Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

 Isaiah 9:6 -- For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

One of my favorite days of the entire year, is Christmas Eve.  There is a soft stillness to the air that refreshes and heals.  Saying "Merry Christmas," eagerly hugging anyone who seems open to the idea, and seeing the excitement and joy in a child's eyes-- they all bring timeless moments of joy.

This year, we are with family.  It's been three years since we've been home for Christmas, so for that reason and a whole host of others, we needed to be here.  I am thankful beyond words that we could all be here together.  Since we were traveling on Sunday, a Christmas Eve service seemed the perfect solution.

I didn't grow up in the Catholic faith, but my husband did.  His father still generally attends Mass each week, at a smaller morning service.  Both his mom and his dad said they'd go with me and, after some figuring of service times and schedules, we were off.

The formality and showmanship in a special Catholic Mass has always simultaneously fascinated and unnerved me. I can imagine it would be tremendously comforting to those who grew up with it, because they know what to expect and what is expected of them.  Since I never know exactly what I am doing, my prayer on the kneeler is usually along the lines of "please don't let me be an embarrassment."

At this service, a woman stood to talk about "Catholics Anonymous" and how they would be beginning their 6-week course to welcome alienated Catholics back to the Church. They're scheduled during prominent times when people seek the faith of their childhood, especially after Christmas and Easter. Having been to many churches lately where they want a person to take specific classes in order to become a member, the idea of needing a class to be reunited in a church no longer strikes me as odd or foreign as it might have. (A small voice inside me, though, has to mention-- God wouldn't need you to take a class to welcome you back with open arms.)

What made the service special wasn't what the Priest had to say, though what I could hear of it was certainly interesting.  It wasn't the sweet, tiny older nun who assisted with the Eucharist.  It wasn't the Christmas carols we sang, familiar as breathing.  It was the feeling of peace, the feeling of family, the feeling of coming together from all different places to join in welcoming the birth of the Lord.  Taking a moment to breathe together, to worship together, and to stop a moment and remember a truly special birth-- that truly made my Christmas special.

Peace be unto you.  (And also unto you.)

This made me smile.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Church Isn't About The Building

The church visits I enjoy the most are the ones where a friend invites me.  Knowing even one other person in a congregation makes it so much easier to go through those doors. These doors, this visit, were pretty unconventional.

The church I attended last Sunday, Disciples Church, (DC) is a growing community focused on God and on service to others. They meet in a local school, setting up signs and tables and chairs and children's rooms each Sunday morning and then taking it all down again at the end of service. Some people wore nametags, which I liked because I am terrible with names. Everyone dressed in a way that made them comfortable. Jeans, slacks, dresses, even some shorts on such a warm Texas December morning. (I like a casual service, but I know it's not for everyone.)

I really didn't know what to expect. I've been to another church that was held in a school, and the logistics of it distracted me for a little while.  Is it a rental? Who else can rent the space? What are the terms of the agreement? Then a fierce gladness rises up inside me that some anti-religious group or another hasn't come across these kinds of arrangements.

People know each other at this church. They chatted and visited, and kids sat together comfortably and colored or wrote or drew. There is a feeling of gladness in the room, thankfulness that they are all together once more and able to worship. It's a feeling I've sensed in some other churches during this journey, and it's one that I hope DC continues to feel.

We sang a few Christmas carols, and then the worship minister said he'd found a song that he hoped would be a welcome addition to the season's music. "Hallelujah, What a Savior".  When I tried to find this song, a much older hymn kept coming up-- I haven't been able to find the lyrics nor the music that we sang that morning. Yet it began with lyrics that fit the wonder of that day when Christ was born.

Pastor Tim Worden has a simple, but thorough way of examining things. He said he was trying to avoid the "pastor's temptation to be slick," knowing that no service is ever truly perfect. His sermon, he said, was based off what he felt he'd been given through reading his Life Journal.

Sidenote:  DC encourages all attendants to grab a Life Journal (they'll give you one if you don't have one) and use it daily to work your way through the Bible.  One reads, then one prays and writes down their thoughts from the reading. It's a neat journal, and I was grateful that they were available since I haven't seen them elsewhere.

The sermon was titled "Those Who Are Rich," and after Pastor Tim was done speaking I felt rich indeed with verses to carry with me.

1 Timothy 6:17-19 -- Be rich in good deeds.

Matthew 6:20 -- Hope in God, not in riches.

Luke 11:11-13 -- If even fathers who are, at heart, broken, can give; how much more will our perfect Father give to us?

Matthew 16:25 -- You must lose yourself to gain.

Matthew 6:21 -- "For where your treasure lay, there your heart will be also.

Not the kind of treasure I want.

Each church I've attended has asked for my visitor contact information. Sometimes I fill out the cards, sometimes I even put the card in the collection plate. The last two or three churches, I've added a little note about this quest. I've even gotten two email responses, and this last week's made me think.

Pastor Tim wrote:  "As we know, "church" is more than a place or event that happens on Sundays. Church is a Christ-led community of people living in relationship with God and one another... doing what He does where He has sent us."

Furthermore, Pastor Tim invited me to be a part of their community, regardless of where I go on Sunday mornings. I went caroling with them this week to a nursing home. And I hope other opportunities to serve and meet will present themselves.

One thing I'm discovering, much as the Grinch did with Christmas-- maybe church doesn't come in a building. I knew this, I think, and yet I am learning it anew with each visit. It isn't where we meet, and it isn't the style of worship, but it's the people and the community and the service we can give to others. That is what I'm looking for.

One Way to Have Prayer in School.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Where Two Or More Are Gathered

Matthew 18:20 is one of my very favorite verses-- "For where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them."

Last weekend, I did not attend a traditional church. My husband and I were given an opportunity to attend a marriage retreat, and the retreat schedule and location did not allow for any kind of service attendance. Since the retreat was being facilitated by an Army chaplain's assistant, and the materials provided to us were written and created by a minister, I was on the fence about whether this would "count" towards my 52 weeks of this project.

For anyone who gets the chance, I highly recommend Mark Gungor's "Laugh Your Way to a Happy Marriage" seminars and book. He is refreshingly funny, yet also earnest in his desire to help couples truly understand each other. When the retreat class had a long break, we talked quite a lot about the ideas he'd put forth, and even though we've been married "forever," like one other couple at the retreat said, the information was extremely helpful.

We were also given the opportunity to watch some of his "Flag Page" discussions with couples, and given the book but not the code to use the online assessment. I am hopeful we'll be able to get the code and do the assessment, because the information this shows about personality goes way beyond the personality "colors" that we did at a previous retreat.

Mark Gungor talks about what is right about a person, versus what is wrong with them.  He talked about how God made men to be, and how He made women to be-- but acknowledging that we are individuals and may be different. We both laughed, and we both enjoyed the videos and the discussion we had with the facilitators.

My favorite verse was Proverbs 14:4-- "Without oxen, a stable (manger) stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest."  Marriage is messy, but the results are worth it!  He joked that there should be a good "positive to pooh" ratio in every marriage.

So-- was this church?

Well, we can't go back to this congregation, obviously. This was a once-in-a-lifetime group of people and even if we went on another retreat with Mark Gungor's videos and books, it wouldn't be the same nor even close to the same. So, no, this was not church.

Yet, there was (brief) prayer. There was the Bible in a totally approachable way. There was learning and there was love.

But why do I write about it here?

The last day of our meeting, the chaplain's assistant asked us to pray with him before we traveled home. He spoke of hope, and faith, and safe travels. During our stay, my husband and I had talked about one or two couples who were truly at risk, and others who appeared strong and healthy and happy together. There was much love, there was some healing, and there was a great deal of hope.

I don't count this as a church visit, per se, but I truly do believe that when we gather together and we ask God's blessing-- He is here. Whether it's in a church, or a hotel conference room, or in a coffee shop when two friends meet.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why I Sometimes Procrastinate

I procrastinate when the thing I am supposed to do is unpleasant, or awkward, or boring.  I procrastinate when my feelings are mixed and I'm not sure how to write about them.  I really procrastinate when all of these things are true.

I definitely procrastinated this week, but I did go to church last Sunday.  I just didn't like it, and it was hard for me to think of a way to write about the experience without sounding, indeed, like "The Church Critic".

This was my first experience with a Church of Christ, or CoC.  One of my oldest friends was raised in this church in Arizona, and still feels connected with it.  So, knowing a few things about them but really very little, I went.

I knew that they sang a capella.  (I was not aware that this meant there was no choir, but I was prepared for the lack of any instrumentation at all.)

I knew they were more formal than most churches I'm accustomed to.  This wasn't based on my friend's information, but on how her grandmother was when I would visit after school.

I should have talked to J a little bit more.  But such is life.  We have to wing it sometimes.

When I reached the church, I was a minute or so late.  The parking lot was totally devoid of life, but full of cars.  I checked the service times twice-- yes, their main service was at the time I thought.  Walking into the doors, the hallway was empty save for one woman heading away from me.  No one else was around.  No sound.  No chatter.  Coming to the sanctuary doors, there was an order of service on a small table, and two men were talking a little bit.  They ignored me utterly, though they both looked directly at me.

Okay, then.

Walking into the sanctuary, I could see that who I assumed was the pastor was speaking, and the order of service was also displayed on a screen behind him.  (The inside of the sanctuary was large and airy, with the wall behind the pulpit soaring high...lovely.)

Here is one problem, and this is only a problem for me (and others in my situation)-- I couldn't understand the speaker at all.  The microphone amplification quality was so poor and echoing, I wondered to myself if any of the older congregants could understand him either.  But that's my issue, and not a CoC or even church issue here.

The music director?  Head singer?  I'm not sure what one would call him, but he led us in singing.  And every song that was chosen was slow.  And dirge-like.  And solemn.  Is this typical?  I don't know.  I just tried to follow along.  The church information explained that they sing a capella so everyone can fully concentrate, body and mind, on the teachings of God.  But surely they're allowed some energy in their singing?

Then there was the sermon.  Which was about how wrong homosexuality was.  And how bad it was if a couple got divorced and remarried.  And on.  And on.

Not how to help single mothers or how to help families stay together.

Not how to guide people with love, or act Christ-like.

Just...lots of sex and immorality.

Okay, then.

I did get a welcome packet.  I did have one very, very sweet and quiet lady welcome me personally to the church.  Her soft, gentle hand on my shoulder and her quiet smile make me smile in return, just thinking of her.

I'm sure you can tell why I am not being specific about which CoC this is.  There is more than one CoC locally, and thousands elsewhere.  I do not want to judge all, by how this one was.  I understand from J that the churches she attended were more formal, and more judgmental.  But those are her opinions.  This blog contains mine, and I a) don't want to insult the members of this congregation and b) don't want to insinuate that they're all like this.

I do not mind the a capella singing. In further reading, I see that the CoC denomination is trying to recreate what they felt Jesus would have done for His first church, and how they believed and worshiped.  Those are honorable intentions.

This church, at least on this Sunday, lacked one thing I believe others felt around Jesus.  And that is joy.  There was so little joy in the welcoming.  There was no joy in the sermon.  There was no joy in the music.  I can handle being reproved or being taught uncomfortable lessons.

I cannot handle a lack of joy.  Not when I remember how it felt to learn that Jesus was one friend I could always count on, and one friend who would never leave me.  Not when I know the comfort He provides, or the blessings He did.

Sometimes it's easy to know what is not the right church home for me.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Church Critic

My family has given me a ton of good-natured ribbing over this project.  It began when my husband jokingly called me "The Church Critic", and it has evolved over time to an entire rating system for reviewing churches.

Let me be clear.  I am not like Dana Carvey's (hilarious) portrayal of "The Church Lady" from Saturday Night Live.

I'm also not like Siskel and Ebert's old movie reviews with the "two thumbs up!"

At the same time, though, their kidding tickles me and we've come up with what a true "Church Critic" might use for their reviewing system.

5/5 Steeples -- The outside looks very "churchy".

10/10 Alleluia's -- Audience participation is great!

3/3 Bibles -- The sermon actually related to the verse that was shared.

5/5 Hymnbooks -- Godly music!

5/5 Choir Robes -- Usually reserved for full gospel choirs.  :)

10/10 Candles -- Not all churches use candles.  Some use flowers, others are more stark but still they feel like godly places.  Some churches are really, really showy.

4/4 Communion cups -- Communion was offered, explained, and not rushed through.

5/5 Anointings -- I've only been to one church with oil, but one should be prepared!

10/10 Offering plates -- The offering was done in a respectful, non-showy way that did not directly point out who was giving what.  (Believe it or not, I went to one church where parishioners filed in front of the church to put their offering in the basket.  This was very public.  I heard of another church where deacons stood at the doors until the offering was a large enough amount, and then everyone could leave.)

5/5 Coffees -- Would I want to sit down and have a chat with the people who I met?

You get the idea.  This is all in fun, and I hope it made you laugh.  A church experience can't be broken down into all of its individual parts like this, any more than a movie can be.  It's personal, it's individual, and all I can do is write about what I encountered.  Another person, even on that exact day, may feel different things from what I felt.  I do try to add information about what the different denominations are like (since most people tend to stay within the denomination where they grew up), as well as some other observations that I've had about congregations and sermons.  Nothing I write is meant to be taken as gospel (pun intended).

Three out of three Bibles-- it must be good!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Message of Meaning

I'll admit it.  Sometimes I add a church to my list because I drive by it often and I like the sign.  If the sign is funny, witty, meaningful, or even updated often, I am drawn to the church and their congregation.  It's how I found First Church of the Nazarene, and it's how I found last week's church as well.  Trinity Baptist Church is one of those churches.

I read their website as part of my pre-visit preparation, and the pastor sounded so earnest that I was intrigued.  Nothing about the site was pushy, nothing was preachy, it was just "here is our church and we hope we can welcome you".  I am a real sucker for that kind of church website.

Walking towards the building, I first noticed the live oaks that surround it.  There were leaves and acorns underfoot, branches overhead, and a feeling that the church was a part of the earth and not trying to overcome it.  The trees shelter the front entrance somewhat, and a visitor might feel ushered in as I did.

Entering the sanctuary, I noticed the organ music.  I'll admit right here, that I am not a big fan of organ music.  My mom would have recognized whatever it was being played, but I just felt an innermost sinking.  My church journey, so far, sometimes feels split into two camps-- organ music and rockin' gospel.  I've only attended a couple of places that had the kind of modern, prayerful blend of old and new that I really like to sing along to.

Want to know a secret, though?  Once the choir started singing, even with the very traditional hymns, I didn't care.  The choir director sang along, with her clear voice and absolute joy in the music leading us all to enjoy.

I really love this song.

How wonderful it is, when a choir and a congregation sing together with wide smiles on their faces!  Regardless of the type of music, the joy in the room envelopes everyone.  I began to suspect that there was something really special here.

There was a traditional speak-and-respond call to worship, two scripture readings, pastoral and Lord's prayer, and a few more hymns besides the one I linked to above.  The order of service was smooth and flowing, with the children in attendance moving to the front of the sanctuary at the end of one hymn for "Children's Time" with the pastor before their Children's Church.

If any of the attending parents were like my mother, and any of these children were like the girl I once was, I can imagine they were holding their breath when the kids went to the front.  The Pastor, after all, had a mike on.  Little voices sometimes carry.  Little voices sometimes make comments that make parents want to sink through the floor.  

Thankfully, none of this happened and the Pastor's quick talk with the children about "giving thanks" and asking what they were thankful for was simply sweet. I didn't even have a child at the front of the church and my eyes misted a bit. I loved this, and I hope it's something that happens often, if not at every service.  

Then, there was the sermon.  Pastor Morgan said at the beginning that he was at a gathering when he was asked about the end times.  He was asked about Hurricane Sandy, and wars, and all of the political strife across the world, and if those signaled the end times. 

He said he didn't know, but he didn't think so. He explained that "apocolypse" and "revelation" were the same thing, translated-- that there was a revealing of truth in the Book of Revelation.  He then talked about looking at the Dallas skyline, and how amazing it was, and how impressive it was.

Then he related it to this verse:

Mark 13:1-8-- As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

Pastor Morgan then went on to talk about prayer, and what we give thanks for at Thanksgiving.  He poked a little fun at himself that all of his items began with the letter "f":

Faith (not dogma)

He then said that these were the stones of our temple, the idols of our day.  These are all blessings from God, true, but when we put them before God, they become idols.  And just like the Temple in Jesus' day, they will collapse and be brought down.

Our foundations are being torn down.  They've become a temple.  Now, we must look for faith, not in buildings or tradition, but in God's work.

Do we pray for God's grace, or that He will follow our intentions?  What are we to do when our foundations crumble?  Only one thing.  We keep moving one foot in front of the other.  "Eventually we come to a place that has expected our return."  

God is on his throne.

I would absolutely return to this church. It wasn't their bread ministry for visitors (I received a lovely loaf of pumpkin spice bread), their witty sign, nor the music-- it was the sermon of absolute meaning and worth.  It was the Pastor himself, greeting his congregation and visitors as we left, noting visitors and chatting a moment. It was the email I received later, from the Pastor, thanking me personally for my visit. There is much that makes a church special and this is one of the several I've visited so far that have truly affected me.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

Image and Substance

I had a real treat a few Sundays ago. Just down the street from one of the churches I had already attended, Greater Vision Community Church seemed quite similar to other places I’d gone. I wondered for a moment if I should even add it to my list, worrying that I’d just be repeating an experience.  Big church, gospel music.. What might I learn that was different?

I think these assumptions are when God really wants to poke at me, and change my thinking.  Greater Vision is a larger churchI did stand out, as I have in other churches of this type in my community. Ushers, check. Choir, check.  

There, the similarities stopped.

As I walked in, a greeter stopped me for a full hug. “We’re so glad to have you!” Other parishioners who heard her, smiled at me and echoed the sentiment. Though it was crowded in the hall as I walked in, it was okay because I had a feeling of belonging already. 

And, oh, the music. That choir was on fire, full of the spirit and with such power to their voices. Some might consider them to be loud, but it wasn’t so much that it was uncomfortable. Folks were swaying, many were singing, and the sanctuary felt alive with grace.

Greater Vision is the very image of a proper Southern gospel church, at least as I’d imagined one to be. Some ladies had beautiful hats the likes of which I’d only seen in pictures. Children were dressed in their Sunday finest. There were even church fans on wooden craft sticks for those parishioners who needed a bit of air.  Ushers in white gloves, the choir resplendent in their robes, it was an experience even before I’d fully come through the door.

During the entire service, I couldn't help but notice the woman in front of me. Great black hat with ornamental feathers, black gloves, impassioned voice beseeching the heavens during the music-- this woman stood out. As time went on, though, I noticed her more for how freely she expressed her emotions, how joyfully she moved to the music, and how carefully the boy next to her took care of her. I assume he was her grandson, but does it matter? Sweet gray suitcoat and tie, perfectly cut hair, this boy was a gentleman in training. When she needed it, he helped her stand, despite the weight and height differences between them. He helped her walk to the altar, and brought her a blanket to cover her knees so she could retain her modesty as she prayed. She stood, he stood. She sat, he sat. The two were in tune and he obeyed her unfailingly.

I was known as a "good kid," growing up. Today, I try to follow the rules. But I have never in my life obeyed anyone the way this boy helped his grandma. That in itself was a lesson in the pews.

Then, there was the sermon. The title of the sermon was "Leave the Pool." Well, I think it was. I am a little bit behind, due to family visiting and a special weekend, and my notes are not as good as they should be. I did take really good notes on what he was saying, though. I can even hear his voice in my mind as I read the words.

John 5:1-18 speaks of a man Jesus came across at the pool in Jerusalem called Bethesda. The pool was touched by an angel at certain times and whoever was first to get in the water during those times was able to be healed. This man had been ill for 38 years, and had been lying on a mat by the pool. Jesus asked him if he would be made whole, and the man told him he had no one to help him, so he was never first to get in the water when the healing was possible. Jesus told him to "rise, take up your bed, and walk". The man was made whole. Later, the man was seen praising Jesus.

The gist of the sermon was that sometimes, we have to leave the pool to get healed. What are we waiting for? What holds us back? What keeps us from moving on? What is our "pool"?

"Rise, take up your stuff, and leave the pool." I only wish I could portray the Pastor's voice in these words.

Now, this sermon happened to come at a time when I was considering going back to a situation that had some advantages and disadvantages. The pastor said over and over don't go back. This spoke straight to my heart and I felt as though I'd been awakened. What was I thinking?? I wondered, sitting there, what other situations the congregation was facing that they could make good, solid decisions about after his sermon.

"Rise, take up your stuff, and leave the pool."

Not just "you are healed," but "don't go back". Going back would be the worst thing.  You are a new person in God-- go forward.

For the first time in this journey, I wish I could replay a sermon. I know my notes and my musings here don't do it justice. This is why they sell the CDs and DVDs, I guess, at some of these churches. I don't think Greater Vision does that (and no sign of an ATM in their lobby).

Some extra thoughts-- this church uses the King James Version; they are a hip-swaying, clapping and sometimes shouting congregation; they expect you to dress for Sunday worship, although I saw no questioning eyes at the few young people who were more casually dressed; and the services are lengthy.

As the congregation was dismissed, the woman in front of me turned around and told me "Welcome, we are so glad you're here."  She gave me a huge hug, enveloping me in black-gloved and impeccably dressed friendliness.  Her grandson hugged and welcomed me, too, and I told him I appreciated how much he'd helped her during the service.

There have been a few churches I've visited, where I felt I would return.  Some of the ones I won't return to are on that list because I had already visited them years ago and determined they were not a good fit for me.  Some of them have been added to that list since I began this journey.  Even though the sermon was a long one at nearly 2 hours, I felt refreshed and moved and affected by all parts of it.  When I feel the need to be drenched in a service, I will try this one again. I may even make it my home eventually, despite preferring a more casual congregation. This sermon and these people moved me.

This song stayed with me for most of the day after service.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Question of Race

Note:  I am writing this in advance of next weekend, when I will allow myself to take the weekend off to celebrate our anniversary with my husband, as we were unable to earlier this year. I will still do 52 weeks of church, and will most likely do a Wednesday service to end up with two services in one week.

Perhaps it's just the neck of the woods where we live, but I have noticed something more and more lately.  Either everyone in the church seems to look like me, or I am one lonely polka dot.  (Many thanks to a teacher long ago who described that feeling to me.) One Sunday, I was one of three who looked like me, and the other two came together.  Now, I have been in cold, unfriendly churches where I looked like everyone else, and I've been in some of the warmest and most amazing congregations where I truly stood out.

My question is this:  Why, in this day and age, do we still segregate ourselves like this?  Our kids play together, our neighborhoods are usually a rainbow, we all go to the same libraries and restaurants and playgrounds.  But at church, this is not the case.  I've seen churches that are largely White, mostly Black, and we live in an area with many iglesias.  It is rare, at least here, to find churches where everyone gathers together in a blend of skin tones and backgrounds.

One friend commented that she'd seen this local monachronastic tendency too, and another said she thought this was something typical of the South. I'm not sure. I've been to churches that are truly a reflection of their community. In past cities and states, the blend of backgrounds and skin tones was a beautiful thing to see.

If you go to church, take a look around you. Who do you invite to go along with you? Do they all look like you? Do you think others would feel comfortable at your services?  Do your church members look askance when someone a little different comes through the door, or do they, as I had happen recently, throw their arms around you in welcome?

This is a terribly sensitive subject. I am well aware of that, and I am also aware that family trees sometimes hold secrets and darker feelings than the ones this current generation feels. I think, though, that this is an issue like any other difficult issue-- it is made easier through honest thought and discussion. I hope you'll join me.

Galations 3:28 -- There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vote the Right Way

I'm interrupting my usual blog (and I'm behind two churches, now) to talk about this upcoming Tuesday.  Election day.  Presidential elections are always heated, always passionate, and each person believes they are right.

This Sunday, I went to another new church and I fully expected to hear something about voting or about the election.  I hoped I would hear "Pray, then vote" or something along those lines.  Instead, I heard this:

"Now, you know I can't tell you who to vote for, but I want you to vote.  And I want you to vote the right way." Throat clear, ah-hem, church said "amen".

Now, maybe I'm being too sensitive.  Maybe I'm wrong, and the church demographics didn't automatically mean they wanted me to vote the way I think he was implying.

Frankly, I don't care.

This is what else I've heard, via Facebook, since I commented on this today:

"I went to a baptism today at an Episcopal church.  His message was 'vote for who you want, but vote.  Know whether he wins or not, we will pray for the President because all men deserve our prayers.'"

"Our church says vote for who you vote for.  Just remember, Jesus is King!"

"One of the things I miss about the Episcopal church is that ours never tried to tell us what to do at all politically. Pray, get educated, vote for who you think God would want you to, end of spiel."

"Pastor told us this morning that he went to war so we would have the right to vote so please do.  He told us to vote for who we believe is best, but to please pray about it before we do.  He didn't endorse a candidate but he did say if a candidate has a platform that has things that distinctly oppose what it says in the Bible, he doesn't understand how someone who is a Christian could vote for him.  I completely agree."

"If a pastor is going to make those kinds of statements, then his church needs to lose their tax exempt status and be funded by the 'right' candidate and make that known to the public."

"I agree.  And I think for a pastor to try to influence a congregation to vote a particular way is running a big risk.  If the pastor says, 'Vote for Candidate A,' but Candidate B wins instead, does that mean the pastor got bad information from God?  Or did he go against God's wishes, in which case what else has he misled the congregation about?  Some pastors do the right thing and urge the congregation to participate in our election process; some try to influence.  But hooray for the pastors who do urge their congregations to learn, think, and then vote as their conscience tells them is best.  I know there are some out there, and that is heartening."

"It is wrong either way.  I like to make sure people know that both sides are guilty of it and not let a biased, one-sided statement go by, alluding that only one side is guilty of the action and the person making the statement doesn't succeed in putting out only half the truth.  A half truth is still a lie because it's not totally honest."

(Is it any wonder I am tired of this election?)

These comments are from people whose votes will go to different candidates. They are not all Republican, they are not all Democrat, and in fact another friend assumed the pastor meant a different party from what I thought. We all have our opinions. We all have our passions.

I am absolutely certain that every pastor of every church also has their own passions about this subject. Some of them may be biblically-based, some of them may be based on what they feel will most help their congregations, some may be looking to their own self-interest. As with everything, pastors are human also.

However, as leaders of congregations, pastors and bishops and priests and leaders of religious organizations should not try to tell me who to vote for.

There are many reasons for this-- as stated above, they run a real risk. They run the risk of having to explain why they were wrong, or saying that they aren't prophets. They also run a risk Constitutionally, because their tax-exempt status relies on them keeping out of politics. This violates rules set in their rules for a 501(3)(c) charitable organization.

I found this article about "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," and it makes me uncomfortable no matter which candidate any of the pastors try to endorse or influence their congregants to vote for. The date this year was October 7, but it sure seems like other pastors may have chosen this Sunday for their speech.

I found specific information on church tax-exempt status in another article on about.com that explains atheism, because of the implied governmental support for religion and some beliefs that this goes against the separation of church and state.

Want specific tax-code information from the IRS itself?  IRS.gov has an entire 32-page tome on this subject alone-- Churches and Religious Organizations.

Here are some church-specific stances on the subject:

"The United Methodist Church believes that the church has the moral imperative to act for the common good. For people of faith, therefore, there are no political or spiritual spheres where their participation can be denied. The attempt to influence the formation and execution of public policy at all levels of government is often the most effective means available to churches to keep before humanity the ideal of a society in which power and order are made to serve the ends of justice and freedom for all people. Through such social action The United Methodist Church generates new ideas, challenges certain goals and methods, and helps rearrange the emphasis on particular values in ways that facilitate the adoption and implementation of specific policies and programs that promote goals that are congruent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This task of the Church is in no way in contradiction with our commitment to a vital separation of Church and State. We believe that the integrity of both institutions is best served when both institutions do not try to control the other. Thus, we sustain with the first amendment to the Constitution that: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;' We live in a pluralistic society. In such a society, churches should not seek to use the authority of government to make the whole community conform to their particular moral codes. Rather, churches should seek to enlarge and clarify the ethical grounds of public discourse and to identify and define the foreseeable consequences of available choices of public policy."

The Mormon Church, or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) has a specific article on political neutrality.  This explains why neither candidate has been endorsed, nor will they be, despite the religion of one of our candidates.  I found this article to be really interesting, and I appreciate my sweet LDS friend who posted it.  

I'm going to quote that article, because I think this is how I feel churches should be -- 

"Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated Church position. While the Church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent."

People are to follow God, not their church.  Follow the Bible, not the pastor except as they follow the Bible.  

That's how to vote the "Right" way.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Apparently I'm not a Lutheran

Last week, I decided to branch out of my comfort zone and attend a church of a denomination that I not only haven't heard much about, but that I have also never visited before in my life.  I have a few friends who are Lutherans, or who grew up attending those churches, and so I thought if nothing else, I'd feel comforted thinking of them in a similar church while I was there.

I knew that the Lutheran church is made up of two synods, or councils, with varying doctrines or beliefs. Until this trip, I had no idea what the base differences were between the two, nor what separated them. There is the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which states on their website that their "church body has been unable to reach agreement with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) regarding fellowship, church and ministry, and gender roles." The church I decided to attend says that they are members of the LCMS.  Reading both websites briefly, I think I might have a difficult time joining either church because I haven't been brought up in that faith. Certainly, it would be a process such as if I were to join the Catholic church.  Perhaps that isn't a bad thing-- certainly, I think I should learn more about a denomination or a particular church's beliefs before I join.  They would want the body of their church to hold the same beliefs and follow their doctrines before serving in ministry.

Both of the synods appear to have active, caring ministries. Everything from military assistance to emergency aid to help for the poorest-- this is a denomination that seeks to help. The particular church I attended, Grace Lutheran, was certainly friendly and welcoming. At the door, I was not only handed an order of service, but it was the most complete packet of information about that service that I've ever seen. Announcements, Prayer Concerns, Welcome pages-- it was all there. They even helpfully and tactfully told visitors how and when to take Communion. I, being a visitor and not of a Lutheran background whatsoever, understood very clearly that I should not partake of the Lord's Supper at this church. I am okay with that, although it stood out in stark contrast to my experience at First United Methodist, Killeen, where all were invited to partake according to their comfort level and beliefs.

The church building itself needs a special mention. Entering the sanctuary of Grace Lutheran, one is immediately held captive by the light shining through one of the largest and brightest stained-glass windows I've ever seen.

Obviously, they weren't set up for Christmas during my visit.

Every song was listed within the order of service, words and music and all.  The choir stood to the back of the room, so I didn't even realize they were there until it was time for us to sing the first song.  One song, "Come, My Soul, With Every Care," had a verse that rang true with me during this church journey as well as just in my life.

"While I am a pilgrim here/Let Thy love my spirit cheer;/As my guide, my guard, my friend,/Lead me to my journey's end."

Each prayer that we prayed was also listed in the order of service, and it also explained in the "Prayers of the Church" section which part of the Lord's prayer each petition was meant to emulate. "Christ our Lord taught His disciples to pray, saying 'Our Father who art in Heaven...' As the Lord would have us to pray this way, the petitions of our prayers are offered in the spirit of our Lord's Prayer. I have heard of children (and others) being taught to pray according to the Lord's Prayer, but this broke it down into 7 separate petitions, an introduction and a conclusion. After each petition, the congregation was supposed to say "Hear our prayer."

Even though I was definitely a visitor, the completeness of the order of service was extremely helpful. When to stand, when to sit, what to say-- it was all included. There were also passages listed for church members to do their readings for the week, both in the Bible and in Lutheran texts.

I suppose the part of the service that specifically addressed a particular verse or story would be called a homily in a Catholic church. The rest of the service was similar to a Catholic service, too, with the exception of kneeling (although those who partook of the Supper did kneel). This week's homily was about Mark 10:23-31, pertaining to it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven. The pastor read the actual passage, while we stood, and then he talked about how the Bible never defines wealth nor who is wealthy. Is it $100? Is it millions? Is it the one who has food on the table that night? The important part, he said, was that we cannot save ourselves. It is impossible, but through Christ all things are possible. At the time Jesus spoke these words, it was shocking! The rich, the healthy, the well-fed of the time were those who everyone believed God loved and protected. If you were sick or poor, it was punishment for something. So to say that the rich were nothing special, that "many who are first will be last, and the last, first" was absolutely against everything that was common at that time.

Thinking on these words, I think we should thank God for our blessings-- but we shouldn't think we are anything special because of them. We are not different. We are not unique. We are unique because of our relationship with God and the way we go through life-- the way we use our blessings and give back is more important than what we have.

I titled this post "Apparently I'm Not a Lutheran" because I learned something else about myself and my needs for a church home, during this visit. I loved that they made me feel welcome, and that the Pastor pointed out some flyers about Grace as I left. He introduced himself to me, told me he was available if I had any questions, and was overall really welcoming and warm. I just got the feeling that this was the kind of church where they always knew what was going to happen, and in what order, every week. This could be comforting to most. Perhaps part of my issue with finding a church home is that I get restless once I learn how a church operates. That's certainly worth some thought. I found myself wondering, though, if they always prayed the same prayers...if they always gave the confessions and absolutions the same way...  I think this is something a lot of people would enjoy, but I'm not sure it's what I'm seeking. If it were, I could imagine being part of, as the Pastor called it on multiple occasions, the Grace Family.  (After, of course, going through the classes.)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

New Friends, Strong Resolve

Church this week could have been a disaster.  I could have left feeling disappointed and down and just otherwise "off," and determined not to ever go back to this particular congregation again, once this "52" is over.

It wasn't.  But not for lack of trying, and I believe that any negativity that came of it had absolutely nothing to do with the congregation.

First, the church I went to this week is Killeen First Church of the Nazarene.  I had been there a few times before during our years since we moved here, and my interest is always piqued by the sermon titles that Pastor Rick Moore has prominently displayed on the outside marquee.  It is a friendly, warm church with songs I can sing and messages that I can relate to.  Thinking back, the reason I stopped going there is very similar to the reason that this week could have been so dismal.

My first visits at this church were warm and welcoming, and I had been greeted with hugs from at least two older congregants on my way in.  A hug is a wonderful way to greet a willing new visitor, at least in my opinion and experience.  After I had visited for a few weeks, though, I think I blended in and became less visible.  Or something.  This particular visit, I was greeted warmly by some and with glancing, cool smiles by others.  I was not given an order of service, though I saw others had the little church bulletins.

I saw someone from work, as I walked into the foyer, and we chatted very briefly.  She even came over to my seat a little later to talk and to explain that most Sundays she played the clarinet with the worship team.  We had a nice visit, and I learned more about how this church loves its youth and keeps them busy.  Then she moved on, and I wondered again why I always end up sitting totally alone at any church.

This is what could have made me feel so alone.  That nasty, sad little voice inside.

"Other people got one."

"Doesn't anyone ever want to sit near me?  Am I somehow giving off unfriendly vibes?"

This Sunday, though, I had a bit of an epiphany.

My (new) friend from work couldn't sit with me, even after the worship, because her son needed her to sit with him.

They most likely just ran out of the flyers.

It's not personal.

I became convinced, sitting there, that every time these little sad thoughts and feelings of ostracism come in-- it's not the church at all. In fact, sometimes it might even be that the church is too good, or too right for me, and Satan gets angry.

Okay, so I'm laughing at myself a little bit here. Why would Satan care about one visitor?  I felt an element of truth to that thought, though, sitting there. So I kept it.

Yes, there are churches that are cold and unfriendly.  I'm sure I have genuinely seen them, and I am equally certain that I'll see more of them as this "52" continues.

This time, though, I knew that the church I visited was normally very friendly. That very day, I'd I had a treasured pre-worship chat with a person I now count as a work friend.  Anything else is either my own social awkwardness or dark spirits forcibly trying to make me avoid that congregation in whatever way they can.

Here is my thought.  If, at some point in the future, I am blessed enough to find a church I really want to call "home," I would love to either work there or be a volunteer who helps with keeping our visitors.  One might call it marketing, but I think it has more to do with making sure that first impressions are consistent and that a church welcome goes beyond having, as one church did, a welcome center that was unmanned and not very welcoming at all.  It's something worth thinking about.

From Pastor Moore:  Being a follower of Christ does not mean prosperity, health or lack of strife. BUT we can live a life of spiritual victory. 100% of the time. Imagine that! Bad stuff will still happen. We can rely on God's community, and share our load.

The sermon topic was "Typical Christian Assumptions?" and I found it interesting, engaging, and meaningful.

Mark 10:35-45 tells of two disciples who asked to be seated to Jesus' right and left sides, answering only to Him on his throne.  They were under the mistaken belief that being a follower of God was easy, that His burden was light.  They were wrong, and the sermon was about what other things we might assume to be true, such as that Christ might be there to do things for us (as in "Ask what you will in Christ's name and it will be done").

Overall, though I was left with a calm sense of peace and understanding.  I wonder if it might be a bit presumptuous of me to think that Satan might be interested in me, or my little blog, or whether I alone attend church.  I don't think that matters so much.  Either way, my resolve is strengthened.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Missing Friends

Last Sunday, I planned better. Saturday is usually my one day a week to sleep in, but we had to be on the move relatively early. Remembering that a friend's church had evening services, I decided to visit. This way I could still get my rest one day this week.

Grace Bible Church is a small but vibrant church, in between Grace Christian Center and Grace Lutheran Church in a central part of town.  I have had several friends tell me they attend this church, and one dear friend taught two women's Bible studies there.  Before she moved with her husband to Germany, another friend and I had sat together over several Sundays' worth of worship.  This church and I have a history, and it is mostly a warm and friendly connection because of my friends.

Entering the church, I was warmly greeted and handed a bulletin. The bulletin has a page for sermon notes (I love this), plus leaflets about church activities and welcome information. It clearly lists contact information, including elders and ministry leaders. They have made a real effort to let people know the organization of the church and the priorities of the congregation.  I see notations about women's ministry, counseling, youth, and even a recovery ministry and a mercy team. This church prominently displays that they have a Celebrate Recovery ministry. Within the church bulletin are the October memory verses, which members are encouraged to memorize, and a long October Bible Reading Plan with verses for each day.

Did I mention this is a vibrant church?

During the praise and worship music, I notice that every song has a Bible verse shown on the screen during musical bridges.  I really love this, as it relates the song directly to biblical teachings.

Lamentations 3:21-24 --

21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.

23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

During this we sang a song about "Your Grace is Enough," but I have no idea if that is the title to the song or not. None of the songs were familiar, and most had complicated melodies that made it difficult for me, at least, to follow along with the music.

I think this is the song we sang.

There were several other verses shown, all about "my portion" and "His grace is sufficient". I had no idea there were so many verses about that. The reminder was appreciated during this week when I kept hearing one person talking about how much other people made versus what she was paid, or even versus what I was paid. I took these verses to heart and reminded myself that I love my job and there are benefits besides a paycheck to consider.

The pastor, one I have not seen before, began his sermon with a discussion about distractions.  How there is so much competing for our attentions and keeping us from hearing Him and His word.  This was just a quick snippet, and then on he went into the last part of a series called "A New Identity."

Let me pause here by saying that, as a person who has had to move many times and who is still not finding a "church home," all of these sermon series get kind of tiring.  Even if the pertinent lesson is designed well and can stand on its own, as in the case with this visit and most others I've attended, it is still something that always makes me feel like I'm not a part of that church.  Especially in this area, where so many of us move and transition and change everything else, do we really need another reminder that we are missing out?  That we are coming into the middle of things?  I'm not sure what the answer is, here, but I still feel a weariness inside me every time I sit down and hear "part of a series..." and I know I am coming in halfway through.

At any rate, this particular sermon began with Ephesians 1:15-23.  The pastor said that it could be used as a prayer for ourselves, that it was Paul's prayer to Ephesus.

This is one time where my notes, and the actual verse, don't quite fit. The verse talks about how he prays for these people with thanksgiving, and that God's power for those who believe is the same as that which raised His Son from the dead. But what the pastor talked about was that our name and our title are not who we are. We are more than that as soon as we believe. Where I might have been "Casey, daughter of Linda and Ed," now I am "Casey, child of God." This is powerful. He also asked what we pray for-- do we pray for only little things, such as "Lord, I need to get going...can you please help me find my keys?" or do we truly pray for the big things, for our families and our country. I couldn't help but think of "pray without ceasing."

The pastor reminded us that God is head over all-- over disease, over cancer, over accidents, over our finances. He truly has all the power. This is a really good reminder, especially for anyone going through any sort of test or ordeal.

He also talked about a diagram with "needs" at the center.  Our needs inform our beliefs, which inform our goals, which in turn create our behavior.  All are linked.  When we look at our children, I would imagine having this diagram in mind would be helpful.

I honestly have no idea, looking back, if he actually showed this diagram or if it's just something I jotted down.  I still take notes like I'm in college, so either of these could be true.  I am not sure how much I believe this to be true, but it makes sense in a way so I'll think about it more.  I am not entirely sure what that has to do with my identity, other than having many layers that all are based on needs.  To have a lasting change on behavior, one must first fulfill needs.

My post title this week was "Missing Friends," because as I sat there listening to a sermon I'm not entirely sure I understood and singing music I couldn't quite follow along with, I really missed the company. This is a  friendly, very involved and energetic congregation and I always felt very welcome at the women's Bible studies. Any church refers more to its people than to the lessons, however, because one will back up the other. While I am learning a lot from, and enjoying, this yearlong church journey, I am also still a visitor every Sunday.  I'm "new," and 99% of the time I sit alone.  It gives me food for thought. I don't want to choose a church home based solely on the friends I sit with (or the fact that I sit with anyone), but it's so much easier to build a connection with a church through Bible studies and small groups.  I don't mind large churches, but eye contact with the other congregants or acknowledgements that there is someone sitting close by would be much welcomed.  

Lots to think about this week.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Not Doing That Again

I've really tried to plan out my Sunday services.  Sure, the planning may occur Saturday night as I double check service times or locations.  On at least one occasion, my plans changed very rapidly.  But I try to plan.

This last Sunday, my daughter had a sleepover at our house, so I decided that I'd just find a church with an evening service because I didn't want to have to shuffle the friend out the door unreasonably early.  Well, as the weekend progressed, it became very apparent that there weren't enough hours in the days to get everything done that we needed to get done, and still do everything in the way we wanted to get it done.

I thought to myself, well, I'll try out one of the televised services and DVR it and watch it late Sunday evening.  It's a different format from these polished, streaming internet services and it's worth observing.  No planning.  No real thought put into it.  Set the DVR to some random service, and off I go.

I won't put the name of the church whose service I observed.  It was held in a fine old building with stained glass, well-worn choir chairs, and the most amazing pipe organ.  I think perhaps I caught an "off" service, or one that even the most faithful to that congregation would think was not quite so refreshing as usual.  Watching it this way, it was far too easy to fast-forward through the choir music because the sound quality was so atrocious I couldn't tell at all what they were singing.  It was far too easy to take some notes, look up some verses, and then decide to delete the program when I wasn't 100% sure it was actually over.

The thing is, that doesn't matter.  What matters is that, because I didn't plan and because I didn't take this seriously, I ended up with a half-hearted lesson that didn't have a chance of getting through to me because I wasn't paying full attention at all.

So this week I will do better.

In the meantime, a few thoughts that I did jot down.

Hebrews 1:1-3 -- In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

I love this-- "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being..."   What a beautiful description!

I learned that we don't know who wrote Hebrews.  I had always believed it to be Paul, but after this pastor kept referring to "the author of Hebrews," I did a little bit of basic research and learned that no one really quite knows for sure who wrote this book.  It makes me want to dive into the book in more detail-- not a bad result from a Sunday service, overall.

Amazing Grace sounds wonderful, no matter how bad the sound quality is.

This church deserves full credit for wanting to make itself available to so many.  Whenever I see a televised service, I think about some much older people who lived on my street when I was growing up, who couldn't get to church.  Back then, and today, they could watch a service on TV.  I'm so glad this old-fashioned option is still available.  As my mother is fond of reminding me, not everyone has access to a computer, nor the ability to use one.

All was not lost, but tomorrow I will plan better.

Can you imagine worshiping in a church like this?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Short Note

In some ways, writing this blog has opened my eyes in ways I could never have believed.

What am I truly looking for in a church?

What does this kind of search do for a person?

And oh, the Bible verses I've learned!

However, in other ways, this search and this blog have been uncomfortable ones for me.

Am I, after all, just "The Church Critic"?   Should I give a service 3 "alleluia's", or a church, 5 "steeples"?

Where do I get off, anyway?

When I'm sitting in an unfamiliar church, or even a church where I know people but have not been asked to sit next to them (sometimes because they have duties elsewhere in the church), and I'm feeling a little lost or a little lonely, sometimes I really struggle with whether I can or should keep on with it.

The young preacher who sounds and gestures just like a young Matthew Broderick, making me feel like I'm watching "Ferris Bueller's Day of Rest."

The sermon that has one Bible verse, and the rest has nothing to do with the Bible at all.  In fact, that whole sermon seems to be about other churches.

And yes, the little whispering doubts that tell me I'm no seminary student...what nerve I have, to even think I have something to say about churches!  Or pastors!

And then, thankfully, the darkness of doubt backs away.

You see, I know why I'm doing this.  I've always had an interest in churches and why they do the things they do.  I've had an interest in the holiness, and the contradiction, inherent in human beings seeking God.  I have always been curious about the differences between churches and pastors and denominations.  Overall, this has been fun.

More importantly, I feel closer to God than I have ever felt before.  I have been involved with a wonderful group of women in a Bible Study (remember Family?), that helps keep me grounded in God and refreshed in spirit.  And I have learned oh, so much.

As I go each week to a different church, driving around town is a different thing.  "I've been to that one," and it was a glorious day.  "Oh, I wonder what that little one is like," and I make a note.  As I attend all of these churches, little by little I am learning about my neighbors.  Church by church, stitch by stitch, this search is sewing a blanket of community around me that I never could have imagined.

See you next Sunday!