Saturday, June 22, 2013

My last church - City on a Hill

Chapter One - My first church

When I was nine, I sang in a children's choir. The conductor was a Christian lady, and we would all pray together at the end of rehearsal. We sang songs about God's love and grace and about our best friend Jesus.

When I was ten, Mormons would come visit our house. I made friends with them because I thought they were nice and they taught me about Jesus and a man named Joseph Smith.

When I was twelve, a religious group came to my school and gave us all bibles. Most of the students had fun with these, tearing them apart, setting them on fire. But my bible was precious to me, and that night, I read the prayer in the back and invited Jesus into my heart.

At thirteen, I decided it was time for me to find a church. I went with my friend Angela to her church, my friend Emma to her church and my neighbour, Renae to her church. I liked them, but I didn't join them. Then I went with Aimee to her sister's new church.

It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. People were so happy. The music was fun and inviting. I was special. I was loved. I was hooked.

I went back with Aimee that night. We joined the youth group, the kids church, the music team. I left all my other extra curricular activities so I could devote my free time to the church. I was baptised, I began speaking in tongues, and hosting prayer meetings at school in my lunch hour.

The novelty never wore off for me, I loved my church until the day I left it, just over ten years later. But I left a very different girl with a very different relationship with God.

my baptism, 1998

singing on stage at a conference in Sydney, 2005 (second from the right)

one month before I left church, 2008

I moved to Melbourne in 2009 with a broken heart and a new hope. Hope, that God and I would find our way back together. I had lots of friends I could talk to about my journey, friends from all walks of life with God - friends who'd grown up in church, friends who'd found Him later in life, friends who were still looking but weren't prepared to give up. But I wasn't going to go to church. Not until I'd figured out what was right, in my heart. 

Skip forward four years, and I guess I was pretty cynical. Christians were constantly in the media, spreading messages of hate and judgement. My life meanwhile had found a new purpose, a new meaning that didn't involve me qualifying anybody else's choices, questioning anybody else's faith, or protesting against an individuals rights to choose.  

But cynicism aside, something made me want to go back. There was something about church I'd missed. Was it God? Was it worship? Was it the community? Communion? Maybe it was having a sense of being a part of something greater than myself. Instead of raging against my instincts, I gave in, and found an excuse to go back to church. That excuse was Sunday Service. The premise of Sunday Service had nothing to do with me, and everything to do about judging the Christian faith. 

But try as I might to fight it, going to Sunday church became all about me and God. It became a documentation of me searching for my faith again. And more than anything, it became evidence that I wasn't going to find what I was really looking for. 

Chapter Two - City on a Hill Melbourne

About a month ago I received an email from Sarah*. Sarah was introduced to my blog through a friend of hers and had contacted me to let me know that she related to what I was going through. Sarah told me about a church she'd been going to lately and asked if I'd like to go along. Something about Sarah made me want to meet her, so after a few failed hook up attempts, we finally met on Sunday night, just before the 6pm service. 

There was something about Sarah that made me trust her completely. I started sharing with her all my hopes and fears. Unfortunately, I had mostly fears to share. I told Sarah that after nearly 6 months of reaching out to God, I felt the furthest from him I'd ever been in my life. I felt like a non-believer. 

Sarah had always been in church, but she could understand where I was coming from. She said she too had doubts, but she'd chosen to believe. 

I thought about what it would take for me now to choose to believe in God. I thought about what I would have to give up if I was to return to the church properly, to return to my life pre-2008. 

There's no way I could do what Sarah has done. And I admire her so much for it. 

City on a Hill meets at the Melbourne Central Hoyts cinemas, which I loved. The seats were so comfy, the room smelled like popcorn. Sarah said the downside was that during worship she could really only hear herself and not the voices around her which was true. Lucky for me, Sarah had a beautiful singing voice. And although I really loved the idea of multi-purposing a cinema space, it did make it hard to not feel far from everyone else in the room. 

We'd spend too much time downstairs in the food court chatting and missed the very beginning of the service so they were in the middle of announcements when we walked in. There was a very relaxed vibe, it didn't seem to matter we were late, lots of people were still streaming in. I couldn't believe how nice it felt to walk into church with someone and not alone. I could see the welcome team as we approached, but I didn't need them. It was so much better having a friend. 

The young man doing the pre-service announcements started talking about his pet hate, people trading in their eternities for this life on earth, which as you know from my last blog, is my pet hate, except the exact opposite. It was almost comical, but I didn't feel like laughing - I felt like leaving. I honestly think if it wasn't for Sarah I would have just bailed. 

The music was next, and I didn't know any of the songs. I assumed they were written in house. The singer was apparently "on audition" for the Music Director role in the church and I thought he was very good and not at all "performancey" like some others I'd seen, especially if he was on trial. They took advantage of the massive screen and had highly visual lyrics and why not? In fact, they continued to make the most of the screen throughout the service.

It's funny, because if this was a purpose built space, I would have hated it, but because they were just working with the space they had, I thought it was wonderful. 

Pastor Guy was speaking today, from his favourite scripture, 1 Peter 3:18. He opened by talking about his background in PR, how it was his job to keep companies on message. He linked to Christianity's job to keep to their message - which is Christ, and the message of the gospel. 

Pastor Guy then did something pretty extraordinary. He started talking about what happened to Jesus on the cross. I don't mean in a "he died for our sins" way, but rather a graphic, "Passion of the Christ" retelling of events. He spoke about Jesus being beaten with sticks that had hooks on the end to tear out his ribs, the nails hammered through his hands... he went on for quite a while. I'd been a bit distracted taking in the space when he started this, but he quickly had my, and everyones attention. The room was frozen. 

Its a gutsy thing to do, and I'm not sure he pulled it off. It was the second time I'd wanted to leave his church that service, and it wasn't the last. Do I think churches should talk about the crucifixion? Absolutely I do, its a cornerstone of their faith. But not in a family service. And not when you have guests. 

Towards the end of his "message" (I use this device because I never figured out exactly what his message was) he said "You can't be a Christian if you don't love Christ".

Again, I believe the point he was making was entirely correct. And that's why I haven't called myself a Christian for years. But at this point in the service I wrote myself this note - It's time for me to walk away. I didn't mean from the service, I meant from Christian churches. 

No, I don't call myself a Christian, for many reasons that I won't go in to, but I do continuously attend Christian churches. And this pastor had just made me feel like I wasn't welcome to do that. I spoke to some of the congregants after the service who said how devastated Guy would be to think I'd interpreted him that way, but it wasn't even his words, or the way he said them. It was the truth behind them.

Why is a non-Christian hanging around Christian churches? Why am I standing through praise and worship? Why am I saying "Amen" and the end of their prayers? I don't share their faith. 

Pastor Guy also quoted Christopher Hitchens from this interview, defining who has the right to call themselves a Christian. Guy spoke about Christians who dream of a heaven with golden paths, never ending ice cream, mansions and all the time in the world to learn the piano, Christians who remove God from Heaven all together. I really liked Pastor Guy's no nonsense attitude towards his church. He told it like it was. Unfortunately for me, it was the final nail in the coffin for my Christianity. 

After the service I spoke to Sarah and her friend, Pam, about how I felt I'd just been punched in the guts, just been showed the door. I told them about my desire to be a part of something, to believe in something, but that I had no faith left at all. Pam told me the story of her friend who, after ten years of marriage and being involved in the church, he'd recently admitted to his wife, and himself, that he didn't believe in God. It was tearing their family apart, but he couldn't keep pretending to believe in something he didn't. 

And I guess what City on a Hill gave me permission to finally do, is admit I don't have faith anymore. Admit I'll never find the church I'm looking for, because faith is mandatory. Faith is what takes a room of people and makes them a church. 

*not her real name, obviously. 

Chapter Three - It's not over

When I left church in 2008, my pastor warned me "If you leave the church, you'll lose God". I remember replying, "I'd like to believe we wouldn't let that happen". God and I had been in relationship for ten years. We'd make it work. 

It took a month for me to stop being a Christian.

It's taken five years for me to admit it, but I'm probably an atheist. 

Here's what I've learned so far on this journey:
  1. Yes, there are people out there living like Jesus did. And they are amazing and not like the assholes on Q&A speaking on their behalf.  
  2. Trust your heart. Trust yourself. Because that's the only thing you'll ever know for sure. 
  3. Keep an open heart, an open mind and always hope for a miracle. I know I still am. 

And I say its not over, because I'm not prepared for it to be. I figure I've got at least fifty more years for God to make an appearance and prove me wrong. And I'd so love to be wrong on this. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Church of Thought Part II - Heaven special

Once again, I couldn't motivate myself to get out of bed, into the cold and head into an unfamiliar environment. Once again, this decision made me feel guilty.

As it is, I only commit to going to church once a fortnight. I used to go 3-4 times a week. Also this "commitment"? It exists only to myself - a decision I made about what I would do this year. I don't have a Pastor, a Minister, a Priest checking in on me, wondering where I am. I don't even have a congregation who will notice my absence. I don't even have a church.

So who is this 'they' I'm referring to? Is it Christians? Well I haven't seen any today. In fact, now I'm not going to church I'm unlikely to bump into a Christian for another two weeks. Is it the memory of churches past? If so, why haven't I been feeling bad the last five years I haven't been in church? I know when I wrote that status I meant "churches" but if this last 6 months has taught me anything, it's that there is no such thing as the collective church. Every church I've been to has been far removed from any other, with only one common denominator - faith. And it's this notion of faith I've been thinking about for weeks.

It was the Officer's closing remarks at the Salvation Army church that challenged me. She was addressing a congregation with real need. They were living with addiction, homelessness, mental illness. She said it was best to remember that while our struggles seem impossible now, we have the promise of Heaven in front of us, and our problems now, however hard, will just be a blip in the eternity of our lives.

Heaven itself, as a concept, is something I've been 'figuring out' for years. Back in 2008 when I started re-defining what my faith was, Heaven was a non-negotiable. I'd lost a best friend that year, and nobody was going to tell me he was anywhere other than with his Father in Heaven - right where he wanted, and deserved to be.

Over the last while though, I've had a big think about Heaven. I've read the work of several scientists, including neuroscientists, who explain what happens to our bodies and "souls" in death and the absence of an afterlife. I must admit, their evidence seems pretty foolproof. Even Eric & Mary at the Jehovah's Witnesses church told me their bible doesn't teach Heaven as a place where people go when they die - rather it's the place where God and Angels live, and there is no such thing as a soul.

I spoke with my dad about my struggle to accept a world without a Heaven. It certainly is a place that makes everything we go through seem more than worth it. And it takes death and makes it something wonderful, or at least hopeful. I told my dad that I wasn't okay with my friend simply being gone forever. He had to be somewhere.

Dad said that my friend was somewhere. He was with me. In my heart, in my memories. And not only was he still with me, he was in the hearts and memories of everyone who knew him. For as long as we live, he lives with us.

Once I saw the beauty in this, I was able to settle in my heart what I'd truly known for years - I don't believe in Heaven. And on this particular Sunday at the Salvation Army church, it really affected me.

Here's why.

As I've said, these congregants had real need. They weren't spoilt Pentecostals who needed more money or a better job. They needed food, clothes, peace. Their problems weren't trivial. They were basic human needs. And their needs should be met - in this lifetime.

By offering them the promise of Heaven, we're not addressing their issues, we're telling them they're irrelevant - a "blip in eternity" if you will. By passing off these needs as token, we're not performing the work that Christians, or fellow citizens for that matter, should be doing. We need to help these people solve their problems - not wave faith at them and hope for the best.

Example one: Lets say Liz (from the Salvation Army) has ten years left of her life. She finds a church that tells her in ten years, everything will be okay. She will be warm, loved and safe. Liz feels hope for the first time since her husband died in the war and she was left with nothing (dramatisation). She feels happy. She feels loved by God.

But she leaves the church, and she's still hungry. She still has to spend her afternoon trying to find somewhere to sleep that night. She still has to spend that day in the same filthy clothes she's been wearing for weeks. She is still alone.

Example two: Liz has ten years left of her life. She finds a church that makes her feel special, cherished. They take her in and give her something to eat. They keep her safe until they can find somewhere for her to live. They buy her new clothes and take her old ones to the laundromat. Liz has people in her life that love her and care for her. Liz feels stronger everyday, and on Sundays, she now helps make cups of tea for the other visitors to church. She has purpose. She has hope. She feels happy.

Faith offers something to people who have nothing - no doubt. But it isn't a solution to real problems. And we shouldn't use it as an excuse to ignore the reality of their world. Especially because, odds are, this is it. And even if you do believe in Heaven, isn't it God's own prayer that we have 'Heaven on Earth'? Why shouldn't we be working towards providing this type of sanctuary for all man?

This is why I said at the end of my visit to the Salvation Army I felt myself moving closer to atheism. Atheism puts the responsibility solely on us. No cop outs. If people don't do something to fix the world, it'll remain broken. I guess I'm beginning to understand the 'new atheist' arguments against the very notion of faith itself. Faith that causes us to sit back isn't good for anyone.

And to be fair to the Christians I meet - they're not sitting on their hands waiting for God to make the world change. They are doing what they think is right. But I just wonder, if the promise of Heaven is causing us to feel a little more comfortable than we ought.

Monday, May 20, 2013

C3 Melbourne North

You'd think I'd be an old hat at this by now, but still the anxiety hits me, every week, just before I walk into the unknown. This week was no exception. Luckily I arrived early and had time to call my dad who calmed me down before I went in.

I can't really explain what causes my mini panic attacks. I'm pretty sure every one gets nervous headed somewhere new for the first time, especially when going alone. I wish I could go back in time and teach Lucy-the-doorgreeter a bit more empathy and a bit less hyper, "WELCOME TO CHURCH!" Maybe I'd take a note from Eric's book and lead them by the hand, find them someone warm to sit with and stay by their side.

This week's panic attack was induced by the sight of someone I knew. Someone who knows my whole story, why I left church five years ago, someone who was there at my first ever church service.

Turns out it wasn't them. But the panic I felt was real.

Why? I'm pretty open about my spiritual journey - at least I think I am. But the very thought of having someone know who I was when I walked in scared me more than not knowing anyone at all. I can hide behind my veil of "I'm just visiting" - but the truth is, there's more to it than that. I'm judging. I'm taking your church on first appearances. I'm using my powers of deduction to see if I can find any sincerity. I'm looking for a genuine experience of the presence of God. All in 90 -120 mins.

I wasn't going to go to a C3 church. I figured Planetshakers was probably enough of a pentecostal experience for me. But my criticism of Planetshakers had been their lack of inclusion, and I was responding to a direct invitation to attend a grand opening of a brand new church. So they had to be inclusive.

And to their credit, they were.

I was met at the door by a pretty young girl in a bright yellow t-shirt saying "Hello. I'm here to help you" or words to that affect. She led me to the room and introduced me to James, the new church's pastor. James was great. He was natural, comfortable. We talked Melbourne vs Sydney (where he'd moved from), Geelong vs Collingwood, and he introduced me to his wife and baby boy. He felt like someone I'd genuinely be interested in getting to know a bit better, which I realised is one of the first times I've felt like I've actually found a potential friend at a church.

The meeting was taking place at Rydges Hotel. There was a sense of excitement at the thought of being a part of something "from the beginning". Something new. Something untouched.

But then the service started. And it didn't feel new at all. I'm pretty familiar with C3, and I was wondering how much they would deviate from their "formula" for a new startup church. The answer was none. Not at all.

The service was opened by a video of Pastor Phil Pringle, head of C3 international, congratulating James and Shanthy on the opening. The first song we sang was credited as written by: Dan Pringle, Joe Pringle, Leah Pringle. I can't remember the name of the song, but I do remember it didn't say "God" or "Jesus" once. It could have been a pop love song. And the way my handsome friend was singing it, it would have probably have been more appropriate.

I want to give credit where it's due. The young guy leading the music was gorgeous. He had a great singing voice and he could play the guitar well enough. And boy, he gave it all. But it was the biting of the bottom lip, and the "woah woah woah's' that got to me. I was thinking how great it would be if the churches got together and created their own version of the Voice - just for frustrated singers, wanting to be pop stars, but also wanting to give their gift to their God.

It just felt so much more like a performance than any sort of worship I've heard lately. I'd rather go back to the CDs at the Salvos.

After two songs, repeated over twenty minutes, James got up and started the service. He had his wife by his side, and they were lovely. I saw them as a couple of kids who'd paid their dues: Got married, had kids, served in their church, and now they were ready to go.

James said his vision was to show the city of Melbourne that Christ is a valuable and true option which I thought was nice and then Shanthy opened in prayer.

Then it was time for the offering.

I don't want to be a classic Pentecostal cynic here, so I'm not going to give any opinion, just outline how James went about collecting the offering. Firstly, there was a slide on the screen identifying the three ways to give.

  1. Cash, Credit Card or Cheque
  2. PayPal
  3. Scan the QR code in the welcome book

James did tell his new congregation they shouldn't feel forced to give, but simply to give as your heart felt led. He quoted scripture from Corinthians.

While the offering buckets were being passed around, we watched another Pastor Phil video - an update on the 20-20 vision of C3. I must admit, I found the video a bit icky. The sole purpose of C3 is to build the C3 church? My understanding of their argument is that salvation is the only way to truly save people, and therefore that's all that matters, but shouldn't there be other methods of outreach? C3 Melbourne North outline in their welcome book that volunteers from the C3 church partner with St Vincent De Paul to serve the homeless of their city - which is great.  So why couldn't the 20-20 vision include strategies to make the world a better place for people to live in? Why does it always have to be about getting people to come to you? Build it and they will come? They are already there!

I'm not familiar with the guest speaker, Pastor Anthony, who lead the sermon, but I understand he too had come from Sydney for the weekend. He delivered his message from an iPad mini, and encouraged us to download the You Version app (which I did) and follow along. He made some nice points about the role of the church (to bring a message of faith, hope and love), reaching into the community and finished with a request to the congregation - If you're going to call yourself a Christian, please live like one - which I adored and totally agreed with!

My only real concern here is again the lack of scripture. We looked at two verses, Act 2:42 and Acts 1:8, isolated scriptures with no context and were used to introduce a new point, which wasn't always entirely relevant, if I'm being honest.

James closed the service by offering his congregation the chance to come up the front and get "right with God", and we were invited to hang around for a launch party in the cafe around the corner.

After the service I had the opportunity to speak with four different women, all lovely, all new to the church (obviously). We spoke about what we looked for in a church, why they had settled on this one, and why I was still undecided. I told them that while everyone seemed kind, I was looking with a church with similar values to mine. We sympathised that it's a little hard to tell everything you need to know from one service. During my conversations with the young women we spoke about topics such as hell, gay marriage, big churches vs smaller ones, when pastors give bad advice and finding your own truths. I really liked my conversations with the girls, but I'm not sure how much they were just being agreeable to make new friends.

Even though I'm pretty sure I'm not going to find myself a permanent member of C3 Melbourne North, I'm not ready to write them off just yet.

I look forward to any follow up correspondence I may receive and I wonder if James had the same "we should be friends" thoughts I did.

Side note: St David's Uniting Church is still the only church who have ever sent me any "follow up" - a lovely card from Allison, despite me always giving any information requested of me. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Salvation Army Melbourne Project 614

Today's story starts with a song. This song.

I'd really like you to listen to it through, preferably in a different browser window while you continue to read my blog. Preferably on repeat. 

Because this song has something incredible about it.

Today I heard this song for the first time in about five years. This is the song I was singing when I gave my heart to Jesus as a thirteen year old girl. And today, listening to this song, I nearly did it all over again.

Are you listening to it? Promise? Okay. I'll go back to the beginning. 

On a cold wintery morning, I hopped on a train to the city to go to church. I was super early, so I stopped off for a coffee. It wasn't a great coffee, and I needed to go to the toilet, so with about ten minutes left to kill I headed into church. 

It was one of those rather magnificent old Melbourne City buildings, and I followed the sound of the band rehearsing up the stairs to the grand hall. But there was no band, only a CD playing in the background. And the hall was grand, but set up with about thirty lowly chairs in the middle. 

I was waved at as I entered the room by a young girl, probably around my age. But she kept doing what she was doing. Eventually I chose myself a seat in the back row (of three rows) which was being guarded by an older man in his Salvation Army uniform. I asked him if I could take a seat there. 

"As long as you give it back," he chuckled.

I smiled, to be polite, which was all the encouragement he needed to continue to tell me dad jokes.  Once we got to, "But that's all forgotten about these days, isn't it?" he tired of my company and headed off to chat to some other people. 

Georgia was next to come say hi, she was the girl who waved at me upon my arrival. She told me it was going to be pretty quiet this morning, they didn't even have a band today. I asked her how many people they usually expected and she said when they gave out Sunday lunch they had heaps of people coming along, but they were mostly homeless and it often got violent and out of hand, so they had stopped doing lunches. Numbers had dropped dramatically. 

I told her that was a shame,  it was nice they had tried to do something to help, and sad it hadn't worked out. Georgia shrugged. 

"Have you been able to find something else you can do instead?"

"We give out tea and coffee all morning," she replied. And then she also tired of my company and left me alone. 

Kylie was next to pop over, with an extended hand and cheesy grin.

"I'm Kylie"

"Hi, I'm Lucy"

"Are you visiting here today?"

"Yeah I am actually. I haven't..."

"Me too!" She excitedly interrupted. 

"Oh are you? Where are you from?"

"I'm from Planetshakers," she announced. 

I'm not proud of what happened next, but I'd been caught unawares. 

"Have you been there before?" She asked me.

"Um, yeah, just recently actually."

"And what did you think?" She asked with the pompous I-know-I'm-fantastic that only Pentecostals seem to master.

"Yeah, I didn't like it."

Her face turned to stone. Her mouth contorted into a stern pout.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I just found that it wasn't very welcoming to visitors." 

"Yeah, you've got to get in a cell group." 

"I just believe a church should be prepared to welcome everyone, meet them on their level." I looked her in the eye. "I'm sorry - I've offended you."

"I'm fine."

"No really, I'm sorry. I think your church clearly does wonderful things for it's members."

"No, it's fine," she smirked. 

We didn't talk for long after that.

One more young girl came to talk to me. I can't remember her name, but she was my favourite, because I got a full five minutes out of her before she too bored of my company and skipped off. 

It was 10:47, and I had the only empty seats in the room either side of me. I wasn't making a good impression. 

The service was run by a young-ish lady Officer in uniform. She was probably in her thirties, with a warm and lovely smile. She apologised there was no band today, but because we live in a modern-age, we can worship with a CD!  She invited us to sit, or stand, kneel, whatever we wanted to do to connect with God, because that's what worship was about. 

The words appeared on the plasma screens around the hall and people were happy to sing and clap along. I thought it seemed a bit awkward, but I was in the minority. 

Then the second song, Shout to the Lord, started playing. I smiled. This was my old favourite! How lovely. It was nice to hear a song I recognised. But as the song continued playing (are you listening to it now?) I remembered other things. I remembered what it felt like to be in love with Jesus. I remembered what it felt like to worship him with everything I had. It was intoxicating. I wanted to leap up out of my seat and sing his praises. I was caught up in a moment and felt something I haven't in years. 

Then I looked to my left and caught Liz, an older lady with a pusher, just reading a gossip mag. So not everyone was responding to the song like I was. Liz got up with her pusher and headed off. The song ended. I fell back into reality. 

What had just happened to me?

We heard three more songs, and I didn't have the same urge to run, crying to the altar and break down in shame. Liz came back to the service with her dress tucked into her undies. Turns out she'd just needed a toilet break. 

After the last song, we prayed the Lord's Prayer together and the young lady Officer passed the mic to a younger male Cadet. He reminded me of a youthful Luke Jacobson, full of spirit and life. He spoke about how God was all around us, all the time, and was constantly speaking to us, working on us, yeah? So cool, hey? So what's he been up to with you guys?

Lots of congregants were happy to give a testimony of what God was doing in their life, Rebecca was finding her identity as a Warrior Princess, Jeffrey was going to bible study, Archie was celebrating his recovery from alcoholism, Georgia was learning to live in her Father's affections. Liz was next to put up her hand.

"Yes, Liz." My young friend giving her permission to speak.

"It's Mother's Day next Sunday."

At this moment I loved this church. No, Liz - that's not a testimony. That's a fact. That's not what God's doing in your life. That's a Hallmark event.

My young friend wasn't as cynical as me. 

"Yes it is! Thank God for our mums. Thanks for sharing, Liz."

Without skipping a beat, this young guy embraced his congregation. This is a place where there really are no wrong answers. You just get loved. 

I have to admit, the service was downhill from here for me. Next on the agenda was a "gospel message" DVD. It was live recording of an interpretive dance (Yes, I searched for it on YouTube. Here you go). Then the Officer read a passage from the "scripture" but I have to use quotations here because some of the "scripture" included lines such as: "God went for the jugular when he sent his own son" and "What's next, Papa?"

Then for her brief message, the Officer told us how God speaks to her through Sci-Fi films, and gave a few examples of lines in movies God had spoken to her through. I really wanted to let her know that it probably wasn't God, just good script writing, but I do get her point. You can find a positive, godly message in The Hunger Games. If you're looking for it. 

While the church were given time to go and pray at the altar, I had the time to think about what I was doing. It must take a very special sort of Christian to join a congregation such as this one. About 80% of the people I saw seemed to be in some kind of immediate need, be it suffering from addiction, homelessness or mental illness. There were a handful of young, healthy congregants.  

I felt really selfish wearing my visitors hat. I didn't want to go through my normal routine after the service of waiting for people to come be nice to me. I wanted to make sure that everyone in this room was being looked after, and there weren't enough uniforms to go around.

I recognised Jeffery as one of the men I used to feed when I volunteered at Credo, a community cafe in the city. I decided to go say hello after the service. 

There's a whole other blog I want to write about the Officers closing remarks at the service, so I'm not going to slaughter them quickly now. But she was a kind, sincere lady, and I wish I'd gotten the chance to meet her after and let her know how much I loved her congregation.

When I got up to head over to Jeffery, Liz walked past me with her pusher. I touched her on the shoulder and let her know her dress was stuck. As I helped her untuck, I remembered just how truly great it feels to serve somebody. I had missed it terribly since finishing up at Credo. I get why Jesus washed his disciples feet. Humility is incredible. 

Jeffery didn't remember me, but was very excited to introduce me to as many people as he could. I got to speak briefly to the young Cadet who had spoken earlier but he too had to rush of quickly. While I was chatting to him, Liz came over and asked if there was any food today. No, only tea and coffee. 

Ever since I left the doors of that church, with a wave goodbye to Georgia, I regret not offering to take Liz out to lunch. I could have, I should have got her a nice hot meal before I said my farewells. What made my afternoon so important I couldn't have given that time to her? I had an opportunity to do the things I say I want to do, the things I say are important, and I didn't even see it right in front of me. 

So the church didn't fail this week - but I did. I may be getting more and more cynical about things, in fact I made the note, "How come every time I come to church I feel a little more close to Atheism?" but these guys are definitely doing something I'm not. And it's time for me to change that.

Oh, and because I found it on Youtube, here's the Bonus American Idol edition of Shout to the Lord.  Enjoy.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall Brunswick Part II

The last two weeks have been spent in a post-Jehovah haze. My head has been buzzing continually with conflicting thoughts. I feel like I've literally been living and breathing the Jehovah's Witness faith. I was really tempted to go back and meet with Mary & Eric again this week, just to be near their kindness, their warmth. But I didn't, I couldn't. Because of everything else the Jehovah's Witness faith makes me feel.

These are probably the most “Christian” people I know. They take the bible as it is written. They don't pick and choose scriptures to live by; they wake and sleep daily by the entire word of God. 

This also makes them the scariest Christians I have met. Because they live in a world dictated to by the words of men written two thousand years ago and have no room for cultural context, or changing societal values. For my Christian readers among you, this may sound like a good thing, the way the bible intended to be read. But you'd probably be amazed how much your church doesn't follow the bible in this way.

And no, I'm not talking about Old Testament doctrine; sowing of different crops in a field, marrying your brother's widow. I'm talking about New Testament law. 

I'm going to give you some examples I have read from the information given to me by Mary & Eric.

1 - We must shun practices that displease God - 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
So this includes: greediness, lying, cheating, homosexuality, stealing, overtly admiring, alcoholism. Sounds fair enough, until you think about the last time you told somebody their haircut looked nice but it really was bad, or the last time you pinched a grape from Coles, made your friend a mixtape, or sold your house at an unreasonable profit, or the last time you talked yourself up on your CV, or the last time you proclaimed your love for Ryan Gossling. 

2 - We can please Jehovah (God) by hating what he hates - Romans 12:9
Now if we take this scripture in the context of the passage, it also says ‘be devoted to one another in brotherly love; share with God’s people who are in need; bless those who persecute you; live in harmony with one another; be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody; if your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty give him something to drink.

So I say, best leave the wrath of God to God alone.

3 - We can show respect for life by not endangering it and not eating blood - Acts 15:28-29
This passage also mentions you should abstain from the meat of strangled animals, but I don’t know too many Christians checking in on their local abattoirs conditions. Or ensuring their steak is always and only 'well done'. Also this is why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions. They explain it this way:

Suppose a doctor were to tell you to abstain from alcoholic beverages. Would that simply mean that you should not drink alcohol but you could have it injected into your veins? Of course not! (taken from “What the bible really teaches” page 130)

4 - Children need to obey their parents - Ephesians 6:1-3
I only highlight this one because as the child of non-Christian parents I was regularly encouraged by my church leadership to obey them before my parents. 

5 - It is wrong to take part in celebrations that have pagan origins - Ephesians 5:10
So here we’re not celebrating Easter, Christmas, New Year, Halloween or even birthdays.

When I was speaking to Mary and Eric after the service, I was pretty quick to quiz them on some of the more difficult issues surrounding the modern church. I asked them how they chose ‘which parts’ of the bible to follow. They explained that as Christians, they followed the new law, and therefore old Jewish law didn’t longer apply. They directed me to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (which feels a bit like a go to for Witnesses) and listed the current “wicked behaviours”. I interrupted them at “adultery”.

But how you do know what the bible means by “adultery”? I asked.

What do you mean? asked Mary.

Well, where do you get your definition of what adultery is from? I mean, isn’t it adultery to re-marry a divorced woman?

Eric loved this question. Well, in order to define what is meant by adultery, we refer back to Old Testament law, you see, a woman could re-marry, if she was divorced because her husband had committed adultery on her…

He did answer my question with a lot of gusto, but it did make it harder to see the difference between old and new law, if he has to refer back to the old law to define the new. 

When I raised the issue of homosexuality they were gentle in their delivery, but firm in their choice of words. 

‘It’s forbidden.’

But Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality his entire ministry?

But it was listed in the wicked behaviours, right next to fornication, which they explained to me was ‘sex before marriage’.

I realised then that normally by this point in a service I’ve been able to slip into conversation that I live with my boyfriend and let people decide how they feel about that for themselves. But I hadn’t warned Mary & Eric of my situation. So I sat there, listening to them kindly explain to me the wickedness of fornicators, when I knew I was done with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

Here’s why. You can tell me all you like my relationship is wicked, I’m living in sin. You can call me a fornicator or sexually immoral. But until you’ve walked into my home and seen the love and respect that we have for each other, you don’t have a clue. I understand Christianity; I know the way it works. But I also know, if Jesus were alive today, I’d have no shame welcoming him into my house.

Mary & Eric were kind people. They loved their God. I respect them and I wish them all the best. But their God isn’t my God, even if we all read different versions of the same bible. 

There’s another side of the Jehovah’s Witness faith I discovered though, and that is their deep concern for each other. Their Awake! magazines include articles on how to  ‘Protect yourself from crime!’, how to 'Avoid hurtful speech' and 'What to do if you're being bullied' for teenagers. Although I'm not entirely sure if I think this is kind, or just further adding to their apparent fear of the world outside the church. 

But it's much easier to be cynical when you've just been labeled a fornicator, an idolater, a thief, greedy and a drunkard. I guess no amount of kindness and hand holding makes that feel better.

So yeah, I'm still looking.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall Brunswick Part I

Let me start at the beginning.

A number of weeks ago, I received a flyer in my letterbox, inviting me to a "special Bible talk" being hosted at my local Kindgom Hall entitled 'Does Death End It All?'. As the Jehovah's Witnesses were already on my list of Christian churches to attend, I eagerly booked it in.

Over the next few weeks, news articles appeared in the media focusing on the denomination of Jehovah's Witnesses. I try to go into every church with an open mind and no pre-conceived ideas of what I may find, but these articles had me wondering exactly what I may be walking in to.

Jehovah's Witnesses 'A Cruel Cult' , and Slamming the door on Jehovah.

So I was nervous.

The 'talk' was at 1:30pm on a Sunday, which was strange, but not an unpleasant change from the mornings. The hall was only a few blocks from home, so I walked there, and as I got to the venue, was quickly embarrassed by my outfit. Don't get me wrong - it was super cute, but not the formal suit and tie or dinner dress the regulars were wearing. The hall was split into two levels, and as I walked into the lower level hall I was quickly told that 'my service was upstairs'.

I wasn't offended. I had clearly walked into an all African-American church meeting.

I headed up the stairs and was greeted at the door by a gentleman named Eric. Eric shook my hand and continued to hold it as he found out what on earth I was doing there. He seemed genuinely shocked I had responded to the flyer and was not here at the invitation of a fellow Witness. Still holding my hand, he walked me through the hall and introduced me to his wife, Mary.

No matter what I go on to say about my experience at this hall, let me be clear on this one point: Eric and Mary were the kindest, most welcoming people I have met this year. They stayed with me from when I walked in the door until I walked out it, in fact, several times offering me a lift home. They gave me ample opportunities to ask any questions I had and answered them politely and with humility. Mary made sure I was comfortable throughout the entire two and a half hours I was there, gently leaning in and whispering to me what was happening next, sharing her bible and songbook with me and even helping me put my cardigan on when I got stuck. With pride they introduced me to other Witnesses who came to say hello to me after the service. I was never a burden to them, never a responsibility. I truly felt like their honoured guest, and they had nowhere else to be, or nothing more important to do than take care of me.

So the rest then.

The hall was very plainly decorated. There was no iconography of any description. The walls were painted a neutral colour, the chairs were incredibly comfortable, perfect for long-term sitting, and the 'stage' area was a raised platform with a few chairs, a pulpit and a simple banner at the top reading the scripture Joshua 1:9:

'Be courageous and strong, Jehovah your God is with you.'

We opened with a song from the song book. I had to ask Mary where the music was coming from, as their was no band, or even pianist I could see. She explained it came from the sound desk, a backing track provided to the church. She chuckled that the pre-recorded music was a result of a 'lack of talent' on their part. However with no lead singer, the Witnesses sang quietly along to the backing track before we prayed and the Elder handed to another brother to deliver the 'special talk'.

I knew at this point I was the only visitor who had responded to their mailbox campaign.

'Does Death End It All' was not the talk I expected to hear from the Jehovah's Witnesses. It probably went for 15-20 minutes, and outlined their views on the human soul/spirit, death being 'the end of life', their denial of Heaven or Hell as a place that a human life would end up, and proposed the theory that life would be everlasting, to those who have faith, through resurrection at the day of judgement - that is, they will live forever on this earth.

I want to point out that for every view they mentioned, they turned to a verse in the bible to support their views. Now, as I've said before, I think there is great danger in 'verse hunting' - that is looking for the one liner that says what you want to prove your point - but they were diligent at bringing everything they said back to the bible.

Now I'm pretty familiar with the bible, so I should also mention at this point some of the verses they read sounded different than I'd heard them before. Which is when I realised the Jehovah's Witnesses have their own translation of the bible - the New World Translation. These guys are the only denomination who recognises this translation.

And that is moving into some pretty scary territory.

So while they diligently refer everything back to the bible, they refer it back to their interpretation of the bible. Several times throughout the afternoon they explained that their translation was accurate. Several times throughout the afternoon they declared their understanding to be the only truth. Several times throughout the afternoon I thought what a truly lonely religion they were a part of.

After the talk, the first Elder returned and made some brief announcements; Jehovah’s Witnesses were honoured to offer free in-home bible studies and if you wanted to arrange one, simply grab an attendant on the way out. Now; for this week’s Watchtower study.

Mary turned to me and whispered that it was bible study time, and was I happy to stay. I’d only been there for about thirty minutes, and if I left now I wouldn’t get to find out what really happened in their services, or get to talk to Mary properly, so of course I wanted to stay. Also, to leave now would mean to be the only person in the hall who stood up and walked out and I don’t like that sort of attention.

The bible study would go for an hour and a half.

Eric kindly handed me a new copy of the April Watchtower, which had this month’s studies inside. Mary and Eric's copies had notes all through them; they had done their homework.

It also hit me at this point that every Jehovah’s Witness in the world was doing the exact same study as us at this time. This is an organisation who are organised. And there is no room for movement at all.

What happened next was like a University tutorial with only mature aged students. An Elder would read a paragraph of the study, the Study Conductor would then ask a question about what had been read and the congregation would shoot up their hands for the opportunity to present their answer. A Ministerial Servant would come to them with a cordless microphone, they would answer perfectly (they’d clearly been studying all week) and the Study Conductor would nod proudly. We repeated this method for the rest of the service. I never did get to find out what happens if you get a wrong answer.

I can’t really criticise the structure. It was the most active, engaged congregation I’ve ever seen and no one appeared bored or restless. The repetition of information ensured everyone was learning what they were being taught.

The content worried me though. Everything we learned was about what makes the Jehovah’s Witness faith different from others, and how we know that it’s the only ‘true’ faith. They discussed the persecution they suffer, and the ‘privilege’ it is to serve Jehovah. This was them learning to be courageous and strong. I had no doubt these people have a very hard day-to-day existence. The tone was overwhelmingly like they were convincing themselves everything was okay; they were okay. It was an honour to be a Witness and they shouldn’t ever doubt why they were doing what they do.

We didn’t learn about Jesus. About what it means to be a person of faith. How we can make the world a better place. We didn’t learn about love. In my notes I scribbled: Is their entire life purpose to justify their denomination?

I’ve said enough for now.

I’m going to save Part II for when I’ve had a chance to go through the readings Mary & Eric gave me before I left; including three editions of Awake! Magazine and the book ‘What does the bible really teach?’ Also I'll give you all the goss on my chats with Mary and Eric about homosexuality, fornication & drunkenness. Oh, and of course, smoking. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lucy's Church of Thought

I didn't go to church today. I was dressed and heading out the door to visit the Salvos at my local corps when it hit me - I don't know what the point of this is anymore.

If my goal is "to find a group of people living the life Jesus did", then for all intents and purposes, I've done that - five times already. Every church I've visited is full of people who are there to declare the name of their Lord, and offer Him praise.

I can write a list of ten things Jesus did while he was on earth, hell, I could write another twenty points, but does that make me a good judge of his character? Does that give me any idea what it means at all to live "like a Christian"?

I was Christian for ten years, from the age of thirteen. I joined the church because I already considered myself to be Christian. I knew there was a God, I knew He loved me and wanted to be a part of my life - so I actively sought out a group of people who would help me along my path to find Jesus.

Within months of joining the best church I'd found (I visited about four denominations with different friends before I decided Pentecostalism was the way for me) I'd been 'baptised in the Holy Ghost', evidenced by the speaking of tongues, baptised by full immersion in water, and been told that my mother and the rest of my family were all going to Hell. Unless I did something about it.

At this point, I began to question if this was right. This didn't match up with the God I knew in my heart. My mum was a good person, who did good things. I was no better than her. Why should she spend her eternity in flames, while I live in a castle with a golden path?

I spoke to one of the junior pastors about it and she said that while it was unfortunate, and seemed unfair, 'it was the truth'. When I accepted this answer, I signed up for ten more years of believing everything I was told - even when it didn't feel right in my heart.

It was a good ten years. I found people who loved me, an extended family who cared for me, wanted the best for my life. I found a purpose. I was special, called, chosen by God. I was a prophet, an evangelist, a disciple, a healer. I was a worship leader, a preacher, a person who heard directly from God.

But I never found peace.

In order to accept this new God, the one who allowed such punishment to occur, I had to place the blame elsewhere. It had to be my mum's fault. She was unrighteous, she refused to accept Jesus as her saviour. Maybe she didn't deserve Hell, but she chose it. In order to accept homosexuality as a sin, I had to believe that too, was a choice. Surely God wouldn't create someone with hopes and dreams and demand they live their life fighting against them. A God that creates us in His image wouldn't create us to suffer. So they must be choosing to be gay.

When you begin to see the world no longer as people - people who suffer, people who love, people who care, people who hurt - and only see them as sinners, it's hard to feel at home anywhere else except the walls of your church - with your people.

So what happens when you're betrayed by people inside your church? You have nowhere left at all.

When I was twenty-three, after a series of bad events, I found myself taking a month off church. I spoke to my pastor about it, I had regular meetings with her during this time, but I just wanted a little space, to find the God I'd known as a thirteen-year-old girl. After this month, I knew I wasn't a "Christian" anymore.

Ever since that day, when I was made to accept my family's eternal damnation, I'd accepted every other aspect of the Pentecostal faith. When I didn't trust my pastors anymore, I went back to the very beginning, and decided to trust that little feeling in my heart that says "this is right, or this is wrong". I started at the book of Genesis, chapter one.

Did I believe God created the world? I guessed so. I had no reason not to. I've never personally met a scientist who could prove to me otherwise, and surely the beauty of the world was enough to accept it was a masterpiece, not a random reaction. Next.

Did I believe that Eve ate the apple because the snake told her to? Um. No. I guess not. I'm pretty sure that if you said to me I could have anything I wanted, except that one, tiny thing, and you weren't around to keep an eye on me, my selfish human nature, my curiosity, my free will, would be enough to make me take a bite.

If you don't believe the world has an enemy, suddenly, there's no need for a saviour. Suddenly, Jesus didn't die on the cross to save me from Hell. Suddenly, Jesus died to teach me how to live. And this is a totally different ball game.

Skip forward five years, and here we are. One girl, who isn't prepared to compromise what she feels in her heart is right, seeing if there is still room for Jesus in her life. I no longer see the world as full of sinners, rather full of choice. And if your choice is different from mine, it doesn't make one better than the other, it makes it yours, not mine.

You see, I could find a church that meets the ten 'criteria' I set at the start of this exercise, but I still wouldn't join them. Not if the center of their faith wasn't love. Love that accepts all as equals, love that doesn't require a person to change who they are in order to be accepted.

Let's pretend (because I'd never be so arrogant as to assume I am) I'm right, and there isn't an enemy, a devil. Lets pretend for a bit it's just us. Then what is it that stops the world being like 'Heaven'? It's just us. It's our choices, our free will, our selfish human nature.

I'm going to keep visiting churches, but my agenda is clearer to me now: Find people who want to see Heaven on earth. Find people who use the teachings of Jesus in a real and relevant way. Find people who accept everyone, as they are. Find people who love.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Beit HaMashiach Massianic Congregation

Shabbat Shalom my friends!

Today my search for people who live like Jesus did took me to a special congregation. These people live more like Jesus than any other church I've visited - how so you ask?

They're Jewish - just like Jesus was. 

Their mission is to build a messianic community of Jews and Gentiles who are living testimony for Messiah Yeshua* (Jesus Christ). They are Jewish people, who believe Yeshua was the messiah, and the fulfillment of the prophecies of the old testament. I began this journey because I thought the modern Christian church had lost its way, and the idea of taking it right back to the very first concept of the church post-Jesus was an opportunity I couldn't miss. 

I was fifteen minutes early to the church, but had no trouble finding my way in - people were flocking into the place. They were dressed in colour (I'd been nervous they might have worn more traditional Jewish atire and my flower leggings would cause a stir) and were happy and alive. Some of the men were wearing yamakas - but it didn't seem like a dress code. I was offered a newsletter at the door by a smiling Greek woman and took this moment to address my biggest mistake of the morning - I'd forgotten my notebook. 

I told the woman I liked to take notes during the service, but I'd left my journal at home. I asked if there would be any scrap paper I could borrow?

Why yes, she said - I can go get you some. But I can't leave the door. Could you hand these out?

I gladly took her newsletters and proceeded to welcome the congregation and hand them a newsletter, while she gathered me up some loose papers. No one batted an eyelid or questioned who the girl in the doorway handing out newsletters was. I was instantly accepted as normal. 

I thanked her kindly and as I entered the sanctuary I was welcomed by another lady in a colourful blouse. She asked what had led me to their congregation and I explained that I was interested in the teachings of Jesus but I feared the modern church was occasionally misguided.

"Westernised," she agreed. 

A man walked past and shook our hands with a "Shabbat Shalom" and my friend explained to me this was the sabbath greeting. 

About that - I said - why do you have church on a Saturday? She explained that the seventh day is a Saturday, but the Christian church has westernised their sabbath. She added that it really doesn't matter to God anyway, if He was bothered by things like that we'd never hear from Him. 

I took a seat up the back and cursed myself for not bringing a fan. This room was hot, and filling up fast. It was going to be another uncomfortable morning. 

The service began with a song. It was in Hebrew. The band was made up of a keyboard player, an acoustic guitar and a small wooden recorder. The vocalist had quite possibly the most stunning singing voice I have ever heard, but in total humility, she sang only to her Messiah. There was a circle of women and small children up the front dancing and the happiness in the room was tangible

After the song, the Massianic Rabbi, Lawrence, invited the congregation to share "Shabbat Shalom" which I then naively realised was their equivalent of "peace be with you". People didn't get out of their seats and make a huge deal of this like they had at St John's, but again the gesture was beautiful.

Lawrence was a natural leader, he was very comfortable in front of his congregation. He was relaxed, funny and controlled. He led his people through some prayers and acapella songs, all in Hebrew, before we returned to the praise music, again in Hebrew.

I was taken back by how truly wonderful it was to hear the words of Jesus being spoken in his own language, and in turn, how lovely it was to sing back to him this way. The overhead provided the translation, so you weren't praising in ignorance, but it was making again an effort to be as Christ-like as possible.

By this time in the worship a string section had appeared, a cello and violin were adding to the glorious sound being made by these musicians. The room was filling up with worship, singing and dancing, nothing was for show - but everything was beautiful. I found myself getting caught in the worship. It was quite a spiritual moment for me. Maybe this could be the place where tradition and spirituality align.

During the announcements made by Louise, Lawrence's wife, she discussed the issue of yamakas. She had been walking around during the music offering them to the men to wear. She said that while they were under no obligation to do so, could they consider wearing a yamaka when they come to the service to make their visitors feel more comfortable. She said they have a lot of traditional visitors who may take offence to seeing men with their heads uncovered, and she would always have spares every week if anyone would like to borrow one for the service. I felt she handled this in the most perfect way. I have old, old memories of my congregants back in Tassie being told they had to "dress nice, wear suits" to a particular event our church was hosting for the community. Some of our congregants didn't have suits, and as a result, felt separated from their own church, and couldn't attend the event. I loved her opening - with no obligation to do so - and offered to provide for people who couldn't/didn't have their own. No judgement, no expectation, only love for her congregation and her visitors.

It was a very interactive service for the next while, we blessed the children, met a new congregant and an old one who was visiting, we watched a DVD of some members recent mission trip to India and were played a song from the very eccentric, very passionate David.

David was prophesying about the movements of the spirit of God in the world. He used words like "revival" that I haven't heard in years, and was getting quite worked up. I was watching Lawrence during this slightly uncomfortable outburst of David's. I couldn't tell if he was okay with it. He had invited him up to share his song, but he looked concerned. Maybe this was just his regular face, but I knew if it was my church, I'd be wanting to take control back pretty quickly. There did seem to be a bit of an "open floor" policy going on, which I wasn't expecting to find in this church. For as traditional as its teachings appeared to be, it was so relaxed, so comfortable. People seemed empowered. I guess having an occasional member get a little over excited is the pay off.

Lawrence's sermon was from Matthew 3:1-17. He did something totally unique with his message, something I'd never seen done before. He taught the bible - nothing more, nothing less. He simply read the passage, and explained it. There was no moral to his story, no anecdote, no topic. In fact, over the year he'd been teaching the entire book of Matthew. Verse by verse. He told his congregations what the different interpretations of different scriptures could be, suggested which he thought seemed most likely, but encouraged people to study for their own interpretations. It was a history lesson, but it was well done, intelligent and no nonsense

However, I need to be honest and tell you exactly what I'd written in my notes at this point. 

Service is too long, auditorium is too hot

I was getting cranky. All my spiritual feelings had melted away. The heat was making me yawn, the pews were hurting my back and I stank of my own sweat. I was ready to leave now, but the service showed no signs of being over. Even at Uni we got a ten minute break in during our lectures. I needed a break. I needed water and I needed air. 

I'm going to come back in winter

I was seriously about to cave and give in when Lawrence closed the meeting, inviting anyone who needed prayer to come to the front. We closed with the same happy Shabbat Shalom song we'd opened with. I really did like the music here. I had a feeling God would too. 

I waited until almost everyone had left the sanctuary before I accepted no one was going to come say hello to me. Plenty of people saw me, made eye contact, but kept about their thing. The main difference I'm finding between "traditional" churches and more modern churches is the way the handle visitors. They're not looking for numbers, for a new member of the gang. They are kind and welcoming, but they're not rostering on someone who's job it is to say hi to me. I'm okay with this, because it seems more genuine, but I really like getting to meet and chat with people after. 

I took myself to the tea room, because I wasn't going anywhere until I'd drunk some water, and I wandered awkwardly around the hundred or so people there talking amongst themselves. Eventually one lady came over to me and asked who I was. We found common ground in my Pentecostal background, her two sons were in the Pentecostal church so we chatted for a few minutes, until she excused herself. 

"Sorry. I've got to catch up with some other people" and she left me, alone again. I was pretty bummed I didn't get to talk to anyone else after the service. I wanted to tell them all how much I loved it - how I felt connected to something I hadn't in years. But they wanted to eat cake and chat to each other. I can't blame them, I don't normally like meeting new people either - but I was disappointed

Oh - I can't finish this report until I quote a bit from the church's newsletter - after "Our Mission" is a heading "Our Core Values" and just under Preeminence of Messiah was this value:

We believe that love must undergird all aspects of our ministry and community.

Is it possible that I've found a church, who deliver much of their service in Hebrew, speaking my language?

Guess I'm going back in winter to find out.


*The name Yeshua is used by followers of Messianic Judaism who wish to use what they consider to be Jesus' Hebrew or Aramaic name.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

St John's Anglican Church

I wanted to go to a Greek Orthodox church this week. I'd caught a cab home on Thursday after dinner with a friend, and the cabbie was telling us about his heritage.

Are you Greek Orthodox? I spat at him excitedly.

Yes I am.

Is it true you're allowed to drink at your church?

This is my previous knowledge of Greek Orthodox - a relaxed bunch who don't mind a drink or two. I asked the cabbie if I could go to his church and he said sure, but not to expect him there - it wasn't Christmas.

Turns out, it isn't that easy to go along to a Greek Orthodox church. They've got a website that lists locations, but not mass times. I contacted the Reverend but he didn't get back to me. I drove by the church on Saturday and there was no sign out the front.

I had two options; get there at 6:30am and hang around until something happened, or go to the Anglican church down the road.

I made the right choice.

St John's was warm and inviting. Although I slipped past the welcome team, the layout of the church itself was so open and light that it made me feel totally comfortable heading in and grabbing a seat. I'd been there about thirty seconds when an older member of the congregation, Marion, came over and asked me if I'd been given a "Gratis". She told me she was going to "sack those girls" out the front for not doing their job. I laughed (because she was clearly joking) and said it was fine; they were having a nice chat amongst themselves.

"They're not supposed to do that," she grumbled and I smiled. She was at ease with me - it was refreshing. She asked me where I was from and if I would like to sit with her and her friends. I declined, because I wanted to be able to make my notes and not bother anyone, but it struck me it was the first time in this quest of mine that anyone has invited me to sit with them. I hope she knows how much it meant to me that she offered - even though I declined.

After the announcements made by the Reverend, a young man presumably in his early thirties, we stood and sang a song together. It was a five verse hymn, and it felt like we were singing a Christmas carol. We were accompanied by an acoustic guitar, electric bass and a piano. These musicians weren't trying to be rockstars, they were very comfortable taking a back seat to the congregation. I could hear the Reverend singing along in the front row. He sang with enthusiasm and a genuine heart of praise. I liked him.

We then prayed together from a prayer on the screen. It was explained that we read along to the text in bold. It was these little hints that made me more comfortable than I had been in any other church so far. It didn't matter if you didn't know what to do - they'd help you out.

There were several bible readings throughout the service, read by different members of the congregation. I was thinking about these readings, and how they really stand out from my previous experience of church.

In my old church, sure we read the bible - we loved the bible. But we'd probably look at one or two verses, and they'd be discussed in detail, offering an interpretation of its meaning, and a "real life" application. The opposite of that, is to read a large portion of scripture, and then just sit back down.

I'm seeing pros and cons of each method. Taking a scripture out of context can be risky - you can probably swing it to whatever meaning you want it to have. You can provide a false interpretation, which is damaging to your congregation. But without being able to apply the "Word of God" to your life, it's just words surely. We might know that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, but unless we understand what he was trying to achieve here, our real life application is to go out and offer foot baths to strangers.

The sermon delivered by Rev. Phillip was an interpretation of the Beatitudes and how they can be applied for "living a heavenly life on earth". I felt like he was reaching a nice compromise between over interpreting the bible, while still helping his congregants use the scripture in a practical way. Although at some points, I must admit I did think he was using the scripture to make his point, not making his point with scripture - if you can pick up on the subtle difference.

Regardless, I thought the Reverend's passion, and his big smile, were infectious.

There were probably about fifty people in St John's church, but when they were invited to "share peace" around, they all got out of their seats and walked around the hall, shaking hands, smiling and saying "peace be with you" to any one they could find. At least ten people came up to me, with such grace and sincerity. I couldn't help but smile and say "peace be with you" back. I wondered why every denomination doesn't do this. It is just the best. If you're not Christian, even if you don't believe in God, what a wonderful exercise to shake the hand of a stranger and wish them peace. Marion, of course, made a B line for me and gave me a lovely hand shake and introduced me to the people near by.

Communion was issued to the congregation by their coming to the front of the room and kneeling at the altar. If I was looking for a modern act of humility, this could well be it. For communion the adults were offered a gluten-free wafer and drank from the cup of wine and the children were given a sticker - too cute. I enjoyed watching the two littlies in front of me proudly show off their stickers to each other.

After the service I was greeted by Lisa, the Reverend's wife. Lisa introduced me to a a few other congregants who again seemed comfortable to be talking to a visitor and genuinely interested in who I was. I was able to tell them that I planned on writing about my time at their church, and they were all interested to read it. I had a nice chat to Reverend Phillip himself about how my journey had led me to them on this hot, summers morning.

It was so liberating to be able to talk freely to a group of people I had known for such a little time, but the people I met at St John's were kind and warm. And I assured them I'd definitely come back and visit again.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

St Francis' Catholic Church

When I get up on a Sunday morning to go to church I think about two things. 
#1 I'm really impressed by people who do this every week. Don't they know they could be going out for breakfast?
#2 I did this every week for ten years. 

It's pretty easy to fall out of the habit of going to church. It's pretty easy to make Sunday you're laziest day of the week. It's pretty easy to sleep in, eat hash browns and walk the dog.  Going to church is a commitment. It's a discipline. And you have to respect anyone who does it - for those reasons alone. 

When I decided I would go to a Catholic church this week, because I don't personally know any Catholics here in Melbourne, I took to Google. I quickly found the website for St Francis', Victoria's oldest Catholic church. I learned the 11am mass had a choir, and their address. That was enough info for me. What I didn't notice in the finer print, was that St Francis' is "is the busiest church in Australia, with forty-three masses and over 10,000 visiting worshippers each week."

I arrived at 10:55am. People were rushing inside the church as the 10am congregants were rushing out. It was the most bustling, alive church I'd ever seen. I got handed an order of service, but without eye contact or a "Good morning". There were simply too many bodies to move quickly for any dillydallying. People know their way around here, and they assume you do too. Actually, they don't even notice you to see if you may need help. They just don't have time too. 

I'd been in the door twenty seconds when I realised how out of place I was. People were taking water to their heads from bowls or dishes. They were bowing and kneeling and crossing their chests as they entered the hall. I became very nervous that my ignorance may result in offense I didn't want to do anything wrong, but I couldn't pretend I knew what I was supposed to be doing. And there was certainly nobody I could ask. 

I sat towards the back, not wanting to be in the way, but I was forced to squeeze over three times to make room for more people. The church filled up fast. People stood in the isles. Nobody engaged with anyone. I got the sense quite quickly these people know what they came for, and that's what they were doing. 

A brass band warmed up and I could smell burning. My TV knowledge of the Catholic church assured me not to worry, it was unlikely anything was on fire that wasn't supposed to be, but because the hall was so full I could hardly see what was happening. An announcement was made that the procession was about to commence and for all congregants to keep their personal items with them at all times. This warning made me feel sad, as surely this was a consequence of being a large church in the centre of the city. Not all your visitors had pure intentions.

As the choir and several other people entered the church, I began to feel like I was having the most religious experience of my life. A massive organ filled the hall with sound. The timpani were banging and the choir were belting out in worship. It felt epic.

To give you a sense of how out of place and ignorant I was feeling at this stage, I recognised one of the hymns from an episode of Mr Bean. People kept coming, and coming. Where were they all parked? They hadn't been on my tram. I knew now, this was the biggest church I'd ever been in. I was beginning to wish for some personal space, especially as the young girl next to me kept reading my notes over my shoulder. In her defence -I was the only person there with a notebook. 

While the choir performed I took in my surrounds. The paintings of Jesus threw me. He didn't look like a saviour, like the hero they were singing about. He looked defeated. He looked afraid.

We were read to from the gospel of Luke, 5:1-11. Reverend Dr Pat Negri then took to the pulpit to deliver a short message, but the most shocking I've ever heard. I was so excited to be in the congregation for this moment. 

The Reverend Dr spoke of how Simon Peter trusted Jesus more than his own experience. Simon was a fisherman, and knew it was hopeless to cast his net during the day. But he did what Jesus told him to do and they caught so many fish their nets began to break. Simon Peter was a humble man, an honest man, and he fell at Jesus' knees acknowledging his own sinfulness and begging Jesus leave him. Jesus had no intention of leaving Simon Peter - he doesn't mind having a sinner for a companion. 

Reverend Dr Negri then turned his attention to the scandal of the Catholic church. They have been too slow to admit their guilt, but should follow the example set by Simon Peter. He said that while the church felt deep sorrow over the harm done to the small children, they never displayed this grief in public. And that was wrong. 

He said the public expect the church be perfect, a sinless bride of Christ. That the clergymen stand on pedestals, displaying no signs of weakness. But how far this was from reality.

He called the church to a time for renewal and integrity. For without the forgiveness of Christ, they were nothing. 

I felt sad for the Reverend Dr and for his congregants. How much guilt they must feel for decisions that were not their own. How they must stand loyally to an institution which has not acted loyally to others. I thought he spoke with sincerity and grace and felt honoured to be in his church while he spoke so humbly on matters so shameful. 

After the Reverend Dr spoke, the offering was collected. The message was a simple appreciation of people's generosity. I did notice that the congregants collecting the offering didn't pass the bags, they held on tight. Again I wondered what had happened here to make this church be so protective. 

As the church was called to pray, I awkwardly realised my foot rest was in fact a kneeling pad. I made the uncomfortable decision not to kneel, as I decided that while I wanted to be respectful, I also had to be honest with myself. I was secretly relieved however, when I looked around and noticed I wasn't the only person remaining in my seat. This does feel like a place where you can decide for yourself your level of involvement, and I was grateful for that. 

After the Lord's Prayer, there was a "sign of peace" which was my favourite part of the service. All the people sitting around me extended their hand to mine and said "peace be with you". It was the exact opposite of being welcomed by Planetshakers congregants three weeks earlier. It was incredibly genuine, and warm. 

I enjoyed watching the communion processional and again felt overwhelmed by the religious experience I was a part of. I realised however, there is a huge difference between a religious experience and a spiritual experience, and, without any disrespect to the lovely mass I was part of at St Francis' - this also may have been the least spiritual experience of my life. 

After mass, we were invited to leave. I suppose they have to say this, because of the thousand people waiting outside for the next mass, but I was sad that the experience was over for me here. I had so many questions about the church, but no one to ask. 

I'm pretty sure I know enough about Catholicism to know it will never be the religion for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by the mass I attended. Catholics may have a reputation for being judgemental, but in a hall that big, I was as welcome as everyone else. There was no show put on, no attempt to win me. They just did what they do, because that's who they are. I didn't find it cold, I found it refreshing. 

I can understand why this is Australia's busiest church. St Francis' doesn't feel like a club or a cult. It feels like somewhere you'd grow up, and you'd just stay. You don't need to aspire to be a clergyman, or the next Pope. You don't need to be more than you are. You can come late, or leave early. You can come once a week, a month, or to all forty-three masses. 

And I think I'm curious enough to go again.