Tuesday, November 1, 2016

We Go to Church in North Dakota

United Lutheran Church of Almont, North Dakota
The rites that usher a young person into adulthood certainly differ from culture to culture. If you’re a young man living on the Pacific Island of Vanuatu, you dive from a hundred foot tower with a vine tied to your ankle to keep you from hitting the ground. If you’re a boy in the Hamar tribe of Ethiopia, you will leap on top of a cow, jumping from one cow to another. And if you grow up in a Lutheran Church, you might have to speak in front of the congregation on Confirmation Sunday.

We were very happy when we realized it would be Confirmation Sunday the morning we attended the United Lutheran Church of Almont. Not only that, it would also be Reformation Sunday, marking the time Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church -- not only the start of the Lutheran Church, but all Protestant denominations. This particular Reformation Sunday begins the 500th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Confirmation Day, the day young men and women become part of the church, is a big deal in many Lutheran families. On this day three young men, Kyler, Caleb, and Noah, were to become part of the church (or celebrate “the affirmation of their baptism”) as the conclusion of a two year process of classes and study. The average age of confirmation is 14. (Young women also are confirmed into church membership, but none were this day.)

The young men solemnly walked together to the front of the church along with the clergyman, Pastoral Intern William Dodd. During the service we sang songs that were chosen by the young men or their parents. At the Affirmation of Baptism, Caleb, Noah, and Kyler shared a Bible verse and spoke about why they found that verse meaningful. (I talked with Noah after the service and asked him whether he liked speaking in front of people. He said it wasn’t his favorite thing, but it was worth it to become part of the church.)

Kyler spoke about Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”). His essay on the verse also appeared in the bulletin, and it began with these words, “This verse is special to me because it is saying if you believe in Christ our Lord, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.”

Noah’s verse was Hebrews 11:6 (“Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him”). He said in his essay that he chose that passage because it “is like a guideline of how to enter heaven.”  

Like Kyler, Caleb chose Phil. 4:13 saying, “When I think I can’t do something, I think of this verse… I can bring any problem to God.”

The parents and sponsors of the young men were brought forward for a time of prayer. Kyler, Caleb and Noah affirmed their faith in God and their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Before communion, Intern Dodd said, “You don’t have to be a member here to receive the bread and the cup. You just need to want to be free of that ball and chain of sin” (a reference to the “ball and chain” he used as an illustration earlier in the children’s sermon). The confirmands received communion first and then helped serve. Noah dismissed congregants from their rows to come forward. Kyler served the cup, and Caleb collected the empty cups. Together, they served communion to Intern Dodd.

The pews were quite full; a number of visitors were in attendance to support the confirmands. (The population of Almont according to the 2010 census was 122. I counted 89 people in church.) A number of small children in church happily made their presence known throughout the service. Teri, in the row in front of us, said, “This is the most children’s noise I’ve heard for years.” Mindy agreed with her that “children’s noise” was a good thing. (Later, we heard another man saying of the children, “I like it. The more noise the kids make the better.”)

A potluck downstairs followed the service, and several people invited us to join in the meal. My eye was drawn to a dessert tower of rings that reminded me of Kristina Kringles, one of my favorite desserts.

I had an opportunity to talk to the pastoral intern during the potluck. When one hears “intern,” one might think of a young person, but William Dodd is a man with grown children (His daughter, whom I also met at the potluck, lives almost 50 miles away in Richardton). Dodd works full time for the state of North Dakota in a federally funded program to “reclaim” old coal mines. For many mines that “reclamation process,” we were told, is filling them with concrete to make them safe.

Dodd has been serving at Almont for nearly three years while also taking seminary classes. Graduation and ordination are both in his near future. He is also looking forward to retiring from his state job and putting more time into the church.

Sims Lutheran Church in the ghost town of Sims, North Dakota
The Sims-Almont Lutheran Parish meets at the Almont church only every other week. The alternate weeks, the congregation meets in nearby Sims, a ghost town. All that remains of the place is the Sims Scandinavian Lutheran Church (built in 1884) and the parsonage next door, which was the church’s first location.

During lunch I sat next to Grant, a native of the community. I asked him what kept him at the church. “The fellowship, this is my home church. I feel like I’m in the community of God when I’m in this church. I’ve grown up with these people. I’ve a prejudice for the Lutheran church, particularly the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).”

12 year old Claire stopped by our table, and I asked her what she liked about the church. Someone teasingly asked her if she liked the singing, and she gave an emphatic “No!” She said she like the new carpeting and the new TV installed on the wall of the room we were in. I asked her what the TV was used for, and she said they’d used it to watch Sunday School slides. I asked her what she liked about Sunday School, and she said she liked learning about God. She said she was looking forward to beginning the confirmation process.

I doubt we’ll make it back in two years for Claire’s affirmation of her baptism, but I’m sure it will be a wonderful service followed by delicious desserts.

Service Length: 1 hour 26 minutes
Sermon Length: 9 minutes
Visitor Treatment: During the passing of the peace, people all around us greeted us warmly. Because it was a communion Sunday, there was a card in the pew for visitors to fill out (with the name of their home church to be written on the back) and drop in the offering plate or hand to an usher before taking communion
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none In early January, we got a lovely personal email from Pastor Bill Dodd thanking us for visiting (and for this post) and inviting us to come again
Our Rough Count: 89
Probable Ushers’ Count: 95
Snacks: a bountiful potluck, including a traditional North Dakota soup (knoephla) and delicious warm ham and cheese sandwiches (as well as coffee, water, and the aforementioned desserts)
Musicians: piano (woman)
Songs: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“This is the Feast”
“Alleluia, Lord, to Whom Shall We Go?”
“Were you There?”
“Here I am, Lord”
“The Great Thanksgiving”
“The Church’s One Foundation” (piano alone during Communion)
“For the Bread Which You Have Broken” (piano alone during Communion)
“Let Us Break Bread Together” (piano alone during Communion)
“Amazing Grace” (piano alone during Communion)
“Thank the Lord and Sing His Praise”
“Seek ye First”
Almont, North Dakota
Distance to Church: 3 blocks
Miles from Start: 40,640
Total 2016 Miles: 40,354