Thursday, April 30, 2015

Funny Movie Churches -- Keeping the Faith (2000)

The comedy "Keeping the Faith" seems to answer the question no one had been asking: "What if Starsky and Hutch had taken vows in religious orders rather than becoming cops?" Like the S & H TV show and inevitable movie adaptation, two hip young guys try to change the world for the better -- in "Starsky and Hutch," with guns and badges, and in "Keeping the Faith," with clerical collars and yarmulkes. 
Brian (Edward Norton) and Jake (Ben Stiller) grew up buddies along with their friend Anna (Jenna Elfman). Then Anna moved away and Brian became a priest and Jake became a Rabbi, but the two guys remained good friends.

As always, I'm here to talk about the churches in the movies, not the movies themselves. I'm also, as a Gentile, going to exempt myself from talking about Jake's temple; except for two things.
1) Jake's bringing in a Gospel choir to help the congregational singing is very cool.
2) Jake dating and having affairs with a succession of women in his congregation is not cool.

So let's look at Father Brian's church with pros and cons. When we first see Brian in the church, it's a rather sad sight. He's an awkward screw-up, creating mayhem with the incense dispenser. But with a passing time montage we see the church grow, with great crowds coming to hear Brian preach. It's unclear whether the growth is due to people being attracted to the cool, contemporary spin Father Brian brings to his ministry or whether it's because women think he's dreamy or a combination of the two. (A concurrent montage shows the same growth in Jake's temple.)

Brian talks about his calling to the priesthood. His mother thought she couldn't have children and she prayed for God to provide. She saw Brian as a gift from God and was thrilled when he decided to go into the ministry (a story that has a Hannah and Samuel feel to it).

We see Brian taking the confession of a young Hispanic man, and I like several things about the way he handles the situation. Brian has learned enough Spanish to use it in his ministry. He's comfortable as a priest talking with the young man about sexual temptation, reminding him that his feelings are natural but need to be channeled in appropriate directions.

One of the major plot lines is Brian's unexpected temptation when Anna re-enters his life, and he feels attracted to her but talks through his feelings and priestly obligations with an older priest (played by film director Miles Foreman), which is healthy. It's really important for people in ministry to have other people who will hold them accountable.

I also like that Brian works with Jake on community projects. In the film, they're planning a karaoke-focused senior center. Though the world doesn't necessarily need more karaoke, it's good to see congregations working together to meet community needs. I believe this can be done on many projects even when congregations have doctrinal differences.

My one big problem with Father Brian is his abhorrent theology, at least as demonstrated in the one sermon we hear.  He talks about what a good thing it is that so many people are coming to church because it shows they have faith. He then makes a distinction between faith and religion. "Faith is a feeling, a hunch, that there is something bigger connecting everything together and that feeling is God." There is a definite pantheistic ring to that idea, rather than Christian. God is not a feeling or a hunch but our Creator, who desires to have a loving relationship with us, as a loving Father with His children.

I do appreciate the desire of the makers of this film to show members of the clergy as real people who pursue God's work for the betterment of others rather than themselves. I just wish Father Brian, in his rush to be relevant in the 21st century, hadn't left behind the best thing about the legacy of the church, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

-- Dean

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Society Church, Sacramento

"There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places."

This quote is from the Wendell Berry poem,""How to be a Poet (to remind myself)" ,which the guest speaker used to open his sermon at Society Church in Sacramento. That line seemed particularly appropriate in this place.
Entering the meeting place you'll see folding chairs, but you won't see stained glass depicting the Life of Christ or the Saints. You won't see any crosses or crucifixes on the walls. But there is plenty of art, most of it abstract. That's because they meet in a place call Beatnik Studios, a place available to rent for events that also serves as a gallery for artists. As the poet says, "There are no unsacred places."

We arrived about half an hour early, and we could hear the music from a bit down the street. Mindy liked that; she reminded her of going to a club. When we went inside, a couple of people assured us that the music was louder during the soundcheck than it would be in the service, which was not a big concern of ours. But we appreciated their sensitivity regarding visitors' ears. All of the members of the worship team played instruments; the lead singer played an acoustic guitar.  The rest of the team played an electric guitar, drums, and two keyboards.

Talking with Joel the architect before the service, we heard about the small groups that met during the week. One of the groups was concerned with God's use of the creative process. They were continuing a study that the pastor had been through recently on a book called "Art and Soul."

The service started a minute or two after nine, and after a few songs, a man with a quite full beard, shorts and a Giants cap introduced the monthly celebration of communion. In his introduction, he quoted both the Church Father, Tertullian, and the rock band Thrice ("Come All You Weary"). The bread and juice (no gluten-free bread mentioned) were served on a table set across two barrels. People took a piece of bread, dipped it into the cup of juice, and ate the morsel as they walked back to their seats as music played.

Following communion, there was a ten minute break when everyone was encouraged to greet one another. At this service, there is no offering taken, so this was also the time, we were told, to bring offerings and connection cards to the "black box" on the wooden structure near the entrance. Then other announcements: baby dedications on Mother's Day, small groups, a RiverCats game, and a restaurant meet-up that would also be a  fundraiser for a missionary headed to Black Forest Academy in Germany (some of my nieces and nephews went to that school).

I noticed that most everyone who spoke in a leadership capacity had visible tattoos, and more people used phones or tablets for the Bible readings -- one way of noting that the congregation was, as a whole, younger than Mindy and me.

Tim, the church's pastor, had been sick the week before, so he had brought in Jeremiah as a guest speaker. Jeremiah said he begins every day with a poem, which led to his use of the Berry poem. The sermon also used the Luke 7 passage about the woman who washed Jesus' feet. Jeremiah noted how the Pharisee saw only what was bad in the woman, while Jesus saw what was good. He said we should follow the example of Jesus. He said there are two universal truths for every person: 1) You are beloved and 2) You are a sinner. But he said we always need to get to point one before we deal, if ever, with point two. We need to see God's Image ("Imago Dei" was the Latin phrase he used).

He suggested we need to work to really "behold" all the people around us that are made in God's image. He gave six daily tips for doing so:
1) Pray every morning to see God in every one
2) Ask for the names of people like servers and customer service reps and use them
3) Become a waver
4) No more ATMs. Instead, go inside and meet tellers
5) Don't use the self-check. Instead, meet cashiers
6) Learn the names of your postal and package deliverers.

(By the way, I'm not giving up using Safeway self-checkout because then I'd see Nikki, who often supervises self-checkout, less)

Jeremiah urged us to see people as people rather than sinners or evangelism projects. He began the sermon by pointing out that the first verb connected with God was "create," and that God the Creator made us to be creators in His image.

The sermon was filled with cultural references, including "The Lion King," Ricky Gervais' "Extras" and Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."

Though Jeremiah was a guest speaker, his concern for our living out the image of God the Creator seemed to be a central part of the identity and mission of Society Church in Sacramento.
-- Dean
Service Length: 1 hour 37 minutes
Sermon Length: 34 minutes
Visitor Treatment: we were warmly greeted as we came in, and several people introduced themselves and chatted. All were encouraged to fill out "connection cards"
Our Rough Count:  40
Probable Ushers' Count: 65
Snacks: "we care about our coffee," Mindy was told. And it was very good coffee. No other food or drink visible
Songs:  There is a Fountain
             Forgetting my Sorrows
Miles to place: 121

Total California Miles: 7,466

Monday, April 27, 2015

Five Things I Didn't Know about Sacramento

1. The Sacramento Valley (and the Sacramento River) were given their names in 1808 by the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga. The beauty of the place was such that the expedition named the river and the valley for the "Most Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ."  The city we now call Sacramento, built where the Sacramento River and the American River flow together toward the northern end of California's Central Valley, was incorporated on February 27, 1850. It's California's oldest incorporated city.
2.  When the city was about 12 years old, its street level was built up about ten feet by building walls on either side of the street and filling the roadways in with dirt. As a result, the ground level of many buildings was below the street grade, so many property owners raised their buildings, as Leland Stanford did. Many of the resulting underground spaces have now been filled or destroyed by later development, but the "Sacramento Underground" is still accessible in some places.

3.  Sacramento is the sunniest location in the world from July through September. In July, the city averages 14 hours and 12 minutes of sunshine per day (98% of what's possible for the location).

4.  The Amtrak station in Sacramento is the second busiest in the state and the seventh busiest in the country. The light rail system is the eleventh busiest in the United States.
5.  The Sacramento River Cats minor league baseball team is hugely popular now that it's affiliated with the San Francisco Giants rather than the Oakland A's, to the extent that the only reasonably priced tickets available at the gate on Saturday night were standing room only. But there are fireworks every Friday and Saturday.

Bonus: In Sacramento, a woman wearing a tutu with running gear on a Sunday morning is involved in a walk for a cause on the grounds of the state capital building, not (as it would more likely be in San Francisco or even, possibly, Los Angeles) making a bold fashion statement.
-- Mindy


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Funny Movie Churches -- Sister Act (1992)

I admit that I like, on occasion, to hear profanity in prayers. The occasions are when a new believers are praying with the only vocabulary they have.  If a seasoned pastor, on the other hand,  uses such language to show how edgy he or she is, that's really annoying.

A new believer, or even someone who doesn't believe, can be an unsettling presence in the Church. Such a person can also allow a sedate congregation to get a fresh perspective of God and his work.

The movie church in the 1992 comedy "Sister Act" is in great need of a fresh perspective, of being shook up. St. Katherine's is a church and a nunnery in San Francisco. The nuns stay cloistered behind their walls because their Reverend Mother is afraid for their safety. A small handful of people attend the Sunday services, which seem to be rather sad affairs.

But then the plot happens. Whoopi Goldberg is a casino lounge singer named Deloris who witnesses a gangland murder and must hide at St. Katherine's disguised as a nun (I'm pretty sure this is fairly standard law enforcement procedure). And as can happen when a new person enters a church, there is some disruption, good disruption. With the arrival of Deloris, the church and convent change in two major departments: music and outreach.

In my opinion, there are three important components to music in the church:
1)  Lyrics that honor God
2) Musical quality
3) Worship from the heart.

If any one of these components are subpar, then worship can be painful. We've visited churches that had excellent musicians, but the lyrics were insipid, and the people in front seemed to be performers rather than worshipers.

The choir of nuns pre-Deloris in "Sister Act" seem sincere-- far be it from me to complain about the lyrics to "Crown Him with Many Crowns." But they sing boring musical arrangements of classic hymns, not in harmony or even on key. One is under the impression that the torturous tunes from the choir play a part in keeping people from attending the Sunday morning services.

Deloris contributes her musical skills to the choir, taking over as director. Initially she uses traditional hymns with more jazzy arrangements. She also demands more rehearsal time for the women and gives them proper training. People in the community hear the improvement in the music and begin to flock to the services. The Reverend Mother is upset by this "blasphemous boogie-woogie," but the Monsignor is too happy to have people at his service.

Deloris also introduces songs that are adaptations of Motown pop. "My Guy" becomes "My God," and "I Will Follow Him" capitalizes the male pronoun in the lyrics. Sadly, these lyrics are not very profound, but they do attract people to church. And the lyrics really aren't much dimmer than those found in your average song on K-Love. Overall, the music of the church is much improved post-Deloris' arrival.

Prior to Deloris' arrival, the Reverend Mother kept the nuns "safely" within the walls of  St. Katherine's. But Christ's Great Commission (found in Matthew 28) calls His disciples to go out into the world. The only true place of safety is in God's will, and it's questionable whether the nuns doing arts and crafts separate from anyone not wearing the white and black is either safe or profitable to the Kingdom of God.

Deloris sneaks off to a bar across from the nunnery and is followed by two of the nuns. The nuns are inspired by the lively atmosphere and the jukebox. Apparently in 1992, Motown was all that could be found in jukeboxes in San Francisco bars.

Over the objections of the Reverend Mother but with the support of the Monsignor, Deloris encourages the nuns to go out and serve the community. They go out to serve, painting over graffiti and repairing vehicles with musical accompaniment (Motown, of course). The nuns' ministry to the community attracts good publicity (which is a swell thing, unless one is hiding from criminals who have access to newspapers and television news programs).

"Sister Act" is at times cute ("That nun is dancing like a teen!") at times funny ("Whoopi Goldberg in a habit? Get out!") and at times dumb (nuns chartering a plane from San Francisco to Reno is quicker and more practical than making a phone call to the Reno police). But as always, I'm not here to review the film. The church at the beginning of the film might not get a thumbs up, but St. Katherine's at the end of the film certainly does.

-- Dean

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Godless Hollywood

I googled the phrase "Godless Hollywood" and found 1,570 results. Now some of those results, I'm sure, are using "Hollywood" to mean the media. But the media certainly isn't "godless" in the sense of God-free, or I wouldn't be able to find anything to watch when I want to write about Movie Churches every week.

Someone asked me recently whether I'd run out of movie churches to write about. There are still loads of movies about churches, and there are many more about God that I haven't gotten to yet. And there are all of the TV shows, songs and webcasts that touch on God and religion. Many times, it's Bill Maher type of negative talk about God, but it's certainly not God-free.

Now, if some of those "Godless Hollywood" google results were about the literal location called Hollywood -- well, we saw something very different. Among the potbellied superheroes and costumed cartoon characters that had only the vaguest resemblance to the actual characers, quite a few people were working to make God's presence known.

See for yourself.
-- Dean 

These pictures were taken in the neighborhood of Mann's Chinese Theater and Hollywood Bowl. The flyer was handed to us on the street near the theater.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

New City Church of Los Angeles

"If you don't trust the police, they need to hear why you feel as you do." When the senior pastor said this as part of an announcement, I realized I would never have heard that in most of the churches I've attended. Thinking back, most churches I've been a part of have had members who were employed in law enforcement in one way or another.

New City Church of Los Angeles is reaching a different part of the population. Looking around the congregation, I saw several people with their bundles of earthly goods that accompany them everywhere. The church advertises itself as a "multi-ethnic come as you are church", but perhaps even more interesting is their striving to be a "multi-economic" church. Skid Row (the actual, original neighborhood with this name) is in the same community as the church. But the neighborhood is also made up of trendy, pricey lofts that some might describe as the abode of hipsters. The aim of the church is to bring the diverse elements of the community together, and it seems to be succeeding.

The congregation meets in the Los Angeles Theater Center. The announcement the pastor was making was for "Trust Talks" sponsored by the Downtown Clergy Council, which would be held at The Last Bookstore with the goal of addressing tensions between the local police and members of the community. That wasn't the only announcement featuring the church's attempts to deal with community needs. There was a prolonged announcement for the new season of the church's small groups (called "GrowServe Groups" because of the dual goals of fostering individual spiritual growth and group outreach. One group works with the local food pantry, another reaches out to the homebound, another is working to get shoes for the poor in Uganda.) A young woman gave a testimony how her small group had ministered to her, providing the family she had never known. She encouraged people to "pick a group and go for it." It was apparent that the small groups fostered the same diversity sought by the church as a whole (though this may be one of the rare churches where, in this service at least, the men clearly outnumbered the women).

Mindy and I enjoyed the worship service. The choruses sung were quite loud, but well done. Communion is served on a weekly basis in the middle of the service since, appropriately, it's considered "the heart of worship." Small tables with grape juice and matzo are placed throughout the meeting space (convenient separate tables for gluten free bread and juice are in the hallway just outside).

The sermon was part of an ongoing series working through the Gospel of John, this week John 20:24-31 (the story of Thomas and the resurrected Jesus) titled "The Benefit of the Doubt."

On the drive to southern California, Mindy and I had listened to a CD compilation of the "This I Believe" radio series. We were both annoyed by the essay by Penn Jillette that characterized all with religious faith as people who deny reality and choose a life of fantasy. Believers are people who have turned their minds off and won't face the evidence. This sermon was a refreshing antidote to such foolish notions.

The associate pastor told the story of his own decision to become a Christian. At sixteen, he had been involved in drugs and was a gang leader, but he attended a church service when he was invited to a friend's baptism. Life was not ideal for him at the time. He had just totaled a car in a drunk driving accident, and the violence of gang life was accelerating. At that service he was challenged to trust his life to Jesus, and he took that challenge.

He said that his doubts about God didn't end that day, but that doubt continues to be a part of his life. He argued God doesn't demand blind faith against the evidence, but that God does call us to press on beyond the evidence. Though this is the passage that Jesus said, "Blessed are those who did not see and yet believed," the pastor pointed out that a few verses later John wrote, "(this) has been written so you may believe." God does not want us to throw out reason; in fact, He offers the chance to "reason together."

After the service, visitors are offered the opportunity to meet with members of the pastoral staff, have a cupcake, and receive a gift (a Lee Strobel book). At the end of the sermon, there had also been an invitation to come to the front of the church to pray with the preaching pastor or to go for prayer to "The Healing Room," in the church's office space across the street. I'm sure many appreciate the opportunity just to be heard in the Healing Room.
Penn Jillette doesn't think there is any evidence for God. Perhaps he's never looked in the right places. He might start out with some folks reaching out in love on Skid Row.


Service Length: 1 hour 33 minutes
Sermon Length: 28 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeting time in worship, ten minute opportunity to meet with pastors after each service (where guests are asked to fill out an information form and given gift and opportunity to ask questions of visitors' team members)
Our Rough Count:  135
Probable Ushers' Count: 150
Snacks: coffee, tea, juice, water and pastries available at the coffee bar in the lobby; juice and cupcakes just for visitors on the balcony
Songs: Search my Heart
            Holy Spirit
            Moving Forward
           This I Believe (the Creed)
Miles to place: 436 miles
Total California Miles: 7,251

-- Dean

Monday, April 20, 2015

Five Things I Didn't Know about Los Angeles

1.   Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States (New York City is the largest). In 2010, its population was approaching four million. It's the largest city in California and about 342 miles south of San Francisco. Since 1995, it has had no NFL team (but wants at least one). 

 2.  In 1781, the group of twenty-two adult settlers (with twenty-two children and four soldiers) who founded and named "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciuncula River were known as "Los Pobladores." Half of the adult settlers were women. The adults were a multi-ethnic group as well as varying in age: one was a Spaniard born in Spain, one a Spaniard born in "New Spain," nine were American Indians, two were African, one had both Spanish and Indian heritage, and were both Spanish and African in their ethnicity.

3.   After oil was discovered in the city (and surrounding area) in 1892, California became the country's largest oil producer. By 1923, about one-quarter of the world's petroleum output came from the state.

4.  Downtown Los Angeles averages just over fifteen inches of precipitation, mostly rain, each year, and almost all of that falls during the winter and spring On most days, the difference between the high and low temperature in any location is over 30 degrees Fahrenheit (16 Celsius). Due to the diversity in habitats, including beaches, wetlands and mountains, Los Angeles is rich in native plant species.

5.  When Hollywood merged into Los Angeles, in 1910, there were already ten movie companies operating in the city at the time. Eleven years later, more than 80 percent of the world's film industry was located there. Because of the money generated by the industry, the economic effects of the Great Depression were lessened in the area. Even now, the city has more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors and dancers living there than in any other city at any time in history. One in six residents works in a creative industry.

-- Mindy