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!

Wash Away the Old

There are two parts to this week's post.  First, I happened to accept my friend's invitation (from months ago) on the very day that she would be baptized.  Remember what I've said about there being no accidents?  Second, the sermon itself versus what I actually believe.

This is the song that was playing, bringing me straight back to my childhood.


My friend has invited me to her church from the moment I told her I didn't have a church home.  She has spoken many times about the transformation in her own family, and about the comfort and support that this church has given her.  Over last weekend, I received a little flyer in a "goody bag" from a local event that she spearheaded, and decided "this was the week."

Tabernacle Baptist Church sits off to the side of the road, the steeple rising high and reminding me of Matthew 5:14-16, with the city on the hill and the light showing to all.  When I got there, the welcome was immediate.  Pews are well-worn and aged to a golden patina, the church is filled with light.  My friend came over and told me about her baptism, rubbing her very-pregnant belly.  We made jokes about a "water birth", and how slowly and carefully she'd be baptized.

For those who don't know, in a Baptist church, baptism has "nothing to do with salvation."  I am taking quotes from the associate pastor who conducted the baptism, but this is also how I was raised and (truthfully) what I believe. Full-water baptism is an "outward manifestation of what happens within," and represents dying to oneself and being raised again, a new person.  The idea is to wash off our sins and our old habits and our old ways, and be raised with Him.  There are many different types of baptism, many different beliefs that go along with it, and biblical references to Jesus being baptized.  Some believe in baptizing infants, some believe in only baptizing adults, some believe that once a person reaches an age of understanding they are eligible.  My friend had been baptized at another church, and chose to do this for her own personal reasons and to truly become a member of Tabernacle.   I will say, from personal experience, that baptism creates a feeling of starting anew, and (re)committing one's life to Christ.

Her baptism was a lovely thing to behold.  Her husband helped her down the steps, carefully holding her arm, and her dripping, joyful smile afterwards was a sight to behold.

On a side note, when I first heard she was to be baptized, I looked all over for the baptistry.  I've seen churches use everything from what looked like an outdoor fountain, to a jacuzzi-looking pool, to an elaborate  portable tub that reminded me more of a metal coffin. I couldn't see anything here.  As the time for the baptism neared, church deacons and other helpers prepared for the baptism by moving the choir pews, removing the floor, and setting aside the floor supports.  This baptistry was built into the floor of the choir!


Sometimes the lesson in a church service is particularly amusing in its timing.  Just before leaving the house, my husband let me know that he was watching How Booze Built America and enjoying Mike Rowe's unusual take on the, um, history lesson.  So, what was the very first verse?

Ephesians 5:17-18

New International Version (NIV)
17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit...

I laughed and laughed, deep inside.  Okay, I got it.  Don't get drunk.   

Then the pastor expounded on the verse, saying that this was sometimes used by other churches to show that drinking was allowed, as long as people don't go get drunk.  He said he disagreed, and followed up with a second verse.  He said, "The Bible never contradicts itself."

The second voice, Proverbs 20:1, expanded his first teaching by saying that anyone led astray by beer or wine is not wise.

The rest of the sermon went on in much the same vein, and some very good points were made.  We are, as Christians, called to be separate from and different from the world.  He said we are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to be joyful due to God and not due to the things of the world.  

He asked, when we look for influence and help, where do we go?  Do we turn to a coworker, who seemingly has it all together but does not follow God?  Do we go to a friend, but not to the Bible?  Do these people really, honestly have it together?

I really liked some points that he made, during the sermon.  He said it's a daily choice, that we be filled with the Spirit.  He asked if we were running on spiritual fumes.   I truly think that God gave me the "meat" of this sermon so that I would go and be changed, versus my knee-jerk reaction to the initial verses.  One particular quote that I starred in my notebook was, "It's not that we reject the influence of God, it's that we allow other things to influence us more."

You may be wondering by now, what exactly was my problem?  Well, here it is.  Though I grew up Baptist (we don't drink, we don't dance), I am not a teetotaler.  If we go out to someplace that has alcohol, I generally won't drink because I am either the driver or I am not in a place where I feel completely safe.  However, I do occasionally (gasp) have  a drink.  I like how some wines taste, I like fruity mixed drinks that go down icy and warm at the same time, and I don't mind if my husband kicks back with a beer when he's watching football.  Alcohol has a time and a place, just as dancing, and singing, and mourning, and staying silent all do.  Ecclesiastes 3:1 is one of my favorite verses of all time, and it's a good lesson to remember.

During sermons like this, I want to say, "Even Jesus drank the wine, pastor.  That wasn't grape juice."  We are not all alcoholics, we are not all going to be "led astray" by alcohol, and all alcohol is not found in seamy little backwater dives. I really think that this is one of those areas that is up to the denomination, to the church, and to the individual. There are some faiths that think all wine is forbidden, and I respect their views just as I would never tell this church they're wrong. They just have a different interpretation of common verses and teachings. 

I will, however, say that this is one of those areas that helps to narrow down where my "church home" may be in the future. Welcoming, loving, and singing are very important to me in the church. Teachings straight out of the Bible are also very important, and I don't want to choose a church that skims over hard topics. I do, however, have to draw the line when it's a rule that goes counter to my own beliefs, based on reading these same verses.  Some drink, some don't.  And that's okay.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Really, No Accident Where You End Up

I had last Sunday all planned out.  I knew my route, I knew my church, I was dressed appropriately for the location (semi-casually).  Ready to go.

And then.

Driving to the church, I noticed the parking lot seemed awfully empty. Two cars pulled away as I drove up, and my heart began to sink. What was going on? As I drove past the front of the church, I could see worship times printed.  Service had ended at least half an hour before I drove over! This particular church has two locations, and apparently I had gotten the times mixed up so I was on time for the other location, about 45 minutes' drive away.

Now what?

Because of this project, I have really noticed all of the churches around me as I drive through town.  It's even opened up conversations with the rest of the family, as they ask "Have you gone to this one?" or other questions about service types or even sermons.  I remembered a church that was pretty close to my current wrong-for-today church, and quickly looked it up on my phone (thank you, God, for smartphones!).  They had a service starting in half an hour, and YAY, I could come dressed a little more casually!

I truly believe that God will put us where we need to be, wherever He wants us to be.  That has been evident in the big things before in my life, and it was no less evident than it was last Sunday.  I have no idea what the sermon might have been at the church I planned to attend, but the sermon this week was timely and it gave me some needed perspective.

This last week, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya was brutally tortured and murdered.  Embassies in many countries are besieged, and they seem so vulnerable.  Presidential candidates went back and forth over reactionary comments, with bickering on both sides.  The world, seemingly, is on fire.

Sometimes a song can uplift an entire congregation.

The congregation of the church I attended this last week, Grace Christian Center, has a wide variety of ages, skin colors, clothing styles...  God's people were well represented. Ushers in blazers helped latecomers to their seats, and helped the service go smoothly.  The choir sounded amazing, but the music leader, Pastor Charles Reid, Jr., really spoke to my heart.  His energy, his love for the Lord and his heart for the music, really spoke to me during the entire service.  I will never hear this song without remembering him pointing to the heavens with "every high and every low," the congregation's voices filling the sanctuary.  In a time that seems frightening, this song made me feel God's arms truly wrapping around me and His voice reminding me, "I will never leave you."

The main message of the sermon was based on Christ's Sermon on the Mount, from Luke 21:25-28.

Luke 21:25-28

New International Version (NIV)
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Pastor Terry Whitley reminded us not to go too deep into prophesy, saying that only God knows at what hour He will return.  But over and over, the phrase "Perplexity of nations" rang in my head. That is what we are dealing with today. There is confusion, anger, despair, perplexity everywhere.  

Over the sermon, Pastor Whitley went over some historical background.  No matter what happened, whether it was the beginning of our country or the Civil Rights movement, God was in control. Many times, he would say, "What sin abounds, grace will much more abound." What a wonderful reminder!  No matter what war, what unrest, what horror the world endures, there is an entry of God's work. So we can look forward to what God's redemption will be in the current times. God cannot be outdone.

I am glad for the chance to visit this church. It seems vibrant and growing, focusing on service and learning about God.  There was a circle of prayer before the sermon that was very moving to watch, and of course the music...oh, the music. I particularly liked how he closed the service, "Now go be the church."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why One Should Pray Before Joining

In the six years we have lived here, I actually did join a church once.  It was during a very long and difficult deployment, and I had been attending a wives' group and had a flag blessed for my soldier.  This congregation had its own "Hug Lady," who goes around hugging most of the congregants during the meet-and-greet, and the messages and music fed my soul.

Then my husband came back, and I heard "we'll pray for him to come to church" over and over.  The wives' group finished its study and the tenuous connections were broken.  Sitting in the crowd, I felt lonely and unsettled.

This Sunday, I went back to that church, a prominent Baptist church, to see how it felt.  I am, after all, technically still a member of the congregation and I'm sure my name is still somewhere in their rolls. The music was uplifting and made me happy, their resident hugger made the rounds, and it felt so very familiar.  The pastor was as charismatic and engaging as I remembered.

The message was the last part of a series, and the focus was on Matthew 16:21-28.

Jesus Predicts His Death

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

What is the cost of following Christ?  What must we do?  This is another of those sermons that I've heard many times through the years, with the focus on laying down my life/picking up my cross, and following God.

I took notes.  I wrote down the verses and the meaning and his intent in the message, but there were a few things that truly spoke to me that were outside his proposed lesson.  I heard more than the usual lesson, and by doing so I learned a little more about following.

First, "The best place on earth to be is in the middle of the will of God."  It isn't enough to know God, we must obey Him.  We must follow what He intends for us.  Even if it is something good, and right, and wonderful, if He doesn't want it for us then it will not be right for us.

Second, and this is what I can't get out of my head, the pastor talked about people who wanted to join his church.  He said that if he happened to be the one to visit with them prior to membership, he would pray over them that membership happen "if it is the will of God." And if it wasn't God's will, that He make that very clear to the person who wanted to join the church. The pastor went on to say that if someone wanted to join the church, and it wasn't God's will, then the person would be miserable, the pastor would be miserable, and everyone around them would be miserable.

Did I pray before I joined?

Did I really seek God's will?

I'm not sure.  I don't remember exactly who met with me about membership (it wasn't the pastor), and I don't know what was prayed.  I do remember, though, that nothing felt right at the church after that.  It began before my husband returned home, and just wasn't as evident to me at that time.

No wonder I haven't been able to find a church home yet; it isn't God's will yet.  I don't know if He really wanted me to do this blog, or what His intent was, but it wasn't to join that church.  Apparently, that isn't where He wants me.

Again, "The best place on earth is in the middle of the will of God."  And anywhere else will feel like ill-fitting clothes that you paid too much for or shouldn't have purchased at all.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Spirit of Service

I'll begin this post by saying I'd never been to a Methodist church before. I had been attending Financial Peace University classes at First United Methodist Church, Killeen, after many months of watching the construction of these amazing buildings on the hill.  Visiting a church to attend a class is far different from attending services, because you usually meet the members who are deeply involved when you go to the class, versus the congregation as a whole.  You also don't have a sense of the overall mission of the church when you are attending a class.

When I looked up the available service times, I noticed that there were three Sunday morning services-- Heritage, Praise, and Traditions.   I was interested in the Heritage sermon, figuring that it was probably the most old-fashioned of the three, but the early-morning time was beyond my sleep-desperate self.  I ended up choosing the Traditions service time, and the full church bulletin that I received did a wonderful job of laying out the order of service for all three choices.

I don't know if what I experienced is the usual for Methodist services.  I will say that it was the most amazing blend of formality and warmth, tradition and accessibility that I have seen so far.  My closest comparison was a formal Catholic Mass that was held on Christmas Eve, which included incense and a choral group.  FUMC Killeen has a full chancel choir, which although technically just means that the choir performs in a certain section of the church, is a formal blending of voices in traditional hymns and harmonies.  They wore full, formal choir gowns, and began the service by lifting their voices at the back of the sanctuary.  The young man who had, with his wife, helped lead the Financial Peace classes, was at the front of the church in a formal robes.  The Senior Pastor of the church was also there, but I was glad to recognize a familiar face in the Associate Pastor.

Candles were lit, an organ played, and Communion was laid on the altar and then covered by white cloth.  I felt like a feast was being arranged for welcomed guests.  I told a lady in my pew that I had not been to a Methodist service before and could I follow her lead? I have done this in the past when invited to Catholic services, and it works well.   People are generally very eager to help someone feel at ease.

Pastor McMinn took on one of the hotbutton sermons-- The verses begin, generally, with "wives, submit to your husbands," and then the arguments begin.

1 Peter 3:1-12 reads:  Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves.They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Pastor McMinn spoke of the slight subversion that this instruction intends-- It was unheard-of in a world where a woman was considered a slave or a servant, where a wife was less than an equal, and where the husband decided what god the household would worship, for her to believe in God and to continue believing in Him and by her actions to convince her husband to also believe.  He spoke of the gentleness that men were intended to show their wives, that God is intended to be a strong part of marriages, and that the submission needs to be on both sides.  The give and take of marriage, the negotiation and reconciliation of marriage, is something that can be a teaching tool for our children and help them as they grow.  He spoke not of a woman underneath her husband's thumb, nor of the husband's ultimate authority, but of submission as a give and take balancing act between a husband and wife.  This is a tough sermon because in modern times, women do not like to hear that they are the weaker sex and we sure don't like being told that our partner is supposed to have any kind of control.   

Perhaps the most important note he gave us was reminding us of a later verse, Ephesians 5:21-- 21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Communion was a little different from what I grew up with in Baptist churches, but all were welcome to partake.  There was a prayer of confession by the entire congregation and a welcoming to the Lord's Supper.   Each step of the service was detailed by the church bulletin, for which I was deeply grateful.  Certain parts of the service were designed to be read by the Pastor, with an answering by the congregation, but those were clearly outlined on the screens.  While it was a very new experience, I did not feel totally lost.  

Overall there was a sense that the congregation was called to serve others.  Small kindnesses, lots of hugs and smiles, and a congregational prayer of service (which I wish I had written down)-- this is a church that seeks to go out and make a difference.  Every time I see something like this, it makes a difference in me.

This is not the choir at FUMC Killeen, but you get the idea.  

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Modern But Not Cold

A sinus infection, on the heels of the first week of a new job, made it so sleep was not the best all weekend long.  I hadn't had a chance to plan out the week's church, and honestly I was exhausted.  On the spot, I adjusted one of my criteria for this blog-- I will visit two of any particular type or denomination of church.  Two Baptist churches, two storefronts, two internet streaming services.

Problem solved, and I turned to Saddleback Church.  I had heard of this particular congregation (they have many locations, apparently) after reading "The Purpose-Driven Life" many years ago.  I had seen Rick Warren speak in interviews on several occasions, and I wondered what his services were like.

After seeing Joel Osteen and his mega-church earlier, I thought I knew wat to expect.  I expected Rick Warren to be more approachably dressed, perhaps, but I was still imagining a huge congregation and a giant sanctuary.

Nope.  Service began with a college-looking young man inviting me to their campus, virtually or in real life.   He described some of their programs, and was immensely youthful and welcoming.  It switched to another young man in a comfortable and informal setting, reading aloud from his iPad.  I'll admit, the iPad made me smile because it was such a modern touch.  A praise group sang and lyrics were displayed for small groups who might meet and watch the service together.  (This is something that the website explained-- I really like the idea of having worship available, no matter what the location.)

Then out came Rick Warren, and I was surprised once again.  Casually dressed, comfortable in his own skin, and utterly approachable, he didn't seem like the head of a megachurch.  I don't know if this is typical of their services, and that is one shortcoming of this particular project.  I do research the churches online, though, and this was the streaming service that I was able to find.  

The entire service was about identity theft, how Satan wants to whisper slyly in our ear and take our true identity.  Who does God want us to be?

1 Peter 2:9-10

King James Version (KJV)
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light;
10 Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.  


1 Peter 2:9-10

New International Version 1984 (NIV1984)
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

From these verses, he spoke of our five fingerprints, proving our true identity through Christ.  All errors are mine, but I think you will get the idea.  I was moved and inspired, personally.  

1.  We are a chosen people.   

2.  Jesus made us acceptable, and we are completely accepted.

3.  I/We am eternally loved.

4.  I am, we are, capable.  (Phil 4:13, one of the first verses I ever learned.)

5.  I am, we are, forgiven.  God does not hold grudges.

Each of these had other verses, and more information.  I found it a little difficult to keep my concentration online, but I often find my mind wandering in regular church so it might be me.  Online it is especially difficult BUT I can hit pause on the streaming so that helps.

I found the service moving and inspiring.  And at the end, in what might be his usual closing, Pastor Warren said:

"Now go and live it."