Wednesday, January 17, 2018

We Go to an Early Service

St James Episcopal Church, Fresno, California
Saint James Episcopal Cathedral, Fresno, California
To be honest, we went to Saint James because it was nearby, and the service started at 7:30 am. I’d worked 11:00 pm to 7:00 am the night before, so an early service meant I’d get to bed earlier -- which sounded very good. Many churches don’t offer an early service, but I didn’t feel like I could stay awake for an 11:00 am service.

There are plenty of other reasons people choose early services: those kids’ soccer leagues that play on Sundays, or Sunday work schedules (next Sunday morning, Mindy has to be at work by 10:45), not to mention (though I guess I’m about to) the NFL playoffs -- after church I heard a few guys discussing whether that afternoon’s games would make an Eagles - Patriots Super Bowl matchup. (I’m hoping for Vikings - Jaguars myself.)

The Reverend Canon Keith Brown acknowledged during the service that there was something different about the 7:30 crowd from 9 and 11 o’clockers. He mentioned that those who attend the early service tend to arrive early, while people at later services tend to come late. That was true the morning we visited; a number of people were already seated, all quiet, when we arrived around 7:25. A moment later, Keith said, “I’m sorry to interrupt you while you meditate or pray,” but he wanted to encourage worshipers to ponder the calls of Samuel and Nathanael in the morning Scripture readings. “These two important calls are your homework for the next four minutes,” he added.

Keith referred to those who come to that early service as “active contemplatives,” people who want both to be Mary and Martha, to be still and to work simultaneously. Keith said that's his own tendency as well, and that by looking at the faces in the congregation, he could tell that many could relate.

A little later, during the sermon, Keith did talk about those calls to ministry, which are found in I Samuel 3 and in John 1. He discussed the importance of listening to God’s call and also answering God’s call. He also talked about the importance of having other people in our lives who help us discern God’s call.

We noticed another distinctive in the earliest service of the morning (called the Contemplative Eucharist): it had no accompanist. Later services include hymns and songs, but this one doesn’t. Even so, the service isn’t without music. As it says in the liturgy, “A proper preface (to the Eucharist) is sung or said on all Sundays.” When Keith leads the service, it is sung, because he loves music.

After the service, I asked Keith how the other morning services differ from that first service. He said that people in later services tended to be more involved in social activism, and that the later services have a younger crowd.Most at the service we attended were roughly our age(that would be “not young”) or older. No children were in attendance at the 7:30 service, but we saw several arriving for the 9:00 worship.

We mentioned our project of visiting churches and bars, and he kindly said he hoped we’d be back at Saint James more than once a year. He also sent a very nice email the next day, which
is the kind of personal follow up we’ve really come to appreciate.

The saying is the early bird catches the worm. Frankly, I haven’t gone fishing for a very long time, so my interest in worms is minimal, but being early has other benefits, such as an encouraging time of worship at churches like Saint James.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

We Go to Church by Mistake

Armenian Church CEF, Fresno, California
Mistakes were made.” (The passive voice is ideal for avoiding blame.)

We thought it was time to visit some Armenian churches. Armenians have a long history in Fresno, arriving in the area after escaping European persecution in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Little Armenia” is no longer a part of the city as it was, but anyone can visit the Armenian Museum of Fresno, established in 2003. Fresno’s most famous native son, writer William Saroyan, was Armenian, as is artist Corky Normart.

So Mindy went about researching Armenian churches in the area, and found one in our neighborhood. The website (all in English) had the service start time at 11:00 am. To our delight, the pastor had previously served at a church we visited in San Francisco a couple of years ago, and we looked forward to seeing him again. We were excited.

But when we entered the church a little before eleven, the service seemed to have started already, and the room was pretty full. We wondered if we'd come in for the end of Sunday School.

The church we’d visited in San Francisco used some English as well as Armenian, but we saw no English writing and heard no English spoken from from the platform during the service this time. In spite of all this, it still took a while to figure out we’d gone to the wrong church.

We hadn’t visited the Armenian Protestant church a few blocks south west of us (Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church) but had gone to the Armenian Protestant church a few blocks south east of us, Armenian Church, Christians of Evangelical Faith. (Which explained why we didn’t see the pastor and why the sanctuary -- even the cross up front -- looked entirely different from the website.)

The people in the church were hospitable. Someone offered to translate the service for us, but we didn’t want to take away from someone else’s morning.

Mindy was glad she’d brought a scarf, because every woman wore a head covering, and she didn’t want to give offense.

There was singing, and the words were on the wall, but the Armenian alphabet is very different from English -- or even Greek or Russian, so we couldn’t even sing along phonetically.

During the times of prayer, many people prayed at the same time, so we’re guessing there was a charismatic aspect to the worship. It’s difficult to know if anyone is praying in tongues when you don’t even recognize the primary language being used.

We were grateful we’d stopped keeping track of sermon length, because we weren’t sure which of the several speakers gave the official sermon. It’s possible there were a number of sermons.

We did recognize some things though. The Christmas tree in the front was familiar. We were visiting on the day the Armenian community celebrates Christmas (for most other churches, it was Epiphany Sunday), and the service ended with a Christmas program. Children wearing white shirts and dark pants or skirts came forward and recited things -- we suspect Bible verses -- in Armenian and sang Armenian songs. One of those songs, “Silent Night,” was first sung in Armenian, but, music scholars as we are, we still managed to recognize the tune. The children and the congregation then sang the first verse of the song in English, which allowed us to sing along.

When the service was over, people invited us to join them for lunch, but we had plans to get together with our son and headed out. It was good our son’s apartment was within walking distance, because we went to the parking lot to find our car blocked in by someone who’d arrived later than we did.

As I said, mistakes were made. But this faithful gathering of God’s people was not one of them.