How Can You Not Be Changed?

Part Two on Deepening Your Relationship with God by Worshiping with Other Faiths

Carolyn Thompson Ten-minute read.   Resources

Stained glass windows at Calvary Episcopal Church. Image: Gary Allman

I spent Maundy Thursday at a Methodist Church singing the choral Living Last Supper, and Good Friday at an ELCA Lutheran Church, and sitting in the dark of the Easter Vigil service in the beautiful, Calvary Episcopal Church. And I thought, “walking with Jesus through Holy Week, how can you not be changed?” and it struck me that the Easter Vigil, is very like the changes happening to me from going to different places of worship each week. I had been through 40 days (okay, possibly, 59 years) of what amounts to Lent — a season of reflection, of preparation, of sacrifice, and of being in the desert. At the Easter Vigil I start in darkness, but slowly with the first light of Easter and the hearing of our salvation history and the renewal of my baptismal vows (and this was the first time it ever meant anything to me – I was surprised), I realize just how far I’ve come in my spiritual journey these past 20 months. A journey in which I expected to change but never dreamed I would be changed so much!

In case you didn’t read Part One of the story my journey began 20 months ago with a calling to go to a different place of worship each week within a one-and-a-half hour drive of home, so that I could learn to feel and see God no matter where I was.

One of the interesting things about dropping myself into a new place of worship each week is that I get to see a glimpse of the life of each church/organization I visit. I was there:

  • The Sunday after the 2nd organist in a row quit;
  • after the rector broke his arm the night before and after the scramble to prepare Morning Prayer a retired priest volunteered from the congregation to do the Eucharist;
  • after a heavy snow and after the Lake flooded and other events that bring a community together;
  • after the pastor went home for his ailing mother and didn’t return in time for the service, so the Elders led a prayer service;
  • for the first Easter Vigil that a church’s congregation had experienced;
  • when they welcomed back to church a man everyone thought would die the week before;
  • for an Easter sunrise service (my first ever) when it was 5 degrees and windy as the sun came up.

What are the odds I’d see so many of these unplanned, and truly formational events in the lives of these churches? Of course the answer is that God’s actions aren’t odds, for me they’re just part of the continuing strengthening of my relationship with Him, with other people, and with myself.

Picking My Weekly Place of Worship

I’ve had some really unique experiences after choosing my place of worship for the week.

Here are a couple of examples of what happens when I go where I let God lead me:

  1. I went to my church because I was scheduled to acolyte but something was wrong with the schedule so they didn’t need me. I got on the internet to see what church that I hadn’t been to in the area that had a service in the next half hour. The experience provided one of my most memorable “aha” moments regarding the progress I’d made in my journey.
  2. I was reading a book that led me to think I wanted to try meditating. In the middle of the book I ended up at a Unity church (lots of meditating) and had a great experience. I had planned to go to Unity Church the month before, but my plans had to change. Had I gone when I’d planned, before reading the book, the service would have made me feel uncomfortable. Visiting after reading the book, I was able to get a lot from the service.

Here’s what often happened when I was picking a place of worship to go to:

I would call and leave a message asking for the service time, and I didn’t get a call back. Nothing, nada.

These were all places I had chosen to go to (trying to get to a few faith traditions on my list). I tried calling them multiple times over a few months and never received a call back. I found this to be so odd, who wouldn’t want someone to join them in worship? It actually made me want to go all the more. The national website of another faith tradition that didn’t call me back said they “welcome everyone”. Interesting.

Realizations

  • Everything affects everything – since I started this journey I frequently notice how what’s happening to me right now is connected to multiple other things that have happened.
  • While praying for people in a nationally publicized tragedy, I realized how powerful it was that all over the world people were going to different kinds of worship and they we were all praying for those impacted by the tragedy.
  • Some places have specific memories and lessons that I learned about myself as I worshiped.
  • There was the great teaching pastor who literally made Bible stories “come to life” for me.
  • At a church in Florida, all of sudden, I really understood what “Christ died for my sins” means. Something I’ve been struggling to understand for decades
  • I’ve been introduced to many versions of the formal prayer of confession, the prayer of thanksgiving, the prayer before communion, and before the offertory. I love the Book of Common Prayer, but I have seen some even more meaningful versions – and that’s saying a lot coming from me!
  • The different traditions have an amazing number of names for the same thing, be it different parts of a worship service, parts of a church building, or it’s furniture and even the pronunciation of the word “amen”

Places of Worship Attended Since My First Article

Church/Denomination Number of Visits
Church of Christ 1
Church of the Nazarene 1
Assembly of God 1
MS Lutheran 2
Unity 2
Greek Orthodox 1
Roman Catholic 1
Disciples of Christ 5 (same church, love their outdoor service)
ELCA Lutheran 1
Methodist 5 (4 are the same church, I was asked back to sing)
Non-denominational 3
Presbyterian 1
Baptist 1
My church 8 (to acolyte)
Other Episcopal churches 2

I started out on a one-year journey of visiting other traditions. At the end of that year I couldn’t give it up. At the time I didn’t know if this was me or God directing me. Now at the end of my 20th month I can definitely see God’s hand in my journey. If we ever meet, you can ask me about a huge life event in the 19th month that made it oh so clear.

Sadly my list of “be sure I get to these places of worship” hasn’t been completed in the last 10 months. Why? Other opportunities have been taken as I let God lead me, my church has a rector again, so I’m acolyting once a month, and another church has me leading singing once a month.

So here’s what’s left:

  • 7th Day Adventist (it doesn’t count that we parked our motorhome in the Plantation Key, Florida 7th Day Adventist church’s lot this Winter –- and what a lovely pastor we talked to)
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (I have tried calling the one nearest me multiple times with no call back – I will branch out)
  • Jehovah’s Witness (same as above)
  • Buddhist Temple
  • Muslim Mosque
  • Mennonite
  • Christian Science. I am reading “My Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy” and I have a copy of “Science and Health” to read, but I still want the “worship” experience.

I Expected to Change, But Not This Much

In my journey I was hoping to learn to see/feel God in every worship experience. Instead I am getting so much more.

  • I am getting the ultimate of “aha” moments from the outcome of a Christ-like relationship with others and with myself.
  • I am not judging things that before I started this journey, I would have hated (my mother always told me that “hate” was too strong a word, no one really actually hates, but these come pretty close for me). Just three cases in point (arguably the two things in worship I have been most verbal about disliking and had felt actual hurt the ability to connect with God).
  • Just after the beginning of the service at an Assembly of God – people who asked for prayer came to the front and a large number of people huddled around them and prayed loudly, all at the same time, all with different words so it was a cacophony of sound while the rest of us sang a long hymn – my reaction was one of feeling I’d been part of all those prayers and I was stunned at myself as previously I’d have felt it was a distraction at best and showy at worst.
  • Another Sunday, and Mother’s Day Sunday at that, the Church of Christ service was completely centered on the scripture of wives submitting to their husbands and no women talked, held positions of leadership in the church, and appeared to be perfectly in agreement with this through the 45 minute message on how important this was to Christian world – my reaction was again stunned that I wasn’t livid. I was simply interested in how all the pieces fit together to make the best Christian homes, communities and world.
  • And finally, a large portion of the almost 3 hours of chanting in the Greek Orthodox church was so fast I couldn’t even read fast enough to see what words the Reader was saying much less be able to read it myself and certainly not learn anything – my reaction was at first frustrated (but not the “what is wrong with people who read this fast?” of yesteryear) and then slowly I was able to start keeping up (3 hours will do that to you!) and in fact I later thought that this method was helpful to me as a feeling of immersion in the scriptures (not exaggerating, I timed it – he read 10 whole Psalms in about 5 minutes).

If I can come this far in 20 months, I can’t imagine what the next 20 months will hold.

But then again, maybe I am not meant to imagine. Me the planner, me the objectives girl. Maybe that is my true lesson so far — I am now allowing worship to happen to me. And because of this I will no longer subscribe to the popular saying “God never gives you more than you can handle”. Instead I am now saying “God always gives you more than you ever imagined”.

Carolyn B Thompson is a cradle Episcopalian with an unquenchable thirst for more relationship with her beloved Father.

Deepen Your Experience of God by Worshiping With Other Faiths

Carolyn Thompson is deepening her relationship with God by participating in other faith’s worship services.

Carolyn B Thompson 10 minute read.   Resources


Eucharist following the ordination to the Priesthood of Fr. Chas Marks, at St. Mary's, Kansas City. 9-8-2017.
The Episcopal Church – Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. (Eucharist following the ordination to the Priesthood of Fr. Chas Marks, at St. Mary’s, Kansas City. 9-8-2017. Image credit: Gary Zumwalt

I love, love, love the experience of worshipping in an Episcopal service – the smells, the bells, the vestments, the music, the Book of Common Prayer, the layout of the worship space, the church’s beliefs, the history.

I’m also one of the first to say how easy it is to not be present in worship in a liturgical tradition such as the one I love. But, I always meant “those people”, those people who just recite the words while not living as Jesus would; those people who literally have no idea what words they’re saying while they’re thinking about coffee hour, the ball game, how much they don’t like the priest, the new vestments, the candles; those people who don’t work hourly at their relationship with God.

And I realized I was one of “those people” — Someone who is so hooked on the Episcopal worship experience that any other worship experience makes it difficult to feel like I’d been to church, or worse that I hadn’t even connected with my Father.

I don’t know about you but I am often at odds with God over His timing vs mine

As a woman of immediate fix-it action, the moment I realized this, I wanted to get started on the fix. And thankfully God provided (I don’t know about you but I am often at odds with God over His timing vs mine.) I knew that what I needed was to participate in many more worship experiences than the few I’d been able to thus far (and weddings and funerals don’t count because the focus is on the special ceremony with all its emotions, not on the worshiping and building of a relationship with God.) But how? It’s hard to get away from the responsibilities at our own parish. Being an acolyte and member of the choir were my responsibilities at the time. Our church was soon to be losing its priest to retirement, and we had no idea when we might be able to find the right person for us or even find a relief priest who could celebrate the Eucharist with us from time-to-time. The unknown frequency of the Eucharist meant no choir or need for acolytes. So I jumped right into my journey the Sunday after our priest retired. Did I plan what places of worship I’d go to? Did I set a more specific objective than worship and build a relationship with God no matter where I was? Being the immediate fix-it action me, no!

As I attended places of worship the details of my method and an objective began to evolve. Naturally, people at the places I visit are curious about what I’m doing, and I had to have answers for their questions: are you visiting? Are you looking for a church home? Are you coming back next week? You should sing in our choir, want to come to our spaghetti dinner? Want to be in charge of our youth program? Want to be on our governing body? I’m just kidding about the last two, but I have visited some small communities and I know that “we need more people here” feeling. By week four I had honed my method and objective. For the next year, I will go to a different place of worship within a one-and-a-half hour drive from home each week, so that I can feel and see God no matter where I am.

The Episcopal Church: Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaching at Hammons Field, Springfield. Sunday May 7, 2017.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaching at Hammons Field, Springfield. Sunday May 7, 2017. Image credit: Gary Allman

“Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself”

Having said this, I learned that my journey would keep evolving. In fact “evolving” was a hallmark of this journey for me. Seven months in I went to the Awakening event in Springfield and heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry tell us that our job was to “Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself” … I realized he was talking about my journey — what can I learn about God, and what can I do to strengthen my relationship with Him? With other people? And with myself?

Picking a weekly Place of Worship

For the first eight months by Friday, it had just occurred to me where I was going. I called to get the times of services and the other things people normally do (education, meal, donations, etc…), any special dress requirements or actions I should be prepared for? And I confirmed the address (I recommend that you don’t trust websites, and plenty of places don’t have websites). In order to get to all the faith traditions I don’t want to miss, I now have a list and choose one each week based on the distance and time of worship. I liked the first method best.

Getting Something Out of Each Experience

  • I trust that I’ll get something out of each worship experience.
  • I participate fully in whatever that faith tradition does at their worship – sing, pray, Sunday School/education, share a meal, donate money, canned goods, etc…
  • I take lots of notes about what I see, what I feel and what I learned.

People ask “which is your favorite place of worship” and I honestly say “I loved them all”

When I read all my notes from the past 10 months here’s where every experience intersected. I’ll call them the Outcomes of My Experiences. But these are not just my experiences, the people at the places I visit each week are also learning; as are people out in the community, as they talk about what I’m doing.

The Outcomes of My Experiences

I am:

  1. experiencing intense faith traditions which makes me think for days — as opposed to hours after my service;
  2. talking to people because I‘m always the new person — at my service I worship and go off to my next event;
  3. seeing a different emphasis per congregation and clergy leader — this is the only one on this list that I had expected;
  4. hearing preaching on the same scripture by different people — this has allowed me to understand some for the first time;
  5. opening others to my journey equals opening them to their own journey — always a part of God’s purpose for me;
  6. experiencing different music — my main form of worship has always been music and this has intensified that;
  7. learn something no matter who is preaching — I used to have a hard time getting used to a new preaching style;
  8. blessed with a Lent that I’d never have lived without this journey — and I’ve shared my amazing reflections with others;
  9. clear that I love the Episcopal Church — the ancient way of ordering time around the life of Christ, the Book of Common Prayer, because I’m praying the same thing as Anglicans around the world, and the variety of worship experiences.

Even though I spent the first eight months with no game-plan of where to go, it occurred to me that there were other places of worship I would like to experience and I made a list to be sure I got to them in my one-year timeframe. Here are the ones I didn’t want to miss:

  • 7th Day Adventist
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
  • Jehovah’s Witness
  • Buddhist Temple
  • Muslim Mosque
  • Jewish Temple
  • Reformed Church in America
  • Christian Science
  • Assembly of God

Places of Worship Attended So Far

Worship Tradition Number of visits
Pentecostal 1
New Testament 1
Roman Catholic 1
Disciples of Christ 5 (same church, asked back to sing)
Lutheran 1
Methodist 5 (same church, asked back to sing)
Non-denominational 2
Presbyterian 1
Baptist 2
My church 6 (asked to acolyte)
Other Episcopal churches 8 (all different except 1 twice)
Worship CDs in my car 2 (driving long distance all Sunday)

People ask “which is your favorite place of worship” and I honestly say “I loved them all”. When analyzing how that could be, I saw it clearly in my list of outcomes. I get something from every place I go to, and I think about that place and what I learned there for days afterward. And further, I expect to gain something from every place I go, and so, I love every one of them.

I know I won’t stop at one year, as that’s only two months away, and though I can see a huge change in my ability to feel and see God in whatever faith tradition I’m worshiping in, there are:

  1. more intensely different faith traditions than mine that I have yet to experience, and …
  2. I love the benefits of this worship style (see the first six outcomes above).

I’m not sure I’d get them if I went to one church every week and I’m not ready to give them up yet. I’m trying to listen and discern the journey God has for me. I know that some of my “I don’t want to miss” visits will challenge and help me to grow even closer to my objective of feeling and seeing God no matter where I am.

What Happened to Me Can Happen to You

Yes, you can follow my lead and go to a different place of worship each week. If that’s not for you, for whatever reason, you can take a new look at worshiping closer to home. What would happen to your relationship with God, with your neighbor, and with yourself if you tried to attain some of my outcomes each week? You can do it in the comfort of your own church, at your favorite time of day, with the people you know, with the clergy you’re used to listening to, in the comfort of your own pew. Don’t tell me you don’t sit in the same pew every Sunday because I know most of us do!

“God didn’t make us to have small lives”, Erin M Straza says in her new book, Comfort Detox. What would happen if you allowed yourself to experience the fullness of worship that God has planned for you? Not a small life.

Carolyn B Thompson is a cradle Episcopalian with a unquenchable thirst for more relationship with her beloved Father.

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