Friday, January 29, 2010

Interlude: A Poem

Occasionally, I get inspired to write things other than church narratives. These are my Interludes.

When I Walk By

When I walk by that door,
I walk by
my passion,
reason for living
excuse for dying
years of lying
to myself.
And crying
to myself.
I face the door that is
like a tempter, a devil,
money that can only be spent
on what I want
Not what I need later.
Disturbing my creator,
who in coddling, slaps my wrist.
When I walk by that door.
A nervous laugh,
just on my behalf,
to fuel my guilt
for glancing, staring, slowing
What the door protects.
Or is it me it protects—
from the hungry pain of a full stomach
and the taunts and torments of my past.
It needs acknowledgment,
But that won’t last,
‘cause I’ll walk by that door.
Past the diabetic coma, the preexisting condition,
The constant admission
of satisfaction over love,
self over God,
room behind door.
The scents of immediate peace
clouds my judgment.
I find the inwards intriguing,
the onwards fatiguing…
And a step is just a step—
not a step away,
not a step into,
a step by—
over and over again.
But walk by I will,
For the willingness is not only mine,
Later I’ll walk by still,
Less than likely fine,
But well within my soul
When I walk by that door.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mega-church #3 (Church #14): The Church of Justifications

If, But, & Except

Tiny words, powerful meaning. They can completely change the meaning of a sentence or a thought. They help justify wrongdoing, ease bad news, and avoid complete responsibility. Sometimes, they are harmless: “I ate everything in my lunch today, EXCEPT the lima beans.” But if a 6-year-old is trying to mask her guilt for not eating her vegetables, she doesn’t want to say, “I didn’t eat my lima beans.” Or, “I only ate my sandwich, juice box and cookie.” The “EXCEPT the lima beans” allows a trailing afterthought, where her voice can lose emphasis so that the focus is on the word “everything”.

How many times have I felt hurt after a particular argument and apologies are followed with Ifs & Buts? “I’m sorry IF I called you fat, BUT I only did it because I wasn’t feeling well.” “I’m sorry If I offended you, BUT what I was trying to say was…” “I’m sorry IF you are feeling hurt, BUT I didn’t say/do that. Someone else did.” Though not always successful, I try to make my apologies heartfelt and meaningful, which also makes them difficult, and yes, uncomfortable. “I’m sorry THAT I did that. It was not the right thing to do.”

Westside Family Church, of the Southern Baptist denomination, is a church filled with Ifs, in both positive and negative contexts. They utilize Ifs in order to cloak any pushy agenda and to appear more welcoming. I imagine they realized that Southern Baptists don’t always have a reputation of open doors and open minds, so Ifs provide a certain comfort level for guests. In the letter I received from them following the service, it stated:

IF you are checking out the claims of Christianity, weekend services will help you sort through your questions. All right, so I’m welcome to come back and given the chance to sort through my personal issues.
IF you are a Christian who is new to the area and looking for a church, our membership class will fill you in on Westside so you can decide if this is the right place for you. Everything is my decision, and the If makes it okay that I may not be a Christian.
IF you have been away from church for a while and want to rediscover your faith, you are in good company. Westside is full of people who have reconnected with God here. IF I am like that, there may also be others who are like that.
IF you are a committed Christian interested in spiritual growth, Westside has an array of Bible studies and classes that will help you deepen your walk with the Lord. Now, this sentence brings up a little guilt…what if I’m not a committed Christian but I’m still interested in spiritual growth? Maybe I should become one (push), I want to be part of this, too (push), I should just skip right on down to the last If (push, push, push).

I’m being a little hard on Westside, when the truth is, I enjoyed the service. The first half was “guitar driven” (as it states on their website) with the excitement and special effects of a rock concert. Everyone was wearing jeans; there were laser lights and easy-to-follow big screens. The pastor preached a great sermon on Jesus being 100% God and 100% man. He even suggested that we have the mind and eyes of Christ and can see the need in the world just as Christ did. The service was short, routine-driven and there were many mentions of mission.

EXCEPT for the very end. There are many organizations giving money and aide to Haiti, BUT, they are not prioritizing the ultimate objection, to bring people to Jesus. So, IF, you are considering donating to Haiti, please donate to the Christian organization on our website because “Christ followers point people to God.”

I didn’t particularly like the guitar driven worship, BUT I liked that everyone seemed comfortable. I wasn’t too fond of the technological enhancements, BUT I did like the scripture and bullet points of the sermon projected on the screens. I felt connected to the pastor’s sermon, EXCEPT for that last part.

At the end of every service I always ask myself, “Would I go back?” I’m not referring to regular attendance or further exploration, just, IF I happened to be in the area and wanted to go to church on a Sunday, would I return to this church?

IF it weren’t part of a denomination that terrorizes LGBT people;
IF it were smaller and less entertainment-focused;
IF they just admitted what they believe, stated their agenda, explained their denomination’s stance on certain issues;

IF I were a committed Christian.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mega-Church #2 (Church #13): A Terrifying Reminder

“Lean on God. Ask God for His power in your life. God is like Coke, ‘[He’s] the real thing,’ God is like Ford, ‘[He has] a better idea,’ God is like United, [He] rules the friendly skies,’ He’s like Pepsi, [He’s] got a lot to give,’ He’s like Alka-Seltzer, ‘try [Him] you’ll like [Him],” He’s like Bayer Aspirin, ‘[He] takes the pain away,’ He’s like Hallmark Cards, “[He cared] enough to send the best,” He’s like Tide, ‘[He] gets the stain the others leave behind,’ God is like the Mattel Toy, ‘you can tell [He’s] swell,’ and God is like Frosted Flakes, ‘[He’s] great,’ Right?!”

In the wake of the terrible earthquake in Haiti, reading this quote is infuriating. Though Pastor Jerry of First Family Church (Nondenominational) preached this “serminar,” as he called it, before the tragedy, I know the theology he was promoting. If something good happens to you, it’s because God is protecting you and if something bad happens to you, it is because: 1. You’ve sinned against God; 2. God is testing you; and/or 3. Satan is attacking you because Satan sees you as a threat. Pastor Jerry was promoting the third of these reasons, though he passionately supports the entire idea. He and his church “get attacked” due to their relentless pursuit of the Gospel and the Salvation of Sinners. Therefore, Satan is always trying to bring them down.

What is Satan bringing down, exactly? The tired and lost congregants of First Family Church or their pastor, who travels with bodyguards that utilize presidential earpieces? Is Satan trying to bring down the color-coordinated, aesthetically pleasing praise team? Maybe he’s trying to interrupt the live video stream and the locally televised broadcast…Satan is after those four cameras (including one on a crane like you see on a movie-set). Satan could make a move on the pastor’s wife, who has her own microphone so she can participate in the scripted submissiveness she is to portray from the stage. But at the end of the sermon, we get to hear what Satan really wants. Satan wants only the most dedicated, most holy and most wealthy followers of Jesus Christ, which would make the almighty Pastor Jerry Satan’s primary target:

“You know how many death threats I’ve gotten in 30 years of preaching the gospel? You know how many times they called and said, ‘We’re gonna patrol you tonight’? You know what I learned? We had a television special on several months ago and they said the fanatic Muslims called and said, ‘Where does this pastor live? We wanna get him.’ They called me and I hung up the phone. You know why? Nobody can touch me without God’s permission.”

Well, obviously, Satan takes the form of a Muslim. According to Pat Robertson, Satan also takes the form of 19th century, Haitian revolutionists who wanted to escape colonialism, gain freedom, and had to make a pact with the devil to do it. That’s why the earthquake happened. Because they kicked out France.

I digress in my ranting only because First Family Church reminds me of what I truly fear, and it’s not Satan. I went from Pastor Jerry to Glenn Beck to Pat Robertson and I realized that this is the commercial version of the Christian faith. The liberal theologians are off writing books, feeding the poor and making a real difference, but no one hears about them. Pastor Jerry is the face of Christianity in Kansas City. He is what people see in between football games or late at night when they can’t sleep. He preys on those who are only lost in channel surfing and those who are completely lost in life.

I made a deal with myself that I would sit through every service in its entirety, regardless of my own discomfort. Ten minutes into this charade, I wanted to run down the block to the mega-church I criticized last week, “Wait! Make me a moderately conservative mega-church Methodist! Please!” But I just sat there, and watched him glorify his own name, make followers out of his own image, create evil, but genuine feelings of racism, sexism and classism. Whereas Jesus helped us see, Pastor Jerry is making people blind. Jesus promoted charity, but Pastor Jerry is taking people’s money. Jesus empathized with the poor man, and Pastor Jerry lives life as a king. If I were worried about Satan, about some obnoxious entity spreading evil all over this world, I would have believed I was looking him in the eye last Sunday.

When I was 16, I played violin in a string quartet at a GOP fundraiser in the Hall Mansion (the folks who own Hallmark). Present in his imperfection was the republican’s most valuable candidate, George W. Bush. I knew I would be the only liberal there, and I was just a kid, but I can remember hearing the applause and feeling terrified. So terrified that I was struck silent, accepted the less-than-minimum-wage paycheck and still put that performance on my résumé.

This same fear returned in my visit to the 9:00 a.m. service at First Family. The experience was actually worse than I thought it would be, and I tend to be the type of person to really consider the most horrible result in any situation. Then, as I watched his 10:00 a.m. sermon on live video stream from home and listened to the mp3 an hour ago, I recognized that my fear was at least half guilt. In both experiences—participating in a detrimental president’s election and listening to Pastor Jerry spew untruths—I just sat there. I even purposely slipped out the door so I wouldn’t have to shake his hand. Was I struck silent, as I said above, or just too afraid to speak?

Fear is a powerful tool, especially in the hands of terrorists. Not only the terrorists that fly planes into buildings, but also those that terrorize our insecurities and corner us into silence or apathy. Words are powerful enough to provide reasoning for violence, hatred and torture.

Words are also just enough to fight back…that is, if we can figure out what to say and get the guts to say it.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mega-Church #1 (Church #12): A Map to the Mall

I don’t go to the mall enough to remember the layout. The mall is not like a grocery store or a bookstore. Normally, I just roam up and down the aisles until I find what I need. But in a mall, roaming could cause my mother to file a missing persons’ report, because after 48 hours, I would be in some corner of Macy’s, in extraordinary distress, eating the last of my Annie’s pretzel and praying to find the nearest exit. After several attempts and wanders through the perfume department, I might just die there, of starvation, anxiety and navigational heart failure.

That is why, in the mall, it is always helpful to have a map. It might be the small-print, barely-readable print-at-home map, the giant, colorful barrier at the entryway filled with fingerprints map, or the little brochure you can pick up at the “Visitor’s Center,” (that is, if you can find it) map. Regardless of the type, I am a firm believer that maps are vital when planning a trip to the mall.

So I was extremely happy to find a map in my visitor’s packet during my trip to “Church of the Resurrection” last Sunday. “Thank God,” I thought to myself. “Now I can figure out where are the nearest restrooms and find out if there is a ‘Banana Republic’.” There were also signs with arrows and people with giant, metallic nametags at every corner to guide us. It was bright, but not florescent, warm but not muggy and big, but not impassable. In fact, “Church of the Resurrection” is the nicest, most convenient mall I have ever visited.

When we entered the sanctuary, we realized we were not in a mall, but a venue. Flip-seats with good legroom, stadium design, non-smoking, really a great place to see a concert. Where’s my ticket, again? Oh, wait, this is a church? I’m sorry, the giant stage flanked by two giant screens and the mood lighting confused me.

It wasn’t until the service started that I fully believed I was at some sort of religious gathering. Finally, a robed minister and choir put me at ease and I relaxed into my comfortable seat, arm rests included. There was no order-of-worship, which would normally really bug me, but my heart told me to trust the big-screens, “They will show you the way.”

Throughout the service I experienced a dichotomy of feelings. One moment, I was calm, listening to a beautiful choir that I could actually hear due to the fabulous sound system. The next minute, I was tense, as images of Jesus flashed on the big screens and I thought that perhaps I was about to watch an MTV documentary about modern Christianity. During the head-pastor’s sermon, I was reminded of a young, handsome geology professor I had at Oberlin. His voice, so soothing that despite his interesting content, I often went to sleep. I always awakened at a key point in the lecture, feeling the urge to raise my hand in the giant auditorium classroom and ask a question.

Prophet Hamilton’s sermon was much like a large, undergraduate lecture class. Simple enough to avoid assumption of students’ knowledge but scholarly enough to be interesting. I could tell that his intelligence and charisma attracted more than people’s attention, but their overwhelming praise. Even I thought he was a bit prophetic. To build an empire such as this, he had to either be a prophet or an extremely sharp salesman. Perhaps it is the latter. Perhaps they are one in the same.

Nevertheless, when he showed a non-funny but related clip from “The Daily Show” near the end of his sermon, I knew that it was only my great cynicism and prepared doubt that forced me to resist his spell. Otherwise, I would have left that building a contemporary, conservative Methodist.

Communion completed the service after the sermon, which was executed with the perfection of tradition I would only expect from Catholics. First, an usher came to our row. Next, he put a bit of foamy hand-sanitizer on our hands. Last, intinction in “unfermented” wine (because I’m sure they had refrigerators in Jesus’ day) and back to our seats for the postlude. Usually, I expect real spiritual experiences to be slow and gripping. . It was surprising how the service seemed both quick and meaningful.

We left the dim, cozy-huge sanctuary and returned to the mall. It was then that I fully realized this metaphor. Screaming children, slow-moving shoppers, coffee shop, gift shop, visitor’s center, and that was just the foyer. What was beyond the main room, the main building, remains a mystery to me. If I ever want to find out, I can always just look at my map.

We stayed there a bit and I took pictures while my mom waited for a friend. As I watched the hustle and bustle of one service ending and another beginning, I began to understand the appeal. Just like the mall, it was my mom and I in a giant crowd of people with the same general intention: to go to church. It didn’t matter who we were or where we were on life’s journey (as my former church used to preach), we were welcome because no one took notice of who entered and exited the building. It is hard to be exclusive with so many already present. And that, in a way, is comforting. Anonymity and semi-good worship could come in handy at the most stressful of times. I could come here and disappear in the luxurious concert-hall and comfortable chairs. I could drink coffee, listen to good music and relax at the sound and site of a good-looking pastor. I could always sanitize my hands before communion to assure no negative, germy connection at Christ’s table.

But then it would be just about me, wouldn’t it?

Friday, January 1, 2010

10+ Churches, What’s Next?

You awoke this morning, perhaps trying to sooth a hangover, or contemplating the relationship between a new year and a new chance. You may have stuck to routine or continued the New Year’s celebration. And as you made your daily decisions, your yearly resolutions and clung to the good in life, leaving the bad with 2009, I’m sure eventually, you thought to yourself, “Wait! Megan’s done her 10 churches! What ever will she do now?”

Okay, so maybe that didn’t cross your mind today, but with just two days until Sunday, it crossed mine. There are many changes I have to make in the New Year, for my health, sanity and growth. The must-have changes are only achieved by risks and choices, commitment and open-mindedness, dependence and independence.

Regardless of my criticisms of the 11 churches I visited this past fall, I made sure that all churches (with the exception of Christmas Eve), were within my comfort zone. Protestant. Not too big. Denominational. And most had some sort of liberal edge, whether it be an invite, a statement, or a website. Even though I did not enjoy all of the churches, they were chosen based on what I liked about my old church…in case I might find a new one.

Someone commented on a previous post, “Are you sure religion is what you’re looking for?” I responded with something like, “It’s not all I’m looking for.” But after considering that question, I decided that one problem with my 10-churches project is that I experienced a lot, but learned very little. Most of what I learned was from comments made by others. Is it religion I’m looking for? Is it Christianity? And if so, why do I think I’ll find it in places I already know?

There are churches I would go back to, if I were choosing a church. Instead, though, I’m continuing my journey educationally and spiritually by moving away from my comfort zone. Where do we start? How about another 10 churches?

So, I present you with “10 Churches, 10 Weeks, Volume II: The Mega-Church.” Wikipedia defines the Mega-Church as “a church with an atypically large congregation.” I would argue that this is only a small part of the Mega-Church as we use and notice it within our society. In addition to being large in construct and in population, Mega-Churches often have modernized worship with technology and theatrics. Many have focused their evangelism on unchurched or nominally-churched people. And, (here’s where we go out of my comfort zone), most Mega-Churches, in my area, at least, are very conservative.

There are cathedrals in the U.S. and other parts of the world that have thousands of attendees, but I would not consider those as Mega-Churches. The size of those churches is based in history and tradition and often they are community or culturally connected. The churches I found (on a Hartford database of Mega-Churches by state) are brand new or recently renovated. Though some of them are denominational, they rarely state that in their name and it is often hard to find on their website. They focus on family, worship and a spiritual experience. These are my assumptions based on a day of research, and thus are the hypotheses I will explore in visiting these churches.

Is it possible I might “find what I am looking for” in places that normally make me cringe upon first mention? I might, but what I am hoping is that I will gain a greater understanding of how religion works in others’ lives, and why does it work so well?

As always, dates and places are subject to change:

Church of The Resurrection
United Methodist

First Family Church

Westside Family Church
Southern Baptist

Lenexa Christian Center
Assemblies of God

College Church of the Nazarene
Church of the Nazarene

Sheffield Family Life Center
Assemblies of God

Grace Vineyard Church

Metro Christian Fellowship

Colonial Presbyterian Church
Presbyterian Church of the USA

Kansas City Baptist Temple

I hope you will continue to read, comment-on, discuss and journey with me on this adventure.