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?