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.