The Brethren Don’t Dance (Church: Part II of II)

Recently I heard a song in church I never thought I would hear – “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. This version was different in that it lacked lyrics and was rearranged by one of our pastors and intern. Nonetheless, I didn’t know if I should be horrified or thrilled (after all, I do own AC/DC Live).

The sermon that another one of our pastors – Greg – preached that day was on hell (2 in a 3 part series), not an easy topic. If you’re curious about the content, you can read it online. But at the end of the service Pastor Greg said there is no one he’d rather follow Jesus with than the congregation.

And I completely agreed. Because I thought, “These are my people.” In fact, that’s what I think every Sunday when I go to church.

Sure, there are many Sundays when I am tired.  We are always running late. We are always rushing to make coffee, make breakfast, shower, get the kids ready, etc.  Often, we utter not-so-kind words on our way out the door. But then I step into our adult Sunday school class, which I have haphazardly coordinated for the past seven years and think “These are my people.”

In this day and age, church is not something that is a priority for many people. The news has been full of stories lately that Americans are not nearly as religious as they once were.  A recent Pew Research study talked about how the numbers of religiously unaffiliated has grown in the past few years. The focus is particularly on the age group below mine – the millennials; however, according to the study, only 34 percent of Generation X attend religious services weekly.

I know that the church, like other institutions, is flawed. Ranging from scare tactics about the end times to exclusion of individuals that don’t fit into a preconceived notion of how a Christian should act to corruption among church leaders (just watched the outstanding and disturbing movie “Spotlight”), it is easy to understand why so many have turned away.

Still, our family is part of that 34 percent that makes church a priority, and that is largely because of the unique congregation to which we belong.

Greg and I both grew up in church-going families, although we came from different ends of the spectrum.  He grew up with an evangelical background, while I was a part of mainstream Protestant churches. As a newlywed, I didn’t think this difference would affect us. We both came from the habit of attending church regularly, so we both assumed we would find a church to meet both of our needs. It wasn’t easy. In our first year of marriage, we visited several churches in our area, but nothing resonated with us.

Greg wanted to visit the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren, a denomination I knew nothing about.  A woman I worked with filled me in on this denomination.

“The Brethren don’t dance,” she told me.

Enough said. I wasn’t interested.

But then, in early 1999, something strange happened. We attended a funeral at this church and found that there was a female pastor. If there is a woman pastor, then the Brethren must dance, I thought.

The next week we attended the Sunday service and found the people incredibly friendly.  Greg already knew several people there, and two of the three pastors were from the Midwest. We were sold.

What we didn’t know about the Church of the Brethren, we learned in membership class and may seem odd to those not familiar with the church. The Church of the Brethren is one of three historic peace churches, meaning it takes the “turn the other cheek” verse seriously. The denomination as a whole opposes all war. Of course, as in all churches, not everyone feels the same about this topic. Our church is also an anomaly within the denomination in that it is open and accepting of LGBT persons.

Since that time, our bond with this unusual place of worship has only increased. While some churches struggle with whether to hold two services – traditional and contemporary – our church body has chosen to worship together as one in a blended service. We have traditional music from the hymnal and the choir combined with modern music that incorporates a variety of instruments and styles.  On Christmas Eve, for example, the service ended with a version of “Carol of the Bells” that rivaled the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

But a church is not only about what it stands for or about how inspiring the Sunday services are.  A church, most importantly, is about the people.  And these people are a caring people. Since we have been part of ECOB, we have experienced much joy, and that joy has been shared. When I was pregnant with my firstborn, I belonged to a book group comprised of mostly church members and they celebrated with me, by throwing me a “book shower” to stock up on books for Mitchell’s library. After both of our babies were born, people from our church brought us meals. When one of our family members was in an accident in the past year, the support from our congregation was overwhelming.

We cannot predict the future, but we can pretty much ensure that there will be both joy and sadness in the coming years. I have witnessed both in our church, and the outpouring of concern is amazing. I feel comforted to know that no matter what the future brings, we have a church family to walk beside us.  Some are our close friends; some aren’t. But it doesn’t matter. We are united by this unique and precious community.

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Turnip Soup and Sautéed Greens (Church: Part I of II)

This past Monday, while I could have been sitting in a tree stand, trying to shoot my first deer of the season (or my life for that matter), I was driving a car full of middle school boys to Washington, D.C. instead.

On this particular day, our church, the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren, organized a trip to volunteer at a soup kitchen in D.C. Our church visits this soup kitchen several times a year, as it is less than a three hour drive, is in need of volunteers, and provides a great opportunity for us to serve and interact with a different population than we are used to in our small, homogeneous town.

This was Mitchell’s (a sixth-grader) and my first visit and the first visit for the eight other youth that attended as well. As one of two drivers, I was slightly nervous about managing five boys by myself in the car, but they turned out to be surprisingly well-behaved.

When we arrived, we were given the ambitious assignment of preparing turnip soup, sautéed greens, and bread pudding for the lunch.  I say ambitious because I know at least my sixth-grader has never used a chopping knife. But the kids completed the tasks well and with joy. Despite the drizzly weather, they enjoyed visiting some monuments in D.C. afterwards.

On the way home, the boys played games they made up on the fly, one of which involved writing goofy stories.

Sadly, it has been a long time since I was in a car in which kids didn’t use electronics to occupy themselves on a road trip (my own fault, I know).

While they entertained themselves, I was reminiscing (in my head) about all my memorable youth group experiences growing up. There was the time in middle school in Minnesota when our socially-awkward pastor taught us sex education during confirmation class. I kid you not. The pastor told us that no matter what, the most important word of the lesson to remember was the “f word.”

“Does anyone know what the “f word” is?” he said.

Everyone in the room knew what the “f word” was. At first no one had the nerve to say it, but after much prodding from the pastor, one kid blurted it out.

The pastor’s mouth dropped open.

Apparently, the word he had in mind was forgiveness. When my friend and I told her mom later, she laughed so hard she had to stop the car.

Then, there was the time in high school when our church van collided with a Big Boy sign in Michigan during a ski trip. And another time when the van was already so full by the time my friend and I showed up for our road trip to Montreat, North Carolina that we got to ride in comfort in our youth group leader’s Caddy.  I think it was on that same trip that one of my peers and I spent part of the trip home writing poems and raps about our trip.  Not too different from Mitchell’s experience this past Monday.

The churches I grew up in weren’t perfect. But they were perfect for me at the time. They were places in which leaders encouraged questions, and the answers weren’t always cut and dried.  They allowed me to think for myself.

Thankfully, Greg and I have found a similar place where we take our kids. Although radically different in many ways from my past churches, it is a place where all people are accepted and welcome, where love trumps belief, where questions are encouraged, and where children’s safety and spiritual growth are prioritized.

It is not perfect either. But at a time when there is so much violence and negativity in our world, the focus on youth serving others is inspiring. And I feel lucky I got to witness it this week.

Below:  Mitchell and I in front of the Lincoln Memorial

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