Sunday, August 12, 2007

Heather is a Heathen?

I've been a Lutheran all my life. My dad's a Lutheran pastor, and he graduated from the seminary when I was 5. His first call was to be a missionary in the Philippines, and so my earliest memories are of church on our front porch and Sunday School songs in the garden. I still know some of them, though there aren't a lot of occasions to start singing songs like this one:
Basit saka, basit emah, basit na ping-ping, nasamit na esem.
Matah, lapayag, ken toy pusok, ku kwah ahmen nee Jesus.
Dai dai ahwen dai ti Dios, dai dai ahwen dai ti Dios!
Basit saka, basit emah, basit na ping-ping, nasamit na esem.

which is a little song about all of the parts of the body being there to praise God. Being able to pray in Ilocano isn't very useful either, but I still periodically have this one jump into my head:
Niambag ti Dios, niandaklan ti Dios
Agyaman tai-ee kaduhgatee kahnen tayoh.

which is the common "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food." (Please pardon my spelling if you actually know Ilocano -- I never learned to write it, so my spelling is a bit rudimentary and is completely phonetic). I can count, too, but that's out of the scope of this entry.

Suffice it to say, that when we got back to the US, church life continued to be important to me. I've played piano for VBS, led Youth Bible studies, sang with choirs, played with brass groups and handbell groups, sat on parochial school boards, and, most recently, directed a praise band. There were times in high school that if I hadn't had church activities to be involved with, I would have had a lot more time to contemplate the myriad reasons I had no friends and the subsequent invitations to do things with them. Besides the social aspect to it (which cannot be discounted in this day and age where no one seems to live near family or the friends they grew up with), I found wonderfully encouraging people and groups that constantly blessed me and encouraged me to study more deeply and grow more in my relationship with my Lord and Savior.

And then we moved to Santa Barbara, and I tried to find a new church home out here.

One Sunday I went to a Catholic church where they waved incense around and chanted everything and prayed for nearly 20 minutes for the Pope. And that's after half the sermon was about how great he is. Now, I'm Lutheran, so Catholics all over the world hate me anyway, but I hope I don't make them madder: I don't really like Pope Benedict. When he issued a statement reminding us how the Catholic church is sure they're the only group getting to heaven, and while I know not all Catholics feel that way, I really dislike a church leader that's more interested in dividing the believers up and discarding them rather than seeking out non-believers. I only tolerated him before, so this was an easy straw to break my back. I think I would just need a less Catholic Catholic church.

Another Sunday I tried a Lutheran church where the pastor was mad at his congregation. They had, apparently, decided to spend $500K on redoing their parking lot, much to his dismay. Now I don't know what parking lot resurfacings normally cost, but their's was in significant need of a revitalization of some sort. I wasn't actually sure I was still going to have all the pieces of the underside of my vehicle after I'd driven through it. Their sound system was having trouble, too, so that just added to the atmosphere of the fire-and-brimstone sermon the pastor was preaching about how many poor people half a million dollars could have fed and what business did they have pouring (ha!) that into asphalt? Now, I don't know how decisions are made at that church, but in most of the decisions I've ever seen made at a church, there is usually a vote, and the pastor is invited to said voting meeting. Couldn't he have said his piece there, rather than on a Sunday morning with visitors and kids and stuff?

Then I tried an Episcopal church. The first time I went they had a guest pastor. She wasn't a very good speaker, but it was, apparently, her first-ever sermon. It sounded like the kind of sermon *I* could have given -- with no ministerial training whatsoever. I also sat in a pew where two ladies came in half-way through the service and climbed over me to sit in the pew and then proceeded to climb out and back in 3 times over the next 20 minutes. Oh, and one of them sat on me when we came back from communion. I know I'm skinny, but that's a bit much to be quite that ignored. I was willing to chalk it up to just being a bad service, so I went back when the regular guy was preaching. He preached an entire sermon without a single Biblical reference, and I just don't understand how you do that. He was preaching on the social responsibility we have to the environment. I've heard several of these in my life, and they've always been tied to the creation story in that God created our world perfect and humans messed it up or to Jesus' parable of the talents and how God has entrusted us with this planet and it's our job to take care of it in a God-pleasing way. It's not hard, people. I don't think I can go to a church where the Bible doesn't even have a seat and has to stand in a corner in the back.

Then I tried another Lutheran church. This one had one of those pastors that puts 4 or 5 syllables in the name "Jesus". I felt like I was back in a rural Southern Baptist church, and I giggled a lot throughout the service. He also felt the need to emphasize the word-of-the-day. It was Ascension Sunday, which I remember because everytime he said "ascension" he accented it and stretched it out. He also told the congregation to do so when that word, or a variant, showed up in the text we were speaking aloud. I remember nothing else about the service because the accenting was so annoying. Not very faith-challenging if you can't even notice the rest of the service for the distractions. I decided that one wasn't going to work, either.

About this time, I started to get discouraged. I just didn't go to church the next Sunday. I don't have many Sundays in my life where I just didn't go. I've missed for illness or travel or visting relatives or friends that do not go to church. Very seldom, however, do I just not go. The next week I was vacationing with my parents in Wisconsin, and my dad has a habit of not going to church when he's on vacation. That meant I didn't go for either Sunday on the two sides of that week. Then I got back and identified a new church to try out, but I must've gotten the address or time wrong, because when I got there they were just finishing the service. I found myself depressed. Some of you coming from the backgrounds you do may think that was guilt, but that would be less than 10% of the overall feeling. Mostly I was just feeling depleted from not having been fed spiritually for several months. No Christian friends out here to talk to, people constantly bringing me down about being a Christian -- it starts to be really draining. And, as the experiences I'd found were significantly less than stellar, I was starting to wonder how hard it really was going to be to be a Christian in California.

But, I'm nothing, if not persistent. So, I went back to the one that I'd tried -- and failed -- to go to before, except this time I got the address right. The music was great, the sermon was great, and it was one of those churches that feels more like 50 or 75 people are in the service instead of 150 -- so friendly and relaxed and completely unpretentious. I was so impressed with the sermon (it was basically a challenge to spend time in God's word every day as the top priority), but I wasn't ready to make any decisions, since there were two pastors, and I'd only heard one. So, I went back the next week to hear the other pastor. Wait -- his sermon was good, too (on why it's important and God-pleasing to be persistent in your prayer life). I hardly knew what to do with myself. But, I think what sealed it for me was an illustration he used from when he lived in the Philippines. It turns out he and his family lived there from '65 to '77. It's a bit before we were there, but that was enough to help make me feel like I'd picked the right place. Visit number 3 was another success, and I'm headed back this morning. Maybe I'll actually be able to settle in and have a Christian community again. Good thing, too, because I don't think I'm cut out to be a heathen.


cat said...

i'm glad you finally found a church that seems to be working for you..cause you're right you couldn't be a heathen :)

Matthew M. F. Miller said...

Ah, you can be a heathen if you want to. So long as you're a good person.

But I'm glad you found a place where you belong. We all need that!

Heather said...

Thanks, cat!

Matt -- I think it's too firmly rooted in my soul to be ignored. I think I would be more depressed than normal if I abandoned that part of my life.

James said...

Growing up around the military it all seemed so easy. There were only three possible choices:

a. Christian, Catholic
b. Christian, Protestant
c. Jewish

Heather said...

Growing up around my dad it was easy, too:

1. go to his church

So many choices you had in the military!

Anonymous said...

Heather would be the opposite of a heathen. If you ever encountered her on a personal level or casual meeting -- or just through a blog, there would be no thought of Heather possibly possessing a single cell of heathen!

Heather said...

Thanks, anon. Glad to hear it's obvious.

Anonymous said...

Yea! I'm so glad you found a church you like. We will be facing the same challenge when we move to Indiana. Of course, all the relatives are staunch Catholics, and will all want us attending their churches, but I really want to find one that WE like!