Thursday, January 28, 2016

13 Churches we only looked at (and some signs we saw) in Texas

Not exactly subliminal suggestion in West Texas
Even on weekdays when we can't worship with a church, we're looking at churches. Texas is a huge state, and while we were there, we saw a lot of them. 

St Joseph Catholic Church, San Antonio

St Joseph Catholic Church, San Antonio

San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio 

Remains of the Alamo defenders in San Fernando Cathedral

St Mary's Catholic Church, San Antonio

St Martin's Lutheran Church, Austin

St Martin's Lutheran Church, Austin
First Presbyterian Church, San Antonio

Sunset Canyon Church, Dripping Springs (with "church" sign, which we've so far only seen in Texas)

Sunset Canyon Church, Dripping Springs

First United Methodist Church, McKinney

First United Methodist Church, McKinney

The Chapel at Chestnut Square

Dean with friends at the Chapel at Chestnut Square

First Assembly of God in West Texas

First Assembly of God sign, West Texas

Hill Country Bible Church, Dripping Springs

St Mary's Catholic Church, Windthorst

First United Methodist Church, Vashti

Wayside Chapel, San Antonio
Billboard in San Antonio

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Saint Catherine of Siena, Austin, Texas

Last year, while we were visiting churches in California, I contacted an old school friend about the possibility of joining her for church. From her Facebook posts I figured she was still interested in spiritual things.

She replied that she and her husband no longer attended church, and it was because of the scandals. She was Catholic, so I knew she meant the incidents of pedophilia that came to light in the last fifteen years. She was far from the only person I've heard mention those truly horrible episodes as the reason they quit attending church. In the face of such evil and hypocrisy, how could anyone continue to support such an institution?

This last week, Mindy and I spent time with friends who were quite aware -- in fact, were witnesses to many abuses of authority by the Catholic clergy back in the day -- and yet continue to support and love the church. I greatly appreciated hearing their story.

Julie Buchanan was a good friend of my brother's but also a friend of mine back at Piner High School. Her husband, Dan, was the brother of classmates of ours. They graciously hosted us for our stay in Dripping Springs, near Austin, Texas. At a local hangout, The Barber Shop, Dan shared with me his experience with the Church, the Lord, and forgiveness.

Dan grew up in a family committed to the Catholic Church. His drill sergeant father, a man of great faith, made sure that they were there every Sunday, but Dan hadn't internalized that faith growing up. When Dan was eighteen, he went to a Catholic charismatic renewal meeting at a church in Santa Rosa where he heard the Word and felt changed by God's grace. There was an altar call and he was the first to go forward.

The change in his life was dramatic, and he sold all that he had to join the priest leading the meeting to go and minister in Wisconsin.  Dan helped lead worship, playing the guitar at the meetings on the trip. He had a wonderful time. Returning to California, Dan stayed with the priest. One night the priest asked Dan to join him on his bed. The priest didn't make an explicit proposition, but... Dan didn't join him and returned to Santa Rosa.

The priests in Dan's local parish thought Dan was destined for the priesthood himself, and they encouraged him to pursue the calling. But Dan continued to see things that just weren't right. He lived in a house with another priest who brought a series of young women to his room. The door was closed, so he never knew what went on, but...

Dan's parents had always put the clergy on a pedestal, but for Dan the pedestal had been kicked away. He began to feel that perhaps his faith was a farce. He went through a dark time of questioning.

After Dan married Julie, obviously the becoming a priest option for Danny was gone, but Dan and Julie remained active in the church. Sadly, episodes of clerical misconduct conduct continued as well. The most severe blow was when Dan learned that someone very close to him had been sexually abused by a priest. They raised their family, changing parishes, and continued to seek God's truth in scriptures and the Church.

Many years later, Dan again experienced great spiritual darkness and considered chucking it all. He went off on a retreat, where a spiritual mentor suggested meditating on a prayer, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, focusing on Christ's sacrifice. As Dan prayed he asked God, "Where are you now?"

It was then Dan felt God's grace fall upon Him. He heard the words, "I'm still here." He felt God take from him the hurt that had built up through the years. He felt God tell him to go home and love his family.

Dan said he's come to realized that in God's eyes the clergy are no more sacred than garbage collectors and just as susceptible to sin. Jesus called the religious leaders of His time "whitewashed tombs" but the sins of those men didn't invalidate the teaching of the Law and the Prophets. Dan still accepts the teaching of the church as true, even if many of the teachers are flawed.

Dan and Julie are, in fact, quite active at Saint Catherine of Siena in Austin. They are sponsors in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), a program in the church that teaches Catholic doctrine and practice to adults and brings them into the Body.

The morning we attended Mass with them, Julie was reading the Scripture for the service. The church conducts six masses every weekend with a different reader for each. Those readers meet every week to study the Scripture they will read in the upcoming weekend.

Dan and Julie spoke fondly of their parish priest, Father Pat, and his assistant, Father Ray. But Father Ray was home visiting family in India, and parish policy doesn't allow a priest to lead more than three masses on a weekend, so we heard a homily by Father Charlie, a priest in his eighties, who has been quite active in prison ministries.  

Father Charlie has the cadence of a Southern Baptist radio preacher and a love of acronyms (LOVE - Live On Victoriously Eternally, GOD - Good Orderly Direction, JOY - Jesus, Others, Yourself, etc.) Though Julie and Dan admitted they had heard Father Charlie preach many of the same things before, they expressed admiration for the man's love and faithfulness.

I asked Dan what he would say to those who have quit going to church because they can't forgive the actions of the Catholic clergy, particularly the incidents of abuse of children. He said he would tell them to repeat the "Our Father," meditating on every word, and have them concentrate on the passage on forgiveness. "We can't hold a grudge or pass judgment on others. When we do, we put a wall up between ourselves and God."

It was a pleasure and honor to see Dan and Julie's faithfulness in serving at St. Catherine's and even more of a privilege to see their devotion to the God of children, fallen priests and garbage collectors.

Post Script: Due to the nature of Dan's story, we ask Dan and Julie to look this over before we put it up. We used their input to make a couple of deletions and clarifications, and I'll let Dan wrap things up with an excerpt from his recent e-mail. "We forgive others even when they do not deserve our forgiveness. That is being Christ's presence in this world and prepares us for eternity." 

Service Length: 1 hour 10 minutes
Sermon Length: 12 minutes
Visitor Treatment: There was a greeting time after the choir sang a prelude as well as the passing of the peace later in the service. Although there was mention of a visitor's form on the website or in back of the church, we didn't see it
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 386
Probable Ushers' Count: 420
Snacks: none
Musicians: choir of 9 women, 4 men (including choir director) with piano accompaniment. There was also a male cantor
Songs: Lord, Make me an Instrument of Thy Peace (choir)
Lift up your Hearts
Glory to God in the Highest
Alleluia (response)
Lord, when You Came/Pescador de Hombres
The Lord be with you (chant)
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts
Five-fold Amen (response)
Lamb of God
Be Still my Heart (choir)
We are Many Parts/Muchos Miembres
Miles to church: 10
Miles from start: 2,028
Total 2016 Miles: 3,983
Church website:

Monday, January 25, 2016

6 things you ought to know about Texas (with a bonus story!)

1. Texas is the second largest and second most populous state, with an area of 268,820 square miles and a population (as of mid-2015) of more than 27.5 million residents. The state also has the second highest gross state product (though I'm not entirely sure what that means). Texas has 254 counties, more than any other state, and it also has more farms than any other state. (Cattle, not surprisingly, is the most valuable agricultural product; cotton is the most valuable crop.)
More wind power is produced in Texas than in any other state. 

2. The Texas Rangers (not the baseball team; the law enforcement folks) were unofficially formed in 1823 by Stephen Austin (the Father of Texas, not the Six Million Dollar Man)

3. Six flags have famously flown over the state, representing the governments that have claimed the area: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, United States, and Confederate States of America. 

4. Surprisingly for those of us who watched or read a lot of westerns, less than 10% of the land area is desert. 

5. The state's name comes from the word for "friend" in the Caddo language.

6. The 1900 Galveston hurricane ("Isaac's Storm") was the deadliest natural disaster in American history, with between 6,000 and 12,000 people killed.

Bonus Story:
A former coworker, Spencer, used to work in corrections in Texas. A woman he worked with asked him to help create a resume for her husband, a Baptist pastor. Spencer says he spent about 45 minutes putting the resume together, then decided to go all out, taking the document to be printed on nice paper, getting a presentation folder, making the package look really good. The pastor was thrilled, and he and his wife invited Spencer to visit their church the next Sunday.

Spencer had been out late Saturday night and was running late Sunday morning when he pulled up to the church. The only parking space was right in front. He says he never felt so conspicuous in his life as he did parking his good ol' boy bright red Jeep with oversized tires in front of the crowd of African American Baptists gathered outside the church.

He got out of the car. "Rev. Moore invited me," he began.

"You're Spencer!" someone said. With that, he was warmly greeted by everybody, and they all went in to worship.

It was a broiling hot August day, and the service went on for a long time. Fans fluttered all around, but
the singing was lively and heartfelt. At noon, there was dinner outside, then church again all afternoon. Spencer said he got home around 6:30 that evening, and he'd never had such a good time.

But that's the last time he went to church. It's been twelve years. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Homes for the homeless in Austin

"We're all about forming relationships here," Matt, the assistant property manager, told us when we asked about the purpose behind the permanent community that's taking shape on the western side of Austin. Through a slow but constant process, a ministry originating in 1998 with five men who wanted to love their neighbors has become much more than a minivan loaded with food.

Mobile Loaves & Fishes now has a fleet of modified catering trucks that serve food, clothing, hygiene items, and other life sustaining material to homeless people in Austin and other communities. In a quote on their website, Alan Graham, a founder and now president of the organization, says, "Everything we do is about relationships. The biggest lesson we have learned over the years is that we are not a food ministry. We merely use food as a conduit to connect human to human and heart to heart."

Community First! is one of a number of Mobile Loaves & Fishes' projects. Their website describes the village as "a 27-acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas." From that description, I would have pictured cinder-block buildings in tidy rows with (perhaps) a community garden and a recreation room. That's not at all what we found.

As we drove up, the first things we noticed were enormous teepees. Later, we found that these were bed and breakfast spaces for volunteers. Dean immediately noticed the large movie screen, which (through Alamo Drafthouse) will be used for free outdoor movies for the community.

As we walked around, we saw the mobile home park, the oldest part of the community. Across the center road, past a central area with a dining tent, gardens, chickens, a giant chess board, and a memorial marker for residents who have died, miniature homes and canvas cottages face meandering paths. The variety of homes is remarkable. Matt told us there were several models, but it seemed no two were identical, although all of them were attractive. Homes were at all stages of completion, and workers were everywhere.

This is not institutional housing.

I think my favorite moment was when we passed a house that was built, but didn't yet have its siding in place. The pine walls were covered with handwritten Bible verses of blessing, conveying the hopes and prayers of the builders for the future residents of the home. Matt told us that whenever a resident moves in, there's a blessing ceremony, welcoming the new resident to the community. 

He told us there's a kind of community on the street, but when people are moved into housing in an existing community, sometimes the former homeless person feels ostracized, in part because they've lost the community they've had. That's why, he said, "we're all about forming relationships here."

The community is designed to serve people whose housing needs have no other way of being effectively met. Except for ten "missional" families who live on site, the residents of the community have been chronically homeless (for at least a year in Travis County) and must have an assessed disability. All residents agree to abide by three rules (these rules are detailed in agreements that each resident signs before becoming part of the community).  Basically, each resident agrees to obey civil law, pay rent, and obey community rules.

The community also includes a medical clinic, an art studio, extensive produce gardens, goats, beehives, chickens for meat and eggs, and a smithy. The entire community has internet. The micro-homes and canvas cottages rely on shared kitchens and bath houses within 150 feet of their doors. Each resident has his or her own secure space for keeping food in their kitchen. There are currently two chapels, where residents and volunteers can pray or, if they want, "yell at God," Matt said. Soon, a new building with offices, creative spaces, a computer area, classrooms and a sanctuary for worship services will be built near the center of the community.

Churches and faith-based organizations have obviously been involved in the project since the beginning.  I wondered if the word "goodness," which was present on various signs all over the property, was a kind of code name for God's activity. After spending time at Community First! Village, I think it probably is.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Eldorado Community Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Every seat had a box with a label reading "Please do not open until instructed to do so." During the sermon, Pastor David told us to open our boxes. He asked us what we found. Most people called out "a paratrooper" but I said, "Pooper Trooper" because that's what we always called the toy when we were kids.

Mindy and I had arrived for the fifth (and last) Sunday of a sermon series entitled "Elements," which explored what we need to be a follower of Christ. We missed "Earth" for Christian Character, "Fire" for Communion, "Wood" for Connection, and "Water" for Community, but we were there for "Wind" for Commission. Acts 2 and John 3 were used for texts, both of which describe the Holy Spirit with the image of the wind. The toy was a reminder that just as the wind directs the plastic parachute, we must rely on God for direction.

Pastor David McPherson followed God's direction to come to Santa Fe to plant a church fourteen years ago. He had been attracted to the area for many years. As a young man, he had served at Glorieta Camps, just a few miles from the city. He and his wife, Melanie, had often vacationed in the area and had thought of retiring there. But they finally thought, why wait?

With some support from the Southern Baptist Church they came to the community of Eldorado, about about eleven miles from the Santa Fe plaza. There was not an evangelical church in a ten mile radius from the Eldorado Community Center, and a decade and a half later there still is only one other church in the area, Saint Elias the Prophet Greek Orthodox Church.

David spent the first year talking to people and listening to what they were looking for in a church. And that first Sunday, there were sixty people; very encouraging. And the next week there were twenty people, and in upcoming weeks there were less. But the church persevered.

Santa Fe is not exactly the Bible Belt. The area attracts a unique demographic which partially explains why the church strives to be a "community of grace and hope for searchers, dreamers, rebels, artists, losers and adventurers." David described the congregation as having a variety of backgrounds, "Muslims, Buddhists -- we recently baptized a young woman who was raised as a Pagan." Most of the people we met seemed to have a Christian background, but David admitted that in the recent past the church has become a bit more "churchy."

We were introduced to the church by our friend, Mary Southall, who we knew from the Healdsburg Community Church. For much of her life she had been repelled by the church, having grown up with a father who said she should go, but didn't live up to it himself. About ten years ago she happened upon Healdsburg Community Church, and when she moved to New Mexico she hoped she would like this Community Church as well. She soon integrated herself into the church. That morning, she made and brought the snacks; she also leads a weekly Life Group in her home.

Pastor Dave wouldn't call her a member of the church, though. The church doesn't have members. Once people have attended for a while and decide to step up their commitment, they can become volunteer staff. And volunteer staff vote on important issues in the life of the church.

A group of interns from Glorieta also help out. We met Jake, who leads the music. He works part time at the church and part time at the coffee shop that shares the building with the church. (Other storefront neighbors include a fitness center and a Bernie Sanders volunteer office.) Another intern co-ordinates volunteers, while another leads the children's ministry (KidZone); ECC provides housing, utilities, and a small stipend; all interns must find other part time work.

Pastor Dave does other work himself. He is a professional potter, specializing in Raku, selling his work in the area. His wife, Melanie, just recently took over a different business. Last December they bought a bakery in downtown Santa Fe called Sweet Lily. It was a dream come true for Melanie, who has worked a baker for years.  Last Friday, we met Dave at the bakery, and he was manning the cash register. I asked how they handled balancing the church and the bakery, and he said they were still figuring it out.

David seems quite willing to admit that they haven't figured out how church in general should be done. He says the way they do things is continually changing, and if you like how they do things now; realize it might all be different next year. In Sunday's sermons, he challenged the congregation, if they were Christ followers, to not think of church as a place for their comfort and entertainment, but instead as God's instrument for caring for a hurting world.

I trust God will continue to direct and use ECC to care for the needs of hurting folks in Santa Fe, as their Sunday morning handout says, "We welcome those who are single, married, divorced...filthy rich, dirt poor...You're welcome if you're 'just browsing,' just woke up, or just out of jail." In short, they aim to welcome everyone; as God is directing them to do.

Service Length: 50 minutes       
Sermon Length: 32 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Our friend Mary introduced us to a number of people, and several others introduced themselves. The handout contained a tear-off sheet for visitor information (as well as space for prayer requests and updates of regular attenders' information). As instructed on the sheet, I placed ours in the offering box on a table to one side of the room.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 45
Probable Ushers' Count: 55
Snacks: coffee, tea, decaf, water bottles, cookies, frosted muffins, brownies
Musicians: 2 men on guitar and vocals, one man on percussion, 1 woman vocals
Songs: "We are Here for You"
            "How Deep the Father's Love"
            "Revelation Song"
            "Nothing but the Blood"
Miles to church: 5 miles
Miles from start: 1,379
Total 2016 Miles (to New Mexico/Texas border): 3,127