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 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? 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.