Trying out new churches has always been hard for me. “Will the people accept me?” “Will I get anything out of the sermon?” “Will I have a worthwhile experience?” “What type of people will be there?”
Well, this morning, I tried out a new church. Over the past six months, I’ve been attending the Latin mass for a conservative Catholic church. It is so conservative that the people there carry around copies of The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper. I used to read a series of books called Opposing Viewpoints, which presented both sides of various issues. They often drew from The Wanderer for the conservative side.
I have liked this church because the priest refers to Latin, Greek, philosophy, and the church fathers. I’ve gotten a lot of food for my mind there, and I’ve interacted with the priest’s sermons on James’ Thoughts and Musings.
But the church has been a disappointment to me for the past few weeks. The priest who ordinarily preaches there has been gone, and so I’ve had to hear other speakers. And their sermons are pretty lame, to say the least. Some of them have said straight out that there’s not even a need for their homily, but that’s part of the service, and so they had might as well say something. I walked out of those services empty.
There is another church that I’ve passed a few times in my walks. It’s close to me, but it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, so I wasn’t sure what type of church it was. I knew it was Protestant, but I didn’t know if I’d get anything meaty out of it, or just the usual evangelical cliches. You can never tell with these backwoods sorts of churches. But I decided to give it a try.
I usually feel rather isolated in Protestant settings. When I walk into my Catholic church, the people there are saying “Hail Mary”s before the service, and so I use that time for my own personal prayers. In Protestant settings, however, people socialize before the service. I’m sitting there thinking “Come on, when’s this service going to start?” At the Protestant church that I attended this morning, people came up to me and shook my hand, but we didn’t get into any conversations.
But to its credit, the pastor came up to me and shook my hand. And that doesn’t always happen. I’ve been to churches in which the pastor looks at me as if I’m a creature from outer space. At this church, I got that look from some of the congregants, but there were friendly people as well.
At the beginning of the service, the pastor got up and said that nothing turned out as he expected. The overhead projector was not working, and other things were not going so well. But he gave the service over to God and expected God to do wonderful things. I admired his faith and anticipation, probably because I’ve often heard “Expect good things” from one of my favorite preachers, Joel Osteen.
We started the praise and worship, and I had a hard time getting into that. I’ve not sung praise songs for a long time. One of the songs was “Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” and I had a hard time singing it, mainly because I have struggled with blood atonement on this blog. At first, I wrestled with my cold reaction to the song, but then I asked myself why I felt so cold. After that, I felt more at peace.
The kids went up to sing, and I liked their song. It had a soft tune, and it was about wanting to fall in love with God. That’s how I feel. I want to love God. At this other meeting I went to on Saturday, a person said about religion, “I just don’t feel it. I don’t know what everyone is getting so excited about.” I could identify with him because I have experienced those dry times myself. At this moment, I find things in the Bible that interest me, but something is missing. I want to fall in love with God. And, yet, I don’t just want to accept a dogma and assume that it is all there is to know. That would be boring! That’s what I like about looking at all sorts of approaches to the Bible–not only Christian, but also Jewish and historical-critical. I have a desire to learn new things rather than seeing the evangelical approach as the end-all-be-all. But I also want to fall in love with God.
As the service continued, I did something that I was often afraid to do in the past: I filled out my name, address, and phone number on an attendance sheet. Normally, I’m afraid to do this. I fear that a bunch of militant evangelicals will come to my apartment and try to shove their religion down my throat. But these people weren’t imposing themselves on me, partly to my joy, partly to my sadness (because of my feelings of isolation). But this woman sitting beside me gave me a Bible so I could write down my information, and that was really nice of her.
Eventually, we got to the sermon. I could tell that the church was evangelical, since it emphasized blood atonement (Anselm style) and the need to witness. The preacher was extolling the Passion of the Christ, and he said that the Jews only gave people thirty-nine lashes because forty could kill someone. I didn’t exactly agree with that. I mean, why couldn’t thirty-nine lashes kill someone? But the preacher told a story that I had already heard about the actor who played Jesus, Jim Caviezel, only, this time, the story made an impact on me. During the filming, Jim Caviezel actually got struck with one of those torture elements, and he went into convulsions as a result. The preacher told us that Jesus received lashes from those sorts of devices two millennia ago, and he submitted to that pain for us. I rarely think about Christ sufferings on my behalf, probably because it’s not often put to me that concretely.
The preacher then said that there are thirty-nine root causes of disease, and Christ received thirty-nine lashes, one lash for each sickness. For the preacher, Christ died not only for our spiritual healing, but for our physical healing as well. He then went to the audience and picked up a baby who had been healed of Down’s Syndrome. The baby had an extra chromosome when he was in the womb, and then it was gone. The doctor didn’t know how it happened.
I like hearing those kinds of experiences. I have been so removed from the evangelical community for so long, that I haven’t heard too many stories about God’s activity in people’s lives. And that has worried me. I’ve feared that those experiences would become a distant memory for me, and that Christianity would then become so theoretical in my mind that I would ultimately reject it.
I do participate in an evangelical online prayer board. Sometimes I read of healings, and sometimes I do not. But it’s been a while since I heard something like the healing mentioned in that church.
I have no problem with believing that Jesus heals today. I don’t think that he always does, and he has his reasons for that. But I admire people coming to God with faith and expectation. The Bible says that God rewards that. That is not to say that those who continue on with their diseases or die do so because of a lack of faith. There is a certain divine experience that can occur when a mother raises a child with Down’s Syndrome, for example. Such children are so unconditionally loving, and parents can learn a lot about the love of God by raising them. But God is also good when he shows us his compassion and his power through physical healing. The mother of that child was a single mother who came to church one day for the first time, not knowing what to do. Well, I’m sure that she will keep coming back after that miracle. She has tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
The preacher talked about how we can determine whether a thought is from God or Satan. He referred to Mark 16:7 in which Jesus commands the women to go tell the disciples and Peter of his resurrection. A few days before, Peter had cursed and ranted, claiming that he did not know Christ. But Jesus’ goal was not to shove that in Peter’s face. He wanted Peter to have a new beginning.
The preacher said that God does not give us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and a sound mind (II Timothy 1:7). So we can rest assured that thoroughly negative thoughts are not from God. I’ve often heard Joel Osteen say the same thing, but I liked the way that this particular preacher tied that concept to Scripture.
The preacher offered other insights: about how Peter gave himself away as a follower of Jesus because he talked like him, and we become like Jesus the more we hang around him; about how God offers us a supernatural change, so that we can walk out of church different from what we were before. That appealed to me. He also mentioned God not throwing in our faces that we may have cursed the day before. Well, I had cussed the day before. And the preacher said that God can use us: we don’t have to be good-looking, or thin, or have a sparkling personality for God to do so. Most of the people in that church were attractive, even the ones who were overweight. But I liked the preacher making that point.
Afterwards, some music was playing, and a few of the people were speaking in tongues. And, believe it or not, one of them offered an interpretation of what she was saying: that God loves us and wants to heal us. I used to be freaked out by tongues, but I’m not so much anymore. I see it as a display of God’s presence within the church service. I don’t like the way some charismatics act as if they’re more spiritual than those who do not speak in tongues (like me), but I did not detect that sort of spirit in this church. The message, after all, was that God loves us.
After the service, I asked the woman sitting next to me about the mid-week service and the Sunday school. For some reason, I felt hungry for more, and I don’t entirely know why. These people may not have taken Hebrew or Greek. They probably read the entire Bible in light of their evangelical beliefs, without a regard for biblical diversity or other interpretations. But I feel that they can offer me something that I don’t presently have. Maybe they can give me some practical insights into the Scriptures.
And so I went for the exit and shook a few hands. As I went out the door, one of the women who gave me that “he’s a creature from outer space look” said “Come back, James.” I said “Thanks,” then I said her name, a social skill that I am practicing. And I may very well go back. I’ll have to see.