Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Winterfest - Day 3

This is the final post in this blog series covering my experience at Winterfest in Gatlinburg, TN.  As I have written before in this series, I was deeply touched by this experience.

Day 3 started early at 7:00 a.m. with us singing and praising God through songs.  If the first two days were moving, this day put me over the edge but in a great way.  Because this was a Sunday morning it somehow felt a little more like church and it had a special feeling.  The songs were perfect and the song leader was enthusiastic and full of life.  It set the stage perfectly for the morning's lesson.

Patrick Mead came to the stage to deliver a powerful message about all of us needing the church.  His Scottish accent in the twang of Tennessee was a humorous addition to his delivery.  Sunday morning's message from Patrick centered around our enthusiasm and attitude at church.  My biggest take-away was about communion.

Ever since I was little I can remember communion being a somber time during church.  Adults hung their heads, children were hushed or quickly taken out of the room if they were fussing, and there were no sounds.  The first Sunday morning I attended the Mitchell Church of Christ I was shocked by what I heard.  No, not the preaching of Allen Burris, but what I heard during communion.  As the plates were being passed around, the congregation sang.  Can you believe that?!?  Not only was it not quiet but people were actually encouraged to sing during communion.  To be honest, I'm not sure I enjoyed it but it was a different experience and I appreciated it.

Patrick encouraged the group to stand up during communion and to talk with each other, encourage each other, and join in fellowship with each other as we all took part in the communion.  Somehow I felt closer to others who were in my group and we even branched out to speak with total strangers.  Although we didn't know each other we had a connection through communion.

As communion ended we were brought back into the lives of our three teens as they continued their spiritual paths.  Sadly, one girl from the video seemed ready to step off of her path.  The other girl was ready to stick to her path, no matter how rocky or hard it became.

The boy's path is the one which literally lead me to tears.  I'm not sure if it was the experience of my first Winterfest, the spiritual high I was feeling from being surrounded by more Christians than I ever had before, the songs, the communion, the great messages, or something deeper.  Whatever it was, I cried. I'm not ashamed to admit that either.  It was such a powerful moment.  The boy had been through so much and his path had been so tough.

The video cut to him making the decision to be baptized and discussing what that truly means.  When the youth minister asked him when he wanted to be baptized the boy answered, "Right now." The scenes were all in slow motion, the music was perfect, and it led viewers into the heart of the scene.  We watched as the boy walked from the youth minister's office to a hallway.  From the hallway we watched the boy climb a stairway which brought him into a back room where he was ready to change his clothes and his life.  We had a front row seat for the boy's decent into the water, pausing to remove his ever-present stocking cap, and then down into the water.  While all this is happening we hear nothing but music.  No words are allowed to be heard and the visual imagery is all we have of the powerful scene.  No words were needed.

The boy is taken down into the water and is baptized.  As he comes up out of the water his face is glowing and the smile on his face is infectious.  And that's when it happened.  I cried.  I was so happy for the boy who I didn't even know.  This wasn't even a 'real' person.  He was an actor playing a part.  But what a part to play!  I tried to wipe my tears in a macho manly way but to be perfectly honest I didn't care who saw me at that moment.  I was so wrapped up in the story and what the story meant.

I couldn't think of a better way to end a great first experience at Winterfest and I'm excited to return next year.  In the meantime, it's time to put into practice what I experienced.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Winterfest - Day 2 (Part 2)

In my previous posts I have failed to mention what we heard as we entered the convention center.  We were greeted each of the first two days by a two man band, the O'Chancey Band.  The band members consisted of a drummer and a guy playing music on a keyboard but it sounded more like a heavy metal band with a full stage of rockers.  Although I'm not typically a fan of rock metal music, these guys were fun to listen to and to watch.  Maybe it was the environment or maybe I'm starting to be understanding of others' gifts for glorifying God.

Coming to the stage next was the band Lost and Found.  Read more about Lost and Found here.  They were followed by Scott Young who again led the group in praise songs.  I can't stress enough how moved I was to sing with so many other people.  Again I found myself just listening at times instead of singing along because this was my first experience with a group so large singing praises to God.  During many of the songs people had added their own clapping, chants, and movements which everyone else besides me in the large convention center seemed to know.  I'm a quick learner so I picked up on them easily and I was once again reminded that I had never known the joy that comes with learning these subtle additions to the songs.  I felt like the kid who never attended a church summer camp where I'm sure most of these songs were learned.  Better late than never!

The evening's message was delivered by David Skidmore, a Youth a Family Minister.  He had what I would call an object lesson.  One audience member was called up on stage to help David work a puzzle.  The puzzle had about 40 pieces (if I remember correctly).  David made the connection between a puzzle and our Christianity.  It was easy to put the pieces together when they were all turned facing up, a picture of the completed puzzle was on the box, and someone was there to help when needed.  Then he turned all of the pieces over and asked the boy if he could still work the puzzle.  With the 40 pieces turned over it was still pretty easy to solve.  Even when the picture was taken away and help was not there the puzzle was still fairly simple.

Then he brought out the big guns.  He had a puzzle with 1,000 pieces and asked the boy the same questions.  Could you complete this puzzle with the pieces turned facing up? With a picture? And with assistance?  Of course, the boy said that he could.  David then started turning the pieces facing down!  The same questions again were asked.  The boy said that he could complete the puzzle but it would be much more difficult.

And then all heck broke loose.  David opened another puzzle with 1,000 pieces and dumped it right on the pile of the other 1,000 piece puzzle.  All of us with OCD had to take a deep breath and realize that this was only a demonstration.  He wasn't really going to ask the boy the same questions, right?  But he did.  The boy was slightly perplexed but said that he could probably complete both puzzles individually if he was given a picture of the puzzles and some guidance from someone who had experience completing the puzzles.

Once again, David started turning all of the pieces over and asked the same questions.  At this point, I assume most people would agree that the puzzles would be virtually impossible to assemble with all the pieces facing down, no picture to reference, and no one to help guide him.  But as the camera zoomed in to the puzzle pieces we were able to see that some of the pieces had small dots on them.  David asked again, now that you can separate the pieces into two piles, one with dots and one without, could the boy complete the puzzles with help.  The boy wasn't sure but he knew that it would be easier than if the puzzle pieces had no dots.

David's connection between the puzzles and Christianity was that we all need to be connected to the church in the same way we need to see the puzzle pieces facing up, a reference picture, and someone to guide us along the way.  As life comes at us in all directions our puzzle pieces get turned over, our reference pictures are taken away, and we no longer have someone to guide us.

Some people think they can be Christians simply by being good people.  They claim to be spiritual but don't need religion.  They profess to have a deep connection to God without needing a deep connection to a church.  He made the case, and I believe it as well, that all Christians not only need but must have a connection to church.  Christians ARE the church.  It's not some building we go to on Sunday mornings.  We must be connected to other Christians and together we make up the church.

Think about the puzzle analogy and it's meaning.  The puzzle pieces represent our daily struggles, the reference picture is the Bible, and our guides are other church members and Christians.  When everything we need is right in front of us it's easy to assemble the puzzle.  Even when some of the pieces are turned over, the picture is taken away, and our guide is gone, we can still work through the struggles and complete the task at hand.  But what happens when we have a puzzle with 1,000 pieces? Where do we turn when the picture is gone? And who do we lean on for support when we don't have someone to help us?  We have to take those puzzle pieces called life, go to our Bibles for reference, and lean on our brothers and sisters.

Come back tomorrow for my final installment of this 4-part blog series about my experiences at Winterfest 2014.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Winterfest 2014 - Day 2 (Part 1)

The second session on Saturday morning led off with more songs and hymns again led by Scott Young which were just as moving as the day before. Bean and Bailey performed again and it was a great way to open day two.

Taylor Walling gave the first lesson of the day and the message was simple: church services aren't meant for our personal entertainment.  Maybe we didn't sing your favorite songs.  Maybe the preacher gave a lesson he had given before, and it wasn't as good as the first time you heard it. Maybe the prayer went too long. Maybe you didn't get to sit in 'your' seat.  His message: church services aren't for our entertainment.  We don't get to 'Like' certain parts of church services like we do on Facebook.  We are there to worship and praise God.  The message was even more powerful because it came from a young(er) person's perspective.  Taylor was able to weave his experiences with those of our younger church generation.  Had the message been delivered by a veteran church-goer I'm not sure it would have been received as well as it was coming from Taylor.

Too often our youth members (and not so youth members) expect to be entertained.  They have what seems to be a limitless amount of television channels, radio stations, apps, social media outlets, and text messages at their fingertips so when they come to church they claim to be bored or not entertained.  Well, that's too bad.  Entertainment was/is not the meaning or purpose of worship.  When we come with a self-gratifying attitude we are completely missing the point of worship.  We must come together for the edification of each other, not for entertaining ourselves.

After more songs led by Scott Young, Jeff Walling spoke to the group.  Jeff is Taylor's father and their messages were magnificent and resounded deep within me.  Jeff gave a brief history lesson about the Churches of Christ and how they were formed.  He made it clear that most of the churches today were a product of some kind of split in a church.  He talked about the belief most Churches of Christ have in common: We speak where the Bible speaks, we are silent where the Bible is silent, and above all we are to love one another.

Church of Christ members, he said, do a a great job of speaking where the Bible speaks but then we tell people they are wrong where the Bible is silent.  That message hit home for me in a profound way.  Growing up I recall most of the veteran church members could recite the key Bible verses without so much as a hesitation.  They knew when to speak and were proud they could quote scriptures to make their points.  That is a gift I don't have.  I can't win a spiritual argument by quoting scriptures.  I'm not really sure anyone can 'win' a spiritual argument any way, but if you do find yourself in one being able to quote scripture probably doesn't hurt.  Being able to quote scriptures without being able to articulate the intent would be like bringing an unloaded gun to a gun fight.  You can throw the gun but it probably won't produce the desired outcome.

The part about being silent where the Bible is silent really stuck with me though.  Many times our brothers and sisters speak where the Bible is silent and that made me start to wonder.  Why do so many church members have a problem with PowerPoint slides? Praise music? Instruments? And many other issues the Churches of Christ have encountered.

I don't recall anywhere in the Bible where electricity is discussed, yet, every church I've attended had electricity.  No one seems to have an issue with that in church.  Especially Sister Smith (not a real lady) when she wants the air conditioner turned up or down or the heater blasting at 80* to make her more comfortable.  I don't recall the Bible stating that only hymns could be used during worship and praise songs were not allowed.  Does it state anywhere that a church can't meet in a gymnasium?  Where does the Bible stand on meals in the basement?  Does the Bible even mention having a basement?  It makes me think, are these just personal preferences or is it scriptural?  Maybe that's a rhetorical question?

Following up on our teenage mini-series, our young friend coming out of rehab has now sought counseling from a few men and they are helping guide him to a path of a better life.  One counselor is helping him deal with the physical addictions he struggles with while the other leads him through the Bible.

The two girls in this series are also struggling with their own Christianity.  One girl is angry that the church is not doing more for people and she seems to think Christians are somewhat hypocritical.  She seems ready to abandon the church and nothing is going to convince her otherwise.  The other girl is struggling with how to help those who are feeling neglected by the church.  She understands the church isn't perfect but she wants to help and is not willing to give up.  Their friendship becomes rocky and eventually they begin to part ways.

The fabrics of the three teens which once were connected are starting to become frayed.  Each has taken their own path and now are struggling with life's questions and what they want from the church.  Only time will tell if they can again weave their stories together.

Tomorrow will be the third installment of this four day blog series.  I hope you come back to take a look at how day two of Winterfest concluded and to see how the teens' lives took drastically different paths.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winterfest 2014 - Day 1

We woke up at 4:30 a.m. and headed to the Mitchell Church of Christ for a breakfast of eggs, biscuits and gravy, and lots of caffeine prepared for the entire group by Troy Young. As the suitcases were being loaded there was a certain excitement in the air.  Some were excited that they soon would be able to go back to sleep during the long drive.  Others were excited about making great time (insert lead foot jokes here).  Personally, I was excited to be going on my first Winterfest trip, not knowing exactly what to expect.  Once breakfast was over we were ready to embark on our journey to Gatlinburg, TN for Winterfest.  The group of 23 teenagers and 12 adults piled in to five vehicles and pulled out of the parking lot.  The adventure began.

And then the adventure grounded to a halt in Salem, Indiana where the caravan made our first stop to pick up 12 more teenagers and four more adults from the Southern Hills Church of Christ.  After a few teens went inside the church to use the bathroom AGAIN the caravan, now consisting of 35 teens, 16 adults, and seven vehicles, was back on the road.  We made a few scheduled stops and we pulled in to the hotel parking lot in Gatlinburg at 2:30 p.m.

This was my first Winterfest.  I have been a member of the Church of Christ (Bloomfield, Southport, and Mitchell) all of my life.  As an 18 year old kid looking at colleges, my mother wanted me to attend Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN which is a Christian University.  Looking back, a part of me wishes I had.  Growing up in a small town in Indiana and attending a small Church of Christ, I was not exposed to other Church of Christ children.  I was smart enough to know there were other children in the world.  I also knew there were other Church of Christ congregations. But as a young church-goer I never interacted with other Church of Christ children outside of visiting other churches.

So sitting in the Gatlinburg convention center with about 7,000 other members of the Church of Christ I was in awe.  Although Winterfest is geared toward teenagers, I felt like I was there as a 36 year old teenager myself.  It was my first experience with a church group this size.  I worshipped, sang, prayed, laughed, cried, and had communion with 7,000 brothers and sisters.  I was overwhelmed but in a way that felt amazing!

From the Winterfest website...The theme for Winterfest is WEAVE - I will Build My Church.  WEAVE is the second part of a four-year series entitled THE WAY. The theme WEAVE emphasizes the importance and connection we must have with the church. This connection is not an option, as many of our young people report. We must be about sharing with our young people how important it is for them to be a part of the church. The goal of the weekend was to produce love, appreciation, commitment, respect, and a priority in our teens as well as renewal for those of us who are older, for the church.

Each of the four sessions we attended was moving.  The first session was Friday afternoon after an early morning wake-up and long drive from Mitchell, IN to Gatlinburg, TN.  It started out with a comedy group, Bean and Bailey, and they were funny.  Growing up in the Church of Christ, I feel like comedy was not seen as a part of 'the church.' I've had this idea that comedians can't also be Christians, especially not in the Church of Christ. I can hear some people saying, "There ain't nothing funny about church." And they are absolutely right but my childhood had me thinking that EVERYTHING related to church had to be somber and totally reverent.  No one actually said, "John, there's nothing funny about church and Christians can't be comedians." What's that old saying about actions speaking louder than words?  But these guys were clean, funny, AND Christians.  Who knew?

Next we sang praise songs and hymns led by Scott Young.  I knew most of the songs but I had never heard that many people singing them together.  A lot of times I caught myself just listening because it was such a beautiful sound.  Words can't capture what it felt like to be in a convention center with 7,000 people singing praise songs.  Although we all came from different congregations, we were coming together as a group to worship as one.  Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the hymns I grew up singing and I cherish those songs.  But growing up I was never exposed to praise songs.  We sang from the 'red book' (Sacred Selections) and I can remember when my grandfather, an elder at the Bloomfield Church of Christ, first led songs from the new 'blue book.' You could almost hear what some of the members were thinking and I'm pretty sure the phrase, "Brother/Sister So and So is probably rolling over in his/her grave," was uttered around many a family Sunday dinner table after that service.

Chris Seidman led the devotional and his message was inspiring and uplifting.  His message about Weaving the church into our lives was just what I needed to hear, as I'm sure others did too.  We ended the session with more praise songs and I left the convention center with a great feeling of belonging.  Something I'm not sure I've really ever had before when it comes to church.

There was a powerful poet, David Bowden, who shared his gift with us.  He captivated the audience with his powerful poems.  I shouldn't call them poems.  They were words with power, meaning, and mental imagery that I have never been around in any church.  His passion was infectious and for a lot of our teens, he was the highlight of the weekend.

Woven in to each session was a story about three teenagers.  The male character in this mini-series of sorts was a troubled teen.  A hard life of addiction, rejection, and self-doubt had found this boy in a rehab facility, not sure of which way to turn.  The two females were there to help and talk to him, as were a counselor and youth minister.  The male teen found that he wanted to know more about Jesus and the story of all those who were helping him.  He started out skeptical but he also knew deep down that there had to be something more to his life.  There had to be something bigger than him and he wanted to know more about it.

Tomorrow I will write about our second day and continue to tell the story of our troubled teen.  As good as the first day was, day two blew it out of the water!