Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

 Isaiah 9:6 -- For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

One of my favorite days of the entire year, is Christmas Eve.  There is a soft stillness to the air that refreshes and heals.  Saying "Merry Christmas," eagerly hugging anyone who seems open to the idea, and seeing the excitement and joy in a child's eyes-- they all bring timeless moments of joy.

This year, we are with family.  It's been three years since we've been home for Christmas, so for that reason and a whole host of others, we needed to be here.  I am thankful beyond words that we could all be here together.  Since we were traveling on Sunday, a Christmas Eve service seemed the perfect solution.

I didn't grow up in the Catholic faith, but my husband did.  His father still generally attends Mass each week, at a smaller morning service.  Both his mom and his dad said they'd go with me and, after some figuring of service times and schedules, we were off.

The formality and showmanship in a special Catholic Mass has always simultaneously fascinated and unnerved me. I can imagine it would be tremendously comforting to those who grew up with it, because they know what to expect and what is expected of them.  Since I never know exactly what I am doing, my prayer on the kneeler is usually along the lines of "please don't let me be an embarrassment."

At this service, a woman stood to talk about "Catholics Anonymous" and how they would be beginning their 6-week course to welcome alienated Catholics back to the Church. They're scheduled during prominent times when people seek the faith of their childhood, especially after Christmas and Easter. Having been to many churches lately where they want a person to take specific classes in order to become a member, the idea of needing a class to be reunited in a church no longer strikes me as odd or foreign as it might have. (A small voice inside me, though, has to mention-- God wouldn't need you to take a class to welcome you back with open arms.)

What made the service special wasn't what the Priest had to say, though what I could hear of it was certainly interesting.  It wasn't the sweet, tiny older nun who assisted with the Eucharist.  It wasn't the Christmas carols we sang, familiar as breathing.  It was the feeling of peace, the feeling of family, the feeling of coming together from all different places to join in welcoming the birth of the Lord.  Taking a moment to breathe together, to worship together, and to stop a moment and remember a truly special birth-- that truly made my Christmas special.

Peace be unto you.  (And also unto you.)

This made me smile.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Church Isn't About The Building

The church visits I enjoy the most are the ones where a friend invites me.  Knowing even one other person in a congregation makes it so much easier to go through those doors. These doors, this visit, were pretty unconventional.

The church I attended last Sunday, Disciples Church, (DC) is a growing community focused on God and on service to others. They meet in a local school, setting up signs and tables and chairs and children's rooms each Sunday morning and then taking it all down again at the end of service. Some people wore nametags, which I liked because I am terrible with names. Everyone dressed in a way that made them comfortable. Jeans, slacks, dresses, even some shorts on such a warm Texas December morning. (I like a casual service, but I know it's not for everyone.)

I really didn't know what to expect. I've been to another church that was held in a school, and the logistics of it distracted me for a little while.  Is it a rental? Who else can rent the space? What are the terms of the agreement? Then a fierce gladness rises up inside me that some anti-religious group or another hasn't come across these kinds of arrangements.

People know each other at this church. They chatted and visited, and kids sat together comfortably and colored or wrote or drew. There is a feeling of gladness in the room, thankfulness that they are all together once more and able to worship. It's a feeling I've sensed in some other churches during this journey, and it's one that I hope DC continues to feel.

We sang a few Christmas carols, and then the worship minister said he'd found a song that he hoped would be a welcome addition to the season's music. "Hallelujah, What a Savior".  When I tried to find this song, a much older hymn kept coming up-- I haven't been able to find the lyrics nor the music that we sang that morning. Yet it began with lyrics that fit the wonder of that day when Christ was born.

Pastor Tim Worden has a simple, but thorough way of examining things. He said he was trying to avoid the "pastor's temptation to be slick," knowing that no service is ever truly perfect. His sermon, he said, was based off what he felt he'd been given through reading his Life Journal.

Sidenote:  DC encourages all attendants to grab a Life Journal (they'll give you one if you don't have one) and use it daily to work your way through the Bible.  One reads, then one prays and writes down their thoughts from the reading. It's a neat journal, and I was grateful that they were available since I haven't seen them elsewhere.

The sermon was titled "Those Who Are Rich," and after Pastor Tim was done speaking I felt rich indeed with verses to carry with me.

1 Timothy 6:17-19 -- Be rich in good deeds.

Matthew 6:20 -- Hope in God, not in riches.

Luke 11:11-13 -- If even fathers who are, at heart, broken, can give; how much more will our perfect Father give to us?

Matthew 16:25 -- You must lose yourself to gain.

Matthew 6:21 -- "For where your treasure lay, there your heart will be also.

Not the kind of treasure I want.

Each church I've attended has asked for my visitor contact information. Sometimes I fill out the cards, sometimes I even put the card in the collection plate. The last two or three churches, I've added a little note about this quest. I've even gotten two email responses, and this last week's made me think.

Pastor Tim wrote:  "As we know, "church" is more than a place or event that happens on Sundays. Church is a Christ-led community of people living in relationship with God and one another... doing what He does where He has sent us."

Furthermore, Pastor Tim invited me to be a part of their community, regardless of where I go on Sunday mornings. I went caroling with them this week to a nursing home. And I hope other opportunities to serve and meet will present themselves.

One thing I'm discovering, much as the Grinch did with Christmas-- maybe church doesn't come in a building. I knew this, I think, and yet I am learning it anew with each visit. It isn't where we meet, and it isn't the style of worship, but it's the people and the community and the service we can give to others. That is what I'm looking for.

One Way to Have Prayer in School.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Where Two Or More Are Gathered

Matthew 18:20 is one of my very favorite verses-- "For where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them."

Last weekend, I did not attend a traditional church. My husband and I were given an opportunity to attend a marriage retreat, and the retreat schedule and location did not allow for any kind of service attendance. Since the retreat was being facilitated by an Army chaplain's assistant, and the materials provided to us were written and created by a minister, I was on the fence about whether this would "count" towards my 52 weeks of this project.

For anyone who gets the chance, I highly recommend Mark Gungor's "Laugh Your Way to a Happy Marriage" seminars and book. He is refreshingly funny, yet also earnest in his desire to help couples truly understand each other. When the retreat class had a long break, we talked quite a lot about the ideas he'd put forth, and even though we've been married "forever," like one other couple at the retreat said, the information was extremely helpful.

We were also given the opportunity to watch some of his "Flag Page" discussions with couples, and given the book but not the code to use the online assessment. I am hopeful we'll be able to get the code and do the assessment, because the information this shows about personality goes way beyond the personality "colors" that we did at a previous retreat.

Mark Gungor talks about what is right about a person, versus what is wrong with them.  He talked about how God made men to be, and how He made women to be-- but acknowledging that we are individuals and may be different. We both laughed, and we both enjoyed the videos and the discussion we had with the facilitators.

My favorite verse was Proverbs 14:4-- "Without oxen, a stable (manger) stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest."  Marriage is messy, but the results are worth it!  He joked that there should be a good "positive to pooh" ratio in every marriage.

So-- was this church?

Well, we can't go back to this congregation, obviously. This was a once-in-a-lifetime group of people and even if we went on another retreat with Mark Gungor's videos and books, it wouldn't be the same nor even close to the same. So, no, this was not church.

Yet, there was (brief) prayer. There was the Bible in a totally approachable way. There was learning and there was love.

But why do I write about it here?

The last day of our meeting, the chaplain's assistant asked us to pray with him before we traveled home. He spoke of hope, and faith, and safe travels. During our stay, my husband and I had talked about one or two couples who were truly at risk, and others who appeared strong and healthy and happy together. There was much love, there was some healing, and there was a great deal of hope.

I don't count this as a church visit, per se, but I truly do believe that when we gather together and we ask God's blessing-- He is here. Whether it's in a church, or a hotel conference room, or in a coffee shop when two friends meet.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why I Sometimes Procrastinate

I procrastinate when the thing I am supposed to do is unpleasant, or awkward, or boring.  I procrastinate when my feelings are mixed and I'm not sure how to write about them.  I really procrastinate when all of these things are true.

I definitely procrastinated this week, but I did go to church last Sunday.  I just didn't like it, and it was hard for me to think of a way to write about the experience without sounding, indeed, like "The Church Critic".

This was my first experience with a Church of Christ, or CoC.  One of my oldest friends was raised in this church in Arizona, and still feels connected with it.  So, knowing a few things about them but really very little, I went.

I knew that they sang a capella.  (I was not aware that this meant there was no choir, but I was prepared for the lack of any instrumentation at all.)

I knew they were more formal than most churches I'm accustomed to.  This wasn't based on my friend's information, but on how her grandmother was when I would visit after school.

I should have talked to J a little bit more.  But such is life.  We have to wing it sometimes.

When I reached the church, I was a minute or so late.  The parking lot was totally devoid of life, but full of cars.  I checked the service times twice-- yes, their main service was at the time I thought.  Walking into the doors, the hallway was empty save for one woman heading away from me.  No one else was around.  No sound.  No chatter.  Coming to the sanctuary doors, there was an order of service on a small table, and two men were talking a little bit.  They ignored me utterly, though they both looked directly at me.

Okay, then.

Walking into the sanctuary, I could see that who I assumed was the pastor was speaking, and the order of service was also displayed on a screen behind him.  (The inside of the sanctuary was large and airy, with the wall behind the pulpit soaring high...lovely.)

Here is one problem, and this is only a problem for me (and others in my situation)-- I couldn't understand the speaker at all.  The microphone amplification quality was so poor and echoing, I wondered to myself if any of the older congregants could understand him either.  But that's my issue, and not a CoC or even church issue here.

The music director?  Head singer?  I'm not sure what one would call him, but he led us in singing.  And every song that was chosen was slow.  And dirge-like.  And solemn.  Is this typical?  I don't know.  I just tried to follow along.  The church information explained that they sing a capella so everyone can fully concentrate, body and mind, on the teachings of God.  But surely they're allowed some energy in their singing?

Then there was the sermon.  Which was about how wrong homosexuality was.  And how bad it was if a couple got divorced and remarried.  And on.  And on.

Not how to help single mothers or how to help families stay together.

Not how to guide people with love, or act Christ-like.

Just...lots of sex and immorality.

Okay, then.

I did get a welcome packet.  I did have one very, very sweet and quiet lady welcome me personally to the church.  Her soft, gentle hand on my shoulder and her quiet smile make me smile in return, just thinking of her.

I'm sure you can tell why I am not being specific about which CoC this is.  There is more than one CoC locally, and thousands elsewhere.  I do not want to judge all, by how this one was.  I understand from J that the churches she attended were more formal, and more judgmental.  But those are her opinions.  This blog contains mine, and I a) don't want to insult the members of this congregation and b) don't want to insinuate that they're all like this.

I do not mind the a capella singing. In further reading, I see that the CoC denomination is trying to recreate what they felt Jesus would have done for His first church, and how they believed and worshiped.  Those are honorable intentions.

This church, at least on this Sunday, lacked one thing I believe others felt around Jesus.  And that is joy.  There was so little joy in the welcoming.  There was no joy in the sermon.  There was no joy in the music.  I can handle being reproved or being taught uncomfortable lessons.

I cannot handle a lack of joy.  Not when I remember how it felt to learn that Jesus was one friend I could always count on, and one friend who would never leave me.  Not when I know the comfort He provides, or the blessings He did.

Sometimes it's easy to know what is not the right church home for me.