Aug 31, 2010

Back to Church

I’ve heard my share of “leaving church” stories; and not from immature, fair-weather Christians but from long-term, mature believers – many who had been in leadership. They grew disillusioned by schisms and scandals, they got tired of what felt like a formulaic service, they didn’t feel fed, they didn’t feel needed. So they left – not God, but church. And they’re not alone. Anne Rice is just the latest statistic. As George Barna said in his book, Revolution, people are “leaving church in droves.”

I could have been one of them. If it weren’t for a dinner party.

I doubt I’d feel happy leaving church for good. I spent stretches of time not going, but never with the intention of staying out. I just hadn’t found the right church, I told myself. By the time I met my husband I’d found one; but we moved too far away, so we had to find a place near home where we’d both feel comfortable. We visited just about every place that friends attended and recommended.

And we left most of them angry.

Why? Well, for one, we’d each grown uncomfortable with modernist liturgy: the 45-minute rock concert, followed by a 45-minute sermon – often containing 15 minutes of content padded out with alliterative bullet points and anecdotes. (I began to feel sorry for pastors: they had to produce a new 45-minute act every week!) Church had begun to feel like “the Sunday Show,” as a friend described; the show that Northpoint Church poked fun of in their video, “Sunday’s Coming.” (They have the right to poke fun, because it’s the same format they follow).

However, many people we loved and respected went to those churches. And I could see they were getting a lot out of being there. So, perhaps nobody was wrong; it was just that everyone was different. So Larry and I kept looking and visiting. And leaving angry.

At the end of our ecclesiastical rope, I discovered that an Episcopal priest, whom I fondly remembered during a church-hopping stint 15 years prior, was now the senior rector of a teensy church just a couple miles from us. I remembered when she celebrated the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit was all over her. So we went.

And we didn’t leave angry. That was the high water mark.

We went back the following weeks. I don't remember being bowled over or pissed off; comfortable or uncomfortable. We just went. I finally reintroduced myself to her. Reverend Anne made sure we filled out a card, and two weeks later she invited us to a newcomer’s dinner. At dinner, Anne got excited when she found out that Larry and I read C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and Donald Miller. She’d been trying to launch small groups for some time and asked us to join in a training group. We said yes. What else were we going to say?

There were eight of us in training, including a woman who’d come to Christianity after studying eastern religions; a guy who’d left a large parish because it was more concerned with politics than religion; a couple whose wife had attended church for years but the husband only recently decided he needed to ‘get right with God,’ as he put it. He was a scientist. He questioned everything. He needed data. He refused to pray out loud. Toward the end of the program he finally agreed to pray, but only after his wife gave him tips on what to say.

Three small groups launched the following spring, reading a Lenten devotional with essays by everyone from CS Lewis to Khalil Gibran (hey, what the …? ) When Lent was over, the Scientist and his wife joined our group. He didn’t want to read essays; he wanted to read the Bible. “I don’t know what’s in there.”

We bought NT Wright’s study guide, Luke For Everyone, and began to read. And we began to change. The Bible came alive, not just to the Scientist for whom the story was new, but to Larry and me who thought we knew everything. Wright filled in the historical and cultural context; he debunked the religious folklore that had crept into my thinking. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus became real and vivid to us. It was like we were there.

We moved on to Acts. Other people joined the group: longstanding church goers, outcasts who’d been away from church for years: a lesbian who got expelled from Bible school, a Buddhist who visited our church one Sunday and couldn’t stop crying; a great-grandmother who’s gone to our church for 50 years, a single mom and her teenage daughter. We’re all reading the Bible and discovering new things.

We are also growing together. We’ve begun to share our stories. When my beloved kitty died last month, they prayed and cried with me. I’ve grown closer to Larry too. Every week I see how much people look up to him; I observe what a scholar he is. I respect and love him more every week. Yes, we belong to a church. But the core of my church experience is my small group.

It’s not always amazing. Sometimes the Sunday service is boring. They can pick some musty old hymns that make me long Chris Tomlin. But we’ve launched a contemporary, contemplative service. That’s where the Scientist says he really gets emotional. The Scientist is having emotional experiences with God.

The small group has had its awkward moments, too. Once a woman told us that Jesus had visited Britain; it was proven, she’d seen it on the History Channel. I asked her if she’d been watching Para-history Channel. Another time a man visited. He said he didn’t care if the resurrection happened. “Everyone gets into heaven, even Hitler.” He hasn’t returned, but I heard he read Velvet Elvis and is devouring Rob Bell’s Nooma videos. It just reminds me that God is working on each of us in his timing, in a way that each of us can stomach.

I didn’t leave church. I came back, and I’m learning the lesson that my more mature friends – the ones who love churches I walk out of angry – have already learned: just pick a church and go. Every place will have assets and liabilities. You’ll meet true friends and people you can’t stand. You may find yourself the radical leftist in a group of right-wingers, or the conservative prig in a group of radical leftists. Just go. Plug in. When your pastor invites you to a newcomers’ dinner, say yes. If you’re asked to lead, say yes. If you don’t think you’re prepared, ask God to prepare you.

Not long ago, the former Buddhist confessed she wasn’t feeling so sure about her faith. She missed that glow she first felt. The Scientist nodded, “Don’t worry. It comes and goes. Just keep showing up.”

Here is a video from Bel Air Presbyterian’s drama group, aka the Bel Air Drama Department, aka B.A.D.D. They've made a host of FUNNY videos, and here is one about small groups, done in the vein of “The Office.”

Aug 23, 2010

Political T-shirt

When it comes to politics, I belong to the "Everyone Poops" party. I see good and bad on both sides. The 2008 Wall Street Meltdown made me wary of free market enterprise; but the recent Bell Salary Scandal reminded me of what happens when you give too much to government er, um, "servants." Anyway, I thought about making up some T-shirts with the following design. Who wants one? :)

Aug 17, 2010

Hide your Kids, Hide your Wife

Well y'all may have been living under a rock. But 9 million hits on this video already. This guy fought off his sister's would-be attacker. And how about his demeaning rant, just to get the point across. I love it.
Way to go Antoine, you're our hero!

Aug 15, 2010

Cuddle With An Elephant Seal

I don't know how tame the seals are in Georgia (Russia), but this is pretty amazing to watch.