Faith, Photography

The urban mission

For Easter in 1914, a photographer made this panoramic image of the congregation at West Park Christian Church in Indianapolis.

On Sunday, armed with my new iPhone that automatically takes panoramic shots, I tried to reproduce the scene. (Click either photo to see it larger.)

Much has changed at West Park Christian Church in 98 years. In 1914, it was a large congregation in a new middle-class neighborhood. Today, it is a very small congregation in an impoverished, blighted neighborhood.

This is where my sons and I have decided to be a part of the family of Christ. The pastor here was an associate pastor at North Liberty Christian Church, where I attended while I was going through my divorce. He counseled me often during that difficult time. After we didn’t fit in at the big suburban church this summer I decided to take my boys here one Sunday just for a visit. But we were so welcomed, so obviously wanted, and so quickly included, that we simply decided to stay.

By any demographic measure, my family should have been at home in the big suburban church. Yet somehow we weren’t. The group at West Park is harder to demographically categorize; it is truly a diverse congregation. Yet somehow we plugged right in. I think there’s a faith lesson in there somewhere.

The pastor at West Park calls this an “urban mission” congregation. When Jesus sent his disciples to spread the gospel, he told them to first heal the people of their sicknesses (Luke 9:1-2). I think Jesus did this for two reasons: someone who’s sick is preoccupied with it and can’t hear the message of Christ, and delivering that healing demonstrates Christ’s love for us. Many of the people in this congregation’s neighborhood are sick, at least in a broad sense; they hurt in some way. There is much work to do here to show them Christ’s love and attract them to him.

For now, I’m just getting to know everybody and become fully a part of this family. In time, I trust the part God has for me in this mission will become clear. I look forward to serving here.

(It doesn’t hurt a bit that this church is steps away from the old National Road, by the way. Longtime readers know how much I love the National Road.)

Love paves the way to Christ. Read that story.

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Faith

Holding up my hand

Following up on Monday’s post about my search for a new church, I want to reprint this post, which explains how I learned not to look to the church, but to God himself, for my faith. It’s long, but I think worth the time.

On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I felt anxious about the long walk but reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came I held my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me to stay on the sidewalk because the hippies liked to hang out in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that I was not to join the other kids if they shortcut through their property. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. When we reached the corner across from the school, Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.

Route to school

On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted a path to follow that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. In time, the pastor sprinkled water on my head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up. And I didn’t understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and church weren’t making sense. In time, I became disillusioned with church politics and fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.

One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with my wife and I soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He dove relentlessly into his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. In counterpoint, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak. My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became very excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society’s theology and doctrine didn’t always add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then we would naturally do whatever the Watchtower Society asked of us. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we were now apostates they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.

My childhood home

Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. Dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, they looked only to Scripture for their authority and not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism by sprinkling didn’t count. The preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away (he was sure to point out), and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: My wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening.

On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.

On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did. Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said. “If you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.

But I loved those people. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that my family’s past history ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder in his 70s looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.

I didn’t understand the Bible the same way the elders did over this matter, and so we left the Church of Christ. We eventually settled in an independent Christian Church. Shortly after we settled there, one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders telling us that by joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ,” we had left the faith. Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were apostate, no longer Christians.

God disagrees.

Shortly after we started attending that little Christian Church, I had this strong sense that my family belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. They celebrated Christmas. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. I allowed that my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines, and that he’ll make use of a church even if it has recently added an electric guitar and drums to worship services. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.

My elementary school

In hindsight, I can see that God wanted me at this church for what was to come. My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through an extremely difficult divorce. Not only were church members a great encouragement to me, but both ministers were personally involved praying for me and encouraging me. The senior minister, who grew up in an ultraconservative church similar to the Church of Christ, taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians helped me stand firmly through everything that has happened while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.

Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.

You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important, but not crucial. The crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I held my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.

I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I hold up my hand, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.

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Faith

Searching for fellowship

It’s been four months since my sons and I left North Liberty Christian Church to find a new place to be a part of the Christian family. I haven’t been enjoying the process. I’m introverted, and meeting lots of new people drains me. I have to admit, a couple Sundays when my sons were with their mother the thought of smiling and being friendly with strangers was unpleasant enough that I just stayed home.

For 15 years I’ve been a member of congregations with Restoration Movement roots – Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ. I had begun to feel stale in their worship experience, so I visited churches from many other faith traditions. This reminded me why the high ritual of some traditions and the high emotionalism of others don’t work for me, and led me right back to the Restoration Movement with renewed vigor. I’m a practical and intellectual man, and the Restoration Movement’s plain, reasoned, passionate faith resonates deeply with me.

This dramatically limited my choices, as there are only so many Restoration Movement churches near me. Many of those congregations lack a strong youth program for my sons. By process of elimination one congregation stood out: North Central Church of Christ.

First Pres

Restoration Movement churches are fairly conservative within Christendom’s broad spectrum. Legalism is a real and shameful problem in this fellowship’s most conservative wing, which is populated by certain Churches of Christ. My family worshiped with one such Church of Christ for several years when my faith was new. That’s where learned our lesson the hard way about why legalism isn’t God’s plan. The elders there found out about the circumstances of my wife’s prior divorce, and with support from certain verses from the Bible told us we had no right to be married. The stress of it caused us to start attending North Liberty Christian Church. The elders then sent us a letter declaring us apostate. Suddenly, members we had considered to be friends could not speak to us anymore. This was an extremely painful experience that was difficult to forgive.

Archconservative Churches of Christ are a shrinking minority, and everything I’d heard and read about North Central Church of Christ suggested that they were never in that group. But I still felt considerable trepidation simply because of the Church of Christ name. I attended by myself one Sunday, and heard a sermon that would have been at home in the Christian Church from which I came. I was also delighted to sing a cappella in four part harmony in worship, a distinctive practice of many Churches of Christ that I have missed terribly. So I visited again the next Sunday with my sons, and we’ve returned almost every Sunday since. I still have some niggling fear, but every week we worship there I feel more comfortable.

The congregation numbers about 500 – not too big, not too small. They have an active and vital youth group that I hope will provide encouragement and friendship for my sons. Adults in the congregation break into smaller groups to form the close relationships so necessary to strong Christian fellowship and encouragement in the faith. I was invited to a small group meeting a few weeks ago, and while logistical challenges make that group a poor fit for me I can see how much they care for each other and encourage each other in the faith. I hope that I can find a group I can attend regularly. I worked hard with the other elders at North Liberty to keep that shrinking congregation afloat, and I burned out. I am ready to simply be a member again and give and receive encouragement and love from my fellow Christians.

I’ve been approached about joining the congregation, and I attended their membership class not long ago. We’ll keep visiting North Central for a while yet until we feel fully comfortable. But so far, this looks promising.

Christians do more than anyone else to harm the cause of Christianity. Love heals the damage. Read my story about a loving Christian attracted me to the faith.

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Faith, Stories Told

Moving on is a simple thing; what it leaves behind is hard

When I measure the health of North Liberty Christian Church in terms of key external indicators, things don’t look good. I’ve been writing about this church’s challenges for two years now, chronicling its story of a dying congregation, of leaving the land it called home for 170 years, of delays and cost overruns in building a smaller and more affordable building, and of worshiping in space rented from a neighboring church. In the months since I last wrote about the church, it has been unable to raise funds to cover the overages, no further progress has been made on the new building, the pastor has resigned, and an elder has stepped down and left the church with his family.

If this church were a football team, I’d say it was down 30 points at the two-minute warning.

Inside Bethel

But a remarkable thing has been happening that shows that this congregation has a future. The church has been slowly growing. Six months ago, half the chairs in the rented sanctuary were empty every Sunday. Today they’re all full, as are many more chairs that have been added. The church regained several members who left years ago in sadness while the church was riddled with strife. Even better, several newcomers have started attending regularly. I think it’s because the congregation has healed from its wounds and has emerged united and hopeful. You can feel it during worship – the Holy Spirit is free to dwell among the people because they are able to receive. Returning members and newcomers are responding to that, and they’re staying.

But my sons and I are not. I’m the elder who stepped down; it is my family who has left.

During 2010 circumstances in my sons’ lives required more and more of my time and attention. My role in the church as a teacher and elder took a lot of time and energy, and so did my job, and soon I was stretched too thin. I quit teaching – which I miss, by the way – to try to gain some balance. It wasn’t enough. Additionally, as the year wore on I increasingly found myself disagreeing with the other elders. We weren’t fighting; I just felt God was leading the church in one direction, and they felt like he was leading it in another. By late last year my competing pressures had pushed me to the edge of exhaustion, and I knew something else had to give. It was clear to me that my time as an elder needed to end, for my health and the congregation’s.

I served in that church because I thought it was God’s mission for me, and without that service I was at loose ends for several months. But as my spirit was restored and I gave more time and energy to my sons, I began to see that they are the mission God has in mind for me now. It changed my focus. My sons were the only youth their age at North Liberty and I had known for some time that they wished it were different. Now I see that they need interaction with others their ages who are also seeking God. And even though the church is growing, it is attracting people whose children are grown. It seems unlikely that my sons will find friends there any time soon. When my older son recently joined the youth group at his mother’s church, I knew we had to find someplace where he and his brother could plug in.

Still, I dragged my feet. I love the people at North Liberty Christian Church. I was honored to serve them and blessed to be in community with them. Also, they stood by me as my marriage ended, which was the most difficult time of my life. Many of them know how I contributed to my marriage’s end and loved me anyway. A few of them were on my short list of people to call, and talked me off the ledge time and again when I despaired the hardest. It is hard to leave behind these people who showed such Godly grace to me.

And so I felt little joy on Sunday as we worshiped elsewhere for the first time. I hoped that singing to God would put me into the spirit, but I didn’t know any of the songs. I was in a funk most of the day. But I also feel hopeful because I’m sure that God has excellent service in store for us with our next congregation. Perhaps the way I thought I saw God leading North Liberty might instead be the kind of church God is leading me to find for my family. I hope we find it soon.

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Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

Even though I’m a Christian, I don’t celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year.

The home in which I was raised followed no particular faith. My parents acknowledged the God the Bible described, but their devotion went no further. For us, Christmas was a big family holiday where we got to see all of the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I have loads of warm memories from those gatherings. Many of my friends talked of the baby Jesus (after, of course, talking excitedly of the presents they anticipated). A few of my classmates were Jewish and several were Serbian; they had their own celebrations at different times. And so I have always has this sense that the holidays are what you make of them.

Lit Up at Night

My mother said more than once that Christ couldn’t possibly have been born in December – his birth was more likely sometime in autumn. She also said that the whole reason the Christian church celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25th was because in the church’s early days, non-believers already celebrated a winter festival at about that time, and it was easier to convert them if the church had a celebration then, too. Christianity should be a faith of truth, she reasoned, and she couldn’t reconcile how Christmas was predicated on a falsehood. It sounded good to me, and when I grew up I looked into it and found that there was plenty of evidence to support Mom’s claims. That didn’t stop her from playing her records of traditional Christmas hymns every December, though! (Because of her, I still love to hear Johnny Mathis at Christmas.)

None of this was enough to deter me from seeking God as an adult. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I got serious about God I did it in the Church of Christ, a branch of Christianity that celebrates Christmas only as a secular holiday. Most Church of Christ congregations hold a restrictive view of Biblical authority that leads them to observe only what they believe God commands in the Bible. The Bible tells us to celebrate Christ’s death, but never once to celebrate his birth. So they take communion (the Lord’s Supper, they call it) every week, but during December their mostly a cappella congregations sing no Christmas songs and their preachers avoid talking about Christ’s birth.

Eventually I left the Church of Christ’s narrow interpretations in search of greater love from God. Of course, I landed in a church that celebrates Christ’s birth all December; it was nearly impossible to avoid it. Until we fell on hard times, we always held a big Christmas production with a chorus singing traditional Christmas songs and a telling of the nativity story.

What's the Reason for the Season?

I’ve said this to nobody at my church, but this was very hard for me to accept for a long time.

I’m unlikely ever to fully personally embrace Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birth. Not only were the wrong seeds planted in me as a boy, they were well cultivated when I became an adult. Don’t feel sorry for me; I love the Lord deeply and don’t feel like I’m missing out on one iota of his love for me. But let me tell you why I have come to think that celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas is not just all right, but just wonderful:

Because his birth is so openly and joyfully celebrated each December 25, who in the western world has not heard of Jesus Christ?

I know, I know, the holiday has been tainted with commercialism, and because of political correctness we now say “Happy Holidays” to each other rather than “Merry Christmas.” Still, I don’t think the holiday’s connections to Christ and his promise for us have been lost. And when I consider all that celebrating Christmas has done to introduce people to Jesus, my mind boggles. Who cares about the celebration’s origins? God has certainly used it for good.

May God use this Christmas season for good in your life.

And may this Christmas create many warm memories for you. One of my favorite Christmas memories involves a Polaroid camera. Read the story.

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Faith, Personal

Finding joy in service

A year ago my church was still in our building on land where our congregation was founded in 1839, but we were dying. Six months ago we sold the building, bought some land, and prepared to build a smaller building, one we could afford to heat and cool while still paying our pastor. Today we’re still worshiping in a hotel room, though a sign on our new property announces us.

I have really struggled with the building project. Not only have there been endless delays and red tape – we haven’t even broken ground yet – but we have bumbled and stumbled our way through almost every step. It’s easy to say, “Do your best and trust God to bring the rest,” and I suppose those of us in leadership are doing the best we can. All four of us have day jobs and families, limiting the time and energy we can give. We’ve reached out to others in our congregation for help, but our bench is too shallow and much still falls to leadership to handle. It’s not like the project needs us to commit to it full time, but when it needs us, it demands all of our attention and more. I can’t always tear myself away from work and family at these times.

Part of my struggle is personal. I manage projects for a living. I see things that need to be done to successfully manage this project that we’re not doing. The other leaders are good men, and I look up to their spirituality, but I’ve had only occasional success getting them to see what I see. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing, because things always seem to work out, but until they do my anxiety shoots through the roof.

And so this project has been extremely frustrating and stressful. I have found no joy in this service. Frankly, on a couple occasions I’ve prayed to God that he release me and send me somewhere else.

When the building project isn’t consuming us, which isn’t often, we dream about reaching out to the neighborhoods around our new location. We’ve talked about some things we’d like to do, but soon we realized that we don’t know what our neighbors need. Sure, they need God if they don’t know him already. But Jesus sent the disciples out in his name with the instructions to heal them of their illnesses as they told them about the Kingdom (see Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9). After all, why would someone who’s sick or otherwise in need care at all about the Kingdom? They are focused on their need.

So we decided to have a cookout on our new property and invite our neighbors. We would begin to get to know them and to learn about their needs. And so on a recent Saturday we set up picnic tables and gas grills and laid out a spread. Many of our neighbors came and we shared a good time.

I love to hear stories of how God powerfully answers prayer. I can recount a time or two when God’s done that for me. But for the most part the answers to my prayers have been like whispers in the breeze, and I’ve had to learn how to listen for them. I think perhaps I heard God whispering to me at the cookout, as I felt joy in my service for the first time in months. It was great to connect with our neighbors, sharing smiles and laughs and learning a little about them.

I reflected on how, as the building project consumed my available time, I had stepped away from my direct service to others. I realized that I wanted to refocus my efforts more along those lines. I’d been having thoughts about starting a Sunday school class for our teenagers, and about maybe starting a small group or a men’s group. It is time for me to make one of these things happen. The building project will have to do with that much less of me.

I think the church needs not to manufacture false community, but get out into the communities in which they’re planted.

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