Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Pilgrim Can’t Expect the Expected

“We’ve always done it this way before!” is one of the most easily mocked phrases in the modern Christian church. When someone’s come up with a new way to worship more vibrantly, reach people, or even just save money, and people object just because it’s not traditional, you almost have to laugh.

But not at this time of year.

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, and so much of the emotion of Christmas is tied to tradition. This is as true in the church as it is in most households. In both places, it seems important that this particular song is sung and this particular ornament is hung. Frankly, for most of the last three decades, I’ve had enough influence in the churches I’ve been a part of to make sure that many of my favorite traditions are upheld.

I’ve written Christmas programs with songs I want to hear. I’ve been able to pick favorite Scripture for advent readings. And even when I haven’t been able to choose, when I’ve been in a church for years, I could take comfort in expecting things to go as they had before.

But not now.

For this next month, Mindy and I are choosing churches rather randomly. We’ve chosen (been called?) to be church pilgrims for the next couple of years. We don’t know if “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” will be sung tomorrow (a hymn that should always be sung early in the advent season). We don’t know if the churches we’ll go to will have an advent wreath with candles lit by small children very excited about fire. We don’t know if there will be a Christmas tree (that wonderful theft from paganism). We don’t know if the churches we’ll go to even celebrate Advent in four Sundays or save all their Yuletide cheer for one end of the year blow-out event.

Early in our marriage, we moved to a new area and began to worship at a wonderful church that did celebrate Advent. They sang all the right songs. They had caroling activities, and I believe the Sunday School class had a Christmas party. But the pastor came up with absolutely the worst name for an Advent sermon series I’ve ever heard. Taken from Psalm 2:12, the series was entitled, “Kiss the Son Lest.” It’s a small comfort as we encounter different Advent traditions in the weeks to come, traditions perhaps different from our history and preferences: we will not have to deal with a sermon series with a title that awkward for four weeks in a row.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Santa Rosa Nazarene Church

The Santa Rosa Nazarene Church was ready for Thanksgiving. Instead of pews or chairs in rows there were chairs around tables, ready to serve dinner after the morning service. They'd also prepared for Thanksgiving in another way. They'd moved their cross to the center of the stage to make it the focus of thanksgiving for God's goodness.

 It was our first visit to a Nazarene church this year; neither of us recalls ever attending a Nazarene Church before. But when I went to college in San Diego, I had friends at Point Loma Nazarene College (one of 53 Nazarene colleges in the world) and went to concerts at the school (Noel Paul Stookey sans Mary and Peter). The Nazarene denomination was founded in 1908 in Texas with roots in the Holiness movement. Now there are 29,000 Nazarene churches throughout the world with over 2 million members.

The service started a couple of minutes after 11:00 am (though it seems to be growing more common in churches, there was no countdown clock to worship). The two screens on either side of the front of the sanctuary scrolled announcements and a scripture quiz, though we missed seeing either the question or the answer. During the fellowship time before the service we'd been greeted by several members (once with, "I hope I'm not greeting you for the first time after you've been visiting here for a month."). We were certainly made to feel welcome with several invitations to stay for the Thanksgiving dinner after the service.

The pastor led worship playing the piano and his wife played the violin along with other singers in the worship team. A video was played during the announcement time illustrating the denomination's ministries for the homeless, disaster relief and foreign missions. The pastor talked about a local ministry to the homeless, through which the church had hosted dinner and an overnight stay for a group of homeless people during the previous week.

The sermon was about thanksgiving, about God's call to thankfulness and the spiritual and emotional benefits of being thankful. It was encouraging, though we were a little concerned about the lack of acknowledgement of some people's very real challenges with depression. After the sermon, sharing around the table ("What is one thing you're thankful for?") was encouraged, but our table only made it about halfway through before time was up.

The majority of the people in the congregation were older, but there were families with children and teens, and the church does have a youth pastor. There was table full of Operation Christmas child shoe boxes at the back of the church. And there was a very nice playground which I'm sure is used for the church's preschool and daycare ministries.

Were we not on this Visiting Pilgrimage Adventure, this certainly is a place we'd consider coming back to visit again.


Service Length: 60 minutes
Sermon Length: 25 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeted several times on the way into worship, including by the pastor and his wife, greeting time during the service. No particular effort to show us where coffee or restrooms were, but many invitations to stay for the Thanksgiving meal after the service.
Our Rough Count: 110
Probable Ushers' Count: 130
Snacks: coffee, tea and hot chocolate along with a table full of goodies (fairly depleted by the time we got there, but still abundant) including peanut butter filled celery, bagel halves with cream cheese, muffins, and brownies in a side room set up like a cafe or the breakfast area of a hotel (a nice hotel).
Lord I Lift Your Name On High
Praise is Rising
Ten Thousand Reasons
Jesus Paid It All
Old Rugged Cross
That's the Power of the Cross

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

St. Luke Lutheran Church, Santa Rosa

Sure, the Roman Catholic Church is the oldest, and various Orthodox churches can vie for second, but at nearing a half a millennia (if you mark the birth of the church with the Edict of Worms from 1521), Lutheranism is no new kid on the block. There are, as one would expect from the Protestant love of division, several branches of Lutheranism. This Sunday we attended St. Luke Lutheran in Santa Rosa, which is part of the Missouri Synod (a more conservative branch of the denomination).

Entering the sanctuary, I was handed a quite large bulletin. Opening it, I saw it was big print for the visually impaired, so I traded it in for the small version. Both versions were 12 pages thick with all the hymns (music and lyrics), liturgical readings, Scripture and prayers. No overhead screens here (which might hide the beautiful stained glass windows).

The majority of the congregation was elderly (but not exclusively so). Before the service began and during the time of greeting there was much noise and enthusiasm (but no musical prelude), and it took a bit of effort on the pastor's part to get people quiet and back to their seats.Even though this delayed the service a minute or two each time, we thought it was lovely that the congregation was so enjoying being together.

Two children came forward for a children's sermon. There were no visual aids or parables but rather a fairly straight forward catechism of the Gospel. (And attentive listeners would also learn the proper use of the pronoun "whom".)

The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was served and the bulletin had a helpful list of questions to prepare for it. Though most of the questions I could answer in the affirmative ("Am I a baptized child of God?"), there was also this question: "Do I believe that Jesus' Body and Blood are really present in the bread and wine?" There is a subtle distinction between the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and Lutheran teaching on the matter (consubstantiation), but not a large enough distinction to allow me to feel comfortable partaking. The congregation filed forward to receive communion at the front, and after all who could come forward had partaken, the pastor brought the bread and the cup to a few who were unable to come to the front. 
Evangelicals and fundamentalists often assume all mainline denominations have a rather namby-pamby approach to the Gospel, shying away from the more difficult issues. That certainly wasn't the case in this service, which focused on the theme of our eternal destiny as the opening of a ten part series entitled "Believe". The hymn "The Day is Surely Drawing Near" features such lyrics as 'Then fright shall banish idle mirth, And flames on flames shall ravage earth" and "With shame and trembling they will stand, And at the judge's stern command, To Satan be delivered."

The sermon was a clear presentation of the options of heaven and hell and the need to put faith in the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ for salvation. There was certainly a spirit of compassion in the pastor's call to reach out others with the good news of the Gospel.

After the service, we very much enjoyed talking with Pastor Fred (a retired pastor originally from Wisconsin "don'cha know"). He told a little about St. Luke's 125 year history. The stained glass window in the front of the sanctuary was donated by the family of a retired pastor, but the stained glass window in the back of the church was donated by a Jewish family that had lived across the street and apparently wanted a beautiful view (which they certainly received, though this picture doesn't do it justice).

Service length: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Sermon length: 20 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Invited in bulletin to sign guest card
Our Rough Count: 110 people

Estimated Usher Count: 125 people

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Salvation Army Santa Rosa, California

The title "Saved by the Bell" was really wasted on a sitcom about high school. It should have been used for a Salvation Army story. A lot of us only know about the Army through the Christmas bell ringers. Some know the Army because of the thrift stores. But there's more, of course, to the organization than money pots and bargains. It's a charity, a business and a church. We went to church there Sunday.

No problem finding the address and service time on line. But once we were there we had a little bit of difficulty finding the chapel. We arrived about 15 minutes early and a sign at the door assured we were at the right place. Apparently everyone was still in Sunday school.
But eventually, a Salvation Army officer came out and directed us with a left, a right and a left to the chapel. Once people emerged from the Sunday school class, we were greeted with warmth.

Early in its history (founded in 1856), the Army earned a reputation for rousing musicianship, famous for its brass bands. Rousing isn't the term I'd use music at this Sunday's service. Though most everyone joined in singing the choruses, it was far from rousing. And when we sang an old Salvation hymn, the piano intros made it as difficult to find the melody as it had been to find the chapel.

But there were some wonderful things about worshiping with the congregation this Sunday morning.  The Salvation Army does good work in recovery ministry, working with those who struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. About half of the congregation Sunday was composed of participants in the Recovery program in Lytton Springs. One of the gentlemen from the program shared his testimony God's work in his life, and another read scripture.

Introducing the offering time, an elderly woman named Yvonne said that she'd heard that it's been said that you can tell where someone's heart is by looking at their checkbook. So she wrote a Scripture verse to read in her check book. Loved her fairly immediately.

The prayer time was open for sharing. There was a small group of teenagers in our row, and one of them said, "We were bored yesterday. So we called the Lieutenants and they asked us over and we had a great time." That's the kind of thing anyone in youth ministry loves to hear.
The sermon from one of the Salvation Army officers from I John 3 (and a variety of other texts) was sound if a bit scattered. The service closed with "Amazing Grace" which was a little livelier than music that came before.

As the service closed, I turned to see the nursery through large windows that opened into the chapel. A nice young woman sat, holding her baby girl. God's children gathered in this chapel, obviously loving and encouraging one another. May the Christian soldiers continue to move onward.

Service length: 90 minutes
Sermon length: 30 minutes
Visitor treatment: greeted several times before service started, each first-time visitor received a blue ribbon, a handshake, and an introduction by name to the rest of the congregation. Because a large part of the group were visitors, this wasn't particularly embarrassing or awkward, but welcoming.
Our rough count: 30-40 people
Probable usher count: 50 people
Snacks: cookies after, possibly coffee in a recreation room, but none in evidence in the worship service