Tag Archives: church

“This Is The One Thing That I Know”

Chillin' in the back seat...

Chillin’ in the back seat…

An exchange from last night’s car ride home between Meg and I:

“What do you want to listen to, Meg?”

“I want to hear ‘This is the one thing that I know’!”

“What…uh…seriously?!”

“‘This is the one thing that I know’!”

“You mean, this song?”

“Yes!”

It took me a few seconds for me to understand what Meg was saying, and then translate those words into a song I knew (“Liquid,” by Jars of Clay).  It frequently takes me awhile to grasp her requests for songs, but I picked up on this one somewhat quickly.  I had to ask Brooke about this later and she said they hadn’t listened to that song recently.  To our knowledge, the last time Meg heard it was when we were playing it just prior to the Good Friday service at church, when we last played it.  And that was March 29th.

It isn’t the first time something like this has happened.  I’m reminded of another song she wanted to sing a month or two ago when we were in Hannibal, “Forever Reign” (though she recited the first few lines as “You are dead, you are dead, you are nothing to me…”  For the record, those aren’t the correct lyrics.).

Meg’s pretty good at remembering random things from a long time ago, especially things you didn’t think she was paying attention to.  Thankfully, she appears to grasp music better than other details, which hopefully means she will be at least as good as I am at just “picking up” a song and playing it.  We’ll just have to make sure she focuses on sight-reading a bit more than I did.

At the same time, if you ask her what she did at school that say, all she’ll tell you is “I don’t know.”  Clearly she knows, but for some reason, doesn’t want to tell you.  We’re working on this, too.

Still, at times like last night, I have to wonder how her little mind is working…

On Ending ‘The Connection’ at WHUMC

These remarks were delivered by me as part of a “testimonial” during our regular church service today.  I thought it appropriate to post them here, as well.  I’ll probably write more on the subject eventually, but for right now, just know that our regular Sunday morning church service, The Connection, will be ending next week as we consolidate the two regular church services into a single one, beginning officially in January.  We have some details to work out on what this service will look like, but in short, what we’ve been doing at Webster Hills for the last few years will cease to be after next Sunday.

Brooke and I moved to St. Louis after graduating college in 2005 so I could start graduate school at Saint Louis University.  We were both active in the Wesley Foundation at Truman State University and wanted to continue in the Methodist church after moving.  We had a few criteria in the kind of church we were looking for, but above all else, we sought a church that had not only a worship service geared toward more “contemporary” music and liturgy, but specifically a service that did not occur at the same time as Sunday School.  Of the churches in the southern half of St. Louis, the only option we found was Webster Hills UMC.  While this was the initial reason to attend, we found the congregation to be warm and inviting, the music to be similar to what we knew from our days at the Wesley House, and the opportunities to participate and contribute to the overall mission of the church to be plentiful.

For the next several years, our experience with the band, service, and church as a whole evolved to encompass not only participating in the music, but the altar design, management of the media system, and more.  In short, just about everything that goes on before and after this service, we have had our hands on at some point or another.  Ultimately, we were involved in leading the band on an interim basis between our previous worship director, Yanela Sheets, and Ryan Gibbs, a period that also saw a re-envisioning of the service and this space, including the introduction of more comfortable chairs, carpets, the crosses, and other facets that has hopefully made this space and worship service more inviting to the regular congregants and newcomers alike.

To say that this service has meant a great deal to my family would be an understatement.  Between 2005 and 2010, we put ourselves into what evolved into The Connection, and The Connection and its congregants became a part of us.  However, in 2010, we moved to Iowa after I completed my graduate work, yet our new church home never felt quite the same.  Webster Hills was still where we belonged.  And as fate would have it, the opportunity arose to return to St. Louis in late-2011, and thankfully, there was still The Connection, with open arms for any and all who wished to participate.

I keep using the term “participate” because Brooke and I feel that one of the great strengths of this service, over just about any we have ever attended, is that everyone can contribute in their own way, everyone can come as they are, and everyone is welcome.  In some ways, it’s the embodiment of Jesus’ most profound teachings: all people are welcome at the table, all they have to do is take that step forward and accept it.

As many of you know, this service will be ending next Sunday.  While it disappoints me greatly, at the same time, I trust that the spirit this service has embodied will continue to thrive, just in another form, at another place, at another time.  The opportunities to contribute toward the body and soul of this church are still plentiful, and as the sun sets on The Connection, something new is on the horizon, something that can and will do great things.

It’s been said that the night is darkest just before the dawn.  Apparently, that phrase comes from the English theologian, Thomas Fuller, though honestly, I know it from Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight.”  Regardless, it’s a phrase that comes to mind in thinking about endings like this one, and the potential beginnings yet to come.  Brooke and I have always sought to contribute as best as we can, using whatever talents we have available to us.  The Connection afforded us that possibility, and we are eternally grateful for it.  Though this service will be ending soon, we will look upon it fondly as some small thing we could do, together, to help bring others closer to Christ.

History is Written by the Victors

 

I have a confession to make:  I’ve been reading a book.  Yes, it’s true.

Right around Palm Sunday, I read/heard some interviews with Bart Ehrman, a religious scholar out of the University of North Carolina.  He was talking about his most recent book, “Did Jesus Exist?”  Hearing the interview reminded me that I actually own another book by Ehrman, “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.”  I picked it up a few years ago after seeing the interview above (on another book…”Misquoting Jesus“) on The Daily Show.  I actually tried reading it back in 2006, but one thing led to another and I stopped.  What can I say…

Regardless, I picked it back up again and am about halfway through.  Part of what intrigued me about Ehrman’s books, in general, is that they are not only discussing the content of the Bible and other historical documents, but also the context in which they came into existence, how and when they were discovered, and how accurate their translations were.  I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan of the idea that the Bible should be taken literally, and books like these make it clear that there was quite a bit of politics involved in which books made it in and which ones didn’t.

This book, specifically, is talking about different, early forms of Christianity that were “snuffed out” by what he terms the “proto-orthodox” church.  That is to say, the earliest version of what we have today.  He points to the Gnostics, the Ebionites and the Marcionites (thus far) as examples of competing views on how Christianity should be viewed.  The nature of Christ, Himself.  How much the Old Testament (and Judaism) should figure in to what eventually becomes “Christianity.”

Reading through it, two things come to mind:

1). The Early Christians didn’t know everything, either.  Barnabus, for example, traveled with Paul and shows up in Acts and a few Epistles.  He wrote a document, “Epistle to the Hebrews,” that suggests that Jewish Law (e.g. Leviticus, the Ten Commandments, etc.) was not meant to be taken literally and that things like “don’t eat pork” really meant “don’t eat like a pig.”  This guy knew and traveled with Paul and even he disputed the meaning of ancient texts…and he was around at the time of the writing of many of our ”ancient texts.”  And these discussions between Paul and Barnabus (and others) were going on while they were writing what got into our Bible.

2). It’s easy to look at “Christianity” as a mish-mash of different belief systems today when you look at Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists, and so on and so forth.  Each one has their own “quirks,” traditions, hierarchies, et cetera.  And there are definitely individuals within each group that thinks that they have it “right” and that they are “saved” and the others are not.  Strangely enough, it seems like this is the way it has been since the beginning.  The only difference is that one group (the one inspired by the writings of Paul) won out 2000 years ago and effectively stamped out the others.

Crazy to think about what that would mean if the same thing happened today, eh?

Regardless, it’s a pretty fascinating book, and brings up many interesting ideas that help out in my various discussions.  We’ve been reading through the Gospels in our small group, so the things this book presents really gives me a different perspective than what the others in the group are bringing to the table.  At the very least, it certainly highlights the fact that the Bible is an important document to many, but as with anything historically-based, it’s shaped by those who came out on top.

“I was in the prison, and you visited me…”

Brooke and Meg were out of town this past weekend, so I attended church alone.  We had a guest pastor in church, as our regular pastor was out of town.  Her name was Pastor Arnette Pint, and she was the first Associate Pastor for Shueyville UMC back in the late-90s.  Since that time, she has gone on to a few positions, but her most recent one is serving a congregation called Women at the Well, that she started at the Mitchellville, IA Women’s Correctional Facility, so she had some very interesting perspectives.

Pastor Arnette described a variety of statistics and anecdotal stories to help illustrate what she does and why it’s important.  First, she told us that this is a relatively new concept, having a church within a prison.  This is different than having churches visit prisons, as you end up getting a variety of groups coming through and not staying – no sense of permanence.  The United Methodist Church in Iowa felt the need to appoint a pastor specifically to this prison, as the system apparently works well in other states where it’s been implemented.  Pastor Arnette relayed a story of the pastor (whose name I can’t find) that started this movement and, effectively, “wrote the book” on doing this sort of thing.  He had been ministering to the men of a prison in South Dakota and he got the sense that they wanted an actual, regular, church service.  Something permanent.  Something they could depend on.  After he started a weekly service, the numbers of attendees grew, and their outlooks after prison improved.

The part of the story that hit me was that, supposedly, one inmate thanked him for starting the service, lamenting the endless parade of churches and groups coming through to preach to them.  The inmate said “We was tired of gettin’ saved.”  It was an interesting point to make, as these churches that were coming to the prison somehow felt as though, because they were prisoners, they must obviously not be Christians.  Because they were in prison, they obviously needed “saving.”

With this framework in mind, Pastor Arnette went through some statistics, saying that 60% of inmate in her prison have been diagnosed with a mental illness, though that number is surely higher.  Most of those diagnoses happened outside the prison system, as the ones that occur once you’re in the system can be difficult to interpret.  There are 600 women in the prison, while 30 years ago, in the same building, there were only 40-something women there.  It’s a crowded place, and there’s one psychologist to manage all of them.  They communicate over the internet with a psychiatrist in order to get any medications approved.  Pastor Arnette also said that, while the statistics aren’t solid on this, she thinks it’s somewhere between 80% and 90% of these women that have been abused in some fashion during their lives, and the majority of them have struggled with addiction at some time.  For many of them, addiction is the reason they are in prison at all.  She said that, while they have counselors at the prison to help the psychologist in their day-to-day routine, these counselors, more often than not, are prison guards that have ranked up high enough to get off the floor.

The United Methodist Church in Iowa also started a program to help provide clothing for women that are leaving prison.  Apparently, the State of Iowa doesn’t provide you with a change of clothes for your bus ride home, so there are women riding from Des Moines to all points of the State in their prison uniform.  Hardly the “right foot” to get started on.  So, the Methodist Church started collecting clothes from women across the state, asking them to donate their lightly-used clothes so that these women have something to start fresh with.  The church provides a set of casual clothes, as well as a set of clothes nice enough for “that first job interview.”  Certainly a nice gesture.

One of her larger points was with regards to the cost of building and operating prisons.  She pointed out that almost $180 million has been approved by the State of Iowa to help refurbish this current prison, as well as build another prison in the state (and that’s just to build, not to operate).  That’s $180+ million to help deal with all these women that have been coming in (remember, 40 women increased to 600 in this one building over 30 years, largely due to influx of methamphetamine and harsher drug laws).  She suggested that, maybe, that $180+ million would have been better spent on helping these women before they got into prison, by providing greater access to abuse and addiction counselors, or to even see a mental health professional.

At a time when state funding for mental health is declining drastically, our spending on new prison facilities is increasing.  ”How does this make sense,” she asks.

The last point I’ll leave with you are some interesting statistics on recidivism (as in, the likelihood someone within the prison will come back to the prison one or more times).  The rate in Iowa is 60%, which is comparable to other states.  According to her, in studies that have looked into programs like hers, with churches that are actually based within a prison, the recidivism rate drops to 15% for those individuals.  If those individuals leave the prison and find a church home (as in, one they attend regularly, as opposed to “just visiting”), the rate drops to 2%.

It was an excellent sermon, and an eye-opening testament to what goes on in the prison system.  Thankfully, my family isn’t known for their prison stints, so I can’t say I have any experience with what it’s like to “go through the system.”  I hope I never do, but if anyone I know has to go through it, I hope they have someone like Pastor Arnette and a program like hers to help them see it through.

A Change of Pace

I participated in our church’s cantata this past weekend.  I was asked awhile back to play along in some capacity, whether it was guitar or percussion, and I opted for the latter after finally listening to the recording on the way back from Thanksgiving.  I’m particularly glad for this because the guy that ended up playing guitar had to deal with songs in terrible keys – drums don’t tend to play chords, so I was all good.  The choir held practices on Wednesdays in December, which were difficult for me to attend due to Brooke’s ever changing work schedule and the need to keep Meg on some semblance of a sleep schedule.  Therefore, I went this past Wednesday, practiced with the group this past Saturday, and then performed the cantata on Sunday.  When we actually performed the thing Sunday morning, I still hadn’t actually played the first two songs.  Par for the course.

Regardless, it turned out surprisingly well.  I used my djembe, congas and bongos, which fit pretty well with the piano lead, and guitar and synthesizer accompaniment.  I fit into the background, but still added to the experience in my own way.  I also got quite a few compliments following the two services we performed it in.  Overall, the choir did a great job and the music was very well received.

The whole thing brought up some memories, though.  For the last 10 years or so, my musical experience has centered around praise bands.  This would involve your typical “rock band”-style musical system, with a few vocalists, electric/acoustic guitars, bass guitar, maybe a piano and some drums.  There would be a leader, but that leader would also be playing an instrument, so for the most part, the band would be a, theoretically, cohesive group that didn’t really need a prototypical director to run it.  Many times, it became an “organic” experience and evolved as we performed each song.

This group at the cantata, however, needed a prototypical director.  And it’s been awhile since I’ve needed to follow one.

Generally, I was trying to follow the piano player, as she was the lead instrumentalist, but she was trying to follow the director, who was mostly directing the choir.  The piano, however, wasn’t really oriented toward the director, so while the piano player was keeping time as best she could, she couldn’t easily look over and see what the director was doing.  And the director was doing her best to fight timing between the piano and the choir, with all their individual singing and speaking parts.

It very much reminded me of playing in the pit orchestra back in high school.  And in a good way.

There is something indescribable about that kind of experience.  The feeling of playing a part in a production.  Not necessarily an up-front acting gig or anything, but still participating.  Some of my fondest memories of high school go back to playing in the pit orchestra for the likes of “West Side Story,” “Brigadoon” and “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.”  We had weekly practices, eventually leading to daily practices that went relatively late into the night (a school night…so…”late” meaning 9:00…) all culminating in the set of scheduled performances.  People would get all “psyched up” and go through their various traditions and rituals that have been passed down from performers of yesteryear.  We, being in the orchestra, all wore black so we wouldn’t stand out in front of the actors.

In many ways, it was an almost magical experience to go through.  When those songs came together, you could really get shivers down your spine.  Again, we’re talking about a group of 50 people or so taking on different jobs to pull together a singular vision.  In some ways, it’s like a football game.  Each player gets their own part to play, but they all have to work in concert to make a truly awesome play.  The same goes for a musical.  You may have 15 people playing different instruments, then another 20 or so up on stage, some singing, some dancing, and then a whole host of other people backstage pulling the rest of the show together, sight unseen.  When it works, it really works.  And you are astounded every time you do it, as one wrong note, or one wrong line, or one misplaced prop can shatter the whole thing.

To be fair, being in a church cantata, while fun, isn’t the same.  We practiced quite a bit more for musicals, production took months, they had to hold try-outs, and so on.  However I got the same kind of feeling playing along yesterday.  A feeling of playing along with a large group again, not necessarily out front, but in the background playing my part.  It was cool to simply be there and have a good time.  Strangely less stressful than playing with a smaller group on a typical Sunday.

I guess it was just good to play my instrument(s) as part of a larger whole again.  It doesn’t happen often enough anymore.