Church #64, First Presbyterian Church in Albany

Date: 10/12/14

Church name/type: First Presbyterian in Albany, PCUSA

Pastors: Pastor Miriam Lawrence Leupold and Pastor Glenn Leupold

Style of worship: fairly straightforward format with follow-along bulletin, with choral pieces punctuating occasionally

Impressions: The bulletin and welcome literature list more than a couple programs the church is involved with along the lines of social justice. I like that. I’m also impressed with an interior window of stained glass depicting a scientist teacher named Joseph Henry. It’s actually really cool for a church to embrace science. I personally love science and think it’s great that God gave us the ability to wonder and discover. In some cases Christian groups seem to actually have a strong dislike for science (or certain of its theories) so it’s encouraging that this church had a portrait of science build right into the wall.

The church building is pretty and looks kept-up. I note a decent mix of ethnicities. There was a person behind me making some noise who most likely had a disability. I mention this because I think it speaks well of the kind of welcome a church offers if they are cool with unintentional disruptions. Coffee hour after service was also a really nice time. A fair number of people came up to me and initiated conversation. So it’s an outgoing congregation.

I wasn’t sure what to take from the sermon. We got to hear the story of the golden calf Moses’ people worshiped while he was on the mountain talking with God. I was immediately struck by the fact that these people literally decided to worship gold. Maybe this should make us realize that chasing after money is a problem. The pastor giving the sermon likens this worship to our own obsessions today. We were asked to consider the ‘golden calf’ we might be worshipping. This would present itself as the thing we make our ultimate thing. It all came back to a refrain I’ve heard before: anything you focus on that is not God, is the wrong focus. I wonder what to make of this message in light of the fact I have no clear idea of who God is. Mixed messages come in constantly from all my church visits, from people I’ve met, from the bible itself. So this sermon’s takeaway point fell a bit flat for me. I guess I can agree with the idea that if one’s life revolves around something and that something fails or falls apart, one is devastated. I see this could be a huge problem…but I think I’m not wrong in saying that making God your ultimate focus could also result in this same problem. So again I’m left unsure what to do with this sermon.

Church # 54, First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush

Date: 3/30/14

Church name/type: First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush (in Rensselaer) recently merged with West End Presbyterian Church/ PCUSA

Pastor: David Moore

Style of worship: A more compact format than I’ve been to in ages, closer to an hour in length, all the parts were written out in the bulletin/program so anyone can follow along. The peace and announcements were done very casual and open.

Useful takeaways:
Church appearance-
A lot of older churches struggle with the falling-apart look, but I was impressed by this church’s clean and fresh interior. I gather they’ve painted recently, and it definitely makes the place look current.

The sermon was about the story in John chapter 9 of the man blind from birth. There were two big takeaways for me. First the question put by the disciples to Jesus was, “Who sinned? Was it this man or his parents?” Jesus tells them it is neither. Then he gives a strange answer. He says the blindness is an opportunity to show God’s works. I like this first because it works against the old-school (but not dead) notion that problems in life directly correlate to how good or bad we have been. I’m not talking about things with an obvious direct correlation (drive drunk-> lose license, for example). I’m talking about the idea that God punishes transgressions by harming people. There are various forms this notion can take, ranging from blaming poverty on immorality, to believing mental illness is caused by demons who got into a person compromised by sin. The idea of consistent direct correlation of sin and earthly punishment leads us to ask wrong questions like the disciples did. What was the sin? How did this person deserve their problem? Jesus tries to give the disciples a new way to look at this. He tells them (and us) to treat it as an opportunity instead of playing the blame game. And this was my second big takeaway: we are called to help if we can. Jesus doesn’t show us a light show, or a musical number, or a dance routine. He does something actually useful for the blind man. I think it’s an important point highlighting outreach. And in this case Jesus reached out to someone who everyone expected deserved the problems in his life. We need to be reaching out to people. We especially should not hold back our efforts based on who we think deserves our help. We can be wrong about things, just like the disciples were wrong to think sin caused a man’s blindness.

At the end of the sermon we were encouraged to look at things with new eyes the way Jesus tried to get the disciples to do. Pastor talked about a person from an older generation who was a closeted gay man with no hope of being able to come out. The state of the church at the time would never have been ok with it. Now we are starting to look at things differently. We are seeing with new eyes. Acknowledging different sexualities as ok is a big deal. Some churches and denominations are turning themselves inside out over this issue. It’s nice to see PCUSA taking a reasonable stance on same sex relationships.

Problems/Improvements: This place needs a website. I mentioned it to them as well. It’s just so important today because that’s how the younger generation gets information. For all the internet can tell me, this church doesn’t exist.

Church #27, Westminster Presbyterian Church

Date: 2/24/13

Church name/type: Westminster Presbyterian Church/Presbyterian Church, USA

Pastor: Associate Pastor Frances Wattman Rosenau

Style of worship:casual formal, similar to other Protestant formats

Overall Impression: good

Thoughts: Nothing too unusual; this place seems fairly middle of the road. I was able to find the place easily enough and on driving into the parking lot, an attendant notified me of an empty spot. A pretty good start!

Inside the church is nice looking- a very tall space with tall, very blue stained glass windows. Rather than depicting a single scene, each window is a stack of four scenes in squares and one half circle scene at the top. The altar area is paneled with carved wood reminiscent of some of the carvings I saw in the Cathedral (Immac. Concep.) two churches ago. The fellowship area is nice-looking too. It was almost like the welcome area of a good hotel; bright, comfortable, pleasant. This church seems well-kept.

I noticed maybe a quarter of the attendance was the choir and they seem well-practiced. There is some talent here I think. The music had several parts and sounded difficult, yet I heard no sour notes. I am impressed. During greeting time people did a bit of moving to shake hands but not overmuch. I stayed put to see who would come to me. I got three handshakes although I was surrounded by more than three people. I noticed they greeted each other warmly enough. And all you really have to say is “peace” and walk away. So, I feel like there was a bit of missed opportunity there.

The sermon was on John’s account of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. The story is one I like because of its complexity. You have Jesus as the son of God getting all physical and flipping tables over, sending coins and doves scattering everywhere. He is pissed. What was that like? Is he righteous, carrying himself like royalty? Is he brute force acting in rage? Is he a whirlwind, moving so fast no one can think fast enough to stop him? And there’s the dichotomy of loving others while ruining at least a few people’s days. I mean dove sellers gotta make a living, right? Our sermon spoke to the picture of a Jesus with lots of zeal. One particular set of churches called Mars Hill Church is about making Jesus more “manly” and getting away from an image they feel is too gentle and “feminine”. But why do they not use this passage? Maybe it’s because Jesus is still not encompassing their idea of masculinity here. He says clearly what he thinks and takes clear action. He doesn’t simply curse and rampage, he shakes up the status quo to make people rethink things. The pastor left us with the question of our own lives and when it is necessary to “overturn tables”. I like the point and I think it’s interesting that we are left to grapple with what that might mean. I suppose this could be seen as a negative or positive. On the one hand it is highly encouraging of individual thought and interpretation, which I like. On the other hand, you have a pulpit just begging to be used. It might be ok to give some detail as to what would constitute the overturning of tables in a “divine zeal”. The former point gives nice insight into the variety of faith flavors going on in this church; if preaching becomes too specific it could risk losing the audience. Last thought here is that I’m soo glad I don’t have to be a pastor.

After service I got a few more hellos and greetings. I sat in for part of a series of circle discussions on a book the pastor is reading. That was not too bad. It again reinforced the diversity of belief this church seems to house. We talked a little about this and that- Gnostics and Nicean counsels and Evangelicals. We tried to get a definition for The Word vs. the word. That proved remarkably close to impossible. I wanted much more (as always) but time was up and I had to go.

Overall the people seem nice. I think the average age is a bit older than me but not creaky-old. And this may also explain the energy and greetings tending slightly towards the more reserved.

Website?: I found three versions of the church website.
1) Mobile version on my phone is very terse but pertinent. On top are location, service time, and parking. Convenient!
2) Web version of the same has lots of good info and appears up-to-date.
3) For some reason my maps program links a third website which is mostly nonfunctional links. I presume it’s an old site. Interestingly, the service time and location listed on the bad site are still accurate and fairly easy to find.

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 #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?