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Frosty Circle invitation led to Christmas Eve new birth

Bill Lehman recounts his new birth before being baptized by Todd Stiles (right), lead pastor at First Family Church in Ankeny, Iowa, in February 2021. (Photo courtesy of First Family Church)

ANKENY, Iowa – While singing Christmas carols on Frosty Circle with her family, a young girl handed a piece of paper to Bill Lehman.

He thought it was for a free cup of coffee somewhere. Instead, it was an invitation to Christmas Eve worship at First Family Church in Ankeny, Iowa.

Lehman, his wife, son and daughter were driving through neighborhoods aglow for the town’s Christmas lights tradition.

“I left [the invitation] in the cup holder in my car,” Lehman recounted, and “looked at it a couple of times” during the Christmas season of 2020.

On Dec. 24 after dinner, Lehman, a 25-year prison officer with the Iowa Department of Corrections, mentioned the invitation and voiced a few words that would begin to change his life: “Let’s go check it out.”

First Family Church was “right up the road.” Lehman and his wife had talked about connecting to a church but “we never took that next step.”

He liked “the ambiance of everything” at the Christmas Eve service, “the setting, being laid back, the music, the message that was being preached, people really getting into what was being said.”

Lehman’s new birth began to unfold with the words of lead pastor Todd Stiles: “The one in the manger is also the one on the cross. He died for you. He’s the only one able to save you from all the sin that is crushing you. Only Jesus is the supernatural Savior and wonder of a counselor.”

“‘He’s right, he’s right,’” Lehman thought to himself.

Power of the Spirit

“Not only am I listening but I’m starting to understand. I remember saying, ‘Lord, save me. Please come into my life.’ I’m not trying to sound cliché or anything, but I felt the power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit entered me that night and I felt saved.

“It was kind of a whirlwind. Everything overwhelmed me, overcame me, and I just got emotional. … Especially with my family and loved ones, I haven’t expressed emotion very well. The lights were dim so no one could see me trying to wipe the tears coming down my face.”

The moment was “like a weight on your heart or something that’s suffocating you being lifted off … like you’ve been holding your breath for so long and you finally get to exhale. And having this great feeling of peace, inner peace, knowing that, ‘You know what, Christ did die for my sins. He does love me. And this is what I want – I want the Lord in my life.’”

He’d had “conversations in my head to God” over the years when someone was sick or facing surgery, “but not like this … of ‘Please God, come into my life.’ It opened my heart to want to learn more about the life of Jesus and dying for my sins and saving me.

“I remember Pastor Todd saying something about, ‘If you feel you were saved tonight, you can reach out to us.’ So I filled out the card with my phone number and my email address and handed it to one of the people at the door as we were leaving.”

Stiles was soon in touch, becoming a part of Lehman’s growing faith.

Priorities realigned

Lehman, who was baptized with his pre-teen daughter the following February, has delved into Scripture using a contemporary translation Stiles gave him and a Bible reading guide he picked up at church – even muting the TV during an NFL playoff game while reading. He’s met with Stiles for coffee to ask about something from a sermon or a Scripture passage, participated in small groups, attended a men’s conference and become involved with First Family’s parking lot crew.

Among the effects of his new birth: “I have learned compassion, I’ve learned to show some emotion that I didn’t show before. I’m not perfect by any means, I have my moments. I’ve had such a hard shell on my life, over my persona, for such a long time. … Working in a prison, you see a lot of evil in people, and it just weighs heavy on you. You’re very guarded. And that builds up to being very guarded with everybody in general. You just build up this wall, and you don’t know how to take pieces of the wall down to be able to communicate with your loved ones.

“But now it’s not such a hard shell. I’ve been able to kind of express some feelings toward my loved ones a lot easier. I’ve had a lot more patience, trying to build better relationships with my wife, my kids.”

Faith in Christ has given Lehman a new perspective on the trauma he experienced at age 11 when his parents divorced. He was “just caught in the middle,” initially living with his father while his mother was receiving medical care.

“We lived in some really bad hotels and efficiency rooms,” he said. “It smelled like Raid all the time from the roaches. There were a lot of alcoholics and addicts that lived in that area, so it wasn’t a very safe environment. Looking back, it was probably the only thing my dad could afford.”

‘If God exists….’

Lehman felt abandoned as his parents began other relationships. “At that point in my life, it was like, ‘If God exists, why am I going through all this?’”

Yet, he spent a Thanksgiving and Christmas season with a church member who “opened up her home, provided somewhat of a stable, safe environment” and made sure he had some Christmas gifts.

“There were times when it could have been a lot worse,” Lehman said, now believing that “somebody was looking out for me.”

His father later found a vibrant faith in God, becoming involved in church and in ministry at a homeless shelter. When they would visit, “he would always ask, ‘Are you saved?’ And I’d say, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Do you believe Christ died for you?’ ‘Yeah, I believe it.’ And I just tried to change the subject. … We’d have our coffee, talk a little politics, sports or a movie. But every time he would start talking about Scripture or an issue like abortion, it was like, ‘I gotta go, Dad. I’ll see you later.’”

Now, often in their visits, “I’m actually listening and thinking, ‘Wow, my dad’s actually pretty smart and knowledgeable.’ He opens his Bible and I open the app on my phone and we go over a couple verses. I’m interested in having those conversations now, where I wasn’t before.”

Today, Lehman’s prayer life includes “praise for God’s blessings and all the opportunities (to be a witness for Christ). And I pray that somebody opens up their heart today and accepts Jesus into their life so they may find peace within their heart.”

In his new birth, Lehman says, “I don’t feel spiritually empty. My heart feels open. It feels full … a lot of positivity, a lot more of letting God take over.”