Expecting the worst

Remember when I went to the baby mega-church with a friend a few weeks back? She was so excited to have found a church that fed her spiritually, and she wanted to share it with everyone around her. Although I wasn’t very impressed with the style of worship, I was happy that she had potentially found a spiritual home. There was an entire row of lesbians seated in front of us the morning that we visited, so I just assumed that this church had a non-discriminatory stance on homosexuality.

My friend was shocked Sunday morning to hear the pastor mention homosexuality in his sermon along with a list of other sins, including divorce and drinking. He specifically pointed out that there were gay people in the congregation and that the other members needed to “pray for them to change.” My friend’s joy quickly turned to sorrow and she is questioning whether she ever wants to visit the church again.

What I find interesting is the way homosexuals will often try to rationalize such despicable behavior. She talked to two other lesbians who were at church during the unfortunate sermon, and both explained that they expect to hear such things from time to time. They also felt like the inclusion of other sins in the sermon meant that they weren’t being singled out.

As she talked it over with me today, I pointed out that neither of us believe that homosexuality is a sin or that homosexuals can change. I asked if she really wanted to continue attending a church that had such a lowly view of her, and was surprised that she seems to be wavering on the issue.

It’s almost like discrimination is such an expected part of the equation that she’s willing to overlook it in order to feel spiritually fulfilled. Having been there myself, it’s easy to empathize with her predicament. Is it any wonder that we homosexuals are often so emotionally and spiritually damaged?

All of this has made me so thankful to be a part of the United Church of Christ (UCC). Visitors to our church don’t have to worry about being condemned from the pulpit for being different. Our church’s website clearly states that all are welcome – regardless of color, income, or sexuality. How could a church that labels themselves as “Christian” do any differently?

Other churches, including the one my friend has been attending, might claim the same open door policy, only to wait a few weeks or months before publicly humiliating the most fragile among them. That “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality is psychologically damaging men and women across this country every Sunday morning.

It is sad enough that people who claim to follow Christ treat us with such contempt, but the real tragedy is that we often expect and even enable ourselves to become victims of discrimination.

After the glitter fades

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson

Soon after we started attending our church a few years ago, I remember talking to a couple of my coworkers about how wonderful the people were and how much we were enjoying our time with them on Sunday mornings. As I heaped praise on what seemed to me at the time to be as close to perfect as a church could possibly get, one of the coworkers (who had himself previously been a pastor) smiled knowingly and told me I was in the “honeymoon phase.” His words have rang true so many times over the past three years.

It is very easy to only see the surface, the cover of the book. It’s just as easy to become disillusioned when the new wears off and the gritty, unrefined reality of a situation is exposed, but it’s bound to happen sooner or later. It didn’t take long for me to realize that much like any other church, mine was far from perfect.

Human relationships are always complicated – whether in the workplace or the church pew, and there were many Sundays when the tension seemed heavier than air. And, I regrettably admit, there were many times when I considered quitting altogether. Thankfully, I persevered.

Now, many months later, I’m starting to believe that these are the times that are truly the most rewarding – when we stop looking at the world and ourselves through rose-tinted glasses, get our hands dirty, and do what needs to be done in order to survive. I’m witnessing a spirit of renewal – both in the congregation and within myself.

It isn’t always easy to make the right decisions or choose the right paths, but with God’s help and guidance, I know our church isn’t only going to survive… we’re gonna shine!

Something beautiful from something ugly

Part of me wishes I could wake up and realize that last week was just a really, really bad dream. The other part thinks that even though life is harsh, cruel, and unpredictable, maybe we need to experience the negative aspects in order to more fully appreciate the times when life is good.

Last Sunday started off just fine, but something happened that made me question whether or not I should join the church I’ve been attending for over three years. I won’t get into the details of what happened here, but suffice it to say that every congregation has its share of troublemakers and ours is no exception. Someone commented that the current situation in our church is “not conducive to spiritual growth,” and although I disagreed with pretty much everything else they had to say, that statement gave me pause.

There does seem to be quite a bit of division in our church, but I believe that scenario is often repeated in every congregation or gathering of people. Whether it is human nature or something far more sinister, wherever people seek harmony and God’s spirit, it never fails that someone or something will try to divide and conquer.

So, I spent the next couple of days with a heavy heart, considering whether I should join at this time or wait until things were a little more settled. I asked myself if anything beautiful could come out of something so ugly. I prayed about it and discussed my feelings with my partner.

Finally, I decided to email my pastor and share my feelings. She very eloquently explained that God likes to bring beauty out of undesirable situations, much like our Savior arose from a tomb. I liked that comparison and decided that I was definitely joining the following Sunday.

Thursday also started off just fine. I went to work and was having a good day until someone walked in and said they had just heard on the radio that Michael Jackson passed away. I had heard that type of rumor before, but something in the pit of my stomach told me it was true this time. My bottom lip began to quiver as I rushed to the nearest computer to get confirmation.

CNN had a headline that said he had been taken to the hospital. “Not so bad,” I thought. Then I clicked on TMZ and saw that they were reporting he was dead. It felt like my heart went into my shoes. Tears sprang into my eyes and spilled down my face, but I had to maintain some level of composure in order to finish my work. Thankfully, it was near the end of the day and I was able to leave about 20 minutes later.

Emotion hit me like a wave the moment I got in my vehicle to drive home. It was unbearably hot outside, which only added to my misery. I rode with the windows down, my screams and sobs disappearing into the rushing air. As bad as this hurt, I wondered if I could possibly bear the pain of losing a close family member.

I felt silly as I realized that I had never even met Michael. I had only seen him one time in real life, but I had been following his career closely since 1991. It felt like I knew him. I could relate to his sadness, his loneliness, even his constant need for adoration.

He had captured part of my heart all those years ago and I truly loved him. I loved his music, his voice, his style, even his appearance in the earlier years. I admired his generosity, his global view, his poetry. His dancing was a spiritual experience. He channeled something much larger than himself, and regardless of his shortcomings, he never stopped believing that one person could make a difference.

So, my heart was completely broken by the time I arrived home and turned on the television. I prayed and hoped against hope, but within minutes CNN had confirmed the terrible news. My brain couldn’t really comprehend what had just transpired, so I just sobbed uncontrollably. I was thankful that Honey was at work, because I felt so foolish. I recalled how I was also home alone a few years ago when the verdict was read in Michael’s molestation trial. As each charge was pronounced “not guilty,” I had jumped up and down like a crazy person, screaming at the top of my lungs.

Although emotions were once again running high, this was much different. I wondered if I could ever listen to my favorite songs or watch my favorite videos again. Wouldn’t it be strange to see Michael grabbing his crotch while knowing that he was deceased? Wouldn’t I always wonder somewhere in the back of my mind if he was paying the ultimate price for a life filled with excess, greed, and ego-mania? Even though I had always doubted the charges of misconduct with children, would we ever really know the truth? So many questions, each making me cry even harder.

Going to work the next morning was more like sleep-walking, because the nightmare hadn’t ended when I got out of bed. It didn’t help that the local radio station was playing back-to-back songs by MJ, or that everyone kept asking me how I was doing. Tears kept welling in my eyes every few minutes as reality began to sink in… The King of Pop was dead.

Almost exactly twenty-four hours after hearing such terrible news, I was once again shaken to the core. My father walked over to where I was working with an anguished look on his face and told me that my niece and nephew had been in a four-wheeler accident. He said my nephew was okay, but my niece was on the way to the hospital. Apparently she had called her mother from her cell phone, screaming for help as blood poured from a large puncture wound under her arm. Her wrist was also broken, her head was swelling, and both kids were covered in scrapes and bruises. All of this was too much for my already fragile psyche, so I immediately started bawling.

Honey drove us to the emergency room, where we were greeted by my brother-in-law. His shirt was covered in blood from where he had carried his daughter into the hospital. As we sat waiting to find out her condition, the television in the waiting room was playing non-stop coverage of Michael’s death. I seriously began to wonder if I was going to lose my mind.

Somehow, through all of the chaos going on in my head and around me, I began to put things into proper perspective. Maybe my earthly idol was dead, but at least my niece was going to be okay. Maybe I needed to start paying more attention to my life and those around me instead of following every move of a pop star. Maybe I should stop worrying so much about his final destination and start worrying more about my own.

Which brings me back to church.

I was still feeling rather emotional when we gathered for worship Sunday morning. My father and step-mother had come to see us join, and one of our good friends had agreed to sing one of our favorite songs during the service.

We stood in front of the congregation and said our vows. Yes, we believe in God. Yes, we believe in Jesus. Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit. We professed that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. We promised to resist evil, to show love and justice, to be faithful members.

Then Linda stood and sang. No music, just her lovely voice.

Leave it there, leave it there. Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there. If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out. Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

And, once again, like so many other times during the preceding days, I wept. I wept for my niece and nephew. I wept for Michael Jackson. I wept because my beautiful partner took my hand to comfort me. I wept from the pure joy that comes from realizing that God loves us, each and every one. No matter how popular or influential, how small or insignificant, He cares.

So, even though part of me wishes that last week had never happened, the other part realizes that life is full of surprises – some good, some bad, some a little bit of both. My niece’s injury and Michael’s death were a reminder of the frailty of life. Our church problems are a sign that progress never comes without a struggle. And our service yesterday proved that our church is conducive to spiritual growth and, yes, something beautiful can come from something ugly!

The next step

Over a year ago, I wrote about my hesitancy at becoming a member of my church. My concerns were centered around two points: my lack of faith and wanting to join the church as a couple.

At the time I wrote the aforementioned entry, my partner and I were in entirely different frames of mind spiritually. While his faith was growing, mine seemed to be weakening, which caused the statement of faiths that one must make when joining the church seem like an insurmountable hurdle.

Over the last year, I’ve found my faith resurging. I wrote about one of my “aha!” moments a few months ago – one that has had a profound impact on my view of and belief in God. I followed that with a prayer, in which I explained the comfort that resulted from my renewed faith.

Regardless of the leaps that I seemed to be making on my spiritual journey, I still felt hesitancy when my pastor emailed to ask if we might be interested in becoming members later this month. I replied that I didn’t think I was ready at this time, mainly because of my lack of faith. Karen assured me that it would be impossible for anyone to join the church if they held themselves to such a high standard of belief. That made sense, so I decided to discuss the possibility with Honey when he got home from work that evening. I also prayed and told God that I wanted to make sure this was His will, because I didn’t want to do anything He didn’t want me to do.

When Honey arrived, I casually mentioned the pastor’s suggestion and was surprised when he voiced his approval. We agreed to tell no one until the following Sunday, which would provide us time to ponder our decision.

He picked up a hymnal from the church the next day so that we could read through the ceremony that would be performed if we joined. As I read questions pertaining to belief in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, I realized I could truthfully answer each of those questions with “I do.” Honey felt the same way. It struck me how similar this would be to a wedding ceremony.

I spent the rest of the week thinking about the importance of what we were going to do, and even emailed my “associate pastor” Jim to get someone else’s viewpoint. He, as always, knew exactly what to say to both encourage and enlighten me.

When Sunday rolled around, we pulled our pastor aside and informed her of our decision. She quickly assuaged any remaining concerns that we had and reassured us that we were ready.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that for the first time in the 3+ years that we’ve been attending our church, I do feel ready.

Just for the taste of it

I’ve been attending a UCC church for almost a year and a half, but am still amazed that I was able to find such a loving and accepting church within a reasonable driving distance of my home.

I had been away from church for several years, not interested in worshiping in any of the rather conservative and judgmental congregations in my area. I had been seeing some of controversial television spots from the United Church of Christ for a while and had read news stories about their acceptance and ordination of gays and lesbians, but never really took the time to see what they were all about.

One day at work, for whatever reason, I went to their website and looked around a bit. I noticed their church-finder option and typed in my zip code. To my amazement, there was a UCC church around 25 miles away. They had their own website, which had pictures of smiling faces and explained how welcoming they were. It also detailed some of their beliefs and I found myself becoming more and more intrigued.

Deciding to attend was the easy part… talking my partner into it was another story. I begged and pleaded and he complained and griped until, finally, he relented. We got up one Sunday morning in April and headed for church, which felt strangely surreal, yet exciting.

Upon arriving and getting out of the car, we were greeted by a very friendly member who had also just arrived. She introduced herself as “Crystal” and explained that it was Palm Sunday and that they were beginning the service in the fellowship hall. My idea had been to attend service as an observer, but we were soon coerced into participation.

Upon entering the fellowship hall, we took two of the only remaining seats at the front of the room and I immediately recognized Karen from her website photo as she stood to begin the service. After a few congregational responses from the bulletin, some kids passed out palm fronds to each member and we were instructed to wave them and shout “Hosanna!” as we walked down the hall into the sanctuary. I glanced over to see Honey giving me a look that showed he was not pleased with this turn of events. I laughingly told Crystal that he “was going to kill me.”

The service was a far cry from what I’d been used to. The songs were very traditional and accompanied by a piano, where I’d been used to drums, tambourines, hand-clapping, and guitars in the Pentecostal churches I’d attended as a child and young adult. Karen’s sermon was nice, but I was more enchanted with her voice than anything – soft and soothing like a therapist. Toward the end of her sermon, she asked us to bow our heads as she quietly spoke about being at one with our Maker and how He loves us. A wonderful, calming spirit filled the room and I felt the tears begin to well in my eyes. I knew then that I wanted to come back, but as the service ended, Honey told me that he was ready to get out of there. I could tell from the look on his face that I’d probably be attending future services alone.

We walked out of the sanctuary to find Karen standing just outside the door and greeting each person. As we spoke with her, another outgoing, smiling member invited us back to the fellowship hall for coffee and refreshments. Honey told her we didn’t drink coffee and we’d probably just go, but she asked what he liked to drink. “Diet Coke,” he said, before she exclaimed, “We’ve got Diet Coke!”

As he reluctantly slunk back to the fellowship hall – more out of thirst than anything – I kept hoping that something would happen that might change his mind about this whole church thing. We grabbed some drinks and settled down at a table, where we were almost instantly surrounded by inviting and friendly faces who seemed so happy that we were there. I couldn’t help thinking about how different this was from the reception we’d have received at most of the other churches in the area.

We wound up sitting and chatting for several minutes as Karen explained that we’d never be required to believe anything that made us uncomfortable, that no questions were off-limits, and that we didn’t even have to profess a belief in God in order to attend services. Again, not at all what we’d expected. As she told us that she hoped we’d come again, I was stunned when Honey spoke up and said, “We’ll definitely be back.” We’ve been going ever since.

Looking back on everything that happened to lead me to my church, I can’t help but believe that a higher power was involved. There were so many reasons why we might have never went or why we might have never returned, and if it hadn’t been for Diet Coke, I might never have met some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered in my entire life.