Church #15, part 2, a nice lunch

So this Sunday I was just going to continue the next church in order. About the middle of the week I got a letter in the mail from a local address but didn’t recognize the name. I figured it was maybe an invitation to a reunion at a high school I never attended. I got one of those once- mistaken identity. I was wrong though. It was a handwritten invitation to lunch at that nice Presbyterian church I went to several weeks back. Exciting! I’ve been to almost twenty churches and left my address with several. This is the first church that has given me a personally written invitation back. And it was a lunch specifically for visitors.

Because I had been so personally invited by someone I actually talked with at the service last month, I decided to show up. I attended service first. Last time the interim pastor was away and somebody else filled in. So I got to hear Pastor Bob. I liked it, although I didn’t retain the message- probably because I was busy wondering what lunch would be like. After service I said hi to another woman I had met last time then found my way to the library.

I got to wear a name tag and chat a little bit with some other relatively new people. We sat down to eat and it became clear the pastor and welcoming committee were going to speak to us. I kept waiting for the ‘sales pitch’ (come join us, we really need you! etc) but it never actually came. Instead we got to hear some honest talk about how Delmar Presbyterian defines itself and what it would mean to attend there. And they even asked us for our input. Membership was mentioned but made out like an optional thing. Some people on committees aren’t even members officially. Everything was really low-key and informal. I liked the fact that they seem incredibly open to allowing people to be who they are. That seemed to be the case as much with newcomers as for the established congregation.

Recently, in order to prepare for the change in pastors (Bob is the short-term interim, remember) the church did a mission study to determine what the members are all about, what they are great at and less great at. They had attendees fill out a survey of 65 questions and used the answers to determine their identity and mission. One of the things that came through strongly was despite mixed theologies and political affinities, Delmar Presbyterian churchgoers had a strong sense of commitment to the interpretation of the two commandments of Jesus. Paraphrased it is, “Love God and love your neighbor.” The full verse is used in every Sunday service and taken as a part of the church mission statement. The survey also highlighted areas that represent challenges for this church to work on, such as events for youth and young adults.

It seems like they have a good handle on viewing themselves realistically. They aren’t seeing the church as a perfection, but they also aren’t seeing it as a charity case. As with anything, it has some positives and negatives. If they will grow and blossom during changing leadership, they need to be able to have this realistic type of outlook. It sounds like they are on the right track. I am curious to see how the process continues and will try to keep in touch with this church if I can within the project parameters.

Final thought: I met two other interim pastors in my life. They were both named Bob. Are all interim pastors named Bob? Until I have evidence to the contrary, I’m going with yes.

Church #18, St Matthew Lutheran Church, Albany

Date: 9/9/12

Church name/type: St Matthew Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod

Format summary: Formal, the usual parts, heavier on scripture and song- in particular there were extra verses imbedded in the sermon

Overall Impression: um…good music?


My impression of Lutheran churches so far is one of boredom. It feels just like a half-dead Catholic mass, only worse because it is more unfamiliar to me. This church wasn’t outright bad in any big concrete way, I just found little in there to recommend it.

There weren’t too many people at service. I don’t know how they support that school of theirs. Quite a few members were a bit on the older-side, you know, they looked like grandmas. Grandmas are fine, but a church full of them may be in some trouble.

The sermon did the exact opposite of something cool for me. It was mostly an exhortation to give more time, talent, and money. The pastor made a point of saying that we may feel as though we have reached our limit of giving and can give no more. He then said this is the time to conquer our sinfulness and give even more- and do it cheerfully! In my opinion, right now when so many are struggling, it is just plain rude to call those who give their best ‘sinful’. It was irresponsible of Pastor Nuss to issue this as a blanket statement when it is not applicable to some. We ought to all judge in our own hearts whether we give enough and act accordingly. There was no reason to make everyone feel not-good-enough.

Last paragraph! I might as well add the one cool thing that happened at this church. I was served communion on my tongue. It was cool in a weird way. It felt very old-school, like suddenly I was back in the early church before all the splits happened.

Noticed by anyone?: No one talked to me beyond the pastor. I mentioned my project but he was unconcerned about the details. This may be a new thing I’ll have to start noticing.

Church #17, First Church of Christ, Scientist

Date: 9/2/11

Church name/type: First Church of Christ, Scientist

Format summary: mostly familiar parts stacked in an odd way- also no peace passing and no communion

Overall Impression: not too lively but very interesting

This place didn’t actually seem that weird. The room and overall tone were a bit austere, but the people were friendly and approved of my project. Attendance was summer-low; about a dozen people.

Several things were striking about this church:
1) They don’t really have a sermon. The time you’d normally expect a sermon to fill was filled instead with readings from the bible and follow up readings from writings by the founder, Mary Baker Eddy. These followed a theme and were from various biblical books. I learned afterwards that these readings change yearly, but the themes are the same each year. So there is never new interpretation going on. Just whatever Mary Baker Eddy already wrote over a century ago.This makes Christian Science seem rather static and locked-in. Whatever they have, for better or for worse, they have to keep.
2) Lots of unique phrases are worked into the service. God is referred to as “Father Mother God”, “Mind”, and All in all. This makes the flow of sentences very poetic sounding and bit mystical.
3) The word science is used a great deal- seemingly stuck in Eddy’s writings at random. “Science removes the penalty only by first removing the sin that incurs the penalty.” “Science denies all disease, heals the sick, overthrows false evidence, and refutes materialistic logic.” So I went ahead and looked up the dictionary definition of science to see if I’d been confused as to it’s meaning. Basically it refers to knowledge or learning. So study of Christianity and how it works could be called a science. Many scientists use to word science to signify scientific method. This is a specific way of testing things and then forming better ideas based on the results. Scientific method is less about proving, and more about creating a progressively clearer picture about how stuff works as testing continues. The science used by Christian Scientists does not involve scientific method. I’m not quite sure why Eddy chose to call it science at all, except perhaps to make it sound smart. I asked one woman why and she told me because Christian Science proves these things are true. So not much help there. I was given a confusing book to read. We’ll see if I have the energy for that one…

Whadja learn today?: Christian Science is not actually a combination of Christian and science. Go figure. Also, do they really not go to the doctor ever? It never came up so I really have no idea.

Church # 16, Slingerlands Community United Methodist

Date: 8/19/12

Church: Slingerlands Community UMC

Pastor: Pastor Laurel Phillips

Time Spent: 10-11:5am

Overall Impression: good, small, friendly

Type: United Methodist Church

Format summary: the usual- songs, prayer, scripture message and closing

Thoughts: What a good Sunday! I’m starting to realize how much appeal churches have when it’s sunny out and everyone is smiling. Another key to what I take from my project seems to be seasonal in nature. I guess the moral should be for churches to remember that people may be grumpy in winter and adjust accordingly. How to do it? I’ll gather more data for a future post.

Slingerlands community held their outdoor service the day I picked to show up. It was a beautiful day. The message had to do with the idea of webs and linkage. I participated in children’s time as an adult because there were only a few children. We created a pattern by each holding a portion of a long ribbon. It looked a little like a web, the takeaway point being, we are all connected.

The sermon was about David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite. Because I love this story I will tell it to you twice. The VeggieTales version goes like this:
King George loves rubber duckies. Duckies are his favorite thing in the world. He has an entire closet full of duckies, but he sees one of his subjects with a cute little duckie and he wants it. He wants it so bad, that he intentionally sends this subject into the front lines of the great pie wars hoping he will get ‘creamed’. Then he takes the duckie for himself. Meanwhile at front lines, his faithful subject does get creamed- by lots of pies! He becomes delirious, babbling to himself about pies. After all this happens, a self-proclaimed ‘slightly odd wise man’ named Melvin shows up. He tells King George a story about two men. The first man is rich and has many sheep. The second is poor with just one little lamb. The rich man has dinner guests over. Rather than slaughter one of his many sheep, he takes the lamb of the poor man and they eat that for dinner. King George is very upset about what the rich man did and asks for his identity so he can be punished. Melvin points out that King George has done the same as the rich man and in fact his story was just a metaphor. King George is sorry for what he’s done so, to make amends, he invites his subject over for a nice bubble bath and gives back his only duckie. This brings him out of his pie-delirium and all is well.

The bible version has a far less-happy ending I’m afraid. King George is King David. The duckie represents Bathsheba, a woman David actually knocks up. Problem is, she is married to Uriah and they haven’t slept together since he’s been at war for his king. So David and Bathsheba can’t even pretend that the resulting baby is Uriah’s. David offs Uriah by sending him into the thickest part of the fighting. With Uriah gone, David can take Bathsheba for his own. Here’s where the Melvin analog (Nathan) shows up. He tells the story about the sheep, knowing that David used to be a shepherd. It moves David to anger against the rich man’s cruelty. Nathan reveals his trick and David realizes he is in trouble with God. Nathan says, “You are forgiven. You will not die.” However God punishes David by taking the child Bathsheba is pregnant with. It does not live longer than a week.

Why do I love this story? Probably because of the amazingly good VeggieTales episode. Also it’s very juicy, like reading tabloids. Something about it really draws me in. The sermon points again to a web. Not of good feeling and humanity among all people this time, but of lies and murder. David let one sin lead to another. He became so stuck in what he wanted that it messed up his life. In some ways God is totally harsh in this story. God takes the baby that Bathsheba gives birth to. In other ways God is very lenient. He doesn’t harm David, even though he deserves death as punishment for murder. The way it works out is very old-school old testament. God’s mercy saves a king but kills an infant. Punishment is doled out to a person’s progeny instead of that person. I’m sure this portion of the story spoke much more clearly to audiences back in the day.

It kind of makes me wonder about the whole abortion debate. God killed a full term child already born because he was inconvenient. Maybe all the people who quote the old testament missed this part. It seems to me there should be a big group of religious folks pushing for the exact opposite of what they are now. Clearly the full grown adult life was more important to God than the baby.

Looking at it another way, maybe that’s just an instance of ‘God does everything’. Old testament explanations sometimes take the tack that whatever happened, God willed it for a reason. Did the baby look sick, then Nathan came along to explain why?

Either way it’s a pretty good story. And by good I obviously mean interesting. Because its totally NOT good for nearly everyone involved. No word on how Bathsheba felt about all this. She’s just a woman so maybe no one asked her. But that’s a post for another time.

Anything Else -?: I must fit in pretty well- the Pastor asked me how I’ve been even though we’d never met. Turns out that I look like someone else. That’s starting to happen now and then. I wonder if it’s something specifically nondescript about me or just my smile.

Church #15, Delmar Presbyterian

Date: 8/12/12

Church: Delmar Presbyterian Church

Pastor: Reverend William Dodge, filling in for interim Pastor Foltz-Morrison, who is the fill-in until a more permanent pastor is chosen

Time Spent: 10-11:30am

Overall Impression: good! they seem cool and normal

Type: Presbyterian Church (USA)

Format: announcements, responsive call to worship (congregation says some parts), hymn, prayer, musical chairs passing of the peace, scripture, more responsorial stuff, prayer intentions and Lord’s prayer, hymn and closing

Thoughts: To my memory, this is the first Presbyterian church service I’ve attended. I liked it and it seemed not too far off from Methodist and Reformed churches. I am happy to get once again, both the doxology and musical chairs style peace.

The sermon was about the unexpected and how it can change everything. Jesus came and his ministry changed people. Unexpected things happen to us today, but we have to respond when they do. Specifically we need to remember to live out our faith everyday. Unexpected things may challenge us and we have to be ready. In this particular sermon we didn’t get many details of what that means. I suppose growing up Presbyterian, one would know. I did not however, so I’m left to wonder whether it was meant to convey a political stance, conversion efforts, or just helping those you see in need. I hope it was the last, because that seems to be one of the most beneficial things coming out of religion.

After service I spoke with several regular members of the congregation. All of them were very positive about my project, which is always a really great sign. I spoke a little with one woman about the upcoming change in Pastor. They have a committee made up from the congregation that chooses someone. Coming from a Catholic background, I see so much benefit for them to be able to a) pick a Pastor themselves and b) have more than one choice. I also mentioned to her how important it is to have active leaders from among the congregation. I’ve noticed that churches able to define themselves without a pastor are better at keeping their identity (and attendance) when a pastoral change occurs.

Overall Feelings: great! What more can I say?

Church #14, First United Methodist Church

Date: 8/5/12

Church: First UMC Delmar

Pastor: preaching: Reverend Iona Dickinson

Time Spent: (oh I knew I forgot something, how long was I there?) 9:30-11am? I think?

Overall Impression: good, especially given that it’s a million degrees out and that makes me cranky

Type: United Methodist Church

Format: This church had no musical-chairs greeting time; I guess they might be nearing the size limit that would work for. The format had a lot of following along with group spoken parts, interspersed with single verses from the hymnal. This was only slightly confusing and I did pretty well once I realized the the format was actually wrapped around the bulletin full of other church announcements.

So, when I first walked in I thought maybe I made a mistake. The feel was so formal I thought maybe it was a different denomination. I’m used to a more relaxed feel in Methodist churches. It’s probably also related to the fact that I help a friend with youth events in Methodist churches and those are super relaxed. The First UMC building looked pretty and formal with stained glass windows and this stately organ music playing and people in kinda nice outfits. Well I went in and sat down. No one greeted me, but I came in almost exactly as the service started. And one woman smiled at me while I was giggling at the children’s time. The sermon was about being hungry for God and remembering to feed ourselves spiritually. One of the kids claimed he was hungry in his heart at lunchtime.

Anyway the format did have mostly components I recognized from other Methodist churches. And it was a communion week so I got some bread and juice. Methodists make no requirements on partaking in communion- zero. So you can always just show up and know that they’re cool with you eating with them.

After service one man near me immediately greeted me. I spoke with the pastor and was domino-cascade introduced to about five more people. I’m actually surprised I didn’t already know anyone as I tend to know Methodists here and there from the camp I used to be involved with. Everyone seemed pretty cool and open. And the pastor had a tiny little baby I got to hold. So this is my favorite church- or at least my favorite church baby.

Overall Feelings: Dressy formal looking, but still low-key. Everyone was happy to welcome me and low pressure to return. Just what I was hoping for from the now familiar Methodist church.

Church #13, St Michael’s Chapel

Date: 7/8/12

Church: St Michael’s Chapel

Pastor: Father Joseph Collins

Time Spent: 10am-11am (mass) 11am-1pm (talking and lunch)

Overall Impression: Seems ok.

Type: Catholic

Format: Traditional pre-Vatican II mass, aka mass in Latin

So the first thing I noticed on peering in was that all the ladies and girls had lacy head drapes. I asked a greeter if I would be ok without one, and he offered me one from a pile on a table in the entryway. I do try to respect the norms as well as get the full experience at any church, so I took one and tucked it into the lacy headband I happened to have worn that day. The women were also all wearing skirts, but since I didn’t see any of those in the entryway to borrow, I went inside wearing jean shorts.

The mass started with the priest muttering softly in Latin and the congregation kneeling. Then, um- actually that was pretty much it the whole time. Besides the English sermon of course. And no music except the nuns chanting. I did pretty good with the Latin actually. I was in choirs, and we used to sing old masses written by old dudes (Bach, Mozart). Also some of it was similar to Spanish and there are quite a few English words from Latin. It wasn’t too hard to get the gist of a lot of it.

The bible verse was the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The priest talked about how early Christians used a fish symbol (I knew that) with a sack of loaves slung over its shoulder (I didn’t know that part). He pointed out that the two accounts of a food multiplying miracle differ in details, so they are clearly separate miracles. He also went on kind of a confusing tangent about how the church cannot teach any evil or wrong- it is impossible! So we know the church never teaches what is incorrect. It was unclear what he meant in saying this. Is everything fine then, or was he trying call attention to a perceived wrong that people are misinformed about? Or was he pointing out that a church teaching wrong is not really The Church? I suspect the latter, but he wasn’t exactly clear about it. He also said that people love to hate on organized religion and blame it for every war when the very idea is ridiculous. I’m not sure who is blaming religion for every war, maybe the priest is just overstating his fear of what society thinks.

Anyway…this was a church I decided not to take communion at. So far, at every other church I’ve been fairly certain their own internal rules permit me to take communion. This time though, I figured I might not be qualified in their eyes; having done my sacraments in Regular Catholic Church might not be enough for a stricter, old-style Catholic Church. So I skipped it.

After mass was really when it started to be fun. I wound up talking to a bunch of members, the priest, and a nun who was visiting. There were some good conversations about Peter the rock, Gnostics, America land of choices, and true religion. I had some very old school things suggested to me including praying the rosary and touching a relic. Everyone wanted me to know that this church was special and obviously the only type of church to worship in. (what’s new?) But the best conversation was with one of the nuns. She filled me in on some history and practice information. These independently Catholic churches believe the Second Vatican Council was wrong in the many changes it made. Rome says very little about their status, neither condemning them nor accepting them. Recently a bishop in the independent vein was asked to stop ordaining more priests. But otherwise there’s not much in the way of an official response.

Besides the talks, I stayed for a lunch and a game of Catholic Jeopardy. That was neat. Lots of trivia. I think I need to read up on Saints. Overall a pretty cool Sunday.

Overall Feelings: Ow my knees! Seriously, I’m shocked people used to kneel this much every week. Oh well, maybe I’ll wear knee pads next time.

Church 8, part 12

Well everybody (all two of you!) the 39 articles series is at a close. The last article to be explained was the long one; article 17 regarding predestination and election.

Episcopalians believe in predestination. At least, if the 39 articles are to be taken as is, they are supposed to. What is predestination you ask? We were given lots of descriptions. Here are several.
1) Predestination means all events are willed by God.
2) Predestination refers to God’s goals; who are among the ‘elect’- those he chooses to save.

At this point a lot of people are asking:
How does predestination jive with human free will?
Would God really make beings he is going to send to hell?
Why and how does God choose?

Historically there are several viewpoints to decide to listen to. St Augustine (pre-reformation) was converted to the church from a very negative way of life with drinking and womanizing. His thought was-“since I was clearly undeserving, we cannot know why God chooses”. John Calvin saw predestination in a very strict light. Using the model of Jacob and Esau he understood it to mean one is chosen before birth and there is no way to change it. Because of this some Calvinists won’t evangelize (it wouldn’t do any good). Jacobus Arminius felt that it worked this way: God foresees those that will do right and choose salvation.

For Anglicans the phrase ‘predestined to life’ is an important one. It means that we were meant to have life so God could invite us all to salvation. Yet according to this article there are clearly some who will get left out of the salvation part. In a weird kind of duality, it seems you must choose God, but he also must choose you. Remember, the idea is that there is no salvation outside Jesus and God. You choose God and God chooses you. God chose you to live, he wants you to choose him.

I would characterize it the opposite way as well; God gives life, we can choose to pick hell. Is this the glass half full/ half empty argument? It makes it sound a little nicer to say one is free to choose heaven. But it’s basically another way of saying, if you choose wrong you wind up in hell. And God knew all along that you’d end up there. It sounds rough, but theologically the only alternatives would be a) everyone gets into heaven or b) God is not omniscient. I do have to wonder how relevant this is given the idea that we don’t know what God knows. Who cares if we are predestined to a certain fate if only God knows what that fate is?

Church 8, part 11

I arrived slightly late to this week’s talk, so I missed a small part of Article 37. Here are several important points in the article:
The bishop of Rome (the pope) has no jurisdiction in England. This was I guess just to drive home the idea again that the Pope and Church of England were not linked.
Christians are still bound to regular laws. This is kind of setting up the idea of church and state as separate entities. We get this now, but at the time I guess it was important to spell it out.
Christians can go to war and carry a weapon. I assume this one was addressing the whole, thou shalt not kill, thing. If you are drafted into war by your country, you don’t have to protest. At least not on the Anglican church’s behalf.

In mentioning the Pope, we heard a little bit about the history of this position. I also went and looked up some stuff afterwards. Papal tradition follows in the footsteps of Peter and hinges on the following bible verse:

(Jesus to Peter)…And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

This is the basis for Peter as the first Pope of the church. Other leaders have followed him in the same tradition, according to the Catholic church. The Anglican and Episcopal churches do not see the verse as having that meaning. It extends too far and gives authority to the Pope which shouldn’t be given. An example of this is the doctrine of infallibility from the 1870 first Vatican council. The Pope can make some declarations that are ‘infallible’ and become doctrine. This is a point of contention between the Episcopal and Catholic churches.

Article 38 states that Christian men don’t need to have goods in common. This makes them unlike the Anabaptists, a group that tried to live together in a way that shares all money and goods with all members. There are still some groups in the Anabaptist tradition today. Actually, the Episcopal church does have groups which come close to this communal lifestyle. They have monks and nuns including a group called Episcopal Franciscans. The article also specifies that we are to give alms as generously as we can.

Article 39 prohibits swearing oaths frivolously. Today we would say don’t swear. I guess even back then they kinda threw around the Lord’s name carelessly. You are however allowed to swear as in court (in front of a magistrate) as long as it is true what you swear to.

Now I know you think we’re done here, but actually Father Egan skipped the article on predestination and election. That one will get an entire Sunday slot all by itself. That’s next week and that one will be the last.

Church 8, part 10

I am two sessions away from the end of my tour of the 39 articles of the Anglican/Episcopal church, after which I will definitely be moving on. So what did I hear about this week? Well I’ll tell ya.

We started with article 34. It says that traditions used for church services may vary- presumably from time to time and place to place. This was meant to try and involve congregants in the service by making it more accessible. Other ways to achieve this were the translation of the Sunday service into the local language and the use of a prayer book people could follow along with. The article also serves to specify that doing things outside the scope of the bible are still ok, as long as the bible has not forbidden them. Apparently the puritans had this thing for doing stuff only specifically mentioned in the bible and avoiding everything else. Anglicans had this article to tell them not to get worked up about it. Father Egan said a good rule to remember is:

Scripture for salvation
Tradition for ceremonies

We also heard briefly about the difference between an Episcopal church with a “morning prayer” focus vs. a “Sunday morning” focus. A morning prayer church will do three services in the week and one communion per month on Sunday. Sunday morning churches make Sunday service their main thing and serve communion every week.

Article 35 is about the book of homilies. A bit of history concerning this article; the Church used to discourage studying the bible. In fact fewer people were literate anyhow. Because of these two factors, the burgeoning Anglican church had a shortage of scripture-smart priests. To assist them while they studied up, sermons were written out so priests had something to say during transition. These were the book of homilies 1 and 2.

Article 36 talks about how bishops are ordained- kinda. It states that the formula is in another book! As a sidebar to this we learned about the ceremony for a new queen in England. The church of England is still vaguely tied to the monarchy, so the church has to approve the queen- I’m sure it was important back in the day. Now it’s more a formality. So the queen will be attired in a simple cloth shift and she is annointed on the head and breast with oil.

Articles from a week ago:
I learned about excommunication! It really doesn’t happen often today. It would require a very public breach of church teaching by someone in a leadership position probably. Otherwise it wouldn’t really be necessary. Excommunication is meant as a way to force someone to realize they need to change their life. They ask forgiveness and gain reconciliation to be welcome into the church again. In most cases an actual excommunication would not happen because steps can be taken to solve the problem without outright asking someone to leave. That would be the goal anyway.