What is Church? – Guest Post 2

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Author Background/Bio: I was born into a loving family in Latin America. As many other families in my circle, they made the radical move labeled as “conversion” from the Catholic Church to a Methodist Church. Growing up, this was an important distinction because of the differences in belief held by each group; after coming to the United States, my experience was somewhat different. I noticed that, while divided, people from various churches (e.g., Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostals, and others) considered and labeled themselves as simply “Christians.” Perhaps this was true for the sake of unity or perhaps it was for the sake of attaining political leverage by presenting this group as one massive unit rather than multiple smaller groups; either way, the lines seemed to be more blurred here in the U.S. than the bold lines and walls that were dividing the various Christianities in my native land. My family transferred to the U.S. while I was still a child and we attended a charismatic, independent church where I had the privilege of serving in many areas including music, teaching, and youth ministries. I still serve in this church in a role that would most plainly be described as a “lay minister.”

What is church? In my experience, church has been a place where many questions are suppressed or silenced when these seem inconvenient. It is a place that often offers assertions of “Truth” in the place of reasonable responses, especially when the most honest answer to certain questions is: “I do not know.” It is a place where people are pressured to align with acceptable beliefs, whether these make sense or not. Church can be a very challenging place for someone who places high value on following truth and evidence wherever these may lead; this is probably inescapable due to the nature of a faith-based institution. Evidence is not required for matters of faith, and sometimes, evidence is censored when it does not align with the preconceived assumptions upon which certain beliefs are based.

Church is also a tough place for people who do not conform to its social norm, especially in matters such as sexuality; many churches (most of the ones I know) would not be welcoming places to people of the LGBT community. Sure, many churches are now learning to be more open to these people, but it truly seems to be a step (or ten steps) behind social progress most of the time. I personally believe that one reason why church usually has such strong opinions on sexual matters is because its leaders have understood that sexuality is something very important to people; therefore, if they can make people feel guilty about their sexual behavior, these people can be controlled more easily because they constantly feel as if they somehow “fall short” of the high standard of sexual purity imposed by the church. This is only one way in which I see the church manipulates people.

Another way in which I see the church often controls people is by promising eternal bliss if the person obeys and conforms, while threatening with punishments such as hellfire for the disobedient and non-conformists, this is all planted in the minds of believers from an early age. I once heard someone speak about how a massive circus elephant was tied to a tiny post by a tent. The elephant did not even try to set itself free, when the guest asked why this was the case, the animal controller explained that the elephant had been conditioned since he was very young. This was simple: as a baby, the elephant was tied to the post and he tried unsuccessfully to set himself free; after so many failures, the elephant stopped trying. Despite the fact that the elephant had grown big and strong enough to effortlessly pull the post and the tent and walk right out of there, the elephant would do no such thing because he was conditioned at an early age to believe that he could not do so. This is how I see the church, it is often a place where people are conditioned to believe that they need to be there, leaders take advantage of this conditioning to control people and have them do as they please. People are made to believe things that often make no sense and to believe that they have to be tied to the proverbial post and have no way to be truly free and think freely.

Even with all of these troublesome issues, church is a place where people develop important relationships, discover talents, and sharpen skills. A church setting can really provide a great platform to develop relationships because people who are drawn to the same church often share some common traits, likes, and struggles; this really helps to form a bond. I mention the talents because children, teens, and adults often have opportunities to express their respective talents in church activities. For example: singers and musicians can really express themselves freely in worship; gifted public speakers can develop and sharpen their skills through teaching and preaching.

People go to church for many reasons, one of the reasons I often see when adults come to church is because they are seeking refuge while going through one of various storms of life (such as: marital problems, issues with kids, depression, and grief). Church certainly serves to provide a community where people can develop bonds with others; these bonds often help people to overcome challenges that are better handled in community rather than alone.

I have thought about the importance of church and I sometimes wonder if church has contributed all it can to society. Some days I think that the time for church has passed. There was a time when human beings did not know what caused storms, illness, and famine; church told people that these were caused by the supernatural, now we have natural explanations for all of these occurrences thanks to our scientific advances. When I think about the ways in which the church can be relevant, I try to think of ways that it can serve the community in which it is planted. Instead of gaining control or obtaining other benefits, the church should focus on providing service to the underprivileged, the hungry, and the needy. Today we can also study social issues, find trends, and come up with practical solutions for these challenges. Each church group can center its efforts on the specific needs of its surroundings in a way that if someone tries to remove the church, people from the community (whether they belong to the church body or not) would protest because the church has been such a force for good. I believe that the church can remain relevant as long as it evolves to adapt to the new times and continually comes up with creative ways to love and serve people.

 

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What Is Church? – Guest Post 1

A question that has been going around my mind and in conversations I’ve been having for a while is around the understanding of Church. That word brings different connotations, feelings and ideas. So I invited a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and ages to write about their own understanding & feelings about Church. That’s all the direction & restriction I gave them. For the next 6 posts (one a week, I hope) we’ll be hearing from these different voices in the hope that we can better understand each other and learn from each other as well.  Let’s dive in!
-Esther
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Our first post comes from Katherine Harris.

Katherine, 24, is an alumna of the University of Florida with a B.A. in Anthropology, and is currently pursuing her M.S. in Health Education and Behavior. Her areas of interest are sexual and reproductive health, self-esteem, religion and health behavior, and LGBT health. She also works as a staff member for a United Methodist youth ministry, and still can’t believe she’s getting paid to have this much fun.
Eventually she hopes to work in sexual and reproductive health education, particularly for women in underserved areas and developing nations. She is passionate about helping girls and women feel happy, healthy, safe, and in control of their own bodies.

Church. It’s a building. It’s an organization. It’s an abstract concept. Sometimes church is a drafty old place with a pitched roof, stained glass windows, polished wooden pews, and velvet runners. Sometimes church is big screens, projectors, rock bands, and pastors in sneakers. Sometimes church is a 10 PM cheeseburger, tucked into a restaurant booth with good people and lots of french fries.

I’ve been trying to write on the subject of church, as prompted, but it’s been hard lately. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to think about it.

It’s like when I moved into the dorms my freshman year and I didn’t know how to say the word ‘home’ anymore. Was home the place I slept at night, or was it my mom’s house, where my bed was still made and I often crashed on the weekends after work? Is home where you park your car, or where you go when you need a safe space? I didn’t know, and it never felt right in my mouth, home.

I’m not really sure what ‘church’ means to me, either. I do know that I don’t think church is a place you go, so much as a place you are inside. It’s when something lines up and it just feels right. Sometimes that happens in a specific building, or during a sermon, or while serving in the community. Sometimes it’s when you’re out in the middle of the woods meditating. You might be surrounded by people when it happens, or the presence of others might take away exactly what it means for you to be in church.

Some days I go to worship and I feel it. Everything lines up, and the words taste right, and I know I’m part of something. Some days I feel most connected when I’m all alone, riding with the windows down, one hand on the steering wheel and the other catching air.

I like to go out to Payne’s Prairie by myself late at night sometimes and stargaze. Technology is amazing—I can point my phone at any constellation I don’t recognize and it will tell me exactly what I’m looking at. Then I can look up the story behind it, the mythology, the eternal and unchanging human experience painted across the sky. That’s church too, I think.

There are two stars in the constellation of Ursa Major, Dubhe and Merak, which are known as the “pointer stars.” If you follow them in a straight line, they’ll lead you right to Polaris, true north. Any time you are lost, all you have to do is look up. It’s all right there, in pieces. Line them up right, and you’ll find your way home.
Maybe that’s church, really, at the core of it—lining up the pieces so we can find our way home. Sometimes they line up in a certain building, or during a particular activity, or with a special group of people. Sometimes it happens when you’re all by yourself. But when they line up, you feel it, and you know you’re on your way. You’re going home.

“When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. But when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here.
I see that I’m a little piece of a big, big universe.
And that makes things right.”
– Beasts of the Southern Wild

Change the World

I was 24 years old, and I’d spent the past 7 years of my life studying religion, the Bible, and spirituality, and I graduated for the third time in my life and I had no idea what was going to become of me. I had recently, finally begun the process of becoming a pastor but later than usual, so now I had to wait. I started looking for a job and could not find one.  I mean, I contacted Starbucks and they didn’t call me back — (thanks, guys, like I don’t give you business).

Through a professor I ended up hearing about a position in a church that seemed to match some of my passions.  I applied for it, and by the grace of God and some folks who saw potential in me, I got the job.  My first ‘professional’ job.  It was a director/missions position and I moved in to a place that I quickly realized resembled a book I was reading at the time —  ‘The Help.’  I seem to have traveled back in time into pre-Civil Rights.  This community is the only predominantly African-American county in Florida and at the same time segregated (by schools and funeral homes, etc), either really rich or underresourced and poverty stricken… A less than 50% graduation rate, poor literacy, and so on…

So, I moved by myself to the ‘ghtetto’, got a big dog like they told me, an alarm system, etc.  My Mom’s prayer life increased exponentially, and I was genuinely excited to work on these ministries that had begun there — A neat after school program, English classes for non-English speakers, and the opportunity to get to know some beautiful people.

The couple years I was there God taught me many things.  I learned things about how the world works, about suffering, isolation, community, and justice.  I learned things about myself, but more than anything, I think God was showing me things about God-self.  God is in the places where people avoid.  God is to be found where there is seemingly little light.

In the cycles of poverty and violence and oppression that I witnessed I began to ask where hope was?  Where justice was?  Where the kingdom that we Christians hear about was?  And as a minister, what I possibly could say that really meant something — not just nice words or just talk about heaven — but that actually changed someone’s life.

That brought me to the Gospel of Luke.  All the gospels have their own ‘flavor’ so to speak — they are written for certain audiences for certain purposes and thus sometimes address different things.  I resonate with Luke as a champion for the outsider.  One of my favorite scripture passages is Luke 4:16-21:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Prior to the part to this passage, Jesus is born in a meager situation – one that allowed for shepherds to visit.  He begins to grow and finds himself studying in the temple.  He is baptized and then spends some time of preparation in the wilderness.

Jesus then went home to Nazareth.  As his family’s habit he went to the synagogue to worship.  There they repeated the Shema (found in Deut and Numbers), the central verse of Judaism, pledging allegiance to one God.  Then they prayed, heard a passage read from the Torah, then a passage from the prophets, a sermon, and a final priestly blessing.  Jesus was given the honor of rearing the scroll and then preaching.  He read two verses from Isaiah 61.

The words Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth when he announced the beginning of his ministry are incredibly meaningful and reflective of his mission. He identified himself as the “Servant of the Lord,” prophesied by Isaiah, who would “bring justice” to the world (Isaiah 42:1-7). “Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace [and he did!]. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world” (Tim Keller, ‘Generous Justice’).  How much more radical can you get than mentioning the year of the Lord, jubilee, in your opening statements!

Now, I will confess that I still have moments where I feel hopeless.  Where I indulge in pity parties.  Where I wonder what this ‘fulfilled in your hearing’ business means.  I still see injustice, suffering, and oppression — I can think that the powers have won, and feel despair.  But I find that this is why we are a people of hope… and a people of action.

The ‘fulfilled’ tense is one that is currently happening and continues to happen.  I worked on my Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork while living in this community, and one of the questions was related to the kingdom of God.  While reflecting on where the kingdom of God is breaking through I discovered it was often in the little things.  In the midst of what seemed like a hopeless environment in seeing the big smiles of children.  In telling kids who rarely if ever hear words of love in their homes, “I love you, no matter what.” In making chili; in giving out candy; in living in the midst of it all.

I read the Bible and I’m overwhelmed with the amount of Biblical material that expresses concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.  Jesus didn’t come in power and using all the glory and authority of God,  he came lowly and without a place to rest his head.  He didn’t show off his knowledge and stick to the synagogue alone, and built up his spiritual life for himself.  He was continuously with people.  He healed the sick.  He liberated those who were oppressed by spirits.  He was criticized for hanging out with the wrong crowds.  In the same way we who go to church, and have Bibles (and maybe even read them), who know about a life of prayer and can talk about spirituality and grow in that way — but unless we use all of those things that build us up as individuals to build up the church and to love the unlovable, to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to change our lives, we are not really following Jesus and walking where he is… we are posing.

“We must move beyond an anemic view of our faith as something only personal and private, with no public dimension, and instead see it as the source of power that can change the world. ”
-Richard Stearns, ‘the Hole in Our Gospel’

How do we as the church follow Jesus this way?  How do we as individuals do this?  God does not ask us to give things we do not have or cannot give, but God can’t use what we don’t offer to be used.

Prayer:  God, thank you for the incarnation – for being a God who comes down and lives with us and doesn’t simply ask of us things from on high.  Thank you for being with us still, through your Spirit — you never leave us alone.  Thank you for continuing to call us deeper — beyond ourselves.  Fill us with your love.  Fill us with your compassion and with passion.  Change our worlds again, and help us be agents of change, for the growing of your kingdom.  Amen.

a going away gift from the after school program

a going away gift from the after school program that hangs on my wall