Monday, August 31, 2015

Seven Things I've Learned about Old Friends and Spiritual Journeys

I met Brad along with a number of other people on my first day at Meridian Middle School. Seeing him this past weekend for the first time in almost ten years reminded me of the gift God's given us in long-time friends. Thanks, Brad, and all you other old friends, for hanging around all these years.

1. Old friends know other versions of the stories we tell. I remember getting sent to the office for having a knife at school (true story); a friend might also remember that I'd been bragging about what a good woodcarver I was.

2. Old friends' spiritual journeys have different trajectories, but since we've known each other so many years, through so many other changes, it can feel safe to be honest about our lives in ways we might not be with people we see more frequently -- or even with family.

3. Old friends stay in touch with other old friends in different ways. Because this is true, we can love and understand not just the friend we see, but also the other friend. In middle school, I couldn't see beyond my own insecurity.

4. Old friends' spiritual journeys may break our hearts, but God is God (and I know He's been working in my life. I can trust He's working in their lives as well). And it's pretty likely my friend is concerned about my journey as well.

5. Old friends are just as old as I am. They have a lot of the same historical experiences I had. So we always have something to talk about, even if it's just marveling over the future we're living in compared to the future we expected to live in (where's my flying car, by the way, and why am I not living in a moon colony?).

6. Old friends' spiritual journeys can be encouraging. They've suffered and triumphed in ways I haven't. A couple missionary friends are able to use technology to continue a part of their ministry in Papua New Guinea while being based in the United States in order to be available to their aging parents. I continue to appreciate how God is using them here and there at the same time. (Some parts of this future world are pretty cool. Yay, internet!)

7. Old friends introduce us to new friends, and eventually, the new friends become old friends too.

-- Mindy

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Calvary Armenian Congregational Church, San Francisco

We love subtitles in our house. We use them, of course, when we're watching a foreign language film, since when you're watching a dubbed film you lose the original voices, and you lose much of the passion and feeling that went into the film's making. Truth be told, we often use the subtitles for English language films as well, so we'll be ready when our hearing hardens. So one of the little ways Calvary Armenian won our hearts was by using subtitles (although I guess since they were projected above the pastor's head, perhaps they were "overtitles)."

Translations were found in other places. The bulletin had an English language synopsis of the Armenian portion of the sermon. When we sang the Lord's Prayer in Armenian, the screen had the lyrics in the Armenian alphabet and transliterated into Latin lettering and also translated into English. (I appreciated the opportunity to melodically massacre the Armenian language).

On the church web site a slogan proclaims, "All are welcome to worship with us on Sundays." While one would hope that would be the aim of every church, that's not the case, which, in some ethnic churches, is understandable to some degree. In the United States, churches have provided a sanctuary for immigrants. It might be the one place where an immigrant's home language is spoken, customs are understood, and food is served. This year we have attended ethnic churches where an effort has been made to see that we were made to feel welcome. At the Chinese Evangelical Free Church we attended, a woman who met us before the service offered to translate for us. At some churches, smiles and warm handshakes sought to overcome language barriers.

But we have attended some churches where people appreciated the opportunity to be with the family and friends they knew, and weren't looking for new friends or family.

Though Armenian culture is a major element of the church, we did meet non-Armenians after the service: two women who had married Armenians. One of the women was an American and the other was from El Salvador. Both had obviously found a home in the church. Many cultures seemed to influence the church. A family was welcomed back during the service from a trip to Beirut, both the husband and wife of that a family still have family there. The church's pastor for the last ten years, Nerses Balabanian, was born in Syria. In the prayers of the church (and from the literature and posters found in the hallways) concern for the world was plainly evident.

Mindy and I very much liked Pastor Balabanian. Mindy thought he looked a little like Bob Keeshan (I thought it would be more dignified to use the actor's name rather than Captain Kangaroo, since we respect both). I enjoyed his slight accent and at times awkward phrasing ("This is time of prayer before we go more singing" and "Don't go to your bulletin... I changed things... Spontaneity is beautiful"). I fully acknowledge that his English far outshines my Armenian.

The sermon was the last in a series on the Lord's Prayer. "Today's sermon is one word: 'Amen'. You've heard the whole sermon." Pastor Balabanian acknowledged that most texts of Matthew don't have the words, "For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen", and Luke doesn't either. But he said, "I don't want to argue whether this ending should be part of the Lord's Prayer or not. We Armenians, as one of the early churches in the world, kept it in our liturgy."

He talked about "Amen" as a universal word in the church, adapted to every language. He talked about how "Amen" was used throughout Scripture. And he talked about how in some churches "Amen" was used as a common exclamation of agreement. He said that was rarely the case in the Armenian Church. "Our church is not expressive church, and I respect that," he said, which received a loud "Amen!" from a member of the congregation. (This was said during the English language portion of the sermon. The first half was in Armenian and the second half was in English with the offering coming in between.)

The pastor pointed out that the word "Amen" will be used in Heaven (Revelation 5:14). I enjoyed greatly hearing God praised this Sunday in Armenian and English. I greatly look forward when people of every tongue will join together in the great Amen.
-- Dean

Service Length: 1 hour 13 minutes        
Sermon Length: 43 minutes (including offering and singing the Lord's Prayer)
Visitor Treatment: greeters at the door, a time during the service where guests and visiting family members were introduced, and friendly greetings before and after the worship service. We were invited to join the fellowship time after the service
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 63
ACTUAL Ushers' Count: 67 (we happened to see the count after church)

Snacks: coffee, hot tea, cranberry juice, two birthday cakes, proscuitto, a variety of fruit, pita, hummus, pesto, feta, mini quiches, and homemade Armenian honey cakes 

Musicians: one man on piano, a woman on organ
Songs: Faith of our Fathers
            Holy Holy Holy
            Lord's Prayer
Miles to place: 65

Total California Miles: 11,090

Monday, August 24, 2015

Two Things I Didn't Know about Brotherhood Way*

1. The area was created when surplus city land on the south side of what was then Stanley Way was sold to various religious institutions and renamed in honor of the religious mix. It has its own neighborhood association (and they're not very happy about the new home development across the street).

2. The "Peace" statue, a metal sculpture by Beniamino Bufano, was at the entry to San Francisco International Airport for almost 40 years.  

*plus three bonus facts about the Evangelical Armenian Church!

I. The Evangelical Armenian Union of North America is an association of Protestant churches intentionally ministering primarily to people who identify as Armenian by culture and language. The various evangelical Armenian churches in Canada and the United States banded together to form the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America in 1971.

II. Individual congregations may also belong to denominations including United Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, United Presbyterian Church (USA), or Church of the Nazarene.

III. The group originated in 1846 when a group of 37 men and one woman in Istanbul were excommunicated for their desire to reform the existing Armenian Apostolic Church. As a result, the new church was formed. Due to wars and persecution, many Armenians migrated to the United States and in the 1880s, the first Armenian Evangelical Church in this country was formed in Worcester, Massachusetts. When it was formally organized, in 1892, it was called the Church of the Martyrs. 

-- Mindy

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Faith Christian Fellowship Church, Walnut Creek (Christian Reformed Church)

When word got out that a western green mamba would be appearing in the Sunday morning service, serpent handlers from all over the state made their way to the place. Sure, the rattlers were there along with the asps, but nothing would bring Luke 10:19 ("Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy...") alive like highly venomous Dendroapsis angusticeps!

All right, we didn't actually go to a snake handling church this past Sunday.  We went to a very nice church, Faith Christian Fellowship. This month we're visiting churches of denominations we haven't visited before, and FCF is a part of the Christian Reformed Church. We hadn't written about any Reformed churches, so there we were. It seemed to be a heathy church, and it was a nice service. I'll write a little more about it shortly. But first I'd like to address a challenge we face writing these posts week by week.

There's a famous quote from Leo Tolstoy from Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Churches are something like that. Many happy worship services are alike, and it's a challenge to find new ways to write about them. My nephew told me recently, "I like to read when there's something wrong with the church, when there's not it's a snooze."

So that's one side of things. On the other side of things is we love the Church. We think most people would be better off going to a good church. Our preference is to find good churches doing unique things that we can herald. We're not looking to seek out the next Westboro Baptist or Jim Jones death cult.

We'll continue to visit what we hope are good churches, and we'll try to write about them honestly. We'll try to highlight what's interesting and unique about them. And if boomslangs or any other venomous snake make an appearance, we'll pass that along. But I'd rather avoid them.

Anyway, here are five observations about Faith Christian Fellowship Church in Walnut Creek:

1) The Reformed Church's history in America goes back to Dutch immigrants. I talked to one gentleman in the church who said when he started coming seven years ago he thought he'd have to change his name to De Groot or Van Keppel to fit in. But the church has changed, and we observed an ethnic mix in the church that reflected the local population.

2) The people were genuinely friendly, greeting us when we entered and during the greeting time. There are places this doesn't happen, so we appreciate it when it does.

3) The church's pastor was on vacation, but I appreciated that Graham Seel, a member of the congregation who spoke in his place, sought to present things in unique ways. Presenting the blessing and curses from Deuteronomy 28, he had us stand as if we were facing Mount Gerizim and then Mount Ebal. I appreciate efforts made to involve the congregation.

4) During the pastoral prayer, people were given the opportunity to say the names of people in need (and they did).
5) A box of Kleenex was at the end of every row. This is something every church should do.

Not the stuff of headlines, I admit. But that's okay if they're living out their statement of faith, "Called to equip each other to know God, love others and serve the world". What makes for good blogging and good living is not always the same thing. And that's okay.
-- Dean

Service Length: 1 hour 11 minutes        
Sermon Length: 32 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were warmly greeted by at least four people, including greeters near each entrance. We'd read that visitors were encouraged to get a gift at the information table, and when we mentioned that we were first time visitors, we were given a cold drink glass (with lid and straw, but no water yet) containing a welcome note and a pen. Even though we were already clutching the glasses, several other people asked if we were first time visitors. We were also greeted by folks in neighboring pews during the greeting time. Guests were asked to fill out a bulletin tear-off sheet and deposit them in a box in the lobby. Finding the box took some searching.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 70
Probable Ushers' Count: 100
Snacks: coffee, decaf, tea, lemonade, cookies and pastries in the courtyard between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall.
Musicians: piano (woman)
                  acoustic guitar (man)
                  electric bass (man)
                 drums (man)
                 vocalists (two men, two women)
Songs: Doxology
            Your Everlasting Love
            Everlasting God
            Come Thou Fount
            Trust and Obey
            Step by Step
Miles to place: 71
Total California Miles: 10,962

Monday, August 17, 2015

Four Fun Facts about the Christian Reformed Church in North America

1. The Christian Reformed Church in North America has its roots in the Dutch Reformed churches of the Netherlands and was founded by Dutch immigrants who left the Reformed Church in America in 1857. It's interesting that among the issues leading to the split from the Reformed Church in America was the use of hymns rather than Psalms (in other words, the "grand old hymns of the faith" haven't always been considered the proper songs for worship).

2. Not surprisingly, with "Reformed" in its name, the denomination is theologically Calvinist. It places high value on theological study and the application of theology to current issues. The denomination subscribes to the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, as well as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort.

3. The denomination expanded following the Second World War with immigrants from the Netherlands. In general, the Christian Reformed Church advocates increases in immigration and legalizing illegal immigrants, noting that "because we eat and drink communion with immigrants who have no legal status -- we have a reason to care." The church has grown more ethnically diverse, with some predominantly Native American, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, African-American and Hispanic congregations.
4. Reformed tradition emphasizes and supports education, including education for those with special needs, elementary and secondary schools, various colleges, and post-graduate educational institutions.

--  Mindy

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church, Santa Rosa

In these church visits I often practice the mental exercise of imagining what the experience of worship would be like for someone who was attending church for the first time. Would a visitor know where to go, what to say, what to do? There was no need for this to be merely an exercise last Sunday. Neither Mindy nor I had never been to an Orthodox church, and we had no idea where to go or what to do. And we weren't provided with many clues.

We arrived a couple of minutes before the service starting time. There were a couple of doors to the church and apparently we chose right, because we entered at the back of the sanctuary (we didn't choose the first door we saw, the one that faced the parking lot. That one would have brought us into the front of the sanctuary). Inside we noticed the cruciform design of the space. I noticed a counter near the entrance where candles were available, and on the same counter were muffin-like pieces of bread. In the main portion of the sanctuary there were a number of framed icons on podiums with holders for candles. There was also a crucifix with many more candle holders in front of it. The paintings around the ceiling, particularly in the front of the sanctuary, were quite beautiful. The art would be the most striking thing I noticed aside from the small number of chairs.

In the back of the church there were rows of three chairs on each side and in the front of the church there were scattered chairs by the walls. I counted a couple dozen chairs, and when we arrived, there were already more people than that. (People continued to arrive up through the second ringing of chimes, about halfway through the service.) So the question in my mind was, "Do we sit or stand?"

Sitting is deeply ingrained in my Protestant tradition. Posterior rest is my native worship language. Sure, I'll tolerate those enthusiastic song leaders who want everyone up for the next chorus. And I'll stand when pastors ask us to stand for the Gospel reading (though the Old Testament and the Epistles are just as much God's Word as the Gospels so I find it puzzling why the Gospels are singled out in this way). But my knees are not used to being straight for a sermon, let alone announcements. It became quickly apparent that we would be standing because those chairs were there for the sick, the elderly, children and wimps.

There was a screen with doors in front of the church that hid the priests, clergy and assistants along with the Scripture and Host. It reminded me of the Holy of Holies found in the Tabernacle and Temple, separating God from His people. That wall was torn apart when Jesus was crucified. People came in and out of the doors at various times, and the center door was sometimes left open so the congregation could see the priests at work around the altar. When the center door was closed, there was a curtain in it that was sometimes open and sometimes drawn.

The Priest chanted prayers, requesting God's blessing on the home country and this country, the armed forces and travelers, the clergy and lay people among many others with the choir responding, "Let us praise the Lord."  In other prayers, the choir responded with "Let us pray to the Lord" or "Grant this, oh Lord." The choir, above us in the balcony, led to inevitable comparisons to angel choirs. There was no instrumental accompaniment to any of the singing or the chanting.

I had assumed a majority of the service was spoken, chanted, sung in Russian but I learned later that most of the liturgy was in Church Slavonic, which is used in the conservative Orthodox churches much as Latin used to be used in Roman Catholic churches. Some of the songs were in Slavonic, and others in English and still others in Russian. I had a hard time telling which was which. Sometimes when the singing was in English it took me a while to figure it out. There were certainly were no hymnals, song sheets or lyrics projected on screens to follow along. The singing was all a cappella; there were no musical instruments besides bells and chimes.

The sermon was most certainly spoken by the priest in Russian. After giving the sermon in Russian, he gave it in English. He told about the demon possessed boy that Jesus healed. The disciples were unable to heal the boy, and the priest asked a really good question, "If the disciples, who had been with Jesus for a long time, didn't have enough faith, what hope is there for us?" But he answered the question with the story of some saint or other from the third century who became a physician and then was tortured and beheaded for his faith.*  Frankly, I thought I had more hope of living up to the apostles' example than this executed saint.

When I saw a gentleman reaching for his wallet, I knew the offering was about to be taken (there was no announcement of an offering, at least not in English). I also saw a woman getting change for the offering from one of the men selling candles. Sadly, my thought was, "I thought the moneychangers had been driven from the temple?"**

Children were the first to line up take the Lord's Supper, a mixture of water and wine spooned out by the priest. To the side there were pieces of bread and cups of watered wine that seemed to be available on a self-serve basis. It was apparent by the caution taken with the elements that the church believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation (that the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ).

After the service, a gentleman named George invited us to lunch in the fellowship hall. We had a wonderful time talking with him and his wife as they told us stories of immigrating to the United States and the foundation of Saints Peter and Paul Church.  We were very pleased by his greeting, because throughout the rest of the morning we were never greeted by anyone else, let alone offered any explanations of how we were to worship or what any of it meant. Not even the clergy made any effort to greet us (at the meal, we were at the same table as the senior priest, and while we waited in line, the other priest was a few feet away) or find out why the heck we were there taking pictures.  George told us there was some literature that explained about the Orthodox Church and its worship (it was next to the counter with the candle), but it would have been helpful if someone had pointed these things out to the quite obvious visitors when we arrived.

I can see why Russian speakers would be attracted to come to this church (conversation after the worship service ended seemed to be equally in Russian and in English) and the affection that the congregants had for one another was good to see. The beauty of the art, music and ritual could be quite inspiring. I wonder though, whether a visitor would feel welcome to return. They would, of course, feel welcome if they met George.

Service Length:  1 hour 45 minutes
Sermon Length: 15 minutes (just over half in Russian, the rest of the time in English)
Visitor Treatment: politely ignored (except by George and two women. One let Mindy know it was okay if she wanted to sit down, the other was friendly as she served chicken wings)
Our Rough Count: 100
Probable Ushers' Count: 120
Snacks: pizza, chicken wings, salad, cookies and other sweets, coffee, tea, juice, water, wine
Musicians: about a dozen singers in the balcony; eight women and four men
Songs: the congregation seemed to sing along with two songs, and most of the service was sung or chanted.
Miles to place: 10
Total California Miles: 10,816

*This is the saint mentioned in the sermon: Panteleimon

**We're not sure, but buying candles at that counter in the back might also be considered an offering. And there were two baskets passed at the same time, and people seemed to put something into each of them. One basket had a label in Russian.
-- Dean