[Beware: long post. It probably would have been nice to throw some pictures in to keep your attention, but because of the circumstances, taking pictures was impossible (or highly imprudent). If you make it through, congratulations: you're a trooper.]
Okay, it is no accident that there are a bunch of pictures from Egypt in my recent post on my motivation for this protestant church run. (Be sure to check it out before reading this much longer post.) It's actually because while I was at the evening service of one of the local Church of God congregations, I felt very much out of place. The thought occurred to me that I was more at home at a Coptic liturgy (which is mainly in Arabic, but with some Coptic and a touch of Greek) than I was at this church.
Please do not misunderstand! I don't mean to say that I did not like the service, nor that I didn't see any value in how they did things, nor even that I did not participate in praying and worshipping with my protestant brothers and sisters. On the contrary, I found it edifying and in some ways powerful. As I have predicted, there are certain things that I don't like and that I can't accept, but like I said in the last post, I'm not going to simply note the differences. I'm already keenly aware of many of those.
What I mean to say is that other than the language itself, the experience was almost entirely foreign to me. I contrast that with my experience of the Coptic Catholic Church, which is itself very different from Roman Catholicism, but not in any way that separates them from that Body of which I am also a part.
Here's how things proceeded. About 15 minutes before the service, I exit my truck in the parking lot dressed in my nicest set of clerics, suit coat and everything, even though it's black and I'm in Alabama in July! I walk into the foyer, immediately standing out, and providing the perfect target for the pastor. That was the intended effect because I didn't want to be on my own any longer than necessary. He was very welcoming, and introduced me to one of his assistant pastors, who was to be my guide, more or less. I talked with him for a little bit about who we were, and he showed me around. Then there wasn't much left to be said, so I just asked if I could just go in the church and pick a spot. The choir was done practicing, so he said sure, and I went on my merry way. As a good Catholic, I nabbed a sweet spot in the back row.
It was at this point I realized I was not in Kansas anymore.
I sat down and within seconds, something was not right. I looked around to see what it might be. Aha! Everyone in this place is standing around talking to each other! Now, granted, I new that this would be part of the picture, but I had momentarily forgotten, and the experience was therefore striking. I am used to going into church and being quiet. People might be praying, and I usually want to pray, but beyond that, I'm supposed to (and want to) show respect to the Blessed Sacrament. But that's not how they do things in the Church of God (and I'm sure in many other denominations). There were about 50 or 60 people broken up into twos and threes just catching up on the week, or whatever they were talking about.
I began just noting the phenomenon as I sat and mentally/spiritually prepared myself for what would be happening in a few minutes, but I was not to remain an outside observer for long. Within 3 minutes, about ten people had come up and introduced themselves. It actually shocked me the first time, because it's not a hushed hello like you might experience in a Catholic church sometimes. No, it's a full blown conversation at conversational volume, and even with outbursts of laughter. To tell the truth, I really liked this. After I got over my incredulity, I felt genuinely welcome, despite being obviously very different from these people (marked clearly by my Roman collar). Don't worry though! I'm not about to write," now why can't we do that in the Catholic church?" It's obvious to me that it wouldn't work, and that it shouldn't work. Silence is beautiful, and the sense of the sacred that we have should not be gotten rid of. Nevertheless, what those people do, and how they immediately welcome the stranger--it's just fantastic. To feel immediately at home because this person before me is smiling, and genuinely interested in me, and is very happy that I chose to be with him that evening, this is a good. And it's something that Catholics don't have. We have other ways of welcoming visitors (though most places could do a much better job of it!), but we will never have this. To be frank, that makes me a little sad or disappointed because I really liked it.
Moving on: the service was kind of like a firework. It started off very fast, kept moving, exploded in an incredible light filled display...and then just disappeared. We started with a couple songs--obviously no procession or anything. The only clear mark of the beginning was the music director saying something along the lines of "y'all want to pray tonight?" and us responding, "yes," and him saying "Y'ALL WANT TO PRAY TONIGHT?" and us responding thunderously, "YES!" I forget the exact words, because just then the music started and it was awesome. Nothing short of gospel concert quality, I kid you not. You can tell where they spend their money. The music was great, but the lyrics were a little bit shallow. I came away thinking sometimes that "being redeemed" was to be equated with "being free from stress." Don't generalize from that though. There were good moments, but the lyrics had no real theology behind them.
Still, it was not long before the entire church was swaying, clapping, singing, shouting, etc. I sang as best I could, and clapped my hands. I was a bit out of my comfort zone, but I did not want anyone to look back and see a stoic Catholic "who obviously only came to observe and quite clearly thinks he's better than us." This would of course not be true, but if I'm to be serious with my goal of getting into the practices of these denominations, I've got to actually do that! So, there I was for the first time ever purposefully having fun at church on Sunday (or at least trying my best to). Not that I don't enjoy Catholic liturgy, but I don't think I could say that I've had fun at Mass, at least, not if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I can think of many times, especially growing up, when I would mischievously try my best to have fun at church, but I usually got a spanking for it.
Then there were some announcements (very quick, let's get back to this rocket racing upward!), then more songs, and then the choir left the stage (is that what I'm to call it?) and the pastor got up to the pulpit. I would like to say this was the longest sermon I've ever heard (around 45 minutes), but sadly, I think I've sat through some homilies that have been that long, but have had no where near the vitality that this one had. We have got to preach better. I don't think we need to break out into shouting like this guy tended to do, but we need some life in our homilies.
We focused entirely on the book of Job. It was in general a pretty solid look at the story and the characters, and he related it well. At times I winced at this or that little thing, but I really did glean a lot from the sermon. I'm still, two days later, thinking about parts of it, and incorporating them into my personal prayer. He ended on a note of trust, that God will only ever send trials our way in measures that we're capable of handling (with his help of course), and so in a way, God trusts us. In the face of whatever suffering or doubt or trial, we have to trust him in return.
So at the end of the sermon, he invited anyone who was going through anything tough to come forward. I considered going down, but in case I might be asked to do something or say something I could not in good conscience do or say, I stayed put. It's too bad, because it ended up it would have been fine. Still, I didn't want to cause a scene.
Basically, he kept preaching for a little bit with everyone there in front of him (half the pews emptied out). Then it was time for everyone to just start praising God, in whatever way. So we had a number of people break out into tongues, other people were shaking, all that stuff. I have experienced this sort of thing in Catholic Charismatic groups, but there's something different about the way protestants do it. I haven't reflected enough on this. Anyway, that proceeded for a while, got more and more intense. People were genuinely moved (and I have to admit, I was too), because the pastor knew them all and would talk to them about what was happening in their lives and everyone was just encouraged to persevere and to trust the Lord. Then, he sort of brought it to an end, but invited everyone who wanted to make a public testament. (Uh oh. Glad I stayed in the pews.) He just had everyone say into the microphone individually, "I trust the Lord." Oh, okay. I think that would have been alright, but I'm glad I stayed in the pews just to be on the safe side. I don't want to cause scandal by appearing to profess the faith of a non-Catholic church, especially since actually doing so would impede me from being ordained.
After that, huge explosion of tongues and trust, the service began to fizzle out. We sang one of the songs from before the sermon, but without the choir going back up, and I think even without all the instruments that had been playing. Then after the song, the pastor very quickly encouraged all of us who did not make the public testimony to make a testimony to someone before we left. So, I told a few people, privately that indeed, "I trust the Lord." I even said it to the pastor as I thanked him for the hospitality and told him that the service was, "beautiful." (I mean, it was. It was just very different.) Then, I left. That was it. Comments?
|Not a hi-res photo, but I think you can tell which is me.|
Update: I said something above without meaning to say it. "I came away thinking sometimes that "being redeemed" was to be equated with 'being free from stress.'" That sounds like a put down, and in a certain sense it is, but at the same time, I wasn't all that clear. I know a fair number of people who struggle seriously with scrupulosity, and for them, they very much need to hear that Jesus frees you from worry! And, since I don't have the text of the lyrics, I'm not going to base a judgment of a song from my mere impression, which, let's be honest, had at least some elements of looking down my nose. No matter how much I tried, I have to admit that I was rather proud of my religion, and that pride affected my experience. Regardless of my reaction to the music, there's no denying that it spoke to the people there. Okay, disclaimer added.