Sunday, April 25, 2010

It's Sunday morning again, and I'm traipsing into church late again, rapscallions in tow. Kerri and Rich wave at me when I come in, and gesture to their row, a good place for us as our kids are happier next to their kids. As always, the music is interesting on some level, and this time it is Gene ripping it on guitar on stage as another woman and man play backup instruments and vocals. After the music ends, Bryan begins his sermon, and I'm hoping that the bribes hold up as enough incentive for my children to remain quiet so I can concentrate on the words.
This sermon was the first part of a series on "ReThink Church", three parts I suppose to go along with the three times Jesus mentions church in the Bible. The scripture chosen has in regards to a conversation Jesus has with Peter, and I am thinking about this, and how it is somewhat connected to another conversation Jesus has with Peter that Gene was talking about last week in his sermon. In Gene's sermon, he mentions Peter's desire for importance, to be the favored disciple, with Jesus rebuking him with "Get behind me, Satan!" Yet Bryan's sermon focused on Matthew 16: 13-20 in which Jesus tells Peter "That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
So on one hand, Jesus tells Peter to stop trying to put himself first, that the desire he has to be more important than anyone else is akin to the devil, and yet in here he is telling him he IS important, so important that he is going to base the whole church upon him and in doing that, the devil won't win. It seems almost like a contradiction on the surface, yet when I turn it over in my mind, I think that what Jesus was doing was something that makes leaders great - using people's natural talents and desires to work towards the collective whole. Peter had a need to feel self-important and valued, and what Jesus was doing here was taking that desire and turning it to serve his purpose - to empower him through it, charge him through this need by directing it into the area that would both satisfy the desires of the Self but give it a more noble purpose.
In a way, I think, this is connected to the whole idea of ministers or church groups as a whole guiding people to search themselves, though prayer, spiritual insight, reflection, or education, to discover what their unique talents are and how then to use them to serve God's purpose on this earth. We are all created in his image, but yet each possessing different levels of expertise, experience, or natural gifts that can be used in different ways to serve the world. I am thinking along those lines, the same lines that parallel some of what Bryan is talking about, in regards to ministry, but I am also thinking about this concept of how Jesus is relating to Peter, about how even those things that seem to work against us sometimes, like Peter's self aggrandization, are all part of the Big Picture of how God wants us to work for his Glory. I am also thinking about
how God sometimes illuminates what it is he wants us to see, or reveals his plan to us in little flashes, how he finds a way to help us see how our strengths or experiences are part of the purpose he has in mind for us.
So it happens that Bryan is talking, much like Gene's sermon last week, how being of the faith is not simply about passive listening or presence, but active seeking and participating. It's not enough to sit there on the pew, or to say you are a Christian, but to live it breath it be it. So on that level, I am thinking about how much of my time has been spent making excuses for not serving my God on a ministry level. I have lots of excuses, so I am going through them one by one here as he mentions the specific types of ministry the church is involved in. Money is always so scarce that I pray for God to understand why there's so little leftover for Him. Evangelism is not my style, and never will be. In a way it's probably a shame, because I know I have strengths as a persuasive salesperson (just ask my old boss) but it's my conviction to personal freedom that will prevent me from trying to change anyone's mind except through example of faith. I have issues with the homeless, which are too great to get into within the scope of this entry. Putting a hammer in my hand a'la Habitat to Humanity would be dangerous not only to myself but to others around me. Or maybe it's just being on my own with these two rapscallions that has made me feel like I can't, I don't have the means or the way to give back in that way. But maybe it's not that way I am supposed to be giving, anyways. I don't have a passion for those types of ministry, and it is only through our passions that we can serve the best.
I am contemplating a subject I should know backwards and forwards by now, the question of what are my strengths and my passion that I could use to fulfill God's intentions for me in terms of service to the world, and maybe it's as simple as what Michelle said last week, "start writing"...but of what? What is the intended message that can serve both my God and my self's passion, the world and the individual need to communicate in this medium? But it's not that simple, because I don't believe that God only possessed me with the desire to write, but also with the passion for animals. I used to joke that I was serving God by serving Dog, but I was only half-kidding. Indeed I used to think that I was serving his Purpose for me through my work, and I am sure in a way he still is, but there's something missing from it, something not complete.
In the recent past by way of explaining my background or vision to someone else, I've been thinking about something long forgotten, but it is something that comes to mind every time they start talking about ministry in church. My mind flashes to the image of the vision that drove me all the way through school, my "ten year plan for saving the world", and when I feel that call to ministry, I think, "Not yet", and imagine this vision. It's a dream decades long, of childish drawings of the same thing over and over that took a more distinct shape over thousands of repetitions from the eighties to the nineties, but something I haven't though about much in the past ten years. That makes me really sad, and at the same time, my mind starts planning it over again : a place of animal refuge, where animals come to be rescued, to be cared for, rehabilitated mentally and physically, then re-homed with certain criteria, to make sure what befell them never happens again. In addition, the animal rescue would support human rehabilitation as well, with specific types of people in emotional need in focused work with the animals, to give them back what they were missing or needed work on - empathy towards others, a connection to the physical world, a way to re-program them for caring for another besides themselves.
But as this dream has laid dormant in me these past ten years, so other things have become dormant as well. Even though my daily dedication to animals hasn't changed on some levels, there are changes over time and with exposure that have deadened my heart in ways I wish it hadn't. Over this past week, there were two incidents with J that showed me this. During the week, he sent me a link to a video about a man losing his dog, a video that should have made me cry but somehow couldn't touch me, which is disturbing in some levels to me. I tried to rationalize it with truth - the video was breaking up for one, which certainly detracted from its emotional message, but also the overexposure I've had to these types of situations. The other was watching him interact with a dog at a party. He was examining the dog, noticing the little ways the inferior care she was getting was affecting her. The next day, he was still thinking about her, thinking about the things he noticed and how he wished he could have changed that for it. Seeing him with that dog, or thinking about what he said about her, reminded me of the way I used to be, and how I've changed over time. In some ways it is ironic that in my single-minded dedication to learning and absorbing everything about providing quality of life to animals, I end up becoming desensitized to the little details that really all make up the Big Picture I was working towards - making the world a better place for animals. I felt inspired by those events to re-open this part of my mind and heart again, in order to serve the animals better, by which I can serve my God. I do believe that at least part of the purpose He has in mind for me is in the role of animal advocate, to be the one who gives the voice to those who don't have one, like Emma Lazarus's poem "The New Colossus', immortalized in a plaque on the second floor of the Statue of Liberty, speaks of:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

During Bryan's sermon, he makes a point about Christian service by turning on a flashlight with low battery. The dulled light flickers on for a minute, then goes out. He says this is what most people's faith is like, without the recharge given to us by commitment to presence. This brief flicker reminds me of my own heart's brief lurches in those two dog related incidents above, but it's the flicker itself that matters, in a matter of renewing the flame. He replaces the battery in the flashlight, showing us now how we are to live, how we are meant to be the Light of the World, and his sermon, and those other influences, serve to fill my heart back up to find ways to be that light, in the ways that drive and move me to lift my lamp up beside that golden door.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Sunday morning rolls around again, and I am contemplating church, a place I feel a need to get back to but with the usual struggle of inertia and dressing of children in time. With a little nudge and a push, I get the motivation to get them up and out in time. This week, I tried a new approach, and decided to take the restless souls of the children to kids choir practice so I could open my whole mind to the sermon. On our way upstairs, I see my beloved friend Michelle, on her way to the service in which I will soon be joining her, and stop to hug my childhood best friend's mother, who is delighted to see the three of us in attendance again, or just in general. I am already feeling so filled with the people in this church, who have come to mean so much to me over not just the course of my spiritual life, but my entire life in general.
After dropping the kids off, I manage to catch up with Michelle and her mother, and we grab coffee and cookies before finding our seats in the Contemporary Service. Vicki mentions she has been running ragged all morning trying to make sure the changes to Sunday School are situated, but she is stopping now for a spiritual break because she really wants to hear Gene's sermon. Gene has recently taken charge of our Bible Study group, and I have come to appreciation of him over the past months I have been getting to know him. My curiosity is piqued about how his sermon is going to be, and he is already leading into the scripture of the day as we walk in to find our seats, reading the story about Jesus overturning tables in the temple, being angry about the way humanity is changing faith into something it should not be.
After he reads the scripture, the focus is on the four teenagers on stage, two boys playing guitar accompanied by two lovely young women singing. I recognize one of the girls, new to the vocals, as Michelle points it out - it is Rich's oldest daughter. I see Rich and his wife to our left, watching her debut and smiling. I am so glad to see them there this day, and see their daughter up on stage, a lovely youthful version of her mother, and a testament to their upbringing.
Gene's sermon was one I could think about for days, in fact probably will, as it hit me on several levels. The title was "Barbarian Christian", and he turned the scripture story of the anger of Jesus at the money changers in the temple into several concepts, one being an idea I have thought about often in the past few years - that as we are called closer to God, the walk becomes more narrow, that Jesus is not a representation of some hippie-peace-love guru but in fact one who stands up for tolerating only that which represents true faith and commitment to God, not complacency and "free Grace" without conditions. Several parts of the sermon made us laugh, Michelle and Vicki and I looking at each other with understanding and appreciation of his humor. He challenged the congregation to stop focusing on the outer layers of the onion, the "little gods" that got in the way of true expression of faith, while saving only the little nub of the middle for God, when God wants the whole onion, all the layers to be about Him. He elaborated on examples of "spiritual warriors", who would not accept status quo but rose up to influence change, specifically Martin Luther and John Wesley (the founder of our particular denomination of Christianity). The entire sermon served as a method of charging people to be fired up inside, to not accept less but expect more, from ourselves as well as others around us, to turn our souls on fire for Christ and what he was standing for, and stand for it ourselves.
After this thought provoking yet amusing sermon, he turned it over to the vocal group again, and invited us to meditate on what was spoken. As the group sang, I was watching Rich and Kerri watch their daughter, and imagining the pride they were feeling, and happy for them that their daughter was growing up to embody the values they worked so hard to teach their children. The entire hour, I had been feeling this general sense that "church=love" in my heart, that these people were the reasons I continued to come here, that every one of them taught me something or served in some role in my life.
As I put my head down and listened to the music, I opened my heart to God and began a conversation with Him of gratitude, of thankfulness, and I found myself thinking of the beginning of my spiritual conversion, something I have had to defend or explain to people from my past who questioned this re-awakening of faith for their own particular reasons. I thought about how I was hit on so many different levels all at the same time, which all served to open my heart, right at the very same time that Rich and Michelle stepped in that open door and offered me a place to go where all those things could find outlet, and how amazing it was that God crafted that opportunity to bring me closer to Him. From there, it all grew outward, to a place in which these people I find here became my "church-family", the people who are always there to support me when I need it, who are my safety net, the people I run to when I need answers, who help me when I need help, who act in all the ways family would. These are the people who became my true family, so that when my real family, my "nuclear" family, split apart like atoms under pressure, I had a place to fall. I had a system of support already in place. I remembered introducing my real family to my church family at one Christmas service, how proud I was to point out all my friends here, and how I had realized how much these people meant to me at that point. I also remembered during the nuclear fission of my real family last year, some anger from my real family that these people here had come to mean more to me than they did. But that's because this was a safe place to fall, a place where the people were always there to lift me back up instead of tear me back down, where when I fell, I was bounced right back up in order to be the person God intended me to be, like a spiritual trampoline.
I was overwhelmed with God's intentions in providing this for me, like he had the foresight to know I was going to have this need for this, not only because of this family split but for other reasons as well, and set things in motion in just the right ways to guide me to the resources I was going to need later on. I turned to Michelle and started to explain to her what I had been thinking. She completely understood, but then took it past my own understanding to the next level.
"Yes, we are here for you, and we do these things for you because God planned it that way. It's because he has intentions for you, and I know this." We look at each other with an awareness of my history, of how I was hiding my light under a bushel in misery, and am just now coming out of it and becoming the person God intended me to be all along. Her belief in me and my purpose has always been clear, though, and has been unwavering.
"You were meant to do something amazing in this lifetime," she says to me intently. Then she turns away and adds the final instructions, with authority.
"So start writing."