Honorable Mention

I recently attended my son’s end of the year choir concert. He has, uncoerced by his music driven parents, become drawn to music and has followed in his mom & dad’s footsteps of being a “choir geek”.  We let him find his own path there.  One of the best parts I remember about high school and the only real place I felt I belonged or had friends who were at least a little more like me…artistic, a little bit freaky, and loved music, was in choir.  My teen years were really tough. A lot of bad stuff was going down at home and now that I’m a mom of a teen, I understand a little bit more how crazy hormones and the tug between being a child and becoming an adult are trying to balance themselves out.  Identity is being formed in its extremity which can change every other week.  One week you’re this, the next week you’re that.  I think that having a rough childhood and teenage years helped me to be a little more relaxed and let my kids become who they wanted to be, to show support and withhold my opinions and judgment, and to allow them to choose what they wanted to be or do and not to force them to be what I thought they should be as I experienced that struggle from at least one of my own parents.  This is Jaden’s first high school year of choir and I’m super happy to see him feeling so accepted and at home there.  He is also a math & science genius.  Whatever path he ends up choosing, I’m so proud of him and will encourage him either way.

This concert took me back a little to the angst and turmoil filled years of high school.  There were probably only two or three real things that kept me grounded and not following the teen suicide route with how devastated I was feeling inside with everything that was going on at home with control, abuse, and feeling worthless.  Those things were music, my church youth group, and the boy I dated that eventually became my husband.  I met him in choir.  We’ve pretty much known each other now for most of our lifetime and except for a short time apart, we’ve been together since we were 15 years old.  Hard to believe in times like these where so many of the friends and people we knew called it quits after even 5 years of marriage.  And although I experienced a devastating blow when I got dumped for a short time, I still had the last word of this relationship and my prophecy of “I will marry that guy” came true.  We still joke about it almost three decades later.

One thing that really impressed me about my son’s final choir concert of the year that paid special attention to the graduating seniors was how the choir teacher made everyone feel equally special and important.  Everyone got the same identical gift from her that included a note to all and were recognized individually, without hierarchy. They each got to write their own quote that was shared with everyone as they came up to the front of the stage to be recognized.  No one felt insignificant or was given any less recognition.  This immediately took me back to my own high school senior choir concert.  I remember that we were all given different kinds of awards.  There was a hierarchy that kept us on the edge of our seats hoping that we would receive the “special” award that set us above the rest of the crop.  I remember how disappointed I felt after receiving mine, not really grateful.  It was a let down for all the hard work I did, how hard I tried to improve, and my passion for music that was going to be my life’s calling. Although I was shy and didn’t call attention to myself, not many of the other kids had that kind of passion for it or aspired to do anything with it beyond high school.  I knew that I had a real fire inside me to continue in music to affect the world, despite how I didn’t toot my own horn. I was secretly wishing that someone in charge would toot it for me, would recognize me for who I was and the potential that I had in me. I knew that music was my life’s calling, not just a hobby or an extracurricular class I attended.  And I put my all into it and worked just as hard, if not harder than most.  But I didn’t really get that recognition in the end as I had hoped.  Instead, I  received some insignificant honorable mention plaque along with two other people who had such mediocre ability and effort and who barely tried compared to what I knew I possessed. It was extremely humbling.  I remember my face was flushed as I walked up to receive this award right after the other two who could barely hold a tune. How could that teacher put me in the same category as them? I just didn’t understand.

I remember sitting through that awards ceremony feeling embarrassed that I was put in the same group as the guy who was practically tone deaf.  I felt cheated as the teacher’s favorites who were a little more outgoing with chumming up to her got the big awards.  I felt dismissed, unrecognized, and humiliated.  It wasn’t fair. It put a damper on my overall experience to know that no matter what I did, how hard I worked and improved, and how much natural talent I had, I was not going to get the lead role in the musical, the special solo, the acknowledgment or the award that equaled my spirit.  I just got an honorable mention.  It was a real bummer.  I thought I deserved better than that.  And now that I see how my son’s choir teacher puts the same value and recognition on all her students, I realize how wrong, unfair and skewed that whole system that I had lived through was.  There was too much emphasis put on how well you chummed up or brown-nosed the teacher and talked to her a lot, or if you were her accompanist, or your parents knew her well, or if your parents volunteered or donated or supported in any way.  There was jealousy and competition with the students in something that should have just been about doing it for the pure joy of loving music.  I never really thought about this whole thing all these years until I realized how unfair it was compared to my son’s choir teacher and how she chose to place value on everyone, reached out to those who tended to stay hidden in the crowd, and encouraged all her students for the love of music.  That’s what it should be about.

But despite what I experienced personally, somehow it made me fight harder for what I knew I was going to do in this life.  And no stupid choir plaque saying honorable mention was going to keep me back.  To this day, I know of no other touring recording artist in my graduating class that attended choir. I am however thankful to know that there are several music teachers in that group. I just hope they don’t make the same mistake of playing favorites and encourage all their students equally because you never know who the next Elton John, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash or Dianne Warren or Carole King is sitting in your class.

As I sat in my son’s choir concert, these thoughts filled my mind about how we can stifle people by categorizing them with some kind of hierarchy system.  I realize that not everyone should be awarded equally all the time. There is a time and place for both sides of the coin; to be on equal footing, and to be recognized for the extraordinary composition that is you.  People with talent and who have worked hard should be recognized for what they do.  Regardless of whether they’re in a special circle, clique, are more subdued than those with more bravado in making their greatness known.  Some people know how to call attention to themselves, cozy up to those who can get them the shout out they’re desperately seeking, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better than the guy sitting in the corner writing the next brilliant masterpiece known to the music world.  Putting value on someone means a lot to a person.  Public recognition and affirmation gives them a boost that validates who they are and what they do.  But it can create egos and humility at the same time.

When all is said and done, I think it comes down to knowing who you are and acting on that.  You have to know if you’ve got something really extraordinary that moves people and you’ve also got to know that you’re not really cut out to do something despite how much you love it. I see this in music a lot.  There are some people who are oober talented and they have no idea how great they are, and there are people who are ridiculously untalented and think they are rock stars.  Know yourself.  Something that’s hard for all of us to truly embrace when it comes right down to the truth of it.  It’s taken me a long time to admit it out loud, but I know that I am so much more than an honorable mention.  What you do and continue to do will tell people who you are.  Not what you “intend” to do or pretend you are.  In life it comes down to two things; either you do, or you don’t.  YOU decide which one you are, not a stupid choir plaque that reads honorable mention.

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Carried Away

Remembering a song I wrote in May of 1989.  Sadly, thing have not changed with the story behind the song. But life is sometimes unresolved.

Carried Away:

I wish it wasn’t this way
I wish you would change your mind
Wish you could take away…what’s buried deep in my heart
Oh and time, keeps playing it’s reminding game
Taunting me

As we get carried away with foolish pride
Carried away with stubborn minds
Lost in the sway of angry words
buried in the missing years

Wish it wasn’t this way,
I wish you’d have a change of heart
Wish you could see things the way they really are.
Oh and time, is oh so bitter sweet,
It will ease my pain, but still remind me…we got carried away….

We got carried away with foolish pride
Carried away with stubborn minds
Lost in the sway of angry words
buried in the missing years

I don’t need your time
I Don’t need your peace offerings
I only need two words from the depths of your soul….I’m sorry
I really want to hear you say it –  I’m sorry
like you really really mean it – I’m sorry…

But it won’t be that way, won’t hear what I need  to hear
‘cause Pride has a way of taking all that’s dear….
Oh and time is oh so bitter sweet
It will ease my pain, but still remind me we got carried away…

We got carried away with foolish pride
Carried away with stubborn minds
Lost in the sway of angry words
buried in the missing years

Pride has it’s way of taking all that’s dear

Words & Music copyright by Sonia Vannest

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Are you seeking applause?

I woke up with this thought this morning first thing on my mind. A topic all too familiar to me, and comes up frequently.  I immediately put my thought out to Twitterland.

“Don’t mistake applause w/affirmation of gifts. Not the same. Any clown can get applause. True giftedness moves hearts”

This has been something I have not only addressed in the trenches of church ministry, but have also contemplated many times over when it comes to my own spiritual gifts and natural talents.  I guess the continued focus on stardom in this country and talentless, giftedless people trying to achieve success and recognition through mediums like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance and the many other offsprings from those shows, has got me thinking that we have our priorities mixed up and we also have our own stages within the Church.  The only difference is, most people who show up to audition are let in despite their gifts and talents not matching up because people are not as heartlessly blunt as Simon Cowell when it comes to telling the people the truth, so we don’t tell them the truth at all sometimes.  We applaud them, even though they sing off key or without feeling, don’t have great public speaking skills, or don’t work well with others in the serving ministry.  And when we do tell them “this isn’t really the right place for you to serve”, they don’t want to hear it.  Then they move on to another church who will let them do what they want to do.

I see many people through the years trying to achieve the Christian music career, moving to Nashville, trying to get a record deal because they think God told them this is what they are supposed to do.  Worship leaders trying to do “their” music on the side and get radio airplay instead of just focusing on the one place God has put you to minister to. It’s not enough to sing to 50, 100, 200 or even a couple thousand people each week.  We set our sights on bigger and better things that will give us applause to tell us “we’re really being used by God.”  I see churches, pastors wanting to build bigger buildings, reach thousands of people, build mega churches, even in areas where there is no population. I’m not saying God can’t do those things through us, but when our focus is on numbers, bigger financials, fans, and big engagements instead of having a realistic view of the gifts, abilities and placement God has asked us to work in, then something doesn’t add up.  Doing “little” things for God isn’t enough for us.  That’s when I think we have gotten in the way of God.  It has become all about us, not Him.

When I was growing up and even throughout my music ministry, there was no shortage of people coming up to me and telling me a few things that kept coming up over and over again.  I’m not talking about the little pats on the back about my “talent” for music.  They were deeper than that.  They were things like “that moved me spiritually”, “there is an anointing on you when you sing and lead worship”, “that song you wrote really ministered to me”, “I felt God speak to me through what you said.”  As I continued to pursue music and writing, I found out that those were the things, the affirmations that kept me grounded, not the “you’re a great singer”, “wow you really hit that high note” responses.  Because honestly, I can say that throughout my years of doing music, I have never received the applause I originally thought I was supposed to get as a musician who is supposedly oober talented, gifted, and called by God.  At least that’s what I thought at the beginning.  I see things differently now. I had always wrestled with that and it made me question whether or not I was really supposed to be pursuing music or not. Was I really talented enough? Gifted enough?  Is this really what God wanted me to do? Because I wasn’t getting the response I wanted from people sometimes.  I wasn’t getting that big platform we’re told a lie about that will come if God is really using you.  I wasn’t getting record deals or knocks on my door.  I got a lot of slams in my face and I had to come to terms with who I truly was, what my gifts were, and what my purpose for using them really was for. When I let go of those worldly expectations that have sometimes crept into our churches and twisted our spiritual focus, I never felt more freedom to just do what I was supposed to do.  When a song came to me, I just wrote it, sang it, put it out there for whoever would listen.  I stopped worrying about the music industry and radio charts, record deals, and tours.  I just started coming from my heart and let God do with it what He wanted, not what I wanted.  I still don’t have a record deal, but I do have many people who are moved by what God has put in me to do.  I’m ok with that now.

I see a lot of people out there trying to get applause.  They crave the stage, having people affirm them like they see them giving applause to other real talented & gifted people.  They want it for themselves. They want to feel important and special. I see people on worship teams wanting to be worship leaders for the status and affirmation of their talent, not their true gifting. There are people who think that because they love music that they should be seeking that platform when the truth is, there is no real gift there, and sometimes a huge lack of ability too.  Not to say that God doesn’t use people who are less talented than others and lift them up to do bigger things.  He does, but I think it has something to do with motives and where our hearts are, plus just being available and obedient for a specific time and place.  But I also know that many gifted and talented people will never see a huge platform or get applause from thousands in the audience.  Does it mean they are any less gifted? Any less talented? Any less called by God to use those gifts in whatever way He opens the door? Of course not.  God’s ways are not our ways.

So getting back to my point.  Applause does not mean affirmation of gifts. I mean this in the spiritual sense.  Talent is one thing…having the ability to do something really really well.  Often it works hand in hand with spiritual gifts.  But many times people are applauded despite their lack of talent and gifting.  It’s like your grandma who always tells you how good you are, even if you’re not.  I often wondered if I was given a false hope about this stuff.  But I realized one day that I had fallen into the trap of gauging my calling and my giftedness with applause of people.  It’s not the same thing.  I think that your gifts do not always raise you up to high places.  Sometimes God wants you to use them in the unseen places.  If we are truly servants for God with these things, then we shouldn’t be looking for those kind of recognition indicators to tell us whether we’re doing what we’re supposed to.  People will be moved by God. That’s your indication.

I’m tired of pulpit wanna-be rock stars who have no real spiritual depth and are playing to an audience for an emotional reaction instead of a spiritual one.  I’m tired of worshippers seeking to be worshipped and gauging God’s presence in a place on whether the people clapped afterwards or how well they played the music that day.  These things are of the flesh, not the spiritual realm.  When you are moving hearts, that is when you know you are truly being used and your gifts are lining up with your passion to serve God.  And the numbers or success of your platform isn’t important anymore.  When you become frustrated with what you’re doing and aren’t getting what you want out of the deal, you need to change your perspective.  Put the focus back on God where it belongs and the applause won’t matter anymore.  He’s put you where He wants you for now.  Be blessed in that.

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Ode to Rob Bell; Love Wins

Ode to Rob Bell; Love Wins


Something crazy happened this week.  Rob Bells upcoming book “Love Wins” created quite a stir in the religious community, leaving him with the title of heretic, false teacher, and pretty much pissed off some conservative Christians in the community.  Little did I know, my previous blog on my visit to the Unitarian Universalist Church would fall in line with the stir and gain some eyebrows as well.  I didn’t think I would write anything about this new book or Rob Bell because my blog is just a fart in the hurricane with all the other blogs that have been written this week either in support or opposition of his religious viewpoints.  But something came to me this morning so here goes.

The first thoughts that came to my mind were about the whole Protestant Reformation Period and the rule of the Catholic Church, the rule of King Henry VIII, the Church of England, and the challenge of that rule by people like Martin Luther and John Calvin and his followers the Calvinists, The French Huguenots of which my family ancestors were a part of.  It reminded me of the religious history I’ve found myself immersed in over the last couple years and how far “The Church” was at war with itself, and how those in power, specifically the Catholic Church and Church of England by King Henry’s hand, went to defend, protect, and control that religious reign.  Murder; that’s how far they went.  As I’ve delved into the archives of my family ancestry research, I’ve even found documented proof of my ancestors’ escape from France into Germany with the French Huguenots, followers of John Calvin and his teachings. Because of all the murdering going on back then, it’s also probably why none of the family researchers can find any French surviving ancestors that remained in France during this time after the migration into Germany and other surrounding countries that were part of the Protestant faith.

I see Rob Bell and his religious viewpoints in that same category as Luther, Calvin and the other martyrs who fought and sacrificed so that we could have the religious freedom we now know today.  Think about that.  Think about the sacrifice all these people made so that you, who sit in your “right” position of Protestant, conservative faith, whatever denomination that may be, all the while some of you doing the very same thing the early controlling church did to these kind of people for questioning authority, questioning what the words in the Bible are really saying, questioning theology, questioning what Jesus was really trying to tell us with His message, among many other theological debates that will never go away.

A really cool quote came in through my twitter this week from Jeff Deyo that I think sums it all up:  “Overwhelmed about what the Bible is really all about? Confused about what God wants from u? Here it is: Love God. Love people. Mt 22:37-40”

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I think that’s all that is supposed to matter, yet we as the Church continue to make it about everything else, to the point of murdering others for having any thoughts beyond what our current church doctrine is.  We still live in Condemnation, counting every offense of others and keeping track, instead of doing the very thing that should make us Christians;  Love God, Love People.  It makes me think that we’ve given Christians the wrong label over all these years.  Because most of them haven’t really been Christ followers at all. They’ve followed men who used Christ as a religious focal point but have distorted it into a monster.

So I’m excited to read Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” and I have it on pre-order.  I’m excited because I am very open to learning, to being challenged beyond my current knowledge and view points.  Because I really don’t know it all, and neither does anybody else out there.  I think that when people like Rob Bell challenge those who think they do know it all, it ruffles feathers, it shakes their insecurity and closed-mindedness.  Why?  Because they are living for “religion”, not Jesus.  Ouch.  Sorry, was that too judgmental?  But it’s the truth. Religion is the focal point, not love. And I look at people like the Westboro Baptist Church who are just a joke and would do anything to attract media attention, even stage a media stunt and present a false situation on public television, and who are no better than the early murderers in the church, pompous in their “right”.  It gives Jesus a bad name.  Let’s all just ignore them, shall we? Maybe they will go away once nobody cares anymore about their stupid “wanna-be religious media rock stars” campaign.

We will always have our religion wars.  We will always have changing church beliefs.  Social norms we once held on to as “right”, like murder, slavery, bigotry, are no longer supported, as they shouldn’t be.  I’m glad there are people out there like Rob Bell and Tony Campollo who won’t be controlled by religion, but are forging the way to a new era of knowledge and thinking and as I put it, “Get back to Jesus”.  It’s probably going to be rough, but we are in a new age of change religiously.  Gay freedom is just one of the many issues involved in that new religious age.  One day we will all look back, our heirs will look back a hundred years from now, and we will be ashamed for the way we, as a Church, behaved and believed and carried on, and how we truly did not do what our very Christ said to do, to Love.  In the end, I believe Rob Bell has it down in the book title.  Love Wins.

Posted in Exploring Faith 2011 - Church Hopping | 1 Comment

“Get back to Jesus” – my experience with the Unitarian Universalist Church

“Get back to Jesus” – my experience with the Unitarian Universalist Church

I decided after visiting the most recent UU congregation that I needed to explore this faith a little deeper. Just like any church out there, not all churches are created equal or alike, and you can’t make a blanket statement about such a broad range of viewpoints, focuses, and groups of people who are within the same category.  Just like all Protestant, Pentecostal and Catholic churches are not all alike, the people are different, and the feel is different with Unitarian Universalist churches as well. So although I had one visit to a Unitarian Universalist Church, I have since then watched online, listened online and plan to attend at least one more church that has a different location, size, and feel to it.

For those wondering about the Unitarian Universalist faith, it is a theologically liberal religion characterized by its support for a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  A syncretic religion with Christian roots in the United States and Canada from the merger of Unitarian and Universalist churches.

From Wikipedia:

Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather, they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual’s theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritative requirement. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different theological sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices.

Historically, both Unitarianism and Universalism have roots in the Christian faith. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists espouse a pluralist approach to religion, whereby the followers can be atheist, theist, or any point in between.

It is slightly different from the strictly “Unitarian Church” which is a specific type of nontrinitarian Christian theology.  It is nontrinitarian in that it holds that God is only one person, in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity (God subsisting as three persons).  On a side note, the Trinitarian doctrine was not fully established as we now know it until the 4th Century.  Yet these same separate view points still serve the same God.  This was a decision concluded by men well after the scriptures were written and came to that conclusion by piecing together certain scriptures as it is not fully stated anywhere in scripture. When it comes down to this, it makes me realize that we don’t have all the answers to these types of theological questions, and no absolutes on anything that continually change over the course of time.

My visit to the Unitarian Universalist Church:

This particular church I visited February 13th, 2011 was a small and struggling congregation.  It was very liturgical with it’s service format, recited their beliefs formally as we do with our own formal readings, had “sharing time” or as Christian churches call it, “testimony time”, sang hymns from a hymn book, took an offering, and had those same types of people who valued their traditions.  It was a particularly older congregation that was struggling with finances and growth.  It reminded me of so many other Christian churches I’ve either visited or attended at some point in my life at this same point in their story.  The people that make up a congregation determine what will happen at any given time and in the future.  This congregation was primarily made up of much older people who had been there for a very long time. There were several older gentlemen in their late 60’s or early 70’s who were definitely throwbacks to the Woodstock experience, wearing headbands and wild 60’s-ish patterned shirts.  And there were little old ladies wearing church dresses who were faithful to their beliefs for their entire life. There were your average run of the mill people too. There were also a few middle aged people, but other than the children, I did not see a young person under 35 except one or two, and from what I could gather, this was a congregation that was stagnant.  They were having their annual financial drive Sunday and from the reports and announcements made upfront and by those in the seats, they weren’t meeting their financial goals.  This is no different than any other Church I’ve ever known of.  Congregations like this are more like a social club, a routine, a fellowship hall, but also made up of people who have no vision, passion, no goals to grow, no outreach to bring in new families, young people, or as we call it in Christian circles, “using our spiritual gifts” to minister to others.  They are primarily made up of “takers”, not “givers”, and people who sit in the pews week after week, year after year, never doing anything but receiving.  It’s a bit selfish once you think about it. And Christian churches have these same types of people.  I’ve seen this before. I’ve visited other churches like this before.  It’s full of people who don’t’ want to make any effort except for a few hard working individuals who do all the work.  It lacks passion. There are no servants except for a few people who end up burning themselves out and become jaded because no one else is helping. It’s full of people who come there for their weekly fix, to take, but not to give back, even in the offering plate.  It is no different from any Christian church like this. It’s made up of people who either exhibit the same traits and lack the same motivation.

This was only one congregation of many Unitarian Universalist churches though, so I realize that I can’t base any conclusion on one experience.  However, what I did gather from this UU faith as a whole after studying further on this religion, listening to other online sermons, reading up, and looking at several other church websites, is that their values are the same. They are very focused on serving the community, on having community together, and reaching out in ways that extend beyond their church walls.  They are open to all people without judgment. There are some churches in the UU faith that have more focus on one particular faith than another. There are some more open to Christianity, and some more focused on Eastern Philosophy and Religion, some more New Age, and some very Liturgical or Informal.  The general population of those attending each church will determine that.  Not every congregation is alike.  But from what I learned so far on this particular brand of faith, there are many similarities to pure Christian faith with many of the same teachings.  In fact, I would go as far as saying most of them do embrace Christianity fully, but also glean from other religious philosophies that as a whole, wouldn’t conflict with Christian views if you took the “Christianese” talk out of the equation; it’s the same subject matter.  Their main motto in a nutshell is that all are welcome, all are valuable, and all deserve to be loved and respected no matter what their lifestyle, beliefs, race or nationality and so on.  Sounds Christian to me.  Sounds like Jesus to me.  The more I learn though about UU, the more I realize how much it IS like Jesus and what He came here to teach us, how we should live and treat others.  And yes, I would go as far to say that many people choosing this faith have accepted Jesus as their Savior and are in all terms “saved” as Christians would put it.  They’re no less saved than any Christian who has chosen to do this.  And there are probably some in these many congregations who aren’t saved, who haven’t really embraced Jesus, just like in many Christian churches.  They are just open to other view points in order that the whole person will be enlightened and made better.  It’s less about rules, and more about the journey. That reminds me so much of the Jesus I know and what He said.

My experience with this faith has left me to the following thoughts:

I think it’s when we start bringing in rules people must follow that religion screws it up.  It makes me really think about what being a Christian really means, what salvation really means, and what being “saved” really means.  It makes me really think about what knowing God really means, and what “knowing” Jesus really means.  Is it a trip down to the altar to get saved? Or is it a choice to follow after Him and what He taught? Regardless of the packaging?  Is this what it all comes down to in order to “know God”? To be saved? It makes me want to reiterate the very words of Jesus to people who have forgotten what He actually said about living life, serving and loving God, about the Kingdom of God, and about having “everlasting life”.  I think that when we start becoming “religious”, to me, that means “law”.  And when our focus becomes so much about “law”, we lose our focus on “love” which is the main message of Jesus.  So if we really boil salvation down and “knowing God”, Jesus pretty much told us what we need to do in order to do that.  If people are doing that, how can anyone judge their salvation? (Which we shouldn’t do anyway. Only God is our spiritual judge.)  “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:6-7   I think if we base it all on this, following Jesus, knowing Him, embracing His character and His teachings, living our lives to please God with Jesus as our example, I would say that means knowing and accepting Him no matter what “religious” label you want to put on it.  He came to shout out who God really was and what was most important to Him.

This has brought me to a conclusion that is probably going to ruffle a lot of religious folk’s feathers.  I hope they can let go of the rule book and grasp my main point here.  Especially if they are those who think it’s an all or nothing, believe what I believe, road to Heaven.  I think it’s possible to be “saved”, to know God, to accept Jesus and inherit eternal life in religions that are not orthodox Christianity. I also think that all of us continually sin.  We just like to focus on the more visible sins like adultery and homosexuality to feel better about our hidden sins.  We all have them, and yet we all claim to be saved as we live through the struggles of these sins, still claiming to know Jesus, and to be serving God.  Some of us will struggle with them our entire lives, daily surrendering them to God.  Some of us will continue to live in these sins, not realizing we are, yet on the same path as those we throw stones at who may not know it about themselves yet either.  So why is someone else’s sin any more separating them from daily living for God than mine?  And what is the real measure of sin? That has changed over the decades.  We used to embrace slavery.  Now we don’t.  We used to embrace polygamy.  Our social views have changed.  Our theological & denominational views have changed.  How are we any more right today about the beliefs of our faith than we were 2000 years ago? Were the early followers sinners for having different beliefs than we do today? Is man the judge of sin? Or is our heart’s condition judged by God within us? I think we all know, we all feel that tug, when something we are doing or thinking isn’t quite right.  As a whole, I think as Christians we’ve become so focused on sin instead of life, love, and servanthood, that our main reason for becoming a Christian is just to stay out of hell, and we can only do that if we follow all the rules….rules that are mostly enforced over history by authoritative control freaks who abused God’s Bride.  This is the opposite of what Jesus taught us.  And I think He would still be crucified today by the same church claiming to serve Him. He is more than the nutshell we’ve put Him in and defend at all costs. This is when we’ve crossed the line of knowing Him, and serving our flesh.  Because living for religion is about the flesh. Living for Jesus is about the Spirit. Our need for conclusions and absolutes separate us instead of bring us together under the same One God.

My study of the early church history has also led me to believe that man has dictated many things that Jesus would have never intended with our organized religion.  The power trip and need to control people is why religion is even in place and to consolidate beliefs into one general synopsis to keep people in line.  It’s authoritarian.  However, many of the early churches had no hierarchy like this, no governmental control like we do now, and were probably more focused on the actual teachings of Jesus than the way we have been led to believe.  This is something most church going folk are in denial of. They don’t even really know much about the early formation of the church and its early leadership, (many of who were corrupt, power-hungry control freaks, even murderers) or how the Bible was even written.  I think it’s a safe bet, that if you believe, look at and follow the teachings of Jesus, his example, what he said, how he lived, you have embraced Him.  And if you have embraced Him, you are saved.  Isn’t that what He said anyway?  Why are we splitting hairs?

He also said the Kingdom of God is within you.  It’s not just about some forever after place, it’s about the here and now really.  It’s how you live your life and affect those around you.  It’s not about how long you prayed today, or how many scriptures you read, or how much you put in the offering plate, or how many times you went to church this week because that is religion. It’s about how you love and live in a way that pleases God, and how you have put that first place in your life.  Jesus was that example. That is why God sent Him, so that we could know God, know what was most important to Him. Man has just screwed that up with religion and arguing over who is right or wrong.  It’s time the Church gets back to Jesus.  Really gets back to Him.  If you read nothing else in the Bible, no Old Testament, nothing beyond the four gospels that reflect the life of Jesus, the main message that we base our Christian existence on is the very life and words of Jesus.  Bottom line, I think that’s really all we need.

I don’t’ like the word “Religion”.  I don’t like that we even have to categorize our beliefs with that word, like when people ask “what Religion are you?”  But I understand that our shallow human existence needs it.  There are so many answers about God I still don’t have. I will never know everything.  But I do know that those who are absolute and say they know everything they need to know are fooling themselves and arrogance does not please God.  Those who believe in God, the creator of Heaven and earth, primarily believe in the same one God.  We all want the same things primarily.  I think we need to connect more with others outside our choice of faith.  But we don’t.  We only want to associate with those who are like us.  Even within Christian denominations.  I think it’s ok to have different view points on certain things.  There is something for everyone and we are all on this same journey.  I just don’t understand why, that after 2000 years, we still have the amount of fighting, judgment and separation we do in the entire Body of Christ.  It tells me that we really don’t know Jesus. We’re still living as Pharisees.

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Mohandas Gandhi

If we are who we say we are, then why isn’t the world as a whole recognizing Jesus in us?  We need to get back to Jesus.  Otherwise, what’s the point of labeling ourselves Christian?  I think the Christian religion has swayed way past the original intent of Jesus Himself.  We’ve made a corporate debacle out of it. And we need to get back to what His life was all about teaching us.  We are not martyrs in His name.  We are a big joke to the world because we don’t even know Jesus.  These are the thoughts that my experience with the Unitarian Universalist Church have left me with.

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The Early Service Isn’t Always Lame

The Early Service isn’t always Lame

So I’m really doing this.  As with anything I do, I start out really pumped up and sometimes bite off more than I can chew.  I planned to do a Saturday night service, 2 Sunday services, and a Sunday evening service. I know, a bit much. I ended up just doing 3 Sunday morning services. Two were at the same church but caught the worship of the second service before I had to leave for the second church.  So here’s what I did and some thoughts I have on these experiences.

Sunday, February 13th, 2011:

Today I visited a Unitarian Universalist Church.  I have some friends who have chosen this faith and I love my friends so I want to better understand where they are coming from.  Before deciding which particular Unitarian Church I was going to attend, I did some research on all the area churches including Orlando and Sarasota.  I thought this particular one I ended up choosing seemed like the better choice to start off with.  I drove a little over an hour to get there and my plan was to attend an 11:00 service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation but before that catch the 8:50 service at another Christian Church I’ve wanted to visit anyway.  A friend of mine is the cousin of the worship leader there and I’ve wanted to check it out for some time.  So I left extremely early to attend the first service at TLC Family Church.  Before I started blogging about this, I considered the question of whether or not I’d want to mention the specific church names.  I think I will mention some of them and the others I will just use a general denomination reference.  I’m trying to have an open dialogue about my experiences. I’m sure that I will learn a lot about myself through this experience and my own particular biases, ignorance, and preferences.  But mostly, I’m just going to do some explanation of the belief system of the church itself, and what I experienced and learned there and how I was received for the most part.

So like any Christian early service, there are very few willing to get up at “un-Godly hours” like that.  This visit reaffirmed that truth!  Usually early services in churches are there to make room for the “main service” which is somewhere around the 10:30-11:00am mark.  Or they are there for a different style or sometimes the more traditional service is held in the early service because the church wants to accommodate those who are still wanting the old traditions instead of the new “contemporary” direction the main service is going.  Sometimes churches have more than 3 or 4 services on a Sunday and even a Saturday evening service for the purpose of growth. They’ve grown out of their capacity for one service.  And a lot of times, the faithful long-time attenders are asked to choose another service to “make room” for new people coming in.  I have to be honest. I always hated this.  I don’t like going to the early service. I despise it in fact. And I’m supposed to feel more spiritually mature by giving up my seat at the main service?  I hated this tactic. Just being honest.  If I had my choice, we’d move the main service time back even later, except there would have to be a pot-luck buffet intermission because by the end of the service my stomach is rumbling and I’m thinking about food. I know many of you reading this have done this too. Come on, we’re human.  So I’m just saying….an intermission buffet would be killer!

This particular church I attended at 8:50am was like most early services.  It didn’t quite start right away, and there were very few people attending who were mostly those “dedicated servants”, as far as I could gather, who attended to either make room for visitors in the later service or maybe even some who wanted a more low-key intimate group setting.  Not sure what everyone’s preference was, but there were not many people there. Probably around 14 by the time everyone arrived.  However, I stayed for the 10:15 service just for the worship portion and I saw several of those very same people attending the “main service”.  But there was a different speaker for that one and there was still plenty of room.  So for whatever reason, they still had an early service in a separate, smaller room.  And everyone knew I was a visitor. Kind of obvious.  Despite the few in attendance, everyone was fully engaged “verbally” with the Pastor’s message. I kind of like that personally.

I could tell right away though that these people were genuine.  Pretty much everyone there came up and spoke to me and welcomed me in a genuine, warm way.  To be honest, I wasn’t expecting this.  It was probably odd having a visitor at the early service.  I got my own special announcement and welcome.  Being aware of how churches function and the norm of service times, and coming from a church background, I didn’t particularly feel embarrassed or put on the spot. No one made me feel like that. Believe me, I know how that feels as I’ve visited some churches that went a little overboard.  I don’t think I would like that if I was a new person trying to check out the church for the first time.  But knowing that I was just a visitor for today, the pressure was off.  And no one made me feel awkward.  It was pretty casual and open.  Everyone seemed close-knit and like a family.

The Senior Pastor was away in India, one of my favorite cultures, so for both services they had someone else speaking.  I met Pastor Stanley who spoke that morning, as he came right up and welcomed me before they started. But I stumbled across my words like an idiot though and called him “Stanley”.  Hopefully he didn’t notice I left off the “Pastor”.  Doh!

From what I knew of this particular church already, it had more of a Pentecostal, yet non-denominational feel to it.  The worship in the first service was genuine, intimate, yet still passionate.  Pastor Stanley gave a great message. It was not over-done with fist pounding as some Pentecostal preachers do, but spirited, genuine, reaffirming things I’ve read in the Bible before, encouraging, and had an afterthought that hit me between the eyes. I’ll elaborate on that in a bit.  The worship leader who I already know to be amazing in what he does, just played the keyboard and sang by himself for this service. Two modern worship songs.  So this was not for a “traditional” type service.

The later service was in the larger sanctuary and was very modern. It was televised so there were cameras everywhere. I’m not always a good guess at numbers but maybe the auditorium held 1000-1400 people but it was probably ¾ full by the time I had to slip out to attend the 11:00 Unitarian service a few minutes away.  The setting was modern in its décor and tastefully well-done.  The stage was up higher like in a real auditorium, not the lower church stages which are intended to be “down with the people” more.  I appreciate a taller stage though in an auditorium this size because I am a short 4’ 11” and can never see anything.  This always bothers me and it never fails that big tall people stand in front of me everywhere I go.  So I was happy I could see everything and didn’t feel like a sardine or Zacchaeus.

The worship was with full band and team of about 4 other singers. It was celebrative, spirited, and expressive.  There was a big space upfront between the chairs and stage which I would like to refer to as the “mosh pit” where people just came right up and stood to fully engage in worship. Almost like a concert.  I saw others in the back waving banners and streamer type things.  There were people laying on the floor upfront as things progressed into a more lower-key, long expressive worship transition.  I could tell that people were genuinely here to worship God and were very comfortable doing so, and were allowed to worship in whatever form or expression they felt comfortable.  There were people speaking in tongues.  People sitting, kneeling, standing, dancing, clapping, waving banners, laying flat faced on the floor, and some just standing still with their eyes closed.  If I’m being honest, this is the type of freedom in worship that I wish for all congregations. Although I know there are many forms of worship, not just music and singing, and everyone has their own comfort level with the music part of worship, I would hope that all of us who love God can worship Him with this much passion, genuineness, truth, and without inhibition whether it’s physical, emotional or intellectual in its delivery. And have the maturity to allow others around us to do so.

The congregation was multi-cultural which is something I really like.  I have to be honest again and say that I do not like attending an all white church, or even with just a little culture. I appreciate and value people of other cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities.  I know that geography plays a big role in the racial genetics of a church, but if you’re in a multi-cultural, multi-race location like a bigger city, the cultural and racial diversity of your church shows health and how determined you are to reach people of many backgrounds and how welcome they feel there.  It’s just my preference, but I like this about a church, yet I still appreciate the uniqueness that an all Black, Hispanic or Asian church has too.   But I’m still at a place, where I do not feel as comfortable in most all White churches.  Not because I don’t feel comfortable with White people, but because it is usually very formal and refined in a lot of them, not all, but a lot of them.  I also must say that I appreciate the liturgical and traditional customs we have also. It’s just that those seem to be most of the focus in most of the all White churches I’ve attended. I’m just being honest about this and letting you know what my preference is. But as I mentioned before, I’m learning to worship God more freely despite my preferences, no matter what type of service I’m attending.  I’m growing up a little bit.

At the end of the first early service, I thanked the Pastor for a great message and told him that something he said really hit home for me.  It reaffirmed what I’d been through and where I was going.  The message he gave was of recognizable truths I’ve come to know, about putting on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6) as he spoke specifically about each one and what it meant.  He spoke about battle and being equipped to fight our enemy. But what I got out of this was not the typical “the spirit of darkness is your enemy”, but sometimes we ourselves can be our own enemy, like when we choose to hate, or not forgive those who have hurt us. Things will come up against us that will hurt us, like people who say things to hurt us or keep us down, like even corrupt leadership in the Church.  He spoke of David and his relationship with Saul, (read the book of I Samuel for the whole story, but chapters 18-24 for this story) how he fled to a cave to run away from his King, (his  “pastor”) Saul, who wanted to kill him.  Saul had become jealous of the attention David was getting and attempted to have him destroyed.  David fled to a cave.  Like so many people run away from church and church people because we have hurt each other. We’ve been hurt by people who should know better, people who are in leadership over us, and we run and hide. We leave.  The truth is that David had the respect of his army and could have had Saul killed at any time. He certainly got close enough to cut off a corner of his robe without him knowing.  But David remembered and respected that God had anointed Saul as King.  David still respected that and refrained from having Saul killed.

When we are hurt by people like Saul, most of us do kill our pastors, our leadership. We kill them with the ill words we speak about them, try to demise their position and get others to come up against them.  It’s a tough thing and I know it’s happened to so many people. It’s happened to me. I’ve been unfairly and unjustly treated by leadership over me. Leadership that was jealous of the favor God had placed on me instead of worrying about the anointing God had given them for their position.  When we forget about our calling and are too worried about others showing us up, many of us turn to destructive tactics that ruin people’s reputations and either cause them to leave our congregations or destroy their spirit altogether.  I’ve been at rock bottom because this was done to me. It’s no fun.  I got angry at God for allowing this, for allowing someone in leadership to get away with it.  We see corrupt leadership discredit others, stretch the truth or slant conversation about others in an unfavorable way, or leave out truth so no one will know the good things about that person or how gifted they are because they feel their own position is threatened. We also do it to those in leadership over us who don’t do things the way we want, or tell us things we don’t want to hear.

The truth is that if God places you somewhere it’s up to Him to remove you if He wants.  Sometimes it’s not always because someone is better than you, or because you did a bad job, but because He wanted you to have that experience, to learn what you needed to learn to move to the next place He has for you, and sometimes it’s about what others are going to learn from you while you’re in that position.  I certainly learned a lot from observing bad leadership. Things I didn’t want to repeat when I was in that position.  And sometimes it’s about moving someone else up who God needs at a specific time and place, and you might have to move over. When we put too much worth on our leadership or position, we become like Saul and try to destroy those we feel threatening our position or who might take it from us, or make us look less than.  And we’ve forgotten the one main thing about leadership – that it’s not about being served by others, but to serve others and bring up others higher than they thought they could be, even if it means they will rise higher than ourselves, using wisdom and discernment to guide them or allow them opportunities to shine that are within our power to grant them.  Many leaders will not allow those opportunities because deep down, it’s all about their position and they hold too tightly to it. When this happens, I’ve seen God take position away from people.  But at the same time, He doesn’t always take things away for those reasons like corrupt leadership. Sometimes it’s just part of the plan. And if we are humble servants, we get that.  We’re ok if God puts us in a lower position because we get that He is in control and knows the reason that we just need to trust Him on.

I identified with that story of David this morning.  Because I’ve fled to the cave after being wounded by corrupt leadership.  It’s never easy when this happens, but eventually, the Saul’s of this world are dethroned and new Kings are anointed.  There are times to walk away from a really bad situation, and times to stick it out.  Only God can tell you which one you are supposed to do.  It’s not the same for everyone.  Sometimes, it is ok to walk. If enough people walk, maybe it will finally click that something is wrong with this picture.  If enough people address the same issues, or speak up about them, maybe it will finally hit home that Saul needs a motive check.  I hope that most would be big enough people to admit that there is always room for improvement.  But most are not.  They see it as a sign of weakness instead of seeing that it takes a stronger man to admit he’s wrong and work towards changing his ways.

So that’s what I got from the early service this morning.  And I didn’t need a lot of hoopla and flashing lights or video montages to learn it.  For such a time as this, it was spoken to me.

Next up:  My experience with the Unitarian Universalists Congregation. Stay tuned.

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Love and Fear

Prologue Continued 2/14/2011  “Love and Fear”

I made a list of denominations and religious faiths that I wanted to explore this year.  Many of them I’ve already read up on or have even attended some of these types of churches before, or I have friends who do.  These are the churches I plan to visit and faiths I want to learn more about than I currently already know, and I’m hoping that it will bring a little more knowledge to those who don’t know about them. Not that I am any kind of theologian or expert, but because most people don’t take the time to find out and would rather make a blanket statement about all people who do not believe as they believe. It’s usually inaccurate and most of the facts are distorted and spread around like a venereal disease.  Even within my own Christian faith.  I’m also going to go re-visit some old places I’ve attended to see if anything has changed, as well as some of the denominations I’ve been a part of.  Here is the list so far:

Unitarian Universalist Church
Pentecostal – in its various forms – Assembly of God, Church of God, etc.
Black Gospel Churches in their various denominations (because I love this spirited style)
Non-denominational Churches that stemmed from various denominations (they are not all the same)
Episcopal & Anglican
Jehova’s Witness
Church of Later Day Saints (Mormon)
Greek Orthodox
Eastern/Asian religions i.e. Budism
New Age
Seventh Day Adventist
Protestant Church denominations:  Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Free Methodist, Nazarene

I will probably add more to this list as I go along.

I’m finding that a lot of people are already interested in this journey I’m taking this year.  But I also know that there will be some of those types I’ve described earlier who will be defensive and judgmental.  Maybe they will learn something.  If anything, I hope Christians will continue to learn more about who Jesus really is because I honestly think most of them don’t.  Even making that statement is offensive to people.  They are unwilling to acknowledge that very fact.  Probably because they are one of those people who don’t.  I’ve already come up against judgmental “church lady” types because I stepped on their pretty little patent leather shoes.  One thing I’ve found when it comes to the “Christian” faith is how “offended” most followers get when anyone brings up religious conversation that differs from their own set of beliefs or “step on their toes”.  It’s to the extent that the offender, which is often me, walks away feeling like I’ve been sentenced to hell for even bringing it up.  People get defensive and hostile when speaking about their faith sometimes, at least this has been my experience with some Christians.  Before I go further, let me put out the disclaimer that I am speaking of “some”, not “all” Christians.  I know there is someone out there who will want to pick that bone with me so let’s get that out of the way.  I’m not a Christian basher.  But let’s face the truth, Christians have a lot of problems, and most are unwilling to face that truth.  We’d rather not talk about it.  I choose to acknowledge and talk about it with hopes that it will ignite passion in others to do something about it and fix it. You can’t fix it if you don’t acknowledge it.  I think it’s great to be passionate about what you believe spiritually. But if you’re too weak and shallow to have intelligent conversations about other beliefs because you feel it’s taboo to even bring it up and discuss, I think that shows an immaturity, ignorance and weakness about you.  It’s a defense mechanism we have.  It’s called judging. The fact is that there are many different people in this world and many forms of religion and even Christian viewpoints.  If you never want to encounter those, ever, you are living on an island.  When the great commission tells us to “go out and make disciples”, how can we do that if we are unwilling to intelligently know where they are coming from? Most of our knowledge about them is false and based in fear.   You can’t do what the Great Commission says if you stay within your box of a church and are only willing to talk about yourself.  We talk about being One Body, which I consider all Christian denominations together, but I find that most have the attitude that their particular sect of the religion is “right”.  I grew up in a denomination where I got that attitude from a lot of people. Mostly it was the older folks.  Our Christian denomination was right and everyone else was wrong, “after all, Jesus was a Nazarene” is what I heard a lot.  And those Pentecostals were just making up jibberish and not really following Christ! Even Catholics were not considered Christians and people were trying to get them “saved”.  Hello!  We came pretty much from Catholicism until Luther & Calvin and Wesley and some others shook things up to give you the denomination you now know.  This is what I’m talking about when most Christians do not even know much about their own faith, its history and foundations.  These things are important to know.

Whenever I don’t know anything about someone else’s faith, I usually go look it up. I look at the faith’s main website, which most have by now, and look at their beliefs, values and practices.  I listen to teachings, sermons, and view videos to see what kind of worship they do.  I read blogs, articles, and see what kind of community they have, what kind of focus they have, outreach, and now, when I really want to know more, I just walk through their front doors and find out what the people are really like.  I find that pretty much all of us are the same down deep inside, all looking for the same things, all have a lot of similar goals and passions, concerns, missions and values, and even traditions.  It’s when we fail to truly try to understand each other that we think we are extremely different.  A lot of this stems out of fear…fear of what will happen if my own beliefs are challenged to think beyond what I know, fear that the other side is some heathenistic cult that is trying to recruit me and will sacrifice me to idols or bewitch me or something crazy like that.  We are not firm enough in our own beliefs that we feel we can confidently speak without casting judgment to make ourselves feel a little more secure.  We can’t openly talk with someone else about their faith without telling them we’re right and they are wrong.  I say “we” because I’m coming from my own life’s experiences as Christian and these are the things that exist within the Christian community everywhere. I’m wondering if other non-Christian faiths deal with these same issues with people? I would guess they do to some extent.  It stems from a need of belonging and feeling security.  When anything makes us question or think beyond what we currently know, we feel somewhat threatened in our security, in our knowledge, in our faith.  So most people start acting like vampire hunters and hold up crosses and throw holy water on anyone who challenges those insecurities.  I think we all have them.   Even within our own denomination and faith.  We have contests to see who is more spiritual.  I call those people “Spiritual or Religious Bullies”.  To me, it shows just how afraid they really are.  A confident person, secure in their beliefs doesn’t need to put down others to feel more confident. They’ve already determined what they believe and if they are really secure, know how to appropriately speak with and lead others without using fear as a recruiting tool or control tactic.  People live in religious fear.  Which brings me back to love.  If we are to love as Jesus loved as Christians, and knowing what I Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:18 says about love, then perfect love casts out fear.  This is just one of many points and facets of this conversation I have with myself an others on a daily basis for the most part.  I believe this is the main message of Jesus Christ; Love.  This is the foundation of truly knowing God.

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