Category Archives: Faith & Compassion

How to pick a church

Five things to consider when picking a church

Church in Fairfield, CTEveryone, at least in the United States, is free to walk into a church to observe its service, which usually, but not always, takes place on Sunday. The purpose of this article is to help you feel comfortable visiting a church for the first time and to give you tips for assessing whether or not it’s a place you want to visit again.

I am primarily addressing those who have little experience in this area. Maybe all you know about church is what you’ve seen on TV and the movies, and you wonder if church is really that bad (it’s not). Maybe you attended a wedding in a beautiful chapel and would like to check it out. Maybe you just started a family and, with a newborn in your arms, you realize there’s more to life than you ever imagined. Maybe you recently moved to a new town and want to meet people. I will not judge your motivations here; I just want to help you assess what you find.

Before I continue, please know that churches today respect your privacy. While other organizations are getting increasingly intrusive, following you around with their targeted advertising, most churches will not contact you unless you ask them to. Even then, you may not be contacted—lots of churches are understaffed! So don’t worry about anyone expecting anything out of you at first; just relax and enjoy yourself.

One more point. The following tips are made with Christian denominations in mind, because these are the churches I know personally and can attest to their open doors. In my relatively long life, I have attended Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Quaker, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, Methodist and Covenant Churches. My background for writing this article is simply as a regular person who has taken the time to find a great church wherever I live. I hope to encourage others to do the same.

Five things to consider when picking a church:

1)     MUSIC. This is not the most important aspect of a church, but it is usually the first thing noticed. Lots of singing, maybe a choir, a band, or some incredible guitar picking. Don’t expect to love all the music, but it’s a definite plus if you like most of it. Churches tend to lean toward traditional music (hymns) or contemporary (think drums and synthesizer), but many do a good job of presenting a variety, which is important if you’re looking for a church with a spouse or friend who has different tastes than you.

2)     MISSION STATEMENT. Listen for the church’s core beliefs. If they do not become obvious during the church service, ask for a brochure or snoop around the church’s website. While the church’s beliefs are very important, it is possible for you to be a part of a church and have a different view. It doesn’t make you a hypocrite. You just want to make sure you can respect the church’s beliefs and are open to learning more about them.

3)     OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE. Would involvement in the church provide you with opportunities to serve your neighborhood and beyond? Find out by listening to the announcements or by asking someone after the service. A healthy church gives to others in addition to nourishing its own.

4)     THE SERMON. The sermon or message should provide something meaningful to contemplate. But for this to happen, you need to be mentally present. No daydreaming. Do your best to pay attention and ask yourself, “What part of this message is intended for my ears and what am I going to do about it?” When you ask yourself this question, most sermons will be worth your while.

Still, you may have a preference for a certain style of speaking. Some pastors, for example, are more intellectually challenging, while others are entertaining, using analogies, real-life stories, and media to support their teaching. Within one church, there could be a variety of styles, depending on the number of pastors or the nature of the content to be communicated. You may need to visit a church more than once to determine what suits you. As you do, be easy on the pastor—his/her role encompasses much more than public speaking—and don’t forget the part that you play in the process.

5)     COMMUNITY AND CREATIVITY. When you show up for the first time at a church—no matter how welcoming the place is—you may feel like a stranger by the simple fact that you are one, so leave yourself out of it for now. Instead, watch how others interact. Do you see people connecting? Do you feel a sense of authenticity and camaraderie? In addition, do you see evidence of creativity? A church, after all, is made up of unique individuals and should thereby contain elements of unpredictability. Maybe a little kid reads the scripture; maybe the music director makes a curious joke that gets everyone laughing; maybe an odd-looking woman with an enormous red hat wanders down the aisle and sits right in front of you…who knows? Welcome the surprises; they are usually positive signs of a vibrant church.

Five things NOT to consider when picking a church:

1)     SIZE. Don’t let the size of a church draw or deter you. You may go to a big church and feel lost, but keep in mind that most big churches offer smaller gatherings to foster relationships. Or, you may go to a small church and wonder why the place isn’t filled up, but keep in mind that everyone who is there may be involved and loving it. If the church appeals to you based on the points previously mentioned, don’t worry about numbers.

2)     DIVERSITY. Churches would like to be diverse, but the truth is, people tend to go to a church where they find similar types of people. Also, it’s kind of hard for a church to be diverse if it’s in a neighborhood that isn’t diverse. So please don’t base your opinion of a church on this matter alone. That said, if you can add to a church’s diversity, great! You will contribute more than you know.

3)     INSTANT FRIENDS. I’ve heard people say that they stopped going to a church because they went for months without meeting anyone. Well, to be honest, Sunday services are not that conducive to making friends. You’ve got to do a little more to get to know the people. The best way to make friends and really experience a church community is to get involved in a service project, class, or other event where relationships have a chance to gel.

ChurchWindow4)     THE BUILDING. As an art student, I’ve seen and studied beautiful churches all over the world. The windows move me most. I’ve gone to churches with expansive windows that open to the sky and churches with tall, arched windows of brilliant stained glass. Presently, I attend a church with no windows. We meet in an old movie theater. But that’s okay, because the people are more important. A building can set the stage for a spiritual experience, but along the same lines of not judging a book by its cover, try not to judge a church by its building.

5)     PERFECTION. A church is made up of people, and since no person is perfect, no group of persons will be perfect. Far from it. Perfection does not exist on this side of heaven, so if a church has ample strengths, don’t worry about the little things you don’t like.

Despite imperfections, churches have much to offer, including, of course, support for growing closer to God. The tips above are suggestions only: you may walk into a church and know immediately that you belong, or your spouse may have a strong pick and you follow along. Since God is omniscient, in all seriousness, you can actually get to know Him anywhere. As the book of James says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” But I do hope you find a church where you want to get involved. It’s worth the effort.

The Truth in The Butler

The ButlerMost movie trailers give away too much, so I tend to watch them after a movie—to relive its poignant moments—rather than before. That’s why I went to The Butler last night expecting to see an intimate, fairly accurate look at the life of an amazing man; a celebration of the person who served eight presidents in the White House and was virtually unknown until the Washington Post did an article on him.

The Butler, as I will call him in this article, was a real person (his real name being Eugene Allen), but it turns out that the movie doesn’t try too hard to be accurate with his story. In real life, for example, the man had only one son; in the movie he had two: one fought in Vietnam and the other—completely fabricated—became an activist.

I usually don’t like scripts that mess so much with the known facts, but I’m pondering this one. The movie uses the Butler to tell a bigger story: that of the civil rights movement. The Butler, as dramatized in the movie, experiences a ton of loss. I am happy to tell you that his real life did not include all those terrors, and, no, he was not informed on his birthday, right after his wife brought out the birthday cake, that his son was killed in the war. But maybe there’s a reason for piling up the pain on this one man. Scriptwriters know we can better understand anything from a simple concept to a entire era if there’s a human face to it. And here we are, in our comfy chairs with just two hours to understand a whole lot of suffering. The Butler helps us get it.

In the beginning of the movie, when the Butler is a young boy, his father tells him, “This is a white man’s world; we are just living in it.” The boy grows up and learns how to survive in such a world. He works hard, supports his family, and earns respect — from the presidents of the United States, no less. It’s an understatement to say his life is better than that of his parents.

But one of the Butler’s sons wants even more and choses the life of an activist. This scenario must be a reality in countless families coming out of oppression: parents advancing the cause through patient, respectable work, while the children won’t settle for such slow progress. The movie portrays the tension between father and son well, with amazing scenes that juxtapose the Butler’s delicate routines in the White House with his son’s dangerous encounters on the streets. We feel for the son who doesn’t understand that his father’s gentle march toward liberty allowed his children to grow up strong, healthy and ready for the next step. We also feel for the father who fails to understand that his son isn’t all much different than he; both suffer inside, both want a better world than that of their parents and both are incredibly courageous.

The acting of the main characters in this movie is stellar. The casting of the presidents is fun, although you can guess which ones are portrayed negatively, while one in particular has a glow around his head. That’s Hollywood. Most movies, we should all know by now, mess with the truth.

But in this case, there are deeper truths that make up for it: the painful truth, for starters, that evil and wretched injustice exists; but also the truth that courage, reconciliation, and love exist—and if you get to live as long as the Butler, you’re better inclined to see these greater truths prevail.

Jazzercise gets me thinking

Jazzercise-classI missed out on Jazzercise when it was first trendy, years ago, although it still ranks as the number one fitness franchise. I had been busy biking, running, rollerblading, hiking, anything outdoors. For a phase, while I lived in Manhattan, I rollerbladed to work; that is, until a tall, burly man standing beside me at a street corner said, “You’ve got guts,” as I pushed off the curb to cross the intersection of impatient taxis. That’s when I realized I should probably opt for a safer form of exercise.

Now I do Jazzercise. I’m on the once-a-week plan because I still like the outdoors and because that is all I need to keep away the aches and pains from everything else I do. It amazes me how I have zero neck pain—even after working ten hours at the computer—due to the incredible variety of movement and strengthening this one class provides.

Jazzercise also gets me thinking. Any kind of exercise does, but the dance steps seem to be particularly conducive to mental activity. I’m the one in class who runs to my notepad between songs to jot down an idea. Why other people don’t do this, I do not know.

There was a man in class today, a novelty for our group. He took a position in the center of the room, in the middle of about thirty women. He managed the steps well. I have a secret fantasy that my husband will sign up one day. It’s not just that I want to giggle as he tries his first sashay, but I’m tired of hearing about the shoulder he hurt while weightlifting or the muscle he pulled when he kicked a ball. I’m quite convinced the comprehensive stretching and twisting of Jazzercise will stop him from hurting himself elsewhere. Unfortunately, he’s not showing any signs of interest at this time.

I also noticed a mother and daughter in class today, jazzercising side by side. It was clear they were mother and daughter because they were both strikingly beautiful, just one had long bouncy hair in a ponytail and looked a lot younger than the rest of us.

Of course, the other ladies, the ones I see regularly, are beautiful, too. Especially the one who came to class even when she had no hair. Especially the one who came to class the day after half her house burned down. And especially the one who didn’t come to class when her teenage son went missing…though she did keep in touch through facebook so we could pray, post photos of him, and help search. It was a happy day when she came back to us, all smiles because her son had been found and he was unharmed.

Jazzercise, you see, is moving in more ways than one.

Addendum to “A dog to hug”

Dog walkingOn the morning of Sherlock’s last day of life, the family took him on his usual walk, although they didn’t think he would go far because he was clearly in pain. They left the leash at home.

In Sherlock’s wild, crazy youth, he needed a leash, but after a few years, he learned his boundaries. Once the family built a fenced area in the backyard to keep him away from the construction crew during the remodel of their home. On the first day of the remodel, a worker opened the gate, let Sherlock out, and played a romping game of Frisbee with him. From then on, Sherlock patiently waited on the sidelines until someone was ready to play. He never returned to the fenced area and the family joked about the money they wasted on it.

That last morning, without a leash, my sister and her family let Sherlock lead as they held back to see what he would do. They wanted him to lead so he could walk within his pain tolerance. Sherlock chose to walk right down the center of the street, something he had never done before. There were no cars that late morning, so Sherlock could take his thoughtful time. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Sherlock was taking it all in, saying his goodbyes, and getting a little taste of the freedom he would soon have.

In A Rumor of Angels, there’s a quote from a letter written to Theodore Roosevelt that reads: “God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.” Today, many of us would make that same statement in reference to dogs.

A dog to hug

When hugging parents isn’t an option

dog photoThe late and loving Sherlock, an Australian cattle dog mix, gave at least two big gifts to Bryce, my nephew, the son of my sister.

First, Sherlock gave Bryce the love of walking. Every day after school, while his parents were still at work, it was Bryce’s job to walk the dog. A chore became a habit. A good habit. Now at college, Bryce keeps it up. He walks for exercise, to clear his mind, to explore, to get somewhere. Walking fills a myriad of needs.

Secondly, Sherlock gave Bryce someone to hug when hugging his parents didn’t cut it. This is one of those gifts that can’t be underestimated. In fact, someone has probably done a study on the matter: “Teenagers who have a dog to hug are less likely to run away.” Maybe I should do this study and make a name for myself.

When Bryce left for college, Sherlock’s health took a turn for the worse. Sherlock was aptly named; he was smart and probably knew that his main calling in life had been fulfilled. In any event, my sister’s family was advised to let him go.

The last night of Sherlock’s life, the family slept together on the floor beside the dog. Sherlock was in pain and could not sleep unless they were all there, literally lying on a thin carpet on the hard floor, on all sides of him. If someone got up to use the bathroom, Sherlock raised his head and wouldn’t lower it until all were close by again.

By “all,” I mean my sister, her husband, and their daughter. Bryce was still at college, a ten hour drive away. My sister grieved that he could not be there. In his absence, she found a framed photo of Bryce to take on their sad trip to the veterinarian.

At the vet’s, they made a circle around Sherlock with a space allotted for Bryce’s photo. Amazingly, lovingly, Sherlock approached each one of them in turn. He kissed (licked for those not accustomed) my sister first. Then he kissed her husband. Then their daughter. And then, without hesitation, though slowly since he was in pain, he turned to Bryce’s photo and gave it a big lick. That is all he could do to say goodbye and it was enough. It was brilliant.

Lastly, Sherlock growled at the vet. It was not a vicious growl, but a knowing one. He knew what had to be done and he wasn’t particularly happy about it. I don’t mean to go over the top here, but his actions can’t help but remind me of Jesus when he asked for the cup to pass him by and yet knew he had to drink it.

But Sherlock is only human…err, I mean canine. And I want to get back to the topic of hugs. Upon a little reading of Dogstar Daily, I learned that dogs are not, by nature, huggers. I suppose this is true because I don’t see dogs hugging each other in the park. But they can learn, if you start hugging them early enough, that it is an affectionate thing for us humans. And in some cases, as in Sherlock’s, the dog will come to enjoy being the recipient of a nice long hug, and everyone is healthier for it.

If Sherlock was just pretending to like the hugs of my nephew, well, I’m even more impressed.

When grief begets grief

photo of griefGrief needs time, but if you were to give it, say, the whole house to reside in, instead of just a room or two, then your grief becomes more than a necessary part of the healing process. It becomes, instead, a source of more problems. I will try to explain.

Sticking with the house analogy, if every room in the house becomes a complete mess (use your imagination here), then the house’s disorder becomes a new thing to grieve. Eventually, your grief may have little to do with its original source. Basically, you start grieving new misfortunes and painful experiences that are the fallout from your initial grief.

The poignant scene in the Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows two extremes in regards to handling grief. The president tells his wife that he cannot allow himself to indulge in the pain of their son’s death. He resists the pain so he can uphold his commitment to the country, something greater than himself. His wife, on the other hand, shows the devastating impact of grief and possibly wallows in it. Who can say how much control either of them had in their situation? No one really knows, but we can still listen, learn and consider what applies to our own lives.

I believe God has given each of us the strength of a will; that is, the ability to make a decision regardless of our emotional state. But there is a range here: people have feelings in different intensities and some have a stronger will than others.

I am grateful President Lincoln was able to use his strong will to section off his grief so he could help bring an end to the pain of many others. I am also grateful for his wife’s demonstration of how tormenting grief can be. She too, come to think of it, had a strong will, one which was influenced by her intense grief. In fact, her grief, in part, became her resolve that the amendment be passed so she wouldn’t lose a second son. This resolve, no doubt, helped her carry on.

Sooner or later, this is what we do: carry on. When grief is allowed to grow to the point of filling every nook and cranny of a house, it is hard to even move, and the carrying on is similar to trekking through waist-high mud, or worse. But even then, when grief begets more grief, healing can still happen. The house can be brought back into shape. Things can be picked up. Especially if friends and a cleaning team (grief professionals) come over and help.

Whether you handle grief like Lincoln, his wife or somewhere in between, I wish for you at least one clean room in the house. Spend time there, as much as you can muster, breathing deeply and sipping from the cup of blessings, however small, that is sure to be present on the table.

God loves speeders too

God loves speedersOut-of-towners caught speeding are more likely to get a ticket than locals, according to research summarized in The Wall Street Journal. But I’m not so sure… just a block from my house, a policeman gave me two moving violations in as many months. Granted we had just moved to the street and I didn’t know that a certain policeman liked to park himself there and pull over innocent, vulnerable ladies for no good reason. Okay, I wasn’t so innocent and there was a reason; I was speeding, of course, but as I rehearsed in my mind for months afterwards with the intent of arguing in court, the tickets were unjust for three reasons.Firstly, the next street over—the one that parallels my street—is 10 mph faster and drivers are much happier over there. Secondly, all of a sudden, our street goes from two lanes to four, a change that should naturally be accompanied by an increase in speed, regardless of whether or not those extra lanes are meant for bicycles. Thirdly, when I putter along at the required 25 miles per hour, people tailgate me so closely that I am afraid I will die. Surely this last reason will clear my record.

I thought of none of these excuses when the policeman came to my window those two times. Both times, the first thing he asked was, “Are you late for an appointment?”

“Yes” I said sheepishly (both times), “I’m late for my jazzercise class.” Oh no, have I become that suburban lady who speeds through town to make her pedicure appointment!? Yes, I’ve done that too, but it was my daughter’s fault that I was late. (How much lower can this post get?)

I never did appear in court, but eventually, something appeased me: the house across from the exact spot where the policeman used to park posted a handmade sign that said: God Loves Speeders Too. This is a true and beautiful statement. It includes everyone, does it not? The nastiness of getting a ticket juxtaposed with the grace of God.

Ever since the appearance of this sign, I haven’t seen the officer. Maybe he realized that his ticketing had gone too far. Or maybe, people like me learned a lesson and started driving the speed limit around town. Most likely, the sign made his job unnecessary. Drivers see the sign, slow down and smile.

My sister is in lockdown

I love BostonI have a few blogs to post but they seem terribly self-absorbed in light of the events of this week. I’m speaking of the marathon bombings and Texas explosion and, closer to home, my friend’s emergency visit to the hospital with her son and the decision of two of my favorite people to divorce. My heart is heavy and my head hurts.

Now my sister living in the Boston area is in lockdown. This is actually good news. If I learned anything from my work on A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying & Letting Go, I learned that grieving requires time. Carrying on like nothing has happened complicates the pain and gives rise to problems in unexpected places.

I hope everyone in the Boston area who is staying at home today takes time to weep for those who have lost loved ones and limbs. I also hope they take time to reflect upon the fact that the world, in truth, is not falling apart. Most days, we go back and forth from work in freedom. Most days, we are able to enjoy a run around the neighborhood, a trip to the park with our kids, and a glass of wine with our friends without any threat. Grieving and giving thanks are not mutually exclusive and both can easily fill up a day.

Life of Pi ending explained

Life of Pi If you have not read the book, or at least seen the movie, please don’t read one word of the following post. The book is too awesome to spoil.

After pondering the ending for some time, here’s my theological take on it. It may satisfy you, as it did a few people who commented on my Screen Rant post.

Pi’s tragedy of being shipwrecked and losing his family, being exposed to the elements and being at the hands of a tiger, was horrific. Could it get any worse, we wondered as readers (and viewers). When we are in a tough situation, we similarly think things are at their worst.

Then, came the “second story” which was, surprisingly, much worse! All of a sudden, Pi’s animal story didn’t seem so bad; it seemed almost gracious.

“And so it goes with God,” which means this: when we experience tough times, God is still working behind the scenes; He is still sparing us of the worst that could happen; He is still revealing to us His beauty (as in Pi’s delight in the sea and sky); and even when we feel powerless in the face of terrible circumstances, in truth, God is still giving us challenges we can master (as with Pi’s ability to train the tiger).

Finally, in both stories, God still saves us, as in Pi’s ultimate arrival to shore, financial aid, and ability to have a family of his own. Similarly, God ultimately saves those who seek him (as Pi so earnestly demonstrates).

Unexpected child

Sponsored-ChildI received a noticed a few months ago that the child I had sponsored for 15 years moved away from the area, so World Vision assigned a new child to me. I was taken aback because I had been looking forward to choosing a little girl for my next kid. But what could I do now? I couldn’t deny the sweet boy, shown here; I wouldn’t want World Vision to have to tell him, “Just kidding. No one wants you.” So I wrote him a letter. Quicker than with any child I’ve previously sponsored, I received a long letter in return. It told me so many details about his life, I was thrilled. But how could such a little boy articulate so much? I came to the end of the letter, and there it was, the proud signature of his older sister, writing on his behalf. It looks like I have a little boy and a girl—both for the price of one.