Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tragic News for Journey IFC and Austin

I have been a bit off the journey here lately - an unexpected divorce intervened in my otherwise easygoing life - and I felt the need to be in one place for while, so I've been attending Riverbend. Last Sunday morning, I found out that a valued member of the Austin Christian community, David Gentiles, died in a tragic accident.

You may recall my visit to Journey Imperfect Faith Community, in which David Gentiles spoke. I found David to be such a wonderful person to listen to. In fact, when I went back to Journey for Ash Wednesday, it was David who prayed over me, applied the ashes to my forehead and then gave me a big bear hug before I left the service. I'm not much of a hugger and was a little taken aback when this stocky man grabbed me, but he was so warm and loving, I couldn't help but be touched. This death touches so many people beyond the three girls he raised by himself and the group of people at Journey IFC. It's hard to know why the Lord lets things like this happen. Is there a lesson to be learned? Is death just an inevitable evil we must face and there is nothing more to say?

In pondering David's beautiful life and tragic death, I can see one thing that will be a challenge for those at Journey. Let me back up first and say that one of the distinguishing marks of Journey is that people of all backgrounds in all the various places in their lives are welcome. Questions are welcomed and sometimes the answers to those questions aren't easy. Is there really a God? Why does He allow such evil in the world? How do we know we are worshiping Him as He desires? Do you ever get mad at Him? Do you ever question His motives? These types of questions, the types we often ask deep within ourselves but fear ever expressing them outwardly, are not only welcome but encouraged at Journey. I imagine this means there are people there who are at various crossroads in their Christian lives. They may even teeter on the brink of unbelief, but something continues to draw them to the faith community.

David was a beacon among those people. He made Christianity make sense because you could see the love of Christ in his face, see the movement of God in his life. How will those people react to this tragedy? This may be one of the first big challenges for new or renewed Christians who have found Journey IFC a safe place to seek answers. I believe that, in 10 years or so, people will look back at Journey and see this moment, this period, as a turning point in the life of the people. How they respond and react, whether they grow colder or closer, may very well be a reaction to David's life and death. I believe they will come out better. I have to believe that because I've seen the love they have for one another and I'm sure David's prayers are still felt over the people as he communes with God in a very real and new way. His journey with them is over, but his journey with God has just moved to a new level. This is, indeed, a very important time for Journey and it is an opportunity for them to feel the love of God through the tears and loss.

I've been thinking about them lately. I'll have to try to get over there in the new year. I believe I will see a hurt community that is strengthened through their trial.

Lord, grant your servant, David Gentiles, peace as he now rests in your presence, with all the saints of God.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Austin City Life

Austin City Life meets on 6th Street at a club called The Parish (or The Parish room). It's an upstairs club that features live music during normal working hours. The name, of course, is perfect, for the gathering of Christians as well (although they have only been meeting here about two months, so I don't think there was anything purposeful in it).

It's a little odd to enter a church from 6th Street, climb stairs, and walk into a bar. However, somehow this works. It's warm and inviting. I was greeted immediately upon entering by several people, a coffee station was set up, and music was playing overhead. At least two of the people I spoke with appeared sincerely interested in how I found the place, if I'm looking for a church home, etc. In fact, I found myself kind of dancing around the fact I was here to chronicle this experience on the blog. I was also given a free copy of the book, Don't Waste Your Life, by John Piper. Although the website of the church states services begin at 10:00, people stood around and visited with one another until about 10:15 or 10:20. The church is mainly made up of young people and families. I saw some babies (they had two births this week), teens, and young adults. There were a few people over 50 or so, but not a large number. Overall, I would guess there were about 80 people in attendance (but as I've said before, I'm horrible at estimating numbers - it could have been 60 or 100).

The band that led worship was pretty amazing. I want to first say, up front, I'm not a big fan of female lead singers. Most of the music I grew up listening to, and even music I listen to now, is tilted more towards guitar and male singers. This band has two young ladies who sing and they were simply awesome. One of them had one of the most soulful, beautiful voices I have ever heard live. The other harmonized beautifully. I used the word "soulful" because the music was simply that - it moved the soul. I found myself a little surprised at how deeply I was moved by their voices, the lyrics, the music, and the people worshiping. We were invited to worship in whatever way we felt comfortable - stand, sit, hands raised, hands down, etc. As they played, people appeared completely oblivious of any judgment or pretense and just worshiped. I saw a couple of people on their knees, others stood and raised their hands, others sat quietly in their seat.

Let me take a sidebar here for a moment. One of the reasons I conduct this journey is because I love observing how people relate to God. I love joining them and being a part of that experience. I had difficulties observing people in this particular setting because I felt myself caught up in the experience part. I simply closed my eyes and felt the presence of God moving among His people.

After the music ended, one person got up and shared an experience she had ministering to international students at University of Texas. A visiting pastor got up and shared what was happening in their church in Belton (a church that shares a kinship with this one). One of the points being driven by the various people at the church was they had two purposes. To love God and, through that love, love people. The pastor, Jonathan Dodson, mentioned more than once the yearning to love those in the Austin area and see the culture of Austin changed by that love. He said that the city of Austin didn't need to hear the Gospel anymore. It needed to see it and it will see it through the love of the people who follow Christ.

Jonathan's sermon was the beginning of a series about the Three-Dimensional Gospel. In brief, the Gospel has three dimensions. It has a theological/doctrinal component. It has a personal component. Finally, it has a social component. The doctrinal component changes what you believe. The personal one changes who you are. The social one changes where you live. He made the point of stating that having only one component of the gospel indicates we aren't experiencing it to the fullest and it distorts the purpose of the the Good News. It is quite clear from his sermon and from activities going on with this church, that remaining outwardly focused is a very important part of their walk with God. For example, they have mission trips to Uganda and Mexico coming up. They talk openly about impacting those around them. The sermon made a point to indicate that a personal transformation alone, without an impact on people around you, is not enough. They talked about loving others and demonstrating that love. John is great to listen to. He is extremely sincere, kind of quirky, and really has a heart for what he does. There is nothing pretentious about him or the people in this church. The place is laid back (wear jeans, not a tie), open, honest, and much deeper that one might expect from a place that meets in a bar.

Putting together the whole experience, I think this church manages to do something I don't see very often. They deliberate deeply, not avoiding hard discussions and study, yet they don't take their Christianity at just an intellectual level. There is a very sincere, deep, quiet way in which they worship God both in spirit and in truth. That's not always easy. Churches often either are too caught up in their programs, too caught up in their theology, or too caught up in making their worship experience perfectly choreographed. This church just lets it happen and let's God do the rest. It's so peaceful and moving, I don't think one can go there and not leave unchanged in some way.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

St. David's Episcopal Church

St. David's Episcopal Church is a beautiful church located in downtown Austin. It's a very active church, with multiple services all during the week. I was looking forward to this service as my personal experience is that the Episcopal Churches have possibly the most beautiful liturgy in the world (of course, that is merely my opinion). Parking is in a parking garage right next to the church. I recommend the church post signs explaining what to do once you pull into the garage. I wandered a bit, finally walked around the side of the building, stepped over a couple of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk (yes, something felt strange about stepping over a homeless person on the way to worship), and came in the back door. I take these little cards with me and drop them in the offering plate after I visit a church. I had forgotten my card, so I went back out and around the building, into the garage and got the card. I then realized some people were taking the elevator and I went that way. (Again, no real indication on which floor to take). I went up a level, walked around a corner and then found the entrance to the church, which is kind of counter-intuitive because it's the entrance that faces into the block rather than the street. Of course, then I couldn't find my way to the sanctuary! Fortunately, I looked lost enough that a very nice lady asked me if I needed help and she gave me directions to the sanctuary. So, I finally got back to my seat and was able to take in the atmosphere.

The building is beautiful. What is most interesting about the stained glass windows is the dates when they were dedicated. Many were in the 1800s. The church, on the inside, simply does not look that old. It's very well kept and, although large and breathtaking, really has a cozy feel to it. Another thing I noticed is that there was a large number of people of all ages. I have been in many Episcopal Churches in which the crowd appeared to be mostly elderly. This was definitely not the case. The people appeared fairly enthusiastic about being there.

The music in the church is outstanding and everyone in the service was singing. In fact, I initially thought they were piping in voices or had the choir miked with speakers in the back, but it was obvious that the singing was coming from all around. Throughout the service, the people were truly engaged with the Scripture readings, the responsive readings, the prayers, and the sermon. During "the peace" people were walking all over the building to greet each other. At one point, the person behind me introduced herself and asked if I was new. She said she used to attend here before moving and she missed the place very much. She went on to say how great a church it was. Again, lots of enthusiasm.

The service followed the Book of Common Prayer liturgy. Something they do that is the first time I've seen in an Episcopal Church is they put the entire liturgy in the bulletin. That way, you don't have to flip back-and-forth through the BCP to figure out where you are. In fact, a common joke among Episcopalians is you can tell who has been in the church the longest based on whether or not they have the liturgy memorized (that's the longest), whether or not they know how to follow the order of service (that's a little newer), or whether or not they are flipping back-and-forth lost most of the time (that's the newest people). Not having to navigate the BCP allows one to focus on the service. Very nice touch!

The Scripture reading from the Old Testament was about the bronze serpent Moses raised up for the Israelites to look to as a cure for the snakes biting them. The Gospel reading referenced it as well. The sermon was delivered by Amy Moehnke, who is the Director of Youth Ministries. She talked about how the people were told to look to the serpent rather than avoiding the snakes biting them and how this really required suspending rational thought and trusting in the cure. She went on to apply that passage to Jesus, as He did Himself, in the Gospel reading. It was a little surprising, and I think appropriate, to hear an Episcopal sermon telling people to suspend their rational mind and trust in something that doesn't make sense. Typically, the knock you hear from outsiders on Episcopalians revolves around their denial of some of the tenants of the faith due to rational and logical arguments. However, this sermon demonstrated this is most likely an exaggeration of Episcopal theology. Amy is an engaging speaker and was very enjoyable to listen to.

Communion was served. All who believe in Christ were invited to participate. Music continued through communion and then the service closed. I really enjoyed the service. It's great to be among people who, although following a structured liturgy, do not appear to be just "going through the motions." Put that in the context of this historic church, beautiful building with reminders of their past as well as evidence of a vibrant, present life, and you will find this to be a great place to worship. Add on top of that the inclusive, loving and inviting hearts of the people and I think you'll find this a place most anyone could call home. I will probably take advantage of the multiple opportunities each week to worship to return to this church again.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Got My First Gig

"I got my first gig." That's what I jokingly told my wife after receiving an invitation to come talk about my blog and share my experiences with a group of men in Austin (they refer to it as First Friday Men's Group). Looking at some of their past speakers, I can't help but feel a bit out of my league. But then again, I like to talk, so if someone will listen, I guess it'll work out.

Anyway, I am excited about the opportunity. It'll be interesting to hear what others think about the blog and the journey itself. Hopefully, we'll all learn something from each other. Of course, I should probably warn them I'll be writing about them on here as well. LOL

I visited St. David's Episcopal Church this morning. I'll be writing it up later this week.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Quick Update

Just a quick update to note I didn't fall off the face of the earth or anything. Two Sundays ago, I took a break and went and saw Watchmen at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. I probably should have blogged the movie. I think I actually got a better appreciation of why God often does not intervene in the affairs of men when we think He should after seeing Dr. Manhattan explain it in the movie.

Last Sunday, I saw Spamalot. I guess watching a show based on the Holy Grail qualifies as some type of religious activity! Anyway, I'll be back at church this Sunday and talking about it on here, so stay tuned.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Love and Healing. No B.S.

I returned to Journey Imperfect Faith Community today. I was curious about how the service would go, based on the fact I was told last week you never know what you are going to get each week. Plus, I just kind of felt drawn back there today. Although I don't intend to talk much about the service as I already covered them last week, I thought I would share a bumper sticker they have available for members. I think it pretty much sums up this church nicely.