Faith

A milestone in a 175-year-old church’s history

A few years ago I wrote frequently on this blog about North Liberty Christian Church and its journey after being forced to sell its building, on land they’d occupied since 1839. At last, this congregation’s new building is complete. It was a long time coming.

NLCCnewbldg

The backstory: in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the church suffered two destructive splits, and members left in large numbers. By 2009, the offering no longer covered expenses, most of which involved heating and cooling an enormous building. I was an elder in this congregation by then, and I learned that we were burning through savings at an alarming rate. I wrote about our difficult decision to sell our building here. We got a great deal on a parcel of land on a main thoroughfare  around the corner from us, and signed a contract with a builder to erect a small, simple building on the site. And then we ran into roadblock after roadblock, which I wrote about here, which depleted our cash to the point where we no longer had enough to complete the project.

Meanwhile, we worshiped in various hotel rooms until a church that had been our neighbor for more than 150 years, Bethel United Methodist Church, allowed us to use their old sanctuary (read about it here). We never imagined it would be three more years before we could move into our new building. I use “we” loosely, because a few months after moving to Bethel, my sons and I left North Liberty Christian Church. I wrote about why here.

I didn’t keep in touch with the people of North Liberty as well as I promised I would, but I did hear from them often enough to know that they walked a difficult road trying to find the funding needed to finish their building. The money slowly appeared and bit by bit the building was finished. This past Sunday was the first service, and they invited me to join them.

NLCCinterior

It was bittersweet to see everyone again. I loved the people of that congregation and leaving was difficult, which is part of the reason why I’d not kept in very good touch. I also felt some guilt about not walking that difficult road with them to this milestone. God had different service in mind for me, and I’m doing it now (read about it here). But I never quite shook the feeling I left business unfinished at North Liberty. Yet everybody welcomed me warmly and was glad I came.

God taught us a lot as we lost our home of 171 years and wandered unsure of whether our new building would ever be built, and indeed if we would even survive as a congregation. I’m sure God taught the people of North Liberty much more after I left, just as he has taught me much as he shared the mission he had in mind for me. What I’ve learned, and what I hope the people of North Liberty learned, is that there are milestones (such as new buildings) along the journey, but it remains a journey and frequently you can’t see what’s around the next bend. So we have to keep remembering that God is in control, and not worry.

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Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

I first posted this in 2010 and again last year. May this Christmas Day truly bless you and those you love.

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). Many of my classmates were Jews and several were Serbs; 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!

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 never said this to anyone at 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.

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Faith, Music

The old songs

On this Good Friday, I’d like to repost a story from a few years ago. I’m now a member of the little church in this story, and we will observe this Good Friday just as described here.

I went to an evening church service last Friday, Good Friday. I’d never done that before.

My Christian heritage has its roots in Restoration Movement churches (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Christian Churches). These churches’ original goal was to restore Christianity as practiced in New Testament times. They mostly ignore the liturgical calendar. The ultra-conservative Churches of Christ ignore it altogether; they don’t even observe Christmas and Easter. (The Bible, they reason, doesn’t explicitly authorize those holidays.) So while we’re all aware of Good Friday, it’s often not held up any higher than any other day.

West Park Christian ChurchMy Christian Church congregation hasn’t had a Good Friday service while I’ve been a member. Other congregations in our fellowship do, however, and one of them invited us to join them this year. West Park Christian Church has served its Westside Indianapolis community for more than 100 years. 1910s and 1920s neighborhood photos hanging inside the church show tidy new working-class homes; today the houses are dilapidated, the residents are poor, and the streets are unsafe after dark.

We began by walking the neighborhood. A couple men hoisted a large wooden cross onto their shoulders and we headed out, about a hundred of us, calling out greetings to the people sitting on their front porches and out in their front yards enjoying an unusually warm early-Spring evening. We stopped at the homes of several ailing church members and of community leaders to ask them out so we could pray with and for them. We stopped at the community center and at the neighborhood park and prayed over them, too. There’s no way this neighborhood doesn’t know about West Park Christian Church and what it stands for. This church is clearly in a ripe mission field. I envied them their opportunity to serve.

West Park Christian ChurchWhen we returned to the church we shared a pitch-in meal, and then we entered the sanctuary for an evening service. We sang, took communion, and heard a short message.

So many modern churches today have rock bands and sing nothing but upbeat praise songs. I understand why; it reaches so many younger people. I’m all for what’s effective. But while I was in the Church of Christ, we sang the old hymns and spirituals a cappella in four-part harmony and I really loved it. I came to have a deep affection for many of those old songs – It Is Well with My Soul, When My Love to Christ Grows Weak, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?, I Surrender All, When All of God’s Singers Get Home, and many others. I have missed them. We sang the old songs this Good Friday night. A pianist accompanied us through five or six songs, but after the first verse of Onward, Christian Soldiers, he stopped playing. Everybody was really singing, raising their voices to God, almost clamoring to be heard. I heard a few voices in the back singing the bass and tenor parts, emboldening me to do the same. Then the pianist played the opening notes of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross and, as we began to sing, again let his hands rest and our voices carry. After the first verse I was so moved by our blended voices lifting so powerfully to God on this day we specially gathered to observe Christ’s death that I began to cry.

The joyless work of selling our church building and planning to build a new one as we try to keep a financially challenged congregation afloat has taken me away from the real point of service. I was reminded of it on Good Friday night. We are to go bring the lost to God and turn our faces to Him in worship, giving him ourselves to use for His purposes. And it was the death of Christ on the cross that makes it all possible.

See a 1914 photo of West Park
Christian Church and its congregation here.

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Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2010.

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). Many of my classmates were Jews and several were Serbs; 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!

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 never said this to anyone at 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.

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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 BethelBut 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, Stories Told

In God’s house

North Liberty Christian Church and Bethel United Methodist Church have been neighbors for a very long time. For more than 150 years, the two churches stood about three quarters of a mile apart on the same road in Pike Township, Marion County, Indiana. Check out this section of an 1855 plat map that shows both churches.

I know that North Liberty Christian Church met in a succession of log cabins in the 1800s; I assume Bethel’s history is similar. Bethel built its brick building first, completing it in 1905. North Liberty built its brick building in 1909. Both churches later built larger, more modern buildings. While North Liberty’s 1909 building was razed to make way, Bethel’s 1905 building still stands.

Bethel UMC

When officials at Bethel learned that we at North Liberty had sold our building and were worshiping in a couple cramped hotel conference rooms, they offered to rent us their old sanctuary plus a room for our children’s ministry at whatever price we were paying for the hotel. We took them right up on their offer. It was a win-win for both of us, giving us much more room for our services and helping them pay for a family life center they had built. Here we are inside, preparing for worship on a recent Sunday.

Inside Bethel

This little sanctuary is remarkably bright inside for being lit by only four meager lamps. The stained glass windows, especially the large ones on the west and south sides, let in a lot of light.

Inside Bethel

Except for those stained glass windows, this room is understated. None of the details call much attention to themselves.

Inside Bethel

Even the pattern in the tin ceiling is gentle and quiet.

Inside Bethel

It all conspires to make the stained glass windows stand out even more.

Inside Bethel

When we left our old building last February, we thought we might be in our new building by now. Much has been done, including clearing trees, laying hardpack for the parking lot, and doing considerable drainage work. But while this was going on, we were getting quite an education in how the city works. They’ve placed several barriers in our way, and clearing them has cost us time and money. When we started this project, we had enough money to cover it. These unexpected expenses have caused us to seek financing. That has led to more delays. Now it’s too cold to lay the building’s foundation. The soonest our builder will do that is April. The soonest we could be in our new building is August.

The delays have been frustrating. But the time we’ve spent as nomads has been good for us, helping us to gel as a group and, for some, to heal from past difficulties in our congregation. We are starting to think that in God’s eyes, the building project that really matters is done. We are starting to think that we shouldn’t wait for our new building to resume our outreach. God has given us everything we need right now to do his work in our neighborhood.

My church has seen it over and over again – when God wants something to happen, it happens. Like the time we had a rock concert.

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