As another year leaves us…

As another year leaves us-

with its joys and sorrows,

its learnings and relearning,

its tear-soaked pillow

and new laugh lines,

its new friends,

strengthened relationships

and parting of ways,

its perspective and courage inducing,

its longing for justice and growing in patience,

its overindulgence and stubbornness,

its remembering of passion

and plain remembering,

its resurrection and

above all

the Grace within it.

 In all of it, and in the paradoxes, God, thank you for your presence.

 As a new year peeks in-

with its new mercies and opportunities,

its dreams,

its feather-covered hope,

its uncertainty and its certainty,

its continued longings for

justice,

happiness,

belonging,

and love,…

its anxiety,

its blessed assurance,

its courage exercises

and new adventures-

may there again be remembering-

always remembering.

May there again be resurrection-

always resurrection.

In all of it, and in the paradoxes, God, may you be present,

and thank you for Grace.

Amen.

 

What is Church? — Guest Post 6 — Final post

Today’s guest post is written by Kandace Brooks.

Dr. Kandace Brooks is currently the Pastor at Tomoka United Methodist Church in Ormond Beach, FL. Prior to her appointment at Tomoka, she served as the Director of Community Life and Adjunct Professor of Worship at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL; as Founding Pastor of Celebration United Methodist Church in Gainesville (3 years); as Coordinator of Worship Arts and Associate Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville (7 years), and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Florida (12 years). She received the Doctor of Philosophy Degree from London School of Theology in Homiletics (1983); the Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Georgia and the Master of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary. Kandace has also taught a two-week intensive course in Homiletics at the West Africa Theological Seminary in Lagos, Nigeria.

What is Church?
I should want desperately to complicate this answer – to write an extended essay filled with theological terms and a complete (!) outline of the Wesleyan understanding of grace. I want to talk about the marks of the church – to provide a checklist of sorts so that the various communities that bear the name CHURCH can measure themselves against some established norm.

I should want my understanding of church to be SMART – a project to be managed; neat and tidy.
Specific
Measureable
Attainable
Relevant
Time-bound
I should desire the church to be duplicated in every detail in every place and for every person.

But the truth is that this can never happen.

Because the church as I truly understand it is not a project to be managed; nor is it made any better or more effective through the application of impressive theological terms.

It can never happen because the church; the church as I have come to understand it, is centered on a person.

Jesus Christ.

And formed for the transformation of people, and of the world.
Broken people.
Messy people.
All people.

This is how I understand the church – that it is the active and visible presence of Christ in the world.
Through people who are not Christ, but are seeking to be Christ-like in their thoughts, and words and actions.

The active and visible presence of Christ in the world.

And If the life of Christ is not messy enough to convince us that the church will be the same, I’m not sure what will.
The life of Christ demonstrated compassion, grace, love –
The life of Christ went to places not only unexpected, but also unapproved.
The life of Christ cared nothing for the values of world but cared deeply for the people of the world.
The life of Christ was lived amidst
miracle and mayhem;
insight and ignorance;
compassion and confusion.

Why would we think that the church would be any different?

I think that if we could understand the church in this way – as the active and visible presence of Christ in the world – perhaps we could be less concerned with the trappings of the institution and more intent on being present with people.

And just maybe, the church that is centered on model of a single person – Jesus Christ.
Could become a place for all people.

Amen.

What is Church? — Guest Post 5

Allison Burnette was born and raised in Tallahassee, FL. She is currently a sophomore at Florida State University studying Advertising and International Affairs. In addition to attending FSU, she also works at the school as a University Ambassador, giving tours to prospective students and their families. She has a taste for the simpler things in life, especially being outdoors, listening to really loud music and drinking coffee.

What is Church?

Growing up, my parents always opened our home to guests. We would have relatives staying with us for weeks, one of their coworkers living in our back room for months, friends passing through to join us for family dinner. It was always lovely, complicated, and worth it. I like to think that’s how church is. Church isn’t confined to a building but it certainly feels a lot like home.

Over a year ago, I moved out of my parent’s house for college. Thankfully, I’ve found home in the three places I’ve lived since. It’s this strange feeling leaving a place, it’s as though you finally realize how much it means to you. Suddenly the grundgy walls of your dorm, the windowsill that was never quite big enough to to sit on (though of course you tried), and the coffee rings on your desk seem endearing rather than annoying. It’s those imperfections that make you nostalgic. It’s the way you learned to live in the mess that makes you sad to leave. When I left my home church, I began to see those same truths. I missed the slides that were never on cue during worship, the way the bus would break down on every youth trip, and the group of broken people who had been a family to me. Church almost never seems like enough when you’re there, but as you prepare to leave it, there’s a certain sentiment it holds. You see that you made a home there, and even more, a family.

This idea of family is especially striking because it so closely resembles the community that Jesus spoke of.

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Hebrews 13:1

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. Proverbs 17:17

Brothers and sisters, pray for us.
1 Thessalonians 5:25

I believe church to be a close-knit matter, one that is solely based on Christ. Church gathers around the weak and the worried, strengthening them with love, sharing scriptures, praying for them with a great deal of heart. It takes time, investment, and honesty, just as a family does. But when you are the one who is weak, when your worry is consuming you, it is this church, this family that you have come to love, that will stand beside you.

I know this because I’ve lived it, time and time again. I saw church in a hospital room when I was at my very worst. I saw church in my college decision, as I worried that staying in my home town was settling. I saw church when I was leaving it, as they gathered around me and prayed for my next home, for the people I would consider family in years to come. Today, I see church in a warehouse where we put up drywall and strings of lights, worshipping god in such authenticity.

The funny thing is, even as you move and change and others do the same, there is a church that you carry with you. It’s not a particular congregation, pastor, or building, it’s a confidence in The Lord that you have found home before and that you will again, that very possibly, you already have. It is this beautiful truth that makes church worth it. That compels you to search for community even when you see it’s imperfections. That leads you to transparency even when you’d rather not be vulnerable. That leads you to a family you would have never chosen, but that help you grow closer to god, the greatest part of this home you’ve all made.

What is Church — Guest Post 4

Today’s post is written by Joshua Wilson.

Raised in Miami, Florida, Josh loves strong coffee and arepas. After moving to Gainesville in 2005, Josh fell in love with area but still roots for any and all Miami sports teams. He started to work with the Trinity UMC Youth Group in 2008 and loves it. His favorite things are hanging out with his sons, painting, and practicing to qualify for the US Olympic curling team (if there’s one thing he can do, it’s sweep).

What is Church?

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there anymore.” ~ the internet

I recently visited the church I grew up in…or maybe I didn’t.

I started attending Sunday Services when I was in sixth grade. My dad wasn’t into religion but said “you gotta have morals” so every Sunday morning, he would drop me off at the church down the street from our house. I sat with Mrs. Horton, a little old lady who taught English at my school. She called me her “church child.”

I eventually started to go to youth group, not because I really wanted to go but because a friend practically twisted my arm. Doug, the youth pastor, was an artistic, guitar playing, slightly ADD role model. Long hours talking about real life began a search that led me into ministry. He also turned me on to hair gel, bolo ties, and puffy shirts…not my finest look, but, hey, it was the 80’s.

At youth group, I met people who would have long and lasting effects on who I was. And this is where my concept of church was starting to be formed.

My history with this church continued on through adulthood, eventually working there as first a youth ministry intern and then Middle School Youth Director. I got married and had both of my children baptized there.

So when the Trinity Youth Group traveled down to the Keys for a weekend retreat, I contacted my home church and arranged for us to stay overnight in their youth building. The next morning, I woke up before everyone else and walked around the grounds that witnessed so much of my becoming who I am.

The buildings stood empty as I walked through them. Nothing had much changed but I couldn’t help but feel that the church I grew up in wasn’t there.

And maybe it was never there.

What is church?

The church is not a place. If anything, it is a people making a place. If you have ever played cowboys, astronaut or pirate or whatever else when you were a kid, then you understand the idea of making a place. No matter where you are, just a bit of imagination can transport you to your lonesome prairie, your rocket, your pirate ship or your deserted island.

So, church is a people, dreaming about a place, imaging a place into reality…a place where we are family in the truest sense, accepted and loved. We all yearn for a place of rest and hope, a place to know and be known by others…heaven on earth. So, the church is a people trying to make heaven a reality on earth.

Sometimes, we get it wrong. Well, a lot of the time we get it wrong. Maybe even most of the time. But at our best, the church is a cathedral made of people, a chapel of arms and hands, feet and heads, a people who together form a house in the shape of healing and grace that was first shown to them by God.

The church I grew up in wasn’t there on that morning in South Miami. That’s good news. Because when those buildings are long gone, the Church will still be standing. When Trinity UMC in Gainesville, Florida is long forgotten, the Church will still be standing.

Ephesians 2:19-22 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the  apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being  the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

 

What Is Church? — Guest Post 3

Today’s guest post on what is church comes from Dr. Janise McNair, PhD, ECE.

Background/Bio
I have attended church since childhood. Not the same church, but always a protestant church. I started out in a Methodist church, then my family moved around a bit and we attended the protestant church service on different military bases. While in college, I attended a Baptist church, and now I’m in a Methodist church again. As far as other religions go, I have enjoyed learning about the experiences and importance of other religions through close relationships with friends of various international backgrounds. But through it all, I have pretty much stayed influenced by the long line of churchgoers in my family that have had a positive impact on my life and the lives of others.

What is church? Well, that’s a difficult question for me. Or maybe I should say it is an easy question with a very long, complicated answer. For me, church is so many things and also a few, very specific things. I wondered, should I write about THE Church, a church or my church? I struggled with where to begin and where to end. I decided to begin here. Church, for me, is a gathering place that helps prepare me to go out and do good things. The church gathering is a chance to set myself away from the busyness and noise of my life and to sit and think about how I’m doing, how I can improve, how to pray for/mourn/celebrate with others and how to be inspired to do something more. Church is turning off the cell phone, not checking email, not answering the door, not thinking about the grocery list or the next meal or the next deal or the next call. Church helps me focus on the right things.

Church, for me, is learning about scripture. The Bible is an ancient document from the Middle East, written by men, translated and canonized by the elite, and reproduced thousands of times, but it is a document that has taught me so much about human nature, the human spirit and God. It teaches me in ways that challenge me, but also in practical ways that influence how I relate to my family and how I relate to my community. It’s good. The more I learn and understand how things work, the more I’m able to figure out how to do the right thing, and also to figure out when the church is not doing the right thing. I enjoy being in a church where I’m taught by people who have studied scripture in a lot of detail with a lot of context. I love to learn from people who have a life experience with the scriptures that gives a personal perspective to how they apply it to life in general, and to their own lives in particular.

Church, for me, is also an opportunity to worship together. First, let me say that I think worship can happen anywhere. It can happen in my car while I listen to or sing a certain song. It can happen on the beach, when I see the majesty of a sunset. It can happen in a small group of people who have gathered to pray for someone. It can happen in a huge gathering of noisy people who are all praising God. I think it can happen any place under any conditions because Jesus is everywhere accessible, ready and willing to connect.

Worship in a church gathering has been a learning experience for me. Some time ago, I used to sit in the pew thinking about what I was or wasn’t getting from a given church service. Even at a good church, I would get distracted when something wasn’t quite what I expected, and that would become the focus of my thoughts. At some point the thought came to me, “God is not sending me to church for what I can get out. He’s sending me to church for what I can put in.’’ So, I tried to approach worship differently. I started to bring worship with me by praying on the drive to church. I prayed for the choir and musicians. I prayed for the preacher. I prayed for the church as a whole. I prayed for my wants to take a back seat for a while so I could experience God’s presence. When I remember to follow this practice, worship in church is always meaningful and moving to me, no matter what tries to distract me.

Lastly, Church, for me, is community. Standing next to other people, shaking someone’s hand, looking people in the eyes and listening to someone’s story. It pulls me out of my universe-of-one and reminds me that the universe might be a little bit bigger than my own problems, opinions, and intentions. I think, in the early church in Acts, the fellowship of believers was not so much about agreement, getting along and doing the same thing, as much as it was about gathering together, learning together and getting through things together. This feeling of community, in good churches, leads to taking care of the needs of the community — service projects, missions, and acts of kindness. The church can be a source of social justice that is as large as a civil rights movement or as small as a free plate of food.

So, Church, for me-THE church, a church, and my church—is a living part of the community. It brings people together to learn about Jesus, to worship Him in spirit and in truth, and then sends them out to serve and love people.

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.

 

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
——————————————————————–

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