Saturday, February 28, 2015

March plans

Yesterday I received a piece of spam from Christianity Today with the subject title, “Will Your Teen’s Faith Survive College?”  My first thought was, “I don’t have any teens anymore.” Our younger daughter ended her teenhood last September. My next thought was, “Some teens’ faith doesn’t survive working at McDonald’s the summer before college.” The email was, of course, promotion for the Christian College Guide, a very fine resource, I’m sure.

But I’ve thought a lot about my teens’ faith after high school, because I’ve had a lot of teens through the years. I started working in youth ministry in college (volunteering with Young Life) and most of the last three decades I’ve been in full or part time youth ministry. Everyone in youth ministry wonders whether the work they’re doing makes a difference.  I know some kids that I’ve worked with through the years have stuck with it, and some have chucked it. And some have chucked it and then come back and vice-versa.

So Mindy and I have decided to use this five Sunday month to spend time with former youth group students who still go to church (at least on the Sunday we visit). We hope to ask a bit about what was important to them in their church life as youths and what is important now in their spiritual lives.

Frankly, we just wanted to catch up with some really cool people we’ve known through the years. But you’re welcome to come along.
-- Dean

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Movie Churches - Oscar Division: "Mrs. Miniver"

"Mrs. Miniver," winner of the 1942 Oscar for Best Picture, is one of the most overtly religious winner of an Academy Award ("Going My Way", "Ben Hur" and "Chariots of Fire" would be the other contenders).  It tells the story of an average middle class English woman and her family in a small English town in the first days of the Second World War. An important character in the film is local vicar, and an important location is the local Anglican church. As to whether it is a Christian film, well, that's another thing.

The film has one fan that certainly wasn't about to be trumpeted by the MGM publicity department. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's Reich Minister of Propaganda, said he couldn't help but admire "a masterpiece of propaganda, a first class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries." Note he didn't say the film led him or would lead others to repentance.

There are four obviously religious scenes in the film, and I'll use them as the basis of the answer to this column's question, "Would I go to this movie church?"

The second conversation Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) has in the film is with the local vicar. Her first conversation was in the city (London?), between Mrs. Miniver and the milliner who sells her a rather silly hat. She then happens upon the vicar in the train on her way home.

She tells him about the hat she bought, and admits to feeling guilt about the extravagance of buying this unnecessary item. The vicar then confesses to buying expensive cigars he really can't afford. They both then laugh about their "lovely guilty feelings." Mrs. Minniver says that's why she's sure the vicar can do much good in their town because of his understanding of the people.
I'm not sure whether the vicar is doing much good here. It can be a fine thing to buy a silly hat or good cigars. But if a Christian feels guilt about the purchase, I believe examining one's own heart is important. Perhaps the purchase isn't a good use of what,  really, is the Lord's money. I'm not sure a blanket endorsement of consumerism is really good ministry. Throughout the film, the vicar always feels at one with the culture of the world.

The "religious" scene in the film is in the local church. Everyone in town seems to be there, including Lady Beldon (played by Dame May Whitty) the rich town aristocrat. She has her own pew, which has a door with her name on a brass plate. I couldn't help of think of James 2, where the writer tells readers not to show preference in church to the rich.

A nice little boys' choir opened the service, and the vicar then led the congregation in a prayer of confession. Then the service is interrupted when someone brings the vicar a message. The vicar announces that the nation is at war. And then the vicar says a rather amazing thing. He says, "Many of you have other duties to perform," and he dismisses the congregation. Now it's true that some people have other duties to perform, but it seems like he's discounting the importance of prayer and worship at such a time.

There is a nice little scene in the film between Mrs. Miniver and station manager and church bell ringer Mr. Ballard (played Henry Travers, Clarence of "It's A Wonderful Life"). Mrs. Miniver's husband has gone off in his boat to aid in the retreat at Dunkirk. Ballard encourages her by quoting Psalm 107, "Some went out on the sea in ships... They saw the works of the Lord." That says something about the church (and perhaps the schools) of the time and the teaching of Scripture. Ordinary people could quote Scripture. In fact, in "The Miracle of Dunkirk," England was notified of their need with three little words, "And if not." People of the time knew that was a quote from Daniel 3, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and the rescue was on its way. An amazing thing.

My big problem with the film comes in the finale. There is a memorial service in the church for those who died in a German air raid (including two characters that were quite dear in the film).

At the service, the vicar asks the question that all are thinking at such a time, "Why?" -- always a difficult question, particularly when the young and innocent die. A minister at such a time must wrestle with Scripture (perhaps looking at Luke 13 when people ask Jesus about people killed in the fall of a tower and by Roman soldiers).

But after reading a Psalm, the vicar ignores the Bible altogether and recruits the dead into the war effort, for this is "not just a war of soldiers in uniform, but of all the people." Abraham Lincoln was asked the place of God in the  American Civil War, and he was not quick to claim God was on his side. But the vicar jumps right to it: God is English.

Perhaps it's not an accident that the church in this film is a state church. It is at one with the English culture and government. So if I was in the world of this film, I'd probably go to the church because it's the only one in town. But the vicar would be hearing from me on a fairly regular basis.
-- Dean

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

San Francisco Evangelical Free Church

"This is a New Year's Song," Maggie whispered to us. Maggie had volunteered to be our Cantonese translator just before the second service at San Francisco Evangelical Free Church. Without her telling us that, we wouldn't have known that particular song was a New Year's song, but there were plenty of other indicators of the holiday.

For instance, the only English words on the screen were "Happy New Year". A woman on the worship team and many women in the congregation wore colorful quilted jackets. During the greeting time, Maggie told us people were instructed to wish each other "Happy New Year" and many people greeting us with those words in English (maybe they thought we only understood Mandarin?). We met one woman with a Richie Rich sweater which she said she was wearing for New Year's and because she was teaching the fourth through sixth grade Sunday School class.

It was our second worship service in the church for the morning. We attended the 9:00 am English language service and stayed for the 10:15 am traditional Chinese service. After the first service I asked one of the pastors, Chris (who preached for the English service), whether she would be preaching at the next service, and she laughed. Apparently fluent Cantonese is not in her skill set.

Also before the second service, I talked to a gentleman who was leaving an adult Sunday School class on Christian Ethics. He told me he wouldn't be attending the second service but would be attending the third. I was interested to learn that the three services at SFEFC mirrored the three services at the Korean church we attended in Buena Park. There was an English language service along with "traditional" and "contemporary" services in the native tongue.

In the "traditional" service there were a fair number of elderly people, but the worship team looked more typical in an American "contemporary" service; a keyboard player, a guitarist, and three singers. The first song sounded much like an American worship chorus. We asked Maggie what it was about, she said, "It says 'Praise His name.' I don't really know these new songs." (She also told us that the English language Sunday school class would be singing during the contemporary Cantonese service the next week, in Cantonese, a more traditional Chinese song so folks at that service would know what traditional songs sounded like.)

The next song and most of the rest had a much more Chinese sounding melody. One of them was a traditional melody, Maggie said, with Christian lyrics. Several of the songs had men's and women's parts, and so we came to recognize the Chinese characters for "men" and "women" in parentheses on the screen, along with the character for "all" (which looked like a house).

There were printed sermon notes, which Maggie translated for us. The title of the sermon was "The Power of the Holy Spirit" with the text of Acts 4:36 - 5:16. The pastor opened the sermon with an illustration about getting a flu shot (he made shot getting motions and used the English word "mutations"). This was an illustration that obviously suited the older congregation, and he used it to argue that just as we begin the New Year tending to our physical health we must also tend to our spiritual health. As in the Korean church, there were a few times when the congregation responded in unison to something the pastor said, and the pastors both used humor and dramatic action to get their points across.

During the offering I recognized the instrumental music, "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God," and I recognized the final tune the congregation sang together, the Doxology in Cantonese.

After the service I had an opportunity to talk with Rev. Wing So, the pastor during the founding of the church back in 1987. (The church is beginning a senior pastor search and would be forming a search committee to that end after the annual meeting in the afternoon.) Pastor So is mostly retired, but has been helping. On this Sunday he was preaching in the third service, the "contemporary" service that we unfortunately didn't have time to attend. He said that the church at one time had six hundred members but had birthed three daughter churches.

SFEFC describes itself as a community church and they do seem to be making an effort to minister to the community. With their stated priorities of "continuous prayer, caring, study, and being thankful" I'm sure their community will continue to benefit from their presence.

Service Length: 1 hour
Sermon Length: 30 minutes
Visitor Treatment: we were greeted warmly before, after and during the worship service, and during the service first-time visitors were invited to introduce themselves. Maggie introduced us in Cantonese during the Chinese service and in English during the first service.
Our Rough Count: 87
Probable Ushers' Count: 100
Snacks: the "ten minute party" happened after each service, with tea and snacks
Songs: a chorus, a traditional tune with Christian lyrics, a traditional Chinese New Year song, and the Doxology
Miles to place: 62
Total California Miles: 4685

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why Do We Have Fake Churches Along With the Real Ones?

If you're a curious (or should I say inquisitive?) person, you may have asked this question. We’ll try to be as faithful every week posting about a church from a movie as we are posting every week about a real church we visit. And there’s a reason for that.

In the Western world, it's pretty easy for a person to go through life without going to a church or meeting a member of the clergy (for better or worse, you've met me), and it's also easy for a person to think they know all about the church and pastors and priests and nuns because they’ve seen it all in the movies. But all some people know about church is what they get from the media, and more often than not, the movies do a lousy job depicting churches; not just the negative portrayals, but inaccurate portrayals as well. 

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing when churches are portrayed negatively. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing when a member of the clergy is portrayed as crook or a fool or a pervert. Because there are bad churches. There are members of the clergy that are pretty awful. 

But often these negative portrayals are created by people who seem to have no idea what they are talking about. They get all the little details wrong, leading to getting the big picture wrong. And if all the churches and clergy are shown in a negative light, then they aren’t getting things right. Because though Richard Dawkins would not agree, there are some really good churches and really good clergy people out there. Seen it for myself.

If we are a part of the church, and want to introduce people to the real church, we may find it useful to deal with the expectations people have from seeing Bing Crosby as a crooning priest and Robert Mitchum as a homicidal preacher and even Whoopi Goldberg as a phony nun if we consider these things for ourselves.

So we’ll keep traveling to churches at work in the real world. But we’ll also keep visiting the fake ones, because they’re working in the imaginations, hearts and minds of people who need the God who is worshipped in real churches.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie Churches, Oscar Division: Selma

There are a couple of big controversies swirling around the Best Picture Nominee, "Selma."
There are some critics questioning the historical accuracy of the film's depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as an opponent to Martin Luther King's work and plans. Others are concerned that the film was snubbed by the Academy, for though it was nominated for Best Picture (and Best Song), it wasn't nominated for director, screenplay or any acting categories.

Fortunately, for our purposes here, I don't have to comment on either of these brew-ha-has. We're just here to look at the church and the clergy in the film.

The film opens with King talking with his wife Coretta talking about a different kind of dream. He says that someday he'd like to pastor a small church, and Coretta can work to put food on the table. We soon see that he is preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The scene has a sense of melancholy, because the couple knows they will never have a quiet life alone.

The scene is also a reminder that King saw himself primarily as a minister of the Gospel. Recently, I saw a newscast in which they kept referring to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as "Dr. King." In another scene in the film, King greets another member of the SCLC as "Doctor" and is greeting as "Doctor" in return, both joking and sardonic. It's clear that's not the way he thinks about himself.

It does make one wonder what kind of pastor King would have been at this stage in his life. Of course, his leadership skills would provide the direction and vision that would shoot him to the top of pastoral search committee's list. His speaking abilities would keep the most lethargic of congregations awake and perhaps taking notes. But the film doesn't gloss over King's marital sins. A pastor who is unfaithful in his marriage cannot, should not keep his position. God used King in mighty ways, but in this one way, he wasn't a faithful pastor.

The film depicts various churches. The first church we see is the 16th Street Baptist Church. We see it for moments, before a bomb destroys it, killing four little girls. The tragic death of those girls, like the deaths of many Christian martyrs before them and since, spurred many to action, to bring justice for the despicable treatment of African Americans at that time.

I was, frankly, a little torn by the depiction of some of the churches in the film. I'm not comfortable with churches promoting a political agenda. During the last Presidential election, I was in a church where the pastor suggested looking at a flyer that, without mentioning names or party affiliation, made clear the "godly" way to vote. Though I agreed with the political position, I didn't agree with it being associated with the Gospel.

And the first time we see King speaking in a church in the film, he is asking the congregation to fight for the right to vote. He is not using any particular passage of Scripture to justify his arguments. I might be uncomfortable today if I was in a church today and someone was proposing, say, starting to a petition to get a proposition on the ballot for even the best of causes. But at that time, the injustice perpetrated against African Americans violated Biblical values. The church was the one place blacks could meet and organize without being harassed by the authorities. (I found it interesting that when police officers tell marchers to cease and desist, they are told to return to "return to your homes or churches.")

The next time we see King speak in a church, it's a funeral. One of the black activists is attacked by a state trooper and killed. King blames government officials for the man's death, but he also says that white preachers who don't speak out against the injustice perpetrated against African Americans are also culpable. During this time in history, many churches were shirking their God- given responsibility to call for God's justice. But many preachers, of various racial backgrounds, did speak out for justice. King called white clergymen to come to march in Selma, and many did.

Today, there are many causes where justice is at stake. Such issues as abortion, gay marriage, Palestine, slavery, economic inequities, and many others certainly call out to be addressed by the Word of God.  But the difficult thing is that Christians who seek to serve the Lord faithfully don't agree on how justice can best be served.

We must trust in the God of grace, Who led the Israelites out of Egypt, Who was with those marchers in Selma, can continue to lead us today -- but perhaps not all on the same march.

-- Dean

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Just a link as Lent begins

If you've been following our posts on non-English language services, you might enjoy this song (by David Wilcox) about God's speaking in ways we can each uniquely understand. We first heard it in worship at a nearby church.

And here's a link to his website:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

St. Eugene's Catholic Cathedral, Santa Rosa

A certain challenge comes with this project of visiting churches with the expressed intent of writing about them: it can be difficult to be in the service, to worship. This week, as we attended Latin Mass at St. Eugene's in Santa Rosa, I struggled with this more than I ever have before.

During the last two weeks of attending services conducted in other languages (Spanish and Korean), I was usually able to stay involved because the congregation was lively and attentive. This week, along with long stretches spoken in a language I didn't understand, there were also long stretches of silence, such as during the ablutions when the priest was cleaning the utensils used for communion.

During that time I was thinking about what I'd write this week, considering, "I could write, 'A certain challenge comes with this project of visiting churches with the expressed intent of writing...'" In fact, I even thought about how I could use this repetition. I really should stop before I get us into a temporal loop from which we can't escape.

The purpose of services in a variety of languages is usually quite clear. There were attendees in the Spanish service we attended two weeks ago that only understand Spanish, just as there were attendees in last week's Korean service that only understand that language.

But I'm certain that there was no one in Sunday's service who understands only Latin, certainly not the priest conducting the service. When he read Scripture and made a few remarks in English, he had a southern, perhaps Texan or Oklahoman, accent and sounded rather like a radio preacher (stretching out words like "in-eq-ui-teeeee").
Another reason to conduct worship in a language other than the one dominant in the community at large is the idea of "worship languages" (mentioned here). People often prefer to worship in the way they worshiped when they were young or when they first came to faith. So just as someone might prefer the hymns of their youth, they may enjoy worshiping in the language they used when they were young.

But considering the fact that the Catholic Church moved to vernacular services after Vatican Two, over fifty years ago, and a number of the participants were younger than that, something else must be at work.  

There are a number of  Catholics who believe the traditional Latin mass is somehow better than a mass in their native language, but I had a hard time in quick research discerning why they would believe this. There are some who simply argue that the Latin is more beautiful.

And there certainly was beauty in some of the Latin chants and songs in the service. The priest would chant and there would be a response from a small group of nuns in the balcony (they were right behind my back, and at the beginning of the service I thought the choir was a recording). There certainly was an ethereal quality to their singing.

But most languages can sound beautiful, at least to their native speakers, so why pick Latin?
It is tradition in the Latin Mass for the Scripture readings and the homily to be done in the vernacular. In this service the Scripture (I Corinthians 13 and Luke 18) was read in Latin and English. There was no homily as the priest gave a special appeal for giving to the Diocese. (The appeal, "This Latin Mass would not be possible without the work of the Diocese" sounded rather like a public radio pledge drive.)

The priest did causally refer to the value of the Latin mass because the words on the cross were written in Latin. But according to Luke 23: 38, the inscription "This is the King of the Jews" was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. So why is the service in only one of those languages? There is a bit of Greek in the service, "Kyrie Eleison" (for you Mister Mister fans) but no Hebrew that I noticed.

A book was provided with English or Spanish translation for the Latin which one could use to follow along with the service. But I often lost track in the book as I was trying to figure out when to stand, sit or kneel. The use of the Latin to my untutored sensibilities seemed to have a distancing effect rather than adding an enhancing element to worship (which was the opinion of Martin Luther and other reforming ancestors).

I was also put off a little by all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Lord's Table. Philistine that I am, I kept thinking of the scene in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" where Indy chooses the correct cup as the Holy Grail, because it is the most simple one, one that might have been used by a carpenter's son. All the vestments and procedures used to get to the bread and the cup to the faithful make your average Rube Goldberg device seem straightforward.

There were a number of other elements of the High Mass that I had never experienced. There was the Asperges, the sprinkling of Holy Water on the altar, the clergy and the congregation. This is a representation of the cleansing of sin (Psalm 51 is often used in this part of the service) and I appreciated this part of the service (as a Christian and -- more sadly -- as a fan of vampire lore).

There was also use of incense. As a protestant, I'm sometimes a little bothered by the fact that our tradition ignores Scriptural passages such as Psalm 141:2: "May my prayer be set before you like incense" (that symbolism is lost on us non-papists, but not on Catholics).

During the service, up until the time of communion, I noticed people going in and out of the confessionals. And most (but not all) of the women and girls in the service wore head coverings (as did Mindy, who didn't want to go all Michelle Obama in Saudi Arabia on the service). Lace for head covering was available in the same basket that held the Latin-English and Latin-Spanish booklets.

We appreciated, during the Diocese Pledge Drive, a testimonial from a seminarian about his training. He spoke of the four pillars of their 6 - 7 years of training, the Intellectual, the Spiritual, the Pastoral and the Human (learning about their individual strengths and weaknesses). He seemed like a good guy and the Church is blessed to have men and women willing to devote their lives to the service of the Kingdom.

It was certainly an interesting experience and I'm sure Latin will be one of the many languages used to worship God in Heaven...but I'm good with experiencing it just once on this side of heaven.

Service Length:  1 hour 30 minutes
Sermon Length:  no sermon, as the priest announced, but the Diocese Pledge break was about ten minutes
Visitor Treatment: no acknowledgement of visitors
Our Rough Count:  70
Probable Ushers' Count:  95
Snacks:  none
Songs:  Before Mass began, the nuns in the balcony sang "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" (in English). Much of the Mass was sung or chanted (in Latin), but we didn't note which songs they were.
Miles to place: 7 miles
Total California Miles: 4561 miles
-- Dean

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Looking for church at California Adventure Park

California is really a pretty churchy place, as any fourth grader who had to construct a model of a mission could tell you. It may currently have a reputation as a pretty secular place, but I'm not buying it. Sure, in parts of the state, the percentage of people who attend church is pretty low. But Mindy and I have visited a good deal of the state over the last couple months, and everywhere we've gone, there are plenty of churches to be found.

So when we visited Disney's miniature of the state, California Adventure, we assumed the church -- or at least spiritual things -- would surely be part of the park. We just would need to keep our eyes open. It was tougher than we expected.

Obviously the missions, an essential part California history, were the churches we were most likely to see. There are  21 standing missions build by Catholic missionaries before California was a state. How could Disney possibly ignore them?

It didn't initially. Mission Tortilla Factory used to provide yummy fresh tortillas and remind guests of the history of the Franciscans who had built the missions. But it's closed now. (It's been replaced by the Boudin Bakery Tour which does hand out yummy sourdough bread. The closest thing it comes to churches and their part in the history of California is mentioning the city named after St. Francis.)

So we continued to look for a church. We did find this stained glass, but I don't think this is a saint or a story from Scripture.

We thought we saw what looked like a church. It had a spire and everything.

But it was a theater, a replica of the theater that debuted "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves". 

If we couldn't find a church, we thought perhaps we could find some representation of Biblical or spiritual ideas. There is a degree of moral judgment to be found in the place. As in much of the Western world, smokers are sent into exile. I wish they had found a more fun, park appropriate name for the smokers place. Pete's Dragon's Smoking Land, perhaps, or Cruella de Vil Zone. 

Surely the spiritual could be found at The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror. The Twilight Zone TV show was an anthology with stories variously from the genres of horror and science fiction and fantasy. There were episodes that featured angels and even episodes that featured Satan himself. Even the episodes with ghosts presented a world that was more than material. But in the "story" of the ride, lightning hit a Hollywood hotel causing five passengers in an elevator to became non-corporal beings. They're never called ghosts, so it's never clear whether this is a science fiction story or a horror story; whether the cause of the event is supernatural or, say, an unexplained result of a quantum physics anomaly. So, cool ride, but nothing spiritual here.

The park isn't really concerned about the eternal, but rather temporary pleasure. 

Still, you can't help coming across something along the road if you really look for it.

I did finally find something that made me think of the God of Scripture. I saw a picture of a Lion and a Lamb. Many people misremember the picture of God's Kingdom from Isaiah 11. They think it talks of the lion lying down with the lamb. Actually in that passage the wolf is with the lamb and the lion is with the calf and the yearling. But Revelation 5 presents Jesus as both the Lion and the Lamb.

So these signs made me think of Jesus in Revelation 5, even though they're an ad for toilet paper.

-- Dean