Wednesday, May 28, 2008

From Anonymity to Accountability

I'm editing a book right now called God-Size Your Church: Beyond Growth for Growth's Sake, by John Jackson, pastor of Carson Valley Christian Center in Nevada. (It's in Minden, NV, near Carson City. I wish it were near Las Vegas, because I think it would be awesome to do a book called "The Church in Sin City.")

Jackson talks about the importance of providing a spectrum of involvement that allows people to move from newbie status to core member at their own pace and comfort level. True to his Baptist background, the four primary stages have a lovely alliteration: Anonymity, Affinity, Authenticity, and Accountability. I totally agree with these stages.
  • Anonymity. As evidenced in my "Playing Hooky" post a couple weeks ago, even people well-ensconced in a church sometimes feel the need to worship anonymously. That is all the more true for people unfamilar with the church, its practices, and its people. They need to get acclimated while feeling welcomed but not pressured to "sign their life away" too quickly.
  • Affinity. Most churchgoers in America have no idea what makes their denomination different from any other, or what their church believes about every tiny point of doctrine. People become part of a church because they feel they connect to that congregation on a personal level. They have something in common with others there, and find classes or activities where they can explore common interests.
  • Authenticity. This is the lynch pin when it comes to increasing commitment to the church. Answering questions like "Are you who you seem to be?" and "Can I be myself here?" pave the way for a person's desire to be a full participant in the life and ministry of the church.
  • Accountability. This is the stage where people really commit to give of themselves in ministry, serving regularly and participating fully, rather than simply consuming of the church's ministries.

While this kind of "accountable" involvement and commitment may be the goal for any person growing in faith, the church will never, and arguably should never, consist solely of these people. Mark Beeson, pastor of Granger Community Church in northern Indiana, wrote a great blog post on that subject a couple months ago. Quite the outdoorsman, his thoughts on spirituality and ministry are often inspired by nature. In this entry, he talked about a wild turkey he saw, with a really long, red beard and very full set of feathers, all fanned out. (We see these guys all the time in our yard right now--very cool.) He said how he immediately realized that this turkey was a mature male, ready to mate, and commented how pretty soon there would be a bunch of immature, baby turkeys running around. He then pointed out how the church should be the same way: wherever there are mature Christians, there will be young, new Christians as well, because the more committed people of faith will attract and reach out to those who are searching. A group of mature animals or people who do not have immature ones around them... are old and dying.

Many churches today seem to exist only to sustain themselves. They stay open even when there are only a handful of members left, just because those people don't want to go to a different church. Their programs are more like a community center than a house of worship and a home-base for ministry to others. Embracing all stages of involvement in the church does not mean you are condoning "consumer Christianity" or that you don't care about discipleship--it means that you are outward-focused, that (like the United Methodist mission statement says) you are "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," not for the perpetuation of an institution.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Practical Joke Sunday

I had a wide range of emotions in church yesterday--I screamed, I cried, I laughed. The crying was due to the reading of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree in the children's sermon. I know it's supposed to be sweet, and the tree is "happy, very happy" in the end, but I find it to be the saddest story ever. The screaming and the laughing, however, were due to a couple practical jokes before and during the service--one at my expense, the other perpetrated by Matt and I.

As Matt and I drove into the church's gravel parking lot, Matt noticed a snake stretched across the drive, and he thought he ran over it, which made me happy (I don't condone killing any living thing, except snakes--even bugs I usually let live) but after we parked, we took a look--me from a greater distance than Matt--and it had apparently coiled up really quickly and avoided being killed. Matt expressed curiosity at what kind of snake it might be--two inches in diameter, light brown--but I just got inside as quickly as I could.

A minute or two later, I've settled in at the Sunday school table with my coffee and fruit (and small piece of coffee cake). My back was to the door of the room, and suddenly I feel pressure on the back of my neck, and a high school boy whose voice I recognize says "Jessica, do you know what kind of snake this is?" I screamed bloody murder, of course, smacking at the back of my neck. The boy, his buddy, and the dear, righteous pastor--who of course had put them up to it--got a good laugh out of it, though most of the women in the room totally sympathized with me. Though it was just the kid's hand, not the actual snake (I would hope that goes without saying, since that would be FAR beyond a joke) I was nearly in tears from the shock. The two boys now tease me whenever they see me. Fabulous.

After worship started and after I dried up from the Giving Tree incident, I had my own joke to play. Matt has been teasing one young adult girl in the congregation about her frequent text-messaging during worship, obviously enough that he can see it from the pulpit, and finally we decided we should send her a message--literally. On Matt's phone, before the service, we typed "I can see you." and kept it ready to send until the proper time. I had the phone with me in the pew, and about five minutes into Matt's sermon--after I'd noticed the girl's head bent downward a few times--I pressed send. I tried to contain my giggles, revealing only a smirk that would have made Matt start laughing if we'd made eye contact at that point.

A couple minutes later, I received a message back, asking "Is this Jesus?"

OMG. We'll see next week if her habits change, now that Jesus--or at least the pastor and his wife--are watching her.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Playing Hooky

I played hooky from our church last Sunday.
Whether it's reasonable or not, I have lots of issues with this pastor's wife concept (that I totally saw through rose colored glasses before we were married). I have issues that I don't get to choose where I worship, (or where I live, but that's a whole other issue) and that I can't just be a "normal" congregant (a divinity school education generally screws up one's possibilities of being a normal congregant anyway, but again, that's a whole other issue). No matter how much my involvement matches other congregants' on paper, there will always be something different about me, and that is that I come and go with the pastor.
I am not a permanent fixture in this church. I did not start attending at the invitation of a friend or because of a flyer in the mail. I did not attend for months or years before deciding to become a member--I joined somewhat by default on my very first Sunday there. This feels especially odd in retrospect (enough that I may think twice about joining right away at our next church) because Matt is not a member of this church. Pastors in the UMC are members of their conference, not the local congregation, further enhancing the bizarre limbo status of the pastor's spouse as "in but not of" the congregation. I am a member and go to Sunday school and sit in the pews like other congregants, but I am "in bed" with the pastor--figuratively and literally--and know the inner workings of the church, the struggles of its people, and the thoughts and dreams of my husband that his parishioners do not know. I am reminded that he and I are a separate entity from the congregation, and that we are something of a commodity, one day moving on to be in but not of a different congregation.
I didn't intend to share all that, but I'm glad I did. It's rare that I can talk about it calmly and rationally. I didn't play hooky out of anger or anything last weekend, though. It was the church retreat, and about a quarter of the usual Sunday attendance was gone on that. Matt went for one of the two nights, coming back Saturday night so he could lead worship on Sunday. It seemed the perfect opportunity to inconspicuously take a Sunday off--those on the retreat would think I was at church, and those at church would think I was on the retreat.
Before I sound too snarky and irreverent here, though, let me clarify that I didn't just lay around in my jammies and watch Meet the Press. I went to an Episcopal church instead. This is actually the story I intended to tell in this post. It happened to be baptism and confirmation Sunday, which worried me at first, remembering a time I almost passed out from standing too long during a marathon baptism at my Episcopal church in college. These didn't drag on too long, though, and I was reminded of a great realization I had several years ago, during the college and post-college church-hopping phase so many people experience (if they go to church at all during those years, that is).
As I bounced around to various Baptist, non-denom, Episcopal, Disciples, and yes, even a couple Methodist churches across Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, I witnessed A LOT of baptisms and baby dedications. I just had a knack for being there when these things happened, even at churches I visited only once. In many of the churches, the congregation vows to help nurture the person in the Christian faith, and though I rarely knew the people being baptised, I repeated this vow as well. At first, it was rote, simply because that was what those in attendance were to do. After a while, though, I began to see these experiences in an "angels unawares" sort of way--wherever I go, there is some small chance that any person I meet could be one of those people I vowed to support in the faith.
What might this mean? In the words of the Apostle Paul, it could mean not placing a "stumbling block" in front of others that would somehow rock their faith. In the words of my most admired college professor, if might mean working for a world in which it is "easier to be good." (The idea being that the more we bring the kindgom of God to earth, the more natural it will feel to be righteous.) Any other ideas, feel free to comment with them.
I left the Episcopal service liking our own church not more or less, but with a renewed appreciation of the church at large and our role within it. I may only be "in" our local congregation, but I am "of" Christ's church, no matter what.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Protector Cat

I've often wondered how our precious baby-cat will deal with a baby-human brother or sister, when the time comes. Charlotte sleeps with us and cuddles with us, and follows us room to room. I've wondered if she will be overcome with jealousy and act out, or if she will love a baby like she does us.

I saw this picture on a silly website Matt found-- It's a site full of goofy animal pics (mostly cats) with silly captions that appear to be written in pidgin.

This cat looks sooooo like Charlotte, I think it's a premonition of loving big sisterliness.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bourbon, Brides, and Boats

Okay, there was just one bride and one boat. Anyway, the first two Saturdays in May have been lots of fun.

The first Saturday in May... (I shouldn't even have to explain the significance of that day, but I will, since not everyone reading had the good fortune to be born and raised in Louisville)... was Derby Day. I've only attended the great race in person once, but it is nonetheless a special day every year--an incredible cultural event, in addition to being the greatest two minutes in sports. In Louisville, kids get out of school on Oaks Day (the day before the Derby), and the whole city is enveloped in red roses, mint juleps, horse paraphernalia, and general festivity for the two weeks preceding.

Every year since graduating high school, I've thought about getting a group together to go, but such a road trip has never materialized. I've had Derby parties a couple times--the most successful being my senior year of college--and I tried to do the same this year. Unfortunately, I wasn't really on the ball (May kind of crept up on me--April was very busy) and didn't get around to inviting people until the day before, and no one could make it. Matt and I still grilled out, though, and had a great day of fun and relaxation. I made mint juleps, which are notoriously yucky (just bourbon, sugar, water, and mint), but you have to drink them on Derby Day; it's like a law... well, a tradition, anyway.

Charlotte was intrigued by the little stuffed horse that neighs when you squeeze its haunches.

Yesterday, the second Saturday in May, we were in Louisville for my second cousin's wedding. It was a lovely little affair at the picturesque Duncan Memorial Chapel, with reception on a boat that cruised up the Ohio while we enjoyed a nice dinner, cake, and mingling with family and friends.

Speaking of family and friends, we discovered what a small world it is when Matt and the girl sitting behind us in the chapel recognized each other! They went to college together at Butler Univ., graduating the same year and interacting a lot in greek events throughout their four years in Indy. Turns out, her husband is the stepson of my Dad's cousin (the bride's aunt). Cool. Small world even smaller, my dad had met the girl under totally separate circumstances when he was working with the Ky. commerce cabinet. Recognizing her unusual last name, he had made the family connection, but of course had no idea she knew Matt.

Here's me with the bride, and a few other pics of the wedding and dinner cruise.

My Two Angels

These are my two angels. They bring immense joy to my heart. They are two of God's greatest blessings in my life and I am thankful everyday for the love and laughter they bring.

Friday, May 02, 2008

He's no welsher

Matt finally made good on the bet he lost nearly a month ago. We got pretty competitive on our NCAA brackets this year, and while Matt methodically chose the best teams, I picked my teams mainly by loyalty and intuition... and won!

My prize was flowers and a love note every week for four weeks. Four weeks later, I recieved my first bouquet. Yay!! Isn't it pretty? He sent it to my office, which is even more romantic--tardiness forgiven!

While I had our camera at work, I thought I'd take picture of the great view from my office. It's quintessentially Nashville, so I feel pretty lucky. In this picture below, you can see: the historic Ryman Auditorium (barn-looking structure at the very far left), the Sommet Center (Nashville's main arena, which changes naming rights about twice a year--it's the oyster looking building dominating the left side of the frame), the Batman building (duh), the Country Music Hall of Fame (the angular building with billboards on the side, at right), plus a new high-rise condo building behind that, and the roof of the Greyhound bus station in the foreground (looking straight down essentially).

And inside the windows, here's my office. I like it a lot. The black computer at right is my main PC, and the white one at left is my Mac. Also note the dying peace lily on the windowsill. It's from Grandad's funeral in June 06. It lives, despite my worst efforts.

The office plant people came in earlier this week to check the potted tree in my office (it's out of the frame, to the left). Apparently, there is a corps of contracted people who come in to take care of the plants. I thought the tree was fake. I swear. Anyway, the chief plant guy literally said to his subordinate: "Yeah, it's just that one in the corner. She's doing her best to kill that one by the window."



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