With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #17.
This high church experience gave me much to contemplate about worshiping God in a more formal, liturgical manner.
Recalling Jesus’ warning against “vain repetition” (although he was addressing prayer, Matthew 6:7 KJV), part of me rebels against their rote practices. The liturgy, the solemn ritual, and the prescribed responses all fit my understanding of “vain repetition.” I want nothing to do with a routine, mechanical connection to God; I desire a Spirit-led directness: organic, passionate, and real.
Yet at the same time, there’s a certain rhythm to grasp – and to embrace. Though it eludes me right now, I want to pursue it, not as a regular spiritual practice but as a refreshing break from my normal non-liturgical connection with God.
Liturgy can expand my relationship to God, if only I can learn how to comprehend it.
Peninnah is an unfamiliar Bible character. She is a co-wife with Hannah (the mother of Samuel); their husband is Elkanah.
In a tale reminiscent of Jacob and his two wives, Rebecca and Leah, we have the story of Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Just as Jacob loves Rebecca more than Leah, Elkanah loves Hannah more than Peninnah. Likewise, as Rebecca, the favored wife, is childless, so too is Hannah, the favored wife.
Another parallel biblical account is of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Hagar, the wife with a child, harasses Sarah, the wife without a child. So to, Peninnah harasses Hannah. This is the extent of what the Bible says about Peninnah.
All we know then about Peninnah is that despite her producing children for Elkanah, he loves Hannah more – and Peninnah lashes out at her rival in the only way possible, by verbally tormenting her.
While we can’t condone Peninnah’s actions, we can understand them.
What we learn from this story (as well as from Leah and Hagar) is that having two wives (or girlfriends) is never a good idea.
[Read more about Peninnah in 1 Samuel 1-2.]
Reflecting on Church #16: If Only They Were Friendly
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #16.
There were so many things this church did right, so many things I liked about it. Yet one problem overshadowed all of that.
Aside from interacting with another couple (who were also visitors), one greeter, and the two pastors, no one else of the hundreds of people present talked to us: not before, not during, and not after. I couldn’t even make eye contact with anyone to show I was open for conversation. Afterwards, I scanned the auditorium for someone who looked approachable, but I couldn’t find anybody. Most people just left, as if they’d watched a movie and it was time to go home. For those who did tarry, they focused on their friends.
For all its positive elements, this church was unfriendly. I left feeling isolated and alone.
Some people dress up for church to honor God; others dress up to impress people. I, however, dress casually, sometimes to an extreme. This isn’t because I’m lazy or rebellious; this is my way to honor God.
One Sunday morning many years ago, I stood at the church sanctuary entrance, wearing a blue pin-striped suit and a bold silk tie. My job was to pass out bulletins and seat people. My goal was to make eye contact, give them my best smile, and say “Hi.” I took this job most seriously.
In walked a visitor. College-aged, he wore torn jeans, t-shirt, and tennis shoes. He carried a wide smile. We made eye contact. When he saw a friendly face, his smile brightened; he headed towards me. Then he glanced at what I was wearing, and his pace slowed. He looked left and then right. Seeing no one else dressed like him, he made an abrupt U-turn and left.
I should have followed him. I should have assured him his clothes didn’t matter. I should have invited him back and offered to sit with him. I didn’t. Instead, I felt duty-bound to remain at my post.
That was the last Sunday I dressed up for church. If my attire challenges conventions, I’d prefer offending those in my community, not those outside it. May my clothes never again be an obstacle for a visitor feeling comfortable in church or a faith seeker encountering God.
I never again dressed up for church. And I do it to honor God.
[From Peter’s upcoming book, God, I Don’t Want to Go to Church.]
Hannah longs to have children but is childless. Adding to her misery, she’s harassed by everyone around her. Though, she is her husband’s (Elkanah) favorite wife he dismisses her infertility and fails to protect her from verbal assaults from his other wife, Peninnah, who endlessly torments her. Then, when she prays in earnest, Eli, the priest, accuses her of being drunk. Hannah’s life is in constant turmoil.
At her breaking point, Hannah cries out to God. She begs him for a son. In return, she promises to give him to God for a lifetime of service.
Unlike everyone else, God understands Hannah. He answers her plea, giving her a son, Samuel, just as she requested. She responds by singing to God: celebrating his power, the elevation of the oppressed, and the abasement of those overly confident. A few lines of her ode may be digs at Peninnah, her chief tormentor.
After Samuel is weaned, Hannah presents him to Eli for a lifetime of service to God, just as she promised. Each year when Hannah and her family make their pilgrimage to the temple, she sees young Samuel and gives him a new robe.
God then blesses Hannah with five more children.
[Read about Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2.]
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #15.
This United Methodist Church is an outlier congregation, quite unlike the others we visited. Though we enjoyed them all, this one stands out; the happy memory of attending this church lingers. I want to return. In only a few of the 52 churches did I feel the active presence of the Holy Spirit; this is one – and he draws me back.
I was surprised to learn there’s a charismatic element within the United Methodist Church. Their denomination is intentional about everyone, both churches and their leaders, accepting one another despite differing views on the role and function of the Holy Spirit. They seek mutual acceptance and shun division.
I wish all churches would adopt this attitude. They’ve even written a helpful document to offer a healthy and holistic approach: Guidelines: The United Methodist Church and the Charismatic Movement. It’s a great example to follow.
A few weeks ago, the church service kicked off with a discussion question: “What is Church?” We broke into small groups with those sitting around us. After exchanging introductions (why hadn’t we already done this?), we stared in silence. As a visitor, I didn’t want to go first, but the silence invited me. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” I said as I marshaled my words. “I think church is about community.”
I paused, waiting for more of my deliberations to form into cogent words, but they didn’t. Others nodded and voiced their thoughts. Before I had a chance to add more, the discussion time ended prematurely.
The groups’ dialogue formed the introduction to the message. I anticipated what the speaker would add to the topic. Alas, his words were of little substance. I left the service, warmed by the bits of community we shared, but with no additional clarity on the question.
A few years ago, I answered the question, What is Church? in a blog post. My answer then is what it is now:
“Church isn’t about message or music; those are often distractions or settling for less than the best. True church is about community, where we are all priests, with each one giving and receiving, mutually edifying and encouraging one another on our faith journey.”
Please think about this as you attend church today. And it you don’t go to church, I encourage you to seek ways to do this anyway – and that will be your church, not as a substitute, but perhaps as a superior alternative.
Now it’s your turn: What is Church?
Orpah is the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi and sister-in-law to Ruth. When Naomi decides to return to Judah, her daughters-in-law start out with her, but Naomi releases them. She encourages them to return to their mothers and find new husbands. Though Ruth stubbornly refuses, Orpah does the smart thing and goes home.
That’s the last we hear of Orpah. We don’t know if she marries again or ever has any children; we don’t know how long she lives. We only know she does what makes sense from a human perspective.
However, Orpah’s sister-in-law chooses a path that doesn’t make sense, and God honors her for her loyalty to him and to her mother-in-law.
Sometimes what seems right to us is far different than God’s plan for us.
[Read about Orpah in Ruth 1:4-16.]
I’m not sure how widespread this is, but in our corner of Michigan, there’s an annual event in several cities called the Parade of Homes. It’s like a progressive dinner, but instead of eating at each stop, you look at the house. This is an occasion for builders to showcase their work, in hopes of selling their house or finding new clients.
I’ve always been intrigued by the Parade of Homes but have never gone. I worried that seeing these houses, many with extravagant extras, would turn the satisfaction with what I have into an unhealthy desire for more. When it comes to possessions, I seek contentment with what I have, not something bigger or more shiny.
However, this year – with plans to build a house for the first time – we decided it might be a good idea to check out this year’s houses in the parade, to get ideas of what to include and learn what to avoid. Still, I worried this tour would skew my perceptions of what our new home should look like.
Overall, we enjoyed visiting these houses. Aside from being educational, it was an inexpensive outing that lasted four days. We did get some practical ideas for our house and saw some things we want to avoid. We saw finishes and treatments we liked and some we can take off our list.
We also confirmed we don’t want a big house that will be costly to run and take too much time to maintain; I don’t want a bunch of fancy, impractical things that are likely going to break. I feel sorry for the people who will buy these huge houses; I don’t think they will find peace there. A big house may be impressive, but I don’t see happiness in their future.
But mostly I learned that an affordable, comfortable house is the right one for me.
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #14.
My experience at this church is an enigma. On one side, their friendliness embraced me; their service was energetic and appealing. I wanted more. On the other side, their theological stance that speaking in tongues is a required sign to validate a true salvation experience, communicates that I didn’t belong, serving to push me away.
Their doctrine makes a distinction that places much of Christianity on the outside. Instead of dividing Jesus’ church with declarations he didn’t proclaim, let’s accept our differing opinions and embrace one another.
May we be one, just as Jesus prayed we would be.