Monday, December 28, 2009

Church #11 of 10: Newsflash: Due to Blizzard, Jesus’ Birth Cancelled

"Can’t we just wait here a little bit longer?” I sighed, dropping my head. “Maybe they’re just late.”

"Sure, we can wait.” My mother put the car in park and turned off the gas. The cold began to creep through the cracks and crevices of the car. It was 8:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve and everything was covered in crunchy, white snow. The roads had not been plowed, the parking lot was empty, the steps were slippery, and the lights were off.

A moment of hope churned in my stomach as I saw another car drive slowly through the parking lot and then disappear behind the swirling flakes.

“Plan B, fail,” I thought to myself and then looked up at the dark American Baptist church. “Let’s go,” I said aloud.

Plan A was “Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral” in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. When the snow started to fall, however, Plan A was quickly aborted. First weather rule if you live in the Kansas City Metro Area: if it’s snowing, icing or sleeting, and you are already in Kansas, DON’T go to Missouri. Their lower gas, alcohol and property taxes allow for a common non-belief in snowplows or salt trucks. So, we picked a church in Kansas with a 9:00 p.m. service (Church #2, Prairie Baptist). We had already planned our traditional Christmas Eve spaghetti dinner and were about to pop in a movie when the cancellations started. Just like school closings, they appeared continuously in alphabetical order at the bottom of the screen. Though churches had different names, locations and service times, the gist of it was this: Christmas Eve is Cancelled.

Throughout the movie, I kept my computer open to the school now turned church closings page on a local TV station’s website. Prairie Baptist never came up on the list, though in our pathetic attempt in the empty parking lot, we realized that was an error.

As we headed down the street toward home, I let my disappointment take over my dramatic personality and sat in silence. “I’m sure we can find somewhere else,” my mother said. Then she started listing off local churches. I knew the “Anglican” church next door to our house was still having services, but their severe turn against the openly-gay, Episcopal Bishop made me vow to never step foot on their premises. After she convinced me that there was still hope, I took out my phone and started to look up other options. I called some other churches from the list: Church #9, services cancelled. The Lutherans and Presbyterians were also a no-go. \

At about 8:50, we reentered our house and raced up to our laptops to continue our quest. My mom started listing churches and I crosschecked them with the cancellation list. Of course, we knew that the cancellation list was less than complete, so that did very little good. Then, I did a Google search for churches nearby my parents’ house. The second church that popped up was “Hillcrest Lutheran,” just blocks from our house. Their website stated that all services were continuing as planned.

We sped down the stairs and without tying our shoes or zipping our coats, jumped back into the car to try to make it to Hillcrest’s 9:00 p.m. candlelight service. “Now, these are the right kind of Lutheran’s, right?” My mother asked.

"Sure,” I responded. “Just plain Lutheran.” The truth was, I didn’t really know, but normally, if not otherwise displayed on their sign or website, Lutheran churches are the “right” kind of Lutheran.

We literally sprinted through the parking lot, me, in heels, my mother in untied boots into a church full of about 250 other people who had ventured out into the cold. Candles were lit, a quartet was playing, and my heart began to rest its anxiety, increase its peace, and support its excitement. Behind the altar, a 40 fit, 12 panel window, floor to ceiling, revealed the large wooden cross outside the church, almost as tall. Behind the cross, a huge pine tree with white lights. And in between it all, the snow blew, spun and twisted. It made my eyes water just thinking of how windy it was out there.

I imagined Mary trudging through the sands of the hot desert, pregnant, tired and afraid. The wind blowing grains of dirt in her face and lungs. After all of that, arriving in Bethlehem and finding there is no room for her, anywhere. In a way, for Mary, Christmas Eve was almost cancelled.

But then, in the lowliest of places, the least likely location in which to birth a baby, she settled down, and did what she needed to do. It was not as comfortable as a hotel or as welcoming as her home, but she knew that a prophet’s life was pending, and she must find a place to stay.

It was in the preacher’s call to worship that I closed my eyes and felt the uneasy, discomfort I so often tried to avoid in church. Within the first few moments, I heard the words, “law, Satan and death.” I knew something was off. Trying not to distract my mother, I casually pulled the hymnal from the pew in front of me and turned to the back cover. I sighed on the inside, “Copyright Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.”

I pondered whether or not to whisper to my mother, but her eyes were closed and she was crying, so instead, I started to cry, too. I kneeled when the preacher gave forgiveness, sang every song, said every prayer and took communion, (even though one of the deacons was convinced I was too young and tried to bless me instead). I forgot where I was and instead, remembered why I was there. I thought of Mary in her time of great pain and anxiety. Was she thinking, “Oh my goodness, I cannot believe I’m in a freaking stable” or was it, “I’m going to have a baby…I’m seriously going to have a baby”?

I didn’t agree or feel comfortable with the whole service, but I rarely do. On a night of blizzards, the only place that would take us in was a place I would have never chosen for myself. But it was exactly the place I needed, and Christmas Eve persevered.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Church #10 of 10: Go, Tell it En Dos Lenguas

When I was in Spain, I stopped at every church I passed. An open chapel, a small room for a Saint, or a giant CatedrĂ¡l, I would stop and pretend for at least ten minutes to be Catholic. I liked to kneel next to someone and listen to the prayers they muttered in Spanish under their breath. I couldn’t understand them, but I could feel their importance, their anxious need to be addressed. I always thought prayers sounded so much more beautiful in Spanish. I know that could be inappropriately exotifying a language, but to me, the prayers just sounded more genuine. Maybe it was just the kneeling, the darkness and then tears with which the Spanish entwined. Regardless, I think I would pray more if I started praying in Spanish.

Grandview Park Presbyterian is a bilingual church in Kansas City, KS. The official Kansas City, KS is a large area, spanning miles of farms and suburb-like housing. But at the heart of the city lives the Spanish-speaking population of the Kansas City Metro. Most of the families I teach in Shawnee started out in what we call KCK.

Grandview Park was around long before the influx of Spanish-speakers, though. The church’s first service in the standing building was in 1889, when I expect the area was filled with farms and the beginnings of factories from people moving west. The church must have altered its methods more than once to meet the needs of the people in order to stay open as long as it has. And now their services, missions and education are completely bilingual, translated from Spanish to English and sometimes vise versa.

The pastor and his two sons led the praise band, which consisted of electric bass, electric guitar, a singer and the pastor playing both acoustic guitar and keyboard (not at the same time). I don’t think the band spoke much Spanish, but they led every hymn in both languages, singing one verse in English and then in Spanish, sometimes switching the lingual order. I never felt that one language was more important than the other. Neither language seemed secondary.

Many churches in that area claim to be bilingual because they have two services, one in Spanish and on in English. There are even a few churches that operate exclusively in Spanish. To create a truly bilingual community takes an extraordinary amount of work. Not only must you have a good representation of both languages singularly, but a decent amount of people who are actually bilingual. Scripture must be read, songs must be sung, sermons must be translated and Sunday School must be taught…all these things happen with the help of people who can read, write and speak both Spanish and English.

I felt partially useless and occasionally bored sitting in the pews of this church. It really was an amazing experience, and it is the only church to which I’ve gone that I have contributed any offering monies. It seemed, however, repetitive for me. At first, it was fun to hear the translations and create my own Spanish to English versions of the sermon in my head. But about one hour in, I had to decide which language in which to immerse myself. Loving the flowing beauty of it, I, of course, chose Spanish. Which made the English translating seem boring and pointless. I know I am selfish for thinking that, because they are serving a wide community with a great purpose, but being bilingual made half the service seem unnecessary to me.

What I appreciated most about Grandview were its specific missions that were based around their community. When a church serves an upper-class neighborhood, the missions have to be chosen, approved and then acted upon as allies, sometimes without a sense of empathy. But this church is truly serving its neighborhood, by concentrating on finding jobs for immigrants, feeding those who stand in line for work, and providing free coffee in the street and lunch after each service. They also do prayer home visits in both languages and have a very active children’s program.

I know this post has not been my most deep, entertaining or thought provoking. It is not, though, my last post. I won’t leave you with a simple description of something I found interesting and amazing. I maybe can’t explain it, but you’ll just have to trust me. The over two-hour service-time may mean I’m not going back, but I definitely have a community of people to whom I can recommend it.

I am going to the Episcopal Cathedral, Grace & Holy Trinity, for Christmas Eve, which will require another blog entry. And then, as I’m sure you’ve all been wondering, (on the edge of your seats) we will have a conversation about what’s next. This journey is far from over.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Church #9 of 10: Hippies, Go Where I Send Thee

“Now I know,” my father said as he left the church.

“Know what?” I inquired.

“Where all those hippies from the 1960s and 1970s went.” He replied, chuckling. “They had to conform to society, but deep down, they’re still the same hippies.”

“So do you think Juli would like this church?” I asked, referring to my Aunt who lived the 1960s, as you would imagine how one might have lived it based on documentaries and movies.

“No, Juli moved forward. These people,” he said. “These people, a part of them is still there.”

“I liked it,” I said. “It wasn’t boring.”

Unity Church of Overland Park is a “New Thought” church. They have creeds and traditions, but they are called “Peace Statements” and “Love Offerings.” Everything has a different name, looks slightly different and reminds me of the people at Oberlin that overused the word “internalize”. But I did like it. I felt moved, excited and welcome. Their website almost made me cry and I balled through the first half of the service. They seemed organized and governed but still open and transparent. They really believe everything I believe, which historically similar to the Gnostic tradition. God is within us, within the earth, within every entity. Christ was not Christ because he was the Son of God, but because he was an ultimate representation of God working through us to help each other. We follow him because he led by example, not because he died and was raised from the dead. Unity Church concentrates on the life, love and analysis of God and Christ.

This is the largest church we visited, with over 200 in worship at the 9:00 a.m. service, the smaller of their two services. The mass was strangely comforting. They had systems in place to welcome newcomers (a lapel rose sticker) and seemed to know each other well, but I took comfort in the governance of the church being slightly separated from the congregation. It was nice to not sit in a place where I can look all around me and not see how each and every person has hurt my family in some way. In a church this large, that type of experience doesn’t seem as possible.

The music was particularly amazing, in a hard-to-reach sort of way. The musicians were obviously professionals, probably well paid, and the singer changes week to week, all well known names from the Kansas City area. These singers sell their CDs in the lobby after church. Musically, I enjoyed the couple numbers we sung and all the numbers she sung alone, but I felt disconnected by the impossibility that I would ever be able to sing there. I’m not a professional singer, I don’t have a CD, and I prefer not to be paid. It may seem odd, but that makes it less faithful for me. I have always kept work and faith separate since graduating from college…most people at work don’t want to talk about religion, and it’s probably better that way. Therefore, unless I’m working as a choir director in a church where I’m not involved, a member or paying attention, the whole paid-musician thing does not really suit me.

When I first entered the church, there was an older couple dancing in front of the band. The band was playing some jazzy prelude music and this couple was thoroughly enjoying themselves. I felt immediately that this is what church should be like. People just so involved that when it’s time to cry, we cry, and when it’s time to dance, we dance. Comfortable or uncomfortable, we feel the way we feel with no shame or harassment.

This visit was a big relief after having so many less-than-interesting church experiences. Though I agree with my father that the preacher’s talk of our inner “Shepherd Boy” asking us, “Do You Know What I Know?” was a little surface level, I resonated with the point of her sermon in that it is sometimes the poorest and youngest that know about the most exciting or most horrific things going on in our world. The last question she asked was, “Now that you know, what will you do?”

When I left Unity Church of Overland Park, I felt like I had just seen a really good show. People even clapped after every musical number AND the sermon. Maybe I should have had a ticket, program and souvenir, as if it were some sort of concert. I felt guilty. Was I more entertained than praiseful? Did I worship, say thank-you, ask forgiveness, progress in knowledge and in deed? Or did I just feel really pleased with myself? Sarah Hammond made a great comment on one of my last posts about acknowledging real sin rather than just saying “sorry” for not loving yourself in His name enough this week. Not that I want a church that makes me feel bad about myself, but I want more than boredom and less than a Broadway show. And I want to be DOING something. Something more.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Church #8 of 10: Come Thou Long Expected Boredom

“Let’s try the contemporary service,” I typed to my mother through AIM. “Maybe IT won’t be boring.”

"I think we’ve established that the Presbyterians are boring,” she reiterated our previous conversation.

“I think it’s the traditional Protestantism that is getting to us. Not traditional enough to be spiritually interesting, not contemporary enough to be spiritually stimulating,” I tried to convince her. “Plus, this church is ‘More Light’. You know, the Presby’s version of GLBT friendly.”

“It’s whatever you want,” she replied.

“Well, would you prefer the earlier or later service?” I tried to pry an opinion out of her.

“It’s whatever you want,” she repeated.

“Fine, the ‘10 ‘til 10’ service at Grace Covenant Presbyterian this Sunday.” I decided. I can’t say I had a good feeling given that I felt we were visiting more churches I didn’t like than did, but I was confident that a bigger church with a contemporary service might give us the Advent jolt we needed.

If I weren’t going on this journey with my mother, the paths I took would have led me to a completely different place. I probably would have stopped blogging by now and recommenced my sleep-til-noon Sunday morning ritual. I would have given up. After the emotional experience at Broadway Church, the semi-interesting

Episcopalians and Methodists, and the eternally sleepy Lutherans and Presbyterians, I would have reconciled to myself that I’d tried it all and wasn’t going to find what I was looking for—whatever that is.

But my mother consistently asked, “Where are we going next?” read and commented on every blog post, and provided support, encouragement and opinions. As she often has, she pushed me out of my comfort zone, then pulled me back into it, when necessary. She has taken all of her sadness and hurtfulness from our former church and redirected it into our difficult struggle to find our faiths again.

Grace Covenant probably wasn’t the best place to do that. I was surprised to find a large, Johnson County church on the “More Light” website, but there it was. Maybe that’s where all the liberals of JoCo go…all those people I with whom I went to high school are over at First Family or Resurrection, but those few Blue Valley loners, they must be at Grace Covenant.

I was wrong in my hopefulness. I felt like I was reentering my upper class, white, high school, only everyone was older and less interested. The fake superiorly humble attitude that so many entitled children learn so young had been practiced for years, and it was represented here. If it was supposed to be entertaining, it was painstakingly amateur. If it was supposed to be spiritual, it was disappointingly bland and if it was supposed to be welcoming, the doors, windows, minds and hearts must have been closed that day.

I would almost prefer an overdone contemporary service, with a screen, graphics and lots of standing up with your eyes closed, to what I experienced here. At least the mega-churches I despise so much still come from a sense of genuine honesty. I can believe that they believe, even if our beliefs are virtually opposite. Here, it felt like a quick dinner at Applebee’s, a nice hello to a few acquaintances, and then a blank stare throughout the drive home. Unfeeling, unnecessary, and underwhelming. Suburban. And not in a good way.

I’m not sure if it’s my mood that is making more critical, or if I’m just losing hope. My mind keeps shifting back to Broadway Church, and then I must ask myself the question, “Am I ready to re-visit a church.” Going once as a visitor is easy. No one expects anything of me and no one is wondering why I am there. “Oh, I’m just visiting churches.” But when you go back, there are questions. “Is she interested in joining? Does she want to help out? Who is she? What’s she like? What does she believe?” Questions I can’t even bear to ask or answer myself right now.

I will visit two more churches, and possibly a third on Christmas Eve. The question I’m starting to ponder is: What’s next?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Church #7 of 10: O Come, O Come, Anticipate

A friend of mine (Rachael Weasley) always said, "Be an empty manger, and Christ will come." I think the challenge was being so empty, open-minded, welcoming, loving, caring, humble, and needing-of-God that we are unafraid of the anticipation and hope of the Advent season. It is my favorite time of year. Some say spring is about new growth, Easter is about rebirth, but to me, as snow starts to fall and the cold sets in, we draw warmth out of depths of God's love and that is the true gift of life.

I didn’t choose a church to attend specifically on the first Sunday of Advent. Given its importance to my faith, I probably should have. That would require me to know what I want and where I am comfortable, which I guess is the purpose of this entire journey. What I want from Advent is to feel a great amount of hope and anticipation. I want to feel excited in a way that never leaves an opportunity for disappointment. I get excited about things all the time, but there is always a chance they won’t turn out as I expected. The great thing about Advent is I can get really excited and it ALWAYS turns out to be as awesome as expected.

Westport Presbyterian is a nice church. Really, most of the churches I’ve visited have been nice. I thought the extravagant welcome at my ex-church was unique; but in reality, there are nice people all over Kansas City. It is a beautiful church that emphasizes circles and curves, a type of architecture that reminds me of unity. When I was in D.C. at a protest, Rachael asked me, “What if the Washington Monument were a circle instead of a giant…erection?” Well, this church was more about the circles.

But I have the same criticisms of it as I’ve had about so many protestant churches. The routine seems so normal and even though we just heard the news that Jesus is coming, no one seemed that different or excited. Slow-moving hymns, light the advent candle, prayer, forgiveness, the end. The sermon was about us needing the light of Christ in the world. The nation, the city, the church, personally, we all need the light. That’s true, but where’s the anticipation in your voice…we need the light…AND…THE LIGHT IT COMING!

Advent is the time of year when I feel hopeful without reason, spiritual without logic, excited without fear of disappointment. At Westport Presbyterian, I understood the importance of the light, the need of the light, but no anticipation of its arrival.

Now, I’m the first to say that church isn’t always supposed to make you comfortable. I realize that it’s not about me and making me feel all good inside about a cute little baby in a manger, but without spreading the excitement and love, how can we remind people of the reason for this hope in the first place. With advent, comes a hope for all things that otherwise seem impossible. Suffering, war, violence, racism, heterosexism, genderism, sexism, classism…When we draw close together for Advent there is hope and possibility for change. After all, if one little kid can change the lives of so many, then imagine what all of us can do.

A very good friend from Oberlin, Diana Steele, recommended this church to me. Her mother-in-law just retired as the choir director. All things considered, it was not a bad experience. I can see a lot of people finding a home there. They do an immense amount of social action, support the arts, and definitely give off family/community vibes upon entering. For me, though, the heat was missing. In one of my previous posts I referred to every sense awakening to the heat of Peace Community Church on Sunday mornings. I could feel it, taste it, see it and smell it. I felt like I was around the most comfortable and amazing campfire in the whole world, huddling close to my friends and having fun just waiting. Waiting for the arrival of something amazing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Church #6 of 10: Halle Halle Helpless

There is a point when you have been in a situation long enough—a job, a school, a family, a dorm, a church—when the people and qualities of the place begin to enter your dreams. I have always been a very vivid dreamer. From nightmares to fantasies, from realistic to magical, I remember nearly every dream I have, and they haunt me throughout the day. Most of the time, I wish I did not remember. The good dreams make me yearn for things I can’t reach and the bad ones frighten me or make me sad.

On November 1, I visited an amazing church. It has taken me a long time to write about it because another church has continued to infringe on my spiritual space. I dream of my kids, my family, my friends back in Oberlin, but day or night, my former church keeps entering into my thoughts, preventing me from moving forward. Because my subconscious, unconscious, and consciousness are so wrapped up in the poison that is/was Country Club Congregational, every time I sit down to write about Broadway Church, I get caught-up in memories and grudges of my former life.

I played and sung a wedding of a dear friend at Country Club Congregational a couple weeks ago. The surreal experience brought me to tears more than once. There I was in a place where I knew every keyhole, alarm code, nook, cranny and secret room. I could work the sound system, turn on the lights, and direct people in the right direction. Yet, a place that I knew so well, gave me such a terrible feeling in my stomach. I immediately felt lost and afraid. I felt like I was living a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I was entering a space that was once my home, seeing people that were once my family, but facing the reality that I never existed there. The home and family that brought me back to Kansas City was nothing more than a nightmare that felt so real, but no one else wanted to admit happened.

When I first walked into Broadway, the extravagant welcome was genuine and careful. I knew that this was a church that had dealt with those hurt by the church, a church that had been hurt by the greater Church itself. I told my mom as we sat down, “The thing I worry about, coming here, is that it will be too much like Country Club.” I don’t even want to be reminded of the good times I had there. I want to be separate, disconnected, and let-go.

But the church that Broadway reminded me of was not the exclusive, hurtful place that I had just left, but the spiritual community in which I felt most comfortable, Peace Community Church in Oberlin. Formerly Southern Baptist, Broadway Church had a long history of challenging the system. The pastor, who had been there for 40+ years, told me of their three strikes with the SBC (Southern Baptist Conference). Strike 1: He refused to preach about hell, damnation and sin. Strike 2: The church hired a woman to be their children’s minister and eventually their co-minister. And Strike 3: The church began to perform holy unions for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered couples. So removed from the family it once had, Broadway begin to function as a non-denominational welcoming community, “Where souls wake up,” as their bulletin said.

I have always been against the big projection screen, but the church used its white wall behind the altar to project song lyrics, in order to save paper (can’t really argue with that). The songs were mix of contemporary praise music with drums, flute/clarinet, piano and a couple lead singers, and a couple good ole’ Southern favorites, on which the preacher played the organ. There were two women spinning and dancing in scarves and skirts, one was playing the tambourine. I felt comfortable and happy. I’ve kind of been searching for something I could see myself being a part of, when really, I should be looking for something that already has a place set-out for me at the table.

The pastor used a Powerpoint carefully and conservatively to illustrate the limitations of the biblical temple. He educated as well as he inspired and my mother said, “These are the things I feel I should have learned all those years growing up in Sunday School, but I’m just learning them now.” After the sermon, one more song, and the fast 75 minutes was over.

I don’t know when I will stop dreaming about my former church…or at least, stop remembering the dreams. I am constantly reliving the abuse and the anguish and I believe it is preventing me from experiencing these other churches to the fullest. Sometimes I think if members of Country Club Congregational acknowledged the hurt they caused so many, including my entire family, I could move past it all. Apologies are unlikely, and even less likely is admission of responsibility. This is a barrier in my mind that I will have to tear down on my own, just like Jesus tore down the walls and curtains of the temple. Only then will I be able to reenter my relationship with God.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Church #5 of 10: Amazing Grace, How Come the Routine

“So your dad must be pretty conservative,” I replied to Rachael, who was sitting on the floor of her bedroom working on music theory homework.

“Conservative?” Rachael inquired, “Why? He’s Methodist Minister.”

“Right…” I didn’t look up from my book.

When I felt Rachael’s eyes on me, I glanced up and put down my highlighter. “I mean, Methodists are pretty conservative, right? So it must be hard since you’re so liberal.”

“Methodists aren’t conservative,” she seemed utterly perplexed.

“Sure they are. My dad grew up Methodist, they told him he was going to hell because he wasn’t saved. And, in my city, there is this giant Methodist Mega-church that totally gets off on ignorance and whatnot. It’s called ‘Church of the Resurrection,’ but I call it ‘Church of the Mega-Erection.’”

“Are you sure they’re Methodists?” she asked.

“Oh, I’m sure. It’s one of those say-a-lot, do-nothing denominations,” I said, without considering that this might offend her.

Rachael’s heart was so genuine and pure that she seemed more concerned than offended. “In the Bay Area, they aren’t like that at all.”

“You mean, you’ve never met a conservative Methodist?” I raised my eyebrows.

“And you’ve never met a liberal one?”

Since that conversation, I have met plenty of liberal Methodists. In addition to Rachael, and her boyfriend, David, I encountered them all over the country, at protests and marches. I realized that in my own city, The Reverend, Mayor, now-Congressman Emanuel Cleaver is a progressive Methodist pastor and politician. But I have not sought them out. I was so proud of my ex-denomination’s national stance on the “tough” issues that I ignorantly pushed aside what I called the “say-a-lot, do-nothing” denominations—Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans.

When visiting Broadway Methodist Church, I expected a congregation much like my ex-church. Elderly, progressive in thought, but unwilling to take much serious action. I also thought I might experience a protestant, slow service, like the Lutheran frenzy. I have worshipped in Methodist churches before and have never been very moved or impressed. What most people find comfortingly traditional, I find annoyingly conventional. The Methodists are a large, well-known denomination, and therefore, easy to criticize. Generalizations fit them.

Broadway Methodist fit-in, but stood-out, much like my beloved friend, Rachael Weasley. I know it may seem odd that I shun tradition and also bask in its glory, but it really depends on how it is presented. I love an homage to the past, a recognition of the spirits and places before us, but I always need movement toward the future. Broadway Methodist kept its beautiful stone structure but built a coffee shop into their fellowship hall. Their piano and organ were old and decrepit, but the music was upbeat and contemporary.

The service was out of the ordinary for this church. A guest preacher/pianist spent the first 40 minutes of the service preaching about “Dancing on the Edge of Mystery.” He told a story, made a point, and brought it home with a song...several times. It was a routine that I could stand to endure every week: using music to give the message, using a message to play the music. Such a powerful and moving interaction gave way to the last 20 minutes, which lived up to the slow, boring Protestantism of which I’m starting to tire.

Broadway Methodist required me to admit that it isn’t routine that I dislike…it is under-stimulation. In fact, I love routine and function well in environments with rules, structures and procedures. But I pace when I teach, sing-along with the radio, and doodle during staff meetings. I think when I’m driving, dream when I’m awake, and type blog entries when I’m sitting in graduate class. In order to be really moved, motivated and involved, I need to be visually, aurally and physically inspired. Most of all, I have to be intellectually enthused. And I’m not claiming to be a highly intelligent academic. Sometimes it takes very little to stimulate my mind. For the first 40 minutes, it worked, for the last 20, it really didn’t.

So I wonder if this is true of Methodists. Are they 2/3 like my friend Rachael, interesting, progressive and welcoming, with significant stimulation? And does the remaining 1/3 just happen to live in the Midwest? Which third was it that knocked on my door within two hours of the service with a coffee mug, homemade bread and a pen? And is that enough to make me go back?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Church #4 of 10: Here I Am, Lord, Really Bored, Lord

Walking into Wilder, it was like an obstacle course to avoid all the smokers. Ducking, shifting, sliding and running, I leapt toward the door while also trying to hold my breath. I was rarely successful, as a disheveled, bearded man on a park bench so often called my name, leisurely, “Meeeegan.” His voice dropped with each word. “Come. Sit.” I concentrated on a smile and turned to face the bench. Cigar smoke in my face mixed with the smell of coffee, I stepped back. “Fred,” I tried not to sigh, or breath for that matter. He had a book open on his lap, cigar in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other. It was at this point I could make an excuse and slip away or admit defeat and join him for what would likely be a twenty-minute lecture on the Epistles. Perhaps if I had known that this highly intellectual Lutheran Chaplain would not live much longer, I would have joined my then boss on the park bench any time he beckoned. I was not aware of his fragility, though, so most often, I would politely excuse myself and head into the building.

Have you ever been at a concert, service or event and been so distracted by one thing that the rest of the experience seemed unimportant (and rather dull)? Sunday’s visit to First Lutheran Church proved to be both hilarious and boring. I expect this isn’t due to the denomination or even the congregation, but to the general lack of energy and religious mojo. Therefore, the most exciting aspect of the service was not the adorable toddler who listened attentively during the drab children’s sermon, but rather, his father, on whose lap the boy sat, who was rocking the most awesome mullet I have ever seen.

"Mullet alert,” my mom used the small pew-pencil to scribble on her bulletin.

“Business in the front, partay in the back,” I replied quickly on my paper.

That’s about the time we lost it. In the small congregation, scattered throughout the pews, I don’t doubt that people noticed. Our heads down and lips closed, we tried to get the image out of our heads. The beautifully straight back and the adamantly short front, complete with poofy bangs and an “I can totally pull this off” attitude.

My mom felt guilty, and she swirled dark circles over her writing. But she kept glancing at my bulletin and turning away, shaking with laughter.

This is the first church we visited that had a published statement, on their website, bulletin board and order-of-worship, of openness to all sexual orientations. When my mom asked me what I expected from the service, I realized that I could only think of Garrison Keilor and the late Fred Lassen. I thought of the extreme Reverend Lassen, who seemed a parody of himself; and the satiric comedy of “A Prairie Home Companion,” which presented Lutherans as fierce, but stubborn liberals who had unique, comic identities.

So didn’t this mullet-rocking individual fit in with my ignorant assumptions? Someone confident, welcoming and distinctive presenting themselves quietly, without shame. Was it wrong for me to find humor in this representation? In fact, the mullet was the only passionate, animated part of my experience there. The mullet-man made me sit back and smile before I wrote this, and think twice before being too critical.

The hymns were beautiful selections, but slow and meaningless in presentation. The sermon was the head-down, read-from-a-paper approach with little to no inflection. The place was welcoming, in deed and in statement, but the worship felt so very…protestant. I felt like I was part of a routine, much like brushing my teeth before bed and then turning out the light. How much thought does that require? When I’m getting ready for bed, I’m not thinking about process…my mind is wandering elsewhere, to music, food, or academics. This is likely why I spent most of the service thinking of only two things: Oh my gosh, that mullet; and, what am I going to write about this church?

My dad could figure the probability regarding the likelihood that out of 10 churches, there would be at least one that I do not like or enjoy. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and being swept off my feet two churches in a row was pure luck. I have trouble letting the worship experience dictate my viewpoint of Lutherans, though. I would rather think of Reverend Fred Lassen, and that guy with the amazing mullet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Church #3 of 10: Holy, Holy, Holy High

Andy Barnett was best described by my best friend, Leah, as “child-like, but not childish.” He was (and likely still is) brilliantly talented, hilariously funny and eternally playful. When he walked, he smiled in way that made passersby believe he must be enjoying every step. He loved spending time alone in the outdoors, and was the type of person to comment gleefully on the sunrise. At mealtimes, he assessed his food with a ravishing grin and lived every bite like a 5-year-old eating a once-a-year bowl of ice cream for dinner. He was not greedy, but grateful, not selfish, but selfless, and most of all, he had a genuineness about him that made you feel lucky to be his friend. As studious as he was creative, Andy fit into the Oberlin mold while still thinking outside of the box. And though he struck me as contemporary, changing and “cool,” he introduced me to a church that was often accused of being the opposite. Episcopalians are sometimes described as anciently traditional, ceremonious and frankly, somewhat Catholic. If I hadn’t known Andy and his church as two adjoining entities from the beginning of our relationship, I would never have guessed this as his denomination.

It was this introduction that challenged me to visit an Episcopalian church as part of my journey. If someone like Andy found a place there, it seemed likely that I would as well. There must be something about that church, I thought, that makes people want to endure the drab rituals, put aside the political creed, and decipher the shape-note hymnal.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is, in my opinion, very “high church,” even for Episcopalians. When we walked in, my mom said, “I haven’t been in a church like this since…Europe.” The floor creeks while the statues shine, the congregational seating is simple and musty while the area behind the metallic screen, with the altar and the choir and the clergy, is ornate and bright.

Goose bumps trickled up my arm and down my back. My stomach buzzed with an intriguing awe. Overwhelmed with the beauty like I saw in the churches in Spain and the spirits like those I felt when entering a historical graveyard, I was instantly hooked.

I have always been a sucker for history. I love hearing about the past, believing in legends and imagining “the olden days.” I’ve always felt like churches are where the spiritual and earthly paranormal interact. Everyday ghosts meet up with worshipped saints and whatnot. St. Mary’s is no exception. The building is almost 120 years old and the church, 150.

I could see each year in the woodwork, every heart and soul poured into this place.

The congregation for the 10:00 a.m. Eucharist (they don’t call it a “service”) was small, maybe 20 people at most. Though I had attended an Episcopal service before, this seemed extra-structured. The choir, clergy and bible processed in to a slow-moving hymn, complete with bells and incense. When it came time to read the Gospel, the bible was taken from the altar to the middle of the congregation, splashed with incense, and held open by one clergy while the other read. It was a beautiful symbol of tearing down the curtain and allowing the lay-folk to experience Jesus first-hand.

Interestingly, the things I thought I wouldn’t like about the service, I ended up enjoying the most. The tradition was comforting and consistent, the creed was uniting and I even found myself intrigued by the classically efficient music (which seemed to kill time better than it praised God). This church, these rituals, the denomination, has worked for so many people for so long and now, I can really understand why. There is a physical representation of faith, stored up in the history and structure, the stained glass and the ornate statues, and just like an old, but loved book or stuffed animal, it brings a sense of peace to the soul.

So far, this has been my most challenging church experience, because without making any elaborate gestures or fancy statements, the church still made me feel welcome. I was part of a larger entity, a greater Christian community, one to which I will likely return…at least once more.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Church #2 of 10: How Great The Comparison

The walk to Peace was, as you would expect, peaceful. At 9:00 on a Sunday morning, the campus was virtually empty, and as on most winter days, the sun did not shine. I detoured through the Conservatory to grab my violin and then set-off across Tappan Square to church. It was a journey I often took alone, and I unzipped my coat to feel the cold, winter air against my chest. Obnoxiously, I walked in the snowy grass, making fresh footprints with my boots. If I had memorized the words to “Morning Has Broken,” I might have sung them then, but instead I let my mind wander to whatever song was in my dream the night before. When I entered Peace Community Church, I could smell, see and hear the warmth, pumping through the air from the old heaters. And taking off my coat and boots as if I were in my home, I walked in my socks to the front of the sanctuary. It was there, after all of our walks, that my Oberlin church family, met to worship, Baptist style…

As much as I would like to present an unbiased representation of every church I visit, that is impossible. I have experienced too many church communities to enter these congregations without a denominational expectation in the back of my mind. The Disciples of Christ were the exception—I had never visited a Disciples church before this summer. But I have experienced the American Baptists, in the most profound and greatest way. In a way, I was excited to visit an American Baptist Church, but prepared for disappointment. Peace Community Church was perfect for me because of so many elements, pieces of the puzzle that are now scattered around the world. My friends that are now clergy or working abroad, the cold winters that I miss so much, the pastors, the congregation, the selfless dedication to peace, acceptance and social justice…and that was Oberlin. This is Kansas City.

Prairie Baptist reminded me of something I had forgotten in my long list of expected disappointments. Though the American Baptist Church is a recognized, legitimate denomination, in the end, when push comes to shove (and excuse my language), American Baptists do pretty much whatever the hell they want. Not that I haven’t seen denominational politics at work within the church, but the congregations seem to stand on their own, supporting the interests and ideals of the congregants. Some would say the lack of a hierarchy is what makes organizations fall apart. I am grateful that this lack of hierarchy allows congregations like Peace and Prairie to exist.

So, a comparison is unreasonable and unnecessary. What is important is the relevance of the church in the community in which it exists. Prairie had an impressive relevance, as the pastor addressed issues of science and religion, two entities that are always at odds in Kansas. She spoke of moving forward and encouraging change, scientific and otherwise. The music had elements of the old and treasured (“How Great Thou Art”) as well as the contemporary and challenging (there were drums involved). And though the baby-blue paint on the walls made me ponder my own comfort with churches that exist outside of white or wood, I felt welcomed and warm. There were times when I even felt uncomfortable in the good way that church is supposed to make you uncomfortable.

My cold, lonely walk became a car ride with my mother. The warmth in the air became the sun shining through the windows. My friends from Oberlin became two acquaintances from an old job, who displayed great welcome in their invitation to join them.

Just like I’ve been told that I will never have friends that are like my friends from college. I will never feel as alive or as motivated as I did during those five years. I can never relive that experience. I also know that I will never find a church like Peace or a community like the Christian community in Oberlin. But Prairie gives me a degree of hope that there are relevant, welcoming churches out there that may be able to put someone like me to work for God.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Church #1 of 10: Blessed Semi-Assurance

I love the walk from the gym back to my apartment. It reminds me of the walk to Stevenson in Oberlin. A leisurely stroll, only pasta and soft-serve demanded our future attention. It reminds me of the people who walked with me; Leah, Rachael, Kathryn, Megan…and I feel them with me on this journey. Our walk gets slower and slower…

I considered using the Likert Scale to provide you with data. Aren’t things more interesting when there are numbers involved? Then, I could calculate averages based on denomination, location and even size of congregation. We’ve put our schools, children, crime, and successes into statistics…and then we’ve sorted those numbers by race, gender, religion and ethnicity. Why not churches, too?

I did actually open an Excel document after church yesterday and I started entering headers: Welcome, Theology, Music, Prayers, Sermon, etc. Then, I realized that covenant would require me to gather ratings from not only myself, but also every person in attendance. Really, if I want to be accurately in covenant, I would need to gather this data over time, calculate standard deviation and whatnot. Statistical covenanting would require a lot of work, and even then, I don’t think it would be fair.

So, I closed my spreadsheet and set out to write something mildly entertaining and yet thought-provoking (cue theme music). In some circles, I could be compared to Doogie Howser, but in my mind, I am nothing more than one of many lost souls. I am a privileged, entitled, lucky soul, seeing as so many suffer persecution at the hands of the church and I can attend 10 services with little to no drama, and my parents will even come along. This journey isn’t turning out so bad after all.

Merriam Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation that’s been around since the 1920s, is located in Merriam, KS, one of the small, quiet villages in the Greater Kansas City Metro Area. There were 66 people in attendance Sunday morning (my dad is a numbers guy) and I would guess that 80% of them were white, wearing expensive clothing, and over the age of 65. This was not a bad thing. Not only did me looking “so young” finally coincide with me actually being “so young,” but my age seemed like the most accessible point of welcome, as well. “Megan what? Highfill? Glad to know you. You’re so young!”

My mom and I were invited to sing in the choir by a friend of hers, who also invited us to the church. It is kind of an odd way to experience a church for the first time: robed, standing and singing. I felt comfortably welcomed but uncomfortably out of place.

There should be a book written on the length and comedic value of announcement time at various churches. This church discussed (and I do mean discussed, not announced) the frustration of handling donated flowers after a service, a missing red bible and, my personal favorite, an interdenominational gathering with Nazarenes. It was then that the hippie-esque pastor (who is wearing a hat on the website) said, “We’ll make Christians out of those Nazarenes yet.” He was joking, I think.

The service was a constant battle between things I agreed with and things I did not. The pastor referenced biblical times as a period in history that we cannot fully understand and then suggested that only God had control of our future. We sang one of my favorite hymns, “Blessed Assurance,” (which I love even without inclusive language) and then sung a hymn while the pastor performed an altar call.

Regardless of its not-for-Meganness, it had a genuine, almost historical welcome. I felt as if this church was the same as it had been 70 years ago, when people were still inclined to gladly know each other.

This is the second Disciples church I’ve visited since leaving CCCUCC and its similarities to the United Church of Christ are obvious in more than just the order of worship. Both denominations practice a much-appreciated “open” communion table, and both stem from a respect for tradition but an intellect for modern ideas. I can understand why both denominations are considered mainline and yet very few people in my part of the country have actually heard of them. They represent an original Midwest, a Little-House-on-the-Prairie Midwest, a feel-good, love-your-neighbor Midwest.

It’s helpful to know that spirit is still alive, though I may not always agree with the theology that comes with the treasured traditions. Maybe somewhere, there is a balance, of progressive thought and timelessness. Maybe it’s possible to have my cake…and be a humble servant of Justice, too.

Friday, September 18, 2009

10 Churches, 10 Weeks

In my spiritual search, prayerful process and discerning disillusionment, I have not only gained an unprecedented appreciation for alliteration and senseless overstatements, but also a yearning for something more. In my last blog post, I asked the question: Can I find spirituality without a church?

It didn’t take long for my life to feel like it was missing something. Given that I happily (and guiltlessly) slept-in every Sunday, I know that the midmorning alarm was not was I craved. I found myself praying about as much as before (very little) and referring to scripture in philosophical discussion as much as necessary. It wasn’t until I started to teach my students “River in Judea,” the 500+-voice finale for this year’s choral festival that I began to break down. Of course, what I truly and so selfishly missed was the music.

As I sat in my room and cried like a baby, clutching my stuffed beluga whale and my holding cross, I thought of something. Rushing to the recycling bin I shifted through the papers and collapsed boxes until I found a bright yellow flier. It had been left on my door the day before and I barely remembered throwing it out.

What I first pushed aside thoughtlessly I now looked at intensely: an invitation to St. Pious Catholic Church.

"Why the hell not?” I said out loud, opening my laptop and surfing to their website. On the homepage, there was a picture of a priest playing a ukulele.

I have never been a shopper. In fact, I hate shopping. I rarely buy clothes and I go to the grocery store in the middle of the night when it is the least stressful. But occasionally I’ll get this feeling, this urge to stop by Macy’s. I’ll notice the sale sign up at Target or the advertisement in the paper from Ann Taylor Loft. Usually, it only lasts a day or so, but during this time I am inspired and motivated to spend time searching for something that literally, fits.

This is, unfortunately, similar to my “St. Pious break-down,” SPB for short. I began to notice church signs, billboards and started seeing invitations rather than closed doors. And so, I did what any dramatic, self-involved intellectual might do, I compiled a list and made a plan of action. 10 churches, 10 weeks.

The churches were chosen for different reasons, including location, denomination, size, and frankly, website design. St. Pious is last on the list, more as an homage to my muse as I have little to no interest in becoming a Catholic. I am taking this journey not only in a desperate attempt to find a new church home, but also, perhaps mostly, as a quest for answers.

Can a church be open and affirming without being “Open & Affirming"?

If a church feeds people but doesn’t affirm the LGBT population, is that better/different than affirming the LGBT population but not feeding people?

What does it mean to be in covenant? Spiritually? Politically? Justly?

How important is a denomination’s “position” on key political issues to my faith? To the faiths of others?

Where is the music, and can I sing along?

Music isn’t just what I miss about church, it is church for me. It is my connection and my communication with my religion, and without it, I am stranded in the dessert without water or a cell phone…or facebook. Every social justice, spiritual, religious, heartbreaking, prayerful experience I have had has been filled with music. And as a music teacher, music will never disappear from my life, and as long as it is there, it will search for the other end of its telephone line: God.

I invite you to go with me on this journey. To comment, to recommend, to discuss and, most likely, to amuse yourself with my Julie/Julia-like excursion. It starts this Sunday:

Sunday, September 20-Merriam Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Sunday, September 27- Countryside Christian (Disciples of Christ)

Sunday, October 4- St. Paul (Episcopal)

Sunday, October 11- First Lutheran (ELCA)

Sunday, October 18- Grace Covenant Presbyterian (PCUSA)

Sunday, October 25- Broadway Methodist

Sunday, November 1- Broadway Baptist (ABC)

Sunday, November 8- Community of Christ (RLDS)

Sunday, November 15- TBA

Sunday, November 22- St. Pious Catholic Church

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Progressive Church Exclusion: A Crisis of Faith

I am not sure when my crisis of church turned into a crisis of faith. Sometime in the last six months, after choosing to halt attendance, I realized how effective a church can be at destroying spirituality. I have not written about it until now, for fear that I might put my former church in a bad light. After all, maybe after seven years of faithful service, I just now figured out that Country Club Congregational just isn’t the church for me. Not every church is for every person, and I wouldn’t want to discourage others from attending this church because of my own personal battles.

By admitting that this church, a progressive church, is operating in an exclusive and abusive way, I am admitting that even liberals can be winged into religious hatred. I have not hesitated to be critical of conservative churches but so careful of criticism of my own, even after I quit going. I like liberals to be united and I believe, just as should churches, we should be in covenant with one another. I get angry when democrats don’t vote for their own cash-for-clunkers extension. Aren’t we all supposed to be on the same team, here?

But I am now coming to the painful realization that we are not on the same team. Just because LGBTQ people are discriminated against, doesn’t mean they can’t also be the discriminators. Just because I identify as a progressive Christian, doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes and hurt others. In fact, for several years, I have known about the exclusion in our church and have said and done nothing. In essence, I have become part of the problem.

Recently, CCCUCC has tried to add “Transgender” to our now “LG-only” Open & Affirming statement. I say recently, but really, this has been three years in the trying and many years in the “too late”. I wonder, why wasn’t “T” included in the first place? And then now, after having several identifying “Ts” in our congregation who have rewritten the statement, why is this not happening? Why do we have a choir director that, and I quote, “doesn’t always like those negro songs,” and refuses to consider new music, or music written by People of Color? Why is it that every time we are asked to do something charitable, the answer is “no” unless followed-up by liquor, food, and entertainment? The only mission trip of the church in many years was almost cancelled because it did not benefit enough of the congregation. Why aren’t we a green church? We didn’t we actively oppose the war? Why aren’t we rallying together to support health care? We can’t we be involved in the gay-marriage movement? We DO sign straight people’s marriage licenses…but float over the marriage issues of our gay couples without consequence.

I think the hardest part of all of these questions is that I have seen this work. I have seen more than one church work in covenant, progress, and mission. I do know that not all churches can be all things to everyone, but we cannot keep claiming to be something we are not. We are not a progressive church. We are not in covenant with one another. And we are actively contributing to the exclusion and discrimination of others.

I resigned my membership from this church this past week, a thought-to-be conclusion to several months of hard discernment. It was just in time, too, because a day or so later, my family was basically asked to not come back. The tactics used here are classic bully tactics and, just like in middle school, the witnesses are standing by and saying nothing. Though only a few church leaders are perpetrating the injustice, only one person uses the “n” word here and there (yes THAT “n” word), only a couple people voice disagreement with the transgender movement of equality, and only a few wish to have the all too liberal Highfills out of the congregation for good, the bullies in power will always stay in power as long others are silenced into consent.

So, it’s done. I’m gone, and I do feel better. But this is still affecting my family, as their entire system of support is being cut-off as they are being cut-down. This is what is irking me now, other than the realization that I have participated in a system of oppression for the past seven years: the crisis of church is finished, but what to do now about this crisis of faith? Why not just be a liberal, an activist, of only political discourse? Who needs this religion anyway?

I know that I need this religion and I believe it is still a possibility. This church that has now tormented and angered me, at one time, helped me find my faith. Do I need to find another church to find my faith again?