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.