Going to church again

It’s been a damp couple of days. There was a steady rain for a good part of the day yesterday and into the night. The trees are heavy this morning with the weight of all that water.


Having to stay inside has given me a chance to do what I set out to do this weekend. And so I have. Regrouped that is. Somewhat anyway.

After the past few weeks, helping my parents prepare for the move, Brad home for a visit last weekend, having family over for dinner so he could see everyone … the house was in need of a pick-me-up. Call me crazy, but getting my household back in order … cleaning, scrubbing, tackling the mountain of laundry … restores some of my own sense of calm.

The relatively quiet scheme of my weekend has allowed me to chip away that all that needs doing around here while still finding some time to unwind. Saturday allowed me a chance to write, something I’ve been sorely missing lately. I got to do a little shopping for summer clothes, and go see one of my brother-in-law’s bands play at a coffee shop. (Not one of my brother-in-laws plural. One of the several bands of which my brother-in-law, Kevin is a member. He plays bass and I think it’s pretty cool that he can put his passion to practice so thoroughly!)

I also went to church yesterday, which is something I’ve been trying to get back to regularly for quite a while. I think I’ve finally found a place I want to be. It feels good to be going again after having lapsed for a period of five or so years, give or take the periodic wedding, funeral and “C and E” visits. Actually, even our Christmas and Easter visits had lapsed over the last couple of years. I figured it was hypocritical of us to show up twice a year when we didn’t bother the rest of the year. Besides, when I was a regular church-goer, it sort of bothered me that seating in church was at a premium twice a year. What was the point of going if I knew full well I wasn’t going to continue going.

I’ve gone, I think, five weeks in a row now. My sister and her husband (he of the many bands) had gone for their first time, and afterwards, she extended a casual invitation to join them the following weekend. I said maybe, at first. Then a voice inside told me to just commit. Half of my inability to make a habit of going to church was my dislike for going it alone all the time. Here was a chance to explore a new place with familiar people alongside me. So I did.

I guess it’s considered a mega-church and this particular location is pretty new, maybe a year old. It’s one of several campuses in this area. For years, I’ve seen cars in traffic with these little acronym window stickers advertising the church, which I always thought was sort of weird. Never thought I’d end up going there, but here I am.

My first time in, I was a bit overwhelmed. It’s like no church I’ve ever been in. The building is enormous and beautiful, and I noticed right away that the people there were relaxed and welcoming. There’s a welcome desk, a book store, a whole wing of kids and meeting areas. And there’s a coffee shop where you can buy a cup of your favorite black or froufrou variety coffee to enjoy during services. This is all very foreign for a life-long Catholic, and at first feels a bit uncertain, like… Should we really be drinking coffee in church? Is this okay?

It is.

That first morning, I walked in with my sister and her family about ten minutes before services began. We walked almost to the front, taking seats about seven rows back from the stage. No altar. No statues of saints. No stained glass windows. I know that might bother some who’ve spent a lifetime attending a traditional church. For me, it was neither here nor there. Background music was playing through the sound-system. I recognized it was Jonny Lang. Cool! I looked around me and saw that we were in a massive multi-level auditorium that was quickly filling up. What struck me the most is that everyone seemed so happy. There was much hand-shaking and hugging going on, and every face seemed to be smiling. People were happy to be there.

The services, I’ve learned, always begin with a set of music. This is what really hooked me at first. There are all kinds of guitars – acoustic, bass, even steel. There are keyboards, drums and violins, tambourines and even clarinets. And the voices of the musicians are amazing. Do you ever listen to music and it’s so good you get chills? That’s what this is like for me.

There are several pastors, men and women of all ages. They dress in everyday clothing. No robes or holy garments. They intersperse stories of their own lives into the messages they deliver. Some are married, some maybe not. They make fun of themselves and talk about their own mistakes. It makes me recognize more easily that even though they are church leaders, they are one of us.

The pastors bring the Bible to life in ways I’ve never known. They focus on a few Bible verses and relate them to everyday life in ways that speak to me. I’m actually reading my Bible these days and beginning to understand it. For most of my life, the family Bible, to me, was simply a household decoration.

The messages engulf me. I find myself so immersed in what is being said that I forget everything and everyone around me. Sometimes they hit home in such a way that I feel like my heart is bursting out of my chest. I’m able to contemplate the words and apply them to my own life, discuss them afterwards with others, and feel excited about it! Still … there remains this lingering guilt inside. Most of the time I tell myself that God wants me to meet Him wherever it is I see and hear Him the best. But there’s that occasional nagging doubt. My upbringing taught me that the Catholic church is the only church. I wonder how much I actually care whether the staunch Catholics in my family disapprove of where I’m attending church. Seriously, I think my dad believes it’s better to be a non-practicing Catholic than a Catholic who consciously chooses to worship in a non-Catholic setting. And I don’t think he’s simply set in his ways. I think he’s actually fearful for those who “should know better” and still choose to break away from tradition. I love my dad, but I am not him and his ways are not my ways.

Yesterday’s message absolutely smashed that doubt. It was all about why this church does things the way they do. It’s about finding common ground with people. Different churches cater to the different needs of various people. For my dad, the Catholic church does it. For me, I just felt aimless there. This new church said to themselves, There’s a big group of people out there not going to church. What can we do to bring them here? And so, they made their space welcoming. Many people like coffee in the morning, so they made a coffee shop and welcomed visitors to enjoy their drinks while listening to the message. Eighty percent of radio stations today play pop and rock music. So the church’s music mirrors that style. They play it loud, so those who are reluctant to be heard outside of their own cars or showers, can join in without feeling self-conscious. There are children and youth ministries that provide video games, sports, and other fun activities alongside the message, so that the kids will want to come to church. No one is sleeping in this church.

I look forward to going there each week, and Mark surprised me with his willingness to join me when it’s not one of his work weekends. I even got Jake to go with one Sunday morning. It was probably the promise of going out for breakfast afterwards that convinced him, but it’s a start. This has been a great way for me to connect with my sister’s family as well, and we’ve made it a regular thing to go out for breakfast afterwards. I have the definite sense that I’m adding some real substance to my week with this growing habit. This is a good thing.

I’ve never remembered a particular Bible verse in my life, but yesterday’s message was supported by one I wanted to remember. 1 Corinthians 9:20 – 22. Written by the apostle, Paul, he’s explaining that whatever group of people he found himself among, he did what he could to become like them, so that in their own surroundings and ways, he could introduce them to God. He didn’t insist that people could only find God in a particular setting, through specific prayers and rituals, by dressing a certain way and singing only a particular type of worship music. He brought people to God in their own spaces and routines. One portion of these Bible verses says, I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

That message swept away any remaining fear that going to the “wrong” church would ensure my demise at the end of this life. Here’s the thing. I’m going to church again. I’m seeking God again. I’m excited and maybe more certain about it than I’ve ever been in my life. While some may disapprove, I know this is what’s right for me.

And while I’m talking about my right to choose where and how, or even if I worship, I’m reminded that today in particular is a day to recognize I’m enjoying this right thanks to the sacrifices made by those who have served in this country’s military. To those who have served, thank you!

God’s not in the mailbox

As it often does, the lunch time conversation turned to religion. We each talked about the different ways we were raised in our faiths, our pitfalls along the way, the different beliefs we’ve held over the years. I mentioned my disappointment over the fact that I couldn’t recall having one of those big faith moments that so many people have experienced. You know the ones – those moments when someone clearly hears God speaking, or sees Him in the everyday surroundings, or simply has a defining moment when His presence is undeniably felt. I said that maybe it’s a failure on my own part that I haven’t had one of those moments. Either way, it contributes to my struggle with religion.

I wanted to lighten the mood, so I relayed an experience I had just last night. I was reading. Mark was watching t.v. and opening mail. I hadn’t been minding my husband, but he caught my attention when I heard him say, “Oh that was freaky! This is freaking me out! Look at this!”

I looked up to find him holding a sheet of paper in front of me that looked like this:

“Just stare into His eyes,” Mark told me. “Stare at them for a few minutes and you’ll see them open!”

So I stared.

And I stared.

And I stared some more.

I could literally feel my heart sink. His eyes didn’t open for me. I was sure it was a sign of my failure to be strong in my faith.

“His eyes aren’t opening for me,” I sort of whined to Mark.

“Just keep looking. They’ll open.”

I stared more. I knew what this was. I’ve seen plenty of optical illusions in my time. I couldn’t make this one work.

“I can’t see it,” I said to Mark, feeling defeated. And then I Googled the image to see what my failure said about me.

I explained to my coworkers that I was relieved to see that according to Google, this illusion was unanimously seen as a scam. The picture comes to you by mail. When you see the eyes of Jesus open, you are amazed and filled with awe. And this will make you want to follow the enclosed instructions and send your prayer requests (and some moolah!) to the designated church, which only exists as a P.O. box. Some “pastor” is getting rich off this scam. But he’s getting nada from me because the miracle failed to materialize for me.

My coworkers wanted to see the image that had me so bothered, so after lunch, I passed on a link. Thus ensued the following instant message conversation:

I’d like to think God has a sense of humor. I sure hope so because this had me laughing harder today than I’ve laughed in … I don’t know … a long time! And I’ve really been feeling like I could use a laugh lately. My coworkers sensed my feelings of worry over a silly mailing and took it upon themselves to make me see the lighter side of it. And anyone who has coworkers like mine would surely feel blessed!

Have I learned anything from this experience? Yes. I can find God wherever I think I might find him. It doesn’t have to be where others tell me he should be found.