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