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.

Lord’s Prayer Rewrite

So, on my mind a lot recently has been the meaning and usage of prayer. I’d really like to do an entire project devoted to just prayer and how it is viewed by different people. I have a feeling that the answers would be different even among those attending a single church. Instead of asking everyone I meet, which would be tedious, I’m asking here and there and keeping my eyes and ears open. I have seen prayer as speech and song, heard it described as a solo activity, and seen it done in a large group. I have read a few different takes on what is to be expected of prayer. They boil down to one of the following answers:1)prayer is about maintaining a relationship with God and getting in touch with God’s presence 2)prayers of the faithful are answered, pray and don’t stop, you will get what you ask for. Why is prayer seen in two such vastly different light’s? I don’t know, but I’m watching out for more information along my journey.

Meanwhile, Jesus explained how to pray in the new testament. How would this be expressed if he retold us today? I tried my hand at guessing:

Heaven: The Big Chair
Dear Holy Dad,
Let your kingdom be here with us on earth. We want to do what makes you happy. Give us food each day. Forgive us when we mess up. Remind us to forgive others who mess up. Remind us not to get into precarious situations. Help us when we are in need.

Comments welcome!

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?

A birthday update (#12)

It’s my birthday week, and I thought I’d give a rundown of where the project is overall.

So you know my project takes me to various churches in the Albany area. In that same vein I had been thinking of learning a bit more about a group called the Bruderhof. They are a faith based group in the Anabaptist tradition who live together in various communities across the US and elsewhere. The biggest interesting thing about them is that they share money- they have a “common purse”. They have a website which explains some about their beliefs and lifestyle, but the very best way to learn more about them, their faith, and why they do what they do, is through a visit. That’s what I did. And it was a pretty nice way to spend a birthday. So check that off the list.

My summer is getting all packed with work and on-call and weddings and baptisms and vow renewals. I would like to try to post at the rate of once per week or more. Sometimes it will be twice in two weeks. At this time I have just one more scheduled visit to St Stephen’s for a talk. After that I can get in some more new churches. I am looking forward to a mass at St Michael’s. If you remember this was my first miss and should have been church #2. It pays to persevere I guess, since I finally just decided to show up on a Sunday when I saw some cars there. They start at 10am, I asked someone in the parking lot. I have heard their mass is in Latin so I’m excited to experience that at least once. And I’ll be getting to few new denominations including Presbyterian and Greek Orthodox.

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.

My great awesome talk!

So, this week instead of visiting a new church I came back to one I’d already visited- as a guest speaker. I spoke about my project to the people at Glenmont Community Church. Hopefully it wasn’t obvious how nervous I was. I like talking about my church adventures; the scary part is addressing a crowd of people who I don’t really know. I think I did alright. I got a lot of positive feedback afterwards so I’m happy that a number of people at least found it somewhat interesting. For the benefit of those who were not in attendance I will now try to reproduce most of what I talked about:

I introduced myself and said I was raised Catholic. I’m actually from Plattsburgh, NY. I came to Albany for college and wound up staying. I have been a member at several churches but had become disconnected from my latest church. I thought about looking for another new church, but wanted to try out several. Then I realized I could try even more than several , hey, I could try ALL of them! So I looked up Christian churches around my area. There are enough churches within 10 miles of my house to keep me busy for 3 years!
I mentioned my ground rules. I made a point of mentioning my laid back attire. The reason for my outfit is twofold: I want to feel as comfortable as possible in a new place, and I like to know people will accept me even in slouchy clothes. I also mentioned that I keep myself grounded during the journey by knowing that my spiritual home is inside me.
I recalled some of the things I notice as a visitor, including 1) greeting 2) worship style 3) teachings 4) building layout 5) service format.
After getting into the preliminary details I invited Pastor Abby to ask me questions that she might like me to touch on if I hadn’t already. We also welcomed questions from my audience. This part was less scripted out beforehand, so I’ll do my best to remember how it all went.
I talked several times about the Kingdom Hall (Jehovah’s Witness) visit. I said that I stood out like a sore thumb and that I was greeted constantly on the way to my seat. I think I called the service “different” and “mildly brainwashy”. This was from the fact that the format entailed asking comprehension questions of their congregation and getting back answers that seemed like a mere regurgitation of the texts.
I mentioned being surprised by strong positive and negative reactions to my project at various churches. At church 1 the pastor said he didn’t think I’d find what I was looking for. Then at church 2 the pastor called my project “cool”. One of my audience members told me church 1’s pastor was wrong and that he was baffled by the negative response. (Thanks for that by the way, positive support is always nice!)
I mentioned both Reformed churches in a positive light. I said Glenmont Community was easier to navigate because of having a single worship space. Delmar Reformed church has the two worship spaces, but my confusion was easily remedied there by asking a member where to go.
I got a question regarding “coffee hour” or that time after a service when people mingle and have snacks. I do try to attend those if I’m not in a hurry. One church ran long and I needed to dash off to lunch. And the Catholic church on my list had no coffee hour at all. I didn’t even get to see the priest after mass because he ducked into that little room behind the altar and didn’t come out. That was an incredibly disappointing Sunday for me. I expected far better from my own religious heritage.
Someone asked if I’d seen a great deal of consistency between different churches of the same denomination. I haven’t seen too many repeats yet- only one in fact. After I mentioned this pastor Abby remarked that maybe I should come again after a couple years -I’d have many more churches to talk about.
I fielded a question about the content of sermons I’d heard. So I told the group about the Abraham sermon at church 2 which I enjoyed for the historical knowledge it relayed. I guess I probably gave the best plugs for church 2 and both the Reformed churches, which is fairly accurate.
There was a woman who asked about what churches ought to do in order to welcome people and specifically what they could do. I told the story of the awesome greeting I got from Mt Moriah Church. They used what I’m gonna call the 6 minute rule. A person greeted me with hello and a question or two. Then they left me alone. About 6 minutes later another person came up and did the same. The 6 minute window is good because it enables the newcomer to relax and absorb the greeting. It also says to me that each member individually decided to come up and greet me- none of them was just following suit. This is great because it means they are not just paying attention to the in-group. They are aware of visitors and want them to feel welcome. I briefly went into a theory I’ve been developing in my head about churches drawing new members. Take the same advice given to people seeking a job or a boyfriend/girlfriend; be yourself. Ultimately a person joins a church because they like the qualities of that church as a whole. Visitors will make their decision to stay because they like a church for what it is and not for what it’s trying to be. I think the very best message you can give to a visitor is “we are glad you came”. It is positive and honest and it puts no pressure on them to return. Pressure to “please come back next week” can come off as desperate. I guess I didn’t follow this through to its logical conclusion in my talk, but who wants a church that seems desperate for your membership? Any other time this would be a big red flag. What’s wrong with them that they want me so badly?

So that was what I remember of the talk I gave. Afterwards I got to talk with people who still had questions or comments. I welcome further questions or comments here, if anyone is interested. Or if you just want to talk via email, leave a comment requesting I contact you and I’ll reply to your email address.

Church #11, part 2

Date: 5/27/12

Church: Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Pastor: Reverend David Dietsche

Time Spent: 10:30-11:40am

Overall Impression: service is still not enticing; people exactly opposite- ditto from last time! I am thinking the benefit of attending services twice just to catch old school vs. new school is minimal. I probably won’t do it again soon.

Type: Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod

Format: Service structure was written in full on the paper handout. In brief it went: announcements, group confession statement, scripture readings, sermon, offering, prayer, and closing (hymns were sprinkled throughout)

Thoughts: Similar to last time I was at this church, I felt very little from the service itself. There was such a weird zero vibe from anyone in the sanctuary. No one bothered to greet me apart from the official greeters and the room felt sort of lifeless. I cannot follow this pastor’s sermon style. The message was a comparison of the disciples at Pentecost with us today in our own lives…but that’s all got for sure. How are we like them? I don’t know. The crowd was a bit of an older one, so I’m wondering if my laid back attire could in any way have offended them. Then again I did have a really nice interaction with a couple who told me they’d been attending for close to 30 years, after the service was over. So overall this church wasn’t my favorite, but I can’t call it an awful experience either.

Overall Feelings: The people are so nice and the service was so dull. I’m stumped how to rate this church…

Church #11, Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Date: 4/22/12

Church: Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Pastor: Reverend David Dietsche

Time Spent: 10:30-11:50am

Overall Impression: Good mixed with just ok

Type: Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod

Format: Contemporary Worship: songs, sermon, prayer, closing song

announcements were either first or last, I didn’t record it and have forgotten

Thoughts: This church had an unusual mix of likes and dislikes for me. The service itself didn’t wow me and I didn’t really like it until the very last song which was fast paced. On the other hand afterwards talking with a couple of people was really nice and felt connecting. I guess it’s possible I found a place that I dig the people but not the content.

Service summary:

The songs were unknown to me and I didn’t outright love any of them. All except the last one which was fun and fast. But, it was also clear that the young worship team was really having a blast performing and that enjoyed being there. I applaud that, and I always find it exciting to see a church with an active youth set. In my experience youth events are always way more fun than adult events. The sermon was a tad rambley and I kept reaching different conclusions than the pastor on his points. He suggested that the apostles should have read scripture to understand that Jesus was coming back, then they wouldn’t have been so shocked. I don’t think scripture would have helped them as the Christ predictions were far too ambiguous to be understood as referring to him. Also it certainly wasn’t the practice at the time to have scripture/scrolls lying around the house to peruse. They may not have been allowed to access the temple scrolls at their leisure. Or even had any leisure. It was also in the message that if one doesn’t understand scripture (or even suspects this is the case) it is up to that person to find a teacher to explain it. I like being able to read the bible without needing to consult a leader or pastor. I find it somewhat limited to ask a single person, when a discerning google user can come up with many explanations from learned sources to help see what others have said they see. Ultimately I want to know what I’m going to see from scripture. We were given an example of a misconception of scripture in the common quote “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” The idea is not in the bible in this form. I always perceived it as a take on Luke 4:23 when Jesus says, “Physician heal yourself.” When Jesus says it he remarks that it is a proverb (although it isn’t in the book of Proverbs) and he uses it in kind of a new way. Maybe I’m the only one to draw that parallel though.

People summary:

I wasn’t greeted at this church. Maybe they all just keep to themselves a bit or maybe they didn’t recognize me as new. When this happens I do still try to catch a member or at the very least the pastor afterwords to talk briefly. Sometimes it doesn’t lead anywhere because people aren’t expecting to converse with me. This has been the case in several Catholic churches. This time the people I engaged, engaged me right back. I spent several minutes talking with one of the musicians about the youth band and youth activities. And when I approached the pastor we had some talks about churches in general and it was clear he approved of my exploration project. So the people seem quiet until approached, and once approached they are friendly and easygoing.

Overall Feelings: I like this place even with the mixed vibe. They seem to have a number of bible reads and studies. Maybe I can get in on some of that and find more friendly people.

Church #8, part 9

Ahh, 39 articles, your time is almost up. We are currently at 29, 30, and 31. So we actually heard 29 last week, I just did my notes on post-its and lost that one. What I remember after reading it again is the long subtitle which pretty much says it all already: Of the wicked which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper. It means that if you aren’t right with God, eating communion won’t be true communion for you. It continues on the theme of not treating the bread as a talisman. You can’t eat it and expect it will magically make you holy. If you are an evil person doing evil things, putting the communion wafer in your mouth is an empty sign and means nothing.

The next articles are straightforward enough. Article 30 says its ok and also good to take both the bread and the wine. Article 31 says that Jesus was the atonement sacrifice for our sins and we need no other. In my experience of churches, both these things are widespread and well known. I don’t really find many places arguing against either of those. Except of course that many churches use grape juice in place of wine. So far I have seen only Catholics and Episcopals use wine. But I may have missed some with the communion once a month tradition that many churches go by. Any of the pastors and knowledgeable people with further info on wine vs. juice, feel free to chime in here.