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.

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