Tuesday, September 20, 2016

We go to church in Illinois (with a bonus seminary story!)

Geneseo Evangelical Free Church, Illinois near the library
To indicate how close we’ve been to Pastor Steve Palm of Geneseo Evangelical Free Church, I’ll note that he came with us on our honeymoon.

Well, actually, it was  just the first couple of minutes of our honeymoon. Steve was one of my dorm mates in seminary and a groomsman in our wedding. My car (a Plymouth Duster) had been decorated (vandalized), and the back seat stuffed with crumpled newspaper and a hanging rack of clothes. As Mindy and I drove away after our wedding reception, we didn’t know that Steve had hidden beneath those crumpled newspapers. About half a block away from the church, I asked Mindy, “Where should we go first?”

Mindy asked, “Where do you want to go?”

And a voice from the back seat called out, “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” The car might have swerved a little.

So where we went was back to the church to throw Steve out. We all recovered and nobody was injured.

After seminary, Steve spent most of his years on the East Coast, and we were on the West Coast, and during the next thirty years we only got together one time. Through those years, Steve served churches in his native New York, in Florida, and now in Illinois. This visit was a happy reunion.

He’s been in Geneseo now for two years, and I spoke to a woman named Judy after a service and she said, “We love him! He’s such a wonderful fit here. I love him.”

Geneseo is a small farm town, hours from Chicago. Mindy overheard women discussing men who would miss worship that morning due to the local tractor show. (John Deere headquarters are not far away.) One would think a transition like this would be difficult for a native of Long Island who’s never shaken his Eastern accent, but Steve and the Ev Free Church of Geneseo have something much more important than geography in common; they share a love of God’s Word.

When I asked Steve about the church’s strengths, he immediately mentioned the wealth of good teachers in the church. Mindy and I (along with Steve’s wife, Cindy) attended an adult Sunday School class, and appreciated the lesson taught by Carl, one of several Adult Bible Fellowship (Sunday School) teachers whom Steve praised as quite able.

During snack time before Adult Bible Fellowship, we talked with Linda, Jeff, and Shelly. When I asked what they liked about the church, they all spoke of Steve’s preaching. Linda and Jeff talked about another church they’d attended, where the speaker might focus on a book he had just read or his own thoughts. They appreciated that Steve always spoke from the Scriptures. Linda mentioned that Steve always “threw in some Greek or Hebrew in a sermon.” Shelly said she also appreciated the fellowship found in the church, especially in the Sunday School classes and small groups.

We found the people in the church to be quite friendly, greeting us warmly even when they didn’t know we were friends of Steve and Cindy’s. (If they did know Steve, they wanted to know if the stories he told from seminary days were true. I’m not sure if it was a help or hinderance to Steve’s ministry to confirm the validity of his stories.)

We talked with Debby, the church’s Children’s Ministry Coordinator, who’s also part of the team working redesign the church interior. She was concerned that the room for fellowship and coffee was nearly invisible to people walking from the entrance to the sanctuary or children’s classrooms. She told us,  “People who attended the church for some time were unaware of the snacks available between services.” (And about those snacks. Way back in February in Kansas, we’d heard from a young man that we must try the breakfast pizza from the service station, Casey’s. Frankly, the very idea of service station pizza, let alone “breakfast pizza” frightened us. At GEFC, someone brought Casey’s breakfast pizza, with egg and bacon toppings, for snack time, and it was quite good.)

Debby said they want to tear down walls to reconfigure the lobby area of the church so people will feel more free to stay with their coffee and chat. (I’m not a coffee drinker -- Mindy is -- but this year I’ve come to see more and more the value of providing those opportunities for community before and after Sunday morning services.)

Geneseo has  “traditional” and “contemporary” worship services, but aside from a couple more hymns than choruses in one service than the other, the services were not very different. (There might usually be a greater difference, but Nate, the worship leader, was away on his honeymoon and the music was led by Nate’s father.)

We appreciated the time of open prayer in both services. Steve introduced the time by mentioning the previous day’s bombings in New York and mentioning the importance of the church being led by God’s Spirit rather than fear. A time was opened for congregational prayer. One woman prayed, “Father, help us to love our enemies, being as Jesus said, ‘wise as serpents and as harmless of doves.’”

The message , “Confronting Sin in Someone you Respect,” was the first in a series on “Hard Conversations.” As we’ve visited bars this year, a chief concern is that churches will be “judgmental.” This is a completely valid concern, and we know it was Jesus’ concern as well.

On the other hand, we’ve been to (for instance) an AA meeting where people have tell their story of being rescued when people “intervened” in their lives. I thought Steve addressed the tension well when he said, “There is a theological term for those who enjoy confronting people with their sin. That term is ‘jerk.’”

Steve used the story of 2 Samuel 12: 1 - 15, when the prophet Nathan confronted King David about the king’s sin in sleeping with a soldier’s wife and then orchestrating that soldier’s death in battle. In our culture, we might describe what Nathan did as “speaking truth to power,” but Steve pointed out that initially, Nathan tried a more gentle approach with David with the use of a parable. When that didn’t work, he pointed out David’s sin to him directly.

Steve referred to Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend,” and mentioned that the church had conferences for both women and men coming that would focus on that theme. In the church, we do need each other’s help to deal with our failings, but Steve rightly pointed out the need to do so with love and grace. He mentioned a friend of his who was abusing alcohol and had a greatly strained marriage. Because Steve and others intervened, his friend is sober and his marriage is strong.

He ended the message with the “Paul Harvey, the rest of the story” version of the David/Nathan interaction. Steve pointed out that Nathan was able to go on as a friend and advisor to David. Tellingly, David would later name a son after Nathan.

Those friendships centered on truth and grace are important. I’m glad that we have such a friendship with Steve that continues.

Bonus seminary-related story!
While in Illinois, we were able to see another seminary friend, Brad Gundlach. I was able to participate in a quite different kind of church event. On Monday nights, Brad gets together with various folks from his church, St. Mark’s Lutheran in Lindenhurst, for ping pong. They’ve been playing for years, and on the night I visited, we played with David (the host), Peter, and Norb. Norb is in his early 90’s and can still beat most comers, able to return a volley to any corner of the table at will. Sometimes the pastor of the church shows up, and Brad’s son, Nathan, was a regular member of the Ping Pong Fraternity until he left for college recently.

Brad spoke of his appreciation for having his son being exposed to these good older men in the church, and he enjoyed the opportunities to play with and against his son, in such a safe and friendly atmosphere. (And just so you know, Norb had no problem whipping me in a game.)

Statistics (Traditional service/Contemporary service)
Service Length: 1 hour 1 minute/ 1 hour 8 minutes
Sermon Length: 34 minutes / 41 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Guests were welcomed at the beginning of the service and encouraged (as everyone at the worship service was) to fill out the Connection card in the bulletin. First time visitors were to drop their cards at the Welcome/Information desk (and be given a gift). We were greeted by several people at each service and during the fellowship time before and after the Sunday School hour.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (we were staying with the pastor and family, though, and they cared for us until we left on Monday)
Our Rough Count: 105 / 110
Probable Ushers' Count: 125 / 130
Snacks: coffee and decaf, hot water for tea or hot chocolate; breakfast casserole, fruit, yogurt, donuts, various other pastries, and Casey’s breakfast pizza
Musicians: violin (man), electric piano (man), vocal (3 women) / vocal (2 women), electric piano (man), acoustic guitar (woman), electric guitar (man)
Songs: Traditional Service
“Love Lifted Me”
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
“10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”
“How Great Thou Art/How Great is our God”
Contemporary Service
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
“10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”
“How Great Thou Art/How Great is our God”
Miles to church: 2
Miles from start: 37,347
Total 2016 Miles: 37,051

Church website: http://www.gefc.org/