It's all a matter of perspective.

Friday, June 08, 2007

OK, before I forget about it, and before I go to another stop on my tour this Sunday, I thought I had better get down some thoughts about my visit last Sunday to First United Methodist, North Little Rock. Keep in mind that I went to the "Contemporary" service. This is the middle of the three Sunday morning services.

The church has several large buildings that take up almost all of the property, leaving little room for parking. Next door is an equally large Baptist church, so it makes for a foreboding presence when you drive up. Like an industrial park of 1980's church buildings. Although there were few parkings spaces, I did not have any problems finding one because I am the most punctual person that I know.

Inside it had the dark wood paneling/ big fancy light fixture/ stained glass thing that we are all used to. There were cushioned pews in three rows, with a couple or three dozen pews in each row. It had a large stage, but no pulpit. There was a place for the choir to sit on stage left, (choir is not "Contemporary" so the seats were empty) and a drum set balancing it out on stage right. I took a seat in the middle section, 2/3rds back, against the isle.

I should note that the sanctuary was all of the building that I saw. People kept talking about something called a Narthex. I have no idea what one of those looks like, so I may have seen it, may have not. I understand, thanks to Wikipedia, that the Narthex is at the end of the Nave. That did not help much.

Small. There were about 70 people there, which looked like none in an auditorium that could probably seat 400. There were more people my age than I expected, but this was the "Contemporary" service. I'm sure all the old folks were there at sunup to hear the choir and pipe organ. (Mmm, I love choirs and pipe organs sometimes. I think I will have to find me some of that action this week.) The children were in the back doing something else, so there were no kids in this service, except for a few pleasant, sleeping babies. In Country Church, the babies scream and coo, and the bigger kids run up and down the isles or color in books right next to you. That is fine, I guess, but it was awfully nice to hear what the people down front were saying.

The Service:
The "Contemporary" band consisted of a drummer, an electric bass, an acoustic guitar, a Fender guitar, and three chick singers. Everyone appeared to be really young except for the bass player and the middle chick, who took the lead. These two were 40ish I would guess. The order of service was very traditional: An opening song, then everyone was encouraged to shake hands with the people around them. 1UMCNLR seemed to take this ritual very seriously and the they were great at it. Everyone left the stage and went to shake hands. They took probably three or four full minutes. I suppose I was singled out as a stranger, because the Lady Pastor came and introduced herself to me fairly quickly. Everyone was extremely nice and welcoming. Next was prayer and announcements and offering.

It was during the announcements that I first embarrassed myself. (Which I am sure will happen at least once a week.) There was one person at the end of my pew. She suddenly motioned me down and passed me a red book. I opened it up and it appeared to be some sort of register, like at a funeral or a wedding. They don't have these at Country Church. I signed my name and put my approximate address, but then tried to pass it off to the people in front of me. As it turns out, there is one of these on every pew and they did not need it. Also, I thought it was a visitor thing like the cards they have at Country Church. Apparently everyone signs the 1UMCNLR register, members and visitors alike. I suppose it is sort of like taking roll.

After the announcements we sang three more songs. No one, that I could see, raised their hands or wiggled much, even though the lady up front encouraged us to if we liked. It was very nice and reverent and mellow. I enjoyed this part very much. This is when it first really felt nice to be in church again.

Finally the Lady Pastor got up and gave us the sermon. It was a very simple piece on money. Mr. Wesley encourages us to earn all we can, save all we can, and give all we can. I support that. Sounds like Mr. Wesley is a good old fashioned supply-sider like myself.

After the sermon we took communion Methodist-style which was new to me. Some nice people stood up front with a bowl full of what looked sort of like oyster crackers and a big ol' earthenware goblet of red stuff. We all lined up and took a cracker, then dipped it in the red stuff. I could not tell if it was wine or grape juice, because not enough got sucked up into my little oyster cracker to taste. Just to be safe, later on that evening I uncorked a little Blood of Christ to go with my evening meal. Can't be too sure these days.

After taking communion, some people went up front to the knee-padded alter and prayed - some people just went right back to their seat. To me, it felt right to go kneel and close my eyes, and thank the Lord for living in a place where I can go enjoy so many different styles of worshiping him. Also I thanked Jesus for forking over his body and blood like he did. Man, he really loves us. In the Bible, Jesus said, "This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me." In Country Church they take The Lord's Supper twice a year. We were taught that when Jesus said, "As oft as ye drink it" what he really meant was, "Don't do this too often, or it will not be as special as it could and should be." Kneeling there in that ornate sanctuary, with strangers to my right and left, I could not imagine eating the Body and Blood and it not being special; not setting you back a bit and making you think about how loved you are.

Next were a few more announcements and we all filed out the back. I was the first one to my car and headed for home. Elapsed Time= 56 minutes.

Would I go back?
You bet. I had a great time. It was not a perfect match for me, but it was sanctified and the people were perfectly lovely and I think the Holy Spirit was there in the room with us.

Next Sunday though I continue the journey. I am thinking maybe Episcopal.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

I agree with this interpretation 100%

Monday, June 04, 2007

Why would I start posting to a blog that I have been ignoring for the past two and a half years? Because I finally have something to say, that's why. Also, blogs have become fashionable again. If there is one thing that is true about me, it is that I simply must be up on the latest trends. Everyone I know has a blog, therefore I had to come back. Three years ago it was just me, James Lileks, and Tony Pierce. But now my sweet wife has joined (I would say inspired, but I am biased) this new wave of bloggers that are really great. Check her blogroll for examples. Miss J herself has what I believe to be the best dang ol' blog I have ever laid my medulla oblongata upon. (Again, biased.) Not that I have any readers I can send her, but anyway . . .

But most importantly I have undertaken a project of sorts that Miss Amy H. Amy has suggested would make quality blog fodder. I have started a journey to experience all forms of Collective Christian Worship that one can bless themselves with in my little corner of the Bible Belt. I suppose I should give some background at this point. This is going to be painful. Warning: Honesty to follow. If you are a part of my life and that bothers you, skip ahead to the lighter stuff.

When I first started dating the beautiful Miss J twelve years ago, we were both students at Ouachita Baptist University. I had an extracurricular job cooking at a hotel restaurant. She worked on the weekends in Little Rock for a non-profit called The Shepherds Ranch (now part of this). Since she was working several days in a row, and it was an hour drive to Arkadelphia, and since she was driving a '74 Plymouth Volare, she started spending the night in the guest bed of her Aunt and Uncle.

At the time, they were involved in starting a new church. This was going to be a non-denominational, evangelical, sorta baptist, sorta charismatic, church of other-church castoffs. Miss J thought that sounded right up her alley. I was not so sure at first, being raised Country Baptist and all. But after a few visits I was hooked by the casual feel, contemporary music, open and honest atmosphere, and absence of a hyper-religious, holier-than-thou, hypocritical atmosphere that engulfed most of the churches that I had been involved with. They named the new church Celebration Christian Fellowship, and when they moved into a permanent structure Miss J and I were the first people to be married there. We moved to Little Rock and were quickly integrated into the leadership of this fledgling congregation.

For the next eight years and seven months we were immersed in this vibrant community. This was not the kind of church that has services twice on Sunday and some sort of event every night of the week. It was not a full time job, but we were intimately involved in pretty much every ministry that the church undertook. I played in the Band and cleaned the sanctuary and helped remodel the building when it needed it. Miss J was the first employee of the church besides Uncle Pastor and started the Children's Ministry. She was an important leader in the Women's Ministry and did the announcements on Sunday mornings and was an always at the information booth out front when someone needed something.

This church was not perfect, but it did a lot of things right. We had small groups that met in people's houses to worship and pray and commune. We had a wonderful Christmas service where Grandfather Pastor would tell the Christmas story and everyone would be overwhelmed by the blessing. We had worship times where the lights were down, and the music was being led by something that the people in the band did not understand, and you felt like you might fly right up to heaven. When someone would move away, on their last Sunday they would be called down front where all of the people who loved them would form a scrum around them and Jon Shirley would take the Holy Spirit out of his bluejeans pocket and release it into the room and everyone would close their eyes and cry and pray for these people that meant so much to them. On Memorial Day the whole church would go out to Steve Leopard's house on the lake and eat BBQ and potato salad (Brian Roach style) and play volleyball. At the end of the summer we went out to Ferncliff and swam and paddled and sumo wrestled and baptized and cried and prayed some more and ate catfish.

Well to make a long story short, and to surely offend people who couldn't give a shit about what I have to say, and to perhaps even libel myself and get sued for damages, let me just say that Uncle Pastor lost interest in both uncle-ing and pastoring, but for reasons that I will dare not speculate about in public, decided that he would rather see this church fit into the space that he had time for rather than allow someone else to take the lead and provide what it needed to thrive.

The first step in this transformation was the decision that the church should have no organized activity whatsoever except for Sunday morning worship, and this was best when organized as little as possible. We had videos instead of sermons, question and answer time instead of sermons, Sundays with only music, and the rehash of a sermon we had heard a hundred times. When it finally degraded to the point where He decided he would rather continue as pastor of the church without a salary and without a building while doing another career full time than he would step away and let someone else lead this thirsty group of family, friends, and companions, Miss J and I decided that we had to move on. It was far too painful to watch.

So we left. (We weren't the only ones. Celebration still meets on occasion, with about two percent of its peak numbers.) January 1st, 2006 was our first Sunday at a new church. We have been attending Fellowship North mostly, New Life Conway some, and occasionally Grace Missionary Baptist (The church my dad pastors.) We have enjoyed all of these for various reasons, and have felt the spirit from time to time for sure. But, nothing has been like it was, and will likely never be.

Once I realized this, I became pretty depressed about my spiritual future. Miss J and the kids were fairly happy attending Fellowship North, and they had made friends. I, however am antisocial and have mental problems. Making friends takes a long time and a lot of casual contact for me. Also, I realized that I know almost nothing about how most people worship. I had only attended three churches in my life; The church I grew up in - a small country baptist church pastored by my dad; Celebration; and now FSN. When I mentioned this to Miss J, she made a generous and genius proposition. She and the kids will go to FSN when they feel like going to church, and I will be allowed to attend a different church every Sunday if I like, until I feel that I have been educated My mind should be opened to all of the ways that people in my home town worship the Lord.

I do not plan to go to any Baptist churches, I did that for the first twenty years of my life. I do not plan to go to any Church of Christ, because they are far to much of a strict constructionist in their interpretation for me (and do not allow Fender Guitars on stage.) I do not plan to go to any AOG or Pentecostal or anything too charismatic, because it kinda frightens me a little bit when people loose it like that. Remember the part about me being antisocial and having mental problems?

Where do I plan to go? Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, Catholic, and whatever else strikes my fancy along the way. Last Sunday I went to First United Methodist, North Little Rock, and I attended the "Contemporary Service." Hopefully I will have time to write about that before I make my next sneak visit next Sunday. If you are interested, check back and I will try to post about each denomination as I visit them. I will talk about what was different from my previous worship experiences, what I liked, how I was moved during the services, how I embarrassed myself, and how big my pompadour is each week.

Feel free to comment. Please suggest places for me to visit. You are also welcome to tell me that I am theologically screwed and riding in an aisle seat on the fast track to Hades. I welcome all input.