Thursday, May 28, 2015

Miracle Movie Churches: Saint Ralph (2004)

In the Universal 1941 musical, "Hellzapoppin'", there's a movie studio called Miracle Studios ("If it's a good picture, it's a Miracle!") and "Three Amigos" uses the same joke. So many things need to come together to make a good movie that every one is a bit of a miracle, making this small film, 2004's "Saint Ralph," a bit of a miracle. But as usual, we aren't here to judge the movie but rather the churches and clergy in the film.

"Saint Ralph" is all about the making of a miracle. It also features two priests who take very different approaches to miracles.

Ralph is a 15 year old student at a parochial school in Canada in the early 1950’s. His father died in World War II, and his mother is very ill. When he his mother slips into a coma, Ralph is told it will take a miracle to save her. Ralph sets his mind (and heart) on making the miracle which will lead to lead to his mother’s healing. As he has just begun cross country running, he decides that his miracle will be winning the Boston Marathon.

Ralph’s Religion teacher is also his cross country coach, Father George. Ralph asks about the requirements for a miracle, and Father George tells him that three things are required: faith, purity and prayer. He is told that faith means you must truly believe even though this sometimes this makes no logical sense (the great Catholic philosophers and theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas would disagree). He is told that in prayer he must be in direct communication with God (unlike Mother Teresa who spoke of the dark night of the soul or ever Christ Himself who cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”). Purity is described as being completely free of sin. So Ralph purses not only his running skills but also these three pious elements.

Father Fitzpatrick, the school’s administrator, opposes Ralph’s pursuit of a miracle. Just as Jesus scoffed at those who pursued signs and wonders, he forbids Ralph from pursuing his miracle. His goal for his students is for them to be content with their lot in life, and he doesn’t want Ralph to have to deal with what he sees as the inevitable discouragement of striving for something better, especially the miraculous.

This tension between those who pursue and those who discourage the pursuit of the miraculous is very real in churches. But you might not be surprised to find that the movie leans toward the miraculous -- because that is so much more cinematic. As for the priests, neither really manages to strike the Biblical balance of trusting God’s sovereignty seen in both the natural course of events and in the unexpected surprises we call miracles.

The film does illustrate one other often overlooked bonus of church life: the merit of Mass (or any worship service, really) as a date. Because Ralph is caught in an embarrassing, public act of “self-abuse” (as the film calls it), the father of the girl he is interested in refuses to allow his daughter out on a date with Ralph. But they can meet at church, which they do during Holy Week. They even hold hands during Mass. In my book bars and will never hold a candle to that place where they light candles -- when it comes to meeting that special someone.

-- Dean 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Redeemer Presbyterian Church Downtown, Manhattan

"We're not here to serve ourselves; we're here to serve the city." This phrase was used several times throughout the Sunday morning worship service.

If you've been keeping track of our monthly themes, you might notice that this church doesn't isn't exactly isn't in a small town or rural area, since the church is in Manhattan. But we were in New York City for our daughter's college graduation, so we appreciate your indulgence.
Redeemer Presbyterian would have fit nicely into last month's urban church month or with next month's theme, "I Haven't Been to the Church but I've Read the Book," since I've read several books by this church's pastor, Timothy Keller.

There are three congregations for Redeemer in Manhattan:  Eastside (meeting in the Hunter College auditorium), Westside (in the church's Ministry Center on West 83rd St.), and the location we attended, downtown at The Salvation Army. 

We were on the way out of the city and toting luggage, accompanied by our son and daughter (the recently graduated one). We were greeted by ushers; when we asked, three young men in suits showed us where we could store our luggage. I chatted with them and asked how long they had attended the church. They responded that they had worked there for the two years the church has been at that location. I asked them what they liked best about working there, and one said, "The coffee," making the other two guys laugh. Another of them said he appreciated meeting great new people every week.

I went downstairs to check out the children's ministry. A large room had multi-color cloth dividers marked in four sections marked for ages 1, 2, 3 & 4, and 5 & 6. Another room was for infants, and I assume the first through sixth graders were somewhere else. I talked with the director of the children's ministry, and she said that though a minority of attendees had kids, they still had as many as one hundred children to care for on a Sunday morning.

On the way back to the auditorium, I encountered Timothy Keller on his way as well. He had the familiar face of a pastor running through the morning details in his mind. I still took the opportunity to say good morning and shake his hand and he was quite pleasant.

The bottom section of the worship area was filling up nicely as the service started (a minute early by my watch). I talked to an usher after the service who told me the balcony (a larger area than downstairs) was about half full.

There were two large screens mounted high to the left and right of the stage, but neither was used in the service we attended. All the songs (with music) and readings were in the printed program (eleven pages of it, plus an insert with announcements and information which was about six pages). The music was led by a woman singing, a woman playing the piano, and a woman playing a trombone. The website identified the worship style as "Classical" while other services were listed as "Jazz," "Contemporary," or "Contemporary/Blended". For Pentecost we sang "Come, Holy Ghost" circa 800 A.D., and I had a hard time singing along. I was able to sing along heartily with "The Church's One Foundation."

The time of confession was introduced as a time of "coming to our senses." In the announcements, people were encouraged to update their personal profiles online to get information on ministries and community small groups. There was an announcement for the monthly prayer meeting to be held that day. Also that day, Downtown congregation Deacons and Deaconesses were to be installed (but there was no information about what those jobs entailed).

The Scripture reading was from 1 Samuel 26, the story of David sneaking into King Saul's camp. Keller is working through a series, "David: The Man of Prayer," with this sermon titled "David's Mercy."

I appreciated the clear verbal outline at the beginning of the sermon (it was not written in the program) on the theme of learning to love from the life of David. There were four main points:        1) Loving your neighbor
       2) Loving your enemy
       3) Loving a fool
       4) Loving God's Anointed

Keller said we must learn to love our neighbor by recognizing the Image of God in everyone we meet, and backed this up with quotes from John Calvin and C. S. Lewis. He spent some time on the need to love our "enemy" -- a person we believe has done us harm. He pointed out that we should never seek to return evil for evil because "only God has the wisdom to know what Saul (or anyone else) deserves and the right to give it."

He pointed to the need to forgive, citing Matthew 18, Mark 11, and a quote from an unidentified novel (which my son recognized from Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"). He described forgiveness as a "commitment not to bring up the sin (issue) with the other person, with other people or with yourself."

He pointed out that David didn't harm Saul, who was trying to kill him. He snuck into Saul's camp and took his spear and water bottle to show he could have harmed Saul, but choose not to. This action allowed Saul to see his own foolishness.

Loving someone who sins against you might well include making sure they don't harm you or other people again; forgiveness doesn't necessarily include trust.

Finally he pointed to the source of power to show mercy, forgiveness and love: God's Anointed. He said that David as God's anointed points to the greater Anointed One, Jesus Christ. Jesus took our infinite debt and paid the infinite cost.

Concluding the sermon and introducing the time of offering, Keller urged the congregation to "think of what God is saying to you during the offertory. I know I say this every week, but it's something we need to do."
The Prayer of the People included a Memorial Day theme of praying for those in the armed services and a prayer for peace.

As a reader who has greatly appreciated many of Tim Keller's books (such as "The Reason of God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism," "Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just," and "Walking with God through Pain and Suffering"), I can't say that Keller's preaching adds much to the words he writes. He addresses the congregation rather like a professor addressing a class. But the words he writes are themselves are well worth hearing. I'm glad he and the good folks at Redeemer are serving the city and the God of the city.

Service Length: 1 hour 39 minutes
Sermon Length: 34 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeting time during service ("passing the peace", but most people said good morning to those around them), part of the program was a card to be filled out with visitor or changed information
Our Rough Count: 1,050
Probable Ushers' Count: 1,200
Snacks: Coffee, water and cider after the worship service in basement room which was also used for Sunday school and had a bookstore table. Signs directed down a narrow staircase, and many people went.
Songs:  God of this City
             How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds
             All Creatures of our God and King
             Be Merciful to Me
             Come, Holy Ghost
             The Church's One Foundation
Miles to church: 3,028
Total California Miles: 8,049

-- Dean

Monday, May 25, 2015

Five Things I Didn't Know about Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island

1.  In Manhattan and Brooklyn, the abundant wildlife can be viewed in parks, sidewalks, museums, and subways.

2.  Trees aren't the only thing growing in Brooklyn (but there are lots of trees).

3.  One takes the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, but very few of the people on the ferry will leave the terminal building to see Staten Island (unless they live there).

4.  The train will almost certainly go near where you're going, but walking will be a big part of your daily routine, and sitting down on the train is always a goal.

5.  New York City is a really, really big city, even when you spend most of your time in just two boroughs, and only a few neighborhoods. It's possible to be there for days without ever seeing Times Square or Grand Central Station.

-- Mindy

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Miracle Movie Churches -- Lilies of the Field (1963)

The problem with talking about Movie Churches with miracles is it's hard to get people to agree on the definition of a "miracle." Does a miracle need to break the laws of nature? Or can a miracle just be an answer to prayer? How can you tell the difference between a miracle and a coincidence?

"Lilies of the Field" is a movie about a church built through a series of miracles -- or a series of coincidences. The Mother Superior of a small convent in the desert prays for someone to build a chapel. In their community, there is no church building. There is a priest that travels about in a camper performing mass. The priest, Father Murphy, also prayed in seminary for a beautiful sanctuary to serve, and was disappointed in his situation.

Sidney Poitier (in an Oscar winning performance) plays Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman who believes he is stopping at the house where the nuns live for water for his overheated car. The Mother Superior believes he has stopped to build a chapel; that he is sent by God. He knows that this is not the case because he is not planning on staying and that he's a Baptist.

He's willing to work for pay. But the nuns really don't have money to pay him for all the work that must be done, and they certainly don't have the finances to pay for the supplies to build the chapel. So the Mother Superior prays for the supplies as well. God answers those prayers when a local construction business supplies bricks out of guilt. Certainly, there seems to be nothing strictly supernatural in the arrival of a worker and supplies, but the Mother Superior has no doubt that it is God's work.

Evaluating this movie church, I should take a moment to discuss the clergy. Father Murphy does not have the best reputation among some in the community. The owner of the local diner believes the Father loves his wine too much. The Father himself believes he's unworthy of his position. He believes his seminary prayers showed disqualifying pride. But the beauty of the new chapel reminds Father Murphy that God's grace overwhelms our sins, and it seems he will be a good priest in it.

Homer doesn't only bring his architectural skills to the new church, he also brings his guitar. He teaches the nuns a gospel song, "Amen," which tells a theologically sound life of Christ. In fact, most of the theology in the film I found fairly sound. I did have a problem with one thing the Mother Superior said in the film. She says about Homer, "He is not of our faith, but he was brought to us by God; the God of all faiths." I have no problem with her saying that about Catholics or Baptists. But when you say all faiths, you're including those that had faiths that asked for infant sacrifices to Baal. I'm just not comfortable with that. (And I'll save my rant on Scientology inspired by the very good HBO film "Going Clear" for another week.)

Psalm 127 says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they that labor, labor in vain."  The movie church in "Lilies of the Field" seems to be built by God. By definition then, that's not for nothing.

-- Dean

[Business detail: as of June 1, Movie Churches will have its own blog. More exciting details to come soon!]

Fulton Pentecostal Church of God in Christ

Growing up, my postal address was Fulton, California, but we lived out in the country rather than next to the post office, couple of country stores, a gas station and houses that made up the town proper. Oh, and there was a church.

I lived in that house for about two fifths of my life and went by that church hundreds and hundreds of times. And never went inside. Many of the times we passed the church we were on the way to our church (for years at Santa Rosa First Presbyterian Church and for years at Wikiup/Santa Rosa Evangelical Free Church). This made the Fulton Pentecostal Church of God in Christ a priority for Mindy and me in our church tours.

As it turned out, this was a special but difficult day in the life of the church. Their pastor for the last 26 years, James Franklin Marchbanks, passed away May 4th, and this past week the official memorial services were held. Therefore, much of this service was a continuation of those remembrances.

Mindy had misremembered the time of the service, looking for it on the sign outside the church. She thought the worship service time was 10:00 am, but when we arrived we saw that the sign actually said Sunday School was at 10:00 am and the worship service was at 11:30 am. Mindy went inside to make sure, and was told the service time was actually noon.

So we went home and came back a bit before the service began. At a quarter to twelve there were plenty of seats in the pews to choose from, though there were some folks already there, including seniors and mothers with small children. (The little girl in the pew of front of us was occupied with her action figures: among then a Star Wars storm trooper and Batman's Bane, both capable of flight. Many of the kids in the service were occupied with their parent's phones). When the service began at noon, most seats were filled and as the service went on more people came and crammed themselves in or stood in the back of the room or on the side.

There were no screens for songs and no hymnals or song sheets. The singing was mostly done with a call and response but at times I didn't catch the words. But we could always clap. A variety of people led music through the service; a keyboard, three guitars, singers, drums and tambourines in the congregation accompanied the songs.

A young woman read Psalm 133 about the brothers living together in unity, though she didn't identify the Scripture. (Mindy said there was a program for the service that probably identified the Scripture but there weren't many copies. I never saw one.)

In tribute to Pastor Marchbanks there were also two songs accompanied by dance (although I don't think it was called dance, it was called "spiritual movement" or something like that); both women who performed did so gracefully and in a true spirit of worship, with one of them wearing a choir robe.

A time was provided to share memories about Pastor Marchbanks, but people were encouraged to speak for only a couple of minutes and respect the time of others. A number of people spoke of Pastor Marchbanks and his wife, First Lady Deborah, as having welcomed them as family into their lives.

A woman came forward and introduced herself as Felicia. She spoke of Pastor Marchbanks assisting with the track and cross country teams while she attended Comstock Junior High School and Piner High School.

Sidebar - Our chosen theme for this month is rural and small town churches, but a subtheme has emerged: the first week this month, we met a friend of mine from Comstock and Piner in Nevada City where his son-in-law is pastor of a church. Last week we met a Comstock/Piner friend of mine in Ukiah and went to church. To keep up the trend, I posted a facebook request for a Piner friend to go to church with us this week, but no one responded. And then Felicia, who went to Comstock and Piner with me, spoke in front of the church. And we had a chance to chat after church. Sidebar done.

Felicia went on to say that she was a part of the local Native American community that had been welcomed into this primarily African American church. Not only did Pastor Marchbanks facilitate ministry in the Native American community, a Hispanic pastor came forward to talk about the church's ministry to his community. Through an interpreter he gave praise to the departed Pastor Marchbanks and the Lord. First Lady Deborah shared that years ago they noticed that they had Spanish speaking visitors that came for the music ministry of the church, but couldn't learn from the Word that was spoken. So they brought in someone to lead Spanish language services that continue at the church to this day.

After a number of people had a chance to share, the choir came up for a final number. Then a visiting speaker, Brother Tillis shared a short message about the encouragement he received from Pastor Marchbanks.

There's something strange about attending a memorial of someone you didn't know. I felt regret for all those years I bypassed this church and a chance to get to know this man admired by many for his godliness. On the other hand, heaven will be full of joyful meetings with people I heard about, but never go to know on earth.

Service Length: 1 hour 32 minutes

Sermon Length: 10 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were welcomed at the door and greeted by several people after we sat down. No greeting time in the service, and no method for recording visitors. There was a meal afterward that all were casually invited to.
Our Rough Count: 60
Probable Ushers' Count: 100
Snacks: meal in the kitchen, but we didn't look in
Songs: My Soul Loves Jesus
            Glory, Glory, Hallelujah since I Lay my Burdens Down
            Ain't Nobody Loves me like Jesus
            Jesus Said it
            (dance) I Can't Live without You
            (solo) What a Mighty God we Serve
            (dance) I'm Overwhelmed by You
             another song
            (choir) He Lives
Miles to place: 1.5 
Total California Miles: 7,903

-- Dean

Monday, May 18, 2015

Four Things I Didn't Know about Fulton and One I Did Know

1.  Fulton was founded by Thomas and James Fulton in 1871, when a post office was established. According to the US Census Bureau, it covers an area of 1.9 square miles of land. 

2.  In 2010, the community had a population of 541, making it the smallest community we've visited yet. About half the population of Fulton identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino of any race or as "from other races" than white, African American, Native American, Asian, or Pacific Islander. The age of members of the community is fairly evenly spread out, except that only 12% are over 65. Just over half the population lived in housing they owned, and almost 42% lived in rented housing. A day labor center and the Filipino American Center are both located in the center of Fulton, along with the post office.

3.  A Fulton  building that began as a fruit and vegetable packing plant in the 1800s and later housed a winery, a turkey slaughterhouse, farmer's market, and chicken slaughterhouse now houses a cabinet maker, studios and an art gallery. The Foundry, also housed in the building, isn't a church.

4. We already knew about several local businesses because...well, we used to live in Fulton. Dean grew up here (want to know where the little market used to be? He can tell you), and we lived here for almost a year after seminary. I've helped with various events at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center, and one of our daughters got her native plants for a 4-H project at Cal-Flora Nursery. Hector's Honey, which we've known for years from the Healdsburg Farmer's Market, is on the corner of Raplee Terrace -- across the street from the house where Dean's parents lived for more than 30 years.
5. Mike's Truck Garden farm stand is open for the summer!

-- Mindy