Why I’m Glad I Was A Church Nomad

I grew up Presbyterian, handbell and children’s choirs, Sunday school and church picnics. I went to Catholic school, kneelers and religion as a subject, catechism and rites. I was blessed to be given an upbringing which gave me a strong foundation in scripture. As a teen, I began to figure out what I believed as a person independent of my parents’ beliefs. I tried a number of churches before I found my way into an Episcopal church.

This church was like no other I’d been to. It was lead by a dynamic, brilliant rector who blended respect for church history and faithful forward motion respective of biblical truth. The church claimed to be Spirit filled, mission minded, Bible believing, church of God and so it was! I found the reverence and the elegance of the more traditional aspects of worship, the robes, pews, windows, hymnals, the book of common prayer; simple items filled with a bit of wonder as they reflected the light from the candles. As the cross was brought up the center aisle at the start of service, all these plain things around me came under that cross, as did I, just one more plain thing filled with wonder.

Each week we would confess our sins together and be involved in drawing our minds to the sacrifice made for us. Then in remembrance and thanksgiving, we would file to the front and receive communion where I would kneel and having the liturgy spoken directly to me, as the elements were placed in my hands I would feel as though I was being entrusted with something precious. Dipping the bread in the cup and then placing the elements in my mouth, my tongue warmed at the touch of wine soaked wafer, that little sensation one more indication of the physical life Christ lived.

Missionaries and bishops from all over the world would come and speak and I leaned in, absorbed in the stories of the persecuted church or of believers who did not have the abundant material blessings by which I had grown up so comfortably surrounded. “To the ends of the Earth,” drew near to me and there was a reminder that I am just one of many, a lesson which I was grateful to receive.

I left that service most  weeks and traveled to a charismatic Assembly of God service. There were many large families in this church, 5, 6, 7, and more children running about, growing into teens who gathered in front of the doors. As I walked in, the difference from the tailored Episcopal church to this unhemmed gathering was plainly obvious, but the sense of welcome and belonging was one in the same. People spoke in tongues, the input of the congregation not scripted by a pamphlet given out at the door, but people looking for the words of the Holy Spirit in a different way than I’d ever witnessed. I would watch with a curiosity which drove me into God’s Word.

In the evenings, Wednesdays and Sundays, I would drive to a non-denomination mega church, worshiping without a hymnal singing with a band which pounded out praise, sitting in a room packed full of people the same age as me, facing the same challenges as me. I could hear the practical teachings on what God would have to say about choosing a career path, about drama, about evangelism, and as we avoid too much direct eye contact, we heard preaching on dating and purity. All this life advice was wrapped in tightly into the doctrine of eternally security, which I needed to hear. I needed to hear that God would love me, no matter what. I needed to hear about a God who pursued me.

While I attended college, I found myself back in the Presbyterian church on Sunday mornings and in nondenominational on campus ministries throughout the week. I graduated and got married. In our first years, we didn’t find a church that suited us and we bounced, with our bouncing becoming more and more infrequent, from church to church. We moved to Richmond, to Northern VA and then to Ohio.

Ohio we tried a Church of Christ for a number of months before landing in a Methodist church. This is where I first heard Wesleyan theology, and though I didn’t agree with all of it, the minister explained I would be welcomed as a member if we chose. Membership was less about ascribing to a firm set of beliefs, he said, and more about saying, “This is my group.”

And finally, in Ohio we moved to the Church of Christ in Christian Union. It would take its own post for me to say all that I gained from this church, so I will save that for another time, but this church was Wesleyan-Armenian in doctrine and from the holiness tradition. I was introduced to the concept of surrender. I was introduced to the idea that a person could live a successful faith life. I’d heard my whole life about people who were considered “Saints,” or “saints of the Lord” but I had held no real belief that it could be a possibility for me. I saw young people standing firm in their faith, loving their friends but not bowing to peer pressure. I saw local missions being served onto the plates of the hungry and into the ears of the outcast. I heard some of the best sermons I have ever been privileged to hear encouraging not just depth of knowledge of the word, but daily living out the truths therein. I learned about conditional security and about the power which makes that doctrine a blessing not a curse.

This was the first place since I’d decided to make my faith my own when I was 16 that I truly felt was home. This was no nomadic experience. I was setting brick after brick into place, putting into place a shelter which would remain. Home. This church was everything I wanted a church to be. It was everything I would have chosen for myself.

But as it turned out, God walked up to us and handed us our knapsacks and said, “Come on. Let’s go.”

It was incredibly difficult to settle my heart after leaving that church in Ohio. But it was because I lived life as a church nomad, I knew that I could go through the process again. Walk into new places, shake hands, look at unfamiliar faces and wonder, are you my family? Is this my next home? Knowing that each place would have something valuable to offer, but that not every place would be for us.

I knew what  I wanted, but I also knew what I didn’t want. One by one, down fell churches with theology that I couldn’t align with, with practices that I was uncomfortable with, with southern gospel music as their only offering (I know it’s for some, but not for me.) Down fell churches with sound preaching, but inner turmoil. Down fell churches with unified congregations, but teaching I found uncomfortable. But even in those places I could see, their practices, their doctrine, their styles may differ, but again and again it was the same gathering, the same welcome, the same goal, to worship together, to grow deeper in faith and understanding, to love those in their communities and to care for those in need.

Which brought me to the Nazarene church. If our church in Ohio was everything I wanted in a church, this church had the decided disadvantage that it just wasn’t our church in Ohio. However whether I liked it or not, and for a good chunk of time I didn’t like it, this was clearly the church God wanted for me. At my first interview for my local license, one of those interviewing me looked me in the eye and said, “You might not be a Nazarene, and that’s ok. I know plenty of people in ministry in other denominations and they are great people. Maybe you’re supposed to be somewhere else.”

I looked around me in that moment and saw God raising an eyebrow at me. Didn’t I know that He had picked this church? Didn’t I see Him asking me to hand over my knapsack? Didn’t I see Him pushing a wheelbarrow of bricks towards me? Could I quit my wandering again?

Over the next year, God changed me, my mind, my attitude, my behaviors. And I am eternally grateful for it. I have been struck over and over that the more I learn about my denomination, the more convinced I become that I have been a Nazarene all along, I just didn’t know it. Each attractive part of each church I wandered into….plain things lit up with the wonder of God, the freedom of restraint found in the company of young children and the presence of the Spirit, practical life application, the assurance that God will pursue me, the acceptance of the person who is seeking, the sense of belonging, the ability to say “Yes, I will” to the challenges God walks us through, the commitment to missions both local and global, the freedom of choice and the responsibility to choose….each of these things I found here. I am at home again.

To the other wanderers out there, I encourage you, press on. But I also want to offer you this. The wandering was not aimless. The goal was always the same. To bring me home to where I could be held closest to Christ.

I wouldn’t have known what to look for without the wandering. It has given me a deep sense of belonging within the broader body of Christ, not just within a denomination. I learned to preserver in the search. I am glad that I was a church nomad, but the bigger truth is this. It has nothing on what I have gained from settling down.

Do not wander forever. Do not jump to run away at the first sight of difficulty or disagreement. Be willing to bend and to be molded. The nomadic life teaches great lessons, but it is difficult.

When you arrive at your home, don’t wait outside on the front porch. Don’t linger in the company spaces. Unpack. Settle in. Let yourself be home.

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Division: Math and the Church

What I remember from learning division is this. After a good year and a half of practicing our multiplication tables, 2×2 is 4, 2×3 is 6, 2×4 is 8, and playing Around The World and doing multiplication color by product sheets, we began division. We took out our plain notebook paper and drew that little diving board and worked and worked. We found remainders. We left room halfway down the page because long division takes up space. We did not play Around The World. We did not do coloring sheets. Division is serious work.

There will be no joy in division.

That was just one of the lessons I learned in 5th grade at the catholic school where I attended. It was during those years that I began to feel very less than. I was not cool. I was not the brightest. I felt left out when the other kids in my class went up to receive communion and I couldn’t. I heard the messages of a certain older priest who had very little compassion for the two kids in the class who weren’t Catholic.

My mother had prayed for me before I was born that I would have Jesus in my heart. I was brought up in a Presbyterian church, very active in anything that was available to me there. When I went to Catholic school I was always top in religion, often receiving marks of over 100 because I did the bonus work.I did all the work to be confirmed into the Catholic church, because it was for the religion grade, but wasn’t confirmed. I loved the work and so I put in the effort, even though I knew I wouldn’t get the reward.

For years, I thought this was a Catholic problem, making me feel like an outsider, and I resented Catholicism as a result.

I went through high school and in my senior year, I decided to make my faith my own. At the time I had walked away from the church of my youth, tried a Catholic youth group, a different Presbyterian youth group and finally found a spot in an Episcopalian youth group led by a Young Life leader filled with kids who wanted to be there of their own accord. I went to college and was involved in a non-denominational campus ministry, went to a PCA church while at JMU and a “bible” church when I was home. I got married, and we went to a Church of Christ and a Methodist church before finding a home in a Church of Christ in Christian Union. Then we picked up and moved and landed in, after quite a bit of church shopping, a Nazarene church.

Through that journey I found that in almost every building I walked into, there was a decidedly us vs. them mentality. I would find that in one church I would never feel like I could wholly grasp where God would lead me, because I was a woman. In another, I would be ineligible for membership because I’d been sprinkled not dunked. In another, I found that grace ruled over the pursuit of holiness, and any encouragement to pursue righteousness would mark you as the next Westboro member. Some more so than others, but in nearly every church I’ve gone to has been hard nosed people so committed to their theology that they’ve lost sight of their first love.

But there sitting in the same pews are people like my mom and my aunt, both Catholic, who though they knew my time in that private school had stung and left me bitter, loved me through it, showed me that their devotion was as true as mine and softened my heart. There was a camp counselor who taught me the quote “in the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; but in all things, charity.” (Which has it’s faults, but is in my estimation, a good starting point). A very dear pastor who answered a frustrated email from me telling me that no, I didn’t have to be dunked to attend or join that church, and that I was welcome to come, as I was, and be as involved or uninvolved as I wished to be and they’d be happy to have me with them.

Those kind of  people have always brought to me the understanding that reconciliation is multiplication. It is coloring and games and joy that spreads.

I’ve been reading Corinthians, which begins speaking about divisions in the church. 1 Corinthians 12 says “What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

As someone who has walked into such a variety of denominations, that I struggle to call myself a title other than just Christian, this is so sweet to me. It allows me to go into any church and listen for the voice of God.

Saturday evening I dressed and went to mass with my mom. The scripture was read and I heard, “In Christ there is no Greek or Jew” and in my mind I added, “no Catholic or protestant.” I listened to a homily delivered by a young deacon who is journeying towards the priesthood on the theology of suffering that was timely and offered nourishment to my spirit. I got up the next morning and went with my dad to his Presbyterian church and sang sweet standard hymns and listened to the preacher encourage his congregation out of dull dry faith. I came home and read a section of The Ragamuffin Gospel and listened to sermons from a preacher from a nondenominational church.

I don’t know that I can encourage anyone to contemplate this passage in Corinthians, but I hope you will. My prayer is that God will bring reconciliation, multiplication, and apply it to our church in America. My hope is that it won’t take each member of our nation’s churches the 20 plus years it took me to understand that our heart should be to preach Christ crucified and resurrected, and not to seek only the intellectual high ground. My hope is that there will be people who are heard when they say “It is not important who does the planting or who does the watering. What is important is the God makes the seed grow.”