Sunday, December 8, 2013

So...What Should a Church Be?

I've been going to the Triple Seven Baptist Church for a few months now.  Some months I revert to old, bad habits and hide away from the world when it's been a rough week (or month).  But I've been trying hard to go more regularly and I've noticed something.

Not only has my spiritual life gotten better since I've been attending church regularly, but it's gotten deeper since I've picked (or been picked by) this church.  I feel closer to God, I feel like I am held accountable for my actions, and I feel deeply supported in the face of a rough few months.

Everyone is going to look for something different in the church they call their own. They'll want different things in their worship ministry, they'll want a different style of leadership or discipleship, they'll want more (or less, or deeper) mission work. It's all very subjective.

The following is what I think makes a church become our home, what makes a church matter.

What Makes a Church a Home

It isn’t the sign that we see from the street,
And it isn’t the numbers of people we meet.
It’s not if the walls are brick, siding or stone,
It shelters all ages, from infants to grown.

Not the size of the group nor the name on the door
The style of the song or the length of the floor
The tempo of music or the language of love,
We all do one thing – learn of our Father above.

So what makes a church, now we know what it’s not?
What makes it our home and the truth that we’ve sought?
What brings us together, week in and week out,
What, in the end, is what church is about?

My church knows me by name and they welcome me in
They offer warm hugs and they call me their friend.
They don’t look sideways at the clothes that I wear,
Or the car that I drive or the style of my hair.

They look to the Bible for the truth that they seek
Their attitudes humble and their prayers for the weak.
They ask for God’s blessing, and they ask for His grace,
They offer so much for all who enter this place.

Hearts of service and love, devotion and praise
A pastor who loves God all the length of his days.
If I need a shoulder, they will offer much more
And rejoice with me also when my heart’s not so sore.

A church is the love that our Father sends down
Shared freely and deeply, and passed all around.
A church is the Truth, about things giant and small
A church is the Hope that God offers us all. 

 (Casey Fogle, November 2013)

Monday, September 2, 2013

The End of The Year

I had planned all along to end this blog at the end of one year, once I'd written 52 posts and visited 52 churches.  What I hadn't anticipated, but should have known, is that sometimes when we plan, God laughs.

I had one blog entry all ready to write, about a church here in town, when I was about to head to my home town to visit my mother.  She had some house issues to settle, and I looked forward to visiting with her, just us.  I figured I'd be fixing some things, and perhaps helping her make some hard decisions about her elderly dog.  Surely I'd have time to write, and I could wrap up a church visit while I was there.

It was to be a 6-day visit.  I left one day shy of a month.

Mom was much more ill than I could have imagined.  The cooler was kind of a non-issue, taken care of in a stopgap way as I convinced her to go to urgent care, then the doctor, then the Emergency Room.  Rehabilitation followed.

My year finished up with some unexpected visits.

To the church where I first met Jesus, El Camino.  Some parts of it haven't changed a lot since I was a child, despite several new buildings and initiatives.  I sat next to friends and prayed for Mom, who I already knew was not feeling well at all.  She fell twice that night, and was unable to get to her feet.

To the church where I found comfort on Saturdays while my husband was away and we lived "at home" for a year, Pantano Christian Church. I checked three times to make sure it was even the same church at all; everything felt different. The pastor came and talked with me a bit before service, and I appreciated his warm welcome and friendly attitude...but even if I moved back home this would not be my church. It felt dark and club-like, instead of airy and filled with light as I'd remembered. At that point, she was already in the hospital.

To the chapel at St. Joseph's hospital.  I sat in the hushed silence, alone but not lonely, and breathed out prayer for Mom and her doctors and for anyone who needed it in that space.  Mom was already feeling better by that time, but I knew she couldn't go back to the house where I'd grown up.  Big changes were coming...was I strong enough to help her make those choices?

To the chapel in Villa Maria, where we sang hymns and people in wheelchairs rattled tambourines.  Mom's face lit up at the chance to sing, though her strength was not back quite yet.  I felt hope, and comfort.

To the small, unobtrusive chapel in the Atlanta airport, as I tried to build my business and rebuild my heart after an intensely difficult month.  There were three gentleman, boys really, saying afternoon prayers.  I've never known silence so utter.  Once I was home, we planned to help Mom move.

At the end of two months, we had moved my mother into a wonderful new apartment, and said farewell to so many memories that my heart is still healing.  I know she, too, was wounded by the summer and I wish I knew how to help her through.  She lost her home, her beloved pet over whom I whispered prayer and love as she breathed her last.  I lost my childhood, and the sense of comfort that is brought by being able to "go home".

Once home for good, I could only think of one church where I wanted to be.  One place that knew my name, knew my story, and welcomed with open arms anyone who came to visit.  I think anyone reading this blog knows by now that I'm talking about the Triple 7 Baptist church - and perhaps everyone else knew before I did.

I wanted a large, busy church.  I have somehow ended up in a mobile home in the middle of what seems like nowhere to this city girl.

I wanted boisterous, bouncy music.  And lots and lots of it.  I sit in church and hold a sweet blue Baptist hymnal that comforts me.

I wanted modern - I somehow have old-fashioned values shared over breakfast rolls and coffee.

At the beginning of this year, my list was long and my desires were plenty.  And then I was told, "You're staying, of course," to a birthday luncheon for a man I've begun to count as family.  If my heart is hurting, if my heart is happy, I think of this church first and I want to share with them my news.  I pray for them, and I know they pray for me.

In the end, it didn't matter what I wanted in a church.  It didn't matter what I thought I needed.  God knew my heart, as He always has, and He found a connection and a place for me.  He found me that second family that I had imagined would take years to create.

In the end, I thought I'd pick a church from the many that I'd visit.  I thought I'd read over my blog posts and remember the pluses and the minuses and the wonderful and sometimes bizarre moments of this year.

In the end, I thought I'd choose.  But in the end, my church has chosen me.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

All Together Now

Praying all together, voices raised
The volume rising, rising
Rising to the ceiling,
Buoying me upward
Filling my heart
So nothing is there but prayer
Words, muted sound
Calling to God
Praising His name.

All together,
Voices woven as a tapestry of grace
And up, and out,
Growing and swelling,
Then dying down until
Only the breaths of the faithful
Can be heard.


I'll admit, when I went to the Potter's House, I really had no idea what to expect.  It was downtown, and from the website it looked like many other non-denominational churches. Lots of information about a relationship with God, and I felt like they understood that many of the people coming to the church would be wounded inside.

I did, also, get the impression it was what I call a "Come As You Are" kind of church.  So I, feeling fatigued from a very busy week, wore a nice top and, yes, blue jeans.

I will not do that again.

There were two people in the church in jeans, and one of them was a teenager. Most women wore dresses (I saw only two women in slacks) and many of the men had blazers.  It wasn't formal, just nice. And I felt really out of place. It's okay, though, because not one single soul seemed to look at me sideways or in any way other than welcoming.  Even the usher at the door with his very nice Sunday-best suit.

The music was uplifting and energizing, and I knew many of the words to the familiar songs.  For the songs I hadn't heard before, melodies were relatively simple but nice to the ears, and it was easy to keep up and sing along. Acoustics were really, really nice and I had no issues hearing whatsoever without feeling deafened.

After the worship team had led us in song, it was time for prayer. We learned who was deployed, who had new babies, whose family needed prayer, who had health issues. I got a sense of community, listening to these unfamiliar names. And then we were invited to close our eyes and pray.

And that's when it started. This church prays out loud, as a group, voices rising and falling and filling the room. It was pretty intense. A week later, I am still not sure exactly how I feel about it. It was something new to me, and it is something I think I'd have a hard time getting used to. I grew up with the idea that prayer was an intensely personal and thus private thing,

But, writing about it here, the poem above just flowed. I have often felt carried along by the prayers others have offered on my behalf; there were entire years I am not sure I'd have survived if it were not for the intercessions requested by friends and churches. The Army is not an easy life. It was a unique experience to hear the prayers said aloud, and envision all of those friends and families and organizations being filled with the spirit as it flowed in that building on that Sunday morning.

Church is about coming together, and praying together felt a pretty nice addition to that community of souls. I, for one, still feel buoyed by it.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not About Religion

A few things have happened over the last few weeks...  My G came home after an extended TDY (temporary duty), I attended a joyous family wedding, and we fought off a sense of malaise and exhaustion.

I've still been reading, though, and thinking, and deciding what to write.

And what I keep reading and thinking about has a lot to do with religion.  Not faith, unfortunately, but religion.  I read about Hollywood actors and famous people who are atheists; even people who call themselves "evangelical atheists" (no, I'm not making that up).  I talked to a coworker friend who said she had family members who would practically disown her for deciding to visit a church unlike the one in which she was raised.

And I really don't get it.  Maybe it's because of this project, but I'm thinking about God and religion and faith in a different (clearer?) light lately.  And it's not about the religion.

So far, I've visited Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Missionary Baptist, Apostolic, Catholic and Non-Denominational churches.  And the overarching theme of the ones that make the most difference in people's lives has nothing to do with the whys and wherefores of the religion itself, and everything to do with the way God shines through the people in the church.

My coworker friend and I decided to visit another coworker friend's church, because B had been wanting to try something new.  Anna's husband happens to be the Pastor of their church, and she welcomed us with enthusiasm.  When we drove up, Pastor David was waiting for their daughter to arrive, and welcomed us warmly, even walking us over to the sanctuary and chatting with us a while.  We were greeted by nearly everyone in the church at different times before, during, and after the service, and it was a treat to see Anna in a different role from the one we see her in at work.  My favorite part was watching Pastor David with the children's time.  His message was timely and it made me think.  His ending question, asking what we are bound to, if it's not to God -- well, I am still mulling that one over in my head.

It was a really wonderful service.  I hope B continues to go there, as she met new friends and really seemed to fit in with everyone.

But even as we left, B was saying that she had family members who would really be against her changing churches.  It seemed they felt she wouldn't find or follow God if she went to a different church with different routines and rituals.  I remember hearing much the same thing, growing up.


Religion, it is true, has been the basis for many a heartache, many a war.  But finding God isn't about religion.  Finding God is about faith.  Going to church is sharing that faith, strengthening and challenging that faith.  Bringing the message of God outside the church into our homes, into others' lives -- the messages of love and service.

It's not about the candles or the ways we pray or the songs we sing or the hair we grow or the length of the skirts or the kneelers or the wine vs grape juice...  It's about service and community.  And it's about love.

And I must say, I felt a lot of it in that church that week, with Pastor David and Anna.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dear Catherine--

Dear Catherine...

After church last Sunday, I felt compelled to write a note to a church member I know only by the name, "Catherine".  For all I know, it's spelled with a "K," but I felt like she was a kindred spirit.  Since we share a name, I wrote it with a "C".  We were talking a little bit about churches and how long I'd lived here, and when a deacon came up to welcome me, I could have sworn I saw a flicker of annoyance cross her lovely face, as though she wanted to talk with me some more.  I felt the same.  So I sent her a note, tonight, care of the church, and I hope it reaches her.

Probably the hardest part about this church search of mine, is when I feel a real connection at the church.  Sometimes it is the message I hear, sometimes it's a hug from a friend, sometimes it's a sweet new friend sitting behind me.  But always, I find that it reminds me of what I am really searching for here.

I'm not looking for glitz or glamour, nor am I looking for a church with seventy-zillion activities for every member of my family.  Ultimately, I am looking for connection.  I am seeking those reminders that I am connected through faith to a community.  I am looking to find a group who will miss me when I am not present, challenge me when I need it, and raise me up on prayers when my heart grows weary.  I'm looking for a place where I can do the same for others.

I don't think this is too much to ask. I've found churches before where I would find a small connection, and where I would feel uplifted every time I visited.  And then, of course, we'd move. It's one of the aspects to Army life that I find the most difficult.  I almost wonder if, subconsciously, I am unwilling to "settle" on a church because I fear that we will move again? I know that's ridiculous, though; God will move me where He wants me, when and how and why He wants me. So I continue to seek the church where He needs me to be.

My visit this week took me to New Beginnings Assembly of God.  I had seen this church on my way out of town, though it is quite close to where I live. I looked on the website and yes, the Pastor is indeed as young as he appears in the photo. Catherine told me that he decided one day to learn the guitar, and indeed, there he was with the worship team.   One of the first things I noticed upon entering was a man wearing a shirt that said, "Thank God -- I'm not the man I used to be," and that attitude seemed to be present in many of the congregants. There is a feeling of rebuilding in this church, of forgiveness and second chances. People wore everything from jeans to Deacon Brundridge's three-piece suit.  Catherine wore tailored pink, but did not seem formal. This is not a formal church, in fact. It is respectful and friendly and upbeat. Three separate people stopped by to make sure I got my mug-- which, I discovered at home, had a few little chocolates inside to sweeten the deal.

There was a whole row of people who held new babies.  I'll admit to being sweetly distracted by the one closest to me.

I won't get into the message, as it was offered by their special guest, a missionary from the eastern part of Germany, where she said 59% had never believed in God.  She had a rousing story to tell, explaining that we who stay here are the heart, and the missionaries are the arms, doing the work of God. But we are both important. We can't go, so we send, and they win hearts. I didn't feel like she was preachy at all; it wasn't the type of "missionary spiel" I've heard before.  I'm still not sure why it's important for an area to have a particular type of church, nor why that would even be the focus, but I liked her stories of taking Jesus' love to the streets where people walked, and talking to people about the God they've never believed in. It seemed to me that she offered a very real hope. She said, "Hell is a place where God is not," and I have to agree.

In my notes, I wrote things like "I like this church," and "Seems every person in here has a story.  A light in their eyes, a healing of pain."  I didn't write that much, because I was too busy experiencing, soaking it all in.

Dear Catherine, I hope you got my note.  I am so glad I got to meet you and I am so glad I visited this wonderful, hopeful church of yours.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stop and Breathe

So, I'll admit that I've taken a breather this month.  I was sick for a good long while, my hubby had to leave for some Army stuff, and I was just ... Tired.  But I'm trying to catch up on writing, even if my church attendance has been sadly lacking.  This week begins a new month, and hopefully a renewing of energy for me.

In the meantime, though, I had looked at some of my links for streaming church services, and came across Ed Young Fellowship live. Someone had recommended it, and I clicked on it for a little while.

And, well, I didn't even watch the service. The ad at the beginning (for a women's conference, it looked like) had me baffled and feeling lost.

Is it me, or does it seem that there are a lot of churches out there that seem to think God wants a performance?  I don't mean a heartfelt worship song or a fervently prayed messaged, I mean a show.  Bright lights, fancy outfits, perfect hair.  The music is thrilling, the lighting just right, and the anticipation builds.  The ad I saw even had a woman walking down what appeared to be a red carpet.  All that was needed was paparazzi.

I didn't watch the service.  In fact, I didn't watch any streaming service that day.  The lights and "action" of even that felt too much for me.

And today, writing these words and realizing that I don't want Hollywood and I don't want "the show" most days (especially not when finally getting over the creeping crud I thought would never leave) --

I find these words, instead: "Do What You Do." In this mother's blog, she speaks of how she is "supposed" to be writing, but "goes rogue" and does something else instead. Something fun. Something equally necessary but, reading between the lines, something that probably could wait. She speaks of reading a book, Bittersweet, which reassured her that sometimes she has to accept her limits.

"Accepting our true lives, defining what we are actually called to do and acknowledging our limitations and our strengths can be the castle drawbridge to freedom."

Oh. Well, ok then. That line spoke to me so strongly that I stopped reading completely for a moment.

And then I read this: "There’s freedom here, in acceptance, in allowing myself to breathe, in knowing what I can do and not expecting from myself the ability to do the things I can’t."

I'm not sure what happened this month so that I wasn't attending church for several Sundays in a row. Some of it was physical, and my health certainly needed renewing. But the rest of it was purely mental, even spiritual in nature. I just needed days of rest. Not just one. But several in a row. And then I'd feel bad about it, and that got me exactly nowhere. And then I'd need another day of rest.

So I'll get back to writing. And I'll get back to church. I'll especially need it next week, for Mother's Day. My Little G and I have plans that day, so I'll be attending the earlier service.  

But in the meantime, I won't beat myself up for the things that I didn't do.  I will simply embrace that which I did do, and did accomplish, and did experience.

More doing, less fretting.  

Matthew 6:34

New International Version (NIV)
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

No. No, NO. (And nothing about a church.)

A few years ago, I wrote a poem when a friend was reminding herself that "A no is a no and that was ok."  It sounded poetic (Ok it sounded like Dr. Seuss, but hey, I like Dr. Seuss.) I jotted down one of my fastest poems ever.  I found the poem again, just recently, and felt like I needed to put it down where someone else might read it.

A No Is A No--

A no is a no,
And a no, is Ok.
He will show me His yes
In His time and His way.

For although I don't see it
And although I can't know
His timing is perfect
And the way I should go.

When my life is a desert
And my dreams, dry as dust,
His plans are made present
And His mercies are just.

So instead of down-gazing,
In my grief, fury or fear,
I will focus on His love,
His grace drawing me near.

So a no is a no,
Or a "Maybe," or "Wait"...
His love is always a "Yes," though
And his mercies are great.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Apostolic, Pentecostal, and Yay, God

On my way to a friend's house, I saw a church I hadn't noticed before. Modern traditional in style, or so I am beginning to categorize this type of building, it looked interesting.  With trees surrounding the parking lot, it looked welcoming as well.  Church times were clearly posted and a website invited me to look closer before my visit.

First Church Harker Heights, or Harker Heights Apostolic UPC (as written on the back of the bulletin, has a terrific website.  It outlines their ministries, their beliefs, church times, location, and welcomes folks to "get connected" within the church congregation.  It isn't an overly large church, and appears to have plenty of space to grow, but the morning Sunday School was full and there were several ushers waiting to greet newcomers.

Three separate people asked me to be sure to fill out the visitor form. The third and last, was a tall older gentleman who welcomed me by clasping my hands in his weathered and warm palms, saying how glad he was that I was there. I couldn't stop myself from hugging him. When the worship team had finished their songs, this same gentleman took my visitor form to the basket at the front, and pointed me out to the associate pastor.  This church calls out all visitors by name, but they don't ask us to stand or otherwise call attention to ourselves. They just want to be sure we know they're glad we're there.

I saw a friend from work, and gave her a hug. "I didn't know you came here!" and "This is my first time." amid smiles. Each church I've visited, it's as thought God has sent people there so I don't feel so alone. Whether they are people I know, or a welcoming committee of one, there has been some sign of God's welcome in every single church.

The message from the pastor was a good one for me, as I'd been wrestling with whether or not I had a "testimony" or even anything to share with people.  So what did he say?

"Be a voice -- we have a story, we have a testimony.  If He's done ONE GOOD THING, we have a story.  We're wasting our voice, taking it for granted.  Don't be an echo, be a voice."

Isaiah 43:9-11 --
9 All the nations gather together
and the peoples assemble.
Which of their gods foretold this
     and proclaimed to us the former things?
Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right,
     so that others may hear and say, "It is true."
"You are my witnesses," declares the Lord
     "and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
     and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
     nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, am the Lord,
     and apart from me there is no savior.   

I did enjoy my visit to this church, and there is no doubt whatsoever that they welcome new people.  However, I said at the beginning of this journey that I would say if I'd return to a church or not, and this is a church I won't be choosing at the end.

So why not?

First Church is an Apostolic Church, and a member of the United Pentecostal Church.  I knew nothing of this at the beginning, but there were certain things in the church itself that makes it not quite a good fit for me.  Within the Apostolic community, as I've learned, it is traditional for women to dress very chastely.  What this means is that their skirts are generally below the knee (mine was knee-length, though no one looked at me twice) and they tend not to cut their hair.  There were many women with hair down to their knees or in elaborate twists upon their heads. I have no issue with any of this, but it is not something that feels comfortable or necessary for me. In fact. it feels distinctly uncomfortable to me. 

There was a lot of bouncing, and shouting, and raising of hands. Lots of "Amens!" and even quite a few "Yay, God!" exultations. The pastor jumped up and down, hands clasped or raised high, during each of the songs. There was a lot of spirit in the church, but I am not a particularly "rowdy" churchgoer so it felt like I stood out by not shouting or bouncing.  Apparently, even though I love a passionate worship time, there is a limit to my comfort zone. This church crossed that limit, just a little. I couldn't tell you why other churches with the same sort of energy did not make me feel equally uncomfortable.  

Faith and worship are deeply personal.

In the meantime, as I looked for the song (I think) we sang, I found a song I hope to someday sing at one of these churches, and I thought I'd share it here.  The chorus makes me teary. 

What a Friend We Have

She's been in my thoughts a lot lately, she and the Sunday School classroom where she taught.  Wiggly, giggly, 7-year-olds in patent-leather Mary Janes must have taxed her patience, but she had love to share.  Her name was Ella Mae Dasse (Daw-sey) and she talked that day about friendship, and God, and how we could have a friend with us always.

There was more to her, of course. When I had chicken pox and was feeling better but still too contagious to go to school, she and her sweet, quiet husband watched me for a couple of days so Mom could work. They made treats for me, and had me take some to my brother. They took me shopping when they had errands to run on the last day of that week, and bought me a lollipop. I think we played games, and they let me read to my heart's desire. They were good and sweet people, and so very patient with the 7-year-old precociousness that was me.

But the day I remember the most, and the feelings that are clearest, are from that Sunday School class.  I remember she was talking about how, if we asked Him to, Jesus could enter our hearts and stay with us forever.  He would always be our friend, He would always be there for us, because God loved us and could live in our hearts.  This was pure magic to me.

You see, when I was 7, the rift between my parents was beginning to grow.  My brother had some problems, and the family was trying to get help.  My grandfather had stopped living with us, and I missed him deeply. There was so much going on I was beginning to feel adrift and alone.  I was also a little different from the girls my age at the church.  I dressed differently, I liked books more than TV shows, and I felt things more deeply than most of my peers.  I had friends at school, but already some friends had moved away or shifted groups and were less close than before.  I was a little girl who desperately needed a friend.  I especially needed a friend who would never change, would never leave me, and who loved me.

I asked Mrs. Dasse how I could do that, how I could ask Him into my heart.  She stood with me behind a portable chalkboard, and we prayed together that very morning.  I remember her hands in mine, I remember the softness of her hug, and I remember the feeling that yes, Someone was now in my heart and would always be with me.

I know that the common church lingo is that I was saved that day, that Mrs. Dasse brought a soul to God that morning.  The reason that I am writing about it, though, is because I know there are many people who may not believe all that the Bible has to say, and may not believe all that churches like to preach.  But I can just about guarantee that these are some of the same people who need that friend like I did that day, and have so many days since.

I'm no evangelical, I have lots of doubts, but this one thing I know to be totally true.  He lives in me. There have been times I have forgotten to draw close to Him, have forgotten to rest my cares on Him, and have needed to change things in my life to feel closer to Him.  But He has never left me.  He has always been with me.  And that, regardless of what I understand or don't understand about how God works, has saved me.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

You'll Be Glad You Did

I’ve learned a lot about churches since beginning this project, and I’ve also learned or re-learned some things about myself and what is important to me.  

I’ve discovered that having a connection at church can make the whole week go easier. 

I’ve seen that music and message can go hand in hand, and sometimes one strikes home much more than the other.

I’ve seen incredible warmth and depth of spirit.

I have also learned, however, that sometimes I am not a social person.  Sometimes the thought of being in a room full of people, no matter who they are, is more than I can or want to handle.  I may not be sad or tired or anything other than just wanting quiet and a little bit of solitude.

But I still want church.  I still want God. 

St. Patrick’s Day was one of those days this year.   I had been dithering and stalling, trying to decide which church to attend, and finally realized I just didn’t want to be around people other than my family.   I’ve been working on this project long enough to have a pretty good list of places I’d like to visit, and online services that have been recommended.   This Sunday, a friend just happened to post a link on Facebook to one of those recommended churches, and a series they were doing called, “You’ll Be Glad You Did.”  With a title like that, and my friend’s comment that it was worth the watch for couples, I was intrigued.

And, perhaps, a little relieved. 

Northpoint Community Church, with its main campus in Alpharetta, Georgia, would be considered a mega-church.  I read one link that said it was founded in 1995 as a church the un-churched love to attend.  The message in "You'll Be Glad You Did Part II"?

Husbands and wives submit to each other.

Obviously this is a hot-button topic.  One that isn't that popular in today's modern society, and I'm not sure anyone except men enjoyed it when all we'd hear was, "Wives submit to your husbands..." and the rest of the verses went away.

Here is the whole thing, Ephesians 5:22-30:  22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.

The part that struck me the most, watching the video, was a diagram like the one above.  He spoke about wives submitting to their husbands, of course.  Few churchgoers will be unfamiliar with that particular part of the Bible.  However, he also talks about husbands submitting to their wives.  He said that submission is the act of putting the other person, their needs and wants and goals, ahead of one’s own.  He talked about how marriage is to be mutually submissive, with both partners submitting first to God.   It is a marriage of three beings, with submission to God being primary.  The push-pull of the marital submission is one that will remain with me long after I am done with this blog.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Easter Sunday

(Note:  I have three posts to catch up on...the last few weeks have been very busy.  I don't know why, but I got this one written first, so I'll post it first and catch up on the others as I go.)

Since I went to a Catholic church in Tucson for Christmas, I thought I should try one for Easter.  As important as Christmas is, it's Easter that truly tells the tale of Christianity. 

First rule when attending Catholic Mass on one of the High Holy days – Go early. 

VERY early. 

I wasn’t early enough, so my view was over the shoulders of those seated in the foyer, just able to glimpse the sanctuary and tabernacle through huge wooden doors.  My feet were aching in shoes not designed for long standing, my ears straining for any understandable word.  I could only hear the muted voices of the speakers and the choir, with an occasional song floating my way.  It became a very visual service, because I could hear so little.

Things I could see: 

Knights of Columbus dignified in full regalia (I had to ask someone who they were). 

The parish priest, all in white, sprinkling the congregants with Holy water. 

A frail older woman, oxygen tank resting on her walker, determinedly rising to her feet in unison with others more able. 

A gentleman, seated close to that woman, gently assisting her as she left after service.

A newborn, face red from teary effort, finally resting comfortably in his mother’s arms.

A teeny tot, feathery ponytails bouncing, quietly kicking her feet as she rode her father’s shoulders.

Three boys, sorely vexing their mother.

Two young couples, holding hands and smiling.

Two friends from work.

The solemn deacon, lips moving through his blessing, offering Communion.

Candlelight flickering, the prayers of the faithful rising with smoke.

I’ve never experienced such a service.  In near-silence, anything extra was stripped away and I could clearly see so many aspects of God that my list grew long.  Austere and lovely, formal and fine, this was one Easter I will not soon forget.

Happy Spring. He is Risen!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Transient Worship

Two weeks ago, I drove by a little storefront church I'd been curious about for a couple of years.  "The Homecoming," proclaimed the sign. "Welcome Home!" was on the door.  I made a note of the worship times, and added it to my list.

Last Sunday, I was out of town and in need of a more private kind of worship.

This Sunday, I rose early despite the change to Daylight Savings time, and drove to The Homecoming.

The parking lot was empty.

The door was dark.

The service times and contact information, once so easily read on the window, were now scraped clean.  Only the slightest edge of white gave a hint to the fact that anything used to be there at all.  There were still Bible verses framing the entrance.

This isn't the first time. Usually, though, I will discover the church has closed (or moved, or disbanded or...) as I do my pre-Sunday research. There is a church I was interested in next door to a church I was attending, and I wanted to see when they held service-- but no one was in the parking lot and there wasn't even a contact phone number on the sign.  Usually, I can find an alternative.

Today, my alternative was another storefront church just down the street. I hadn't researched it recently, though, and lo and behold, even the arts academy that shared its location has moved to a different spot.

I do wish they'd add a sign like this.

This got me thinking about this area, and about the transient nature of any military town. Our population is one that is constantly changing, and church congregations are anything but steady and permanent. While it is true that many people retire here, and some people work here and want to stay in the area, many more are here temporarily. We who are connected to the military serve at the needs of the government, and often those needs change very quickly. We make friends, we get jobs, and we find a church home -- only to receive orders and have to start all over again.

It also got me thinking about the transience of worship.  So far I have the following churches on my list, either that I've attended or I plan to attend or was unable to attend: a church in a mobile home, two in storefronts, two in schools, one in a metal building that seems very temporary, and one that is held in a city park (except during inclement weather).  Any church has the concern of keeping parishioners, and bringing in enough funds to keep the church doors open and the lights on-- but these churches seem to be so much more temporary.  It must be tremendously difficult to make people feel as though they have a church home -- when the home has to be broken down every day after service, when the doors are only open on Sundays because it's a storefront the rest of the week, when the option of service is gone if it rains.

I don't know how they do it. Obviously, the ones I saw today...didn't. It's kind of sad.

At the same time though, Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them."  There are times when we can commune between friends.  Or we can share the Gospel with our children when they ask a question.  We can share our testimony, if we are brave enough.  And we can certainly "pray without ceasing".

How may I pray for you, since the physical church was closed today?

This is the first song I ever learned in sign.

This song always makes me feel good.

P.S.  The Homecoming?  They moved down a street or two and they hold service in the Christian radio station building.  I'll be there next Sunday.  :)  And to think I got laughed at tonight for calling them and leaving a message.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Comfort When It Counts

Anyone who has been reading this blog since last July, when I began it, may have noticed that there was one church that worked its way into my heart right away.  Regardless of where I go for Sunday service, during this journey or ever after, this church will remain my family church.  I wrote about them after my second Sunday for this project, in "Welcomed Like Family," and I prayed for them in "Lord, the One You Love is Sick".

Sometimes, in the midst of anything big, it is more important to find peace and comfort than it is to continue that project.

We are a military family, and sometimes the military likes to throw monkey wrenches into plans.  Because my husband is so close to retirement, we were hopeful that we could avoid the bigger twists and turns, and just finish out the last couple of years.  We are awaiting more details, and anything in the Army can change in an instant, but last week we found out that they aren't done with us yet.  In so many ways, last week was a rough one.  (And no, it's not a deployment.  Just difficult.)

I awoke that Sunday, planning to go to the church down the road.  It's a tiny, storefront church, and I've been curious about it.  But my heart was hurting.  And I needed to see Pastor Franks and hear how he was doing, to let him know with a hug how much he means to so many people.

Before I knew it, I was driving down that curved road again, past the horses and the nodding, winter-browned trees.  Sometimes, church and family call to you with a voice that cannot be ignored.

There is absolutely nothing in this world that matches the comfort one feels when people are so genuinely glad to see you.  Hugs, smiles, waves from across the small room -- but the touch that meant the most was when Pastor Franks held my face in his timeworn, gentle hands, and blessed me with his eyes.

I was originally going to title this blog post, "The Are Nots," because that was what Pastor Franks talked about.  He used 1 Cor 1:27-29 to begin talking about how God will use "the foolish things to shame the wise...the weak to shame the strong".  He will use the "things that are not to nullify the things that are."

Pastor Franks said "I don't want to be like someone else.  I want to be like Jesus." He said he blesses no one, but the Holy Spirit does-- God is the Blessor.  (In my heart, I was thinking, "Pastor Franks, the Spirit sure flows through you pretty easily.")  He told us of the "fullness of spirit," which is different from the gift of the spirit given to all Christians.  The fullness of spirit is, I think, the ability to let yourself be so filled by God that the rest of your human self simply gets out of the way to let it work.

I'm not there.  Most people aren't.  But the idea that God would use those who are "uncultured, uneducated," such as D. L. Moody... (Go ahead and look him up-- I did and was stunned at his accomplishments.)

Pastor Franks said one other thing that really hit home for me.  He spoke of a person who, when others saw him coming, would inspire them to say, "Here comes Jesus."  There was a Christ-like light about this person.  Pastor Franks spoke of how he wanted people to say that about him, and how that should be what we aspire to.  He asked this question, "Why not?  Why wouldn't people say that about you?"  I found a new goal that day in the Triple 7 congregation.

This was the amazing song Tara sang.

Since that emotional, heart-healing Sunday, I have missed two Sundays in a row.  The first, I could barely breathe because my allergies were acting up so much.  My husband, who has been so totally supportive of my churchgoing, said, "You need to stay home and rest."  The second, this past Sunday, I spent with one of my very best friends in the whole world.  She is not military connected at all, and for some reason that was really important this weekend.  Just to get away from work and Army and, well, everything.

This Sunday was also the weekend after my birthday.  This week I have truly thanked God for the gift of one more year.  One more chance to get it right, one more time to say all those "thank you's" and "I love you's" and try to be someone worthy of the word, "Christian."  Happy birthday to me.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Day of Rest

Part of my inspiration for starting this project was that I wanted to build a church habit. I wanted it to feel weird if there was a Sunday and I was not at church. I know I "do better" and feel better when I attend church regularly, but without a church home it had been difficult to get into this habit.

One of the things I've learned about myself, especially over the last two months, is that I may be a 3-Sunday-a-month church attender, instead of an every-Sunday-always attender. This kind of surprised me, but I've noticed that on weekends when I am super-busy and have a really full Saturday, I don't seem to get as much from the Sunday service. I am, by degrees, tired/distracted/easily annoyed/prone to fits of staring into space...

But on the months when I have missed church one Sunday, but have read in my Bible or have watched a streaming service, or have done additional research into church homes and local programs-- I feel better, overall.

Genesis 2:2-3 tells of how even God took the seventh day and rested.
         By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

Sabbath is considered a day of rest, a time of worship, and an opportunity to regroup and only do the work that is required to keep the house running (i.e., cooking, bathing, caring for animals and children). Many of the churches I've attended have had what seemed like the entire morning dedicated to worship, and then further meeting times in the evening or large family dinners. The focus on family, or even church family, time is really important and I can feel the difference in myself when I attend church regularly.

However, I believe that there should be another type of rest, one where the focus is on a personal, not group, relationship with God. One where I can snuggle in bed with my husband, and simply commune with my family. One where I can reflect on the other weeks' lessons, and restore my soul and spirit for the month ahead.

I didn't set out to do the project this way. I set out to go every single Sunday, without fail. But sometimes I've been ill. Sometimes I've found myself physically exhausted. Sometimes I've been in such a soul-weary mood that a group setting is neither tolerable nor appropriate. And on those days, I reflect. I read devotions, I seek to learn, I seek God in all the small corners of the world.

And I rest.

Psalm 46:10 says: "...'Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.'" 

So today I am still. And I am at rest. I am home, enjoying my family and my couch and my Bible. 

And oh, I am blessed.

A Surprising Contender

I have a friend who has been following this journey with me because she, too, has been looking for a local church home.  I've told her what I've seen in different congregations, what I've heard, and it's been really neat to talk it over with someone who understands how difficult it can be to "fit in" at a new church.

She asked me if I had visited any of the churches on Fort Hood, since we are both Army spouses, and I had to admit the answer was no.  In fact, after 20 years of marriage to my Soldier, it might surprise most of my friends to know I have never attended a regular religious service on any installation.  Ever.

There hasn't been any particular reason for this, I just haven't gone. We have never lived on Post, and we've generally lived a pretty decent distance from Post so the churches weren't exactly close. Part of the reason, however, has been an impression I've had that church services on a military installation would be very formal. Dry. Boring. More of a "check the block" kind of have-to offering, versus anything meaningful.

But, my friend asked. And I was curious. So I did a little research.

First, Fort Hood has a huge selection of available services.  Buddhist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Wiccan (?? total surprise there), Protestant (from Gospel to Contemporary to Samoan), Jewish and Islamic.

The services I am most comfortable with are either Baptist or Contemporary, so I chose the Contemporary service. I still didn't know what to expect.

On a military post, which is extremely transient, how would they do music? Would there even be a choir? Would we do Communion? What kind of Chaplain would we have?  Would there be ushers or deacons?

One other thing to note about chapels on a military installation: With very few exceptions such as the holy water font I saw at the inside door of the chapel, and perhaps a mezuzah where they hold Jewish services, the chapels have to be able to hold all types of services. So there can be no permanent crosses, no stained glass with denomination- or faith-specific images, nothing that marks the room as anything but a place of "general" worship. You can still tell that the room is a house of worship, based on the ones that I've visited for other reasons, but they are not specific to any one faith or denomination.  So I really didn't know or anticipate that the service would be anything but, well, generic.

I knew that Fort Hood had opened a new religious center fairly recently, and I'd even seen the building from afar. I had no idea, though, what an amazing and peaceful campus it was. Benches lined the walkways, inviting conversation and communing. Trees promised to offer shade and green glimpses of nature once they'd grown. It is truly a welcoming, wonderful and fresh location to hold any kind of spiritual meeting.

A sign in the foyer was the first glimpse I had that perhaps this was not going to be a dry and by-the-numbers kind of service. They wanted to build a community? In an area where people are sometimes only living here for a year or so before moving on? Where training, schools, deployments and TDY were the rule of thumb? Hmmm. My heart started to feel lighter, already.

Greeters handed me the church bulletin and smiled as they welcomed me in.  Hmm again... This felt like real church.

When I walked into the sanctuary, I saw my dear friend and prayer warrior. So I got a huge hug of greeting and a great smile. This was starting to feel like home.

Look! A full contemporary church band was warming up. I didn't know their songs but I was looking forward to learning more music. The sanctuary felt open, inviting, and certainly not militaristic or cold.

In the church bulletin, there was a leaflet about the Community Bible Experience. As explained later by the Chaplain, this was an effort to make the Bible familiar and relevant 7 days a week instead of during one or two hours each Sunday. Reading together as a group - I really liked this idea.  They have a Facebook page, too. So does Chapel Next.

I had always wondered if military services took up an offering. After all, the building and the Chaplains are paid for by the Army. Where would the money go? Turns out, last week's offering went to the Fisher House, one of my very favorite programs. This church was shaping up to be much more community-minded and meaningful than I could have anticipated.

In a couple of weeks, they will do a "Walk Through the Bible," focused on the New Testament, with programs for adults and children. This Sunday, they are holding a potluck. They have Sunday School and Children's Church. The first Sunday of each month, the children stay with the parents for family time.

My heart was full, and the Chaplain hadn't said a word.

While it is true that other churches I've visited have had a lot of these programs, because this was on a military installation, it felt different to me. I felt like I was among friends, simply because we were all of the same community. I've felt this kind of relevance at other churches, too, but this one surprised me.

After we sang with the (amazingly talented and even diverse) worship team, the assistant/associate Chaplain had some announcements. He explained the potluck (every other month), the family time, the overall philosophy of the church, and made sure to welcome everyone and let us all know how the service would go.

The sermon itself was about being in a relational gospel. Church and faith are about supporting one another, raising each other up, and being spotters for each other.  Just as weightlifters are able to handle a greater challenge if they have spotters to keep them safe, so are we able to do more when we have support. We are to act as that support for each other. We are to "protect them from being hurt while they build their strength".

Galatians 6:2 -- Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

He asked us: Are we close enough to others to know when they need help? I will ask, also: Do we allow others close enough to us, so they know when we need help? 

As a body of Christ, we fit together: Talents, abilities, gifts. They are unique to each of us, and the question we need to ask ourselves is, "Where do I fit?" 

I liked how he had a verse to explain and illustrate every point he made. He had a contextual knowledge of the Bible, and he shared it with us in ways that brought the Scriptures to life. 

Communion was another bit of a surprise. First, we had Communion at all. I don't know why I expected that we wouldn't have Communion, it's just that my preconceived ideas of a military, uniform-wearing church service didn't go too well with grape juice and bits of unleavened bread. Second, as we left our pews and took our cups and bread, the deacon who was assisting gave a blessing over us. The only time I have ever seen that was at a Catholic Mass, and as a non-Catholic I am not eligible to take Communion then. Having someone utter a blessing over me is a humbling, restorative feeling. His actual words didn't matter. It was the blessing and the anointment of words that had the needed effect.

So, will I go back? This is definitely in the running for my church home. I felt welcomed. I felt at home. And I felt God. What more could a person want?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lord, The One You Love Is Sick

Today's blog is for Ruth and especially for Pastor Franks. They are such dear people to me, and Pastor especially needs our prayers.

Lord, the one you love is sick.

Last night, fending off a migraine, I decided to look around at some of the more popular online churches today.  The ones with pastors who are well-known authors, the ones where I am more familiar with the titles of their books than I am the content of their preaching. I came across a Facebook post that asked for suggestions for online services, and found out that Max Lucado isn't just the author I thought he was, but he is the minister of a busy church a few hours south of here.

Until then, I'd thought he was kind of a mystical author, more "feel good" than biblical. I hadn't read his books, and had only seen a few quotes, but I'm generally leery of authors I first hear of from Oprah or other sources.

There are no accidents, remember?  I turned to the website for Oak Hills Church. Their service was over, but they had archived sermons. "Have You Prayed About It?" immediately popped out at me, and I turned on the first installment of the series.

One of the first things he talked about was the story of Lazarus. How Mary and Martha needed to care for him, but they sent "someone" to find Jesus and ask for healing.

That someone spoke to Jesus and said, "Lord, the one you love is sick."

That someone prayed on Lazarus' behalf.  "The healing began when the prayer was offered," said Pastor Lucado.  When we pray, Heaven acts.

Are you someone?  Am I?

Of course I am.

So tonight I am praying for Pastor Franks.  I am so thankful for these thoughts from Pastor Lucado, and for a way of looking at the simplest words in this familiar story--  I am someone. I am praying.

You see, when I began this journey, it was the first time I had met Pastor Franks and it was his birthday party. He and the church family had invited me to stay, and I found myself telling Pastor Franks about this project of mine. I told him about my search for a church home.

He said the words that I have tried to hold to the entire time-- "Don't let them lead you astray."  He knew some of the churches would hold sermons about falsehoods instead of Biblical truths. He knew some of the ministers would be tempted by the respect their congregations have for them, and give in to that temptation to ask the congregants to do something that was not biblically based, such as voting a certain way.  He knew, and he warned me.

Pastor Franks' church family has embraced me as part of their family, though I don't (yet) attend their church. They see me as "someone".

And, Lord, the one you love is ill.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Best Note

There is a building along one of the main routes in Killeen that has fascinated me since we moved here. The building is shaped like a house but is in a more commercial district, and it's had several different personalities over the years. It has been, I think, a realtor's office, empty, a church, and now a different church.

Hill Country Church (PCA) is there, now, and they have made the building homey looking and welcoming, with a new bright sign and an invitation "Join Us" along with service times. Both are easily seen from the street, which I always appreciate.

I have to laugh at myself sometimes, though, for my occasional gaps in denominational knowledge.  PCA does not, as I had imagined, mean Pentecostal Churches of America.  I had gone to the service, expecting hats and white gloves and shouted aleluia's.  Instead, I saw everything from blue jeans to nice blazers and cotton dresses.  The "P," as it turns out, means Presbyterian.

So this is where some research comes in. According to, Presbyterian Churches in America (PCA) was formed in protest of the more liberal changes that were occurring elsewhere in the denomination, holding to the rules about women in Church offices and the "inerrancy and authority of Scripture". Like the Lutherans, then, it appears the Presbyterians have synods, or divisions, based on strict (or more lenient) interpretations of the Bible.

Here is where it gets difficult. On that same site, they refer to certain "doctrines of grace," to include the following: (3)  Particular atonement.  God in His infinite mercy, in order to accomplish the planned redemption, sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to die as a substitute for the sins of a large but specific number of people, cf. Romans 8:29 and 30.  

Wait... A specific number? That's something I will have to think about long and hard. It almost sounds like they believe that number will never change, that some people will always be lost. I already struggle with the idea that there are so many people who will never be "saved," and I read about an entire denomination that knows and accepts this. 

But that isn't Hill Country, necessarily. It's just a peek into the denomination, and it gives me something to think about and study. Since gaining spiritual knowledge is one of my goals in writing this blog and making these visits, I can't very well complain when it happens.

Entering the church, I met smiles and warm welcomes from everyone I saw. There seemed to be more men in the service than women, which is a shift from what I've seen elsewhere. It may just be that I so seldom sit near anyone (or people so rarely sit by me after I've chosen my spot), that I noticed the ones closest to me more clearly. Pastor Lou Best welcomed me warmly, both personally after I sat down and again during the church announcements. This is a smaller church, seating what looked like maybe a hundred congregants (but may have been more). It felt comfortable and homey. The gentleman next to me helped me figure out which was the hymn book and which was the song book as we worked our way through the (blessedly detailed) order of service.

Here I will add: One thing I am growing to love about the more liturgical services is this tendency to outline everything they are going to do throughout the service. They explain the prayers of response, the verses we will say and sing, they outline page numbers and hymn numbers and what they believe about the Lord's Supper. Not every church welcomes the majority of people to participate in Communion, and it is very helpful to know whether and under what circumstances I am to take part. Some even show when to stand and when to sit, so I am not furtively watching my closest seatmates for their actions.

Pastor Best gave a terrific sermon.  He moved smoothly through the Scripture, detailing meaning and thought. He brought in modern situations (Facebook as a public relations instrument) and tied that in with God's actions and Words. I should have taken better notes. 

The associate pastor, Adam Viramontes, offered the Pastoral prayer and asked for specific congregational prayer requests. His prayer blended brief but specific words, demonstrating empathy and compassion, and was also spoken clearly enough so I could hear him easily from several rows back. He greeted me as service was ended, and I could see he loves this church family.

Hill Country is very fortunate to have both Pastors Best and Viramontes.

What made this visit special, aside from the fact that people really seemed to see me, was a hand-written note I received about a week afterwards. 

"Dear Casey,
     Thank you for visiting and worshiping with us on Sunday. It is an honor to be at the middle of your 52-Sunday church journey! I'd be interested in hearing about this project and what you have discovered. As you could probably tell we are a mostly military congregation and deal with all the challenges that population brings. Please let us know if we can assist you in any way. When your "pilgrimage" is over you know where we are!  Blessings in Christ, Lou Best."

I should note that I have started filling out the visitor cards with my name, address, email and a short comment about this church journey. I have received two emails before this, from different pastors, and both were friendly and interesting. I have made dear friends who are like family to me. I have been so incredibly blessed along this journey, and it's only a little over halfway done. I am not one to ask, "what next?" but I am looking so forward to hearing the answer.