21 July 2013

I was a stranger, and you did not let me in.

I sometimes help with welcoming/ushering in the Oudekerk. We usually do it in a team of two, where one person readies the books and liturgies (bulletins), while the other person stands at the door. The one at the door both welcomes those coming to church but also tries to keep the majority of the tourists out.

I haven't always liked standing at the door. Repeating the phrase "are you here for the church service?" fifty times before church isn't exactly conducive to getting ready to worship. Furthermore, preventing people from entering a church feels distinctly un-welcoming, more so considering that theologically and practically speaking the church is just the place where people ought to be the most welcome!

But slowly I have learned to see standing at the door as a place of welcome, especially to all those looking to meet God. To the members of the congregation, the welcome is a simple smile and/or a few words exchanged. For those visiting, it is a reassurance that yes, this is the right entrance, and they are very welcome. For those indicating that they simply want to admire good architecture, I let them know that they are welcome to return during visiting hours. Although it feels strange to tell someone that they are not now welcome in the church, I know that I am doing so in order to be more welcoming to those who have come to meet God. Many tourists before and during the service can be distracting and hindering for worship, especially if they seem to be unaware of churches as anything other than beautiful historical buildings. Many then turn aside and make new plans, yet others ask for just a few minutes or time to pray. Turning these people aside is something I find hard - and I am thankful that as a church we've felt more freedom in being able to welcome this group. Most of the time - assuming the group is not so big, the church service has not begun, and we seem to understand each other's expectations - I then welcome them for a short period into part of the church.

But then there are those coming who claim to want to attend the church service but about whom I have my doubts. Some I let in quite easily, while others I question and do not let them immediately pass - especially if they are almost late or with a large group. At the same time, I do not want keep those out who have truly come to worship. And my judgment of who actually has come for the service is not always accurate, as this morning's service reminded me. Of the 20 or so people I let in who did not appear dressed for church or likely to be there for worship, more than the half stayed for and participated in much of the service. For me, it is a gentle reminder to be more open and welcoming to the stranger, as God may be working in her/him in ways that I can not recognize or immediately expect.

18 July 2013

4 weeks, 4 churches, 4 languages

In the past four weeks, I have managed to go to four different churches in four different languages in four different countries.

- 23 June - the local french Catholic church in St. Cloud (Paris) with our Bed and Breakfast host,
- 30 June - the local Vrijgemaakt church (close to the Free Reformed or Canadian Reformed Churches in Canada) in Amsterdam,
- 7 July - the local Norwegian church near Gyerstad, Norway with the community while on retreat together,
- 14 July - a local german Evangelical Lutheran church in Flensborg, Germany with Matthijs on the way home from the retreat.

The only similarility between all these churches is that they were all the most local church in the areas we were on the Sundays in question. And they were all filled with ordinary people desiring to worship God, and with whom we were more than welcome to join in worshipping. I did so with thankfulness, albeit not always with a lot of awareness (Matthijs is much better with spoken languages than I am).

The irony, of course, is that even though I've managed to worship in four different languages these past four weeks, I somehow missed the most obvious language: English. But -  next Sunday (and the Sunday after that), Matthijs will cover that for me during his trip to England. Thus for Matthijs the score of churches at this moment is not simply 4-4-4 - but four going on five.... (and I get to go to my local home church - the Oudekerk :))

02 July 2013

Church shopping?!? Searching for what I've been missing

"Church shopping" has always bothered me. It seems to suggest that church is about meeting my needs, as it is often about finding a church that best fits what I want and has the programs and teaching I think I need. It also seems to go against the idea that it might be good to be part of a church that doesn't reflect only my own ideas about Christianity or my own experiences and life phase. Neither of those seem to be a healthy reflection of living faithfully as the body of Christ. My theory about finding a church is much simpler: figure out which denomination fits best with what you believe the Bible teaches and then attend the nearest church that is part of (or closest to) that denomination.

Except, as most people will tell you, it's not quite that simple. What if you and your children are not made to feel welcome? What if it's not really the local church (i.e., most come from far away to attend and/or are not interested in the neighbourhood)? What if the music or the preaching constantly makes you cringe? What if the theology taught/practiced in the church actually doesn't fit with the denomination and/or your understanding of what is biblical? Does it make a difference if you have problems with the language? When do you stay and try to work things out, and when do you start looking for a new church?

I now am part of the Oudekerk (PKN), which I've attended fairly faithfully these last 7 years. As much as I've appreciated this church, I also feel a strong desire to church shop, which is a desire I've never really had before. It's like there is something that is missing in my faith or church life - and I'm not even exactly sure what it is. It's not good music or liturgy that I'm missing or even a concern for social justice and each other, as I've found all of these things present in the Oudekerk. I have also felt very welcome - even after acknowledging that I don't always feel theologically at home there. Yet, I long for something more, and so I am searching. Whether it be an actual church, a social group, found online/written, talks with the pastor, a Bible Study, or something else I'm not sure.

In essence I am searching for ways in which I meet together with more spiritual and/or theological 'kindred spirits.' People who get upset about moral theology, like many of the CRC folk I know who read in the denominational magazine that someone wrote tht perhaps we Christians should tolerate recreational sex (the first article by Chelsea about intimacy is actually really good and worth reading, even if you're not interested in the controversy). Or people with whom I don't have to explain that going to church on Sunday is a non-negotiable for me - it's part of how I make myself more open to meeting God. Or maybe I simply long to be the liberal Christian instead of being so often the theologically conservative one. Or perhaps it is as simple as my looking for a group who talks more about how God is actively working in our lives now, something that came forward in a testimony last Sunday and which brought up a longing in my heart.

Part of me wishes I didn't have to go through this theological discomfort of having the sense that something is missing in my faith/spiritual life. I don't remember this discomfort so much when I only knew one denomination well. Yet, I am also thankful to recognize the disquiet I had - the sense that I was missing something - and am grateful that there are those wanting to help me in my search. I hope/believe that all of this will help me grow in faith.