Thursday, March 31, 2016

An unexpected pilgrimage

historical marker at flannery o'connor childhood home in Savannah
"All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful"; so said Flannery O'Connor, the 20th century writer who captured that struggle against God's grace better than any other. In her short 39 year life, O'Connor wrote two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away) and a number of short stories and essays, earning her a place as one of the most critically acclaimed American writers. Her writing was always about the grace of God found in Jesus Christ, but with Southern grotesques for characters and sordid situations for plots, less careful readers sometimes miss the heart of her work. As she wrote, "Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it."

Andalusia, Flannery O'Connor's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia
Mindy and I were excited to find that O'Connor's childhood home and church and the farm where she spent her later years were not far off of our route. Her farm, Andalusia in Eatonton, GA, was closed to visitors the day we drove through, but we could see the land.

Andalusia farm was closed
More important was to see her childhood home in Savannah, because O'Connor once wrote, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." Flannery lived her early years with her parents in a house provided by a rich cousin who lived next door.

The bathtub held Flannery's audience
We were able to see the bathroom that she decorated for parties where, as a young child, she would invite guest to join her for readings of her own stories or more established writers like the Brothers Grimm.

St John's Catholic Church in Savannah
The young Flannery made her parents' Catholic faith her own at an early age, and probably cherished being about to see St. John's Cathedral from her window. The mother and only child would cross the park to attend mass almost every day. It's a beautiful church, inside and out.

inside St John's in Savannah
If you've never read O'Connor, I'd urge you to try it, and to patiently search for the grace to be found there. You might want to start with "A Good Man is Hard to Find", a story easy to find online. In it, a killer points out how Jesus disrupted the world in a most uncomfortable way. But do be warned that you shouldn't read Flannery O'Connor as a pleasant escape. As she wrote: "I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system."
exterior of Flannery O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

7 Churches in Georgia

Quite unexpectedly, we drove through Eatonton, a town with a rather silly name that was home to two very different authors, Alice Walker and Joel Chandler Harris. What we found even more interesting, though, were the community's churches. Here's what we saw:

Eatonton first methodist church
Eatonton First Methodist Church

Eatonton First Methodist Church
Eatonton First Methodist with blooming trees
Eatonton Presbyterian Church
Eatonton Presbyterian Church, across the street

Eatonton Presbyterian Church
Side view of Eatonton Presbyterian, with fountain

All Angels Episcopal Church Eatonton
All Angels Episcopal Church

Chosen Church of God, Eatonton
Chosen Church of God across the street from All Angels
Chosen Church of God, Eatonton
Chosen Church of God's Good Friday announcement was a bit askew
First Baptist Church Eatonton, Georgia
First Baptist Church was down the street from the Presbyterians and Methodists

Saint John AME Church, Eatonton GA
St John AME Church

Saint John AME Church Eatonton Georgia
St John AME from the side, where they're doing some work
Ebenezer Baptist Church, Eatonton, GA
Ebenezer Baptist Church is down the street and having a revival the week after St John.

Zion Covenant Fellowship Church, Eatonton Georgia
As we drove out of town, we saw this church, Zion Covenant Fellowship

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

We set a record in Atlanta!

Holy Week in Atlanta
Our business card reads "Dean and Mindy Go to Church; A New Church Every Week." But our dirty little secret is that, many times, we don't go to "A" new church. Often, we go to more than one church. We don't necessarily write about it -- but this week, we're not keeping quiet about the three churches we visited.

Maundy Thursday at Clairmont Presbyterian
That's the night the lights went out in Georgia. No, really, they did.

Maundy Thursday is the evening that commemorates Jesus' last meal with His disciples before his death, the inauguration of the sacrament of communion. Clairmont Presbyterian is the home church of the Lillis family, good friends of ours from Healdsburg days.

It's a tradition of some churches to dim the lights during this service, but as we finished celebrating communion, the lights went out altogether. It was a blustery night, and power was briefly out throughout the neighborhood. With a number of hymns to sing and Scriptures to read, the service continued without reference to the problem. Readers spoke loudly without a microphone; people scooted close together and used their phones as flashlights for the hymnal. The lights returned just before the service's conclusion.

People were encouraged to leave the service in quiet mediation, so there was no discussion of the unusual circumstances. But the Reverend Owen Stepp referred to the incident in his Easter sermon. "At the Good Friday service, someone asked me about the service the night before. I started to say, 'The power went out' but I stopped myself. The electricity went out, but God's power never left."

I had an opportunity to talk to several people about how they saw God work in the church. The Reverend Kimmy Stokesbary told me about a unique ministry of the church called Azalea Village Ministry which provides low to no-cost transitional housing to families in need. Last year, a woman (pregnant with twins) was ordered to go on bed rest, which lost her her job. AVM provided her with housing until she gave birth and was able to return to work. Kimmie said the church continues to seek ways to care people in the neighborhood.

Good Friday at Renovation
Really, if you can't sing the Blues on Good Friday, when can you? At Renovation in downtown Atlanta, we sang Mahalia Jackson's Troubles of This World with great soul and sadness. We also sang Were You There? remembering Christ's sacrifice as we prepared for communion. It's not really a happy song. But again, that's how it should be on Good Friday. (Though we sang the final verse, "Were you there when He rose up from the grave?" which really shouldn't be sung until Easter.)

We came to Renovation because of an invitation from folks we met at the Joystick Gamebar. Lindsey, Dylan, and Brittney told us about this downtown church and the Friday night service. We were certainly among the oldest people in the congregation, which was composed primarily of millennials and whatever they call people in their thirties with kids.

One of the things that I found most intriguing about the church was its goal of becoming "transcultural." They desire to bring restoration between blacks and whites in a city with a history of hostility. Pastor LĂ©once B. Crump Jr. is the African American founding (and lead) pastor of the Centre City Branch of Renovation. Pastor Justin Schaeffer is the white pastor of the Eastside Branch of Renovation.  The worship team was also included people of a variety of races. This may not sound like a big deal., but the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote about Sunday morning being the most segregated hour still holds true for most congregations in Atlanta. It's exciting to see Renovation seeking to build a "Jesus-Centered, Socially Conscious, Transcultural Church."

The service on Good Friday had no sermon (about five people read scripture passages and briefly talked about them), but toward the end of the service a couple of people came forward with "words of knowledge." Pastor Crump introduced those who came forward, saying that the elders had approved of the messages, encouragements to know God more deeply, as being consistent with scripture.

Saturday Easter Egg Hunts
These were church events we didn't attend. Most churches in town seemed to have egg hunts on the Saturday morning before Easter. Though we're new to the South, we're pretty sure people would frown upon our stealing candy (and eggs) from babies (and small children).

Renovation had activities besides egg hunting, including a basketball skills competition, an obstacle course, and a Krispy Kreme eating competition. (It's good I wasn't there because I might have been tempted to steal a Krispy Kreme donut from a baby.)

Pastor Steppe jokingly referred to the Apocalyptic Hunger Games held at Clairmont Presbyterian on Saturday (officially, its title was Eggstravaganza). 

Easter at Shallowford Presbyterian
"First Worship"
Mindy and I attended the sunrise service and the 10:30 am service at Clairmont Presbyterian, but between those services, we went to a church we'd driven by several times, Shallowford Presbyterian.

The service we attended was one of three that morning. It was held in a chapel rather than the main sanctuary, and instead of the choir and youth choir that were part of other services held at that church on that morning, there was a sole trumpeter accompanied by piano. The Rev. Christopher Henry, a young guy but very good preacher, gave a powerful sermon based on Mark's telling of the Easter story. But what I found most moving was the hymn that concluded the service, Christ is Risen! Shout Hosanna! It was written in 1986, but we'd never heard it before. The tune for the hymn is Beethoven's Ode to Joy, which in itself is well on the way to getting me teary eyed. But the hymn included these great lines,

"Christ is risen! Earth and Heaven
 Nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation
Where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim demonic chorus:
Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the First and Last is with us,
Sing Hosanna, everyone!"

How often do you hear a song, sing a song for the first time and are deeply moved? Doesn't happen to me very often. But it happened with this song. When we went to the next service at Clairmont Presbyterian, we sang it again. Not all Easter treats are found inside eggs.

Some people might only go to church once a year, and that time is Easter. I'm glad we found three different places where, in that one visit, God could indeed be found.

Clairmont Presbyterian Church
Thursday evening
Our Rough Count: 60
Probable Ushers' Count: 70
Snacks: none
Musicians: choir and orchestra with piano accompaniment
Songs: What Wondrous Love is This
Here, O our Lord, we See You Face to Face
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Were you There?

Friday noon
Service Length: 59 minutes       
Sermon Length: no sermon
Visitor Treatment: no particular acknowledgement of visitors, although we were greeted by several people, and our friend Keiko introduced us to several others
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none friendly email on Wednesday
Our Rough Count: 40
Probable Ushers' Count: 45
Snacks: none
Musicians: piano (woman), vocals (2 women), acoustic guitar (man)
Songs: Ah, Holy Jesus
Jesus, Remember me
Were you There?
How Deep the Father's Love for us

Easter sunrise service
Service Length: 42 minutes
Sermon Length: 13 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeting time during service; several people recognized us from earlier in the week and said hello, everyone (including regular attenders) was encouraged to fill out the attendance sheet. The bulletin had a "get connected" section which listed various activities and names and email addresses for the directors of children and youth programs. New people were also encouraged to go to the church's website, instagram, facebook and twitter.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 37 (most outside on the church porch, but there were also chairs inside the church foyer. Rain was a distinct possibility)
Probable Ushers' Count: 50
Snacks: donut holes, coffee, water, and juice
Musicians: vocals (man, woman), electric bass (man), keyboard (woman), percussion (man), electric guitar (man), acoustic guitar (woman)
Songs: Jesus Christ is Risen Today
How Great is our God
Sing to the King
Holy is the Lord
I will Follow

Easter morning service
Service Length: 57 minutes
Sermon Length: 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: There was a greeting time during the worship service, and several people talked to us before and after church.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Snacks: more donut holes, coffee, decaf, water, hot water, orange and apple juice
Musicians: flute (woman), oboe (woman), cymbals (man), timpani (woman), brass (3 men, 1 woman), organ/piano (man), choir (5 men, 11 women), director (woman)
Songs: Jesus Christ is Risen Today
Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks
Christ is Risen, Shout Hosanna!
Sweet Hour of Prayer
Rise up Singing (choir)
Thine is the Glory
Hallelujah Chorus (postlude)
Miles to church: 4 miles
Miles from start: 10,048
Total 2016 Miles: 9,993
Church website:

Renovation Church
Friday evening
Service Length: 1 hour 25 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeters at the door; people walking in were friendly and greeted us as well
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none email newsletter on Friday evening
Our Rough Count: 220
Probable Ushers' Count: 245
Snacks: coffee, decaf and ice water
Musicians: vocals (2 men, 4 women), keyboards (2 women), percussion (1 man), acoustic guitar 1 man), electric bass (1 man)
Songs: I Boast no More
Death in his Grave
It is Well with my Soul
Were you There?
Give me Jesus
Troubles of This World
Miles to church: 12 miles
Church website:

Shallowford Presbyterian Church
Easter morning early service
Service Length: 52 minutes
Sermon Length: 18 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Greeters at the entrance directed us to the chapel for the service (rather than the sanctuary); greeting time during worship service; pastors shook hands and greeted everyone after the service
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none email from senior pastor on Thursday (and he responded quickly to our email back to him)
Our Rough Count: 88
Probable Ushers' Count: 100
Snacks: Easter breakfast buffet (mentioned in the calendar in the bulletin, but not during the service -- we found it when we went to take pictures of the sanctuary) with donut holes, mini croissants, bagels, egg casserole, French toast, fruit, juice, water, coffee, decaf and hot water)
Musicians: piano (woman), trumpet (man)
Songs: Christ the Lord is Risen Today
Christ is Risen! Shout Hosanna!
Miles to church: half a mile
Church website:

Monday, March 28, 2016

6 Georgia facts you might not know

Entering Georgia from Florida
1. Georgia was the last of the original thirteen colonies, but it was the fourth to ratify the U.S. Constitution. It was also one of the seven original Confederate states, seceding on January 19, 1861. It was the last of the Confederate states to be restored to the Union (on July 15, 1870). Slavery was prohibited under the Oglethorpe Plan, the original English plan for settlement of the area.

2. Roughly one in five Civil War soldiers from Georgia died in the war. However, from 1872 - 2003, managed to nominate and elect only white, Democratic governors. Blacks were essentially disenfranchised from 1877 until 1965. A major site in the Civil Rights movement, Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's home church; his funeral was held there in 1968.

3. The northern portion of the state is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. The southernmost area of the state is coastal plains.

4. Stone Mountain, Georgia, near Atlanta, is Georgia's most popular tourist attraction, with over four million visitors per year.

Zooey was one unhappy cat
5. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world's busiest airport. Our cat spent some time there when she missed her flight and had to stay in Atlanta over New Year's Day in 2016.

Georgia Justice Project building
6. The state motto is "Wisdom, Justice, Moderation."

Friday, March 25, 2016

Living in the USA

Mindy, Bonnie, and John
When she lived in a small, closed community with a shared purpose, Bonnie Nystrom says, "It was easier."

Until a few years ago, Bonnie (Mindy's friend since their first semester at Taylor University) and her family lived and worked in a fairly remote village or in a closely knit international community in Papua New Guinea. About every four years or so, they'd be in the United States for about a year, usually doing a lot of traveling around in order to visit churches and people who financially supported them. Now, their kids are grown. Family responsibilities have brought Bonnie and her husband, John, more or less permanently back to the US, and Bonnie's life is very different than it was in PNG. "Everybody's got ministries they're part of, so it's hard -- awkward" to form deep relationships.

In the past, she moved pretty easily between life in the village and life in Ukarumpa. Creating deep, meaningful relationships was easy. She'd established processes over the years so that, even though the family moved between the two communities, their lives in the two locations moved in parallel. Within an hour after moving from Ukarumpa to Arop, she could reach (almost without thinking) for whatever she needed to bake bread, hardly needing the recipe. Even when she came back to the village after a year away, it was the same. 

Now, though she's living in the same community where she grew up, she says she'd certainly need the recipe. "It'd be the same challenge if we'd always lived here and moved to Papua New
Guinea."  Finding an appropriate new routine is proving a challenge, but she says, "I'm a process analyst. I'm always tripping on bad processes" and finding better ways to do things. As an example, she and John are in the process of remodeling the house next door for her parents to move into, possibly before John leaves to help his mom manage his family's summer business, and she also redesigned much of the house where they live now to make it a more comfortable and hospitable place. 

Otherwise, John's role now is much the same as it was in 1997, though technology has changed the processes.*  Moving back to the States hasn't changed much in his actual work routine. In Papua New Guinea, when they weren't living in their village house, he could work with the translation team in the village via radio. Now, though he misses the face-to-face camaraderie, he's still able to work with them via Skype. He finds different distractions working in the US; in PNG, meetings and reports got in the way of translation work. In Florida, family business interferes (both John and Bonnie have responsibilities for their aging parents, and John's family has a summer business that's his responsibility).

During the years they lived in PNG, Bonnie's work responsibilities varied. When their kids were in school (and living on the school's campus much of the year), she served in a variety of positions, particularly enjoying and feeling satisfied with her work as a board member.  Now, most of what she did in PNG can't be done from Florida. "I was never as involved in the [translation] project. I was an advisor on various projects as needed." Board meetings filled her desire for community conversation, for working together in search of a common solution. A board's job is talking through polarizing issues, she says. Whenever something started to become an issue, "just enough of a possibility shows up. God saying it's okay." 

She's working to be more comfortable with limbo. Much of her time now  "When I've thought about what life will look like...God comes along and gives me a look at something," allowing her to move ahead with whatever's at hand. For now, the task at hand is finishing her parents' house and helping them move in. Once that's done, she's pretty sure God be along with another possibility.

*When Bonnie and John had been working in Papua New Guinea for about ten years, a devastating tsunami destroyed Arop village. As part of the rebuilding process and as a result of technological advances, Bible translation is changing throughout the world. Their book, Sleeping Coconuts, tells more about that story as well as providing a vivid picture of life in PNG. This recent article also summarizes the translation process well.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

3 days of Florida panhandle churches

We were on Florida's panhandle for the better part of three days. There were a lot of churches along the Gulf Coast!

Here are 6 of them (along with signs about two more):
Pensacola Beach

St Anne's in Pensacola

church and buses in Pensacola

St Sylvester on the panhandle

Navarre Florida beach church

panhandle church

Florida gulf coast church

Florida warehouse church