On Looking for a church and Finding a Family
One of the big prayers we had for this trip to visit my mom was that the Lord would direct us to a church that really embodied the Word of God in word and deed. I asked our home family at JPUSA to pray that for us too. We were looking for a church with a good Sunday school for our kids, for a worship we could relate to and an order of service rooted in the church across time—catholicity. I’ve been using the Book of Common Prayer for years and Martha has gotten into praying the hours of the Shorter Christian Prayer. I knew that to find that kind of thing we’d have to venture way beyond our usual circles into new territory.
This was a fearful thing to me. I hate being a church shopper. It doesn’t make sense. First off we don’t think of the church as an entertainment center with us as its center. We think of the church as family that gathers with Christ as the center. Further, it’s a family that serves as Jesus leads. So the idea of looking for a family to adopt us for six short weeks seemed a little unfair, to both us and to them. Here we are as a family of five, essentially asking some larger family to accept us for only six weeks, meet our spiritual needs and then let us go. There seemed to be a lot of obstacles to that happening. So I set my expectations low.
The final hurdle for me was the highest one, I thought. I was afraid of extra biblical, cultural sermons that might manipulate and wound me. I like to think I’m not a terribly critical person, or too picky, a preacher snob. I’m a musical snob, but I’d like to think my snobbery doesn’t extend to speech. I’d like to think I have a high tolerance for all styles and manner of speech, from Black gospel preaching to White, square, straight homilies. But truthfully I’ve grown allergic to the following:
–“clothes line sermons” (about girls’ hemlines and necklines these days),
–hellfire and heaven sureties,
–demons waiting to pounce on unsuspecting TV viewers
–sermons that gleefully await the end of the world and see the deaths of entire scores of the heathen as signposts and proof of some Millerite timeline.
These send me into a fight or flight reflex that says “run for the door or publicly challenge this!” I’ve never done the latter in church and I rarely actually run for the door. I just feel hurt and my wife hears me rant the rest of the day.
I promise this won’t turn into a Mystery Worshipper situation, here’s our recent story:
The first church we visited (which shall remain nameless) had some very friendly folk. Warm handshakes all around, hugs and kindness. Good daycare program. When I dropped off our older kids upstairs for children’s church I immediately noticed a large TV on the side where the kids were already playing PS2. Later, after the service, my son just glowed with his new experience. Salvation?
“Dad, they gave us these gold (colored) tokens and said that next week we could cash them in for prizes like candy or toys!”
Well, that didn’t thrill me.
“So what did you learn?”
“Uh. . . they called us together to sing songs and memorize verses and then I went back to playing ‘Crash Bandicoot’.”
Shocked, I verified the facts.
“So, what amount of time would you say you played PS2?”
“I don’t know. . . . but for most of it!”
That sold me, we weren’t going back there! Well, no, that wasn’t the only thing.
Before beginning the sermon, the pastor opened with a film illustrating how we’re all like high school teenagers bound by sin with handcuffs, ball and chain, and even stocks(!) until we go to the “Kingdom Van” out behind the school to get freed. The trouble was, the presentation had a glitch just as the kids got to the van. Suddenly, we were forced to use our imaginations to experience the outcome. Couldn’t we have done that without the video at all?
The sermon was titled “unbinding Jesus’ hands” or something like that. I understood the gist of what he was saying and was willing to bear with the lengthy exposition of Jesus before Pilate with numerous illustrations (out of context) finishing with Seven Sins We Commit that Tie Jesus Hands. But when we were led in a “repeat after me” prayer where we said “I’m sorry for binding your hands Jesus,” I had to fight hard not to burst out laughing at the absurdity of imagining the Almighty Glorified Son of God bound by some child’s disobedience. Where, using the Bible, Church History, or daily experience could we find a reason to think that the Lord Jesus is still bound every time we sin? So why base a sermon on that illustration, print 300 programs with the title, and make us all fools by having us confess in prayer to something that can’t possibly be true?
It makes me think of a photo of a church sign I saw that said “God Wants You to Kill Your Old Man.” Terribly unfortunate idea for a sign. I hope to God no one took it literally. The Headlines would read “Church Sign Causes Rash of Paternal Homicides!”
After feeling this way about the first church, I began to doubt whether any church would meet my standards. I didn’t want to be too exacting. After all, as the old saying goes “if you find the perfect church, don’t join or you’ll ruin it!” I guess that’s a take off on the old Groucho Marx line “I would never join a club that would have me for a member.”
So I decided to just ditch my list of qualifications and attend the next service in faith that God would take care of us. I looked on the internet for a list of ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) churches in the Springfield area. Found out that one had a contemporary worship at the same time as Sunday school, called the office to double check, and then the following Sunday showed up! Well, it was everything we could have wanted and more! Very organized, not too formal, great Sunday School for the kids, a simple liturgy honoring the Church Year, a good sermon that didn’t upstage everything else, and a nice praise band.
The coolest thing was the eagerness with which we were invited to help out. We were brand new, and explained that we’d only be in town for six weeks, but that didn’t stop anyone from wanting to know us and have us as part of their activities. Far from playing PS2, this time the kids were rehearsing a Christmas Program. When we picked them up they begged and pleaded to be able to join. Two other kids had gotten sick so a script and list of songs was thrust on them with the invitation to practice twice weekly for two hours at a time in expectation of the coming event. Wow. We were hesitant at first, but the play leader announced that she was also new but eager to help. So with the sounds of “O Tanenbaum” in a not-quite-ready-but-loud key resounding from our kids in the back seat, we joyfully drove home.
The following Sunday morning after the service I walked up to the lead electric guitar player to compliment the music. I mentioned specifically the nice western licks I heard, and that I was into the Austin sound from the 70s. He asked, “Are you a guitar player?”
“Well yeh, I play a Martin” I said. So he said, “I’m always looking for another player so I can sit out some parts.”
“Well, I don’t know, we’re only here a few more weeks.” But then I looked up and noticed another woman from the band listening in. “Here at Messiah we put you to work” she said with a smile.
I liked that. I was reminded that that’s what community is all about. Being volunteered. It draws me in, makes me feel a part. “Well, I’ll talk to my family.”
“Great, if you can do it be here at five on Wednesday for practice.”
“Ok. I just might be!”
I was kind of torn. I’m down here because I’m not so sure how much time I have left with mom. What will she think if I just disappear on her on Wednesday night? But this was meeting another need in my life. I had this dream of hooking up with a band and playing some licks down here—for the fellowship. That’s why I play music, not to be the center of attention but to belong and make something bigger than myself. So I went to mom and asked if it was ok with her. We agreed to play it by ear on a see if it fits on a weekly basis.
So for that Wednesday it worked. I went and had a great time. The whole practice was very relaxed. On at least one song we winged the whole thing and had fun when we messed up. No pressure, just great fun. After practice there was a little dinner and conversation. There’s always something happening at this church. So many ways to get involved: Al-Anon meetings, Hand bells, Hospital service opportunities. This, in my book, is a church that works. It supports itself and it reaches out of itself. Its messy at times and neat at other times. I’m sure its as imperfect as any other church family(and truthfully we won’t be around long enough to know to what extent). . . .just like my own up in Chicago.
In my meditation this morning, I read the following from Charles Ringma:
“Commitment is won through the struggle of working through options. Obedience comes through laying down our lives. Power results from true servant hood. And love needs to be imparted to us. Nothing good simply falls into our lap. Good comes when evil and selfishness are resisted and God’s grace and direction is grasped with both hands.”
—from Dec. 20, Sieze the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Ringma, Pinon, 2000. [My copy is especially precious because it bears the coffee spillage of my friends Jon and Carol Trott back at JPUSA where I “gave” it to them for Christmas last year. They “gave” it back to me this year.]
That quote seems to draw in everything I’ve experienced in this whole church-search-journey thing over the last month. There are many things that can stand in the way of finding a good church. I would be remiss not to add that God has done a great work in me personally over the last year that has given me the confidence to speak up and introduce myself to people, the desire to know new names and faces, and the sincere love for life that affords relationships. Only last year I would not have been so bold, so precocious, so at ease in conversations. I still have a long way to go, but at one time the thought of connecting with a new church would have been literally paralyzing.
In 2003 I worked as an editor on a book about a man with “church paralysis.” For all of his adult life he could not bring himself to reconcile his faith with a particular house of worship. Granted, there were a lot of extenuating circumstances. But he was never able to break through his fears and vulnerability to believe that a particular church of people could meet his needs and use his services. I know that God still used him, but he serves as an example to me of what I could easily become: full of denial, fear, anger and finally ambivalence.
Regardless of what I’ve written about the theological pet peeves and excesses I see and hear from pulpits, I believe in the power of the local church. Here we encounter all that is peculiar about America’s way of being religious. But here we also encounter and are changed by the Spirit of God if we’re willing. This is the story of how God met my family’s particular needs this year. Your story would no doubt look different depending on you and your family’s needs. Maybe you’d end up at the very church I couldn’t stand and have an entirely different story to tell. That’s OK. Just pray for the willingness, which, as the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions puts it, is a key.
“Once unlocked by willingness, the door opens almost of itself, and looking through it, we shall see a pathway beside which is an inscription. It reads: “This is the way to a faith that works.”
If I had an End of the Year Benediction it would be this: If you haven’t yet, may you too find that Willingness now, and once you find it keep going! Staying on the path is different than just visiting. What this experience has taught me is that God answers prayer, especially when that prayer involves a willingness to act. If we were staying here in Springfield that would involve continually coming back, continually offering ourselves, and continually making ourselves vulnerable to receive.
If you’re ever in the Springfield Missouri area, I do recommend the church family of Messiah Lutheran, 925 E. Seminole.