Church #3 Kingdom Hall in Bethelhem

Date: 1/15/12

Church: Kingdom Hall Bethlehem

Pastor: Unsure if they call the leader(s) pastor(s), the two speakers were referred to as Brother Matice and Brother Derek Doherty

Time Spent: 10am-12noon

Overall Impression: Kinda scared

Type: Jehovah’s Witnesses

Format: 30min talk about scripture, 1hr 30min study of Watchtower Literature, a hymn at the beginning, middle and end. Prayer bookended the Watchtower study.

Thoughts: I showed up and tried to take a seat. It took several minutes because people greeted me continually as I walked inside. I guess it might have been my clothing. All of the men were in suits and the women in dresses and skirts. Anyway I finally achieved a seat. A woman asked me if I knew what to expect. I said no. She told me there would be a talk and then a study with questions and answers. The first half hour seemed ok. There were references to Abraham, Adam, Jesus. The message was about Jesus needing to suffer and maintain integrity/obediance to God in order to take on sin. It was given by a speaker they mentioned was from somewhere local (Brother Matice). Then things got- different. I was given a copy of the watchtower lesson and the entire group went through it led by another speaker (Brother Doherty). It was very like an English comprehension lesson from third grade. There would be a paragraph followed by questions which we could answer to make sure we understood the lesson. Here’s how I remember third grade:

text- Tom and Jody are friends. Tom gives Jody a book for her birthday. Jody is happy to get this gift.
question- Why is Jody happy?
answer- Because Tom gave her a book for her birthday.

But I’m not in third grade today. And I don’t think my bible lessons should treat me like I am. About 50% of the answers offered were verbatim from the lesson itself, as though half the room wasn’t even interested in thinking, just spitting back answers. I also noticed the lessons were made up of verses from various parts of the bible just all strung together with no attempt made to follow the original context. I’m not really a fan of that. Taken apart and put back together you could make any book say anything:

“Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf.”

“Your ring is shown to be that One Ring by the fire-writing alone,”

“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo…”What am I to do?”

“You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon,” said Gandalf.

“You are wise and fearless and fair Lady Galadriel,” said Frodo. “I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.”

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice…”I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

“And that’s the end of that,” said Sam.

I remember how Frodo left his home to escape those that wanted his ring, almost got tricked into giving it to Galadriel and finally decided to keep it for himself. The End.

But I digress. Even reading the bible entirely and in order people disagree about it. And these weren’t the only reasons I started to feel really weird at Kingdom Hall. Most of the lesson was about how we are to live apart from the world, which is of Satan and therefore evil. We live in the world but we are not of the world. This strikes me as a potentially dangerous idea, because it sets up a scenario of us vs. them. In my mind religion should be about reaching out to help people. This seemed more like it was closing in to stay away from people. Because they belong to the evil world…just a step away from saying, everyone else is evil. I don’t ever remember being taught that in my religious upbringing and it seems kind of pretentious.

Weirdness goes on however. Towards the end there was one more freaky thing that I was nervous to hear. The lesson explains how we are to hold ourselves away from the world if we can and not engage fully. (it’s evil remember?) Here is what it says:

Vigilant Christians refrain from using the world to the full with regard to higher education. Many people in this world consider higher education an indispensable stepping-stone to prestige and an affluent life. But we Christians live as temporary residents and pursue different goals.

So now I’m not a Christian because I went to college? Ouch. This seems wrong to me for several reasons. Education is important. Education is good! This is such a basic assumption for me I can’t even think of a way to argue why it’s good. Also, in most places it is important to have a college degree in order to get a job that’s not factory work or retail. Why is a religion telling me not to go to college?

So in the end I was rather creeped out. It may not be as bad as I think though. I don’t really know based off one Sunday how seriously all of them take it. There was the one man who told me his wife is Catholic. Either he misspoke and she used to be Catholic, or they are ok with a member being married to an outsider. And one of the leaders pointed out that the anti-college thing was really more about avoiding prestige for the sake of prestige. My gymnast friend points out that I may be in for visits to other churches that also feel the rest of the world is either wrong or evil, but it may be understated. Or not revealed to the casual visitor. I guess I’m saying I understand these are still all people and can give the benefit of the doubt. But I won’t go back into that church. One Sunday of that was plenty.

Overall Feelings: Too much for me. I’ll stay out here in the world.

Church #2, King’s Chapel in Glenmont

Date: 1/8/12

Church: King’s Chapel, Glenmont

Pastor: Lou Giampaglia

Time Spent: 10am-12noon

Overall Impression: Impressive Depth

Type: I can’t make out a denomination that this church calls itself, but it also doesn’t go by “non-denominational” which is a term that seems to be becoming a buzzword. It’s possible they want to avoid the classification because the term “non-denominational” is almost becoming a denomination itself.

According to the history, it is an outgrowth of Westerlo Baptist Church in the late 90’s, but there’s no mention of current affiliation, and I’m not entirely sure how to group it. (possibly that is the point- touchĂ©!)

Format: Opening song, announcements, more songs, sermon, closing song and prayer

Thoughts: The first thing that grabbed me was the warmth. Now I’m a sucker for good lighting, acoustics, and actual warmth, so it’s possible this fuzzy feeling was just a lucky combination. But it felt nice in there. I notice from the bulletin that this church collects food and clothing in association with a food pantry and a rescue mission, maybe I should consider shopping for non-perishables and driving them over. It is right next to my usual grocery store. The people seem nice, cool, they are obviously close to each other. I was greeted only once, but that’s ok. If one is greeted too many times into a new place it can become overwhelming. And it’s not like I felt snubbed. Actually the opposite. After the service I introduced myself to the pastor and he intro’d me to his wife. While talking with her I put my hand in my pocket and discovered I locked my keys in my car. She offered to let me use her tripleA to unlock it, but I didn’t need to since Dan was down the street. It was kinda funny in a stupid (like of all the dumb things I could do!) way.

The sermon was really my favorite part. The pastor touched on a lot of different aspects of the reading for that day. It was from Genesis 15- actually it might have been the whole chapter. Here are the parts of the sermon that struck me enough to record in my notebook.

Covenant is an important theme in this part of Genesis. The idea of covenant is throughout the bible. There is an implicit one with Adam- take care of the earth and Eve and don’t eat that fruit. Noah was given the rainbow as sign of the covenant when God told him he wouldn’t flood the earth again. Marriage is a covenant. Grace is a covenant.

The pastor did an interesting thing (I think) in relating Genesis opening to the gospels. The words God says to the three in the garden can be interpreted as relating to Jesus’ death. He says to the serpent (evil/devil) ‘He will crush your head’. Jesus crushes sin and gets rid of it. He also says ‘You will bruise his heel’. Jesus was busied and wounded in his death. This interpretation makes the Genesis verses almost a prophesy and I hadn’t heard it that way before.

There’s lots of good imagery in this chapter. Abram (later renamed Abraham by God) was from Ur, a place where he probably worshipped the moon. God came to him, brought him out, and then promised to give him really awesome things, including lots of lands and descendants. God speaks to him and takes him outside, telling him to look up. “Number the stars. So shall your descendants be.” He promises him so many grandchildren great-grandchildren, etc, that he wouldn’t be able to count them. And he told him in a way that had him focus on a night sky with the moon in it. A moon that probably never promised all these things to him. And we know from later chapters that God keeps his promise. The other important thing about Abram is that he believes God before it was even accomplished. That’s why we call Abram one of the faithful.

An interesting thing the pastor talked about was old testament agreements. The covenant Abram makes is like others made at that time with animal sacrifices. An animal was cut in half and those making the promise walked between the halves as a sign that they agreed. It was a way of saying, “I’ll keep my promise, if not may I be sliced in half like these animals.” If I understood the message correctly, in this case God made the necessary pass through the animal halves as fire and smoke.

Another point that was called into use was the idea of faith vs. works. The message was that faith is the important one because True Faith brings works. I think I can disagree with this one in practice, because I feel it is part of myself to require motivation actually doing good works and I don’t think it is lack of true faith. But that’s probably another longer discussion.

I also had some difficulty with a question we were posed: Given the choice, would you choose the best thing in your life or Jesus? Well the best thing in my life is my family. I don’t think it would ever come to me choosing to give them up in order to obtain Jesus. Also I wouldn’t. So I think the question wasn’t a great one, but I think I understand the point. Jesus is pretty important.

Overall Feelings: Nice place you got there!
I could go back. And I might, if I get a free week- say one in which I try attending a service that is no longer in service. I’d be a bit late of course, but I get the feeling they wouldn’t mind.

first Church Visit, Delmar Full Gospel Church

Date: 1/1/12

Church: Delmar Full Gospel Church

Pastor: David Gericke

Time Spent: 10am – 12:45pm (includes coffee and bagels after service)

Overall Impression: Good.

Type: this church is an independent one, however the pastor is affiliated with MFI.

*Update 10/6/13 The church was born out of a bible study in 1981. It is not a part of any denomination.

Format: Service opens with musical praise/worship, then a sermon, then prayer with people available to pray with/for you

Thoughts: I was really nervous to start my project. I didn’t know how people would receive my notion of exploring all the area churches. I shouldn’t have been worried, as most of them simply offered to pray that God would lead me. I take that as a complement and a nonjudgmental way of offering support to me even though I was clearly not clamoring for membership. I was mildly surprised by the pastor who warned/advised me that I wouldn’t find a real connection the way I was going about it. Everyone else seemed cool with the idea, and I wasn’t feeling pressured.

I was greeted no less than six times on my way in and inside. Some asked questions about me, others just said ‘Happy New Year’. The praise portion of the service was easy to follow and words to all songs were displayed on screens at the front of the church. There was a very small amount of singing/speaking in tongues. I’ve been exposed to that before and it was very unobtrusive and didn’t bother me. The sermon was about fasting, which is a project this particular church is doing all week long. The pastor suggested fasting food as much as we are called to by God, but to consider other fasts as well. Examples being: Facebook, TV, sarcasm, video games, or texting. In each case we should use the time freed to us to spend with God. He also cautioned that fasting is not meant to entice God to speak or more readily grant our prayers. It is more for us to change our ways and let us experience God through this change. He told a story of a woman called to fast of her criticisms. After the sermon, I talked with a couple more people who came up to greet me, but my best conversation was with a woman who I happened to sit down next to. She was new to this church by several months and considered it home. She spoke about something she has struggled with that sounded major, and she seemed to feel difficulty from this, but it sounds like things are improving. Her manner was really frank and I felt comfortable speaking with her. I said I didn’t know what I’d find with my project but was hoping it would turn out really beneficial to me. We spoke briefly about grace vs. works (one of my favorite topics) and she said she was coming from a place where the focus was on works and she felt grace was left out of the picture. She came newly to the church and wanted to jump in and get going helping out but was told by a member to take it easy for a while and let grace come to her and let the church be for her. I can remember a time I attended a church that needed its members to volunteer and keep doing and doing and I sorely needed a break which was not given to me. I also know that through works we share the goodness that we have and it isn’t good to refrain from works all the time. I guess what I’m saying is that you need both, and it may take effort to remember both. To me grace means- pay attention! God loves you and doesn’t need you to achieve a specific number of good things to earn that love. And works means- It really helps others when you do good things for them, so try to do that if you are able.

Overall Feelings: I felt good after this service. Kind of energized and ready to explore some more. It’s really freeing to not have the burden of others expecting me back again and wondering what to say to them if I return after many months absence. I tend to struggle with guilt on a lot of different levels and aspects of my life, and it’s nice to think I may be able to go into a place and honestly say I won’t be back and feel fine with that. The one negative I see already is that I probably won’t remember most of these people’s names if I do get to see them again.