Thursday, July 19, 2012

Strength in Numbers

I've been going around and around in my head the last few days, trying to think of how to describe my experience this week.  I had decided, at the beginning of this journey, that I had to visit what is (to me) the most visible church organization in town.  Now that I've been there, the challenge has been finding a way to describe it without sounding, as my husband teased, like 'The Church Critic'.

I think first I should explain one thing.  I am not visiting these churches to criticize them in any way.  I am not a seminary student, I am not formally schooled in any religion, and in fact I am not tied to any particular denomination of my birth religion, Christianity.  I am visiting these churches to see where I fit, where I can be of service, and where it is easiest for me to hear God speaking to me.  (That alone sounds cringe-worthy, but I have been in churches where I definitely feel His presence and I feel him working through me-- that is what I'm searching for.)

I am not 'The Church Critic,' but I'll admit that I'm looking from a subjective viewpoint.  I'll try to back up my feelings and thoughts with Scripture (or history) but this journey is a personal one.  I'm not trying to sway a person towards or away from any one particular church.  I'm just documenting my year, because so many people have said "I can't wait to hear how it goes".

So, now that I've said that, here is this week's visit--

Anyone who has lived here for more than 5 minutes has surely seen the bumper stickers.  "It's All About Him," they proclaim, "At the Christian House of Prayer".  On one roadside near to the Killeen location, there is a prominent billboard.  Nicknamed "The Cathedral of Central Texas," this church has two locations plus a camp that holds a lot of activities.  Looking on their website, there is a Federal Credit Union (?), a school, and many other ministries.

I knew that this would be a big congregation.  Pulling up to the parking lot, I was ushered forward by no less than three parking attendants (wearing matching t-shirts), and greeted by bright smiles everywhere I turned.  Somehow, despite the large numbers inside and outside the building, I did not feel overwhelmed or made to feel small as I have at other large churches.  This is a primarily African-American church, and the most color I have is "freckle", but I never once felt like I was out of place.  I was new, but not unwelcome.  Everyone seemed happy to see anyone new.

Church started promptly (perhaps even a little early) with a prayer, and ushers keep late-comers from entering while everyone is praying.  I will admit, from a purely personal standpoint, that I liked this a lot.

Once the music started, everyone is invited to find their seats and led to open areas by the rest of the ushers, red-blazered and white-gloved.  The ushers also handed tissues to those who became emotional during the music or the message.  Again, many warm smiles.

Music was lively, and the choir is the largest I have ever seen.  To my amazement, there was an orchestra pit behind the pulpit!  There were two ladies (in white, to be seen easily) who took turns doing ASL interpretation of both music and message.  I had not heard the songs before, but I remember "He Is My Friend" and one song which left me humming "Forward" and idly wondering if that's where a certain political phrase came from.

Again, there was a professionally produced video explaining upcoming events and services.  It mentioned Bishop Holcomb's upcoming birthday celebration; this man is beloved by his church, and the feeling is apparently mutual.

There was also an advertisement for a local business; I have also seen that business prominently displayed on the (video) sign outside the church and I am still not sure how this fits in with a church.  Thanks to sponsors and donors, I understand...but this was a glossy advertisement.

Service was 2 hours long, but I didn't feel like that much time could have passed.  The message was primarily about forgiveness.  As a first-time guest, they gave me a free copy of that day's service which I'd happily loan anyone who was interested.

Mark 11:25, King James Version, was our verse for the day.  25 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.

What did I take away from the message?  Unforgiveness keeps us from being able to fully accept blessing or even move forward.  That's not entirely what the Bishop meant but that's what spoke to me personally.  He broke down the Lord's prayer (and any prayer) into three parts-- Supplication (passion for what God wants), Prayer (request that God might want what we want, or request for our needs), and Intercession (Forgive us, and help us forgive others).  

This is where I remind people that I am not a seminary student! I have heard the Lord's Prayer broken down like this once before (that minister referred to it as a prayer sandwich) but I am not perfectly remembered or understood it, even while taking notes.

Two things that he said really stuck with me.  First, before you can get to the enemy, you have to take care of things at home.  Forgiveness, and asking forgiveness, starts with the people you live with and love the very most.  Second, there is a difference between "Criticism," or saying how someone is doing something wrong, and "Correction," where we show them what could be better.  The last bit, I think, will be especially helpful to parents and teachers.  

I will say that, despite the annoyance and wry humor at getting cut off in traffic by someone with an "It's All About Him" bumper sticker, some of the very nicest people I've ever had the pleasure of working with have hailed from this church.  From what I've seen, they help a great number of people.  They have The Refuge Corporation, an emergency homeless shelter for women and children, that I've personally recommended as part of a previous job.  (Note: as of 7/19 the site was down but I'm sure that's temporary.)  There is an energy and a joy in this congregation, and although I found myself wondering "why do they do this..or that..or this other thing," I'm sure there is a comfort for the group in being in such a large church.  They even offer services for people who are leaving the area, which made this military spouse smile.  I don't know if I would go back.  The year is young.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Money Changers?

This is NOT about this Sunday's church visit.  I will write about that separately.  

This is just a little something that has been bothering me, and I've seen it several times in  my church visits over the years.  I wanted to make this a separate blog post because I don't want it getting mixed in with the otherwise positive messages and sermons from the churches I've visited.

Gift shops, Bible supply store, church memorabilia (bumper stickers?)...whatever you want to call it, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Has anyone ever heard of the cleansing of the Temple?  It's mentioned in all four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and twice in the book of John).  Jesus goes up to the Temple and they are selling any number of things in the courtyard.  In fact, they're selling so much stuff and dealing in so much money, that it blocks the entry for those who want to simply come to worship.

I'm not saying that the gift shops at the churches I've attended have in any way kept me (or anyone else) from reaching the sanctuary for worship.  I understand that the churches have to fund their programs and services (and lights and mortgages) somehow.  At least one of these shops has had an ATM in it (for tithing too?), adding to my unease.

The Temple cleansing is the only time, as far as I know, where Jesus uses physical force.  He makes a "whip of cords," driving them out, and knocks over the tables.  Obviously, this seriously bothered him.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

13  The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14  In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.”

I've looked around at different Bible studies and sermons online about this, and the general feeling is that it isn't wrong for there to have been these sales-- the worshipers needed the animals for sacrifice (glad we don't do that now!) and the other things were also not "unholy". The problem is that the sales blocked the way to the Temple.  I think, then, my issue is that there is a feeling of shopping extravagance, versus a feeling of continued learning, in the shops I've seen.  Yes, there are Bibles.  And they also sell the sermons on CD and sometimes DVD for sharing or for further studies.  But there are also bumper stickers, posters, pens, t-shirts....  

My daughter, who visited Italy on a school trip, says that there is a gift shop at the Vatican.  She said that there are post cards, amazing works of art, and other items to show that the faithful (and the tourist) have indeed been at that holy place.  I've seen a teeny shop at the amazing St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, where they sell rosaries and ask for donations for the candles to be lit.  So maybe it's just a way to further connect the parishioners/congregants with the church and with the message.

Or...maybe they're money changers.

What do you think?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Welcomed Like Family

If last week was the loudest church I've ever been to, this Sunday I attended the quietest and the smallest.  Upon hearing that I didn't have a church home, my friend C invited me to her church.

"It's really small," she warned, "But we really like it."

Getting to the church involved instructions with lots of "turn left immediately" and "keep an eye out for..." and I still got it wrong the first two times I went there.  I've been to the Triple 7 Baptist Fellowship three times now, twice for Sunday service and once for a women's Bible study that I plan to continue.

The church building itself is out in the country.  There are horse-and-rider signs along the way, and the trees dip their heads to shield your drive.  The term "Sunday drive" popped into my head, because this is such an idyllic and peaceful setting for a house of God.

A teeny house of God.  No more than 10 cars lined the driveway of the church, and the mobile home in which the Fellowship meets is not overly large.  Entering by a sliding-glass door, a visitor is greeted by a sweet kitchen and the smell of something delicious.  This Sunday was right after Pastor Franks' birthday, and I was told that of course I was staying for lunch.

There is an ad I've heard that reads, "When you're here, you're family," and this church community is one of the few places where I've truly felt that.  One congregant mentioned that, well, most of them were kin after all.  I gave up trying to remember relationships and just focused on names.  I found myself apologizing to people I knew I'd been introduced to before.  They were very forgiving.

I got there a little early, since I didn't get lost this Sunday, and I was in time to hear much of the Sunday School lesson.  No fuss, just a small hand waving me in and the Pastor's wife saying "we're just finishing up".  The lesson, which was continued in much of Pastor Franks' later sermon, was about how it can be well with our soul, even when it is not well with our circumstances.  Even when the physical world tosses horrible things at us, we can find peace in the spiritual world and know that it will work out.

Verse: Romans 8:28 "And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

All things.

Our song?  "It Is Well With My Soul," of course.

Written by a man whose son had died, whose finances had been obliterated in the Chicago fire, whose four daughters had died on board a vessel headed for their new home, who had waited to travel later with his family only to read "Saved alone" from his grieving wife who had survived the shipwreck-- the song is by someone who knew pain.  And yet, "it is well with my soul".  There is a lot of comfort found in these old verses, and comfort in sitting in a converted living room with new friends and "family".

When I told Pastor Franks about this project, by the way, he held my hands in his strong, aged ones and said, "Don't be misled.  Check what they say against that (nodding at my Bible) and you'll know if it's true.  Don't be led astray."

Many times he said to me and to others, "I am so, so glad you're here."  Pastor Franks, truly, the pleasure was all mine.

It is Well With My Soul--

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
Horatio Spafford

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Polished Production

Today was the first day on my New-Church-Home journey.   Over the last 20 years, I've probably attended one different church a year at least, so I should be used to this.

I was nervous.  Butterflies-in-the-stomach nervous.  

In Kansas, when I was invited to a 99%-Black Pentecostal Revival church by someone I didn't know well (when I had been raised very quietly Southern Baptist), I wasn't this nervous.  

That's okay.  I reminded myself that I've walked alone into other nerve-wracking situations and with less information than I had today.  It would be okay.

I wanted to start off this year with high energy, and there was one church here I had heard was very rowdy and loud and definitely energetic.

Destiny World Outreach.  They started building this church not that long after we moved here, and the building is simply beautiful.  I giggled a bit when the sign went up, because they were advertising their Starbucks in the cafe.  Starbucks isn't quite what I look for in a church, I'll admit.

For more photos, click this.

This is a large church, with three Sunday services (I was told that the 11 am services was PACKED but that my choice, the 1 pm service, was much more casual).  I'm honestly not sure if this church fits in any denomination.

People wore everything from jeans to more formal Sunday-best suits.  The choir and band wore "I love DWOC" t-shirts and nice jeans, but I don't know if that was typical.  Other photos show the choir in more traditional dressy suits.

I felt very welcomed.  People were friendly and helpful.  When it came time to "reach out and say hello," several people came up and said hello, even though I was a stranger to them.  At the end of service, I received a (wonderful) cookie, a chance to sign up for further information about the church and about receiving Jesus as my Savior, and a coupon for a free tall black coffee.  (Really.)  The service lasted two hours, but it didn't seem that long.

Today was their annual Freedom Sunday Celebration, in honor of Independence Day this week, and they worked hard to pull on every patriotic heartstring in the place.  They presented colors with a very professional color guard, sang the National Anthem and "I'm Proud to Be an American," and had small children recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  There was even a group of wonderful dancers wearing red, white and blue.  But...  We didn't pray until after all the singing and celebrating, and that seemed somehow off to me.  Perhaps I missed something, and perhaps this isn't typical.

The main thing I noticed about this church was that these services are polished production events.  The music, the dance, the words of our forefathers and the graphics on the huge screens-- perfectly timed, wonderfully orchestrated, and professionally crafted.   I was vastly entertained, and that was before the minister ever stood to talk to us.

Our sermon was by a guest pastor, who apparently visits DWOC quite often as the congregation seemed quite pleased to see him.   They welcomed his new bride with clapping and happy shouts.  Leo Price was our guest, and his sermon was about fighting for our freedom, and how blessed we are as a country.  He spoke about praying for our country, that we may continue to be free.  

There was a call to pray and/or be saved at the end of the service.  Many people went forward amidst great clapping and rejoicing.  Some appeared to receive tremendous comfort at the front of the sanctuary.

The verse that seemed to sum up the day was Galations 5:1-- It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

He read a little bit from We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.  I couldn't find the actual quote that he read, but I found several that referred to how their only family was each other, how they fought not because their country ordered them to but for each other.  

So, what did I leave with?  And would I return?  

I left with a feeling of welcome.  Of fierce patriotism and love for God and country.  I haven't felt my heartstrings or my soul stirred that much in a long time, and it was the perfect beginning of this journey.  I definitely felt God there, despite the late prayers.  These people love God and want to serve Him, and that is so evident and strong a sensation.  All ages, races and backgrounds appear welcome.

However, I wouldn't go back.  This is where my own personal history comes in.  This church is LOUD.  Not just joyful and singing out and shouting praise-- I enjoy that.  But the sanctuary is rock-concert loud.  I would fear for my hearing if I returned every Sunday.  I wondered where the noise level would fit on a hearing-loss scale, and when I left I needed quiet in the car so I could regain my sense of balance.  I think there is a point at which volume becomes dangerous, and I hope someone does a bit of testing of their amplifiers and speakers.  

I especially liked it when Pastor Price read the last verse of the Star Spangled Banner--  

"O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!"