from couples that remaining sexually pure is possible and worth it.”  (18-year-old female)
“You said to my daughter what I wanted to say to her . . . but found difficult.”  (parent)
“Highlights:  Too  many to count!  The messages from each of the speakers, the honesty, the truth spoken, the reassurance, the grace, the understanding, relating on a real level such an important message - that they are worth it in general, reassuring these kids of their real value in the eyes of God.  So well done!  So happy to have been here!”  (parent)
“I really enjoyed how inspirational and encouraging the speakers were.  They lead by example instead of just beating the Bible over our heads.”  (16-year-old female)
“Having all these gifted, Jesus-follower speaking into my daughter’s life.  Thank you!”  (parent)
“Highlight:  Opening conversations with my daughter.” (parent)
“People’s honesty and non-awkwardness.  Thank  you so much for this once-in-a-lifetime experience to hear very transparently and clearly what is right and what is not from God.”  (15-year-old female)
“Having Matthew and Shahrzad Slater was an amazing experience.  I loved them so much!  They’re so nice and such a cute couple.  Knowing that they committed to sexual purity - and succeeded—I know now that I CAN and I WILL.”  (13-year-old female)

At day’s end, we all gave deep thanks for the ways God had met us and met those who attended. There are those who cynically believe that such efforts—to teach the timeless truth of God’s word in the face of a culture that has lost its way—is a waste of time, but we don’t believe it is. We’re trusting it will be used by God to make a difference in the lives of many.

Two days after “Worth it” we departed on a 2.5 week journey to South Africa, which will be the topic of my next post. But before I put the wrap on this, I want to note that we’ve deeply grieved since my last post the death of one of our precious CBS family campers. Brandon Barmore, 18 years old, drowned in Nicaragua in a tragic accident on March 26 and our hearts have been full of sorrow for Brandon’s family, parents Phil and Margee, and siblings Ryan and Emily. No one is ever prepared for such a loss and not a day goes by that we’re not lifting this grief-stricken family in prayer.  

The other thing I wanted to mention is that Paul and I were granted a two-hour meeting with IVCF president Tom Lin and his new CFO, DeeDee Wilson. We flew to Madison, Wisconsin, for the meeting and felt it was an answer to prayer that we were invited to give some insight to the CBS situation. We continue to pray, as we know many of you do, that God will work in a “God-only” way to restore and redeem this very painful part of our history at CBS. We also continue to be so deeply grateful for the legions of you who have taken time to love on us so well. We are humbled by your many gestures. The pain is still very, very real, especially as the summer draws close and for the first time in 41 years, we are not consumed with family camp preparation. But God’s presence and comfort are also very real and for that we are truly grateful.

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That’s it for now.